logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Researching language online: whom do you trust?


This short guide is addressed to teachers, trainee teachers and teacher trainers, not learners of English.

Frequently, teachers are encouraged (or even compelled) to do some research into the language they are teaching or writing about by accessing various website resources.
Because native speakers of any language can, with some justification, claim to be experts in the language, and also because the language they speak is usually of passing interest to them, there are hundreds, possible thousands, of websites designed, written and maintained by well-meaning people with the intention of helping people to understand the structural and functional characteristics of English.
Moreover, because English is the most widely used language on earth, there are naturally many thousands of people who are interested in its nature and they, too, have a right to claim some expertise, even if the language is not their first.
That's all very well, of course.

The problem comes when what people say on their friendly and sometimes well-designed websites is wrong.
In what follows, we have withheld the sources of the citations to spare the blushes of their authors.  They are pretty easy to track down, but why would you trouble to do so?
It may be that some of the more egregious examples which follow have been corrected.  In that case, they will be removed on request.


So, what's the problem?

The problem is, whom do you trust?  Because, it seems:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge
Darwin, C, 1871, The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex, London, John Murray

This section of this guide is a long list of the most egregious and obvious errors that a morning's research identifies.  It is nowhere near to being an exhaustive list, of course, because it seems that, when it comes to analysing language, there is more ignorance than knowledge on display.
If you are content to believe that much of what you read on the web is wrong, partial or misleading and you want to skip to the end for advice concerning where to look for help, click here.


Word classes and syntax

Let's say, for example, that you are looking for some reliable information about adverbs and prepositions.
These are major word classes, not just in English, one of which is an open class to which we can make additions (adverbs) and the other of which is a closed-class set of words (prepositions) to which it is very rare for additions to be made.
An additional distinction is that adverbs qualify verbs in some way (or other adverbs and adjectives) and prepositions form the heads of prepositional phrases and are followed by a complement or, in more functional analyses, an object.
It should, you would probably agree, be a simple matter to distinguish between them.

Unfortunately, there are people writing or contributing to websites who have a shaky grasp of the difference between adverbs and prepositions.
Here's a selection of citations from websites.  Can you identify the error and correct it?
Click on the eye to reveal an answer.

Phrasal verbs change meaning based on the preposition that follows them.
One example which follows is:
Could anyone with information about this crime please come forward.
eye open
Well, actually, phrasal verbs are not formed with prepositions at all.  Those are called prepositional verbs.  Phrasal verbs are formed with adverb particles.
In the example, of course, the word forward is an adverb, not a preposition.  In fact, it is a slightly rare case of a word of this kind which can never be a preposition (although it can be an adjective).
The expression come forward cannot be described as a verb plus a preposition or as a phrasal verb (the sentence also needs a question mark, just incidentally).
What it is is a verb followed in the usual way by a modifying adverb.  It's not mysterious.
Preposition OUT is opposite of IN and used to show movement away from the inside of a place or container.
Examples which follow include:
    Your brother was out when I came by to see him.
    Government forces have driven the rebels out of the eastern district.
    Are you going out tonight?
    We're heading out at seven, so don't be late.

eye open
It hard to unravel this nonsense which is designed, apparently, to help people with phrasal verb use.
Firstly, of course, out is usually an adverb and out of is the preposition.  Out of can only function as a preposition but out can be either an adverb or a preposition (or an adjective or a verb, incidentally).
In the first example, the word out is an adverb, some might argue that it's an adjective, but what it is most certainly not is a preposition.
In the second example, the preposition is out of, not out and that is followed by its object or complement the eastern district.  It's an example of a verb followed by a modifying prepositional phrase.
In the third and fourth examples, we have out as an adverb again and in the last case the adverb is followed by a prepositional phrase.
In none of the examples (and there are many of them which follow) is the word out used as a preposition on its own although it is possible to use out in limited circumstances as a preposition.
The following 'rule' is given on a website ostensibly intended to help learners with prepositions for the TOEFL examination:
A preposition is a word which, with the following noun or pronoun, forms a phrase, and shows the relation of its object to the word whose meaning the phrase modifies.
One example which follows is:
    The boys studied until they were tired out.
eye open
The rule is, as you see, incomprehensible and even if it were not, it's probably wrong.
In the example, the word out is an adverb.

