Category Archives: pitfalls

Pitfalls: Air Conditioner

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In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s about time for the weather to become cooler. That’s why I thought about this vocabulary pitfall today…

In standard American English, the word “air conditioneronly means “a machine that makes the air cooler and drier.” It’s very surprising to us to see someone say “I turned on the air conditioner because I was cold.” However, in Japanese and some other Asian languages, the phrase means “a machine that changes the air’s temperature and humidity.”

In American English, we would probably say “I turned on the heater because I was cold.” Most houses have central heating (warm air is pushed to all parts of a house or apartment). It may use electricity or gas. That’s still just called “the heater,” though. Some people have wall heaters, portable electric heaters, or other kinds of heaters. “Heater” is a general word that can be used for many different things.

Small heaters that you can carry are called portable heaters, etc., not “stoves.” The word “stove” almost always means the thing in the kitchen that you cook on. Only very old houses use a special kind of wood stove for heating. These stoves are big, heavy, and made of metal. (A few modern houses have a heat stove as an old-fashioned extra thing.) Of course, a long time ago, the cooking stove and the heating stove were the same thing!

You may have a (Japanese, etc.) “air conditioner” on your wall or ceiling that both heats and cools. In this case, I recommend saying “the heater” when you’re talking about using its heating function. If you say “air conditioner” when you’re talking about heating, it will cause most English-speaking listeners to be confused.

My heater and air conditioner are controlled by the same controller on my wall, called a thermostat. But I still say “Honey, can you turn on the heater?” or “Oh, why is the air conditioner on? Turn it off and open the windows!”

Anyway, basically: “air conditioner” means cooling (only) and “heater” means “heating.” It’s true for apartments, houses, businesses, schools, and cars!

(Read about other pitfalls: words that can cause problems when you use them!)

Pitfalls: MV, PV, CM, CF

warning symbol of exclamation point in triangle, by zeimusu at

The terms “MV,” “PV,” “CM,” and “CF” are popular in countries such as Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. However, most people in North America and other English-speaking countries don’t know what MV, PV, CM, or CF mean. You need to be careful with letter-based words (usually called “acronyms”). Even though they’re based on real English words, native English speakers may not use the same acronyms.

  • Pitfall: MV, PV
    American English: Music video. We don’t generally use this abbreviation (short form). We just say “video” or “music video.”
    Example 1: My band made our first music video this weekend! Example 2: Did you see Gnarls Barkley’s new music video? I really liked it!

    Here are two music videos that I like. The first one is “Two Silver Trees” by Calexo, and the second one is “Many Moons” by Janelle Monae. It might be hard to hear the words, so you can look up the lyrics here. Their lyrics are very poetic, so they’re probably still hard to understand! (And there are some “adult” words in the Janelle Monae song, so please only try it if you are in high school or older.)

  • Pitfall: CM or CF
    American English: Ad (casual), advertisement, commercial. (Note: “advertisement” is pronounced differently in British and American English.) Usually, to refer to both radio and TV advertisements, we just say “ad.”
    Example 1: I really hate that new diamond ring ad–it’s sexist and insulting to women. Example 2: I love watching TV shows on DVD because I don’t have to see any commercials!

    This ad from the pay-TV network Discovery Channel was really popular last year. A lot of people made their own versions, and the geeky webcomic xkcd even did a parody.

Do you know some other acronyms that you’re not sure about? You can leave a comment and ask, and I’ll try to to answer you or write about it in a future Pitfalls post.

(Read other “Pitfalls” posts about words and phrases that can be a little dangerous.)

Pitfalls: Funny

warning symbol of exclamation point in triangle, by zeimusu at

Funny looks like it should mean the same thing as “fun.” But it doesn’t.

“Fun” is an adjective for something you enjoy, something you like doing, something that makes you happy. Playing a game is fun. Going sightseeing is fun. It’s fun to play with a kitten. Skiing looks like fun. I had a fun day at the beach.

“Funny” is an adjective with two main meanings: 1) Strange or weird. This food tastes funny. This medicine makes me feel funny. It’s funny that you already know my brother. Your eye looks funny. I got a funny phone call.
2) Something that makes you laugh at it. That movie was funny. Your puppy is so funny. The kitten is funny when it plays with its tail. That movie looks funny. I heard a funny joke.

It can be hard to tell whether someone is using meaning 1 or 2 for “funny,” so English speakers sometimes have this kind of conversation:

Aiko: It was nice to meet your mother. She’s funny.
Ben: Funny-weird or funny-haha?
Aiko: Funny-haha! She has a great sense of humor and she told some great jokes.

When Ben says “Funny-weird or funny-haha?” he is asking a common question in English, which is to check on which meaning of “funny” Aiko is using. This phrase is pretty common in English, and you can use it too.

If someone is telling jokes and trying to make you laugh, then it’s fine to say that the person is funny. However, other times it’s not OK. It will make the other person feel bad.

For example, let’s imagine you come to my Thanksgiving dinner and you have a good time:

You: The dinner was really fun.
Me (with a smile): Aw, thank you. I’m so glad you came.

You: The dinner was really funny.
Me (frown): Really? Why?

In Conversation B, I’m not happy because you said “funny.” As a result, I think my dinner either was strange to you or made you laugh at it. I’m worried. What was wrong?

Laughing is usually a sign of enjoying yourself in American culture. However, laughing at something can also mean that you think it is stupid or not good. So be careful! If you say a party, a dinner, a gift, etc. was “funny” when you meant to say “fun,” you might make someone very unhappy.

