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January 22, 2019

062 Commonly confused structures in English

062 Commonly confused structures in English

Commonly confused structures in English “say”, “tell”, “explain”, “apologies”, “sorry”, “recommend” and “suggest”


Hi there. Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Business English. Andrew Ambrosius here again, and pleasure having you, as always.

Now, today I would really like to look at something which I commonly see with my students and basically, what we’ll be covering is some common structures, three, in fact, three common structures which are commonly confused in English. So what I mean by that is I want to look at the difference between explain, tell, and say, which is very commonly confused. Then in the second part of the episode, I’m going to be looking at how to use sorry and apologize. Okay? Sometimes we have a few issues with sorry and apologize. And then in the third part of the episode, I’m going to look quickly at the difference, or how to use suggest and recommend, because those are also commonly confused in English.

Now, probably going to make a very quick episode today, but very valuable nonetheless, so let’s have a quick look, then, at these three commonly confused structures. So let’s start with tell, say, and explain. Right?

Say, tell and explain

So basically we often see problems with tell, say, and explain because of the confusion in use and meaning between English and Spanish. Now, to say is decir. Okay, so to say something is decir algo. To explain, in English, or in Spanish, is explicar. But often, the Spanish use it to also mean say, or decir. And another thing is that to tell is also [Spanish 00:02:01]. So, there can be quite a bit of confusion between these three words or these three verbs when we’re trying to get them out and in the correct context. We’re trying to get them out with the correct structure.

So, let’s look at what really is the difference between say and tell because that’s probably the first problem that we have. Basically, when we say something, we are really saying it in general and not specifically to a person. So, what do I mean by that? Well, basically what I mean is that the communication is not direct between two people. It’s more like general to the general public, for example. So, we would say something like the government has said it’s going to raise taxes. Okay? So the government says or the government has said that it’s going to raise taxes. So, as you can see, the government has mentioned this or the government has put this out to the public and they haven’t actually said it to someone in particular. Okay? They’ve said it to the general population.

Whereas, tell is more direct communication between two people or a group or people. For example, the other day, Mary told me that she’s pregnant. So, she’s specifically told me something and that communication was direct. It was to me, and to me only. She didn’t say it to everyone. And you couldn’t really say … She didn’t tell it to everyone. We don’t say tell it to everyone. We would say tell everyone. Okay? Or say it to everyone. Okay, so you can see the difference. Not say is to everyone in generally … everyone generally. But tell is more to specific people. Okay?

Now, there is a difference in structure as well and that’s where people often have problems. Firstly, we say things to people. For example, John said he was going to be late to work. So, John said he was going to be late to work. I don’t say John said me. Okay? We can’t put a pronoun after say, okay? Like you can in Spanish. So, you can’t say … For example, many students think that ah, [Spanish 00:04:40] is say me. Like [Spanish 00:04:46] is say me. Say me, we never say that. You don’t say, say me. Okay? Or you could say tell me. Okay? But say does not come followed by this object pronoun. Say is just with the structure of you say something. Okay? So, John said he was going to be late for work. The something is that he was going to be late to work.

I don’t say John said me.

Now tell, on the other hand, yes, because we tell things directly to people, we can then use an object pronoun after tell. So, we can say tell John to come and see me after the meeting. Or John told me that he was going to be late for work. So, then it’s quite clear that John told me specifically. Whereas, if John just said that he was going to be late for work, it’s more general and I’m not including this direct communication to me. Okay? So, when we use tell, we’re actually saying it more specifically to someone, and when we say say, we’re generally saying it to everyone.

Now, another thing is that you can use say with the preposition to but only in the simple past. John said to me, that would work. But you can’t use it in the present simple. John say to me. Okay? That doesn’t work. So, John said to me he was going to be late for work. That would be a similar meaning as John told me he was going to be late for work. And obviously, say and tell are both irregular verbs so they have their special form in the simple past and in the past participle form, so keep that in mind. Now, that’s really the difference between say and tell. So we say things, and we tell things to people. Okay? John told me to be quiet would be another example. Okay? So just keep that structure in mind.

