Student Questions

English Classes: Student Questions

Here are some interesting questions asked by private students during their English classes.
Go to Seattle classes (for local residents) or online classes (for everyone else) to take classes with an instructor.

What is the difference between “apply for” and “apply to?”

You apply for a job or a position. You apply to a university or program (some kind of group).

If a word begins with O, is it usually a short O sound (the sound in “hot”)?

Very often, it is a short O sound. Words like “often, occupation, obvious, opposite, odd and off” have this short O sound. However, you do need to look up the pronunciation if you are not sure because some words have an “u” sound, as in “occur,” or that long O sound as in “odor.”

Is the “t” silent in words like “thistle and “whistle?”

Yes, the T is silent. This is an old spelling. Pronounce “thistle” as “THI-sul” and “whistle” as “WI-sul.”

When can I use the word “shall?” 

The use of the word “shall” has changed over time. In the past, it was used along with “will” and was slightly more formal–yet most people would use it. These days, it is much less popular and can sound inappropriately formal if used at the wrong time. It’s best to use “shall” only when you’re in a very formal situation, such as an event where everyone is dressed in suits and formal wear. Otherwise, you can use it humorously. For instance, you could be wearing jeans and T-shirts, but offer to take your spouse’s arm as you leave a social gathering and humorously say, “shall we go?” One big exception: you can still use “shall we dance?” This phrase is almost becoming an idiom as the regular use of “shall” disappears from common speech. Almost anyone will still say, “shall we dance?”

What is the difference between “crazy about” and “not crazy about?”

Being “crazy about” someone or something means that you love the person or thing. For example, a person could say, “I’m crazy about that movie star!” Or, “I’m crazy about peppermint mochas!”

However, “not being crazy about” does not mean you hate someone or something. It means you feel dislike, and you want to express your dislike in a relaxed, easy-going way. To say, “I don’t like your new boyfriend” is direct, even confrontational. To say, “I’m not crazy about your new boyfriend” is a casual way of expressing dislike and perhaps starting a conversation about the boyfriend.

Is there ever a time when “why don’t you” is actually negative?

“Why don’t you” comes from past formal speech, as in “why do you not …” The negative was part of a polite way of speaking. These days, the polite meaning is still there. “Why don’t you” means “you should” or “please do.” For instance, “why don’t you go to the bank this morning” means “you should go to the bank this morning.” It is more polite (less pushy) than the direct “you should.”

It’s possible to use “why don’t you” negatively, as in “why do you not” if you put heavy stress on “don’t.” However, it’s easier and less confusing to use other words like “won’t” or “can’t” for negative situations. So you can say “why don’t you have lunch with us?” if you want the person to come to lunch and “why won’t you have lunch with us” if you want to know why the person has turned down your invitation.

What is the difference between “here you are” and “there you are?” Also, are these the same as “here you go” and “there you go?”

These phrases are used so casually that even native speakers will not use them in a perfect way. However, technically speaking, “here” refers to a direct (hand-to-hand) exchange. You hand a book to someone and say, “here you are.” “There” is not a hand-to-hand or direct exchange. You place a cup of tea on the table for someone, sit down at your seat, and say, “there you are.”

“Here you go” has the same meaning as “here you are.” “There you go” means the same thing as “there you are.” However, “there you go” has an additional meaning. It means, “it’s good for you” and “I’m happy for you” at the same time. It’s an expression of good-natured approval. For instance, if someone receives a gift and begins using it right away, you might say, “there you go!” Or if someone demonstrates a talent that you like, such as playing an instrument well, you might say, “there you go!”

What is the difference between “it comes across as,” “it occurs to me,” and “it comes to me?”

“It comes across as” is an idiom. It means that something appears a certain way. “His behavior comes across as negative” means that his behaviors seem negative to you. “It occurs to me” means that you have a logical thought to express. “It comes to me” means that thought has arrived in your mind; whether or not it is logical does not matter. Often say, “an idea has come to me.”
He slammed the door. He comes across to me as angry. Or: He comes across as angry.
It occurs to me that we could change our plans if we have time to do so.
An idea has come to me. Let’s skip the movie and try out a new cafe.

Do I need to study idioms, or can I do without them?

If fluency is your goal, you need idioms. Idioms are used by almost everyone every day. It is unlikely that you can watch TV for 1/2 hour without hearing an idiom, whether you watch the news or a comedy. Some idioms come from 100 or 200 years ago, and the original meaning can be misleading–that can cause you to misunderstand people. Speaking with idioms helps you to identify with the culture and to remember the meanings. It is the same as remembering a person’s name: the easiest way is to say the name several times as you talk to the person. Speaking idioms will train your mind to hear them when others speak. But remember: you do not need to speak all idioms–speak with the idioms that fit your personality.

