Use the links below to read a language tip.
One of the things that really gives a language its character is its idioms, yet when I first started teaching I was always a little wary of spending too much time explicitly teaching them. If I had to put it in a nutshell, i.e. summarise it clearly, I would say that my reluctance stemmed from a fear that learners would find the idioms obscure and struggle to use them correctly.
However, experience has taught me differently. Here’s why:
1) Students very often describe situations for which an idiom is the best way of expressing what they want to say. Giving them the idiom therefore expands their ability to communicate their meaning.
2) Learners are often keen to give me a translation of an idiom in their language and very often I can supply the equivalent expression in English. For example, a Korean student told me that in Korean there is an expression along the lines of ‘someone else’s rice cake always looks bigger than yours.’ In English we would say ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ Both of these sayings neatly and memorably express the idea that something which you already have can be appealing just because it belongs to someone else.
3) It’s actually impossible to avoid idiomatic language altogether, and many expressions which seem natural to a native speaker have a metaphorical meaning which, once understood, clarifies the expression for learners. For example native speakers often uses the expression ‘fed up’ to mean bored and frustrated because they have had enough of something. But how much easier is it to remember once you understand that this feeling has arisen because you have ‘eaten’ something until you are completely full of it?
4) Idioms abound in English for Specific Purposes, for example in Business English we often talk about ‘thinking outside the box’ to mean not being constrained by conventional thinking.
5) Learners don’t necessarily have to use a lot of idioms but they will need to have the most common ones in their passive knowledge if they wish to maximise their understanding of the language. This is as true of written language as spoken. Newspaper headlines are a good example here.
6) Finally, idioms are an enjoyable way of using language and enjoyment helps us to learn more effectively.
I’d like to leave you with one final word about how to use idioms, which is that native speakers often just refer to them or use an abbreviated version rather than using the whole expression. Let’s look again at ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’. We can shorten it to ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’, or even just ‘The grass is always greener’. I think it’s great to be able to express yourself so economically.
One of the things that even very high level students of English often make mistakes with is prepositions, for example ‘in’, ‘at’ and ‘on’. In my experience, the reasons for this are threefold; firstly, prepositions do not always have a literal meaning, or if they once did, it has now become obscure. For example, to ‘look up a word’ doesn’t have anything to do with moving upwards or increasing, it means to check the meaning of a word in the dictionary. Secondly, prepositions may translate differently, or not at all, from the speaker’s own language. Thirdly, the sheer number of prepositional phrases and dependent prepositions is overwhelming for learners of English.
Bearing these obstacles in mind, I offer three separate but interrelated pieces of advice to my students. The first is to forget the ‘literal’ meaning of the preposition – unless it actually helps you to remember which one to use. Similarly, it’s generally safer to forget direct translations. Moving away from translation also avoids adding unnecessary prepositions. Finally, treat prepositions as vocabulary rather than grammar by learning them as part of the words they go with, for example, ‘what did you see on television?’ This grouping of words to form ‘lexical chunks’ is known as collocation and it’s how native speakers learn which prepositions to use where. And once you’ve learnt one chunk you can then group it with similar examples such as on the internet, on screen, on Facebook… This technique also makes it easier to learn the exceptions, so for example I teach elementary classes the pattern and exception ‘in the morning’, ‘in the afternoon’, ‘in the evening’, ‘AT night’. Sooner or later, the correct usage becomes second nature.
So, if you’re a native speaker I hope my tip has highlighted just how tricky prepositions are for those whose first language is not English, and if you’re a student or teacher I hope it helps you to learn or teach them more effectively.
Most students and teachers spend a lot of time and effort correcting mistakes. I’m sure you agree that this is an important part of the language-learning process. However, it’s also important to improve your English by using the words and phrases which native speakers actually use. So, in this language tip I’m going to show you how to make your English more ‘English’!
This is an area of vocabulary that you learn from beginner level. Of course it’s fine to say ‘my mother, my father, my children, my grandmother, my grandfather’, however, it’s much more usual to use the less formal versions of these words. A native speaker would generally say ‘my mum, my dad, my kids’. For your grandparents there are all sorts of options. I say ‘grandma and grandpa’ but you could also say ‘gran, granny, nan, nanny, nanna’ and ‘grandad' (British English spelling) or ‘granddad’ (American English spelling).
Your country and people
As teachers we have a range of nationalities in our classes and so we often ask generic questions about ‘your country’ and ‘people in your country’. However, in your reply it’s more common to say, for example ‘In Poland…’ and ‘Polish people…’ rather than ‘People in Poland’ or ‘People in my country.’
Home sweet home!
Even high level students often say something like ‘After that I went to my house’ instead of ‘I went home.’ ‘Home’ is where you live and where you go after work or a night out. ‘My house’ makes me think of another house that you own, maybe in the countryside, the mountains or on the coast. So, we use 'home' to mean 'the place where we live' and 'house' to refer to a domestic building that can be bought and sold.
