Archive for the ‘the English language’ Category


Going to the gym

May 14, 2014

by Liz Walter
Lots of us love the gym (or hate it and force ourselves to go anyway), so here is some vocabulary connected with going to the gym and getting fit.

You can join a gym whatever your level of fitness - the important thing is to set yourself goals that are suitable for you. If you are very unfit, you will need to start off with gentle exercises and build up slowly from there. You may want to hire a personal trainer to create an exercise routine for you.

If you want to focus on strength, then you will probably use weights, either in the form of machines or free weights. People usually lift weights in sets of perhaps 10 or 20, resting between sets. When you use the machines, you will need to adjust them to suit you, for example by raising or lowering the seat, and choosing how much weight you want to lift. If you sweat a lot, don’t forget to wipe down the equipment after you’ve used it. Read the rest of this entry ?


I’m afraid I disagree with you.

May 7, 2014

by Kate Woodford
Last week we looked at the ‘softeners’ (polite words and phrases) that people use to make requests sound nicer. This week we’re taking a look at the sort of phrases that people use when they are disagreeing with people and they don’t want to sound rude or express opinions that sound too strong.

The statement, ‘I disagree with you.’ sounds very strong in English and people often choose not to use it. However, if people do want to express strong disagreement and they use this phrase, they often ‘soften’ it slightly by first apologising: Read the rest of this entry ?


Would you mind reading this, please?

April 30, 2014

bowlerhatby Kate Woodford
It’s often said that native English speakers use a lot of ‘softeners’ in their language –  those words and phrases which make us sound nicer and more polite, (even if they have very little actual meaning). This week we’re taking a look at softeners and the sort of situations in which we often use them.

An obvious place to start is requesting – asking politely for things or for help. (It’s obviously a good idea to sound polite and pleasant if you want something from someone!) There are several ways to make it clear to someone that you are requesting something and not demanding it. Could I take this chair, please? sounds just a little bit nicer than Can I take this chair, please? The meaning is the same in both sentences, but with ‘could’ the speaker sounds a little less sure of the answer and this makes the request sound more polite. If you add the word ‘possibly’ to this phrase, you sound even more polite: Read the rest of this entry ?


Words from Indian languages

April 23, 2014

by Liz Walter
From the time the East India Company was set up by Queen Elizabeth I, England (and then Britain) has had a very close relationship with India. Although Hindi became the official language after the end of the British Raj, English is still widely used for communication between speakers of the nation’s more than 1,500 languages.

Of course, the process has not all been one way, and many words have passed from Indian languages into English, some of them so common that most people would have no idea of their origin. Shampoo, for instance, comes from a Hindi word meaning ‘to press’, and dungarees (trousers with an part that covers the chest and straps that go over the shoulders) take their name from the Hindi word for the thick cotton cloth from which they were often made. Bungalow (a house with only one level) comes from the Hindi for ‘in the Bengal style’. Read the rest of this entry ?


Not much between the ears: how to say that someone is stupid

April 16, 2014

by Liz Walter
There are many different ways of saying that someone is stupid, depending on factors such as who you are talking to, whether or not you care about offending someone, or how serious you are being.

We can describe someone who has trouble understanding things as slow or dim, but note that we almost always put words like a bit or rather in front of these words: Her husband’s a bit dim. My pupils were rather slow. A kinder way of describing a student who isn’t doing well is to use the verb struggle: My daughter struggles with maths. She’s struggling at school.

At a more advanced level, someone with a vacuous expression has little sign of intelligence in their face, while an inane remark is silly and has no real meaning.

In English, it is common to express critical ideas by using positive words in negative sentences. We say things such as: He’s not that bright. She’s not the sharpest pupil I’ve ever taught. They are the less intelligent ones. Read the rest of this entry ?


Present perfect or past simple?

April 9, 2014

present_perfectby Kate Woodford
Present perfect or past simple?

This is a tricky area of the English language for low-level learners, so let’s look again at the rules.

When we start studying English, we learn that to talk about an action that started and finished in the past, we use the past simple tense, (for regular verbs, the base verb + -ed):


I finished the course a month ago.

cooked dinner.

We saw Jamie yesterday.

Notice that we naturally use time expressions with the past simple – yesterday, a month ago, 2005, etc. Remember that when we use one of these words or phrases, we do not use the present perfect tense:

I’ve been to the USA in 2008.

I went to the USA in 2008. Read the rest of this entry ?


