Questions and answers on the usage of English

Do you have any questions about the usage of English? If you have, please click here and send your questions by mail. If you are a native speaker of English, I would appreciate it if you would answer the questions. I will add them to this page later. When you send, please don't forget to give me your name, mail address and the name of the city, the state/province and the country you live in.

What is the difference in usage between "Japan's" and "Japanese" in phrases like 'Japan's high schools' and 'Japanese students'? [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

"Japan's" is the possessive - referring to the country
"Japanese" is the adjective (as well as the proper noun for the people)

I don't think the differences are that significant, but here's one example:

1. Japan's students work and study hard.
2. Japanese students work and study hard.

The difference is that in 1 we are talking about all students in Japan (possibly including those studying there who are not Japanese)
In 2 we are talking about all students of Japanese origin, wherever they are (not just in Japan!) [David Paul: FINLAND]

Your question is a very good one. And David Paul's answer is also very good. I would like to add another point, a point about nuances. In casual usage, the MEANING is almost exactly the same, and can be used interchangably, as David said. In casual usage, though, one thing that is different is the nuance of the two, or the emphasis.

Open with the example: Japanese students work and study hard. The emphasis is on the students. What kind of students? Oh, well Japanese ones.

Second example: Japan's students work and study hard. The emphasis shifts a little. "Japan" is important. In this sentence, Japan is the subject of interest, as if to say that the hard work and studying is because they are from Japan. This sentence comments more strongly on Japan itself.

This difference is VERY small. Both sentences can be used, though "Japanese students" sounds a little more natural. Of course, the intonation also plays a very strong role in this difference. Through the use of intonation, you can make either "Japan" or the "students" the main subject of the sentence for either sentence. [Graham Sanborn: San Francisco, California, USA]

"Japan's" refers to all things and people that are in or belong to Japan. "Japanese" refers to things and people that come from Japan, but do not necessarily belong to Japan. An American that has parents who were born in Japan is Japanese, but not Japan's. [Alan Price: Arcadia, California, USA]

When I asked a British teacher to check a sentence, 'In big cities we feel as if we WERE surrounded by a lot of convenience stores.', she said, "I suppose, technically, 'as if we WERE' is better, but I've never heard anyone say this" and corrected it like 'as if we ARE'. She corrected the written sentence. Do I understand then that 'as if we WERE' is not accepted even in a written sentence? How do you use them properly?

What about the following sentences?

(A) Every time we go to that place, we feel as if we WERE isolated from others.
(B) Every time we go to that place, we feel as if we WERE in the States.

Do you still use 'as if we ARE' in the sentence (B) in which being in the States is actually impossible? [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

I would express this as: ... we feel that we are surrounded by convenience stores. The use of AS IF WE WERE in this sentence is complicated, unnecessarily. The thought is not complicated, therefore the sentence need not be complicated.

(A) should be '... we feel that we are isolated ...' because this is a statement of fact. (B) is correct as this is imagined. In fact, you are not in the States, so 'AS IF WE WERE' is appropriate. [Robert Read: USA]

If the standard is 'Standard English', then it seems to me that the British teacher may be correct. 'Were' refers to the past and 'feel' refers to the present. Another solution is to replace 'feel' with 'felt'. The proper solution depends on which time frame the writer or writers intend to use and then use the appropriate tenses for it.

It is no surprise that she hasn't heard anyone speak that way. Spoken English is often fraught with mistakes if the standard to measure it is 'Standard English'.

In sentence (A), the isolation that is felt happened in the past. Based on reason, that place prompts memories of past isolation that was experienced by the writer or writers. That place is a stimulus for the writer or writers.

In sentence (B), the existence that is felt happened in the past. Based on reason, that place causes the writer or writers to remember feelings associated with past experiences that occurred in the States. That place is a stimulus for the writer or writers. [Kevin Richards: USA]

In sentence (B), you seem to presuppose that 'we' are Americans and lived in the States before, but what if you replace 'the States' with, say, 'prison' which most people have never been to, that is, they never experienced a prison life in the past?

To feel as if one is or were has nothing to do with tense, and everything to do with the degree of reality one wishes to express. And as one correspondent suggested, spoken English is hardly a recommendation since the teaching and application of grammatical principles have been woefully neglected in our schools for several decades.

Both statements are correct. To help the focus, I'm going to change "we" to "I".

In big cities I feel as if I am surrounded by convenience stores. [Everywhere I look, I see convenience stores, hence my conclusion. There is immediate corroboration.]