More often than not, we didn’t ‘eat’ breakfast/lunch/dinner/supper, we ‘had’ it. A quick and easy way to naturalise your English.
Stating the obvious
‘I drive my car to work.’ You’ve just ‘stated the obvious. We would say ‘I drive to work’ and whoever is listening would assume that you drive a car. If you drive something else, then you can tell us; ‘I drive my bus/lorry/milk float to work.’
I often hear that something was ‘so-so’. We say this occasionally but far less often than the following; ‘It was ok’, ‘It was alright’, ‘It wasn’t bad’.
Instead of saying ‘For me, it’s strange’, ‘I think it’s strange’ is better. And for negative opinions use ‘I don’t think it’s strange’ rather than ‘I think it isn’t strange’, which doesn’t sound that natural in English.
When you’re giving information about times/prices etc ‘about’ is an incredibly useful word. So instead of saying ‘It’s 3 hours away, more or less’, say ‘It’s about three hours away.’
A very useful expression. Instead of saying ‘I took one other thing’ a native speaker would say ‘I took something else.' You can also say 'somewhere else' and 'someone else'; 'The restaurant was really crowded so we had to go somewhere else.' 'If you can't come to the wedding with me I'll have to ask someone else.'
In this podcast I'm going to teach you 5 ways to be polite and diplomatic in your speaking.
If you're too direct when you speak you can come across as aggressive and this might put people off. This is true in business meetings and negotiations, but also in many other day to day situations. Here are 5 ways you can make your English more polite, indirect and diplomatic. Follow these tips and you should make the right impression when you talk to people.
1. Listen and be understanding
If you show other people that you are listening to them, and that you understand them, they will be more willing to listen to you and accept your opinion. Don't just say "I disagree", show them that you are listening and that you understand them before you explain your opinion.
You can do this by using statements like:
I see what you mean, but...
I agree up to a point, but
I think we should wait until a better opportunity comes along.
Yes, but we might not get another opportunity like this for a while.
I think we should ask for a 20% discount because it will show them that we are serious.
I see what you mean, but I think 20% might be a bit too much. It might put them off.
2. Avoid negative words - instead use positive words in a negative form
People react to positive sounding words, even if they are used with a negative auxiliary.
Don't say: I think that's a bad idea.
Say: I don't think that's such a good idea.
Let's go for a good cop, bad cop approach in this negotiation!
I don't think that's such a good idea. They might see through it.
3. Say the magic word: Sorry
This word can be used in many ways: to interrupt, to apologise, to show you don't understand, to disagree. It diffuses tension and it allows you to start a statement more comfortably.
Sorry, but can I just say something here
Sorry, but I don't really agree
Sorry, but I think that's out of the question
4. Use little words to soften your statements
Break down negative sentences with some softeners.
Don't say: I don't like it
Say: I don't really like it I'm afraid
Don't say: Can I say something?
Say: Can I just say something here?
Don't say: I didn't catch that
Say: Sorry, I didn't quite catch that
5. Avoid 'finger pointing' statements with the word 'you'
This is aggressive and too direct. Try to avoid saying 'you' and put the focus on 'I' or 'we'.
Don't say: You don't understand me.
Say: Perhaps I'm not making myself clear.
Don't say:You didn't explain this point.
Say: I didn't understand this point.
Don't say: You need to give us a better price.
Say: We're looking for a better price.
So, those are my 5 pieces of advice for being polite and diplomatic. Try to use them when you speaking and you will become a more effective communicator in English.
A very useful phrase for fluency and articulacy is the fact that. This can be used to add a clause in a sentence where the grammar forces you to use a noun, for example, after linking words such as despite or in spite of, which are both followed by a noun.
Despite / in spite of + noun + contrasting clause
Despite the sunshine, the snow has not yet melted.
In spite of the sunshine, the snow has not yet melted.
(despite and in spite of have the same meaning)
However, you can add a clause to despite or in spite of by adding the fact that and then a clause.
Despite / in spite of + the fact that + clause + contrasting clause.
Despite the fact that the sun has been shining all day, the snow has not yet melted.
This allows you to be more flexible with your sentences, but also makes your English sound more articulate and fluent.
Here are more examples:
It was raining, but the football team continued their training session.
Despite the fact that it was raining, the football team continued their training session.
The football team continued their training session despite the fact that it was raining.
The economy has gone into recession, but our company is surviving.
In spite of the fact that the economy has gone into recession, our company is surviving.
Our company is surviving in spite of the fact that the economy has gone into recession.
