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The best questions about English

Updated: Apr 19

As an English teacher I probably get asked about a hundred questions a day. Many of these questions concern grammar and I've heard them many times. Nevertheless, they are still very interesting. The ones about vocabulary are often quite new to me so I answer them with a combination of gut feeling and research.

In this post I talk about a few of my recent favourite questions - about vocabulary and grammar.

1. What's the difference between a motor and an engine?

Any question that is based on science often has me stumped. Science just isn't my thing. Luckily I know how to find answers. One of the best ways of doing this is to ask the other people in the class.

Anyway, here's what my students and I think. A motor is typically quite small - you can get one in a washing machine. An engine is more complex and usually involves fuel, such as petrol. Words such as motor bike and motorboat can be somewhat misleading as both of these have engines!

2. Can you emulate a thing or just a person?

Emulate means to copy a thing or person that you admire. You can certainly emulate a person's behaviour but I can't imagine saying that I wanted to emulate my piano. However, emulating the sound produced by the piano is another thing. The website Skell is a great resource for researching such questions.

3. What do you call people who watch a play? Theater visitors?

In German, we say 'Theater Besucher*innen' but in English we prefer theatre-goers or the audience.

4. If you put plans on hold, where do you put them? Do you put them in a drawer or on a shelf?

It's possible to shelve your plans or put them on the back burner. I haven't heard of people putting plans in a drawer but Taylor Swift certainly mentions putting heartbreak in a drawer (Welcome to New York). Idiomatic language is typically quite fixed but authors and songwriters may prefer to create their own metaphors.

5. What's the opposite of being risk averse?

In German the expression 'risikofreudig' is used. I can't think of a good equivalent adjective in English. You could say that someone is a risk-taker or enjoys taking risks.

6. Is it ok to say 'had had'?

Yes. We can combine auxiliary have with the main verb have. We form the past perfect with had + past participle meaning that 'had had' is a perfectly good combination. Often the auxiliary is contracted so you are more likely to hear 'he'd had' rather than the full form 'he had had'.

It's also fine to say 'I have had' but not to say 'I had have'!

7. What's the difference between vilify and defame?

This question gave rise to an interesting discussion. My students know the word 'defamieren' from German so felt more comfortable using defame and wanted to know whether it was worth learning vilify, as presumably defame is more common. Actually my own gut feeling backed up by research on Skell is that vilify is used (slightly) more often. It can refer to a person or a thing (such as a country or an organisation). Defame, on the other hand, refers to people and tends to be used in a legal context.

8. How do you say 'gut übersichtlich' in English?

The context for this was a small ski resort that was gut übersichtlich, meaning that from the restaurant at the top of the mountain it was possible to see the whole resort - and check on the kids. I just can't think of a single adjective in English that can be used in the context. Can you? This is a good reminder that words may not translate one-to-one from one language to the next. One language may use a single adjective whereas a different language uses a longer expression. This is something to bear in mind if you're struggling to find the right word (perhaps it just doesn't even exist!).

9. Can you transform the adjective 'extinct' into the verb 'extinguish'?

Probably not. Extinguish means to put out a fire (think of a fire extinguisher) and isn't currently used in the context of animals or plants dying out. However the words do have the same Latin root so it is certainly a good question to ask.

10. What is a joint venture? Do the shareholdings have to be 50:50?

Joint ventures are often set up by two different companies for a specific project, such as research. Although the share holdings are often held 50:50, they needn't be.

11. 'I found it easily' or 'I found it easy'. Which is correct?

It depends on what you want to say. Can you think of different situations when you would use each of these expressions? Think first, then read further.

If you were looking for something and it didn't take long to do this, you could say 'I found it easily'. Here the word 'easily' is an adverb modifying the verb 'find'.

If, however, you are talking about doing your homework, you would probably say that you found it easy. Here, you don't need an adverb to describe the verb 'found'. Instead the expression 'I found it' is similar to saying 'it was' so you just need an adjective.

Do you have any burning questions about English? If so, why not come to a lesson at Kreis 6 English?


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