Alert English speakers at every level can learn new words every day. If we’re reading and listening actively, we’ll come across unfamiliar or forgotten terms. And with a little conscious effort, we can remember them long-term. We can do this by taking three simple steps.

Recently, I heard a word on the radio that I’d never heard before: janky. The speaker was describing a type of low-cost DYI (Do-It-Yourself) air purifier that people are building to help ventilate school classrooms this fall. He said the home-built purifier was a “janky box” with various filters and fans attached with tape.

“Janky”? That’s a word I’d like to know! Note-taking isn’t always convenient when we’re concentrating on listening, but this word seemed worth catching before it escaped. That’s the first step in remembering vocabulary: catch words that interest you by writing them down.

Looks a Bit Janky Back There, by Lloyd Bishop

“Janky” got me scrambling for a pen because I liked its sound — JANG-key — and I wondered if its meaning might be a blend of “junky” and “jangly,” with a bit of “funky” and “wacky” mixed in. Also, the context in which it came up seemed to confirm my hunch: calling a homemade machine a “janky box” suggested it looked junky and funky, and maybe those taped-on fans and filters even jangled as they whirled and whirred!

Looking the word up, I found “janky” is a casual American adjective meaning “low quality; unreliable.” That’s pretty close to “junky” (“of poor quality or little value”), and could relate to things with metal parts that jangle (“make high-pitched metal-on-metal or harsh ringing sounds”).

But wait a minute! The speaker on the radio called those home-built air purifiers “janky,” but the report went on to emphasize how well they work — even better than expensive factory-made items. So why call them “janky”?

Since I could look up the original radio report on the internet, I could replay it and listen more carefully to the context. That’s the second step in remembering new words: notice the context in which you hear or read them.

Replaying the report, I heard the speaker’s exact words: “It looks like a sort of janky box that has ….” So he’s not saying the purifier “is” janky. Instead, he qualifies (softens) the word with “sort of” and says it “looks” janky — “like a sort of” boxy contraption — and this sort-of-janky-looking thing can clean the air in a classroom continuously for a whole school year! He’s having fun with this jaunty word, tossing it lightly at a goofy-looking gadget that turns out to be a highly effective, cost-efficient device.

Since this is my first experience with “janky,” it’s prudent for me to try using it the way I heard it. That’s the third step in remembering new words: do something with them, use them, starting in ways you’re already familiar with, in contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them. 

So for now, I won’t call anything “janky” outright. Instead, I’ll qualify and downplay the word, and use it to describe appearances: “That looks sort of janky,” or “Well, it’s a little janky, but ….” 

Dictionary.com (see source notes below) labels “janky” as slang and lists more meanings: “not working or operating properly; untrustworthy or disreputable [person]; undesirable; dilapidated, run-down.” With such negative meanings, it’s probably best for me to delay applying my new word directly to things people might actually like or value, or to people themselves!

Interestingly, “janky” is followed by “(ph)” in the transcript of the radio report I mentioned. The “(ph)” means “phonetically”: a note that the transcriber was unfamiliar with the word and guessed its spelling based on its sound. So “janky” was new to that professional listener, too.

Let’s review our three steps for reinforcing new words in your long-term memory:

-1- Catch words that interest you by writing them down.

-2- Notice the context in which you hear or read them.

-3- Use them! Aim for contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them.

What new word have you learned lately? What did you find attractive or intriguing about it? Asking yourself (and others) these questions can inspire you to “get vocal” with your new verbal tools!

* * * * *

SOURCES: National Public Radio, Morning Edition program (NPR.com: “Delta Variant Makes It Even More Important To Have Improved Air Quality In Schools,” August 25, 2021); Google dictionary (google.com: “janky,” “junky”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “janky,” “jangle”); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “ph” [Adverb entry]).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2021.

What Word Speaks to You?

August 30, 2021

Vagabonding in France with Friends, by Lloyd Bishop

You know how a particular smell can evoke a vivid memory or powerful feeling? Is there a word in English that does that for you? 

Emotional connections and mental associations with words vary from person to person: a word I find exotic may disgust you, or a word you enjoy saying might embarrass me!

It can be fun knowing certain words speak to you; that is, they represent or express something meaningful to you. Finding them, becoming aware of their “powers,” and using them deliberately are satisfying experiences in themselves. 

