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How to Talk About Staying Safe

How to Talk About Staying Safe
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This week we answer a question from Terrence in Vietnam. He writes:


Which of the following forms is more correct in English usage?

"Yes, we can go out but we need to be social distant from one another." or

"Yes, we can go out but we need to be social distanced from one another."

-- Terrence, Vietnam.


Dear Terrence,

Thank you for this timely question. The expression "social distancing" is new to everyday English. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses it to describe the practice of avoiding gatherings and keeping about two meters distant from other people. One sign of this social distancing is the markings on floors of some shops: they show where we should stand in relation to others.

Store with floor markings to show social distancing
Store with floor markings to show social distancing

The World Health Organization (WHO) is using a new term, however.

“We're changing to say physical distance and that's on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious diseases expert at the WHO.

"Technology right now has advanced so greatly that we can keep connected in many ways… without being in the same room,” she noted.

How to use the noun social distancing

Terrence, in your sentences, you use "social distance." But the term under discussion employs a different noun, "distancing," to talk about the method of avoiding disease.

I would change your first sentence this way:

Yes, we can go out but we need to practice social distancing.

That is using the expression as a noun. The verb is "practice."

How to use socially distance as a verb

In March, the Merriam-Webster dictionary expanded its definitions for many of the words we use to talk about the spread of COVID-19. The dictionary now includes a medical definition for the verb socially distance: to distance physically from other people or avoid any unnecessary contact with others during the outbreak of a contagious disease…”

For your second sentence, you can use this verb form:

Yes, we can go out but we need to socially distance ourselves from each other.

You could also say,

We need to physically distance ourselves from one another, but I would love to meet you in a video call tonight.

Reasons for social distancing

Another new expression we have is "flatten the curve." That basically means to slow the spread so that medical systems do not get overwhelmed.

And you may have heard the term "front line workers." Those are the people employed in health care, delivery services, emergency services, food production and food stores. They are the people who cannot work from the safety of their homes. And we are very thankful for them.

So, if your friend asks you:

Why are we social distancing?

You can answer:

To flatten the curve and protect front-line workers.

And now, I will ask you to do something. Please send your questions about English to us by email:

And that's Ask a Teacher for this week.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

practicen. the action of doing or using something

advanced adj. far along in a course of progress or development:

contagious adj. able to be passed from one person or animal to another

curven. a smooth, rounded line, shape, path, etc.

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