And then, explain. Explain is not really say like with [Spanish 00:06:59]. Explain is more the elaboration of a process … like explaining a process or explaining a story. So in English, we need to explain specific things to people. So, think of them more as a process of a story or some important news. Explain is aligned with an explanation as a noun. So the structure, as well, is something that can cause a bit of confusion. We explain something to someone. Okay? So, John explained the new rules to me. You can see that object pronoun, to me. Explain something to someone. And that someone is generally this object pronoun me, you, him, her, them. Okay?

We don’t say John explained me he was going to be late

So, Mary explained the story to them. Okay? So it’s very important that we follow this structure always because that’s the structure we use with explain. We don’t say John explained me he was going to be late. That doesn’t work at all. It would be John told me he was going to be late. We explain things, processes, stories, news, to people. So those are some of the commonly confused … or some of the ways that say, tell, and explain are commonly confused. Most importantly, it’s just understanding the little differences between them and then making sure that you use the correct structure when you go about explaining them.

Apologies and say sorry

So, the next one I'd like to look at is sorry and apologize. Okay? Apologize and sorry mean the same thing, don't they? I mean, you say you are sorry to someone when you did something to them. So, sorry is [Spanish 00:09:00] or [Spanish 00:09:03]. So, apologize is the same thing really. But we say sorry. Okay? [Spanish 00:09:10] So, we say sorry to people. Like I'm sorry and then, we've got two options with sorry. You can say sorry for or say sorry plus your subject plus a simple past. Now why a simple past? Because generally when we're sorry, we're sorry that something happened in the past. We're sorry that we did something in the past. So, we generally use it plus subject plus simple past.

You can say sorry for or say sorry plus subject plus a simple past.

For example, I'm sorry I broke your window. I'm sorry I broke the window, or your window. So I am sorry, with the verb to be. Or we can say sorry to someone. For example, if you say sorry, you would say I am sorry for doing this or I'm sorry I broke this. So, for or subject plus simple past. But if you're telling someone, again, going back to tell, you could say, for example, John, I think you should say sorry to Maria for, and then whatever John did. So, we say sorry for doing things.

Now, for is a preposition so you need to use a gerund. So, let's have a think about this. I'll give you an example. I'm sorry I broke your window. So, I broke it, in the simple past. Or if we're using for, we would generally follow this with the present perfect. So, I'm sorry for having broken your window. Okay? So because it's the simple past ... Sorry, because it's a preposition, then we use the gerund form of the verb [Spanish 00:10:56] which is having broken. The past participle form because actually this is a perfect tense that's being attached to this structure. Because we broke the window in the past. We don't specify when we broke the window but it's important and has relevance now. Okay? So, you've got two ways you can say, I'm sorry I broke the window, or, I'm sorry for having broken your window. So, that's another way.

And remember, we say sorry to people and then we are sorry for doing things. Okay? So I think you should say sorry to John for having broken his window. And then, I would say, I'm sorry, John, I broke your window. Or, I'm sorry John for having broken your window. Now, the same thing is with apologize. We apologize to people like I'm sorry, John, I would like to apologize to you. And then, we would say for whatever we did. So, we apologize to people or we apologize for the thing we did. So, John, I would like to apologize to you for having broken your window. Or, John, I would like to apologize for having broken the window. So, if you want to make it implicit that you're apologizing to someone, then we need to use the preposition to, or we say apologize for and then, the thing that we have done.

And as I said, we did that thing in the past, so we need to use either the single past with the verb to be sorry, or the adjective to be sorry. And then, we need to use the perfect tense when we're using apologize. So, you would say, I'm sorry I broke your window, in the simple past. But you can't say I'm sorry or say I apologize I broke your window. No, you can't say that. Okay? You can't say I apologize, I broke ... You need to apologize for something. Okay? I apologize for the noise. That's a noun. If it's a noun, we don't need to use the progressive form because we only use the gerund -ing form after prepositions. So, I'm sorry for the noise. I'm sorry about the mess. You could also say about. I'm sorry about the mess. But you can't say I'm sorry about having broken your window, generally. We would say I'm sorry for having broken your window. But we can be sorry about things.

So, I hope that's kind of clear. It can be a little confusing. Remember, the summary is that we say sorry for things. We are sorry for things. We can say sorry to someone or we can say sorry for having done something. Whereas, apologize, we apologize to someone for having done something. But we can't use the simple past, I apologize I broke ... You can't say I apologize I broke but you can say I'm sorry I broke but not I apologize I broke. We apologize to people for having done things. Okay? So I hope that little structural element there is clear in the difference between I apologize and I'm sorry for. So, that is the second one in this episode.

