Saturday, December 14, 2013

Common mistakes learners make - discuss about

Foreign learners quite often want to say something like - "we discussed about last night's match". This is perhaps not surprising, for two reasons:
  • "discuss" is really just another (more formal) way of saying "talk about"
    We discussed (talked about) the new system.
  • the noun "discussion" is often (and correctly) followed by the preposition "about"
    We had a discussion about the new system.
But in Standard English, we don't use discuss about like this.

The basic rule

Learner's dictionaries don't mince their words
You cannot say ‘discuss about something’:
I discussed about my problem with my parents.
The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
The verb discuss is never used with the preposition about. It is simply followed by a direct object:
Jury members are not allowed to discuss about the trial.
Macmillan

Using discuss

The verb discuss is rather formal and has two main uses:
  1. to talk about something with somebody, especially in order to decide something
  2. to write or talk about something in detail, showing the different ideas and opinions about it (often in the passive)
It is always used with a direct object. This can take the form of:
  • a noun phrase or pronoun - discuss something (with somebody)

    We'll be discussing the matter at tomorrow's meeting.
    Have you discussed this with anybody else?
    We need to discuss the question of who is going to pay for all this.

  • an -ing form (phrase) - discuss doing something

    Have we discussed pricing yet?
    They discussed moving to a new location.

  • a wh-clause - discuss what / how / where / when / who / whether

    We still haven't discussed how we're going to do this.
    In fact we haven't even discussed whether it's a good idea or not.
    And if we do go ahead, we'll need to discuss where would be a good location.

The second use is common in talks, books and academic essays, and is frequently used in the passive.
  • I'll then go on to discuss how this can be achieved.
  • The results of this will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter.
  • The essay starts off by discussing the beneficial effects of exercise.
  • For the reasons discussed above, the results have been disappointing.

Collocations with discuss

The following nouns and expressions are often used with discuss:
  • issue, matter, plan, proposal, question, subject, topic
  • the future, the implications, the situation
For more collocations with discuss see the links to Just the Word and Netspeak below.

When it's possible to follow discuss with about.

Note that discuss can sometimes be followed by about when about is part of the direct object, rather than being dependent on the verb. This is from an article on Part Three of the Speaking Test for FCE at the EFL/ESL website Using English:
  • Although the two parts of the task are related, the thing they have to decide and the thing they have to discuss about each item isn't exactly the same
This doesn't mean that students have to "discuss about each item", but that they have to "discuss something (the thing) about each item".
In these cases discuss is usually used as a to-infinitive after such verbs as want, need, have to, be allowed to etc., and the direct object is split (divided) by the verb. This construction is often used in headlines or headings, as in these examples from the web:
  • The five things you aren't allowed to discuss about Linux
    What aren't we allowed to discuss?
    five things about Linux (= direct object of discuss)
  • 9 things we need to discuss about Miley Cyrus's new song
    What do we need to discuss?
    9 things about Miley Cirus's new song (= direct object of discuss)
  • Any issues you want to discuss about HTML or web development?
    What might you want to discuss?
    Any issues about HTML or web development. (= direct object of discuss)
  • White men have much to discuss about mass shootings
    What do white men have to discuss?
    much about mass shootings (= direct object of have)

    This last one is the headline from an interesting and provocative op-ed (Opinion-Editorial) article in The Washington Post, which has generated a lot of discussion on the Internet (and over 5000 comments on its own page) - link below.

Some basic guidelines for say, tell, discuss etc

Try and remember these guidelines every time you use one of these verbs:
  • say something (to somebody)
  • tell somebody (something)
  • talk about something (to / with somebody)
  • discuss something (with somebody)
  • mention something (to somebody)
And remember that discuss is quite formal, and usually talk about will sound more natural.

Practice - discuss, talk (about), say, tell, mention

Complete the sentences with words from the box. Some are used more than once.

Pick'n'Drop - Click on a word in the box, and then on the appropriate space. If you change your mind, just repeat the process.

discuss   · discussed   · discussion   · mentioned   · say   · saying   · says   · talk   · talked   · telling   · told  
1. She   me earlier she would be a bit late.
2. She   to start without her.
3. Didn't we   this at the last meeting?
4. He's giving a   on the effects of glaciation.
5. What did you two   about? Oh, everything under the sun.
6. The three of us had a fascinating   about British humour.
7. Has anyone   you the news yet?
8. That's exactly what I was just  .
9. I'm sure he   something about it in passing.
10. We need to   when we're going to start this project.
11. Did she   why she had taken this decision?
12. He   a lot about his experiences in Africa.
13. A little bird   me it's your birthday today.
14. We haven't   changing the name of the product.
15. You were   me about why you had decided to leave.

The Indian Exception - a linguistic diversion

While looking for examples of discuss about in Google Books I noticed that out of the ten examples on the first page of search results, six were from books published in India and a seventh, although published in the States, was by an Indian writer:
  • "Discuss about the advantages and disadvantages of management by objectives"
    Principles Of Management, by V.S.Bagad
  • "Discuss about various devices for the transportation of solids"
    Mechanical Operations Fundamental Principles and Applications, by Kiran D. Patil
  • "Discuss about steps in root canal treatment"
    Essentials of Operative Dentistry, by I. Anand Sherwood
  • "Discuss about the factors determining an effective span of management."
    - Principles of Management (a different one), by K. Anbuvelan
  • "Discuss about the forest resources and their uses."
    Elements of Environmental Science and Engineering, by P. Meenakshi
  • "Briefly discuss about the Gandhi Peace Peace Prize"
    How To Do Well In Gds And Interviews, by T.I.M.E (India)
  • "Discuss about animal biotechnology and its significance"
    Biotechnology Fundamentals, by Firdos Alam Khan
This seemed to be a bit too much of a coincidence so I did a site search of the three main Indian English-language newspapers, and sure enough, discuss about seemed to be quite common. Click on the newspaper titles to see more.
  • District collector C A Latha to convene a meeting to discuss about the development of the canoli canal
    Times of India
  • Unfair to discuss about Sachin's retirement
    Hindustan Times
  • Have a meeting with them and discuss about the crisis
    The Hindu
This was confirmed by a paragraph in a linguistics book I came across:
For example, while discuss about something and visit to somebody are admissable in Indian English, the corresponding British English forms are the one-word verbs discuss something and visit somebody.
Exploring the Lexis-grammar Interface, edited by Ute Römer, Rainer Schulze
However, not all Indians agree with this position. Writing in The Hindu, S Upendran, author of a book called Know Your English, says
Although we often hear people say, ‘I would like to discuss about the problem’, it is not grammatically acceptable. You usually ‘discuss something’, you do not ‘discuss about’ something. The word ‘discuss’ is not followed by ‘about’.
But as the books in the Google Books search page are mostly academic books, and so written in a relatively formal style and in 'correct' English, and as the newspaper examples come from educated speakers of Indian English, it would appear that in Indian English it is acceptable after all. (But only in Indian English).

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