Monday, April 30, 2012

Common Error: Downtown

Hello! Welcome again to Mistake Monday! Today we'll look at another Common Error that's pretty easy to correct. But first, I have a question: Where do you live? If you said something like "San Ramón downtown" or "Palmares center," then this post is for you!

Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is one of my favorite cities. (Image)

Common Error: Use of the word "Downtown"
DON’T say this:"I live in San José downtown."
"When we're visiting New York, we'll be staying in the center."
"I live in Palmares center."
WHY?"Downtown" is certainly a word, but it's normally not used in this way in English (click here for more general information about the word).

Downtown normally refers to a large city's historical and/or commercial core. In other words, it's a way to describe part of the city, which makes the word work like an adjective. Therefore, it should normally go before the city's name, along with any other words that describe an area in a city. For example:

Downtown New York City is amazing on New Year's Eve.
He moved to East Saint Louis.
It's not safe to walk around downtown San José at night.

You can also use the word by itself:

We need to take a train or a taxi to go downtown.

Also, notice that I said it's normally used with large cities. Palmares may be a nice town, but it only has one stop light in the whole town. To say "downtown Palmares" just sounds strange. You could say "I live in the center of Palmares," but it would be clearer to say the name of your neighborhood or district. You can also describe the location, especially in small towns.

In Spanish, a similar concept is "centro," or the center of the city. But in English this sounds strange sometimes. If you do say "center," it usually indicates a building or complex, or possibly the geographic center of a place:

We went to a performance last night at the Lincoln Center.
Madrid is in the center of Spain, but Barcelona isn't. 
INSTEAD, SAY THIS:-"I live in downtown San José."
-"When we're visiting New York, we'll be staying downtown."
-"When we're visiting New York, we'll be staying in (name of neighborhood)."
-"I live in Palmares, near the bus station."

So, that's it for today. If you have questions or comments, please leave a comment or contact me. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

A map of downtown Denver, Colorado. Denver is nice, but it's confusing to drive downtown, since all the streets are at 45-degree angles from the surrounding roads. (Image)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pronunciation Poems

These chinchillas' favorite day of the week is "Fun Friday" and they're ready to PARTY! (Image)

Good afternoon, and welcome to "Fun Friday"! As usual, I'd like to offer the disclaimer that "Fun Friday" is indeed fun for me, but maybe I'm a bit of a language nerd. If you don't think Fun Friday posts are actually fun, then I'm always open for suggestions!

So, today's post is about pronunciation. My mom recently sent me a poem that she found on the internet, and the basic premise is that English pronunciation is difficult. And that's true. These pronunciation poems are actually fairly common. You can find printed examples here, here, and here. And here's an example (with subtitles) of one of these pronunciation poems:

The one my mom sent me is a bit different, but it's got the same idea. The point is that in English, it's crucial to remember that spelling and pronunciation are two different --sometimes frustratingly different-- things. If you look at the words tough, though, thought, through, and thorough, all have the letters "ough" together, but each word is pronounced differently.

These are sometimes very "advanced" language points, but you can still use this advice even if you're a beginning English learner:


1. When you learn a word, always try to learn how the word is spelled and pronounced at the same time. It will make things a lot less difficult in the future.

2. To learn pronunciation, it can help to group rhyming words together, especially if their spelling is different. For example, if you make a "Rhyming Words List," you could include groups of words like heard, word, bird, slurred, and herd --yes, they all rhyme, and they're all spelled completely differently! If you make lists of rhyming words, they're easier to remember than trying to learn them all individually.

3. It's often useful to learn some phonetic symbols (here's a complete list). Most online dictionaries now let you click on a word to hear it pronounced, but if you only have a paper dictionary, most of them use phonetic symbols for pronunciation. It's good to know basic, common symbols like:
- /I/ as in hit, sit, and fit
- /i/ as in heat, seat, and feet 
- /æ/ as in cat, fat, and Matt
- /ʃ/ (often spelled with the letters "sh") as in shock, shoe, and push
- /ʧ/ (often spelled with the letters "ch") as in check, chew, and Charlie
- /ʤ/ (often spelled with the letters "j" or "g") as in jelly, gin, and John
- /s/ (the basic "s" sound) as in silly, say, and Samantha
- /z/ as in zero, fuzz, and please (remember that the letter "s" is often pronounced like a "z" in English)
- /θ/ (a "th" sound with no vibration) as in think, thanks, and bath
- /ð / (a "th" sound with vibration) as in the, brother, and this
That may seem like a lot of symbols to learn, but if you learn at least these basic ones, they'll help you a lot in your pronunciation studies.

