Lesson #270 (Part 2): Some Mistakes that Italians make in English

Here we will continue our Lesson by looking at common issues that Italian students of English often make. (If you missed Part 1 of our Lesson, have a look at it first 👈 – I shared in it more about the novel by Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, on which we are basing our Lesson).

COMMON MISTAKES ITALIAN STUDENTS OF ENGLISH MAKE

📝 #11 PRONOUNCING (OR NOT PRONOUNCING) THE LETTER ‘H’

✍️ Most English words with a ‘h’ will pronounce this letter, which Italians are tempted to ignore and leave silent.

In general, you should always pronounce ‘h’ in English!

✍️ There are a few exceptions to this rule. In English, we have a few words (below) which, because they are of French origin, actually do have a silent ‘h’ in them: these words include ‘honest’, ‘honour’, ‘hour’, ‘heir’, ‘rhyme’, ‘rhythm’, ‘exhibition’, and ‘exhaust’. Once you know that these particular words do not pronounce their ‘h’ letter, and all other English words do, you will have overcome one of the most typical mistakes that Italians are said to make!

It goes without saying that if a word doesn’t begin with a ‘h’, you don’t need to pronounce a ‘h’ there! (So when you are saying that you would ‘like to eat something’, make sure you don’t accidentally say ‘I would like to heat something’.)

In these quotations from Dickens, you can see examples of different words that have either a pronounced or unpronounced letter ‘h’.

📘 ‘The Major, like some other noble animals, exhibited himself to great advantage at feeding-time.’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphases mine) [‘h’ is unvoiced] (Note how he used irony in this quotation to describe the town Mayor as if he were a showy animal!)

📘 ‘The sweet face looking into his, the gentle pleading eyes, the soft voice, and the light touch on his arm made the more winning by a child’s respect and honour for his age, that gave to all an air of graceful doubt and modest hesitation …’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphases mine) [The ‘h’ in ‘honour’ is not pronounced, but the ‘h’ in ‘hesitation’ is.]

📝 #12 ENGLISH WORDS THAT ARE SPELLED THE SAME WHETHER IN PLURAL OR SINGULAR FORM

✍️ In English, certain words that involve the idea of a collection – like ‘hair’, ‘sheep’, ‘information’, etc – can mean either a singular or plural form of that thing.

If we want to specify one strand of hair, for example, we might say something like ‘there is a hair in my eye that is bothering me’, or ‘I saw a sheep crossing the road’. If we want to talk about a singular kind of ‘information’, we need to say ‘a piece of information’ because ‘an information’ does not exist in English (nor does the word ‘informations’).

If you would like to understand this challenging point a bit more, check out 👉 Lesson #267 where we go into it in further detail.

📘 ‘”Six,” answered Paul, wondering, as he stole a glance at the young lady, why her hair didn’t grow long like Florence’s, and why she was like a boy.’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📝 #13 ‘SAY’ vs ‘TELL’

This is a challenging point for learners from all language backgrounds!

I covered it slightly in my last 👉 ‘common mistakes’ Lesson (where I talked about areas Russian speakers struggle with in English), and I also wrote a more comprehensive two-part Lesson on ‘say vs tell’ 👈 here which may be useful.

✍️ Generally, we use ‘say’ to show that some information was repeated verbally.

✍️ On the other hand, whenever we want to use the verb ‘tell’, we need to include the persons involved in the ‘telling’ action (that is, both the speaker and the listener) as well as the message being told. For example:

📘 ‘She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📘 “He says it’s his opinion that when a man has made a handsome sum by his business, he is bound to give it up …”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📘 “Mr Carker the Junior had told me he believed you were gone out …”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📘 ‘”Let us take this gentleman to see him, and let us hear what he says,” cried Florence.’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📝 #14 ‘TO GO HOME’ (not ‘to go at home’)

Italians tend to say, ‘I am going at home’, but this is incorrect; the correct way is to simply say ‘I am going home’, leaving out the ‘at’.

✍️ ‘Atimplies (strongly suggests, implicates) that something is happening in a fixed place, so for this reason it doesn’t make any sense to say you are going while also saying that you are staying in a fixed place.

There are other instances where you might want to say you are going to another place, in which case you must use the preposition ‘to’ to indicate direction. ✍️

However, since ‘going home’ has a sense of your returning to your home base (rather than going away in another direction), when talking about ‘going home‘ you must leave out the ‘to’ (or any other preposition) and just say ‘going home’.

💡 NOTE: It can sound rude if you tell someone ‘Go home!’ (in the imperative tense) since this expression is in command form and tells someone strongly that they should leave you and not disturb you. From time to time, you may be followed by a dangerous person or a frightening animal, in which case it would be natural to say something like ‘Go home’ quite strongly. But unless you find yourself in such a risky position, avoid using it – you might offend someone if you do! This is different from asking someone ‘are you going home?’, which is less direct and allows the listener to respond with a sentence like, ‘I am going home’. ✏️ Remember: in English, we prefer to use less direct forms of speaking (like polite questions) whenever possible.

📘 ‘Edith bent the same fixed look upon her, as she sobbed and rubbed her eyes; and said in the same low steady voice, which had neither risen nor fallen since she first addressed her, “I have said that Florence must go home.”‘

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📝 #15 USING THE CORRECT WORD ORDER FOR ASKING QUESTIONS

Italians and other Romance-language speakers tend to ask questions by raising the tone at the end of a sentence that would otherwise be a statement.

