Resources:  English


Common mistakes in English

Good / Well


Common mistakes in English

Consist of / Composed of / Comprise / Constitute
Beg the question / To beg / To beg for / To beggar
Walk the walk

The create of nouns from verbs?
Chains of prepositions


Selected vocabulary and phrases from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)

Uncommon, poetic or archaic words
Idiomatic words/phrases still in common use today
Quotable quotes


English proficiency (IELTS etc.):  basic

Common mistakes in English

The following words and phrases are often confused, even among native speakers. 

Good / Well

"Good" is an adjective, and is used to modify nouns.  "Well" is an adverb, and is used to modify verbs. 
However, in casual speech, especially in the USA and/or in non-academic contexts "good" is often erroneously used for both functions. 

Correct use of "good" (modified nouns/pronouns are underlined):
"That little boy is very good:  he always shares his toys with others in the group."
"She is good at playing the guitar."
"He had good knowledge of cooking durations."
"The politician claimed that she'd had a good meeting with the representatives."

Correct use of "well" (modified verbs are underlined):
"That little boy has been raised well."
"She plays the guitar well."
"He knew very well that the dinner would be overcooked."
"The politician claimed that the meeting with the representatives had gone well."

English proficiency (IELTS etc.):  intermediate

Common mistakes in English

The following words and phrases are often confused, even among native speakers. 

Consist of / Composed of / Comprise / Constitute

"Comprise ...", "are composed of ..."  and "consist of ..." essentially all mean "to have ... as contents".  For example:
"The three basic sciences comprise physics, chemistry and biology."
"The three basic sciences are composed of physics, chemistry and biology."
"The three basic sciences consist of physics, chemistry and biology."
Note that "comprise" should never be followed by "of".  That common mistake is probably due to confusion with "composed of"  and "consist of". 

"Constitute ..." can mean "are the content of ..." or "represent ...".  For example:
"Physics, chemistry and biology constitute the three basic sciences."

Beg the question / To beg / To beg for / To beggar

To "beg the question" is an old phrase meaning to make an argument in which one (or more) of the arguments presuppose the truth of the conclusion.  Example: 
"Is English difficult?"
"Well, my friend studies English and Politics at university, and she is often doing homework until midnight!  Politics is much easier than English, so most of that time must be spent on her English studies.  Given that she spends so much time on English homework, my conclusion is that English must be difficult."
Notice that the conclusion is based on an argument that is only true if the conclusion is true!  (Underlined.)  A fair argument would have considered the possibility that English might be easy, and so the friend may have been spending lots of time doing homework for her Politics studies, rather than English studies. 

A common mistake is to interpret "beg the question" as if it meant "raises the question" or "demands the question".  That is wrong from the point of view of the above idiomatic definition.  It is also inconsistent with most usage of the verb "to be", which typically is followed by "for" when the object is a noun.  For example:
"The child begged for more cake."
"She begged for a swift answer to her prayers."
"He will beg me for forgiveness."
Only seldom is it considered correct to omit "for", and those occasions are generally also long-established idioms:  as in "I beg your pardon". 

Due to confusion over the meaning of "beg the question", it is probably better to avoid it completely, and instead substitute one of the following.

  • To refer to the illogical argument, use "to beggar the question".  In this neologism, "beggar" is used as a verb, with the sense of "making a beggar of the question", i.e. turning the question into a beggar because it hasn't received its due answer.  This phrase follows neatly the pattern of the existing idiomatic phrase, "to beggar belief".  For example:
    "The logic you're using to conclude that English is difficult beggars the question."
  • To refer to a circumstance that raises questions, there are already many unambiguous & correct phrases that suit, including "to raise the question" or "to demand the question".  If a phrase with "beg" is nevertheless still desired, then insert the preposition "for", to improve the grammar and avoid error or confusion:  i.e. use "to beg for the question".  For example:
    "His failure to score any goal begs for the question: 'Is he really their best player?' "

Walk the walk

To "walking the walk" means to put demonstrate the relevant actions, and follows on from "talking the talk".  The concept is that it is easy for anyone to say the 'right' thing, but it is less easy to do the 'right' thing.  For example:
"She reckons she has all the skills necessary to handle the negotiations.  She certainly talks the talk.  Let's wait and see if she can also walk the walk."