There is no argument that it is sometimes hard to tell an adverb from a preposition, especially if the prepositional complement or object is ellipted, but that does not mean we shouldn't try.

The worst by quite a long way are two sites intended to help people prepare for and take a CELTA course.
Here's an example of what is meant.  All headings here are taken verbatim from the sites and are in this type face.
You can correct them and then click on the eye to see if we agree.

The site lists what it calls the basic parts of speech and that list is:
subject, object, preposition, adverb, verb, adjective, noun (countable), noun (uncountable but that term is left out), auxiliary verb, modal verb, pronoun, article, conjunction.
eye open
Here are the problems with the beginning:
  1. That is not a list of the word classes in English or any other language (or even the old-fashioned parts of speech).
    The only word classes proper in that list are: preposition, adverb, verb, adjective, noun, pronoun and conjunction and the list ignores determiners and interjections.
    The other categories refer either to a sub-class, such as auxiliary verb (which should be called primary auxiliary verb), modal verb (which should be called modal auxiliary verb) and articles (which form a subset of determiners).
  2. Subjects and objects are not, of course, parts of speech or word classes at all.  They are, technically, arguments and their function is to do with syntax not vocabulary.
The site lists, incidentally, only coordinators under the examples of conjunctions and despairingly sends you off to another confused, inaccurate and confusing site should you feel you are not confused enough.
Unlike native speakers, language learners need to construct their sentences carefully, paying attention to which words perform which functions (parts of speech) as they interact in the phrase or sentence.
eye open
This is slightly confused and misleading.  One of the guiding principles of teaching a language is to stop this over-monitoring behaviour by learners.  Other problems include:
  1. It is certainly true that learners often do need to pay attention to word class (the correct term for the dear old fashioned 'parts of speech' incidentally) but so do native speakers, particularly the one who wrote this site.
  2. The assumption is implicit here, too, that one is either a native speaker or not and that disguises all the intermediate steps between being a non-speaker of a language and a completely fluent one.
  3. A word's grammatical function (if that is what is intended by the term here) is not the same thing as its word class.  A noun, for example, can function grammatically as a direct or indirect object, an adverbial or a subject depending on its syntactical properties in the context but that's a slightly technical point.
It is also imperfectly clear how one can interact in the phrase or sentence.
I will pass my CELTA course.
subj + aux + v + pron + obj

eye open
This is an attempt to see how a sentence can be parsed into its various components.  Unfortunately, it's wrong.  Here's why:
  1. The first problem is that the first word is labelled the subject.  It is, of course, but subjects do not form a word class, leave alone a part of speech.  It is in fact a simple subject-case pronoun.  And pronouns are one of the main word classes (or a subset of nouns in some analyses).
  2. Secondly, the word my is not a pronoun.  It stands for nothing (which is what pronouns do).  What it is is a possessive determiner.  If you call it a pronoun, you are misleading people.  If you tell your learners that, you are misleading them, too.
    The correct word class to assign the word to is determiner.  If you want to be very old fashioned, you could even call it a possessive adjective, but it still is not a pronoun.
  3. Lastly, we have another non-word class classification (obj).  Objects are also not word classes, they are words, phrases or clauses which perform a certain grammatical function in a sentence.  For example,
        I want what you gave Mary
    contains an object of the verb want but it is what you gave Mary and that is a clause not an example of a word class.
    Objects can be many things but they are not word classes or parts of speech.
All full sentences must have a subject.
eye open
Not true, even if one can figure out what the writer means by a 'full sentence'.  Try:
    Go into the kitchen and ask your mother
for example.  That is a sentence (called a compound sentence) but it contains no subjects.
Verbs also have a form called the Past Participle.  These are when we use verbs as an adjective to describe something.
The book was TORN.
The necklace had been GIVEN as a birthday present.

eye open
There is a form called a past participle and both the examples in upper case in that assertion are correctly identified.  Well done so far.  Unfortunately, the rest of the assertion is wrong:
  1. Past participle forms can be used as adjectives (as in the first example with torn) but that is not their main function.
  2. When a word is used as an adjective, it is an adjective.  Suggesting that a verb remains a verb even when it has been converted to another word class is deeply confused and confusing.
  3. In the second example, the participle given is not an adjective at all, it's a non-finite verb form making part of a passive voice sentence.
(We are not here to discuss the awful concord issues in These are when we use verbs as an adjective.)
Adjective (adj.)
Adjectives are really easy to remember. They simply describe or modify something.
large, red, angry, beautiful, essential, tasty, Korean, leather etc.
The LEATHER chair looked WORN but EXPENSIVE.
My KOREAN teacher turns RED when he is ANGRY.

