This is the second article in my series of articles about common mistakes in English for Russian speakers (although English learners who speak other languages can also make some of these mistakes too). You can see the first article here. Together, both articles include 25 of the most common mistakes made by Russian-speaking students learning English.
Dictionary and vocabulary
- Incorrect: In order to improve my English level, I need to increase my dictionary.
- Correct: In order to improve my English level, I need to increase my vocabulary.
The confusion between these two words comes from the fact that, in Russian, they can both be translated as Словарь; but in English, dictionary and vocabulary are two different words (with different meanings).
A dictionary is a book or an electronic resource that has a list of words and their definitions. While vocabulary refers to the words used in a particular language, or the words known by an individual.
One way which dictionary and vocabulary are both in the same sentence can be, for example:
- Finding the definition of words in a dictionary can help you to increase your vocabulary.
Decide and solve
In Russian, decide and solve are very similar and both are usually translated as решать, but they have different meanings in English. Decide means to make a choice, but solve means to make the best or correct choice to answer or fix a problem. For example:
- We decided to have Chinese food instead of Mexican food (we made a choice).
- Solve this math problem: X+10=15 X=?
- Tim and Tina decided that the best way to solve their relationship problems was to talk more with each other and improve their communication skills.
That and what
- Incorrect: I think what you should study more.
- Correct: I think (that) you should study more (‘that’ can be used or omitted).
In my opinion, this mistake is one of the most common but difficult mistakes to explain. Part of the problem is because that and what can both be translated as the Russian word что.
First let’s look at when to use ‘what’. The simple answer I sometimes give my lower level students is that you usually use ‘that’ instead of ‘what’ unless you are answering or asking a question with ‘what’. However, this is often not the case, and the actual answer is more complex.
The actual answer is that while the word what is often used as an interrogative pronoun (a pronoun used to ask questions).
- For example, “What is your name?”.
It can also be used as a fused (joined) relative pronoun.
- For example, “I like what you wrote in the article’.
This is a bit more difficult to understand, but basically, in this case what refers to the thing being liked (the article), and cannot be removed because it is a substitute for the object in the first part of the sentence. For example:
- I like what you said at the meeting yesterday.
Therefore, when what is the object of a noun clause, like in the above examples, it is necessary and cannot be removed. However, when that is used as a conjunction to introduce a noun clause, it’s not necessary. And in cases where the sentences is clear, we can omit that:
- He told me (that) he had been there before.
- She decided (that) it was a good idea to bring an umbrella.
- I think (that) studying another language is a good use of time.
Fun and funny
- Incorrect: ‘The joke was so fun (that) we laughed out loud’ (yes, we can omit ‘that’ here! See above).
- Correct: The joke was so funny (that) we laughed out loud.
- Incorrect: Learning new things can be funny.
- Correct: Learning new things can be fun (yes, it can sometimes be funny too depending on what you learn!).
Fun (весело) is something that is enjoyable and pleasurable. Funny (смешной) is something that is humorous and might cause us to laugh or something that might seem amusing (забавный). It’s easy to confuse the meanings because they can be similar: something fun can be funny and something funny can be fun. For example:
- We had a fun time watching funny movies.
Learn and study
- Incorrect: Babies study how to make sentences after the age of two years old.
- Correct: Babies learn how to make sentences after the age of two years old.
Like in Russian, ‘learn’ and ‘study’ are very close in meaning, and we can often substitute one for the other. For example:
- We already learned/studied that subject last year.
The difference is that learning is the process of acquiring, or getting knowledge or skills. Studying, however, is the process of devoting time and energy to trying to learn something. In this sense, one may study all day but learn nothing. Study is usually translated as изучить or учиться. Learn is usually translated as научиться, учить, or узнавать; although it also can be used as учиться, which is another reason for the confusion between the two words. For example:
- Without rest, exercise, and a healthy diet, students may study hard but learn little
- ‘As long as you live, keep learning how to live’. -Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
Story and history
- Incorrect: They have many interesting histories from their travels.
- Correct: They have many interesting stories from their travels.
The Russian word, история, can be translated as either story or history, depending on the context. However, these words usually have different meanings in English. Story is used for a general telling about real or fictional events for entertainment or other purposes. For example:
- The story of her life was made into a movie.
- I like adventure stories that happen in magical lands with wizards, warriors, and monsters.
Story can also be used to tell about past events from someone’s life or the development of something. For example:
- My grandfather told me many stories about his life when he was young.
- The Beatles are essential to the story of modern pop music (in this sense history can also be used).
