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How to avoid these mistakes in English


By Prof. Kev Nair

When you speak or write English, do you make many mistakes? Do you often fail to use words and word-groups in the way in which they’re currently used in English?

In fact, almost everyone makes some mistake or other -- at some time or other. This is a fact. Most advanced learners do. Even expert-level users of English sometimes do. Yes, almost everyone tends to make mistakes. This happens especially when they use words and word groups in particular contexts. Only, some people make fewer mistakes, and others, more.

These mistakes take several forms: Many people tend to use words and phrases in ways that modern English usage does not accept as correct or proper. Many give words and phrases meanings that are different from their meanings in current usage. Many go against the currently accepted grammar of those words and phrases. Many use two or more words together in ways that are considered unacceptable in current usage. Many use word combinations that the current usage considers unacceptable. Many confuse one word with another.

Why you should avoid these mistakes

1). These mistakes prevent the English you speak or write from being accepted as good English.

2). And worse, these mistakes prevent you from being clear to your listeners or readers -- because the listeners and readers expect words and phrases to carry only those meanings that the current usage has assigned to them. And they expect only those words to be used together that sound right (according to the current usage) when used together.

3). And there’s yet another problem. If you’re not sure of the principles of current usage, you’ll run into a serious difficulty: Suppose you’re in the middle of saying something or writing something. And suppose a doubt comes up in your mind whether it’s acceptable to put words together in a particular way. Then this is what happens: Your attention gets diverted from what you’re saying or writing -- to the language you’re using to compose it. That is, you’re now concerned not about the content, but about the form. And you lose the thread of what you’re saying or writing. And the result? The flow of your speech or writing gets cut off -- slowed down. And you falter. And all this makes it difficult for you to remain fluent.

How correct usage helps you communicate effectively

The tips on usage I’ll be posting here have two related aims:

(i) To make you become aware of the common usage-related mistakes -- mistakes that even highly educated people tend to make in English; and

(ii) To tell you how to avoid those mistakes.

Study these notes carefully. And don’t let the lack of awareness of current English usage prevent you from speaking and writing English fluently. And accurately, clearly and effectively. That is, as accurately, as clearly and as effectively as the situation needs -- and permits.

Usage Tip for the week

Posted on September 17, 2015

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sky: Correct usage 1

As you know, the sky is the space or area above the earth. That’s where you can see the sun, moon and stars. And that’s where clouds appear.

When you use the word ‘sky’, there is an important point you should keep in mind: As a rule, you should use the word ‘the’ immediately before ‘sky’ – except in contexts where you won’t be able to say ‘the sky’ because of the nature of the grammatical structure used. That is, normally, you should say ‘the sky’ (with ‘the’), and not just ‘sky’ (without using the word ‘the’ before it).

I saw a saucer-like thing moving across the sky.

The sky has clouded over/darkened. I think it’s going to rain.

The sky has cleared/lightened/brightened. It’s not going to rain.

It must have come from somewhere; it can’t have just dropped from/out of the sky, can it?

I could see the balloon up in the sky.

The sun was then high in the sky.

Look up at/into the sky; can you see something red above us?

The sky was dark/black/moonless/grey/pale/cloudy/overcast.

The sky was blue/cloudless/bright/sunny.

The sky soon turned red/orange/pale.

What is he doing with that telescope? Is he scanning the sky for stars?

But there’s an important exception: Mind you, if the grammatical structure you’re using prevents you from using ‘sky’ with ‘the’, you won’t be able to say ‘the sky’. This happens when you’re using an adjective immediately before ‘sky’. The following examples would make this point clear:

They walked through the desert under a cloudy sky.

I looked up out of the window, and I could see a crimson sky.

For the first time in several days, we could see a clear blue sky today.

They sat there under a moon-lit/star-lit/starry sky and chatted.

He likes sleeping under the open sky.

The plane soon took off into the night sky.

We sat there watching the stormy sky.

He was gazing into the empty/vacant sky.

The smoke rose into the sky – the morning sky.

The lightning lit up the dark sky.

In the same way, conventionally, ‘sky’ is not normally used with ‘the’ when it’s part of the standard phrases ‘a patch of sky’ and ‘a strip of sky’.

We could only see patches of the sky here and there through the clouds.

It was an extremely cloudy day, and we couldn’t see even a thin strip of the sky.

There’s one more important point you should understand about the usage of ‘sky’. We’ll take it up in the next instalment of the usage tips.

Copyright © Kev Nair 2015. All rights reserved.

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