eye open
Half marks.  There is a difference between describing and modifying and a difference, too, between describing and classifying.
  1. In this little mishmash of unlikely examples, we actually do have four adjectives: worn, expensive, red and angry.  All of them are used predicatively by being linked to the noun they describe with a copular verb (look, turn and be in this case).  Not all adjectives can be used that way and some must be used that way.
  2. The first of those, worn, is, by the way, a participle adjective and belonged in the last example.
  3. The other two modifiers (leather and Korean) are not central adjectives at all, they are classifiers which tell you the category of the noun rather than describing it.
    Unless you know the difference between a classifier and a central adjective you won't know why
        *The chair was worner
        *He was less Korean
        *It was very leather

    are wrong.

The website owns up to:
    This website represents the personal opinions and shared advice of a single individual.
    It is not affiliated, approved or endorsed by University of Cambridge ELA.

which, considering its error-strewn content, is probably just as well.
The reader is admonished at the end (just before the sales pitch) as follows:
    Stop wasting your time trying to pull together scraps of vague advice from online forums
Sound advice indeed.

You are, of course, at liberty to use that website or any others you may come across in preparation for an initial or any other training course and you could use it a resource when planning and preparing but you'd be unwise to do so.
You could even invest £59 in a set of materials which were
    all written by someone who passed the CELTA with the highest possible grade!
(unnecessary punctuation in the original).
That means, of course, someone who has completed 120 hours of basic training in a profession in which others have spent decades and are still learning.
Hopefully, the commercial material has been written with slightly more care but we are not about to spend £59 to find out.

Here's another from a frequently-used site (allegedly):
    The possessive pronouns are my, our, your, his, her, its, and their.
No, those are all possessive determiners and not pronouns at all.  Pronouns, by definition, stand for nouns and only one of those words can perform a pronoun function.  We cannot have, for example:
    *My house is bigger than their
because the word we require to perform the pronoun function is theirs.
We do have a range of possessive pronouns in English.  They are mine, his, hers, ours, yours and theirs (without its which cannot be a pronoun, only a determiner).  Of course, his happens to be a possessive determiner and a pronoun so, purely by luck, the author of this has got one out of seven right.
This error is not a one-off event because it is repeated (word for word) in the guide to using articles in English.



Here are some more examples of odd errors of analysis with which the web is infested.  You can correct them and then click on the eye to see if we agree.

Relative clauses are clauses starting with the relative pronouns who, that, which, whose, where, when.
eye open
No.  Of that list, only the first four are relative pronouns (and one or two are missing).  The last two are relative adverbs and they work differently.
This is a common mistake because the grammar is superficially similar.
Modal verbs help us understand more about the verb in question. They give us hints on the possibility of something happening (can, should etc.) or time (has, did, was etc.)
eye open
Half right but poorly explained.
In fact, verbs such as has, did and was are not modal auxiliary verbs at all.  They are primary auxiliary verbs and contain no hint of modality.  The clumsy expression They give us hints ... is about 20% right.
Adverbs of Time
    at the same time as
    for a long time
    from time to time
    in a few minutes
    in the mornings
    last week

eye open
One of these is actually an adverb (frequently) but most are prepositional or noun phrases.  They may be adverbials in certain circumstances, but they are not adverbs.
Collective nouns
    a bottle of milk
    a herd of cattle
    a hack of smokers
    a cup of tea
    a staff of employees

eye open
There are two obvious problems here.
a bottle of milk is not a collective noun, it is the opposite, a partitive expression.  Collective nouns refer to the mass made up of individuals, partitive expressions refer to individuals from the mass.
The second problem is the failure to distinguish between a collective noun such as staff or choir which does not need the of expression and an assemblage noun which usually does.  We have, therefore, no need to insert of employees after staff or of singers after choir but we do need to insert the word cattle after an assemblage nouns like herd.
The final problem is that there is no such thing as a hack of smokers.  It's made-up nonsense.
We use some and any with uncountable nouns and plural nouns. The general rule is that you use “some” in positive sentences and “any” in negative sentences and questions.
    “I have some ideas.”
    “I don’t have any ideas.”
    “Do you have any ideas?”
However, we can also use “some” in questions.
    “Would you like some tea?” (I expect the answer to be “Yes”.)
When we use some in a question, we limit what we are offering the other person.

