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

Jennifer Dietrich / EyeEm /GettyImages

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

Nora Carol Photography / Moment / GettyImages

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

Chaiyaporn Baokaew / Moment / GettyImages

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

Utamaru Kido/Moment/GettyImages

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

UpperCut Images/GettyImages

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.”

Money for Old Rope! (Money idioms)

by Kate Woodford​
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Continuing our occasional series on idioms that relate to the world of business, we look this week at phrases that express something about money.

There are a number of phrases relating to making money (and not all are admiring). A cash cow is a product or an area of a business that a company can rely on because it always makes money. The money made is often used to support other business activities: The credit card had become the bank’s cash cow. A person or company’s main way of earning money may be described as their bread and butter: They provide legal advice for companies – that’s their bread and butter. In UK English, a way of earning money that is very easy, needing little effort, may be referred to as money for old rope or money for jamA lot of people assume that buying and selling property is money for old rope. Similarly, on hearing about an easy job that earns a lot of money for someone else, someone might say humorously, Nice work if you can get it! Eighty pounds an hour for rubbing someone’s shoulders? Nice work if you can get it! Continue reading “Money for Old Rope! (Money idioms)”

I appreciate that this is hard for you. (Other ways of saying ‘understand’)

by Kate Woodford​
understand_1
Following on from last week’s post on near-synonyms, we’re looking this week at various ways of saying that we understand things. Starting with a very common near-synonym, the verb ‘realize’ is often used for talking about the state of understanding and knowing things: I realize this is difficult for you. It is also used to say that we start to understand something: As she was speaking I suddenly realized that we’d met before. The verb ‘grasp’ also means ‘understand’ but is used to mean ‘to succeed in understanding something’ and is often used to talk about understanding difficult things: It was quite a high-level talk but I think I managed to grasp the main points./She couldn’t seem to grasp the concept. (The noun ‘grasp’ is also used: His grasp of grammar is very impressive for a seven-year-old.)

A phrase which is used for succeeding in understanding is ‘get the gist’. If you get the gist of something spoken or written, you manage to understand the main points though you may not understand or remember the precise details: I think I got the gist of what he was saying. Another such phrase is make sense of. If you make sense of something complicated or unclear, you manage to understand it: I’ve read the paragraph three times now and I still can’t make sense of it! Appreciate’ is used in a similar way. If you appreciate something serious about a situation, you understand it or you understand the reasons for it: I appreciate that this is a very difficult decision for you to make.

As we mentioned in a previous post (There is no such thing as a true synonym in English), ‘comprehend’ is a formal near-synonym for ‘understand’. We comprehend serious, difficult things, usually situations rather than subjects: They evidently failed to comprehend the seriousness of the threat.

An informal word for ‘understand’ that is very commonly used in conversation is ‘get’. It is often used in the phrase ‘get it’: Everyone’s going crazy for him. I don’t get it – what do they see in him? Note that we often say that we ‘get a joke’ when we understand what is funny about a joke. We use this sense of ‘get’ in other phrases too. For example, you might say ‘I get the message’ to someone who is asking you to do something but is saying it in an indirect way, usually because they don’t want to offend you: Oh, I get the message – you want to go without me, right? Similarly, you might say ‘I get the picture’ to a person who is describing a bad situation in a slightly indirect way to let them know that you understand what they are saying: ‘He’s not the most organised person and he can be a bit forgetful.’ ‘I get the picture. I’ve worked with people like that.’

Sometimes it takes a while to understand something. In British English, the phrase ‘the penny drops’ is used to say that you or someone else finally understand what is being said or what is happening: Then I saw them together at Sophie’s party and the penny dropped. I had no idea that they were a couple!

I’ve known Sara for years (Talking about friends)

by Kate Woodford​
Talking_about_Friends
Our friends are important to us so we tend to talk about them. And what sort of things do we say? We might talk about how strong a friendship is. If we say that we are close to someone, we mean that we know and like them a lot: I’ve known Sara for years – we’re very close. / She’s very close to her brother. You might instead describe someone as a good friend (of yours): Paolo’s a good friend of mine. You could also use the phrasal verb get on (UK) / get along (US), meaning ‘to like someone and have a good relationship with them’: I like James – we’ve always got on / gotten along.

Sometimes we talk about how a friendship started. You may say that you met a friend through another person: I met Alice through a work friend of mine called Lucy. (The friend who introduced you – a friend of two people – is known as a mutual friend). Perhaps you were at a party and you started talking with someone although you didn’t know them. For this, you could say you struck up (= started) a conversation: We were both waiting to get a drink and struck up a conversation. If you liked the person immediately, you could use the informal phrase hit it off: Jamie introduced us at a party and we hit it off immediately. Of course, as we spend more time with a person, we gradually learn more about them. To describe this process, you may say that you get to know someone: He seemed so nice. I thought I’d like to get to know him. / We worked together on a six-month project so I got to know her quite well. If you have known someone for a long time, you might use the phrase to go back a long way: Claire and I met at college twenty years ago so we go back a long way. Continue reading “I’ve known Sara for years (Talking about friends)”