Turning the corner by leaps and bounds: talking about improvement

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by Liz Walter

Today’s post is about words and phrases that express the idea of things improving or being improved. The most common way to talk about improvement is to say that something gets better or that we make something better:

The weather was terrible earlier, but it’s getting better now.

We are always looking for ways to make our products better. Continue reading “Turning the corner by leaps and bounds: talking about improvement”

Glaring errors and patent nonsense: ways of saying that things are obvious

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by Kate Woodford

One thing that we aim to do on this blog is look at the many different ways we express the same thing in English. This week we’re focusing on words that have the basic meaning of ‘obvious’. As you know, near-synonyms can be different from each other in a number of ways. Many of the synonyms that we will look at here are different because of the things that they usually describe and the words that they are often combined with. Continue reading “Glaring errors and patent nonsense: ways of saying that things are obvious”

Heavy traffic and prompting speculation: the importance of collocation

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by Liz Walter

For students who want to make their English as natural as possible, concentrating on collocation – the way words go together – is probably the most important thing they can do. Studies of non-native English speakers show they use simple words such as ‘bad’, ‘start’ or ‘make’ more often than first-language English speakers do. This isn’t surprising – it’s natural to learn the simplest, most common words of a language first. But one of the best ways to take your English to a more advanced level is to learn new words together with their ‘word partners’ – the words that often go with them.

Often, these collocations aren’t easy to predict. For example, you might not be able to guess that we say heavy traffic to describe a lot of traffic. Similarly, a heavy smoker is someone who smokes a lot – not a smoker who needs to lose weight! These are examples of adjective + noun collocations. A few other examples are glaring errors (very bad and obvious errors), juicy gossip (very interesting gossip), rolling hills (hills with gentle curves) and wild accusations (extreme accusations that are not based on facts).

There are other common collocation types, such as verb + noun collocations. Many of you will already know that people commit crimes instead of ‘do’ crimes or ‘make’ crimes. Sometimes verb + noun collocations use more advanced English, and so it is much more impressive to use a great collocation. For example, something might ‘cause speculation’ or ‘be a challenge’, but your English will sound much more impressive if you can say that something prompts speculation or poses a challenge.

Look out for adverb + adjective collocations too. There are several combinations used for emphasis, such as bitterly disappointed or blindingly obvious. Sometimes these collocations add emphasis by highlighting the meaning of the adjective, as in freely available (easy to get), and sometimes they limit the meaning of the adjective, as in vaguely aware (aware but not clearly).

Try to get into the habit of thinking about collocation whenever you learn a new word. For instance, if you learn a noun, ask yourself, ‘What verb do I need to use this noun?’ or ‘Which adjectives typically describe this noun?’ A good learner’s dictionaries, such as the one on this site, will give a lot of help with collocation. When you look up a word, look at the example sentences. Any parts in bold type are typical collocations, and therefore worth learning. I intend to write more about collocation over the next few weeks – do let me know if there are any particular areas you would like me to cover.

Deaf ears and high horses: everyday idioms in newspapers

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by Kate Woodford

Today we’re looking at idioms and expressions from a range of national newspapers that were published on the same day. We do this every couple of months as a way of supplying you with up-to-date, frequently used idioms.

One newspaper describes the UK Prime Minister’s plans for leaving the EU as ‘a leap of faith’. Leap of faith refers to the act of believing in something when you have no real reason to believe that it is true or will happen.

In the news pages of a different paper, a journalist remarks that the Prime Minister’s advice to members of her own party will ‘fall on deaf ears’. If a suggestion or warning falls on deaf ears, no one listens to it.

Another tabloid is confident that the plans for Brexit will succeed and says it will be ‘full steam ahead’ for the UK after the leaving date. If you say it’s full steam ahead in relation to a particular project or piece of work, you mean that it will be started with great energy and enthusiasm.

The same paper also warns politicians that if they oppose the Prime Minister’s plan, they ‘can kiss goodbye to their jobs and their party’. If you say that someone can kiss goodbye to something desirable, you mean they should accept that they will not have it.

Thankfully, Brexit isn’t the only topic being discussed in the papers! The fashion pages of one newspaper feature an article on ‘vegan style’: that is, clothes that contain no animal products, such as leather or wool. ‘Green is the new black!’, it claims. The statement […] is the new black is used to say that something is now very fashionable. (‘Green’ here refers to clothes made in a way that does not harm the environment.)

On the sports pages of the same paper, it is written that a series of defeats have ‘taken their toll on’ the manager of a Premier League football team. If problems take their toll or take a toll on someone, they cause them harm or suffering.

A sports journalist in another newspaper writes about a football club that has recently criticized another club for using dishonest techniques to improve their game. The journalist describes the first club as ‘getting on their high horse’. If you get on your high horse, you speak or behave as if you are better than someone else when, in reality, you are not.

Still in the sports pages, another writers says a previously successful football team is now looking like ‘a spent force’. A spent force refers to someone or something that does not now have the power or ability that they used to have.

It’s just so difficult! How to use the word ‘just’

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by Liz Walter

Just is a really annoying word for learners of English! It’s very common and we use it in lots of different situations, often with quite different meanings. In this post, I will try to explain some of the most common ways in which we use it – not only on its own, but as a part of some common phrases.