A common error is to corrupt the phrase into "walk the talk". 

The create of nouns from verbs?

The is an obvious (intentional) error in the above heading:  "create" is a verb that never functions as a noun, but a noun is clearly required.  A dedicated noun is available in this case, namely "creation", and it is the best choice.  Alternatively, a noun can be formed with the suffix '-ing', namely "creating" (here a 'deverbal noun', sometimes also called a 'gerund'), which puts extra emphasis on the process. 

Some verbs do not have a dedicated noun form, in which case the '-ing' form may be the only option. 

(infinitive with to)
Dedicated noun
(with article)
Deverbal noun
(with article & preposition)
  to create   the creation   the creating of
  to invite   the invitation   the inviting of
  to reveal   the revelation   the revealing of
  to spend   the expenditure   the spending of
  to enjoy   the enjoyment   the enjoying of
  to write     the writing of
  to sing   *the sing [rare]   the singing of
  to shout   the shout   the shouting of
  to jump    the jump   the jumping of

Recently it has become trendy to (mis)use "invite", "spend" and "reveal" as nouns.  [Note:  "reveal" has an established use as a noun in the jargon of filmography.]  Although this usage may no longer be condemned in informal communications, it remains incorrect in formal settings. 

Correct usage would be e.g.
"I received the invitation yesterday."
"Our department's expenditure rose by 10%."
"The inviting of politicians to the fundraising dinner was controversial."
"The optimal spending of her inheritance occupied her mind for weeks."

Chains of prepositions

Consider the passage:
"The enjoyment of her father of the sound of the splashing of the water of the river was evident." 

There are a couple of problems with this passage.  One problem is that its overuse of a single preposition, "of", is quite repetitive for the reader, and hence boring.  The other problem is that it somewhat difficult to understand:  "of" is a rather generic preposition, which provides fewer contextual cues;  moreover, the subject of the sentence — "the enjoyment" — is semantically attached to not one but two prepositional phrases:  "of her father" and "of the sound".  Interpreting the beginning of the passage as if it were expressed in the passive voice, "her father" would be the 'agent' of enjoying "the sound" (the 'theme' or 'patient'). 

The passage can be improved firstly by varying the prepositions used:
"The enjoyment by her father of the sound from the splashing of the water in the river was evident."

Secondly, more concise versions can be considered that contain fewer prepositions: 
"Her father's enjoyment of the sound from the splashing of the river water was evident." 
(Use of the possessive, and of a compound noun.)

"Her father's enjoyment of the sound of the river water splashing was evident." 
(A longer compound noun.)

"Her father's enjoyment of the river's splashing was evident." 
(Ellipsis:  splashing of a river must be due to the water;  the enjoyment specifically of the sound, rather than the feel or sight, may be unimportant or may be evident from surrounding sentences.)

"Her father evidently enjoyed the the sound of splashing of water in the river."
"Her father evidently enjoyed the splashing of water in the river."
"Her father evidently enjoyed the splashing of the river water."
(Recasting the sentence in the active voice.)

"Her father evidently enjoyed the sound of water splashing in the river."
(As above, but with "splashing" now functioning as the present participle.)

"Her father evidently enjoyed hearing the water splashing in the river."
(As above, but with "the sound" [a noun] replaced by "hearing" [a verbal noun, or gerund].)

English proficiency (IELTS etc.):  advanced

Selected vocabulary and phrases from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick;  or, The Whale (1851)

Uncommon, poetic or archaic words

binnacle (pp. 161, 464 and passim):  "the stand in which the ship's compass sits" (p. 641)

expatiate (pp. 167, 496, 503):  expound, elaborate [verb]. 

integument (p. 333):  outer protective layer of a living thing;  skin. 

tierce (pp. 341, 519):  cask, barrel. 

superincumbent (p. 381):  lying/reclining/positioned above, overlying. 

triune (p. 410):  threefold, having three constituent parts united in one whole;  three-part.

defile (pp. 419 and passim):  (narrow) passage/way.  [Not to be confused with the verb.] 

reticule (p. 424):  woven bag, net. 

perquisites (p. 437):  perks, incidental benefits.  ['Perk', an abbreviation of 'perquisite', is far more common in modern speech.]

effulgences (pp. 451, 543):  radiances. 

avocation (p. 456):  diversion;  pursuit. 