There’s a practical benefit, too: doing this helps you become a word cultivator, a grower of vocabulary. You’ll become more conscious about which words you choose to use, and more eager to add new words to your active supply.  

To inspire you on this word-seeking journey, I’ll share an example of my own. Recently, the word vagabond caught my eye, and then it lingered in my mind. I realized I really like that word, and I wondered why. 

Looking carefully at some dictionary entries, however, I saw negative aspects indicating that some people might not share my enthusiasm. Readers of this article may have diverse reactions to “vagabond.” 

The basic meaning of “vagabond” is “a person who wanders from place to place; a wanderer.” I’ll mention its less pleasant nuances in a moment. Right now, I invite you to say the word aloud, stressing the first syllable: 

VAA-guh-bond 

Or if you prefer phonetic symbols: gə bɑnd

When you say it, do you have any particular feeling or association? If so, note it now, before I discuss my own, so you can accurately recall your immediate reaction.

For me, “vagabond” is an alluring word. The idea of wandering has an old, familiar charm. I was a restless kid who fell in love with outdoor travel and adventure. “Vagabond” vibrates with the excitement of the unknown, the romance of the road, discoveries to be made just over the horizon and, best of all, along the way. 

In fact, the word literally vibrates: all eight of its letters are voiced; that is, our vocal cords vibrate to produce consonants v, g, b, n, d, and vowels are always voiced. That’s why I ask you to say it aloud: give it your voice and you’ll feel it vibrate! 

Also, I find the ONE-two-three rhythm, with its unstressed but long final syllable, resonant and satisfying: VAA-guh-bonnnd.

“Vagabond” evokes memories of bicycle trips I took as a teenager, which featured a lot of improvising and plan-changing, and roundabout walks I’ve often taken with no destination in mind. More broadly, “vagabond” is a vision of “the wanderer,” the wayfaring mystic, someone who knows that magic still exists and can be found, if we only look for it. 

Dictionaries offer meanings and synonyms of “vagabond” that range from neutral — “a person who travels from place to place” — to unstable or unpleasant — “unsettled or aimless wanderer, drifter, hobo, tramp, vagrant, irresponsible idler, loafer, loiterer, street person, beggar, bum.” 

My thinking is that with all those other words to express degrees of disdain, why lump “vagabond” in with the rest? It has its own distinct open-air, open-road free spirit! 

I wonder how perceptions of the word vary across cultures. For example, I’ve heard Great Britain permits overland walking: cross-country rambling, hiking between towns, along farmers’ fields, and through woods, whether public and private. Meanwhile, in the USA, “No Trespassing” signs abound on private property — a slight improvement over “Trespassers Will Be Shot” versions, but threatening nevertheless.

As security concerns and social distrust mount, and human life retreats indoors, “vagabond” could be losing its appeal. And with its associations ranging from unhoused people to social parasites, “vagabond” may require judicious use in public. That’s OK with me. I’ll give “my” word the special treatment it deserves, and choose contexts that welcome its promise of a story.

*  *  *  *  *  

SOURCES: Google dictionary (google.com: “vagabond,” “vagrant,” and related entries); Cambridge English Dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org: “vagabond,” “vagrant”); Merriam-Webster Dictionary (merriam-webster.com: “vagabond”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “vagabond”).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 26, 2021.

Last Wall Standing, by Lloyd Bishop

In a recent post, we explored connections between some words beginning with “scr-.”  Finding connections between vocabulary words with similar sounds and spellings can help you remember them longer. This time, let’s examine some “st-” words with related ancient roots.

There are thousands of words beginning with “st-,” but this short initial list I made — stand, stable, static, steady, staunch, stem — got me wondering: how related are they? Pondering their meanings, would you agree these words suggest an upright position, vertical state, constant condition, or firmness?

Sure enough, their etymologies reveal an ancestral root meaning “to stand, be firm, make firm.” Adjective static (“unchanging, remaining in a constant state”) looks and sounds like its ancient Greek parent statikos, which meant “causing to stand, skilled in weighing/balancing.” It turns out that static is closely related to lots of other st- words, like stay, state, status, station, and stationary.

