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Wednesday, 10 February 2016 19:28

Understanding English: "Oil" vs. "Gas"

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Ask Scott Dreyer:

Q: What is the difference between the words "oil" and "gas"? Lin, Hsinchu, Taiwan

A. That's a GREAT question, Lin, and it's one that MANY Chinese speakers struggle with when they learn English. It's confusing because in Chinese, "oil" is 油 while "gasoline" (or "gas" for short) is 汽油. 

Oil has been called "the lifeblood of the world economy," and it is always in the news. Oil and gas are related, but different, and to make things more interesting, each word has several different meanings and usages.

OIL (油)


oil well

This is the black, sticky stuff that comes from the ground. It is a kind of fossil fuel, because it is formed from ancient decayed matter. It is also called "crude oil," because it is in its crude, or unrefined, state. This is drilled out of the ground or ocean floor with an oil drill. Some parts of the world famous for big oil deposits include Texas, Alaska, Russia, Mexico, Nigeria, and especially parts of the Middle East. On the world market, oil is sold by the barrel.

Crude oil can be refined into a product called motor oil. When my kids were learning to drive, I told them, "if there is only ONE thing you can do to maintain your car, remember to change your oil every 3,000 miles or every three months." In English, we say "change the oil" or "get an oil change," and in Chinse this is called 換油.


Oil can also be made from certain vegetables or seeds. This product called cooking oil is essential for billions of people around the world to be able to cook their food by frying.

On an unpleasant note, oil is also the greasy build-up on hair and skin when one does not wash regularly. This is why daily bathing and hair-washing is important. In English, you can often add a "y" to a noun, to make an adjective (ADJ.) so oil in the hair oily hair, or oil on the skin oily skin.


GAS (汽油 or 氣體/气体)


Refueling of gasoline 1378274635 79


Putting gas in the car at a gas station

"Gas" is the short version of the word gasoline. That is why the place you go to put fuel in your car is called a gas station, NOT an "oil station." English speakers talk about "putting gas in the car" or "going to gas up" (加油). When referring to an airplane or ship, you can say "refuel." In the US, gas is sold by the gallon (about 3.8 liters). A common Chinese cheer or encouragement is 加油 (ja yo). Many over the years have asked me how to translate that, like the cheer for a race or tug of war. In this case, you could scream "Go! Go! Go" or "Keep on!" or "You've got it!" Whatever you do, do NOT scream "Add oil!" unless you want English speakers to look at you like you are really strange!

Another kind of fossil fuel is natural gas. This can be used to heat a home or power a cook stove. Many Americans like to have natural gas heat in their homes because it is cheaper than using electric heat.

Gas can also refer to a kind of substance that is NOT a solid or liquid. This is translated as 氣體/气体 in Chinese. Helium (symbol He) is the gas that makes balloons light so they can fly, and oxygen is the gas we breathe. To show how learning languages can be fun and challenging, the symbol for oxygen is O2, but the word with that same sound in Chinese means vomit.

Speaking of upset stomachs, "gas" can also mean the uncomfortable pressure one feels after eating certain food. Someone might say, "I don't eat beans, because they give me gas." To end on a funny note, I once heard of a restaurant called "Steve's" that had a gas station attached. Their advertisements said "Eat at Steve's and Get Gas!"


Check your understanding:

Use the word OIL or GAS for each blank.

1. Texas is a famous ___________ producing state in the US.
2. Dad will ____ up the car before we leave for the beach tomorrow.
3. I'd better change the _______ in my car before I go on that long trip next week. It's been about three months already.
4. Billy took a long shower so he doesn't have any more _____ in his hair.
5. Even though we can't see a ______ like oxygen, we know it's there.
6. We used to heat our home with electricity but now we use natural ________ and it's a lot cheaper.
7. Dad took some pills after dinner because he got some stomach ____________ from eating too much at the Chinese buffet tonight.
8. The Middle East gets much of its wealth from its enormous _______ reserves.
9. Mom told me to buy some sunflower _________ at the grocery store today.
10. Before I left home for the weekend, I put another $20 in my wallet in case I need to stop and get some _______ on the way back. *******************************************************************************



1. oil
2. gas
3. oil
4. oil
5. gas
6. gas
7. gas
8. oil
9. oil
10. gas


Do you want to improve your word power in English and learn more about life in the USA? Join one of our online classes today or contact me for more information!

Read 20873 times Last modified on Monday, 21 August 2017 22:59
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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