behoove (p. 456):  behove, befit.  [U.S. spelling of behove.]

emblazoning (p. 463): ~sketches.

unvitiated (p. 466):  pure.

ye (p. 475):  you [plural].  [Here the usage indicates that the singular sense of 'you' is disallowed.]

ye (p. 482):  you [singular].  [Here the usage suggests that both singular and plural senses of 'you' are allowed.] 

admeasurements (p. 491):  measurements (between limits). 

emprise (p. 496):  endeavour, enterprise. 

kine (p. 501):  cows.

recondite (p. 501):  learnèd, having mastered even the esoteric minutiae of one's field.

orisons (p. 539):  prayers. 

vesture (p. 596):  raiment, habit, clothes.

celerity (p. 597):  speed.  [Cf. 'acceleration'.]

pertinacious (p. 604):  very tenacious. 

canted (p. 620):  caused to be turned onto its side/corner, upended, (over)turned, threw up, heaved. 

comber (p. 623):  one who combs?, that which combs?;  a type of fish?, Serranus cabrilla?.

Idiomatic words/phrases still in common use today

keep cool, keep cool — cucumbers is the word (p. 309):  remain calm.  Seems to correspond to the phrase 'as cool as a cucumber'. 

in a sad pickle (p. 351):  in a difficult situation.  Seems to correspond to the phrase 'in a (real) pickle'.  

cock and bull story (p. 355):  fabrication;  made-up account, possibly over-elaborate.  Used the same way in modern speech, possibly written "cock-and-bull story". 

his tail between his legs (p. 357):  with a defeated demeanour.  Used the same way in modern speech, but usually preceded by "with" rather than "without". 

the old proverb about carrying coals to Newcastle (p. 384):  doing something difficult, or perhaps useless.  Literally a reference to selling, or attempting to sell, a commodity by exporting to a place that is a dominant supplier of that same commodity.  There are many equivalents in in modern speech:  'selling coals to Newcastle', 'selling ice to the Eskimos', etc..

squilgee (p. 457):  squeegee.  Presumably named for the sound made in use. 

Milky Way (p. 470), milky way (p. 521):  the name of our galaxy.  Used the same way in modern speech, albeit not necessarily with the same connotation.  The origin of the phrase goes back to the 14th century, in which it referred more generally to the appearance of a band of stars in the night sky as a 'milky smear';  although these stars would have been from our galaxy, people of the time did not have any concept of distinct galaxies.  A "technical astronomical sense" of galaxy (which has an analogous etymology) reportedly "emerged by 1948".  The modern interpretation of stars being collected into galaxies was first proposed in the mid-1900's, but was not generally accepted until the 1920's.  [Online Etymology Dictionary]  Given Melville was writing Moby Dick around 1850, it is likely that he intended to refer only to the band of stars of 'milky' appearance, unless perhaps the technical advances of preceding years had gained prominent attention in contemporary newspapers. 

milky-ways (p. 525):  like to the above.  An uncommon expression. 

a life-long wanderer, whose much rolling, to and fro, [...] had gathered no moss (p. 510):  no signs of dilapidation, decrepitude or senescence were apparent.  The modern wording of the proverb is 'a rolling stone gathers no moss', which is not very different from a version attested in 1546 [Online Etymology Dictionary]

Quotable quotes

It was stated at the outset, that this [...] would not be here, and at once, perfected.  [...]  For small erections may be finished by their first architects;  grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. (p. 157):  While trivial endeavours can easily be completed by the person who envisages them, completion of the most impressive and worthwhile endeavours must be left to future generations.  A quotable philosophy. 

for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men (p. 420):  even the greatest stupidity of animals is overwhelmingly surpassed by that of humans.  Another evocative turn of phrase that deserves to be quoted. 

I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square mathematical jobs, something that regularly begins at the beginning, and is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion (p. 571):  I like to work systematically and professionally.  An amusing turn of phrase. 

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale;  to the last I grapple with thee;  from hell's heart I stab at thee;  for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. (p. 623):  The meaning of this evocative sentence is fairly straightforward, excepting the use of archaic 'thou' and 'thee' in place of 'you'.  The phrase 'from hell's heart I stab at thee' is occasionally adopted in modern speech as a quotation from this book. 


NOTE:  Pagination follows the Penguin Classics edition of 1992.