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September 11, 2003 - Listener Mail - 2003-09-11

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: September 11, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: some letters from listeners.

RS: From Russia, Natasha writes: "A friend of mine went to the US for her summer vacation. She's got 4 years of study at Moscow Linguistic University behind her and she's actually studying to be a teacher of English. But as she came to America she faced lots of problems with her English. And the most striking thing was that Americans didn't use the language she had learned at the university.

"For example, almost all natives she mixed with said, 'There's a lot of people I know,' or 'How are you doin?' -- 'I'm good.' And her impulse was to follow the example, since we, students of a foreign language, want to sound as natural as possible and try to pick up whatever we hear from the natives.

"So, my question is: Am I right thinking that there's a violation of grammar in the above mentioned examples? Or is it an instance of spoken American English, and my friend wins the bet?"

AA: Actually, you're both right. Saying "there is a lot of people I know' is a grammatical mistake. It should be 'there ARE a lot of people I know," of course. But in speech, what you generally hear is "there's a lot of" -- for one thing, it's just easier to say. People tend to stick to the rules more in writing, especially if it's not to friends or loved ones.

Same with "How are you doing?" That's OK written down. But to say it that way could sound too formal. "How ya doin'" is how we typically say it. And the typical answer is: "Fine, thanks," or "I'm fine" or "I'm good."

RS: On to this from James Ho: "I'm one of your listeners in Taiwan and I want to thank you for producing such a quality show. Today I've got some questions that I'd like to ask" -- and he starts by asking about a statement that was quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal, quote -- "'What is the likelihood of our forces serving under a blue-hatted UN leadership?' I couldn't find the meaning of 'blue-hatted,' even in the latest edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Does it mean 'peaceful'?"

AA: You're on the right track. When the U-N sends a peacekeeping force, the soldiers wear light blue berets or helmets. Things are different, though, for what are known as multinational forces authorized, but not commanded, by the U-N. Those troops wear the color of headgear they normally wear in their national military.

RS: James has another question, and again he quotes, this time from USA Today: "It's about trust," says the father looking each of his daughters square in the eye before they set off for an afternoon of shopping. Besides, they know what they can get away with and what they can't. Do they ever. Off they went, regrouping with their stay-at-home dad in the mall's food court three hours later to show off their booty."

James would like to know what the sentences 'do they ever' and "off they went" mean.

AA: Think of "do they ever" as sort of an exclamation point. In this case, the writer is emphasizing that the daughters know their father's limits. "Off they went" simply means to set off, to get going.

RS: Next this e-mail: "Dear friend, I'm in love with American English, but please would you mind sending me some programs. It's my first time hearing VOA News. I am a Sudanese lady and l would like to learn more about English, because some people tell me that l speak good English, but my boyfriend tells me to have more classes in English. Best regards, Christine von Burkhard."

AA: Welcome to VOA, Christine! To answer your question about our programs, the only way to get them is on the Internet. You'll find our scripts all the way back to 1998. And you can download MP3 and RealAudio files going back to July of 2001. The address is Good luck -- and let us know if you'd like us to talk to that boyfriend of yours!

RS: Here's a letter of inspiration from "Mister English." At least that's his e-mail name. T. Basavanyappa writes us from a government school in Karnataka, India: "Dear Wordmaster. I am very curious about American English. It is very easy and interesting to learn and speak. Because it has simple spelling, grammar rules, structures, informal usages, etc. I need a program guide when Wordmaster is broadcast."

AA: That's easy -- you can hear us each Thursday at this time right here on Coast to Coast.

Now over to Azat Sultanov in Aktau, Kazakhstan. Recently we answered some of his questions about slang. "Now let me trouble you with another question," he writes. "Some time ago on one of the Talk to America shows I heard the description of 'baby boomer' attitude and 'trigger happy' with regard to some politicians.

"What I dig of these terms is that a man who has a 'baby boomer attitude' encourages a birth rate increase and the man who is 'trigger happy' does not have to be persuaded or instigated much to make an impulsive act. Are these meanings correct?"

RS: Azat, your definition for "trigger happy" is right on target! Literally or figuratively, it's someone who is likely to shoot first and ask questions later. Now, about the meaning of "baby boomer attitude" -- the baby boom is what we call the period after World War Two, from nineteen-forty-six to nineteen-sixty-four. America had a big increase in births.

AA: The result: seventy-seven-million baby boomers today, or one in four Americans. Not surprisingly, a population group this large can have a big impact on a country's attitudes. Just what are the attitudes of baby boomers? We'll leave that for Mary Tillotson's guests to talk about on Talk to America.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And our Web site, again, is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.