Similar in Russian, history in English refers to the subject of history. The study of past events, and the recording of these events. For example:
- "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." - George Santayana
- If you have a good teacher, history class can be very interesting.
History can also be a series of past events connected with something or someone. For example:
- The history of this old house is quite interesting.
- It’s important to share your medical history with the new doctor.
- After a history of failed relationships, she finally got married.
Ill, ills, and illness
- Incorrect: Most types of ills can be treated with medicine; but of course, not all of them can be cured.
- Correct: Most types of illnesses can be treated with medicine…
Illness (болезнь) is when someone is unwell (sick), and is a noun. For example:
- He has a bad illness.
The ill in singular form can be used as a noun or an adjective referring to one who is sick or unwell. For example:
- He wasn’t able to come yesterday because he was ill (adjective).
- It’s important that we remember that the mentally ill can suffer as much as the physically ill (noun).
Therefore, ill should only be used in singular form when talking about disease or sickness. If we want to talk about different forms of being ill, we can use illness in the plural form. For example:
- People can suffer from both mental and physical illnesses at the same time.
Ill can also be an noun that refers to something that is evil, or causes harm and misfortune. For example:
- We wish you no ill and hope you succeed on your task.
In this sense, we can use ill in the plural form. For example:
- Although humanity has solved many social ills, there are still many that we are still trying to fix -- such as: pollution, war, climate change, and crime.
Complex and difficult
- Even people with simple personalities, after some study, are more complex than they seem
- He has a difficult personality, it can be very hard to live or work with her.
Complex and difficult can both be translated as сложный in Russian, but the meanings are different in English. Complex means something that consists of many different and connected parts. While difficult means something that takes a lot effort to do. Sometimes a complex task can be difficult, so in this way, the words can be related (but they are not the same). For example:
- The complex climate issues of our modern times are difficult to solve.
But a difficult task is not always complex. For example:
- It was very difficult to train for the marathon, but it wasn’t complex. I just had to follow my training schedule, and run a little further each day.
Keep and hold
These two words can usually be translated as держать or иметь in Russian. While sometimes the two words can be used interchangeably, they often have different meanings. But sometimes the words have the same meaning. For example:
- A good teacher should be able to keep/hold students’ attention.
- One should keep/hold their head straight to have good posture.
On the simplest level, hold often means to grasp or take something, while keep means to take something and possess it, to continue to have it. Let’s look at the following example:
- Can I hold your baby?
If someone asks this question, they are asking to hold it in their arms for a short time. But, for example:
- Can I keep your baby?
This is a totally different question: here they are asking to take the baby and to never give the baby back, but instead to have (keep) the baby for themselves. Honestly, I doubt anyone will have the audacity to ask to keep your baby, it was more of an exaggerated example.
However, someone can make it clear that they only want to keep something for a limited time. For example:
- Can you keep my cat until next Tuesday?
There are also many differences between the two words, besides the basic difference mentioned above. The best thing to do is to review the various definitions for each word and to memorize the collections with the different meanings. With practice, you’ll be able to choose which word from the two to use correctly when faced with different circumstances.
- We are holding a meeting next week…not keeping a meeting.
- It’s important to keep safe when visiting a new place…not hold safe.
- She kept forgetting his name…not held forgetting.
Some additional resources on this topic can be found here.
Corner and angle
- Incorrect: The upper right angle of the picture was damaged.
- Correct: The upper right corner of the picture was damaged.
- Incorrect: Although the cliff is not high, it drops down to the ocean at a very sharp corner.
- Correct: Although the cliff is not high, it drops down to the ocean at a very sharp angle.
These two words are often confused because they can be translated to the Russian word угол; however, in English they are different but related words.
A simple way to remember the difference is that a corner is usually a physical thing. For example:
- I will meet you on the corner of Main Street and 2nd Avenue.
- She was sitting in the corner of the room.
- The page number is usually at the bottom right-hand corner of a book’s page.
An angle is usually a term of measurement about two lines that come together. These lines can be imaginary or real. For example:
- A square has four equal sides and four equal 90 degree angles (imaginary or real).
- At first, the path up the mountain was not too difficult, although there were some parts where the elevation increased at a very sharp angle (real).
In the second example, the two lines coming together are the flat part of the path and the part of the path that has a sharp change in elevation.
If after reading this article, you have a better understanding of how not to make these ten common mistakes, it will help you use the words mentioned in this article correctly. As mentioned above, a good way to try to learn the differences between the words is to memorize common collocations with these words. Of course, practice, practice, practice actively (through speaking and writing) by using the words in context.
What are some other common mistake that Russian speakers learning English make (or English learners who speak other languages)? Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comment section below. Cheers!