Help with some English


A few times people have said something that is wrong to me but I am unable to explain to them why it is wrong. I have to resort to my cop-out reason of “It just sounds wrong”. This annoys everyone involved.

Specifically the use of “at all”.

Which of these is correct:

Did you fly to Malaysia at all?
Did you buy the newspaper at all?
Did you switch off the light at all?

What is the rule?

Also I have trouble with people using “How to” as a question. How to get them to stop this? I have been unable to come up with a satisfactory explaination of why this is wrong.

Any suggestions would be welcomed.


In your context:

“Did you fly to Malaysia at all” = “Did you ever fly to Malaysia” or “Did you fly to Malaysia” depends on what you already know (see below).

For the others:
“at all” = “ma” in chinese - unnecessary in English - but often used in casual speach - it could lead to the reply “just a little bit” - as a joke

Serious use is “did you see any sheep at all” - follow on question - asking for an answer as to quantity - with suggestion that maybe the answer is “no” or very small number

“How to” = “How do I…?” Just a short way for speach


Hey SuperDummy,

ever is only supposed to be used with present perfect or present perfect continuous…such as

Have you ever been to Hong Kong…don’t use it with past tense.

at all=ma [嗎]???What the hell is that?

At all is not “ma”! God, please take some Chinese lessons or something.

at all at the end of a question just expresses the asker wants to know if you’ve even done it once or tried it…

You don’t like golf at all?

Means the person already thinks you don’t like it from what you said and is checking more clearly.

How to doesn’t mean “How do I”…please!!! to means you want to know how to do some particular action or skill…

Do you know how to make ice cream?

rian: please scoop the poop out of your brain and then get a lobotamy…thanks!!!pooooooooooooopffftt


“How to say this word” is Chinese English for “Zhege danzi zenme shuo?” The subject could be “You” or “I” as in “How do I say this word?” or “How do you say this word?” The subject is understood and does not have to be specifically stated. Now, in a conversation about, say American English vs British English a Chinese person might ask: "meiguoren zenme shuo “lift”? (The answer is “elevator”). In the above Chinese question the subject “meiguoren” is necessary for identification. A Chinese person wouldn’t just say "zenme shuo “lift”? He needs the “meiguoren” to show that he’s shifting to asking about American English. So, in Chinese grammar, when the subject is clear from context, you don’t need to say it. In English we have the same things with commands. We say “Sit down!” The “you” is understood and we don’t say it. However, in regular sentences/questions, English requires a subject, so, “how to say this word” has to be “how do I/you say this word?” We can see the need for subjects in English sentences using “It” and “there” (which are called “empty” subject words): “It is raining.” We really don’t need the word “it”- it is just filling up the subject slot. A lot of languages would just have something like “is raining”. Or “There is a fly in my soup”- “there” is also filling up the subject slot. Other languages, including Chinese, would just say something like ‘have a fly in my soup’. The subject is important in English grammar. I started reading up on this stuff when I got tired and embarrassed of saying in reply to grammar questions ‘it sounds better that way’.


Thanks v.

I often find myself saying “It’s wrong because it sounds wrong”. People often think that white skin = thorough understanding of English grammar. I just speak it, I don’t know all the terms. I’m sure if I had a better understanding of how it all comes together my written and spoken Enlgish would be better.

Need to buy a grammar book, well … another one because I don’t like the one I already bought so much!



Did you fly to Malaysia at all?
Did you buy the newspaper at all?
Did you switch off the light at all?

Each of the above inquiries implies that the questioner knows the questioned has been doing other things.

A: I’ve just come back from Asia, where I toured several fascinating countries.
B: Did you fly to Malaysia at all?

A: I’m back from the store so we have more than enough food to get started on breakfast.
B: Great… hey, did you buy the newspaper at all? I’d like to know what the weather forecast says.

A: Okay, packed lunch, enough water, got everything. The weather’s beautiful, let’s go!
B: Oh, did you switch off the light at all?
A: Dang, I knew there was something I forgot!

In each of the above instances, “at all” is roughly equivalent to “by any chance (in relation to a known circumstance or set of circumstances)”. Grammatically, “at all” seems to make a lot of sense, in that it indicates “seen in relation to all else”. This is decidedly not the same as “ever”, which would take in all past experience.