eye open
There are obvious problems with this:
This will mean that all the following are wrong:
    Anybody can come in
    Anything you can do would help
    I don't know some of these people
    Do you know something about this?
    What if someone calls?
    She denied stealing any money

And they aren't.  It's a quasi-rule and no real help at all.
The second problem is that "Would you like some tea" is not a question, it's an offer.  What the speaker expects the answer to be is a mystery.
The third problem is the last bit about limits.  This seems to have been made up because it is wrong.
Words like deer and furniture do not have plurals.
eye open
This is surprisingly elementary.
The word deer, in common with some others for animals in particular (but not solely) has what is known as a zero plural.  That is to say, it is unmarked in the plural.
It has a plural, of course, because we can say, for example:
    Three deer are in the garden
Furniture, on the other hand, is a mass noun and mass nouns have no plural.  There is a very simple difference between no plural and a zero marked plural.
Real vs. Really
Real (adjective) describes things, really (adverb) describes actions.
He is a real hero.
He is really heroic.
eye open
This is another surprisingly elementary error (it comes from someone keen to sell you his books on English grammar and usage, incidentally).
Yes, the word real is an adjective and the word really is an adverb.  So far, well done.
The problems come next:
Adjectives describe things (true) but adverbs do not describe verbs, they modify them.  They also modify adjectives and other adverbs and sometimes prepositional phrases.
What we actually have here is an adverb modifying the adjective heroic.  It's called an intensifier.
It's hard to see how the word really describes anything and impossible to see how the word heroic qualifies as an action.
The zero conditional uses if or when and must be followed by the simple present or imperative.
eye open
This one is slightly surprising because it is on a site that is sometimes quite helpful and occasionally accurate (ecenglish.com).
In fact, when a conditional sentence contains an imperative, the result is usually a real conditional sentence as in, e.g.:
    If you need any help, ask me
A zero conditional, so-called, if it can be described as a conditional at all, does not contain an imperative.

The examples above are all in really very simple areas of English grammar and structure.  The list could be extended almost indefinitely if we include trickier areas of grammar and phonology.
Fortunately, however, most of the authors of the websites in question have not had the courage to venture into more esoteric areas.


Phrasal verbs and other mysteries

get out of the maze  

The problem we saw above of the inability to distinguish between a preposition and an adverb is compounded on websites which cannot distinguish between a verb modified by an adverb in the normal way and ones in which the adverb combines with the verb to form a new meaning.  Nor can many distinguish a prepositional phrase following a verb from an adverb forming part of a phrasal verb.  We get, therefore, all of the following described as containing phrasal verbs:

    The crane picked up the entire house.
    They tried to come in through the back door, but it was locked.
    It was so hot that I had to take off my shirt.
    Stand up when speaking in class, please.
    Someone broke into my car last night and stole the stereo.
    Sally was about to get on the plane, but she turned around when someone called her name.
    I need to get rid of her.
    We let our lovely dog in the house every morning.
    We got on the bus at the usual stop.

None of those sentences contains examples of phrasal verbs.  Most have verbs modified by adverbs in the normal way and others are, in fact, verbs with modifying prepositional phrases.

Multi-word verbs, of which phrasal verbs may be analysed as a subcategory, are certainly quite complicated to analyse and difficult to learn.  The ease of neither undertaking is enhanced, however, by analysing every incidence of a verb plus a preposition or adverbial as a phrasal verb.  Here's another example:

Phrasal verbs work by changing the verb’s meaning based on the preposition that follows them.
Come in
To enter.
“‘Come in, the door is open!’ said the grandmother to the wolf.”
Pay back
To give someone back money that you owe them—can be separated by the person getting paid back.
When it’s written as one word, “payback” means revenge.
“Thanks for getting me lunch when I forgot my wallet at home! I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”

We need to break this down.