(A comedy movie can be fun and funny, of course, because a) you’ll have fun watching it, and b) you are supposed to laugh at it.)

One way to help yourself remember this kind of difference is to remember the word in one sentence for each meaning. Pick natural-sounding sentences that make the meaning clear to you. For example —

“Your party was a lot of fun.” (fun)
“This purple-colored bread tastes funny.” (funny 1)
“That joke was really funny.” (funny 2)

Pitfalls: Most vs. Almost vs. Almost All

warning symbol of exclamation point in triangle, by zeimusu at

Watch out for these two phrases. Many students confuse them, but their meanings are actually very different. When you use “almost all (of)”/”most (of)” with a noun phrase, and “almost” with a verb phrase, the meanings can be opposite!

“Almost all (of)” means 80-99% (not all, but close to all).

“Most (of)” means more than half, maybe 55-99%.

“Most” and “almost all” are very close to each other. You can use them in similar ways. “Almost all” is a little stronger. If I say “I liked almost all of the food I ate in Taiwan,” it’s stronger than “I liked most of the food I ate in Taiwan.” But both sentences mean that generally I liked the food I ate there.

Let’s talk about “almost all (of)” and “most (of)” only with noun phrases for now. Here are some examples, with underlined noun phrases: most of my friends, almost all of the movies, most of the shops, almost all people, most kittens.

“Almost” means nearly, not quite, close to.

“Almost” goes with verb phrases very often. Here are some examples with just verb phrases,in bold: almost married, almost won the lottery, almost miss the exit, almost bought a car, almost died, almost finished eating.

Anyway, here are some examples of a sentence type where confusing “almost all/most of” and “almost” can really change your meaning:

  • Almost all of the students passed the test.
    Congratulations! The majority of the class members passed the test! There were 30 students and 28 received a grade of C or better. Great!
  • Most of the students passed the test.
    Congratulations! The majority of the class members passed the test! There were 30 students and 22 received a grade of C or better. Great!
  • The students almost passed the test.
    Oh, no. The students got very low scores. Their scores were close to a passing grade, but not close enough. All of the students got less than 50% on the test. They were very close to passing, but they didn’t, so they failed.
  • (And remember to use “all of,” “most,” or put “almost” in the right place every time. You can’t say “almost the students passed.” First, this is ungrammatical. Second, the listener will be confused and not know what you meant. The listener can’t guess whether you meant “almost all of the students passed,” “most of the students passed,” or “the students almost passed.” When you’re speaking English, you can often make small mistakes and still be understood, but not with this kind of phrase!)

  • Almost all of the flowers died.
    I went on vacation for two weeks and didn’t water my 20 roses. 17 of the roses died.
  • Most of the flowers died.
    I went on vacation for two weeks and didn’t water my 20 roses. 15 of the roses died.
  • The flowers almost died.
    I went on vacation. After one week, I remembered that my roses needed to be watered. I called my neighbor and asked if she’d water them. She said the flowers looked very bad! However, she took care of them until I got back. When I came back, my roses were fine. My roses came close to dying because I forgot about them.

Does it make sense? You have to be careful with this one, because you can accidentally change your meaning completely. Watch out!

Pitfalls: “Married TO,” Not “Married WITH”

warning symbol of exclamation point in triangle, by zeimusu at

She is married to him. He was the first in his family to get married to someone from another country. Two of my friends would like to be married to each other, but it’s still not legal in this state, because they are both men.
heart with scroll, saying “married TO,” based on an image by Andy at

In these sentences and others, referring to the state of being married, the correct phrase is “married to.” However, many English learners say “married with.” This common preposition mistake won’t confuse listeners or readers too much. After all, your meaning is still clear. However, it may make the listener or reader pause momentarily, because this phrase isn’t part of standard American English.

The reason this mistake is so common is because many other languages use a preposition meaning “with”–and really, it makes more sense! Unfortunately, preposition choice is rarely based on logic, so it’s just a rule that has to be memorized. “Engaged” works the same way when referring to “promising to marry each other in the future”: She is engaged to him, etc. The noun “marriage,” on the other hand, usually is found as “marriage to” (7 million English Google hits) but may sometimes occur as “marriage with” (less than 3 million hits).

When you are referring to the actual act of getting married, you don’t need any preposition at all: She married him on August 20, 2003. He was the first in his family to marry someone from another country. Two of my friends would like to marry each other someday.

“Dating” is similar–I have heard even advanced non-native English speakers say “she is dating with him,” but this is never correct in American English. Instead, simply say: She won’t date sexist men. They dated each other for three years before deciding to get married. Are Pat and Leslie dating? etc.

(I know these rules are confusing. Prepositions are one specific area that I think is helped by reading a lot: once you’ve seen “married to” thousands of times in your reading, you’re likely to say it correctly without having to think about it!)

Introducing Pitfalls

warning symbol of exclamation point in triangle, by zeimusu at

A “pitfall” is something that’s dangerous, but hidden or hard to see. The original word referred to a kind of trap made by digging a hole in the ground and lightly covering it. I’m going to use this word for a new series of posts about vocabulary and grammar that are often misused. I hope you’ll be able to avoid these pitfalls in the future.

Of course, I’ll continue the “Good Words” posts also. I hope both are useful to you! Remember, if you have questions about English words or phrases, you can leave a comment. I usually can’t reply to you directly, but I’ll consider the topic for a future post.