4. Actively try to practice pronunciation. You can do this by speaking with native speakers and asking them to comment if you say things incorrectly. You can also read books out loud, even if you're alone. You may not have feedback that way, but it will help you get used to speaking and pronouncing words in English.

What other ways can you think of to improve pronunciation? If you have any ideas or questions, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Crime Vocabulary, Part 1

Hello! On Monday we looked at the difference between steal and rob, and I said that today we'd go over more vocabulary related to these words. Today we'll look at words that describe criminals who steal, and we'll also look at the names of some of the crimes.

A duck stealing money from a distracted woman's purse. Do you know what to call the criminal and the crime in this situation? If not, continue reading! (Image


First of all, you can use the word "criminal" to describe any person who commits a crime. You can also call a criminal a delinquent, but that word isn't as common, and a delinquent often doesn't seem as serious as a criminal. Another common word for a person who steals or who is corrupt is crook. In each of the crimes we'll look at today, a criminal steals money or valuables (like jewelry, wallets, purses, or anything else that is expensive and valuable).

Let's look at some specific crimes:


Criminals who commit robbery generally use weapons and force to get money or valuables. (Image)

When one person robs another person, the name of the crime is robbery. The criminal is called a robber. When a robber commits robbery, he or she usually uses force, and often uses a weapon like a knife or a gun to convince the victim to surrender money or valuables. If a robber uses a weapon, the crime is often called armed robbery.

Sometimes robbers steal from their victims when they are walking down the street. If an armed robber forces a victim to give him money, then this crime is usually called a mugging. In this case, the robber is called a mugger, and he or she mugs the victim. The victim can say, "I got/was mugged!

Muggings happen when criminals use weapons to force money from their victims. (Image

Finally, if a criminal runs past a victim and steals the victim's purse or bag, the crime is usually called purse snatching ("snatch" can mean "to take quickly"). In this case, the criminal is called a purse snatcher.

A very undramatic purse snatcher stealing a victim's purse. (Image)


People put locks on bikes to prevent theft. Unfortunately, many criminals carry saws or other tools to break the chains and locks. (Image)

Theft is another crime, and the criminal who commits theft is called a thief (plural: thieves). Theft is a type of stealing, but it's a little different from robbery. Robbers usually confront their victims and use force to steal, but thieves normally take money or valuables when the victim is not present, or when the victim is distracted. In other words, victims of robbery definitely know the crime is happening, but victims of theft may not even notice that the crime is happening.

A common type of theft is pickpocketing. In this crime, a pickpocket steals a victim's wallet or other valuables from his or her pocket, purse, backpack, or bag ("to pick" can also mean "to take"). You can also say that a pickpocket picks a victim's pocket, even if it's a bag or purse. This crime is especially common in places with crowds (big groups of people) and on public transportation in some big cities.

A pickpocket stealing a victim's wallet. (Image)

If a thief breaks into a house or car while the owner is gone, the crime is often called burglary and the criminal is a burglar. You can also call a burglar a "thief" or a "robber," too.

Many houses and businesses have burglar alarms to try to prevent burglary. (Image)


There are a few other types of stealing that are unfortunately fairly common. If a criminal steals a car that is unattended, it's called car theft. However, if the victim is driving the car, and the criminal forces the victim to surrender the car, the crime is called carjacking, and the criminal is a carjacker. If something similar happens on an airplane (which is certainly not as common, fortunately), it's called a hijacking

In fact, it's not necessarily "correct" but in modern English, any time a criminal takes control of a vehicle or some kind of system, it's sometimes referred to as a "hijacking." For example, you may hear someone say, "Someone seems to have hijacked my bank account, because now I'm missing 500 dollars!"

