Can you do a handstand? Talking about ability

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by Liz Walter

We often need to talk about things we can do and ask other people questions about their own abilities. This post looks in some detail at the common modal verb can and also suggests some other ways to express the same idea.

We use can extremely often to make statements and questions. Remember that can is always followed by an infinitive verb without to.

Laura can play the piano.

Laura can to play the piano.

Can you see the stage from here?

Can you seeing the stage from here? Continue reading “Can you do a handstand? Talking about ability”

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, grammar schools or renationalized railways? The UK general election.

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by Liz Walter

UK citizens are going to the polls on June 8th to choose their next government. Again.

Yes, we had a general election in 2015, and yes, in theory, we have a five-year fixed-term parliament, so really we should have waited until 2020. However, our Prime Minister, Theresa May, decided that it would be a good idea to call a snap election (one decided suddenly). Since this is a language blog, I won’t speculate on her reasons, but instead concentrate on the language being used in the campaign. Continue reading “Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, grammar schools or renationalized railways? The UK general election.”

We agree but she agrees: the importance of subject-verb agreement

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by Liz Walter

One of the most common errors students make is to miss the ‘s’ from verbs after he, she or it:

Maria likes pizza.

Maria like pizza.

Of course, people will still understand you if you make this mistake, but you would lose marks for it in an English exam.

This sort of error is called an agreement error. Every normal sentence has a subject (in this case Maria) and a verb (like). The form of the verb depends on who or what the subject is. First, you need to think about whether the subject is singular or plural: Continue reading “We agree but she agrees: the importance of subject-verb agreement”

Sweltering, torrential and gusty: interesting words for talking about weather.

by Liz Walter

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Most students learn words for weather quite early in their studies. It’s easy to stick with well-known phrases such as sunny day or heavy rain, but there is a lot of more interesting vocabulary associated with the weather, as you would expect for one of the world’s favourite topics of conversation! In this post, I offer some suggestions for expanding your range of weather vocabulary.

Let’s start with temperature. Very hot weather can be described as scorching, sweltering or boiling. If it is the kind of heat that makes you feel as if you can’t breathe, it is stifling or oppressive. At the other end of the scale, we can describe very cold weather as freezing, bitter or even bone-chilling if we find it unpleasant. Wintry weather is also cold, but this is not necessarily a negative description – it can be used for a pleasant snowy or icy day. In between these two extremes, mild is a positive adjective for weather that is not particularly hot but not too cold either. Continue reading “Sweltering, torrential and gusty: interesting words for talking about weather.”

Accept or except? Affect or effect? Spelling words that sound similar.

by Liz Walter

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A reader of one of my recent posts asked for an explanation of the difference between aught and ought. Aught is a very old-fashioned word, found mainly in old literature or poetry. Strangely, it can mean ‘anything’ or ‘nothing’, depending on the context. Ought is both a less common spelling of aught and (much more importantly) a very common modal verb, used in sentences such as: You ought to take more exercise.

In reality, most people go through their whole lives without ever using the word aught, so they are not likely to confuse the two. However, the question made me think about more common words that my students (and also many mother-tongue speakers) often muddle up. Continue reading “Accept or except? Affect or effect? Spelling words that sound similar.”

April fool – the language of jokes and tricks

by Liz Walter

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April 1st is known in many Western countries as ‘April Fool’s Day’. The idea is to trick other people, to try to make them believe things that are not true. If you succeed, you shout ‘April fool!’ at the person you have tricked. In honour of April Fool’s Day, this post will look at some words and phrases connected with this custom.

One important thing is to remember that we play tricks on someone (we don’t ‘make’ or ‘do’ them). The tricks are often practical jokes (using actions instead of words), and they are almost always harmless – they are intended to be fun. Other words for this kind of trick are prank or hoax, although the word ‘hoax’ can also be used for more serious, unpleasant tricks in the same way as the words fraud or deceit. Continue reading “April fool – the language of jokes and tricks”

Phrasal verbs with more than one meaning

by Liz Walter

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Phrasal verbs are often difficult to learn because they tend to be formed from fairly common verbs and particles. To make matters worse, many of them have more than one meaning, and some have many, many meanings – pick up has 24 senses in the Cambridge Phrasal Verbs Dictionary!

Look at these sentences with go out, for example:

Did you go out last night? (leave your home for a social activity)

The fire’s gone out. (stopped burning)

The tide will go out at around 6 today. (go away from the shore) Continue reading “Phrasal verbs with more than one meaning”

All, both, and everyone: How to use pronouns (2)

by Liz Walter

Judit Grosz/EyeEm/Getty
Judit Grosz/EyeEm/Getty

In my last post I looked mainly at personal pronouns such as he, them and yours. This post looks at some other common pronouns and at errors that students often make with them.

I’ll begin with the set most closely related to those we looked at last time – the reflexive pronouns myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. These are used when the person or thing affected by the action is the same person or thing that is doing the action.

I bought myself a new phone.

Clara looked at herself in the mirror. Continue reading “All, both, and everyone: How to use pronouns (2)”

Me, myself and I: How to use pronouns (1)

by Liz Walter

Lamaip/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Lamaip/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Pronouns are words we use instead of nouns in order to avoid repeating the nouns. Compare the following:

Laura picked up the book. Laura gave the book to Zalie.

Laura picked up the book. She gave it to Zalie.

We use pronouns when we have already mentioned a person or thing, or when it is obvious who or what they are.

The most common pronouns are personal pronouns – pronouns that refer to people or things. The most important thing to remember about these is that (with the exception of you and it), they are different according to whether they are the subject or the object of a sentence. Continue reading “Me, myself and I: How to use pronouns (1)”

Transitive or intransitive; Countable or uncountable – what does it all mean??

by Liz Walter

RonTech2000/iStock/Getty Images Plus
RonTech2000/iStock/Getty Images Plus

It’s all very well being told that we use many in front of countable plural nouns and much before uncountable nouns, but what happens if you don’t know what ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’ mean? People like me, who write about language, use these terms all the time but why should we assume that our readers know them? After all, they are quite technical, and most people in the street wouldn’t know their meaning. That’s why I thought we’d take a step back this week and look at a few really basic terms that help learners understand language. Continue reading “Transitive or intransitive; Countable or uncountable – what does it all mean??”