Did you see any sheep at all?

This question could perhaps, depending on the tone, be asked to someone who’s been driving through the countryside.
Now, let’s ask it another way:

Did you not see any sheep at all?

In this instance, “at all” serves mostly to intensify “any”. The main thrust of the question here is to get information on whether the questioned has seen “even one” sheep.


You don’t like golf at all?

In contrast to the previous example, in which “at all” collocates most strongly with the noun “sheep”, this “at all” relates more to the “liking of golf” than to golf itself. This usage often occurs with verbs of emotion or feeling.

I don’t at all sympathize with the terrorists’ motives.


how to say

Local ESL learners would generally more often say “How to spell…,” a rather direct translation of ‘Dzemme pin?’ I’ve heard local English teachers ask children time in and time out, "Elephant, how to spell? … “School, how to spell?”, etc., so it’s little wonder this usage has spread like quite the inclement virus.

There’s no harm, by the way, in telling people “that’s just the way we say it,” because you can teach someone every English word, every English grammar pattern, and every English idiom, but do you think that’ll produce someone who’ll speak ‘perfect’ English? Not a chance. The closer you look at the - indeed, any - language, the more you realize that every word has its own grammar, and that a grammar rule that’ll apply to one word will often not apply to another, even when those words are of the identical ‘part of speech’.

Ask yourself: How many years would it take an ESL learner to arrive independently at “Well, I mustn’t keep you”?

When people just learn words and grammar, they more often than not come up with wildly incorrect language when they go to compose, either in writing or in speech. A student often will ask me “Can you say that in English?” My answer is often “You can, but you wouldn’t.” Teachers have got to start focusing less on grammar and more on statistically probable co-occurrences of words.

In many - but not in all - instances, it’s easier for you and your student to match a word group to a situation, or a need for its use. If you succeed in getting your student to say “How do you say…?” in the right situation at the right time, you’ve succeeded in teaching a language unit without mucking about in its underpinning ‘grammar’. Is it really worthwhile, for example, to spend the time it takes to cover the rhetorical “How do you do?” No, just explain it means “Pleased to meet you,” and it doesn’t need an answer. It’s more efficacious to memorize the word group than the grammar rule, which is not applicable broadly enough to waste time on.


have a fly in my soup

Would locals not say “soup have fly”?


most native speakers wouldn’t say:

‘have a fly in my soup’ anyway…
we usually say
‘there IS a fly in my soup’

if you’re confused about English usage,
check out the online Cobuild project and determine the rules for yourself:
web page Cobuild Collins

To run concordances, click on ‘The Bank of English’, and then ‘Cobuild Direct Corpus sampler’…

Here are some partial ‘at all’ concordances from:
(British books, ephemera, radio, newspapers, magazines, American books, ephemera and radio, British transcribed speech)

with places that don’t vibrate at all! sightings of the male anatomy at all.
Why answer it at all?"
don’t do that image any good at all
a town where no one ever listened at all.
I wasn’t nervous at all about driving any harmful side effects at all
He knew nothing at all.
Not at all.
Fuzzy’ was not at all bad;
We’re not at all disappointed
infrequently or never at all
songs that almost don’t exist at all
Anyone at all familiar with
with absolutely no harmful effects at all. some painkillers which didn’t work at all. that I was supposed to be going out at all. will obviate the need for cinemas at all. in monitoring our drinking at all
Mr Peters doesn’t play at all.
That is no progress at all.
Fish taking at all levels.
the Thomas affair won’t be relevant at all, He’d sell Paulette without thinking at all.’ At that time I didn’t know him at all,
Certainly, it’s not unexpected at all that Then she sat back and looked at all the pictures,
they might not be coming from God at all. she no longer went out at all.
At all this loveliness that’s mine and mine
I’m not sure that it–it can work at all
you to be in control of your body at all times.
Keep emergency numbers with you at all times
Drummond and Cauty will be on hand at all venues to field questions.
Russian first secretary only one is at all well known.
Mr. PFIEFFER: Not at all, well, for several reasons.
I think to have been able to take part at all.
I couldn’t get to sleep at all.

Can you see some sort of pattern?

When you’re a linguist as well as an ESL teacher, you don’t always have to prove to your learners that there is a ‘rule’, let them decipher for themselves. It also takes the burden off us.


