Can you do a handstand? Talking about ability


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”

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

Szymon Migaj/EyeEm/Getty

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”

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??”

Some or any? Little words that cause big problems

by Liz Walter

Elizabeth Livermore/Moment/Getty
Elizabeth Livermore/Moment/Getty

Some and any are extremely useful and frequent words in English, but they are also the source of many learner errors. This post looks at how to use them correctly.

The first thing to remember is that we only use some and any directly before either a plural noun or an uncountable noun:

We bought some clothes.

Do you have any milk?

Do not use some or any with a singular countable noun:

Would you like some piece of cake? Continue reading “Some or any? Little words that cause big problems”

Do you like swimming?: How to form questions in English

by Liz Walter

ChiccoDodiFC/iStock/Getty Images Plus
ChiccoDodiFC/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Questions are a basic part of our conversations, but they are quite difficult in English. Many students make mistakes with them. Here are some basic rules to make your questions correct.

Let’s start with questions that have a simple answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

For all verbs except ‘to be’, we use do and the infinitive form of another verb to make present simple and past simple questions. The word order is do/does + subject + infinitive:

            Do you like cheese?

            Does Oscar have any brothers or sisters?

            Did you visit the Taj Mahal while you were in India? Continue reading “Do you like swimming?: How to form questions in English”

Modal verbs – the basics

by Liz Walter


The main modal verbs in English are: can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, will and would.

They are used to express important ideas:

Alice might/will come later. (degrees of probability)

You should call your mother. (advice)

Often the same modal verb can be used with different functions.

You must wear a helmet. (giving instructions)

His children must be grown up now. (expressing certainty)

Can you play the piano? (asking about ability)

Can we take photos? (asking for permission) Continue reading “Modal verbs – the basics”

A bunch of stuff about plurals

by Colin McIntosh

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

One of the many ways in which English differs from other languages is its use of uncountable nouns to talk about collections of objects: as well as never being used in the plural, they’re never used with a or an. Examples are furniture (plural in German and many other languages), cutlery (plural in Italian), and information (plural in French). They’re all marked U in the dictionary. They can be made countable, but they need the addition of another word: pieces of furniture, items of cutlery.

One group of words, including some that are new to the Cambridge dictionary, is slightly problematic. Mostly borrowed from Latin, these words are grammatically plural in their original language. Not having a plural –s to show that they’re plural, though, they are reinterpreted as singular (most of us are not fluent in Latin). A very careful speaker will use a plural verb with these words, but plenty of evidence can be found online for their use with singular verbs. Continue reading “A bunch of stuff about plurals”

Still, already and yet: Which do I use where?

by Liz Walter

yetThis post looks at the words still, already and yet – three common words that often cause problems for students.

We use still to talk about situations that continue to exist at the present time or at the time you are talking about:

He still hasn’t said sorry.

Note that (like words such as often and sometimes) still comes before the verb (unless it is be, when it comes after) or between the auxiliary and the main verb:

She still lives with her mother.

She lives still with her mother.

They were still living in London.

They were living still in London.

It is possible, but much less common, to put still at the end of the sentence:

She lives with her mother still.

We use yet in negative sentences to talk about things that have not happened up to the present time or the time you are talking about. With yet, Brits are most likely to use the present perfect, while Americans often use the past simple:

I haven’t read the document yet. (UK)

I didn’t read the document yet. (US)

We also use yet in simple, present tense questions, but not in positive statements:

Are you hungry yet?

Is the doctor here yet?

I am hungry yet.

We often use yet to ask whether something has been done. Again, Brits are most likely to use the present perfect, where Americans usually use the past simple:

Have you done your homework yet? (UK)

Did you do your homework yet? (US)

Note that we almost always put yet at the end of the sentence. It is possible to put it before the verb in negative sentences, but this is rather formal:

He hasn’t yet received the document.

Make sure you don’t use yet when you should use already. We use already to talk about things that have happened or been done before, or that have happened or been done before the expected time. Again, Brits often use the present perfect where Americans use the past simple:

I’ve already seen that movie. (UK)

I already saw that movie. (US)

Have you finished your work already?  (UK)

Did you finish your work already? (US)

Be careful with the spelling of already too – remember that it only has one ‘l’!

So, did you know all this information already? Perhaps you haven’t learned it in your English lessons yet? Or maybe you learned it in class but you still didn’t understand it completely? Anyway, I hope it is clearer now!

If you’d like some more information on still, already and yet, you can find it here.