In big cities I feel as if I were surrounded by convenience stores. [In this case, I am expressing a subjective impression, which may be real or unreal. Note that "was" is not possible in this sentence.]

Another aspect that should be considered is the phrase "as if". It attracts the past subjunctive form "were" more readily to speakers who still use it. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer such speakers.

In the follow-up sentences, (A) is similar to your original sentence. (B) however, is a condition contrary-to-fact, and therefore the subjunctive is formally required.

My opinion is that both versions of your original sentence are correct with the nuances given. Personally, I would use the version with "were", but that has more to do with my linguistic background than any other factor.[Geoff St. Andrews: Niagara Falls, Ontario, CANADA]

"If I were..." is one of three conditional forms, this one being called "unreal."

In sentence (A), the speaker is not isolated and the isolation referred to is un-real, hence the subjunctive form "were."

It is the same case for sentence (B): the speaker is not in the States, hence the verb in the if-clause requires the subjunctive form "were," to signal this un-reality. [Fred Hiltbrand: Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA]

Is there any difference in usage between "in" and "for" in a sentence like 'I painted this wall in/for only two days.'? [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

The answer is 'perhaps'.

The difference is in implication and thus if the writer of the sentence wishes to distinguish between the two, then there is a difference. Based on reason, the use of 'in' in that situation implies that the painting of the wall is finished and the use of 'for' in that situation implies that the painting of the wall is not finished. There may be other things that are implied. [Kevin Richards: USA]

Very much the same/different.

To emphasize the length of time it took to paint the wall, use 'in' (Does imply completion). To emphasize what you did for two days, use 'for' but take out the word 'only' (Implications can only be drawn from the state of completion of the wall). [Max Voelzke: Kansas, USA]

"I painted this wall in only two days" is the same as "It took me only two days to paint this wall".
Reader's response: Good job. Well done for being quick.

"I painted this wall for only two days" is the same as "I spent only two days painting this wall".
Reader's response: Why did you stop? Did you enjoy it? You poor thing. Was it finished, were you interrupted, or did some merciful person cut short your punishment?

The answers to these would, of course, be inherent in the context. [Peter Gregg: Australian living in GERMANY]

Should the phrase be "first come, first served" or "first come, first serve"? Example - The remaining sample packs are available on a first come, first serve(d) basis. [Shanna Norris: Dallas, Texas, USA]

If the phrase is not followed by a noun or noun phrase which it is modifying, the expression should be "first come, first served" as in:

---Her services were: first come, first served.

However, if the expression modifies a following noun or noun phrase such as "basis," "first come, first serve" is used:

---They are available on a first come, first serve basis.

Although "first come, first served" is correct in the first case, "first come, first serve" is very often mistakenly used in this construction, too. [Dave Shaffer: Chosun University, Kwangju, SOUTH KOREA]

This is a saying or set phrase with a long history. It is elliptical; parts are left out. With everything in, it goes: [Whoever is the] first [to] come [will be the] first [to be] served. The result of the omissions is much more snappy: First come, first served. The other version is nonsense. However, very few native speakers are structural linguists or even logicians. You could, I suppose, consider the second version a spliced or scrambled version of the first. It would more or less go: the servers will serve the first who come. In principle, the active voice is stylistically superior to the passive, but here it's a question of history, not of style. [Bob Robinson: Louisiana State University, Louisiana, USA]

Is the following sentence correct?

'The wall GOT painted green.'

I understand that 'get' is used with a PERSON as a subject in a passive sentence such as 'The naughty child got scolded.', but is it possible to use 'get' with a THING as a subject in a passive sentence such as the one shown above? [Hiroyuki Yukita: Aomori, Aomori, JAPAN]

The answer is: It's perfectly fine. A noun is a noun, no matter how you slice it, and I have yet to see a sentence where you can't use "got" with a past-passive verb. Some peole prefer to use "was" or "has been" for smoothness in pronunciation, but "got" isn't grammatically false.

Need an example? Easy. "My banjo GOT crushed by the falling antelope!" "Was" might have sounded nicer, but "got" works just as well.

So "The wall got painted green." works as a sentence of English. If anyone gives you flack about it, try adding "just" to it, "The wall JUST got painted green," and see how many protests fade into "oops." [Anthony Granziol: London, Ontario, CANADA]

I would say this question would be fine in spoken English, but sounds terribly informal in written English. I would certainly replace "got" with "was" in written English. "Was" would sound perfectly fine in spoken English as well. [Cathy Keller: Denver, Colorado, USA]

One of my Australian friends, who is a native speaker of English, said that the following sentence sounded strange.