In fact, the Latin word for state was status, meaning “a station, position, place; way of standing, posture; order, arrangement, condition,” according to Etymonline (see source note below). These meanings are still associated with English status and state. In 14th-century English, state came to mean “political organization of a country, government,” based on Latin phrases with meanings like “condition of the country.”

Steady became common only about 500 years ago as an updated version of steadfast, referring to things firmly fixed in place. Over time, both words increasingly referred to firmness of mind, constancy of character, and constant rate of progress. The earlier word stead (“place, position; standing, firmness, stability”) survives today, but mainly in the adverb instead (“in place of”).

Like steadfast, staunch often means “loyal” when referring to friends, allies, and supporters, but its evolution from the “stand/firm” roots took a roundabout route through Old French in a word meaning “watertight” — that is, water-stopping, which is what the closely related verb stanch (notice: no letter “u” in spelling) still means: “stop the flow of a fluid (like blood).” 

So if you have a staunch ally or friend, then your alliance is watertight and your friendship is as strong as steel (yet another word based on those ancient “stand/firm” roots, thanks to its iron-surpassing toughness and durability: ability to stand up to or withstand anything).

A stem is the upright support for a plant, a wine glass, and similar structures, and it used to refer to more massive vertical supports like tree trunks. Interestingly, a cousin of our ancestral “stand/firm” root, meaning both “post, stem” and “to support, place firmly on” and also led to step (“to place one foot in front of the other,” or “a support or resting place for the foot”) and staff (“a thick wooden rod, support pole, walking stick”). A staff might be used ceremonially or as a symbol of authority; such use by military commanders led to the meaning “group of officers,” and (later) “group of employees.” 

Different but apparently related ancestral roots meaning “to stick, pierce, push” and “sharp, pointed” inspired words like stick, steep, steeple, and stimulate. This sense of pointed pushing extended to notions of “bumping, butting, knocking, beating, blocking, closing off,” and led to words like stop and stuff, which relate to ending movement, blocking flow, or plugging up.

In the days of knights in armor, stuff was the padding stuffed under a warrior’s metal garments for comfort in combat! This meaning arose from a French word for “quilted material, furniture, provisions,” according to Etymonline. That wide variety of materials and equipment broadened into the “all sorts of things” meaning of stuff today.

Finally, the ancient “push/knock/beat” roots inspired both study, via Lain studere — “to be diligent” — in the sense of pushing oneself forward, toward greater understanding, and stupid, from Latin words meaning “struck senseless” and “stunned, amazed, confounded.” So students beware: too much studying can be stupefying!

* * * * *

SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “stand,” “state,” “stead,” “staunch,” “steel,” “step,” “staff,” “stuff,” “study,” and related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “step,” “stop,” and related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 13, 2021.

Scraping the Sky, by Lloyd Bishop

When you’re learning English, finding relationships between vocabulary words and grouping them can help you remember them longer. Speakers of English as a first language can also find such connections interesting and worth sharing with learners.

You can sometimes sense a connection between words based on their sounds and spellings. Words beginning with “s” plus another consonant or two — like those beginning with “scr-” — start off in the same way, and I’ve been wondering how related they really are. 

I’ve noticed some “scr-” words give me an immediate feeling of friction, rubbing, or cutting, like scrape, scratch, and scrub. It turns out these words evolved from early ancestral roots meaning “cut, scratch, tear.” And they’re cousins of words associated with writing:

script — something written; a text version of spoken words 

scribe — a person whose job is to write or copy documents

scribble — to write or draw something quickly or carelessly

Since writing has traditionally meant scratching a surface in some way to make language-relevant marks, the connection with cutting/scraping makes sense! Sure enough, those ancestral “cut, scratch, tear” roots evolved into Greek and Latin words meaning “write, carve marks, sketch.” 

Here are more “scr-” words related to writing, scratching, or scratching-movement:

scrawl — to write something roughly or carelessly

scramble — to stir quickly, mix together randomly; originally a variation of scrabble

scrabble — to scratch or scrape at, grab at, grope for, try to hold on to, struggle; (earlier meanings included “scrawl, scribble”; 16th-century compound scribble-scrabble meaning “hasty writing” led to the name of the popular modern word-formation game Scrabble)

Additional “scr-” words developed from the “cut/pierce, cut off/divide” meanings of those ancient roots:

scrap — fragment, piece, scraping (something cut or scraped off)

screen — panel that divides a space, shields/protects from (i.e., cuts off) wind, fire, insects, etc., or displays information

screw — pin engraved with continuous threading groove in a helix pattern that pierces, fastens, holds tightly 

The name of the infamous character Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s story “A Christmas Carol” evokes the sound and meaning of screw: for most of his life, Mr. Scrooge was tightfisted (extremely withholding: stingy with money), held tightly to his savings, and put the screws on his employees and associates (forced or threatened them to do what he wanted). 

