Thursday, October 28, 2010

In Case You Didn't Notice

There are expressions in English that contain the phrases 'in case' and 'in case of'. Though related, these two are used in somewhat different ways. Let's consider 'in case of' first.

In case of fire, everyone should use the staircase.

Call me in case of any emergency.  

They're going to complain to the boss in case of the slightest disturbance. 

This type of sentence generally  tells you what to do or what should follow if something occurs. It's something done in a given situation after that situation appears. What you get from a statement with 'in case', on the other hand, happens to be something else.

Take an umbrella in case it rains.

I'll have some cash with me in case they don't accept credit cards.

Be prepared to give an explanation in case the boss finds out.

She took an extra pen with her, just is case.

In case you didn't notice, we're now in the 21st century. 

In case he has forgotten, let me remind him that he's no longer my boss. 

All this is about what is/was/should be done in preparation for a possible situation. As in the examples, 'in case' is usually found in the sense 'because of the possibility of something happening or being true'. It's something done in advance, not after the scenario becomes evident.

So when giving instructions to a babysitter for example, rather than saying 'Give him a toy in case he cries', one should go for something like 'Have a toy ready in case he cries'. Or else, use the plain old 'if' instead of 'in case': 'Give him a toy if he cries.'

Let's take one more example:

Buy some soft drinks in case somebody comes to visit. (Buy them in advance as somebody just might come to visit.)

Buy some soft drinks if somebody comes to visit. (Buy them after the visitor has arrived.)

(Image credit: kevindooley

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What's Different?

The adjective 'different' is found in general usage followed by three prepositions: 'from', 'to' and 'than'. But can you use any one of them freely; are they just interchangeable? Not quite. There are several things you have to take into consideration in this regard:

1. 'Different from' is the most accepted and most widespread form in both British and American English, especially in formal language. 

This house is different from the others.

You look different from your brothers.

The town looks very different from the way it did 20 years ago.

The soup tasted different from what I expected. 

In India, they cook this dish quite differently from how it's cooked here.

Our stay in London was rather different from the one in Paris. 

2. 'Different to' is sometimes found in place of 'different from', but it mostly occurs in informal British usage.  It's rare in American English.

This house is different to the others. 

(Similarly in other examples.) 

3. 'Different than' is found more often in informal American English, and it's sometimes used because it allows you to shorten the statement; this is possible since 'than' can act as a conjunction too. 

This house is different than the others.

You look different than your brothers.

The town looks very different than (the way it did) 20 years ago.

The soup tasted different than (what) I expected. 

In India, they cook this dish quite differently than (how it's cooked) here.

Our stay in London was rather different than (the one) in Paris. 

For usage statistics, see "different to", "different than"

(Image credit: pshutterbug)

Friday, October 22, 2010

I Didn't Need to Do It

The word 'need' is very common in the English language. It appears as a noun, verb and modal verb. However, its use as a modal verb is mostly found in British usage.

They need not (needn't) go there.[BrE] = They don't need to go there. (It's not necessary for them to go there.)

Need he leave so early?[BrE] = Does he need to leave so early? (Is it necessary for him to leave so early?)

All you need bring is your passport.[BrE] = All you need to bring is your passport. (Your passport is the only thing you have to bring.)

Even in British English, the modal verb is only employed in questions and negative statements, or in affirmative statements where the required action is relatively small. Although the patterns marked 'BrE' don't occur so often in American English, certain fixed expressions like 'Need I say more?' may be exceptions.

With constructions referring to the past, care must sometimes be taken to avoid misunderstandings:

She need not (needn't) have cooked.[BrE] = She didn't need to cook. (It hasn't been necessary for her to cook though she has done so; she cooked probably because she didn't know it was unnecessary.)
She didn't need to cook. (She didn't have to cook; she didn't cook because it was unnecessary.)

The form 'didn't need to' can have two meanings, as seen above. Those who use British English can avoid this ambiguity by opting for the 'need not have' pattern when someone has done something that was unnecessary.    

(Image Credit: istolethetv)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unless You Read This...

Lots of people think that the word 'unless' just means 'if...not'. This isn't quite so. Although 'unless' could be used instead of 'if...not' to convey the same meaning in some cases, it's not possible all the time. Let's consider some examples:

1. If  he doesn't go there, he won't meet her. (= Unless he goes there, he won't meet her.)

2. If he doesn't go there, he'll save some money. ('Unless' can't be used here to give the same meaning.)

3. You'd never believe it if you didn't see it. (= You'd never believe it unless you saw it.)

4. It wouldn't be that bad if you didn't see it. ('Unless' can't be used here to give the same meaning.) 

5. She wouldn't have come here if he hadn't invited her. (= She wouldn't have come here unless he had invited her.)

6. She would have been sad if he hadn't invited her. ('Unless' can't be used here to give the same meaning.) 

As can be seen above, the word 'unless' can't always be used as a replacement for 'if...not'. 'Unless' rather seems to mean something like 'except if' - that is, 'except under the possible circumstances that...'. In other words, it can only be used in instances where the opposite of the statement can be expressed with 'only if' or, in the case of Example 5 (the third conditional), 'the reason could only be that...':

If you don't go there, you won't meet her. (You'll meet her only if you go there.)

You'd never believe it if you didn't see it. (You'd believe it only if you saw it.)

She wouldn't have come here if he hadn't invited her. (She came here, and the reason could only be that he invited her; he must have invited her.)

However, it's surprising that even some sources of English grammar lazily declare that 'unless' means the same as 'if...not'.  As 'unless' mostly occurs in the first conditional, some sources say it isn't used with the second and third conditionals, but usage once again shows otherwise as long as it's about a possibility:

'Unless you had a specific agreement with the building society that they would hold open the account indefinitely, they would be at liberty to close the account.' (Source:

'... so unless they had already been in the area, it would have taken some time for them to reach the border...' (Source:

(Image Credit: Eva Blue
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