Hurling insults and hazarding a guess: ways to talk about communication

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by Liz Walter

Last month I wrote about the importance of collocations (word partners) for making your English fluent and natural. In this post I am going to concentrate on collocations connected with a very basic topic – communicating.

A major reason to learn good collocations is to avoid using common words too much. So while it’s fine to say that someone ‘starts’ or ‘has’ a conversation, it would be much more impressive to use the collocations strike up a conversation or hold a conversation:

She struck up a conversation with one of the other passengers.

I know enough French to be able to hold a conversation. Continue reading “Hurling insults and hazarding a guess: ways to talk about communication”

Flies on the wall and fish out of water: animal idioms, part 2

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by Kate Woodford

This week we return to animal idioms, starting with the humble – and often irritating! – fly. Though small in size, the fly appears in a surprisingly large number of common idioms. To describe someone who is very gentle and who never offends or hurts others, you might say they wouldn’t hurt a fly:

I don’t believe Molly did that. She wouldn’t hurt a fly! Continue reading “Flies on the wall and fish out of water: animal idioms, part 2”

Going from bad to worse: talking about things getting worse

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by Liz Walter

Last month I wrote about words and phrases for talking about improvement. This post covers the opposite: talking about things getting worse. Get worse is the most common way of expressing this idea:

The weather seems to be getting worse.

Continue reading “Going from bad to worse: talking about things getting worse”

Dogs’ breakfasts and cats among the pigeons: animal idioms, part 1

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by Kate Woodford

Readers of this blog often tell us that they want to learn more English idioms. To help with this, we’ve decided to publish a short series of posts on animal idioms. Animals feature in a lot of English idioms. Some learners find them easy to remember because they create such a strong image in the mind. Continue reading “Dogs’ breakfasts and cats among the pigeons: animal idioms, part 1”

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.

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”

Kept under wraps: Idioms that describe secrets

by Kate Woodford

secretAs part of our series on English idioms, we’re looking this week at common expressions for describing secrets and secretive behaviour.

A lot of expressions refer to secret situations or information. If someone keeps a new piece of work or information under wraps, they keep it secret: They didn’t know whether to make the announcement immediately or keep it under wraps for a few weeks. Someone who has something up their sleeve has a secret plan: Who knows what she has up her sleeve. If a situation is cloaked or shrouded in secrecy/mystery, it is deliberately kept secret: Very little was known about the incident. For years it was shrouded in secrecy. Meanwhile, something that happens behind closed doors happens in a place where most people cannot see or hear it: These deals take place behind closed doors. Continue reading “Kept under wraps: Idioms that describe secrets”

‘You could always email him’ – how to make suggestions sound nicer.

by Kate Woodford

politeThese two speakers are giving the same piece of advice to a friend. Compare the words that they use to make the suggestion:

Speaker A: You should go to a different hairdresser.

Speaker B: Have you thought of going to a different hairdresser?

How does speaker A sound to you? Direct? Bossy? Perhaps a little rude? How about speaker B? Polite? Kind? Careful not to upset someone? If you want to sound more like speaker B when giving advice to your friends, read this post. It will tell you simple ways to make your suggestions sound ‘softer’ and more polite.

The first thing to say is that suggestions that start with ‘you should…’ sound very definite. Of course, there will be times when you need to give people very definite advice, but for situations in which you want to suggest something in a gentler, less forceful way, it is best to avoid this phrase. There are a number of ways of making your suggestion sound less certain (and therefore more polite). For example, try making a suggestion by using one of the following question phrases: Continue reading “‘You could always email him’ – how to make suggestions sound nicer.”