Scrooge’s name may have been inspired by the word itself: in 18th-century English, scrooge meant “push, jostle,” according to Etymonline (see source note below), and is likely related to scrounge, which still means “try to get things stealthily, or at the expense or through the generosity of others; forage for, rummage for.”  

A few final very common and useful “scr-” words to consider:

scrutiny — close, careful, critical examination; incisive observation (i.e., cutting/piercing to the essence or truth), based on a Latin root meaning “to examine, investigate, search,” which derived from an ancestral root meaning “to cut; cutting tool.”

scream — loud, piercing cry, often high-pitched

screech — harsh-sounding scream

Screams and screeches cut through the air and seem to pierce our eardrums, so they have that “scr-cutting/piercing word-texture. These last two words developed from similar words in early northern European languages, all of which likely evolved from a much older ancestral root with the same meaning.

* * * * *

SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “*sker-,” “*skribh-,” “scream,” “scramble,” “scrabble,” “Scrooge,” “scrounge,” “scrutiny,” and related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “scream,” “*(s)ker-,” “*(s)kreybʰ-,” and related entries); Google dictionary (google.com: “scrabble,” “screw,” “scrounge,” “scream,” “screech,” and related entries); Etymologeek (etymologeek.com: “*skrīhaną”).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 5, 2021.

Pandemic Ending

July 26, 2021

Rosing Up Again! by Lloyd Bishop

In recent posts, we discussed two ancient Greek roots of the word “pandemic”: “pan-” (“all, every, entire”), and “demos” (“people”). Now let’s examine the “-icending of “pandemic” … and in that spirit, here’s to completely ending the Covid pandemic!

The suffix “-ic” comes from Greek “ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to, related to.”  

Even though its roots are ancient, “pandemic” is relatively recent, inspired by an earlier word: “epidemic,” from Greek “epi” (“among, upon”) and “demos” (“people”). An “epidemic disease” spreads quickly and widely “among people,” but a “pandemic disease” is much broader, affecting an entire country or even the world, as we all know too well. These words started as adjectives, and later became common as nouns.

According to Etymonline (see source note below), several hundred years ago, English nouns for many subjects of study ended in “-ic”: “arithmetic, logic, magic, music, rhetoric.” Words for academic subjects that emerged later often ended in “-ics” (inspired by the original Greek “ikos”), like “mathematics, linguistics, economics, politics,” and “academics” itself.  

Interestingly, the earlier “-ic” subjects continue mostly as non-count nouns (no plural form), while the later “-ics” subjects tend to be either non-count or plural. For example:

  • Logic is a useful tool (non-count) — not “logics” 
  • Politics is a hot topic (non-count) — not “my politic”
  • My politics are different from yours (plural) — but not countable with numbers: not “two politics”

Such “-ics” subjects often have “-ic” adjective forms:

— athletics (N), athletic (ADJ)

— aerobics (N), aerobic (ADJ)

— genetics (N), genetic (ADJ)

— robotics (N), robotic (ADJ)

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Other “-ic” words more likely to countable may act as both nouns (with final “s” for plurals) and adjectives:

— an epic (N), many epics, an epic (ADJ) journey 

— a romantic (person-N), a couple of romantics, a romantic (ADJ) comedy  

— a plastic (N), various plastics, a plastic (ADJ) toy

— an acrylic (N), several acrylics, acrylic (ADJ) paint

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Some “-ic” words are adjectives only, not nouns, like: 

— energetic 

— manic 

— tragic 

— toxic 

— sonic 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Do you know these words’ noun forms? Test yourself by filling in the missing letters below:

— energ_  

— mani_  

— trag_ _ _  

— toxi_  

— so_ _ _  

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Occasionally, an “-ic” word works well as a noun or a verb

— panic (recall the Greek god Pan’s glee in spreading needless fear!)