Alien, thanks for the reference to the Cobuild site, it’s a nice online sampler, I’ve used it before, and it would sure be nice to get access to the full service. But even a group subscription at 500 pounds a year is rather pricy.

I’ve also heard of Wordsmith, a CD ROM concordancer, put out by Oxford University Press. Have you ever spoken to anyone who’s used it?

Concordancing in a classroom situation would also be interesting, but in only one of my classes do I have the luxury of a computer, a projector screen, and a group of students gung ho on decoding and encoding the language in this fashion. Do you have any ideas as to how to make this approach a classroom event?

BTW, I don’t think anyone made the assertion that native speakers say “have a fly in my soup”; I was merely responding to “V,” who wrote:

“Other languages, including Chinese, would just say something like ‘have a fly in my soup’.”

Sorry for confusing you…


Marenius, I think that learning some grammar rules was definitely of use to me in learning Chinese. I’ve found through talking to a lot of people about this that people learn languages differently and some people like learning grammar, some don’t. Putting too much emphaisi on learning grammar and vocab like they do in Taiwan doesn’t work, but in my case, being immersed in Chinese and using a grammar book helped me learn the langugage without going to classes. Also, there are always exceptions to rules, but knwoing the rules can definitely help avoid mistakes. I don’t see how you could argue that rules don’t help. For example, everytime someones says “the Mary” or some other name, I don’t say in each instance, “oh that doesn’t sound right, just say ‘Mary’”, I say “don’t put a ‘the’ in front of someone’s name”. I have just given them a useful, albeit, watered-down rule having to do with not putting ‘the’ in fornt of proper singular nouns. Some people can pick up the language without having to know grammar rules, like children. But for others who keep having native language interference- knowing grammar rules, I have found, helps a lot. So go learn your grammar.


Grammar rules are inferred from usage, not vice versa. Grammarians study language in use, relationships between words are observed, and structures and patterns come to be recognized, accepted, and then taught. For a beginner the rules are relatively unproblematic. Sure, they might conflict with one’s native language and represent at times radically different ways of conceptualizing reality, but they can be learned.

If a student doesn’t have “the Mary” sorted out, then that needs to be addressed. The rule that a name can’t be preceded by a definite article is not only definitive but also easy to assimilate, so it’s not something a little continued drilling won’t be able to iron out. Grammar as we’ve traditionally known it is, in fact, indispensable - up to a point. One needs it to get one’s bearings. But then there has to be a shift from an emphasis on ‘grammar’ as pattern to grammar as word group.

The problem with relying too much and too long on ‘grammar’ as a point of reference lies in its reductionism. John Sinclair writes that “grammatical generalizations do not rest on a rigid foundation, but are an accumulation of the patterns of hundreds of individual words and phrases,” which I think is significant because so many of the words you go to teach students can only be used in conjunction with certain words but not others.

I recently wrote “make research” on the whiteboard and asked a group of higher level students if this was okay. Over half of them had no problem with it. Of the remaining students, one half felt it was wrong only because they’d never seen that combination before, and the other half knew that you “do research”, “conduct research”, etc. If as a second language learner you use only words and ‘grammar’ (in this case verb plus object) to express your meaning you could be right, but there yet stands a very strong possibility that you could be wrong.

This is why I favor emphasizing to students that there are things that you would say as opposed to things you could say. I think that as a student’s education progresses, this move from the general to the specific will be inevitable.


My apologies if I confused people by my unstated assumption that Student was asking about colloquial or casual usage of English by native speakers, who obviously come from many places. There are many understandings of what some “sounds wrong” English can mean, some rigorous and some conversational.


Ummm. Actually, Rian, I found your reply to be most useful and put a quick stop to the use of “at all” by answering “a little bit”.

Sure it was quick and dirty but it worked and now I don’t have to put up with this “at all” anymore!

No need to apologise for your reply.

I put things together in a grammatically correct manner (in Chinese) just to get something out. I assume that all rules are always followed and that any possible combination is OK. Once I get it right for the non-exception cases I will start to finesse my usage and pay attention to exceptions. I believe this is also a good approach for people trying to learn English too.

When helping friends with English I only correct them when they consistently make the same grammatical error or when their intended meaning is twisted by unusual usage.