If a criminal steals a person of any age, the criminal is a kidnapper and the crime is kidnapping. This is true even if the victim isn't a kid (child). You can also say the word "sequester," but it's definitely not as common, and it sounds more like a legal word than an everyday word.

Finally, if a criminal takes a victim's personal information and then impersonates the victim, the crime is called identity theft. Unfortunately, this seems to be becoming more common in some places.

So, that's a lot of vocabulary, right? If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Common Error: "Steal" vs. "Rob"

Hello, and welcome again to "Mistake Monday"! Today we'll look at a Common Error that I've noticed in some of my classes: confusing the words steal and rob. Today we'll talk about how to use these  two words correctly, and on Wednesday we'll look at some words related to crime and criminals.

Robin Hood is a famous character in English literature. According to the legend, he robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Even though he stole many things, it was for a good reason. (Image Credit)
Common Error: steal vs. rob
DON’T say this:"The criminals stole my house."
"My backpack is gone! He robbed it when I wasn't looking!"
"She stole me fifteen dollars."
WHY?Both "steal" and "rob" are verbs. Their tenses are:
to steal - stole - has/have stolen
to rob - robbed - has/have robbed

-The word steal is used when a criminal takes objects from a person, car, house, etc.
-If you say steal, it's normally followed by the object that was taken.

-The word rob is also used when a criminal takes objects from a person, car, house, etc.
-The difference is that when you say rob, it's normally followed by the owner of the stolen object, or the location where the objects were stolen.
INSTEAD, SAY THIS:-"The criminals robbed my house."
-"He stole my backpack when I wasn't looking!"
-"She stole fifteen dollars from me."
-"She robbed me and stole fifteen dollars."
-"Someone stole my car stereo last night, but at least they didn't steal the car. It was the first time I was ever robbed."

So, that's it for today. If you have questions or comments, please leave a comment or contact me. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

False Friend: Sopa vs. Soap

Hello, and-- wait, is it Wednesday?! Whoops! It's Word Wednesday, so I need to write a False Friend, and quickly, since it will be Thursday in one hour. Let's see, here's a good one, and it even came up in a class earlier today. It's often a pronunciation problem, but if you change the pronunciation, you change the word. But first... QUICK! What is in this picture? 

If you said "soup," you're excused to go. If you said "soap," then you should probably read the rest of today's post:

False Friend: sopa vs. soap 
This SPANISH word...
Looks like this ENGLISH word...
...but they are DIFFERENT because...
This is pretty easy to correct. (Click on the words in green for their pronunciation.)

Sopa in Spanish is "soup" in English. It is what you order in a restaurant, and the word rhymes with "loop" and "stoop."

On the other hand, "soap" in English is jabón in Spanish. You use it to wash and clean your hands, for example. "Soap" rhymes with "hope," "rope," and "dope."

So, now that you've read this post, you can eat a nice bowl of soup... but first, be sure to wash your hands with plenty of soap!

Hmm... just to check, QUICK! What is this a picture of?

If you said "soup," then you should probably start reading at the top again, and repeat as necessary!

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. If you have suggestions for other False Friends or Common Errors, please tell me. 

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

(Image Credits: First and Second Picture)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Common Error: "I" vs. "Me"

Welcome to Mistake Monday! This error is actually common among native English speakers, so it's probably a good one to look at. The question is, when should you say "I," and when should you say "me"? 

"I" is the subject; "me" is the object. (Image credit)

It seems like an easy answer: "I" is a subject pronoun and "me" is an object pronoun. But it gets a little more complicated when you are talking about more than one person. For example, we can say "Mark and I," but can we say "I and Mark"? What about "The audience was looking at Mark and I"? Here are some tips for both English learners and native speakers:

Common Error: "I" vs "me"
DON’T say this:"Me and Paul are brothers."
"That car belongs to Angela and I."
"Miguel and me are going to go to a movie."
"Her and I are in the same English class."
WHY?As we mentioned before, "I" is a pronoun used for a subject, and "me" is a pronoun used for an object. The same is true for the combinations of "he" and "him," "she" and "her," "we" and "us," and "they" and "them."