— picnic

— traffic

— mimic

— frolic

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

When used in “-ed” or “-ing” forms, “-ic” verbs add a “k” to avoid being pronounced like “ice” (as in “iced tea” or “icing on a cake”): “panicked, picnicking, trafficked, mimicking, frolicked.” 

But wait — some “-ic” endings in this last group do NOT come from our Greek root. Take a look at the etymology of “picnic,” “traffic,” and “frolic” (think fun!) on your own.

SOURCE for information in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “pandemic,” “epidemic,” “-ic,” “-ics,” “picnic,” “traffic,” “mimic,” “frolic” and related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 23, 2021.

In a recent post, we explored the Greek root “pan-” that begins the word “pandemic.”  Now let’s look at the second root in that word, also from ancient Greek: “demos,” meaning “ordinary citizens, common people.”

Demos” appears as “dem” or “demo” in key English words like “democracy,” whose suffix “-cracy” is from Greek “kratos, -kratia,” meaning “rule, strength, power, authority.”  Several important words end in “-cracy” (meaning “power structure, government by”) and the related “-crat” (“person holding that power or participating in that system”).

As you can see, “democracy” means “people power.”  President Abraham Lincoln aptly expressed it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in an eloquent speech he made in 1863, known as the Gettysburg Address.

Look up the roots of the “-cracy”/“-crat” words below — this will reinforce your comprehension & long-term memory of them:

aristocracy / aristocrat

autocracy / autocrat

bureaucracy / bureaucrat

meritocracy / (“-crat” form is not common … yet!)

plutocracy / plutocrat

technocracy / technocrat

Another word featuring “dem/demo” is “demography,” whose suffix comes from Greek “-graphia,” meaning “description of.”  So “demography” means “description of the people [in a particular place].”  In English, we often use the form “demographics,” which are statistics of measurable aspects of a population, like age, marital status, income & education levels.

By the way, “-graphia” comes from the Greek verb “grapho,” meaning “write, draw, scratch.”  Inherent in writing/drawing is the idea of recording information, so the English suffixes “-graph,” “-graphy” & “-graphic” express some aspect of recording or describing.  Think about that when you see words like “photograph” (“photo” is from a Greek noun meaning “light”) and “geography” (“geo” refers to “world, land”; also from ancient Greek).

“Graph” and “graphic” are not only suffixes; they stand alone as individual words in English, as you probably know from developing visual aids for presentations at work or in school!

Now take “dem” and add the Greek “agogos,” meaning “leader,” and you get “demagogue.”  A leader of the people? Yes … but in this case, “a leader of the mob”: a political manipulator who exploits people’s “prejudices, wishes, ignorance, and passions,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

The word “demon,” meaning “supernatural spirit, evil spirit,” also comes from ancient Greek, but from a different root (“daimon,” not “demos”).  English author John Milton combined “demon” with the prefix “pan-” (discussed in our recent post) to create the word “pandemonium.”  Interestingly, the pre-Greek heritage of “daimon” & “demos” is closely related.

Another word unrelated to “demos” is “demonstrate” — it’s from Latin, not Greek, and it’s a cousin of the word “monster”!  If you’re interested, research the etymologies of “demon,” “pandemonium” & “demonstrate” on your own.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “dēmotic,” “-cracy,” “-graphy,” “demagogue,” “pandemonium,” “photo-,” “geo,” “demonstrate” & related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “dēmos,” “demon,” “-graphy” & related entries); English Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org: “Gettysburg Address” & related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 15, 2021.

With the Covid pandemic beginning to subside, we can breathe a little easier & wonder about things like: What does “pandemic” mean, anyway?

Many English words have their roots in ancient Greek and Latin.  “Pandemic” consists of three Greek word-parts:

pan,” meaning “all,” “every,” “entire”  

demos” (reduced form “dem”), meaning “people

ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to

As you can see from these roots, the original sense of “pandemic” is something “affecting all people.”  As the word developed, it became associated with diseases spreading across entire populations.  

If you can recognize roots in new vocabulary words you’re hearing or reading, you’ll be able to guess their meanings and remember them longer.  Hundreds of English words include one of these three Greek roots: “pan”, “dem,” and “ic” (modern English form of “ikos”).  

