3 weeks ago I published an article called Don’t Analyze the English Language Too Much – It’s Not Good for Your Fluency!
In that article I questioned the usefulness of asking a lot of questions during your quest for English fluency.
Q: “Can I use the preposition ‘in’ instead of ‘at’ if I say things like “I’m at school at the moment”?
A: “Well, not really, normally ‘at’ is used when you say that you’re at school. Just stick with ‘at school’!”
Q: “But I’ve heard people say ‘in school’ on certain occasions, does that mean it’s wrong?”
A: “It’s not wrong. If you want to explain that you’re in school as opposed to being employed, for example, you have to use the preposition ‘in’”.
Q: “OK… Is that the only exception? Are you sure you don’t say ‘in school’ in any other situation?”
A: “Well… I can’t really think of any right now, but there might be some other occasions, it really depends…”
Q: “But how am I supposed to speak correctly then? What if I’m saying ‘at school’ and it’s wrong? I want to be aware of all differences between the two prepositions and when each of them is used! I’d better do some online research on the subject!”
You just witnessed a typical foreign English speaker who wants to leave no stone unturned when in doubt over the usage of a certain English word.
If you read my previous blog post – you can read it HERE – you’ll know that such questioning carries the risk of ruining your fluency because of the constant over-analyzing.
The more you’re trying to categorize and structure your English, the bigger the chance that it’s going to turn into a permanent habit, and that’s when your fluency might go out the window because…
…you can’t possibly perform the two tasks simultaneously – SPEAK ABOUT THE SUBJECT and think about WHAT AND HOW TO SAY IT!
Having said this, however, I admit that a healthy interest about certain aspects of English word usage is only normal. After all – that’s how we learn new things, and if you ask a few questions to other people about how and when to use this or that particular word or phrase, you’re going to improve your English fluency much faster.
But when I start getting questions like this one – “Why the two words ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘discomfort’ begin with different prefixes? I keep mixing them up, so why can’t they begin with the same prefix to keep things simple? Why? Why? WHY?!” – I can’t keep my cool anymore.
Such questions are serving no purpose at all, and you’d be so much better off stopping asking such questions. Just memorize and learn the respective words and expressions instead of trying to make sense of all the English language irregularities!
Stool Pigeon vs Pigeon Stool – WHY Does the Same Word Mean Different Things?
For as long as I remember myself, I’ve heard my fellow foreigners express their confusion over multiple meanings of the same English word.
“The English language is SO difficult!!! ‘Stool’ is a type of a chair, but ‘stool’ can also mean ‘poo’. WHY does the same word mean completely different things? How can I know what people ask me? If I say ‘I have a bad stool’, won’t people start laughing at me because they’ll think I’m talking about my poo?”
I’ve heard such and similar complaints countless times over the years, and every time I’ve tried to explain those people that the same thing is going on in every language on the planet!
English isn’t unique in that respect, and it’s no more confusing than any other language I’ve been dealing with – Latvian, Russian, German or Romanian.
The same word may have multiple meanings, but it’s the CONTEXT that determines everything, my friends!
Context is the king, and I’m 100% sure that you can think of at least a dozen different ways you can use the equivalent word to English ‘to go’ in your native language, for example. It’s just that when you speak in your native language, you don’t analyze nor question things, you accept everything as it is.
So why should you try to start doing it when speaking in English?
Don’t ask ‘WHY’.
Just accept that a stool pigeon is another way of saying ‘a spy’ whereas a pigeon stool is bird poo. Doesn’t make sense? Guess what – it doesn’t have to!
You’re so much better off learning everything as it is, and treat each new vocabulary word or a phrase individually.
‘Stool pigeon’ – ‘a spy’. That’s it. Don’t be looking into what else each of those words might mean, and don’t start asking the ‘WHY’ questions. IF you’re ever required to learn the other meaning of the word ‘stool’ , it will happen naturally in another setting – most likely you’ll be visiting a doctor – and the word ‘stool’ will associate with other words from that situation so your brain will never even try to confuse those two meanings of the same word.
