What does it mean to “be of help”?

to be of help vs helpful

The phrase “to be of help” is a construction roughly synonymous with “helpful”. “Of help” is particularly common in formal settings, and has a subtly different meaning and application to the adjective “helpful”. I briefly touched on such “noun of noun” constructions when looking at the phrase “bird of prey” – as this structure can show one noun has the quality of another. But if “helpful” already describes a noun as having the quality of help, what do we use “be of help” for?

What does “to be (of) help” mean?

To start, it’s worth considering the specific meaning of “to be of help”, as it is usually applied in particular settings. It can be used with or without of, and may be used in a negative way. There are number of stock phrases you are likely to see in settings such as business correspondence or hospitality. Here are some examples:

  • How can I be of help?
  • Sorry we couldn’t be more help.
  • The tour guide was no help at all.

In all these cases, the suggestion is that the help provided, or not, is specific to a certain circumstance – most likely a single instance of assistance. Context is therefore important, as we are using the noun help as a shorthand to refer to such specific assistance.

  • How can I be of help (with your visit to our hotel today)?
  • Sorry we couldn’t be more help (with your enquiry about booking an appointment).
  • The tour guide was no help at all (when I asked what the sign meant).

We use various forms of “to be of help”, therefore, when referring to an understood and specific instance of help. Helpful, on the other hand, is a general adjective, that can refer instead to a person’s willingness to help in general. When faced with formal settings or when discussing specific incidents requiring help, helpful is less appropriate because it refers more to attitude. Consider the difference in the two questions:

  • How can I be of help?
  • How can I be helpful?

The first is an offer to provide specific assistance, usually related to a particular task. The second is a question of demonstrating willingness to help. In fact, we might say that by asking How can I be of help? a person is already demonstrating they are helpful. Now consider these two scenarios:

  • The tour guide was no help when I asked what the sign meant.
  • The tour guide was not helpful when I asked what the sign meant.

In this case, the first sentence tells us the tour guide provided no specific help, whereas in the second sentence the tour guide demonstrated a lack of willingness to help. It would be possible to be helpful, willing to help, without actually helping.

  • The tour guide read the words out many times, but he was no help in actually explaining what they meant. (helpful, but not actually of help)

The reverse could also be true, that someone might successfully be of help in a specific situation without actually being helpful by nature:

  • The tour guide was a lot of help in locating our hotel, but only after we gave him an extra £20. (provided help, but not by virtue of helpfulness)

Hopefully this goes some way to exploring the differences between these very closely related phrases, if you’ve got any questions do let me know!

When can we use “not so” instead of “not as” for comparatives

comparatives not as so

comparatives not as so

A recent question I’ve had is which comparative form is more correct, using so or as: “England is not as hot as France” or “England is not so hot as France”. It’s an interesting point as they are both possible so neither is really more correct – and one of my reference books covers it in one simple point “After not, we can use so … as instead of as … as.” This doesn’t give you much room for discussion! So, do the two forms differ? Continue reading “When can we use “not so” instead of “not as” for comparatives”

2 Examples of Troublesome Dictionary Definitions

troublesome dictionary definitions

troublesome dictionary definitionsThe rules given in reference books, and indeed dictionaries, can sometimes be rather misleading, or represent incomplete ideas. As I teach (and study!) advanced language use, I often have to question reference guides, and have recently encountered two examples of this. To show how the dictionary does not always tell the whole truth, here are some additional considerations for this/next and the not only…but also rule. Continue reading “2 Examples of Troublesome Dictionary Definitions”

Seasons Greetings and Christmas Language from ELB!

merry christmas seasonal english

merry christmas seasonal englishChristmas is just around the corner, which leaves it to me to say seasons greetings, Merry Christmas and best wishes for a Happy New Year! I’ve covered some interesting topics for the season on this site in the past, so here’s a breakdown of different ways you can develop your English this holiday – whether you celebrate it or not: Continue reading “Seasons Greetings and Christmas Language from ELB!”

