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Common Usage Dilemmas Of ESL Students


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Have or have got?

Have got means exactly the same as have in affirmative clauses. Got-forms of have are informal, and are most common in the present.

She has got a new boyfriend. (= She has a new boyfriend. )

My mother has got two sisters. (= My mother has two sisters. )

They have got a car. (= They have a car. )


In questions and negatives, we do not normally use have without got.

Has your sister got a car? (More natural than Has your sister a car. )

I haven't got your keys. (More natural than I haven't your keys. )

Note that it is also possible to use do-forms of have instead of got-forms.

Does your sister have a car? (= Has your sister got a car?)

I don't have your keys. (= I haven't got your keys. )

In British English, have without got is possible in short questions and negatives, though these are often formal.


Have you a car? (Formal GB only)

Have you got a car? OR Do you have a car? (US/GB)

It's a nice flat, but it hasn't a proper bathroom. (Formal GB only)
It's a nice flat, but it doesn't have a proper bathroom. OR It's a nice flat, but it hasn't got a proper bathroom. (US/GB)

Hear or listen to?

Hear means become aware of sound through the ears. It is the ordinary word to say that something ‘comes to our ears’.

'Can you speak a bit louder? I can't hear you. ’

Suddenly she heard a strange noise.

Listen (to) is used to talk about paying attention to sounds one hears. It emphasizes the idea of concentrating. Note that you can hear something without wanting to, but you can only listen to something deliberately.


I heard them talking in the next room, but I didn't really listen to what they were saying.

Can or be able to?

Be able to often has the same meaning as can.

I am unable to/can't understand his motive.

He is able to/can support her.

Can is preferred in expression like can see, can hear etc. It is also used in the sense of ‘know how to?'

I can knit. (More natural than I am able to knit. ) (= I know how to knit. )

I can see a ship. (More natural than I am able to see a ship. )

Be able to is preferred in cases, where can/could is not grammatically possible.

I might be able to help you. (NOT I might can help you. )

Someday scientists will be able to find a cure for cancer. (NOT Someday scientists will can find . . . )

Go and get

Go (and not get) is used to talk about changes of colour. This is common in British English.

Leaves go brown in autumn. (NOT Leaves get brown . . . )

She went green with envy. (NOT She got green . . . )

Other examples are: go white with anger/ blue with cold/ red with embarrassment

Turn and grow can also be used in these cases. Note that go is more informal than turn and grow.

Go (and not usually get) is also used with adjectives in a number of common expressions that refer to changes for the worse.

Examples are:

People can go mad/crazy/deaf/blind/grey/bald etc.

Horses can go lame

Machines can go wrong

Meat, fish or vegetables can go bad

Beer, lemonade, musical instruments and car tyres can go flat

Cases where get is used

Get is also used with adjectives to talk about changes. For example we use get (and not go) with the adjectives old, tired and ill.

I am getting old. (NOT I am going old. )

In case and if

In case is used to talk about things which we do in order to be ready for possible future situations. After in case, we use a present tense to refer to the future.

I always take an umbrella in case it rains. (= because it might rain. )

In British English, in case and if are used in quite different ways.


Let us buy a chicken in case Peter comes. (=Let us buy a chicken now because Peter might come later. )

Let us buy a chicken if Peter comes. (=We will wait and see. If Peter comes, then we will buy the chicken. If he doesn't we won't. )

In American English, in case can sometimes be used in the same way as if.

Less and fewer

Less is the comparative of little. It is used before uncountable nouns.

I have less money than you.

He was less hurt than frightened.

Tom is less clever than his brother.

Fewer is the comparative of few. It is used before plural nouns.

Fewer people live to be hundred.

In an informal style, less is quite common before plural nouns. Some people consider this incorrect.

I have got less problems than I used to have. (Less formal than I have got fewer problems than I used to have. )

Much or Many?

Much is used with singular nouns; many is used with plural nouns.

I don't have much free time due to the demands of work.

She didn't eat much breakfast.

Many children are there in the park today.

He was among the many visitors to the site.

Among his many faults is self-importance.

Say and tell

Say refers to any kind of speech. It is most often used without a personal object.

She said that she would be late. (NOT She said me that . . . )

Tell is used to mean ‘instruct’ or ‘inform’. After tell, we usually say who is told.

She told me that it was my last chance.

Tell can be followed by object infinitive. Say cannot be used like this.

I told him to be careful. (NOT I said him to be careful. )

Whether and if

We can generally use both whether and if to introduce indirect yes/no questions.

I am not sure whether/if she will come.

I asked whether/if she had any letters for me.

I don't know whether/if I can come or not.

Cases where only whether is possible

After prepositions only whether is possible.

There was a big argument about whether we should move to a new house. (NOT There was a big argument about if . . . )

I haven't settled the question of whether I should settle abroad.

Before to-infinitives, only whether is possible.

They can decide whether to get married now or wait.

Which and what

There is little difference of meaning between which and what.

Which/what is the largest continent in the world?

Which/what train did you come on?

Which is preferred when the speaker has a limited number of choices in mind.

We have got white and brown bread. Which will you have?

Which colour do you want - red, pink, blue or purple?

When the speaker is not thinking of a limited number of choices, what is used.

What is your telephone number? (More natural than Which is your phone number?)

What language do they speak in Chile? (More natural than Which language . . . )

Which is used in questions about people's identity, and what is used to ask about people's jobs and functions.

'Which is your boy?’ ‘The one in blue shirt. ’

'What is your husband?’ ‘He is a doctor. '

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