Assertion #1:
Phrasal verbs work by changing the verb’s meaning ...
That's half true.  The meaning of the verb in a phrasal verb is often (not invariably) altered by the word with which it combines.  So, for example:
    Look at that bird!
is a use of the verb that is transparent in meaning and is an admonition to direct one's eyes towards a bird.  However:
    Look up that bird in the guide
is clearly the verb combining with up to form a different meaning concerned with reference to a source of information.
Assertion #2
... based on the preposition that follows them.
Almost by definition, a phrasal verb is not followed by a preposition alone.  It combines with an adverb to form a distinct meaning as we saw with our example of look up.
In that phrase, the verb is look up and is formed by the verb plus an adverb particle, NOT, look plus the preposition up.
However, in an expression such as:
    Look up the chimney to see if it is blocked
we are not asking someone to refer to a reference book, we are asking someone to look in a certain direction.
We can follow a phrasal verb with a preposition, of course, so we allow:
    Look it up in the guide
in which we have a phrasal verb, look up, followed by a prepositional phrase in the guide.
Assertion #3:
Come in
To enter.
“‘Come in, the door is open!’ said the grandmother to the wolf.”

Now, the meaning of the expression come in is correctly identified.  It does mean something like enter (although it does not mean to enter).
It is not, however, a phrasal verb and it is not a multi-word verb, either.
The correct analysis of the phrase is that it is the verb come (in its usual meaning of move towards) followed by an adverbial which happens to be an adverb (in).  The adverb is modifying the verb to be sure but it is not combining with it to make a new meaning because we can equally have:
    Come out
    Come over
    Come back
    Come again
    Come into the garden
as well as
    Go in
    Walk in
    Run in
    Slide in
    Throw in
and lots of other expressions which have no effect at all on the base meaning of the verb.
Assertion #4:
Pay back
To give someone back money that you owe them—can be separated by the person getting paid back.
When it’s written as one word, “payback” means revenge.
“Thanks for getting me lunch when I forgot my wallet at home! I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”

There are some other false assertions here although the meaning has been, more or less, identified.
Yes, the phrase can be separated by "the person getting paid back" but what is missing from that assertion is when the person is represented by a pronoun, separation must occur so we allow:
    I paid Mary back
    I paid back Mary

    I paid her back
we do not allow
    *I paid back her.
That is not, however, a defining characteristic of a phrasal verb because this is the usual way verbs plus adverbs operate.
More to the point, the expression pay back is not a phrasal verb any more than come in is a phrasal verb because we can also have, for example:
    pay over
    pay again
    pay in advance
    pay by debit card

and thousands of other phrases in which the verb is modified by an adverbial but retains its basic meaning.
It is also correct that we can form a noun from the verb phrase and arrive at payback but that has little to do with phrasal verbs.  The expression can, of course, also mean take revenge when it is not formed as a noun so:
    I'll pay him back for his deceitfulness
also means take revenge on someone.  It is a metaphorical use of the verb pay to be sure but not a phrasal verb.

The same site, incidentally, categorises numerous other examples of verbs followed by simple adverbs or verbs followed by prepositional phrases as phrasal verbs.  Many are nothing of the kind.

Confusion over what is and is not a phrasal verb is so common out here that only one more example site's problems will be enough.
We have left out a good deal of what follows on the site in question (some of which is accurate).

  1. Intransitive phrasal verbs
    [...] intransitive phrasal verbs do not use an object.

    True but that's the meaning of intransitive and nothing to do with phrasal verbs.
    The example chosen to demonstrate this insight is:
    The regional director was late, so the sales team went ahead without her.
    which is not, unfortunately, a phrasal verb at all.  It is simply the verb go used with an adverb, ahead and we can also have
        go on
        go back
        go left
        go right
        go out
        go in

    and a host more which are just the verb used with an adverb and not an example of a mysterious phrasal verb at all.
  2. Inseparable phrasal verbs
    Inseparable phrasal verbs cannot be split up and must be used together.

