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Literature & Language

¨  Adjective and noun modifiers
¨  How many languages are spoken in North America?
¨  Is there a rule about beginning a sentence with the word 'that'?
¨  Who coined the term "Zzzzz" to denote sleeping?
¨  How do you conjugate Spanish verbs?
¨  How can I practice English in my country?
¨  Correct usage of preposition
¨  Who said "To be great is to be misunderstood"?

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In the English phrase 'a five dollar bank note' why don't we say 'five dollars bank note' as the word dollars should be in plural because there are five of them?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 6 May 2007:
This is a good question!  The simple answer is that the word dollar is modifying the word note and that five is modifying the word dollar.  In other words, both are acting as adjectives and the noun (note) being modified is singular.  The word "dollar" is a noun acting as an adjective and even if you are talking about multiple notes, dollar would not be made plural.  See:


There are other examples of this:

1) five and ten cent store (old name for discount stores (Five and Dime).
2) Five year plan
3) Ten dollar bill

The example in the above link doesn't mention that even if "bikes" was plural, you would still say: mountain bikes not mountains bikes.

Great question!  English is a peculiar language.

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How many languages are spoken in North America and what are the top 5?

ANSWER from Imagiverse on 13 January 2007:
There are many languages spoken in North America (Canada, USA and the Central American countries).  There are the official languages, the native languages of the people who first habited the lands and the languages that are brought over by people who have immigrated to North America over the centuries.  The main language spoken in the USA and Canada is English.  There is a very large population speaking Spanish in the US.  French is an official language in Canada.  Most of the countries in Central America have Spanish as the official language but a large percentage of the people who live there speak the native language.  So, the top 3 languages would be English, Spanish and French.  To determine the other 2, I would suggest doing an Internet search for census records and other sources.

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Is there a rule about beginning a sentence with the word 'that'?

ANSWER from Imagiverse on 28 October 2006:
That is an interesting question!  If you are using "that" as a pronoun (as in my first sentence), it is grammatically correct to use it to begin a sentence.  "That" may also be used as an adjective, adverb or conjunction.  In some instances, it may be incorrect to use "that" to start a sentence.  Try using Word or another word processing program that utilizes a "grammar checker".  It will usually tell you if what you are trying to write is grammatically incorrect.  However, these programs do not always catch the errors.

There are many good high school and college grammar books.  Use them to check and revise your grammar.  Sometimes, the biggest error people commit with "that" is using it in place of "which" or with the wrong punctuation.

I found a website which might help you get more specific grammar answers: http://www.grammarbook.com/qa_club.asp

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Who coined the term 'Zzzzz' to denote sleeping?

ANSWER from Stephanie Wong on 16 August 2005:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the string of letters Zzzzzz with reference to sleeping comes from H.G. Wells.  Earlier on, the Zzzzzz sound was used to refer to buzzing noises.  Snorning is a particular kind of buzzing noise.  So, after the first initial uses of Zzzzz to refer to sleeping, the trend caught on, and it has become a phrase synonymous with sleeping!

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How do you conjugate Spanish verbs?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 24 February 2005:
There is an excellent book called 501 Spanish Verbs by Christopher
Kendris, Ph.D.  This book is an excellent reference manual even for people fluent in Spanish.  It has all the conjugations of 501 verbs arranged in alphabetical order.  The book is so good, I also have copies of the French and Portuguese editions.

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I am studying English at university and plan to become an English teacher.  How can I practice English in my country?

ANSWER from Luís Felipe Díaz Galeano 11 November 2004:
I always give the same advice to everyone who wants to speak English fluently.

The first thing you need to do is to read in English.  This can be fun and will also contribute to your education.  You should start by reading Time magazine or Newsweek.  The English employed is very direct and simple and the subjects are common everyday news which makes the reading more understandable.

You should also read certain writers whose use and command if English is very direct.  One of my favorites is James Michener. (Sayonara, The Bridges at Toko Ri, Hawaii, The Source, Caravans, Centennial, etc).  His books not only include a fictional story but the use of documentation is formidable.  You can find chapters dedicated to the formation of islands or the historical process of nations alongside fictional tales.  He worked as a journalist in many countries and his style is very direct.  Another excellent writer with a direct style is Ernest Hemingway.  He is a must at this level (The Old Man and the Sea, Farewell to Arms, etc.).

Afterwards, you should try more complex writers.  Be careful.  Many people recommend the Nobel Prize winners and they tend to be complex in their writings (Saul Bellow, for example).  Also people like John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, etc., are also complicated (John Le Carré has been impossible for me).  I would recommend Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night) or Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men)

I hope that I have been of help.  Keep studying very hard and help yourself with these selected writers and readings.  Studying a career is very demanding but the hints provided here will not take up too much time.  It would also be fantastic if you could spend time in the USA or the UK but that may be difficult and costly for you.

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"It has been snowing AT Oslo." or "It has been snowing IN oslo."  Which preposition is correct?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 13 September 2004:
Good question!  Are you asking because English is not your primary language?  You may see "snowing in", "snowing at", "raining in", "raining at", etc., and it may look like IN and AT are used interchangeably.  However, there is a bit of a difference.  In your specific example, the preposition to use is IN.

It has been snowing IN Oslo. [Oslo is a place.]
It has been snowing AT the Winter Olympics. [Winter Olympics is an event.]

If you are looking for a more comprehensive answer to this question, please consult an English grammar book.  I just thought of situations when my example of "place" does not work: "It was raining AT school."  School is a place but you would use AT.  English grammar is so complicated (more exceptions to rules than rules)!  The best thing to do is invest in a good grammar book and keep it handy when writing.

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Who said "To be great is to be misunderstood"?  Was it Ralph Waldo Emerson?

ANSWER from John Cabrera on 22 November 2003:
Someone asked me that question before.  At the time, I looked for it in my books but couldn't find it anywhere.  Then, someone gave me a book, which included the quotation, attributed to Oscar Wilde.  But then, I couldn't confirm where that quotation came from.  Recently, I discovered that Wilde was in correspondence with James McNeill Whistler, an American painter.  It seems Whistler had got into a battle of words with a variety of critics.  Whistler was so stung by criticism that, in one case, he sued an art critic, John Ruskin, for libel.  Oscar Wilde wrote the following note to Whistler, in sympathy:

"Dear Butterfly,

By the aid of a biographical dictionary, I made the discovery that there were once two painters, called Benjamin West and Paul Delaroche, who rashly lectured upon art.  As of their works nothing at all remains, I conclude that they explained themselves away.  Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I, do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.

Tout a vous,

Oscar Wilde"

So I thought that was it.  But, just as I was going to fire off this belated answer to the original question, I came across the following from Emerson:

"Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?  Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.  To be great is to be misunderstood." (Essays (1841) "Self Reliance")

So, maybe old Oscar was indulging in a touch of plagiarism.  But, as William R Inge once said:

"Originality is undetected plagiarism".

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 22 November 2003:
Quotes are funny things.  Something like: "To be great is to be misunderstood" could have been said by any number of people.  Certainly Wilde and Emerson used it.  If someone says that without referencing Wilde or Emerson... are they plagiarizing?  Probably not.  If you search the Internet, Emerson usually comes up when you search on that quote, but maybe he heard it elsewhere.  What makes something "quotable"?

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Last Updated:
11 July 2007

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