Unexplained and puzzling usage advice

I have posted before about unexplained and puzzling advice on language-related websites. This kind of advice is given in terms of ‘that is wrong, this is right’. I stumbled across a website which gives generally correct and useful advice on English vocabulary, grammar and usage for second-language learners. But on one page, among 13 pieces of unexceptional advice, are three pieces of unexplained and puzzling advice on word usage. I won’t identify the website, because I don’t want to name and shame; this person has obviously put a lot of time and effort into the site and the advice is generally correct and useful. The name and photo indicate someone from a major English-speaking country, one sentence uses the spelling center, many of the mistakes sound typical of Indian English, and one sentence mentions Chennai, so draw your own conclusions from that.

The website has a page of ‘Common mistakes in the use of nouns’. Only one piece of advice comes with an explanation:

Incorrect: I am learning a new poetry.
Correct: I am learning a new poem.
Poetry means poems collectively.

The three puzzling pieces of advice are:

(1) Incorrect: He enquired about your state of health.
(2) Correct: He enquired about the state of your health.
(3) Incorrect: My English is very weak.
(4) Correct: I am very weak in English.
(5) Incorrect: Why are you standing in the center of the street?
(6) Correct: Why are you standing in the middle of the street? [my numbering]

For the life of me, I can’t see anything ‘Incorrect’ about (1), (3) or (5). Google Ngrams shows your state of health and the state of your health running about equal (though historically there has been a preference for the state of your health), and similar results for the state of my health and my state of health. I would probably say ‘He enquired about your health’, and avoid the problem.

Google Ngrams doesn’t return any results for English is very week, but a general Google search returns many questions phrased as My English is very weak and I am very weak in English. If there is a difference, it is that (3) focuses on ‘My English’ and (4) on I. I would probably say My [Korean] is very weak/poor in preference to I am very weak/*poor in Korean. (In fact, one of the first complete Korean sentences I learned was 한국어을 잘 못해요, literally ‘(I) Korean well not do’.)

Google Ngrams shows middle of the street comfortably outnumbering center/centre of the street, but that doesn’t, without more explanation, make center/centre ‘Incorrect’. Maybe the rationale is that center/centre can only be used with places or things which are approximately circular or spherical, but actual usage doesn’t support that. I would probably say the middle of the street, but cannot see that center/centre of the street is ‘Incorrect’. (middle of the road v center/centre of the road shows similar results (and middle of the road music is too rare to make that much of a difference).)

These pieces of advice are not ‘wrong’, but rather unexplained, puzzling and unnecessary. There are more important issues for second-language learners.

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4 thoughts on “Unexplained and puzzling usage advice

  1. That’s strange! I can almost understand 1): even though it’s grammatically ok, it’s not so commonly used and sounds a bit strange to me. 5) and 6) though is just a case of one being more common, but 5) of course as you say being fine. I think some people just see things as binary oppositions, and assume language must be the same, ignoring the many lovely shades of grey English offers us.

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    • The only possible rationale I can possibly think of is that the writer thinks it is possible to ‘possess’ *health*, but impossible to ‘posses’ *a state*. But Google Ngrams shows ‘your state of mind/health/consciousness’, and ‘your state of mind/consciousness’ way ahead of ?’the state of your mind/consciousness’ (which apparently exist, but I simply have to mark with a question mark).

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  2. Like you, I could find nothing incorrect in any of the sentences labeled as such. In fact, I would use a couple of the ‘incorrect’ useages more often than the ‘correct’ ones. Of course, my being American might have something to do with my preferred language choices.

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