Watch Out! It’s April Fool’s Day Again

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Last year I wrote about April Fool’s Day. A lot of countries around the world enjoy this holiday, even though there is usually no time off for it. Because it is already April 1 in Australia, Japan, etc., you can already read about this year’s April Fool’s Day Jokes at Wikipedia. Which one do you think is funniest? I’m going to wait until I can read all of them.

No one is sure how April Fool’s Day got started. Some people say it’s because the European calendar was changed in the 1500s, and people who didn’t change their calendar to the new way were “April fools.” Other people think it comes from even older holidays or traditions. It’s probably related to the vernal equinox (the first day of spring, in late March). This day was a joyful holiday in many ancient cultures. We’ll probably never know exactly where it comes from, but it will probably be popular for a long time. People love to play jokes on each other.

The main Wikipedia page about April Fool’s Day tells us about some actual events that caused problems on April Fool’s Day. In 1946, there was a big earthquake on April Fool’s Day. It affected Hawaii and Alaska. More than 150 people died. Some say that people didn’t listen to the tsunami warnings because it was April 1.

If you hear anything shocking on April 1, be careful: you can’t be sure if it’s true or not.

(P. S. Did you read the Harry Potter books? The twins, Fred and George Weasley, have their birthdays on April 1.)

Subway Terms

Our reader Dmitry wrote to ask about subway words. Dmitry, if you are confused about American subway terms, I think that’s not surprising! Only a few cities in the US have subways, so most Americans don’t live near one. (I didn’t live in an area with a subway or metro until I was 21 years old and moved to California.) As a result, we don’t use subway-related words very often. To confirm my guesses, I asked some of my friends to find out what words they use. Some people had firm answers. Other people weren’t sure. And some people said “I’ve never gone on a subway, so I don’t know!”

BART Train exterior drawing by SteveLambert at OpenClipArt.org

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we have several public transportation systems run by different counties and cities. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a kind of light rail line. Sometimes the trains go underground, like subways, and sometimes they go above ground. I live near a BART station which is also a transit hub: several different bus lines and bus systems stop at this station.

Dmitry also asked about the connection between two subway stations.

If it’s underground, I would call it a “tunnel.” I might say “Going through the tunnels while riding on BART makes me nervous, because I’m worried about earthquakes.” If I am looking at a subway map, I might say “section.” However, my friend who works in public transportation says it’s a “line.” But we rarely need to use these words for subways, because in most cases we would just say “It’s 3 minutes from the Fremont station to the Union City station.”

Dmitry also asked about stations where you can change lines. Most of my American friends said that this is a “transfer point” or “transfer station.” However, we all agree that usually we use the verb form here: “You should transfer from the Richmond line to the Pittsburg line at Macarthur Station.” Some of my friends who speak more British-style English said that they would say “interchange,” but that’s not common in the USA. We all feel that a “hub” is either 1) a central station where a lot of subway lines meet, or b) a station where different systems connect, such as the bus, the trolley, and the subway.

If you need to use these words in conversation, find out what the local people call these things. If you need to use these words in writing or outside the US, don’t worry about it. Your meaning will probably be clear from the context.

I hope this answers Dmitry’s question! Thanks for asking.

Reading This Blog on Your Phone

The words “poll” and “survey” are similar. Both can be nouns or verbs. To “poll” or “survey” people (verb), you ask for their opinions about something, and then you share the answers. Newspapers and TV news shows often report on polls and surveys (noun). For example, “A new poll today showed that 89% of people like chocolate” or “A survey of English learners showed that 75% wish they could practice speaking more often.”

I’d like to know your opinions, so I’m going to have polls sometimes. Please choose your answer and let me know what you think!

[survey_fly]

Contractions Aren’t Slang: “It’s” is Okay

Do you often use contractions when you speak? Contractions are words like it’s, I’m, they’re, we’ll, couldn’t, etc. (standing for the phrases it is, I am, they are, we will, could not, etc.). You probably quickly learned to use contractions in spoken English.