If you have more than one subject or object and don't know which word to use, try eliminating one of them.

For example, in the sentence above, "Miguel and me are going to go to a movie," eliminate Miguel. Does the sentence make sense? ("Me are/is going to a movie"... no, it doesn't make sense). If not, then you need to use a different pronoun.

In the other example, "That car belongs to Angela and I," eliminate Angela: "That car belongs to I"... hmm, this also doesn't make sense, so I should use "me" instead.

Note: when using "I" or "me," it's usually more common to put your name second or at the end of a list, if you're talking about more than two people.
INSTEAD, SAY THIS:-"Paul and I are brothers."
-"That car belongs to Angela and me."
-"Miguel and I are going to see a movie."
-"She and I are in the same English class."

So, that's it for now. If you have questions or comments, please leave a comment or contact me. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Fun Friday: Two Ideas

Today I wanted to share two interesting things you can do to have a good time while practicing English:

1. Play Scramble

(Image from game's iTunes page)
If you have an iPhone or an iPod Touch, this is a fun little game that you can play with friends (or even with me... look up my name or send me an email if you want to start a game with me). It's very similar to a game called Boggle, where have two minutes to find words by connecting letters. I've been playing it with some friends, and it's pretty fun (and a little addictive). You can find it on iOS/iTunes here, and a similar game on Android phones here.

2. Check out Costa Rica Outsider

I recently started this website about Costa Rica. It's not a tourism website, but it does talk about strange and interesting aspects of Costa Rican life. Since many of Sitzman ABC's readers either live in Costa Rica or have visited (or would like to visit), the site may be interesting for you. I've written about local customs, the president's visit, Easter week, and even Juan Santamaría. If you have any comments or suggestions for posts, or if you'd even like to write a guest post yourself, please tell me. You can find the site by clicking here, or you can also follow or "like" it on Facebook or Twitter if you prefer.

So, that should keep you busy for the rest of the weekend! Have a good one, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

False Friend: Resumen vs. Resume (and Résumé)

If you've play video games, a screen like this may look familiar.
"Pause" means to stop or take a break, "resume" means to start playing again.
Hello again, and welcome to Word Wednesday--although it's almost Thursday, so I need to type fast! It's been a while since we specifically looked at a False Friend, so today we'll talk about a common vocabulary problem. If you're not sure what a False Friend is, check out this introductory post. Today we'll look at the difference between resumen in Spanish and the words resume and résumé in English: 

False Friend: resumen vs. resume 
This SPANISH word...
Looks like this ENGLISH word...
...but they are DIFFERENT because...
In Spanish, a resumen is something that converts a lot of information or text into a smaller unit. The English word for this is a summary, and the verb is to summarize:
"I didn't have time to read the whole book, but I found a summary that gave me the basic information."

The words resume and résumé are completely different.

Resume is a verb. If you stop doing an action and then start doing it again later, you resume the action:
"Every day during the conference we took a one-hour lunch break, and then the presentations resumed in the afternoon."

Résumé is a noun. The word résumé is sometimes written without the accent marks (like "resume"), but that can cause confusion for pronunciation, since the two words aren't pronounced the same. (Click here for pronunciation: resume résumé.)

A résumé is a document that you give to businesses when you are looking for a job. It contains information about your biographical history, your studies, and your work experience:
"I just got fired, so I have to look for a new job. But first I need to update my résumé or else I'll never get a job!"

I wish I could have given you a quicker summary of these words, but they're complicated. Thanks for reading, and now you can resume whatever you were doing before you started reading this blog! If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. If you have suggestions for other False Friends or Common Errors, please tell me. 

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Common Error: "How is...?"

The Mona Lisa, one of the most famous portraits in the world. I can ask "What is it like?" and "What does it look like?" but NOT "How is it?" Why not? Continue reading to find the answer!

Hello, and welcome back to Mistake Monday! If you're in Costa Rica and had a break last week, I hope it was relaxing.

Today's error is basic but still commonly causes confusion even for intermediate or advanced speakers. We'll look at how to use phrases like "How is...?" and "How are...?"-- and how not to use them, too! We'll also talk about "What is (s)he like?" and "What does (s)he look like?"

