English word crimes: ‘What means?’ ‘How to say?’

Whenever I start teaching a new class, whatever the level, the first topic I start with is always question-forming. Why do I do this?

Because asking questions is the best way to learn. If you can ask questions well, you can find out anything you need to know about a language.

Question-forming is also something that students of all levels have problems with. There are lots of reasons for this. At lower levels, learners are often too shy to ask questions. At intermediate levels, learners are usually more confident but may have trouble with word order (we put the words in a different order when we ask questions to when we make simple statement). At advanced levels, learners very often have fossilised errors (mistakes that they always make) when asking questions.

The most common mistake I’ve seen with learners asking simple questions is this:

“What means (word)?”

Can you spot the mistake there? How should we really say this?

That’s right, it should be:

“What does (word) mean?”

It’s a simple question, isn’t it? But because we ask it so often to find out what words mean, if we ask it incorrectly, it gets stuck in our brain the wrong way and it’s really difficult to correct it again.

Another very common mistake with questions is this:

“How to say, (explanation)?”

So, how should we phrase this question?

We should say it like this:

“How do I say, (explanation)?”

For example:

“How do I say when ice falls from the sky in English?”


“How do I say (foreign word) in English?”

We can also phrase the questions like this:

“What do you call (word) in English?”

For example:

“What do you call (foreign word) in English?”

So, let’s go over our key phrases again:

“What does (word) mean?”

“How do I say (word) in English?”

“What do you call (word) in English?”

Try making these your key phrases for the week. Make a note of them and ask them to yourself or other people when you are practicing. They are the most important phrases you can learn in any language so it’s important to use them correctly.

image: Eleaf