You may have been told that contractions are slang or informal language. That’s not really true (at least for the USA). If you go to a formal presentation at a conference, the speaker will almost always use contractions. Contractions occur in most forms of writing, too. If you’re writing a blog or e-mail in English, you should use contractions normally. If you’re writing a regular e-mail to your co-worker, professor, or friend, contractions are 100% fine to use. If an e-mail is extremely formal, such as proposing a new contract for a business, you might not use contractions. If you’re writing an essay or paper for school, you will probably not be allowed to use contractions. Here are some examples of e-mails using contractions:

Hi, Naomi–

I haven’t received the report from XYZ company yet, so I won’t be able to send you the data today. I hope that’s all right. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.

– Clarissa

Dear Dr. Lee,

Thanks for sending us the website about the museum exhibition. It sounds like something we shouldn’t miss, so I was wondering if I could e-mail the other students and arrange an informal trip. I’d be willing to drive, since I’ve recently gotten a new minivan. Would that be all right with you?

Thanks again!

– Clarissa

These e-mails are neither formal nor casual, but they use contractions in order to sound natural and friendly.

Caution: “Reduced speech” is different from contractions. You should not use reduced speech in business or school writing. Reduced speech includes words and phrases like gonna, woulda, hafta, ‘em, etc. We frequently use these when we speak, but they are considered too casual for most forms of writing. (It’s OK to use these in e-mail to your close friends, of course, especially if your friends also use reduced speech in writing.)

Tip: If you work for a company where the main language is English, look at some e-mail and memos from the important people at the company. If they use contractions, and you don’t, you should probably start to use contractions. Why? Well, when most people in a group use contractions and one person doesn’t, it makes that person look unfriendly, awkward, and tense. (Unless you’re the boss, of course!)

In the USA, most companies and universities have their own “culture,” and it’s important to pay attention to that culture. When you read a book on American manners or business, you should always remember that your company’s (or school’s) culture is more important than any rule given in the book. I often laugh at books on American manners and behavior, because their advice is sometimes not true for everyone–the writer came from the East Coast, but I live and work on the West Coast (where we do things differently). Sometimes the writer’s advice is old-fashioned.

This is why, even if your books or teachers told you that contractions were bad, you should think about using them more often. Remember, always check what you’ve learned against what you see in the real world. If the real world seems different from the rules you learned, you should ask somebody to explain. If you can’t ask anybody, then it’s up to you to decide which way is right for you.

Next time, we’ll talk about some things that are NOT okay in business or school e-mail. If you have questions, leave me a comment or e-mail me at clarissa ( at ) readableblog ( dot ) com. What do you want to know about?

P. S. Send is a good book on current e-mail etiquette. It’s written at an advanced level, for native speakers, but it’s a very useful book.

Twitter

Do you use Twitter? (You can read about it in several languages on Wikipedia.)

If you are a Twitter user, you can follow Readable. I’ll write about what I’m doing sometimes. I’ll try to use easy English, so beginners can read it too. You can send short, simple questions to me there. If the question is easy to answer, I’ll answer on Twitter as soon as I can. If the question is hard, I’ll try to answer it later here.

I don’t use Twitter on my cell phone, so I probably won’t answer right away. It might take some time for me to answer.

(I can’t do anybody’s homework or be anybody’s conversation partner, but I hope I can answer some of your questions about English grammar, American culture, etc. )

You can look for interesting and popular Twitter users to follow at Alltop and Twitterholic.

P. S. I’m sorry I haven’t written much lately. If you are an English learner who likes this blog, please comment sometimes or ask a question. That makes me want to write more.

I’m going to try to start posting twice per week, probably Tuesdays and Fridays. If that works, I’ll try to start posting 3 times per week. Remember, if you have something you want me to write about, you can leave a comment here. (You don’t have to use Twitter.)