Halimatus from Malaysia asks
What's the difference between 'so' and 'very'? And what is the difference between 'were laughing' and 'are laughing'? I think both have the same meaning. Can you explain it to me?
So / Very
Mark Shea answers:
Hi Halimatus, thanks for your question. Let's start with the easy bit... "We are laughing" is the present continuous tense, and that normally means that it is happening right now.
Mark Shea has been a teacher and teacher trainer for fifteen years. He has taught English and trained teachers extensively in Asia and South America, and is a qualified examiner for the University of Cambridge oral examinations. He is currently working with journalists and is the author of the BBC College of Journalism's online English tutor.
We might say that "We are laughing at the comedy on television" or "Don't worry, we are not laughing at you - it was something John said earlier!"
In expressions with 'when', it might mean every time we do something, for example, laugh:
"When we're laughing, I forget about our problems."
But "We were laughing" is the past continuous tense, and so normally talks about a time in the past:
"We were laughing at the story about Paul when he walked in the room" or
"I saw what happened, but why were you laughing?"
So the difference is the present and the past:
If it's happening now, say 'are'.
If it was happening at some time in the past, say 'were'.
The other question is a bit more complicated...
We use 'very' with adjectives - those are words which describe people, places or things to make them more extreme. So:
"London is a big city, but Tokyo is a very big city."
"Einstein was a very intelligent man."
"The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur are very tall."
When we use 'so', there's normally another clause - that's part of a sentence - after it. The 'so' part of the sentence explains why the 'that' part of the sentence happens:
"Tokyo is so big that it is difficult for tourists to find their way around."
"Einstein was so intelligent that some other scientists had problems understanding his theories."
"The Petronas Towers are so tall that they were once the world's tallest buildings."
The first part of the sentence doesn't really make any sense without the second part, so although we can say:
"The Malaysian grand prix is very noisy" it doesn't really make sense to say:
"The Malaysian grand prix is so noisy" - unless you're replying to something another person has just said.
"I don't like motor sports!"
"No - me neither. I went to the Malaysian grand prix and it was so noisy."
What we mean here is that it was so noisy that she didn't enjoy it.
So use 'very' when you don't mean that something is good or bad, just extreme, and use 'so' when you want to add extra information afterwards.
I hope this answers your question Halimatus. It was very difficult - so difficult that I think I need a rest now!
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