✍️ However, in English, we ask questions by reversing the statement’s usual order (subject – verb – object/complement) into a specific interrogative word order (verb – subject – object/complement).

So please make sure to arrange your questions in the correct word order! Remember, English speakers are not naturally trained to give special significance or meaning to voice/tone changes, but rely on word order instead:

📘 Statement format: ‘”You are good enough to rate it higher than it deserves, perhaps, Major,” returned Mr Dombey.’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

📘 Question format: “Are you remaining here, Mr Dombey?”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

📘 Statement format: “I did not think that anything could ever be so dear to me, as you are in this little time.”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

📘 Question format: “Did I mention that there was something like a little confidence between Miss Dombey and myself?”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

📝 #16 KNOWING WHEN TO USE THE SIMPLE FUTURE IN ENGLISH

Since we have both simple future and future continuous tenses in English, students are often uncertain when to use one instead of the other.

We use ‘will’, from the simple future tense

✔️ a) to describe actions that are happening in the future,

✔️ b) to make a promise, and

✔️ c) to express an intended, voluntary action (something you want to do or offer).

On the other hand, whenever there is a time clause in a sentence (e.g., whenever you see the word ‘when’ included in the sentence), then you can be sure you never really use ‘will’ in those sentences. ✍️

I have included some lines from Dombey and Son below which illustrate the three main ways that the simple future is used:

📘 ‘The ceremonies concluded by the Doctor’s saying, “Gentlemen, we will resume our studies at seven to-morrow …”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📘 “If you will promise to forbear on your part, I will promise to forbear on mine.”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine) (Note: ‘forbear’ means to ‘patiently or politely stop oneself from doing something you have an impulse to do; refrain; restrain oneself’).

📘 “I am used to this. I require it as my right. In short I will have it.”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

If you would like to learn more about the different tenses we use to speak about future actions in English, you can read my Lesson #227 on it here. 👈

📝 #17 SIMPLE PRESENT – USING IT IN THE RIGHT CONTEXTS

In Italian, the ‘indicativo’ tense is used for many purposes; this is often mentally translated into the English ‘simple present’.

✍️ However, in English we only use the simple present for two main purposes (otherwise we prefer to use the present continuous). We use the simple present tense for talking about

✔️ a) a known fact (e.g., ‘they speak English’), or else

✔️ b) continuously occurring actions (e.g., things you do daily, ‘we eat breakfast’, etc.)

📘 ‘There is a hush through Mr Dombey’s house. Servants gliding up and down stairs rustle, but make no sound of footsteps. They talk together constantly, and sit long at meals, making much of their meat and drink, and enjoying themselves after a grim unholy fashion.’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📝 #18 ‘SENSIBLE’ vs ‘SENSITIVE’

Sometimes Italians, like the French, find it hard to grasp the difference between these two words. (Don’t worry, I still remember the time when I used to mix them up too!)

✍️ ‘Sensible’ refers to having common sense, to being practical, dependable, steady. It is more close to the Italian word ‘ragionevole’.

✍️ On the other hand, ‘sensitive’ means that a person has heightened or deeper sensitivity, that they feel things more keenly and have a tender side to them (this word is sometimes used to describe teeth or skin – it specifies that you are prone (have a tendency) to get hurt or be injured because you are sensitive in these areas). A good Italian translation might be ‘sensibile’.

📘 “She has great force of character … but once moved, she is susceptible and sensitive to the last extent.”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📘 “Go,” said the good-humoured Manager …, “like a sensible fellow, and let us have no turning out, or any such violent measures.”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📘 “You know how sensitive I am to unkindness.”

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📝 #19 ‘ACTUALLY’ (ENGLISH) vs ‘ACTUALEMENTE’ (ITALIAN)

‘Actually’ means ‘in realtà’ in Italian, and is not the direct translation of ‘actualemente’.✍️ We use ‘actually’ to emphasise the reality of something even though it looks on the surface to be or stand for something else.

📘 “You strike me sharply; and your hand is steady, and your thrust is very deep,” returned the other, speaking (or so Walter thought) as if some cruel weapon actually stabbed him as he spoke.’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine) [In other words, the statement didn’t really stab him but it looked and felt like it was a dagger that did].

✏️ NOTE: If you are describing a situation for which you would use ‘actualmente’ in Italian, you can use ‘currently’ or ‘nowadays’ in English to describe this.

📘 ‘… this unfortunate foreigner (currently believed to be a prince in his own country) …’

– Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (emphasis mine)

📝 #20 NAMING THE CENTURIES

This final point is not to describe a mistake so much as a difference in how English and Italian people describe historical facts.

In English, we count the first hundred years A.D. (0-100 A.D., after Christ) as the ‘first century’, so that means that we are now (2021) living in the ‘twenty-first century’ (also written as 21st century).

By contrast in Italian, we are living in the ‘twentieth century’, since their ‘first century A.D.’ starts from the year 100 A.D. to 200 A.D.

Here is something to test your understanding of the English dating system: if Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son was published in 1848, what century was it published in?

a) The eighteenth century

b) The nineteenth century

🤔 (The correct answer is at the very end of this Lesson.)

If you have found this Lesson helpful, I would recommend glancing through my other Lessons on common mistakes that ✏️ French and ✏️ Russian students tend to make, because there are some common issues that I don’t have the time and space to mention here. I am sure you will find them useful, and as always, if you have a question that I haven’t addressed here, please send it to me via my contact form and I will do my best to help.

Answer: the nineteenth century.