Let’s talk more about “pan” today, and the other two roots of “pandemic” in follow-up posts.

The “all” meaning of “pan” arises when “pan” is a prefix: a word-part appearing at the beginning of words.  Sometimes this prefix is attached with a hyphen, as in “pan-American” or “pan-African.”  In these cases, “pan-” means “affecting all parts of,” “across all of,” or “relating to all people described as.” 

Other words with the prefix “pan” do not feature a hyphen.  Can you guess the meanings of the words below?

panacea (“acea” comes from Greek “akos, akeia,” meaning “cure”)

panorama (“orama” comes from Greek “horama,” meaning “sight, spectacle,” and Greek verb “horan,” meaning “to look, to see”)

pantheon (“theon” comes from Greek “theios,” meaning “of/for the gods,” and “theos,” meaning “god”)

Another cultural & linguistic legacy from ancient Greek is “Pan” (with a capital “P”): a god imagined with a man’s upper body, a goat’s lower parts, and goat-horns on his head!  Embodying nature, Pan was the god of shepherds & herd animals, forests & fields, wild places & rustic music, and was associated with sex, fertility & spring.

“Pan” appears in the word “panic,” originally meaning “pertaining to Pan.”  The ancient Greeks believed Pan made “mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

Other ancient languages produced “pan” meanings unrelated to Greek (or with complex or less direct connections to Greek), which appear in nouns like “pan” (as in “frying pan,” “pancake”), “panda,” “panache,” and several meanings of the verb “to pan.”  If you’re interested, research the histories of those words on your own!  The etymological notes (very brief word histories) at the end of a dictionary definition can help you learn & remember new vocabulary; etymology is the study of the origins & evolving meanings of words.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “pan,” “dēmos,” “ikos” & related entries); English Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org: “Pan (god)” & related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 8, 2021.

In a recent post, we discussed how indefinite article a/an introduces a singular count noun for listeners/readers who are NOT expected to be familiar with it yet:

I bought a bicycle yesterday.

Such a first mention of a noun often starts a story or description: 

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.  The bike is built for long-distance riding, so it’s really sturdy.  I plan to take trips with it on country backroads.

… or a conversation:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did the bicycle cost?

After introducing “a bicycle,” we can switch to definite article the, since the bicycle is now familiar in context.

Here’s some good news: the is used in the same way for singular, plural & noncount nouns, so you don’t have to worry about grammatical number:

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were the eagles doing?

—————————————————

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was the advice about?

—————————————————

And no worries about grammatical gender, either — no feminine, masculine, or neuter forms to keep track of (as in French, where the-equivalents la & le apply to feminine & masculine nouns, respectively). Thankfully, in modern English, the is always just the 

More good news: the is similar to its “th-cousins” this, that, these, those, which helps us understand WHY we use it.  All five words point at specific nouns or definite concepts, and their th– spelling suggests a close relationship.  This, that, these & those point more emphatically at their target nouns than the, but all five words’ pointing function — indicating something specific or definite — is often similar.

So it can be useful to consider the a short form of this, that, these, those.  Notice the meanings of this, that & those in the dialogs below are nearly identical with the preceding the-versions:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did this bicycle cost? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the bicycle”)

————————————————–

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were those eagles doing? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the eagles”)

————————————————–

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was that advice about?

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the advice”)

————————————————–

However, sometimes the is not exactly equivalent to this, that, these, those.  This happens when we refer to generally understood concepts/institutions or nouns that listeners/readers are expected to be familiar with.  

For example, if I say I’m going to “the bank” today, I usually mean “some branch or other of whatever bank I use”; “one of those places we call ‘bank,’” NOT “this bank” or “that bank.”

This leads to more good news: you can use the the first time you refer to nouns in such ways! Here are some examples:

a) Unique or ubiquitous nouns:

The sun is about 93 million miles from the earth.

I love the night sky when the air is clear and the stars are bright.

The weather is getting warmer as the environment is changing fast.

————————————————–

b) Common/familiar concepts, types of places & institutions in everyday life:

In the morning, I plan to go to the post office and the library. 

Would you rather live in the city, the suburbs or the country?

I prefer the beach: I love gazing at the ocean.  