"Japanese people point at their noses when they indicate themselves."

He said, "If the plural form of 'nose' is used in this sentence, it sounds like the people have several noses on one face. The word should be singular." The sentence is in an English textbook for Japanese junior high school students. Some native English speakers say that the sentence is just O.K. - no problem with the plural form. Is the sentence correct or wrong? Are the singular and the plural forms both O.K?

What about the following two sentences?

"I saw a lot of men of a strong build there."
"I saw a lot of men of strong builds there."

Which is correct? [Jun-ichi Hidaki: Mutsu, Aomori, JAPAN]

I agree with your friend that "noses" seems to mean more than one nose. It's a little bit ambiguous because "their nose" could mean that collectively they have one nose.

If I say, "My family look at our car," that seems to mean that our family has one car, but a nose is different because each person has a nose.

As for the other sentence, I think the best sentence (if you have to word it this way) is "I saw a lot of men of strong build," or better is something like "I saw a lot of strongly built men." [Dion Houston]

I am Australian too, but I think I have to disagree with your friend because "people" is plural so perhaps "nose" should also be plural. If you use the singular form it might sound as if Japanese share one nose.

For example,
Japanese people are proud of their flag.
Japanese people wash their cars on Sunday.

I'm not 100% sure on this, but I think it makes sense because if you didn't say it like that, you might have difficulty defining something singular that is collectively owned. [Patrick Lloyd: Osaka, JAPAN]

"I saw a lot of men of a strong build there." "I saw a lot of men of strong builds there."

Neither is correct.

"I saw a lot of men of strong build there." would be the best way as written, but a better sentence would be "I saw a lot of strongly built men there." [Paul Gallegos: Mesa, Arizona, USA]

Which is the correct usage, "as yet" or "as of yet"?

We haven't heard from him as yet.
We haven't heard from him as of yet. [Michael Simon: Long Beach, New York, USA]

"As of" is the correct usage. "As of" indicates time. "As yet" is a corruption of "as of" and is not proper grammar.

"It was 11:00 as of ten minutes ago."
"He was here as of 11:00."

A better usage in some circumstances would be to ignore "as of" completely or use "at".

"It was 11:00 ten minutes ago."
"He was here at 11:00."

or in the other example cited: "We haven't heard from him yet." [Paul Gallegos: Mesa, Arizona, USA]

"We have not heard from him AS OF YET" is NOT correct! "As yet" is NOT a contraction of "as of yet".

The correct version of this sentence would be:

"We have not heard from him YET."
"We have not heard from him AS OF NOW."
"We have not heard from his AS YET."
[Bob Ward: Cleveland, Ohio, USA]

Is the indefinite pronoun 'anyone' still being treated as singular, such as in the sentence, "Why in the world would anyone want to subject himself or herself (or themselves) to such punishment?" My son's college English teacher says that the reflexive pronoun referring to 'anyone' should be 'themselves'. She says that considering anyone as singular is no longer standard English. [Gretchen Donahue: Fresno, California, USA]

I would still go for the singular form in personal writing and use the plural form if it is necessary to pass a test. While written language should serve spoken language, it is nice to think that logical constructs (anyone is his/her own entity) can be retained in both and that the illogical constructs (anyone are their own entities), while not necessarily being scoffed at, should not be encouraged, either.
[Peter Gregg: Australian living in GERMANY]

"The US forces" is plural or singular? Which pronoun is used, "it" or "they"? Some people say the pronoun for "The US forces" is "it."
[Azami Ikeda: Kawasaki, Kanagawa, JAPAN]

I asked my Canadian teacher the difference between the following two sentences:

(a) It's time you go.
(b) It's time you went.

She said (b) sounds wrong or uncommon, though I learned at school that

(a) simply tells you should go now, while (b) implies that you were supposed to leave by now but you are still here ?!

Is there any difference between the two?
[Reiko Ishikawa: Saitama, JAPAN]

Both "It's time you go." and "It's time you went." imply the same. However, unlike the Canadian teacher's conclusion, "It's time you went." is actually the more common usage. This is called the UNREAL PAST, where the past tense is sometimes used in English to refer to an "unreal" situation, i.e., something yet to happen. So, although the tense is the past, we are usually talking about the present.
[Abhishek Goel: Director-Business Development, Cactus Communications Pvt. Ltd.]

How to teach four language skills using reading materials

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