Tips for Non-Native speakers

English is a language of idiosyncrasies, a Germanic language with Latin grammar rules forced upon it (thanks to its French influence in the early Medieval era.) Even native speakers themselves can only master so much of what is considered Standard English and the various contradictory rules with its use.

As a tutor in the Writing Center, I see some common errors with non-native speakers. Here are some tips for the errors I see:

Subject/verb agreement: the subject of a sentence can be singular or plural, and the verb must match accordingly (this is referred to grammatically as “number.”) For instance:

The dog [singular noun] plays [singular verb] in the yard.
The dogs [plural noun] play [plural verb] in the yard.

If your native language also has nouns and verbs reflect number, try connecting English examples to ones in your mother language. For example, Spanish:

La mujer baila. Mujer is singular, as is baila.
Las mujeres bailan. Because mujeres is plural, so is the verb, bailan.

The best trick for memorizing this is repetition. Practice makes perfect: it’s a cliché for a reason.

Other verb forms: When the verb of a sentence is more than two words, I often see a lack of necessary inflection (inflection in English is a suffix which indicates various grammatical aspects of a verb, from tense [present, future, etc] to mood [indicative or subjunctive], to the as previously mentioned number [singular or plural.]) When using the passive voice, the verb of the sentence will be the conjugated form of to be + the main verb stem + the inflection of the past participle. For regular verbs, this will end in –ed. For instance:

The ball was kicked by me.

I often find non-native speakers drop the inflection and write “The ball is kick by me.”

Incorrect: The film is see by me.
Correct: The film is seen by me. (The verb ‘see’ does not follow the regular convention of –ed endings.)

Incorrect: The speech will be hear by the McDaniel community.
Correct: The speech will be heard by the McDaniel community.

Incorrect: The food from Glar was eat by unhappy students.
Correct: The food from Glar was eaten by unhappy students.

Spelling errors: Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for English spelling. Even the ubiquitous “I before E except after C, or when sounding like A as in neighbor and weigh” has more words that don’t follow the rules than those that do. Weird.

Use a dictionary when writing a word in an essay you are unlikely to use often. With words that you use often, but find yourself consistently tripping up, practice is the key to eventual learning and memorization. Write the word correctly down over and over and over again until it sticks in your head. Say it phonetically in your mind whenever you write it, to help memorize the letters.

Being multilingual is admirable. Languages are so complex and fascinating, I always find myself wanting to learn more. There is no shame in making mistakes in a second or third (or fourth, or fifth, etc.) language – or even a mother tongue. Mistakes happen. Hopefully the Writing Center can help!

Summer, peer tutor

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

You know that moment when you’re chatting with a group and you mention a word or topic of conversation that you think EVERYONE must be familiar with, only to be met by questioning and confused expressions? (If you have no clue what I’m talking about, then you’re probably giving the computer screen such a look right now. If that’s the case, just smile, nod, and keep reading. Eventually, I may decide to start making sense.) I’ve recently been bringing up the subject of one of my favorite sentences, and it has inspired quite a few confused looks (and a couple more “What-in-the-world-are-you-saying-I’m-very-concerned-for-your-sanity-at-this-moment” stares). Thus, I’ve decided to raise awareness of what is in my not-so-humble opinion one of the strangest, and therefore coolest, sentences in the English language.

Here it is:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

And yes, this is actually a real sentence, and a grammatically correct one.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Its only downside, as you might imagine, is that there just aren’t that many opportunities to bring up buffalo in casual conversation (but that doesn’t keep me from trying).

So let’s talk about this sentence:

First, it’s important to recognize that all eight of the above words do not have the same meaning. (If they did, this could never function as a complete sentence.)

In fact, this sentence relies on homonyms (words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation, but mean different things e.g. stalk (of a plant) and stalk (as in to follow a person to a creepy degree)) and homophones (words that share the same pronunciation, but mean different things e.g. carat (used for measuring the weight of pearls, as in your girlfriend probably would like lots of these on Valentine’s Day) and carrot (your girlfriend would probably not be quite as thrilled if this were her Valentine’s gift and the Writing Center by no means recommends the giving of vegetables as romantic holiday presents.)