The Top 5 Ungrammatical Song Lyrics

April 3, 2014

by Kate Woodford and Dom Glennon
Are you annoyed by song lyrics that do not obey the rules of grammar? Do you correct them as you sing along? To mark the inclusion of English Grammar Today on Cambridge Dictionaries Online, we thought we’d count down some of the worst offences against the rules of grammar committed by songwriters, either deliberately, or without knowing.

5. The standard non-standard

Rock’n’roll has always been drawn to the rebellious side of life, so it’s little surprise that a large number of songs feature non-standard or slang grammar in their lyrics: double negatives such as ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ (‘Another Brick In The Wall’ by Pink Floyd) and ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ (‘Satisfaction‘ by The Rolling Stones). Some musicians go even further, adding in the equally non-standard ‘ain’t’, as in ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ by Bill Withers, and ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’ (‘Hound Dog‘ by Elvis Presley).

Perhaps the best example of deliberate breaking of the rules is in Louis Jordan’s ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?’, guaranteed to send your Word grammar-checker haywire. The non-standard seems almost standard in rock music. Read the rest of this entry ?


Phrases from Shakespeare, Part 2

April 1, 2014

by Kate Woodford
This week we’re looking at a few more of the phrases from the plays of William Shakespeare, (1564 – 1616), that are part of ordinary ‘everyday’ English. Again, some of these phrases were coined (= invented) by Shakespeare. Others, which were already in use when he was writing, were simply made popular by him.

In modern English, It’s all Greek to me is a way of saying that you do not understand something said or written. In Shakespeare’s history play, Julius Caesar, the character of Casca is asked what Cicero said and replies: ‘But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me’. (Cicero had been speaking Greek and Casca didn’t understand Greek.) In modern English, we have simply added the word ‘all’ to the phrase.

Today, something that beggars description is so very good or so very bad that you find it difficult to describe. (A ‘beggar’ is a poor person who asks other people for money and so ‘to beggar’ here means ‘to make someone or something very poor’.) In Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony’s friend says of Cleopatra’s appearance, For her own person, It beggar’d all description, meaning that Cleopatra’s appearance (‘her own person’) was so beautiful, it made words seem poor and useless.

Read the rest of this entry ?


Phrases from Shakespeare, Part 1

March 24, 2014

by Kate Woodford
English speakers often repeat lines and expressions from the plays of William Shakespeare, knowing that they are quoting (= saying words by) the famous English writer, (1564 – 1616). However, they also use phrases as part of ordinary ‘everyday’ English without even knowing that they appeared in Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these phrases Shakespeare himself coined (= invented). Others, which were already in use when he was writing, became popular after he included them in his plays.

The phrase a fool’s paradise is used in modern English to mean ‘a situation in which someone is happy because they think they are in a good situation although in fact, the situation is bad’. (A ‘fool’ is a stupid person and ‘paradise’ is a very happy place). This phrase appears in Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet.  The character of Nurse talks to Romeo in order to find out whether he loves Juliet. She warns him not to lead Juliet into a fool’s paradise, meaning that if Romeo does not love Juliet, he should not make her believe that he does.

People sometimes say, ‘All that glitters is not gold’, meaning ‘things which seem at first to be good are sometimes less good when you understand more about them’. (The phrase literally means ‘not everything that shines is gold’. ‘To glitter’ means ‘to shine brightly’.)  This phrase was used in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, although Shakespeare used the old word ‘glister’ instead of ‘glitter’.  This is a theme that we often see in the plays of Shakespeare – the idea that appearances can be false, making you believe things that are not true. Read the rest of this entry ?


Hirata buns or kimchi, anyone? New words connected with food.

March 17, 2014

by Liz Walter
Once notorious for our diet of meat and two soggy veg, we in the UK are now happily tucking into sushi, dim sum, tacos and fajitas, chorizo, bruschetta, tagines, baklava, guacamole, felafels and houmous (over 30 million pots a year from one supermarket chain alone!).

All of this gives the lexicographer a bit of a headache. When do these foods become established enough to merit a place in the dictionary? After all, pretzels, ketchup and lasagne were considered ‘foreign’ once, but are now firmly part of the English language.

As part of our work, my colleague Kate Woodford and I collect new words as they come into English (many of which you can find on this website). We don’t try to predict whether or not they will catch on, but just record them for future research. So I decided to look back at food words we captured between 2005 and 2010 to see which of them have made it into general use. Read the rest of this entry ?


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