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c) Nouns referred to generically (general, abstract meaning):

The giraffe is known for its long neck, and the elephant for its long trunk.

Was the harpsichord an early version of the piano?

Tech companies plan to further miniaturize the smartwatch and implant it in the human body.

One interesting note: this meaning of the can sometimes be conveyed by a/an in its generic meaning of “any”:

The unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

A unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

As definitions of “unicycle,” these two sentences are interchangeable.  They both express “unicycle as a concept; any unicycle.”

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d) Nouns immediately understood in context (in a particular situation or given scenario):

What’s the problem?

Pass me the dictionary, please.

Turn off the lights and come down to the lobby.

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If you can enjoy understanding & using the, then here’s some final good news: it’s the most commonly occurring word in English — so that’s about a thousand bits of enjoyment in an average English-speaking day!


An earlier version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on May 13, 2021.

A/An, Anyone?

April 30, 2021

Look at these little words:

a

an

any

one

Notice any similarities?  These common old words are closely related, and they’re literally Old English: the earliest form of English spoken in the centuries before the language was transformed by an infusion of Latin (via early French) starting about a thousand years ago.  

The similarities in spelling and meaning of a, an, any, and one help explain how to use our indefinite article a/an.  Consider these three simplified uses:

-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

So a/an means one, any, or a blend of one & any!  

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-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

“I” am aware of my new bicycle, but I know you’re not: you’re hearing/reading about it for the first time.  Even so, you immediately understand that it’s one particular bicycle, NOT just any bicycle.  

Such first-time references to singular count nouns that listeners or readers are not yet (or not fully) familiar with are usually introduced with a/an.  

More examples:

— We saw an eagle in Central Park = We saw one eagle in Central Park 

“We” know something about this eagle, but you’re NOT expected to know anything about it, so the first time we mention it, we introduce it with an.   

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for one web design company 

This is one of many web design companies, NOT any web design company: it’s a certain web design company that goes unnamed here.  The phrase “a certain” often conveys this meaning of a/an = one — “a particular one; one of many possible ones”: 

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for a certain [unnamed] web design company. 

So useful!  A/An is extremely efficient when you want to introduce a quick reference to a particular noun without bothering to name or describe it specifically in the same sentence

— Spinach is a leafy green vegetable = Spinach is one leafy green vegetable

Spinach is defined here as one type of leafy green vegetable.  There are many varieties of “leafy green vegetable,” and “Spinach” is just one of many.  Here, a/an = one means “a type of; one type among many possible types within a particular category.”  This reference to type is more abstract than our previous examples, which indicated one actual individual among many, but it still does NOT mean any type.

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-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

Here, “A bicycle” is an abstraction, a generic concept of any bicycle.  This is not about “a certain” or “a particular” bicycle; it’s the general idea of the pedal-powered two-wheeled vehicle we call “bicycle.”

More examples:

— You should try a unicycle: it’s even more fun to ride = You should try any unicycle … 

I’m NOT thinking of a particular unicycle for you; I’m just making a quick remark about any member of the category of pedal-powered one-wheeled vehicles we call “unicycle.”

— I’d rather learn how to ride a horse = I’d rather learn how to ride any horse

For the purposes of this sentence, any horse will do.  No need to discuss particular horses or types of horse.  Here, horse means “horse in general; the concept of horse.”  

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-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

This sentence blends the general idea of any bicycle and a degree of concreteness in the sense of one bicycle I could own in the future: a potentially particular bike!  It’s not one actual bike yet, but it’s not just any bike either: only certain types of bike will suit my purposes.  

More examples:

— We’re looking for a new apartment = We’re looking for one/any new apartment

One apartment?  Yes, of course: one is all we need, but we haven’t found the right one yet.  Any apartment?  Not exactly; we’re interested in size X, location Y, and price range Z.  But we’ll consider almost any apartment fitting our X/Y/Z description.  

— You should send her an email about that = You should send her one/any email about that

This is the mere thought of a hypothetical (any) email + a suggested actual (future one) email with a certain type of content.  So “an” has a blended one/any meaning here.

— I take a bath every evening = I take one/any bath every evening

This one-bath-per-evening is a recurring one, not a particular/individual one, so as a conceptual bath, it has a spirit of any.  It’s the idea (abstraction) of one of this type of NOUN (bath) per recurring time (any given evening).