What is the pronunciation difference between “used to” “used”?

The expression “used to” refers to the past. For example, I used to swim, but I don’t anymore.
Pronounce: yoostu or yoostoo (s sounds like s)
“Used” is “to use” in the past tense. Yesterday, I used a new search engine.
Pronounce yoozd (s sounds a little like z). Read more about s and z.

What is the difference in English pronunciation between “think,” “thing,” and “thin?”

Answer: “Think,” and “thing” are pronounced exactly the same except for the K sound at the end of “think.” In American English, “ing” is a nasal N sound. The “g” in “ing” is completely silent. The more nasal N sound in “ing” is formed by the tongue being tightened, pressing lightly toward the middle-back roof of the mouth. You feel the extra nasal quality of this sound. In both of these words, the nasal ending causes the “i” sound to be slightly higher (more nasal) than the usual short i.  In “thin,” the short i sound is, as usual, the low, soft pitch in “sit.” Also, the N is made in the usual N position–the tip of the tongue toward the front roof of the mouth (same as the T position). You can practice with other combinations:

sin   sing
bin   bing
win   wing
and so on …

What is the difference between “hang around,” “hang out,” “hang up,” and “hang in?”

Answer:
The word hang is used for casual speech. It comes from the idea of hanging, which means something is relaxed.
Hang around means to be at a place, not doing anything particular–just being there.
Hang out is used in two ways:
You hang out with another person. Or you hang out at a place.
There is really no difference between going to the mall to hang around or hanging out at the mall. Only “around” gives the idea of moving around, and “out just means you are there.
You hang up your clothes on hangers or on a coat rack. You can also hang up the phone (not used as much now in our cell phone era–now we’re more likely to say “I have to go” than “I have to hang up.”)
Hang in there! This is an expression used when another person is having hard experiences, such as being sick, broke, or otherwise unhappy. When you say “hang in there,” you’re giving encouragement, but in a neutral way. You’re telling the other person to hold on or be patient until the hard times pass.

Formal vs. informal: “hang in there” can be used anytime by anyone. “Hang around” and “hang out” are very informal. For young people, they can be used anytime. For older people, it’s better to use them around friends.

What is the difference in pronunciation between Newark and New York?

Answer: New York has a strong Y sound. It also takes longer to say, New York. Say it as 2 words. Newark is said as one word, and the second syllable, “wark,” is pronounced quickly. Do not pronounce the “a.” Say Nūwrk.

What is the difference between “at the moment” and “at that moment?”

Answer: Generally, “at the moment” refers to the present, and “at that moment” refers to the past or a point in time in a past tense story.

Examples:
At the moment, I’m working as a receptionist. Next year, I hope to be a legal assistant.
We had just sat down to watch the evening news. At that moment, Steve walked into the room.

Also, “in the moment” is an idiom that refers to being very much in the present.

Example:
She was deeply in the moment, and she spoke easily and elegantly.

What is the difference between “cry,” “sob,” and “weep?”

Answer: “Cry” is used most of the time. It can mean anything from a few tears to a lot of tears. “Sob” refers to the sounds people make when they are crying very hard. If you say someone is sobbing, you are suggesting those deep, chest-heaving sounds. “Weep” is a more old-fashioned word that is used when people are expressing something beautiful or when a piece of writing is intended to be elegant.

Examples:
After her divorce, she cried every day for two months. Then she began to get over it.
Some members of the family were sobbing uncontrollably after the funeral.
In the house where we stayed, there was a view of a cemetery from a second-floor window. One day I saw a woman with a few flowers in her hand slowly walk toward a tombstone. She fell onto her knees and started to weep.

What is the English pronunciation difference between “taxes,” “Texas,” and “taxis?”

Answer: All 3 have stress on the first syllable. “Taxis” sounds the most different. It sounds like “taxees” with a long E sound at the end.  To differentiate between “Texas” and “taxes,” be clear about the difference between a short E and a short A. The biggest difference is that a short A is a bit longer, a bigger sound. “Texas” also has an uh sound (“u” as in “up”) on the final A.  Review short vowels here.

What is the American English pronunciation of Seattle?

Answer: Say, “SeeAdul.” The stress is on the 2nd syllable, and the double T reduces to a light D sound. The stressed A is a short A, as in “cat.”

More Accent Facts

Learn the American Accent
What is Standard American?
Prepare to Speak: Warm-up
Pronunciation Facts
Articulation: Speak Clearly


More Accent Facts

How to Change Your Speech
Chart of English Language Accents
Choosing Your Voice
Milestones in Pronunciation
Accent Training with Thoughts


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