Lesson #268 (Part 2): Mistakes Russian speakers tend to make in English

📗 Welcome to Part 2 of our Lesson in which we look at difficult areas for many Russian students of English in particular. You may find it helpful to check 👉 Part 1 first to understand why we chose Henry James’ excellent novel, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), for this Lesson, as well as my advice on how to avoid ten other common English mistakes.

📝 #11 ‘WHAT’ vs ‘HOW’

📗 “I’m acting as — what do you call it in America? — as a kind of moderator.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

✍️ In English, we like to use the word ‘what’ when we are asking questions to learn about some person or thing’s nature (or name).

For example, we might say ✒️ ‘What do you call your cat?’ and not ‘how do you call your cat?’

✍️ ‘What’ captures a sense of a person or thing’s identity, while ‘how’ describes the manner or process of doing something.

📗 “What do you call her name?”

“Pensil. It’s an odd name, but it isn’t a bad one.”

“I think one name’s as good as another. But what’s her rank?”

“Oh, she’s a baron’s wife; a convenient sort of rank. You’re fine enough and you’re not too fine.”

“I don’t know but what she’d be too fine for me. What do you call the place she lives in—Bedfordshire?”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphases mine)

📝 #12 ‘THANK GOD’ (not ‘Thanks God’)

📗 “My point of view, thank God, is personal!”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

✍️ When we say ‘Thank God’ in English, we don’t add an ‘s’ to ‘thank’ – in other words, don’t say ‘thanks God’ unless you are actually talking to God directly in prayer (just as you might turn to a friend and directly say something like ‘Thanks Sarah for this’).

Remember how we have the expression ‘thank you’ in English, which is also spelled without an ‘s’ at the end.

This is all because ‘thank’ in these expressions is in its verbal form: it is a shortened form of saying ‘I thank you’ or ‘I thank God’.

If you want to change it to a noun form (‘thanks’), you need to rephrase the expression as ‘thanks (noun) be to God’ (meaning ‘my thanks be/are going to God’).

📝 #13 ‘SPORTS’ vs ‘EXERCISE’

📗 “I understand what you want; you want to see some genuine English sport.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

In English, the distinction between ‘sports’ and ‘exercise’ can be a bit difficult to grasp at first.

✍️ Basically, ‘exercise’ refers to any regular pattern of moving your body, usually for keeping healthy and fit. So for example, a gentle walk or yoga can count as exercise, as do more effortful activities like jogging or going to the gym.

✍️ On the other hand, ‘sports’ is used only to describe physical exercises in the form of games with points systems or rules: think of tennis, soccer, or indeed any competitive activities that you see in the Olympics.

📗 ‘This was almost a daily habit with Isabel, who was fond of a walk and had a swift length of step, though not so swift a one as on her first coming to Europe. It was not the form of exercise that Pansy loved best, but she liked it, because she liked everything …’

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphasis mine)

📝 #14 ‘STAYING AT HOME’ (not ‘sitting at home’)

📗 “I couldn’t stay at home after you had gone …”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphasis mine)

‘I was sitting at home’.✍️ In English, we prefer to say ‘staying at home’ instead, as ‘to sit’ means you are physically seated in one place at home.

Here is an example of how we would use the phrase ‘staying at home’: ✒️ ‘During the pandemic lockdowns, most people had to stay at home.’

This means they were continuing to be at home, that is, moving about inside and doing different things indoors without leaving their houses.

📝 #15 ‘LEND’ vs ‘BORROW’

What is the difference between ‘to lend’ and ‘to borrow’? I wrote a complete Lesson on this common challenge a few months ago, which you can access here. 👈

✍️ However, in a nutshell, ‘to lend’ means to give someone something for a while, whereas ‘to borrow’ means to take something from someone else for a while with their permission.

For example: ✒️ A library lends you books, while you borrow books from a library.

📝 #16 ALL-INCLUSIVE ‘WE’ IN ENGLISH

📗 ‘“We all try to live as near it as we can,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.’

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphasis mine)

Imagine you are talking about your best friends from childhood. Now try to re-write this sentence so that you avoid repetition: ✒️ ‘I have travelled with them everywhere. We travel together once a year.’

The temptation for many Russian speakers here is to say ‘we and my friends travel together …’✍️ However, remember that in English ‘we’ already includes you and the people you have mentioned, so you don’t need to add ‘and my friends’ (or any similar construction) to it.

📝 #17 ‘WORTH’ + PRESENT PARTICIPLE (not ‘worth’ + the verb’s infinitive)

Another common stumbling point is a tendency to use ‘worth’ with the infinitive (e.g., ❌ ‘I think English is worth to study’ ❌ – this construction is a mistake!).

✍️ In English, we use ‘worth’ followed by a present participle (verb forms having an ‘-ing’ ending): e.g., ‘worth doing’, ‘worth studying’, ‘worth seeing’, ‘worth visiting’, etc.

📗 ‘He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art.’

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, … should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic.’

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphasis mine)

📝 #18 ‘SHADE’ vs ‘SHADOW’.

📗 ‘She gave it up, but she still thought of it—thought of it while she strolled again under the great oaks whose shadows were long upon the acres of turf.’

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphasis mine)

This can be a confusing point for all learners of English!

✍️ Basically, both these words describe the dark shape or silhouette caused by something getting in the way of sunshine or light – we generally call this a ‘shadow’. People, objects, animals, trees, buildings, etc., can all have a shadow.

✍️ On the other hand, a ‘shade’ is a special kind of shadow, the kind that brings us relief from the heat and bright light. So, if you want to rest on a hot summer’s day, you might look for ‘a shaded place’ or ‘a place in the shade’ to cool down and relax in.

📗 ‘She knew they were good women, and she saw that the large rooms were clean and cheerful and that the well-used garden had sun for winter and shade for spring.’

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphasis mine)

📝 #19 ENGLISH ‘IT’ TO DESCRIBE NON-PERSONAL THINGS (in place of gendered pronouns)

📗 “I had been putting out my eyes over the book of life and finding nothing to reward me for my pains; but now that I can read it properly I see it’s a delightful story.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (emphases mine)

As we mentioned in our last Lesson (where we looked at common mistakes French speakers tend to make in English), English is not a gendered language (in other words, most of our nouns don’t have a gender unless they refer to a person or a pet).

✍️ For this reason, we tend to use ‘it’ in many places where Russians would intuitively think of using a ‘she’ or ‘he’, ‘her’ or ‘his’ pronoun as they would use when speaking in Russian.

As always, learning a language means you need to adapt to thinking in that language, and ‘it’ is an essential, powerful little word in English! 💡

Have you struggled with any of the points we have covered? 🤔 If so, try to put my suggestions or tips into practice by using them in a sentence, and feel free to message me your sample sentence for feedback through my contact form here.

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by Joyce E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2021)