Suggest and recommend

And now, I would like to turn and look at the last one which is looking at suggest and recommend. So, let's take a look at that. Well, suggest and recommend are ... They're commonly confused structures because, I don't know why, but you just have to remember that they do follow a specific structure and if you don't follow this structure, it sounds strange. What do I mean by that? Well, let's have a look.

So, I suggest is followed by two possible structures, and I recommend is the same. So, I suggest and I recommend have two possible options that can follow them. You can say to someone I suggest you ... So, you're using their subject ... I suggest you ... not the object pronoun, a subject pronoun ... I suggest you have a fish. Okay? If you're in a restaurant, and you'd like to make a recommendation to one of your clients, you could say I suggest or I recommend you have the fish because the fish here is very good. Now, what people often do is say I suggest you to have the fish. And that's wrong. You need to just use subject, verb, object. So, I suggest or I recommend you have the fish.

Suggest and recommend are followed by verb in gerund form or subject, verb object

You can also use the following structure and if it's obvious that you are talking to someone, you don't necessarily need to say you because you're talking directly to them. So, you could say I suggest plus -ing. Say, I suggest having the fish or I recommend having the fish. So, suggest and recommend are followed by a verb in gerund. Now, why would we have this difference? Well, if it's obvious that I'm talking and making a recommendation to you, then I don't need to say I recommend you have the fish because it's obvious I'm talking to you. So, I would say I recommend having the fish or I suggest having the fish.

However, maybe you would like to make a recommendation to someone but you're not actually making the recommendation to the person you're talking to. You're talking about a third person or a third group of people. So, you could say ... this one you want to make it more implicit ... You would say I recommend they. So I'm talking to you but we're actually talking about a third group or someone who is not here with us now. So, if you want to make it very clear that this recommendation is for someone else, not the person you are talking to, then you would use the structure I recommend they work harder. Okay? That's a recommendation to someone who is in front of you or I recommend he tries harder. I'm talking to John but the recommendation is for Brian. So John, I recommend that Brian or I recommend Brian works harder.

It's very important that we don't put infinitives. For example, sometimes we would say I recommend to have the fish and that's not right. I suggest to have the fish, and that's not right. Okay? We can only follow it by our subject, verb, object if you want to be implicit to who the recommendation is for or if we know or if we're talking to someone, we can just use the gerund form after recommend or suggest to make that very clear. So, that's basically the two structures that can follow recommend and suggest.

Let's quickly summarize things today before I finish this episode. Basically, you've got the different forms of say, tell, and explain, not to be confused. Make sure you're using the correct structure after say and tell which is to say something to someone or to tell someone something, or to explain something to someone.

And apologize to someone for having done something or say sorry to someone for having done something. And remember, say or I am sorry or you are sorry, you can follow that by simple past or for plus the gerund. So, I'm sorry for having broken the window or I'm sorry I broke the window. Whereas, apologize is just I apologize for having done something or I apologize to someone. Okay?

And then, as I just mentioned, suggest and recommend followed by a subject, verb, object, or a verb in gerund. Okay? So, those are three commonly confused structures that I'm sure you probably understand a bit better now and now you can try and avoid making those common mistakes. Now, that's pretty much it for today's episode. A quick one for you.

Now, be sure to take a look at the video on our website if you'd like to have a look at the video from today's episode or obviously, you can be listening to it on your podcast. Now, be sure to check out the 500 Collocations Business Collocations for Everyday Use. We've got that ebook there. We'll be adding the pronunciation to that book very soon. And at the moment, I'm currently working on a bunch of courses starting the year off in a productive frenzy. And I'm actually taking a productivity course which I'm finding quite interesting and in next week's episode, I'm actually going to be not actually talking about grammar or English skills, I want to talk about productivity and one of the ways in particular which I've been sharing with my students how we can become more productive, and what's actually occupying our time.

So, I'll see you all for the episode next week. As always, I hope this episode has been very beneficial and I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback. So, have a great week, guys. Take care. Bye, for now.


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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

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