    with the example:
    The wayward son carried on without his father.
    Now, the verb carry on is actually a phrasal verb in this case (hooray) and the adverb is acting to denote progressiveness just as the adverb up often denotes completion.  Aspectual uses of adverb particles are a teachable unit in themselves.
    The problem here is that the example is of an intransitive use of the verb so it cannot be separated by the object because there isn't one (by definition).
    When the verb is used as a transitive verb, it can be separated so we allow, e.g.:
        She carried the work on alone
    so the example is not of an inseparable phrasal verb at all.
  3. come up with
    think of an idea, especially as the first person to do so, or to produce a solution

    with the example:
    Sahar comes up with her best story ideas at night, so she writes them down before she forgets them.
    This is presented as an example of a phrasal verb and it is one but of a special sort called a phrasal-prepositional verb.  The correct way to analyse this is, arguably as a phrasal verb followed by a prepositional phrase.
  4. count on
    rely or depend on

    with the example:
    If I’m ever making a mistake, I can count on my friends to warn me.
    This is presented as a phrasal verb but it isn't one, unfortunately.  What it is can be called a verb with a dependent preposition or a prepositional verb but not a phrasal verb.  Both the expressions used to explain the meaning of the item are also prepositional verbs so the argument is somewhat circular.
  5. dive into
    occupy oneself with something; to pore over quickly or reach into quickly

    with the example:
    I’ll dive into that new TV show later tonight.
    The problem here is that the word into is not an adverb in any circumstances because it requires a complement.  It is, therefore, a preposition.
    What we have is a metaphorical use of the verb dive with a prepositional phrase into that new TV show.
    Verbs followed by prepositional phrases, however figuratively they are used, are not phrasal verbs.
    (The expression pore over quickly is also a bit mysterious because the meaning of pore over is not something that one can usually do quickly.)
  6. For example, the transitive phrasal verbs get through, come between, and go against are all inseparable, so the direct object comes after them every time.
    with the examples:
    [INCORRECT] Nothing comes us between.
    [CORRECT] Nothing comes between us.

    This would be a helpful thing to note if only the example was actually a phrasal verb but, unfortunately, it is just a verb followed by a prepositional phrase and not a phrasal verb at all.  The word between is only, like into, a preposition and cannot be used adverbially.
    We can have, therefore:
        He put it between the house and the garage
        He put it between them
    but not
        *He put it them between
    because prepositions in English are followed, not preceded, by their complements (or objects, if you prefer).  The meaning of the prefix pre- in preposition contains the clue.  There are a few postpositions in English, in fact and other languages use them very extensively.
    What has happened here, it seems, is that the author has spotted that we cannot use the preposition between after its complement or object and, having noted this simple truth, has decided that it must be an inseparable phrasal verb.  If we follow that logic,
        Put it under the table
    would be an example of the use of an inseparable phrasal verb.
    Later on the same page, we encounter come between as another example of a phrasal verb but it is not, for the same reason.
  7. In fact, of the 80 or so expressions on this page which are called phrasal verbs we also find
    get around, get at, get away, get into, get through, get together
    which are all examples of the polysemous verb get being used with an adverb, not a phrasal verb at all.
    We also have:
    leave out, let in, take out, throw away
    listed as phrasal verbs and they aren't, of course.
    We even have the expression let know listed as a phrasal verb and it is not even a multi-word verb.  It is just the verb let combining with the verb know and we can also have:
        let go
        let believe

    and many more combinations with let which must be separated by the object.

There are many other sites which insist that a verb plus a prepositional phrase such as occurs in:
    Get on the bus
contains a phrasal verb.  It doesn't, of course, because it's just the verb get meaning move position followed by a simple prepositional phrase.
The same site suggests that go out, let in, log onto, put together, put on, send back, think back, throw away are all phrasal verbs when none is.  They are just verbs being modified by adverbs.

We could go on and there are many hundreds more examples of poor analysis out here (some of which you will find explained in the guide to multi-word verbs).
When almost any combination of a verb plus an adverb or a verb plus a prepositional phrase is consigned to the category of a phrasal verb two things happen, neither good:

  1. Learners are faced with thousands of combinations that they are asked to remember as single expressions when they are not.
  2. Learners are denied the opportunity to see how verbs may be normally modified by adverbs or followed by simple prepositional phrases.

Catenative verbs
Gerunds and infinitives

This seems, oddly, to be another source of deep confusion for many.  It shouldn't be because the area is quite simple.
However, ...


