Countable or uncountable, and why it matters

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by Liz Walter

Many dictionaries for learners of English (including the one on this site) show whether nouns are ‘countable’ or ‘uncountable’, often using the abbreviations C and U. Countable nouns are things that you can count – one dog, two dogs, twenty dogs, etc. Uncountable nouns are things that you cannot count – water, sadness, plastic, etc.

Continue reading “Countable or uncountable, and why it matters”

How to use articles: another look (2)

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by Liz Walter

Last month I looked at some of the questions raised in response to my 2015 post on articles. This post continues to answer some of these interesting points.

Continue reading “How to use articles: another look (2)”

How to use articles: another look (1)

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by Liz Walter

Back in August 2015, I wrote a post about using articles – the words a, an and the. That post has had the most hits of any published on this site, so it is obviously an area that learners of English are interested in. You can read the post here: https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2015/08/19/a-an-and-the-how-to-use-articles-in-english/.

If you are not sure about using articles, do go and read it, as it contains all the most important rules. However, looking back over it now, I’m struck by the number of interesting comments and queries, so in this post and the next one, I am going to follow up on some of these because I think (hope!) a lot of people will find the answers useful.

Continue reading “How to use articles: another look (1)”

I wish I’d studied harder: Expressing regrets and wishes

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by Liz Walter

Nobody’s life is perfect, right? We all have things we’d like to change, or things we wish hadn’t happened. This post is about the way we express those feelings, and in particular the tenses we use, as learners of English (very understandably!) often make mistakes with them.

There are two basic phrases we use to express regrets and wishes: I wish and If only … .

When you are talking about situations that exist in the present, the strange thing you need to remember is that you talk about the situation in the past simple: Continue reading “I wish I’d studied harder: Expressing regrets and wishes”

Vertebrae, bacteria and cacti: Forming plurals in English 2

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by Liz Walter

Last month I looked at the basic rules for forming plurals in English . In this post, I look at some more complex cases, where the words come from Latin and Greek.

A large proportion of English words have Latin or Greek roots. We still use the Latin plurals for many words, particularly in scientific language, although it is acceptable to use English plurals (usually with ‘s’ or ‘es’) for some of them, particularly non-technical words such as stadium or cactus. However, this depends on the English plural being simple to pronounce – the plural of crisis is always crises, probably because ‘crisises’ is so difficult to say. Continue reading “Vertebrae, bacteria and cacti: Forming plurals in English 2”

Feet, knives and sheep: Forming plurals in English 1

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by Liz Walter

For the majority of words in English, forming the plural is easy. All you need to do is add ‘s’. If the word ends in s, x, z, ch, or sh, you add ‘es’, otherwise it will be impossible to say. So, for example, we get tablesbirds, and teachers, or boxes, churches, and dishes.

However, as with most rules in English, there are lots of exceptions. I’ll start with some really common words that have irregular plurals. If you only have time to learn a few, learn these: Continue reading “Feet, knives and sheep: Forming plurals in English 1”

I’ll believe it when I see it: talking about certainty, probability and possibility

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by Liz Walter

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that ‘nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. We all know how annoying it can be when someone seems to be completely sure about all their opinions, so it is important to be able to express certainty only where it is justified, and other degrees of probability or possibility where they are appropriate.

The most common way to do this is to use modal verbs. Compare the following sentences: Continue reading “I’ll believe it when I see it: talking about certainty, probability and possibility”

When no one was looking, she opened the door: Using narrative tenses

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by Liz Walter

Everyone tells stories. We do it every day, even if it’s just telling our family that we met an old friend in the supermarket. English exams often ask students to write anecdotes or descriptions of past events. An important part of telling a story is using the right tenses because they show the reader or listener how the events in your story fit together. There are four main tenses that are often used for stories – in English language teaching, they are often known as the narrative tenses, because they are used to narrate (=tell) a story. Continue reading “When no one was looking, she opened the door: Using narrative tenses”

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”

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”