If you try to learn everything at once – 1001 meanings of the same word ‘to put’, for example – you indeed risk getting confused and you also run the risk of creating wrong mental associations in your mind.
So, treat every individual case of usage of a particular word JUST ON ITS OWN, and don’t ask the ‘WHY’ questions because you’ll only confuse yourself and damage your English fluency improvement! And please ignore seemingly shocking statements like “The English word ‘to go’ has 83 different meanings” because you definitely use one word in different contexts also in your native language, you just haven’t really thought about it before!
If ‘Hidden’ is Past Participle of ‘to Hide’, WHY Doesn’t ‘to Abide’ Become ‘Abiden’?
It’s because Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States!
You think my answer doesn’t make any sense?
Guess what – neither does the question!
You’ve just got to accept the fact of life that the English language has its irregularities, and you’re not going to make your language improvement any easier by asking such questions.
Maybe the above question can be answered, but I couldn’t care less about the intricacies of English word origins. As far as my English fluency is concerned, I can say the following:
- I’ll be using the Past Participle ‘hidden’ in the following context – “It’s well hidden”, “where is it hidden?”, “hidden jewels” and similar.
- I won’t be using the word ‘abided’, full stop. The only occasion I’d use its Present form would be in the expression ‘to abide by something’, but there’s never actually been a practical need for me to use the Past Participle ‘abided’. And that’s why I don’t really care about it!
By the way – I don’t even believe in learning new verbs and the respective Past Participles at the same time. If you need it, you’ll learn it when the time is right, other than that you’re actually risking creating unnecessary associations in your mind between the infinitive form of the new verb and its other forms. As a result, you may confuse them when speaking, so I warmly suggest learning only one form of a verb at a time – and preferably in context with other words!
Bottom line – ‘WHY’ questions are aroused by ones curiosity – not by practical need.
Stop analyzing English grammar structures and learn new words and ways of using them based on practical need instead of theoretical deliberations!
If you ONLY learn and improve your English that way, there won’t even be a need for you to ask those ‘WHY’ questions!
WHY Do They Say ‘to Conform TO’ but ‘to Comply’ Goes With ‘WITH’?
If you ask such a question, it’s born out of confusion.
It’s born out of confusion if you learn both expressions AT THE SAME TIME.
Conform to; comply with… Is it ‘conform with’ and ‘comply to’? Isn’t it? Damn, I can’t remember! 😡
You see – it’s only when you try to memorize both new expressions that you run into these sorts of problems.
If you only ever learn each new phrase, expression or word combination ON ITS OWN (man, I do start sounding like a broken record, don’t I?), you won’t have anything to confuse it with – simple as that!
“Comply with rules and regulations”
“Comply with company safety policy”
“Comply with my superior’s orders”
Learn this phrase – ‘to comply with’ – within context (phrases above), and don’t even look at similar phrases (to conform to, to abide by) for the time being.
If you do that, you’ll imprint the exact words – TO COMPLY WITH – into your brain, and saying them will become your second nature!
And of course, you won’t even have to ask those pointless ‘WHY’ questions because those certain words will be ingrained into you just like your native language.
That’s how you acquire natural English fluency, and that’s how you develop your ‘gut feeling’ for correct English.
So, if you feel the urgency to ask a ‘WHY’ question the next time – stop for a moment and try to pinpoint the real problem.
Maybe it’s ineffective English improvement and learning methods. If so – change your learning routine and start learning English contextually.
Or maybe it’s your attitude that should be actually changed and those ‘WHY’ questions only indicate your unwillingness to accept that other languages are different to your native one.
Either way, you’re much better off not asking those questions but instead treating each English word and expression on a case-by-case basis!
Remember – CONTEXT IS THE KING! 😉
P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!
P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!