Advice about language

Another area which seems to cause a lot of difficulty is describing differences and similarities between English and other languages.  Here are some examples from three different websites:

  1. A false cognate, or false friend, is a word which has a similar form to a word in another language but has a different meaning, like actually, which means really in English but now is (sic) some European languages.
    (Typographical error in the original.)
  2. A cognate is a word that is basically written the same, with the same meaning, in both languages.
    Sometimes, a word only seems to be the same in both languages, but really has two completely different meanings. These are what we call false cognates, and they’re out there lurking just below the surface, waiting for unsuspecting students to amble by and pluck them up by accident.
  3. A false cognate is a word or phrase that looks the same in both idioms but has a different meaning.

All that seems quite clear until you amble by and notice that they are all wrong.
A false friend is a word which shares its etymology (that is to say, its origin) with a word in another language but over time the meanings of the words in the languages have drifted apart.
There are lots of examples on this site so one will do:
The words aktuell (in German) and actual (in English) share an original source so are cognates but in German, the word means something like contemporary or current and in English it means real or factual.  This is an example of a false friend, not a false cognate.
A false cognate is a word which coincidentally looks and may sound like a word that means the same in another language but the words are wholly differently derived and not related.
For example, the word occur in English translates as okoru in Japanese (起こる) but the surface form is merely a coincidence.  The words are not cognates or false friends, they are false cognates.
Finally, the word administration in English is translated as administration French with exactly the same form (although the pronunciation is different).  These are cognate words which are not false friends because the meaning is the same.
And here's an example from a site to help people speak French which seems unable to translate from French into English and has a page entitled:

French English False Cognates - Faux Amis

and, of course faux amis translates better as false friend although French does not distinguish in this case.  English does, though.
For more go to the guide to false friends on this site.



that mountain  

This is from one site but a short search reveals that there are many more sites that cannot distinguish between a determiner and a pronoun.

Demonstrative Pronouns
The demonstrative pronouns are this, that, these and those. We use them to refer to something specific.
This book is more interesting than that book.
These shoes fit better than those.

Well, yes and most definitely no.  The words this, that, these and those certainly can be demonstrative pronouns (although their uses are quite different in terms of mass vs. count noun uses).  However, in the examples here we have three cases of the words acting as demonstrative determiners and only one case (the last) where it is a demonstrative pronoun.  To be clear:
    This book, that book and these shoes contain demonstrative determiners and not pronouns.
    those in the second sentence is a pronoun.
Well, one out of three isn't all bad.

Here's another, even stranger one:

A determiner usually appears at the beginning of the noun phrases and works as an adjective to modify the nouns.

Well, again, yes and no.  Most determiners do occur at the beginning of noun phrases (although enough is an exception worth mentioning) but they do not work like adjectives, are not adjectives and do not modify the nouns in the way that adjectives do.
The possessive and demonstrative determiners were once referred to as adjectives but how one could class something like the or many as an adjective is rather mysterious, not to say misleading.

This sort of confusion bleeds over into the nasty habit of sites which prescribe the ordering of adjectives so we get the following, for example:

What the adjective expresses Examples
Quantity four, ten, a few, several
Value/opinion delicious, charming, beautiful
Size tall, tiny, huge
Temperature hot, cold
Age old, young, new, 14-year-old
Shape square, round
Color red, purple, green
Origin Swedish, Victorian, Chinese
Material glass, silver, wooden

It is certainly true as a rule of thumb that determiners precede the adjective and classifiers generally follow the adjective and come directly before the noun they determine.  However, to describe four, ten, a few and several as adjectives is misleading (and wrong).  They are, of course, quantifying determiners.
To describe Chinese, glass, silver and wooden as adjectives is also slightly misleading because they are actually classifiers and they work rather differently.
Incidentally, this so-called rule would mean that:
    John baked a huge delicious cake
    She lives in a tiny beautiful cottage
    There's a green round blob on it
    He was a stocky ten-year old
    I wore my Hawaiian short trousers

    They live in a Mongolian round house
would all be wrong.
This sort of unusable and unreliable rule is much beloved of some websites, possible because it's easier to state it and test it than to exemplify and justify it.
It is debunked in the guide to adjectives on this site.

Lest you think that these are the only example of sites written by the inexperienced and ignorant for the inexperienced and ignorant you should know that in researching this short guide six other similarly confused and unhelpful sites were investigated.  It would try your patience too far to include all that was discovered and, anyway, the point has been made.

