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.

I used to work hard/I’m used to working hard (Phrases with ‘used to’)

by Kate Woodford


On this blog, we like to look at words and phrases in the English language that learners often have difficulty with. Two phrases that can be confused are ‘used to do something’ and ‘be used to something/doing something’. People often use one phrase when they mean the other, or they use the wrong form of the verb that comes after one of these phrases. This is not at all surprising. Although these ‘used to’ phrases have different meanings, they both refer to things that are often done or experienced. If you find ‘used to’ confusing, take five minutes to read this post. It may all become clear!

I used to walk to the office in my old job.

I used to have fair hair when I was a child.

Continue reading “I used to work hard/I’m used to working hard (Phrases with ‘used to’)”

Since, for and ago: talking about periods of time

by Liz Walter
since for ago
It often seems that small, common words cause the most mistakes, and I certainly hear my students making errors with words like since, for and ago. This post therefore looks at some common errors connected with talking about periods of time and explains how to avoid them.

First, let’s look at the difference between since and for. They are both used to say how long something has been happening, but while since is followed by a precise time or a date, for is followed by a length of time: Continue reading “Since, for and ago: talking about periods of time”

A, an, and the: how to use articles in English

by Liz Walter​
Many learners of English have problems with articles (the words a, an and the), especially when they don’t exist in their own language. This blog looks at some of the basic rules.

The number one rule is this: if a word is countable (e.g. one book, two books), you must always use an article (or my, his, etc.):


I read a book.

I read book.

This is true even if there are adjectives before the noun:

He drives an old car.

He drives old car. Continue reading “A, an, and the: how to use articles in English”

Countability – grammar codes

by Dom Glennon​​


Advices and informations

Have you ever noticed strange codes in square brackets on entries in Cambridge Dictionaries Online and wondered what they mean? These are grammar codes, giving you a brief summary of how that word behaves grammatically. More information can be obtained by hovering your cursor over the code, and there’s a full page of them here, but we thought we’d look at some in more detail.
Continue reading “Countability – grammar codes”