Anyway, back to the sentence:

Buffalo refers to a location. More particularly, Buffalo, New York. (This one is the easiest to recognize due to its capitalization.)

A second use of the word buffalo, as defined by is a verb meaning “5. to puzzle or baffle; confuse; mystify: He was buffaloed by the problem. 6. to impress or intimidate by a display of power, importance, etc.: The older boys buffaloed him.”

The third type of buffalo is, of course, the animal itself. The word “buffalo” may look singular, but it can also be used as a plural. In the above sentence, “buffalo” the noun always means multiple buffalo. See the picture below.

Picture courtesy of

Okay, so in light of this, let’s look at the sentence in parts.

Part One: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

The first two words “Buffalo buffalo,” go together. The first “Buffalo” is an adjective that indicates place, and the second word is the noun, meaning the animal.

Try substituting a different place, like Westminster for the place and you get “Westminster buffalo.” Make more sense?

So, if the sentence said, “Buffalo buffalo chase Westminster squirrels,” another way of phrasing it would be that “the buffalo of Buffalo, New York chase Westminster squirrels.” Got it? Great! Moving along!

Part Two: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

The next set of three words are, in this order, the place of Buffalo, New York, followed by the name of the animal, followed by the verb meaning to bully or confuse. Therefore, Buffalo buffalo buffalo is the same thing as saying that the buffalo of Buffalo, New York bully. (Bully who, you might ask? Check out part three below!)

Part Three: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Now let’s put together what we know. You may need to go over it a few times before it really sinks in, but here we go!

For ease of understanding, I’m going to substitute Westminster for Buffalo, New York and “bully” for “buffalo” the verb. The sentence now becomes “Westminster buffalo Westminster buffalo bully…”

Although the word “that” is not necessary for the sentence to work grammatically, it can be added to make it clearer. “Westminster buffalo [that] Westminster buffalo bully…”

Notice that the words from part two (the third, fourth, and fifth words of the original sentence) aren’t actually doing any action in the sentence. They’re just there to describe the buffalo of part one (the first and second words). Think of them as two separate groups of buffalo.

Person 1: Which buffalo are you talking about?
Person 2: You know, Buffalo buffalo.
Person 1: Oh, the Buffalo buffalo that like to play hopscotch?
Person 2: Of course not! I meant the Buffalo buffalo [that other] Buffalo buffalo bully!
Person 1: Poor guys! cyberbullying is such a shame…

Catching on? This may take a little practice when applying it to the above sentence. Don’t give up!

Part Four: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Note that the third, fourth, and fifth words are not included in this part. That’s because they’re functioning as an adjective clause! They help to describe the subject, but aren’t really necessary for the sentence to work, so we’ll put them on the back burner for now.

So we’ve got the first part down. Buffalo buffalo means buffalo (the animal) from Buffalo (the place).

The final three words are the verb “to bully”, the place of Buffalo, and the animal buffalo.

Putting those parts together, the buffalo of Buffalo, New York [skipping over the adjective clause] bully the [other] buffalo of Buffalo, New York.

That’s right, folks. While other cities have gang wars, Buffalo, New York has THREE conflicting groups of buffalo. And we thought the number of squirrels running around campus was bad…

Part Five: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Woo-hoo! You made it this far! Now just bring all the pieces together!

Just to add a new twist, try substituting the verb “stalk” for “buffalo” (the verb) and the noun “stalker” for “buffalo” (the noun):
Buffalo stalkers Buffalo stalkers stalk stalk Buffalo stalkers.
The first stalkers mentioned are both being stalked, and doing the stalking. (Creepy, right?)

And the grand finale is:

Buffalo buffalo (the buffalo from Buffalo, New York) Buffalo buffalo buffalo (that are bullied by other buffalo of Buffalo New York) buffalo Buffalo buffalo (bully other buffalo of Buffalo, New York).

Anne, peer tutor