Learning English with Google

English is my second language, but the last 20 years I live in the USA and my English is fluent. I almost never have to refer to a dictionary. But blogging and book writing forces me to look for help once in a while – readers (a.k.a. angry birds) are quick to point fingers if someone uses THEIR language improperly. I’m not talking about spelling errors – any text editor has a spell checker. I’m talking about phrases and, especially, articles – “a” vs “the” vs no articles at all, which is the most difficult part to comprehend. The funny thing is that most of the Americans raised and born here can’t explain WHY you should use “a” or “the” in this particular context. They just know what to use and do it.

If you are an ESL-person like myself, I’d like to share with you how Google helps me finding the right usage of the phrases much faster than any thesaurus. If I want to write a phrase, but am not sure which article to use, I do a Google search of each version of the phrase and see how many results come back. Important: you must put the phrase in quotes! This istructs Google to look for only those online documents that contain your words if they’re placed next to each other and in exactly the same sequence as in your search criteria.

Usually you can clearly see a big difference in result counts. Pick the version that majority uses and move on.
Oops! That majority uses or that THE majority uses? Google gives three thousand for the first version and 127 thousand for the second one. The right way is “that the majority uses”.

Let’s take another example. If you’re not sure what’s the right way to write “and the God made” or “and God made”. It’ll take you 5 seconds to find out that 16 million documents contain the second version of the phrase, and only 2 million the first one.

This method works for me almost all the time. But today I was not sure how to write – “the Eastern Europe” or “Eastern Europe”. I got 54M vs 134M. These two numbers were too close to each other, and I suspected that all occurences of the second phrase were accounted for in the results for the first phrase too. So I modified the criteria a little bit: “and the Eastern Europe” vs “and Eastern Europe”. I got 2 mil vs 90 mil. Now we’re talking! I’m sure Google has some special characters to specify more sophisticated search cases like the sentence must begin/end with the phrase in question or these option may exist in the Advanced Search panel, but we need it quick, and Google delivers!

There is another great side effect in using my method. Seeing that millions of people don’t know how to write correctly means that I’m not alone! So don’t even try to read this blog hoping to find language imperfections here. There are millions of people out there who’d made the same mistakes. Be positive and learn English any way you want!


4 thoughts on “Learning English with Google

  1. The fact that most foreigners can’t understand grammatical cases and genders in Russian helped me figure out that articles ain’t big deal.
    Also I noticed that ‘the’ should be used if you can change it to ‘this’ without losing of meaning; and ‘a’ to ‘any’.
    But ‘no articles at all’ is a real nightmare for me.
    Nice trick though.

      1. Why would I pay for the software if I’m getting the answer I need for free within 2 sec? Buying a specialized software would make sense if I’d be just starting learning English. But in my case Google is all I need. Besides, I have a degree in applied math and trust the law of large numbers 🙂

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