What’s the difference between deception and deceit?

difference between deception and deceit

difference between deception and deceitHere’s another confusing pair of words. Deceit and deception are both nouns, both loosely used to describe the act of deceiving. The act of deceiving being the act of concealing the truth or otherwise being misleading or false. In many situations the words can be used interchangeably – grammatically speaking it is rare that you will find a sentence where both words do not fit in the same sentence without the same general meaning. However, the sentences may offer different connotations. Continue reading “What’s the difference between deception and deceit?”

What’s the difference between complex and complicated?

difference complex complicated

difference complex complicatedI received a series of questions from a reader with no return email. So if you’re reading this, Carl, I’ll answer your questions in the blog. Starting with this – what is the difference between complex and complicated? A plan, for example, can be both complex and complicated. There is a simple answer and a complicated (or complex!) answer. So let’s start with the simple: complex involves many parts/components, while complicated refers to the level difficulty. What does this mean in practice? Continue reading “What’s the difference between complex and complicated?”

Halloween Vocabulary Exercise

halloween vocabulary exerciseIt’s that fun time of year where the English speaking world prepares for Halloween – with scary stories, films and costumes. Which means it’s also the time of year to practice our Halloween vocabulary – words which cover a range of frightening topics, emotions and mythical creatures! Build your vocab with my nasty nouns and abysmal adjectives, then see if you can complete the exercise below.

Mixed Halloween Vocabulary Exercise

Match the following descriptions with the words below.

  1. Something that is not from this world.
  2. The practice of magic or sorcery.
  3. An ugly, giant creature.
  4. A very old person who wants to suck your blood.
  5. Dead people who refuse to stay dead.
  6. A box to bury dead bodies in.
  7. Illumination from the moon.
  8. A characterisation of Death.
  9. A carved pumpkin that we put a candle in.
  10. The worst kind of dream.
  11. The remains of a person without flesh or muscles.
  12. A home where you find ghosts (or worse!).
  13. A magical person with wings.
  14. An enchantment, poems or other words that create magic.
  15. A person who changes into a wolf.
  • a. fairy
  • b. witchcraft
  • c. werewolf
  • d. moonlight
  • e. spell
  • f. zombies
  • g. haunted house
  • h. skeleton
  • i. coffin
  • j. jack’o’lantern
  • k. the grim reaper
  • l. nightmare
  • m. ogre
  • n. supernatural
  • o. vampire

Answers to the Exercise

  1. n – supernatural
  2. b – witchcraft
  3. m – ogre
  4. o – vampire
  5. f – zombies
  6. i – coffin
  7. d – moonlight
  8. k – the grim reaper
  9. j – jack’o’lantern
  10. l – nightmare
  11. h – skeleton
  12. g – haunted house
  13. a – fairy
  14. e – spell
  15. c – werewolf

What’s the difference between insure, ensure and assure?

difference between insure, ensure and assure

difference between insure, ensure and assureInsure, ensure and assure are easily confused words as they both look and sound similar – and have rather closely connected meanings. They do have distinct differences, however. Consider the following example sentences:

  • We would like to insure our boat for £10,000.
  • I will ensure that the boat is taken care of.
  • I assure you the boat will be taken care of.

So how are these sentences different? Continue reading “What’s the difference between insure, ensure and assure?”

10 Easily Confused Sets of Words and Phrases Explained

easily confused words and phrases

easily confused words and phrasesA few weeks ago I wrote an article about the differences between the words plain and plane; it’s one of many articles I have on this site exploring confusing, or easily misunderstood, words and phrases. With so much content on this site, I thought it was time I created a quick, simple list of such articles so you can quickly learn the differences. I’ve placed example sentences beneath each heading so you can get an idea of what you’ll learn.  Continue reading “10 Easily Confused Sets of Words and Phrases Explained”

What’s the difference between plain and plane?

difference between plain and planePlain and plane are easily confused in English – they are homophones, so you may write one when meaning the other. They have a number of distinct definitions where their meanings are completely different – but one meaning where their meanings are very similar, referring to flat empty space, where it can be hard to remember which word is correct. Continue reading “What’s the difference between plain and plane?”