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A quick review of the three simplified meanings of a/an:

-1- a/an = one = a certain; one particular; an actual/tangible individual; one among many; a type of 

-2- a/an = any = generic concept of; general idea of; abstract/hypothetical vision of 

-3- a/an = one/any = a potentially particular; hypothetical (any) but actualizable (one); a future one; a recurring one  

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An important point: a/an is for singular count nouns only.  Plural nouns can’t use it, since it refers to one, not more than one.  Noncount nouns can’t use it, since they can’t be counted with one or any other number.

As for a vs. an — for smooth pronunciation, article a partners with nouns beginning with a consonant sound, and an with nouns beginning with a vowel sound.  One tricky consonant issue is the hidden y- sound in some words beginning with the letter u, as in university (yu-nih-VER-sih-tee).  Remember to say “a university” and “a union.”

And watch out for silent initial h: words like honor begin with a vowel sound (for example, ah in honor or ow in hour).  Say “an honor” and “an hour.”  Finally, a couple of initial h words may be pronounced in different ways, like historian: a historian (with consonant h- sound) and an historian (with silent initial h) are both acceptable.  

If you’re wondering, “Hey, what about the — the other article in English?” link to my post on that topic here: The Good News About “The”!

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An earlier version of this article appeared as two posts (part 1, part 2) in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 22 & 29, 2021.

Writing coaching

Small talk plays an important role in American culture, as we discussed in a recent post.  However, too much of a good thing can backfire: that is, produce the opposite of the intended (good) effect.  

When we have a special request or favor to ask of someone, starting with a little small talk is natural, but if we do NOT have a close personal relationship with that someone, it’s often useful to limit initial chitchat to 2-3 exchanges, and then introduce our request with minimal context … and ASK!

Let’s strategize about small talk first, and then the request.  Why strategize?  Because we’ll probably be a little nervous: asking for help from people outside our closest social circle can be psychologically demanding.  This isn’t something we do every day, so choosing the right words and the right way to say them can be challenging.  

If you intend to ask a favor of an acquaintance, associate, colleague, or anyone else who is NOT a close friend or relative — and especially if you haven’t spoken to this person in a long time — try to limit small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner keeps it going by asking YOU some questions).

This little bit of foresight may help you AVOID a one-sided “exchange”:

A: Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  

B: [short response]

A: Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  

B: [short response]

A: So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  

B: [short response]

A: How’s your wife doing?  Is she still in the fashion industry?  

B: [short response]

A: Oh wow, that’s great!  And your parents — how are they doing? 

If you find yourself driving this kind of “interrogation,” cut it short: your partner will be relieved!  Notice this example includes a couple of “dead-end” yes/no questions likely to elicit yes- or no-only responses.  

But there’s an even more serious problem here: the question content may be unwelcome.  Your partner may not be in the mood right now to discuss work, wife, or parents — especially if your relationship is not close.  Imposing such questions could even affect how the other person responds to your eventual request.

Now let’s consider how you might structure your request.  Expect to feel a little anxious (it’s normal) and do your best to push through it.  Express your purpose in two very short parts — CONTEXT (essential background information, condensed into one sentence or phrase) and REQUEST:

CONTEXT: Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and … 

REQUEST: … I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about …

Note that the CONTEXT does not tell a long story.  Long-story-SHORTextremely short! — is our goal here.  

And notice the REQUEST features indirect words to soften its impact: 

I was wondering: common introductory softener; signals that a request (or other special/sensitive remark) is coming, alerting the listener to a “turn” in the conversational flow.

if I could ask you: “if” conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “I” asking, not the listener “you” giving (NOT: “if you could give me …”); this additional signal gently & politely announces, “Incoming question!”

any: meaning “any possible” or “if you happen to have any”; the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer, which lowers expectations and helps lighten a request.

might: conditional modal, with an implied if”: if you happen to have ideas, if you can think of anything spontaneously, if you would be willing to share your thoughts.

In most routine situations in the USA, you’ll probably receive warmer and more thoughtful responses to your requests if you limit small talk, get to your point relatively quickly, choose words that burden YOU instead of the other person, and soften your wording with a few “if”s, “might”s & “any”s!


This article is a revised version of an earlier post that appeared in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 16, 2021.