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May 11, 2005 - Audience Mail - 2005-05-11

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

RS: Listener Benny Kusman is from Indonesia, but tells us he is staying in Malaysia. Here is the first of his two questions:

AA: "If I have two books, I should say 'Which one do you want?' and if I have three books, I should say 'Which ones do you like?' Am I right?"

RS: You're right. Because what you're really saying is "Which one (of the two books) do you want?" and "Which ones (of the three books) do you like?" But, as happens so often with grammar, there are some exceptions.

AA" Let's look at the logic. When you have three books and you say "Which ones do you want?" what are you indicating?

RS: You're saying that the person can choose one, two or all three.

AA: Yes, but what if you want the person to choose only one of the books? Then it would be correct to say "Which one do you like?"

RS: On now to Benny's other question: "What's the meaning of 'my alarm went off at 6' -- does it mean yesterday my alarm stopped ringing at 6?"

AA: When we say "the alarm went off," what we really mean is that it "went on" -- it started to ring at 6. "Went off" is idiomatic; it's used in limited circumstances, like with clocks.

RS: It's one of those pesky verb phrases that can keep a person tossing and turning all night.

MUSIC: "Tossin' and Turnin'"/Bobby Lewis (1961)

... a-tossin' and turnin' all night

Jumped out of bed

Turned on the light

I pulled down the shade

Went to the kitchen for a bite

Rolled up the shade

Turned off the light

I jumped back into bed

It was the middle of the night ...

AA: Next, an e-mail from another Indonesian listener, Darwin, from Central Sumatra. "I have questions for you (or Lida Baker) about words which are separated by" -- and here he puts a dash mark -- "i.e. hand-made, world-class, computer-based, well-attended, etc. What is it? Are there any specific rules how to form these words?"

RS: We forwarded Darwin's question to our friend Lida Baker the English teacher in Los Angeles. She was recently with us to discuss compounding. Here's the e-mail she sent back:

AA: "The little line is called a "hyphen." It's used in *some* compound structures. There are many rules for using hyphens. In fact, there are so many rules that the only people who know them are professional writers and editors. If you want to learn the rules, you need a book called a style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. However, once again, these books are used mainly by professionals. If you're not a professional writer, you should look in a dictionary whenever you want to write a compound. You can also do an Internet search for 'rules for using hyphens.'

RS: And, Lida says, to narrow your search, you can put quotation marks around the phrase "rules for using hyphens." Lida says she found several sites with useful information.

AA: Next, we heard from a former listener of ours, an American named Dianne Gray. She's back from Moscow where she lived for several years, and found her language skills in demand, even without training as an English teacher.

DIANNE GRAY: "There were different circumstances that actually led me to it, but I remember probably the first one was a friend had called me and asked if she could bring someone over to practice his English, and that he was going to be -- needed to pass an oral examination for a doctor degree or something. And I actually, at that time, I said 'well, what will I say to him?' But she wanted him to meet a real American. So anyway we did that, and it was kind of fun."

RS: "And tell us a little bit about the situations where you taught and what you taught."

DIANNE GRAY: "It was basically on a one-to-one basis. Most people, they already knew English and they'd studied it, usually in a university or somehow or other they knew it. In fact, some of my, if you want to say my students, were actually English teachers themselves. And I thought to myself at first, well, how could I possibly help an English teacher? They're the certified one, they've had like, how many years of education to teach it, and some were actually teaching it. And I guess that they just needed maybe some confidence, the fact that they could do it."

AA: Former listener Dianne Gray, who found our programs useful in Moscow and is now back in the States, living in Los Angeles.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and our segments are all online at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.