First of all, if I ask...

"How are you?" do you respond? That's easy, right? You probably learned on your first day of English class that the response to this is something like "I'm fine, thanks" or "I'm O.K." In other words, "How are you?" asks for your temporary condition or feelings. So, if I ask...

"How is she?" or "How is he?" should you respond? Obviously, it's the same question, but with a different subject. You can say something like "She is fine" or "He is sick." But I think this is confusing, especially for Spanish speakers, because there are two Spanish phrases that are similar: 

"¿Cómo es?" is used for physical descriptions or talking about personality.
"¿Cómo está?" is commonly used to describe temporary conditions or feelings.

The phrase "How is he?" could be literally translated into either of these phrases, but it really means "¿Cómo está?" If you want to say "¿Cómo es?" then what should you say? That's right, you should say:

"What is she like?" or "What is he like?"

If you only want a physical description, and not personality, you can also ask:

"What does she look like?" or "What does he look like?"

If you remember when to use these phrases, then you should be able to avoid this confusion.

As a side note, I noticed another similar phrase that causes problems in my classes. Sometimes I start my class by asking:

"How is everyone?" or "How is everybody?"

This is basically the same question, but instead of talking about one person, I'm talking about a group of people. "Everyone" in this context means "all of my students." It just looks strange because "everybody" refers to a group, but grammatically, it's singular. Just think of the word "every" as considering each individual person in a group.

So, to practice, see if you can complete this dialogue between a teacher and her students:

Ms. Bloom: Good afternoon, class! 

Students: Good afternoon.

Ms. Bloom: (1)________________ ?

Students: Fine, thanks!

Ms. Bloom: Good to hear. Now, who's absent? Where's Jane?

Ron: She's still in the hospital, remember?

Ms. Bloom: Oh, that's right! I forgot about her broken leg. Did you talk to her? (2)________________ ?

Ron: She's doing better. She should be out soon, at least according to Dr. Jackson.

Ms. Bloom: Dr. Jackson? I know a Dr. Jackson who works at the hospital. Do you mean Sheila Jackson?

Ron: Ummm, I'm not sure. I don't know her first name.

Ms. Bloom: (3)________________ ?

Ron: I'm not very sure. She seemed nice, but she was also very professional. I didn't really talk to her much.

Ms. Bloom: OK, but can you describe her? (4)________________ ?

Ron: Oh! Well, she's fairly short, she has dark skin, and she has long, wavy hair. She's very pretty... she has a wonderful smile with perfect teeth and soft, smooth lips, and she's got big eyes that are the color of the ocean at night. She also has an incredible body-- I think she must work out!

Ms. Bloom: Well, that doesn't sound like the Dr. Jackson I know, but it does sound like you want to get to know this other Dr. Jackson! Haha!

So, what were your answers? Here are some suggestions:

(1) - How is everyone? (You can also say something like "How is everybody?" "How are you all doing?" or "How are all of you?")

(2) - How is she? (Informally, you may also hear people say "How is she doing?")

(3) - What is she like?

(4) - What does she look like? ("What is she like?" isn't a good option here, because Ms. Bloom and Ron are giving a physical description of Dr. Jackson, but not talking about her personality.)

That's all for today. If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below or send an email. Thanks for reading, and have a good day!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Easter Break

A basket of dyed and painted Easter eggs in Bulgaria. (Photo credit)
Good afternoon, everyone!

Here in Costa Rica this week is a holiday, so I'm only going to do one blog post this week instead of three. The holiday is called semana santa in Spanish, and many people (like me!) don't have to go work or school. The dates for this holiday change every year, but it's always in the week before Easter Sunday.

If you'd like to read a bit more, I put up a post last year about this holiday, along with an explanation of why we don't usually call it "holy week" in English, unless we're talking specifically about church functions. You can read the two posts here and here.

Additionally, this post explains how to use words like "holiday" and "vacation," and includes a dialogue example. Click here to read more.

If you are in Costa Rica, enjoy the holiday if you have a vacation. If not, then have a good week, and Sitzman ABC will be back next Monday. Thanks for reading!