On this site, a number of the areas of language analysis carry website warnings and many concern the sorts of issues we have exemplified here.

- back -


So, how do we decide whether to trust a site?

The first thing to do is to get some idea of whom the site is intended to help.  There are four sorts of site (although some straddle the boundaries and some are almost impossible to characterise with any confidence).

  1. Sites designed to help learners of English.
    Many of these are constructed by commercial organisations who want to use them as a free hook in the hope that visitors will go on to access the businesses' main sites and book a course or buy some materials.
    Others are written by people who would like to earn some money from teaching online.  They, too, are often obvious hooks intended to encourage people to sign up for courses (and pay for them).
    They have the following main characteristics:
    1. They are often written by teachers on the staff of the organisations who are under-trained or otherwise somewhat ignorant.
    2. They try to simplify the area because they know that their object is pedagogic rather than to do with training teachers.  There is nothing wrong with that: many text-based grammar books do the same thing but it is usually clear what the intended audience is.
      If the audience is learners of English, you will find that grammar guides in particular are likely to be simplified to the point of inaccuracy.  It is very difficult to remain both accessible and accurate.  That is not a criticism; it arises from the intentions of the authors.
    3. They are often wrong.
    4. They are usually hurriedly put together and contain quite numerous typographical errors.
  2. Sites designed by publishers for teachers of English.
    It has not escaped the notice of major ELT publishers that teachers are often quite influential when language teaching organisations come to enhancing or replacing their materials banks.  Naturally, establishing a resource for teachers is a good way of raising the profile of certain materials and their publishers.  Most major materials publishers now have websites which appear quite independent and unaffiliated but are, in fact, paid for and maintained by the commercial organisation which lies behind them.  Some are more honest and open about this than others.
    They are variably trustworthy, naturally.
  3. Sites designed to be areas where learners and speakers of English can discuss their ideas about how the language works.
    These sites are usually places where people can post and answer questions about the language and are open to all.  Such sites are not primarily intended for people teaching English or training teachers of the language.  They have the following characteristics:
    1. The topics are randomly organised because the structure of the site depends not on any consistent approach to analysis but on the questions people pose and the issues they raise.
    2. The answers which are provided are supplied by self-selecting people who feel they have some knowledge to impart.  Sometimes, this is justified, often it is just a re-hash of half remembered and poorly digested information.
  4. Sites designed for training teachers or other people studying language seriously.
    These sites are often written by people working in higher or further education as a supplement to a face-to-face or online course in linguistics, pedagogy or applied linguistics.
    Others are constructed by large non-profit organisations who have the resources and expertise to be accurate and helpful.
    A few have been written by real experts in the language and teaching who are using the site to promote their own published material or just because they want to be helpful (or both).
    They are:
    1. Usually quite trustworthy because they are written by academics with a reputation to uphold and an understanding of the pitfalls to avoid.
    2. Often accessibly organised into topic areas and some have an internal consistency which helps people to build on their knowledge as they work or read through the materials.



If you are reading this, you are probably a teacher of English, a teacher in or considering training or a trainer so the first kind of site is not for you.  Some of the materials may be helpful when preparing a particular lesson (because that's the audience they are aimed at) but they are worse than useless if your concern is to analyse the language and research the area.
The issue here is that you have to check what you are being told very carefully (usually by cross-checking with a proper grammar book or a trustworthy site).
Do not trust them.

Sites designed by publishers can be extremely helpful if you are trying to locate a particular set of materials or a worksheet to insert (suitably adapted) into a lesson.  They are less helpful when it comes to language analysis because analysis doesn't sell books.
This second kind of site also requires you to cross-check the information you find.

The third kind may be quite interesting and sometimes can alert you to information about the language of which you were previously unaware.  However, the organisational shortcomings of this sort of site may mean that you can't easily find what you are looking for and when you do, you find it isn't what you wanted.
Sometimes, as was noted here, the responses to people's questions and the issues raised are accurate, accessible and comprehensive as well as written by people who know what they are writing about.  Unfortunately, that is often not the case so a little scepticism is in order.

The fourth kind of site is the sort you can probably trust.
This site likes to think it is one of these.