We often use just to talk about when something happens. It can mean ‘a very short time ago’ or ‘very recently’:

I’ve just spoken to Tom. (UK)/I just spoke to Tom. (US)

They had just arrived in London. Continue reading “It’s just so difficult! How to use the word ‘just’”

Don’t hold your breath! The language of planning, part 2

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by Kate Woodford

Last month we looked at the language of planning and making arrangements. Sadly, not everything in life goes according to plan (=happens as intended) and it is wise to keep this in mind when making arrangements! This post, then, focuses on planning words and phrases that relate to problems.

A contingency is something that you know might happen in the future which would cause problems and require further arrangements:

We must prepare for all contingencies.

A contingency plan is a plan that can be used if a problem arises (=happens):

Fortunately, a contingency plan was in place for dealing with such emergencies. Continue reading “Don’t hold your breath! The language of planning, part 2”

It slipped my mind: words and phrases connected with forgetting

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by Liz Walter

Back in 2015, my colleague Kate Woodford wrote a post about words connected with remembering. Today’s post looks at the opposite: words and phrases for forgetting.

It is surprising that for such an important concept, there aren’t really any direct, one-word synonyms for the verb ‘forget’. A slightly formal way to talk about forgetting is to say that you have no memory/recollection of something:

We lived in Russia when I was a baby, but I have no memory of that time. Continue reading “It slipped my mind: words and phrases connected with forgetting”

Setting up and mapping out – the language of planning part 1

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by Kate Woodford

January and February seem like the right months of the year for a post on the language of planning. Since there’s so much useful vocabulary in this area, this will be a two-part blog post.

Starting with near-synonyms for ‘arrange’, a handy phrasal verb is set up. To set up a meeting or similar event is to organize it:

We need to set up a meeting.

I’ve set up interviews with both candidates.

You might also say that you line up an event or number of events: We’ve lined up some great speakers for you this week. 

To schedule a formal or an official event is to arrange for it to happen at a particular time:

The flight was scheduled to arrive at 8:45.

We have a meeting scheduled for 10 a.m.

If you reschedule something, you agree on a new and later time or date for something to happen: I’ve rescheduled Tuesday’s meeting for Wednesday.

If you plan in detail a period of time or future project, you might say that you map it out: He’s got his career all mapped out ahead of him

If you make temporary arrangements which may change in the future, you might describe them as provisional: These dates are only provisional.

You could say the same thing by saying that you will pencil in the arrangement: Okay, let’s pencil in a meeting for next Thursday at 11.

A related phrase is not set in stone, meaning ‘not fixed’: These dates may change nearer the time – they’re certainly not set in stone.

To say that you make a provisional plan definite, you might use the phrasal verb firm up: We’ll need to firm up the details of the agreement.

To call or write to someone in order to say that a formal arrangement is certain is to confirm it: Provisionally, we’ll say February 20th for the meeting, then, but confirm it later.

To anticipate something when you are planning is to expect that it will happen: I don’t anticipate any problems with this stage of the project.

If you allow for something that might happen, you consider it when planning and make arrangements for it: We have to allow for the possibility that the project might be delayed.

Meanwhile, if you reckon on or count on something happening, you think it is very likely and make plans that depend on it happening: We’re reckoning on selling 3,00 units a week.

Part 2 of this post will look at planning for potential problems.

It makes my blood boil! (The language of anger)

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by Kate Woodford

Anger solves nothing, or so they say. Whether or not this is true, we all feel angry now and then. You probably already know the angry synonyms annoyed and irritated, but perhaps you’d like a more interesting range of expressions to describe this feeling? If so, read on! Continue reading “It makes my blood boil! (The language of anger)”

Divulging and disclosing (The language of giving information)

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by Kate Woodford

We tell each other things all the time, whether it’s our news, some important information or just interesting facts. This week we’re focusing on the language that we use to describe giving information.

Starting with a really useful phrasal verb, if you pass on a message or a piece of news that someone has told you, you tell it to someone else:

Remember to pass on my message to Ted.

No one passed the news on to me.

The verb relay means the same: He heard the announcement and immediately relayed the news to his colleagues.

Sometimes we pass on information to lots of people. The verb spread is often used for this. It frequently comes before the nouns gossip and rumour:

I hope you’re not spreading gossip, Alice!

He’d apparently been spreading rumours about her around the school.

Spread’ is also used intransitively to describe the way that information quickly becomes known by lots of people: So why does fake news spread so quickly?

The verb circulate is also used in this way: News of her retirement quickly circulated around the office.

Another verb meaning ‘to tell information to a lot of people’ is broadcast. People use it especially about information that they would prefer to be private: I’d rather my news wasn’t broadcast to the entire office!

The more formal verb disseminate is also used, but without the negative meaning: One of the organization’s aims is to disseminate information about the disease.

Other words mean ‘to give secret information’, for example reveal, divulge and (formal) disclose:

He wouldn’t reveal what was written in the letter.

When asked, she refused to divulge her salary.

They made an agreement not to disclose any details.

An informal phrasal verb with this meaning is let on. If you let on, you tell others about something secret: Please don’t let on that I told you she’s leaving!

Another phrasal verb is blurt out. If you blurt out a secret fact, you say it suddenly and without thinking, usually because you’re nervous or excited: I was supposed to be keeping it secret and then I just blurted it out!

There are two nice idioms for giving secret information. If you let the cat out of the bag or spill the beans, you tell people something that should have been secret:

I wasn’t going to tell anyone about my plans but Anita let the cat out of the bag.

So who spilled the beans about Daniel’s promotion?

Be careful what you divulge this week!