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An English Learner Is in a Jam Over What to Call Slow-Moving Traffic

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: we answer some listener mail.

RS: Faisal in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is stuck in traffic -- traffic terminology, that is. Faisal is taking an English course. It seems that one day, many of the students were late because of what they referred to as a "traffic jam."

AA: Their British instructor, however, told them they were using the wrong term. She told them to say "traffic congestion." Faisal says: "Now my question is what should I say when there are lots of slow-moving vehicles on the roads?" He wants to know if there is a difference between British and American terms.

RS: Well, we can't speak for the British, but most Americans in causal conversation use the phrase "traffic jam."

AA: Congested roads are such a part of life these days in many communities, people who are late will often just say "traffic," and other people will know what they mean. Traffic congestion" is more formal and more likely heard in news reports.

RS: Our next stop is a question from Noureddine Boutahar, an English teacher in Morocco who has designed a number of activities to teach about the present perfect tense. He says, "But a colleague of mine told me that the following one is not correct:

AA: "I'd like to show my students a picture of the famous Moroccan athlete Said Aouita, who has stopped practicing, and tell them to give sentences in the present perfect about his experience.

RS: He goes on to say that the sentences would be: "He has broken 5 world records. He has worked for Athletics Australia. He has coached many famous athletes. He has played football.' Are these sentences," he asks, "appropriate and correct?"

RS: Well, it depends. Since you point out that Said Aouita no longer trains competitively, then the present perfect might not be the most appropriate tense. The present perfect suggests a lack of completion. Take your example "He has broken 5 world records." That might imply that he is still trying to break world records. A way to avoid that situation is to just use the past tense: "He broke 5 world records."

RS: Now, as with so many things in English, there could be exceptions. If we were writing a report about his accomplishments, then we might say: "In his lifetime he has done many things. He has broken 5 world records, he has coached many famous athletes. But now ... " and you could go on from there.

AA: Noureddine, don't feel bad if you find the present perfect tense confusing, as you tell us. Our friend Lida Baker, the English teacher in Los Angeles, says learning it is something her students always wrestle with.

LIDA BAKER: "One of the basic meanings of the present perfect tense is to talk about things that began in the past and continue up to the moment of speaking. So an example of that would be something like 'I have lived in Los Angeles for 25 years,' 'she's been a teacher since she was 25 years old.' So cases where the action began in the past and continues until this moment, that's one way in which we use the present perfect tense."

RS: Another way is when an event has happened in the past, and there is a good chance that it may happen again. You can find Lida's complete explanation on our Web site, at

A follow-up question from Noureddine: "Sorry for bothering you once again," he says, "but I wonder if you could possibly tell me the difference between the words 'inhumane' and 'inhuman.'"

AA: That's a little easier to explain, although the distinctions between inhumane and inhuman are kind of subtle. Inhuman suggests not human -- either literally or metaphorically. Inhuman would describe a Martian. But it could also be used to describe a person who seems to lack any human kindness.

RS: Inhumane suggests cruel or uncaring, either toward other people or towards animals. For instance, "That farmer treats his animals very inhumanely." In real life, that farmer could get in trouble with an organization that works to promote the protection of animals: the Humane Society of the United States.

AA: Our last question comes from Cassius Abreu in Brazil. "I usually use the words 'I think ...' when I want to express my opinion about some subject. What's the difference between 'I think' and 'I do think'? Is there some rule about it?"

RS: Well, we don't know if there is a rule, but we do know that when you want to make an opinion clear -- or emphasize one position as opposed to another -- then one way you can do that is to say "I do think."

AA: And I do think that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and you can find all of our segments posted at Go to the bottom of the page and click on the link for the Lida Baker segments. Her explanation of the present perfect tense aired in August of 2004. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.