I'm writing this from the Greek island of Rhodes. One of the biggest pleasures I have on holiday is reading, I've brought a number of books with me but I also love the fact that I have time to read newspapers. I have always encouraged students to read newspaper articles as it is something that most people can find time to do in their busy lives, it also helps to consolidate your English. Newspapers are a great source of vocabulary, particularly phrasal verbs in the tabloid press. I am going to pass on some tips about newspaper language to help make them more accessible.
I thought I would start by explaining some of the terminology and features of newspaper language. In the UK we have tabloid and broadsheet newspapers.
Headlines often use very short words to make an impact. These are sometimes violent words e.g. Thugs battle. A thug is a violent person and a battle is a fight (it is a noun and a verb). This headline could also read Some thugs have been fighting, however this does not have the same impact as the short headline above.
Headlines often don't include verbs and articles, for example, More MP resignations over expenses row. If we put this into spoken English then the sentence would read More MPs have resigned over the row about expenses. This means that Members of Parliament have left their jobs because of the disagreements over what they should be able to claim on expenses.
Another example would be New flood alert. This means that there have been warnings that there could be more flooding.
A key part of newspaper language is word play. Words with two different meanings in English can be used in an amusing and entertaining way. This is called a pun. For example, Short-staffed? That's fine by Mr. Sarkozy. This headline plays with the word short. Short-staffed means that there are not enough staff to do the job. However, this article refers to the fact that during a visit to a factory all the staff he was introduced to were short because he is only 1.7m!
Another example would be Police found drunk in street. This headline plays with the word drunk.
One meaning is that the Police were found drunk in the street. The second meaning is that the Police found a drunk man in the street.
It is also common to have a row of nouns in a headline. For example, Prime Minister's traffic headache. This means that the Prime Minister has had some sort of problem with traffic.
Another example would be Teenage pregnancy increase. This means that there has been an increase in teenage pregnancy.
Alliteration is when a sound is repeated. It is often used in poetry as well as newspapers. Newspapers use it to attract the eye and make it more memorable. For example, Media makes Madonna Mad. The 'm' is repeated 4 times.
Headlines are often ambiguous making the reader look at the article. If we take the above headline the word 'mad' is ambiguous because it could mean insane or it could mean very angry. Also, the word drunk is ambiguous in the word play example above.
Verbs are often changed in headlines. The simple tense is used instead of the continuous or perfect tense and the infinitive is used for the future. For example, Brown resigns. This is used instead of Brown has resigned.
Another example would be PM to visit USA. This is used instead of The Prime Minister's going to visit the USA.
In order to help you to understand the article you can ask yourself questions about the headline before you read.
To avoid repetition newspapers use referencing a lot. This is using a pronoun or another noun instead of a name. Next time you read an article find the main subject and see how many different ways the writer refers to this. In the extract of the article below Madonna is also referred to as the singer and she. Relative clauses are used to give more information about the noun and also save space on the page. In the extract there are two relative clauses, the first tells us that Madonna is in America and the second that she is 50.
Madonna, who is currently in America, saw red when a photographer got too close. The singer, now 50, shouted abuse before she was led away.
I hope that this short insight into newspaper language will encourage you to read more articles from English newspapers. With most of them available online it is easy for you to find one that you enjoy. It is also interesting to read the same story from two different newspapers and compare the language and see which you find easier to understand.
Good luck and happy reading!
Heather, a trainer at the school, has written about her favourite football team and sporting idioms.
"Having fretted (worried) about my football team, the mighty (strong and powerful) Chelsea, potentially not winning any silverware (cups or trophies) this season, I was very happy to spend the sunniest day so far this year watching Frank (Lampard) score the winning goal against Everton in the F.A. Cup final. I love sport, none more than football, which started me thinking about how many sporting idioms we have in English. Although there are idioms that originate from a variety of sports, many used in the UK are from boxing, football, cricket, golf and horseracing.”
See if you can guess the meanings of the idioms below before you read the explanation.
'Back the wrong horse' refers to betting money on the wrong horse.
This means making a bad or inappropriate choice.
'Neck and neck' is when the horses are side by side. This means exactly even in competition or comparison.
'Horses for courses' refers to owners needing to choose the right horse for the right race course. This means different people are suited to different things or situations.
'Level playing field' refers to the game of football only being fair if the pitch (where you play football) is level (one end is not higher than the other). This means a fair situation.
'Moving the goal posts' If you move the goal posts half way through a game of football it changes the original aim of the game for the players. This means to change the aim or rules after something has started.
'Sticky wicket' After rain it is difficult to play cricket as the ground on the grass is sticky. This means an awkward situation.
'(Just) not cricket' Cricket is seen as a very gentlemanly, fair game and therefore something is seen as unfair if we use this expression.
'Par for the course' Par is the normal number of strokes that it takes to get round a golf course. Therefore this means what is normal.
'(Not) Up to par' This is the expected level of achievement.
'On a par (with)' Equal to something.
'To throw in the towel' When a boxer is in trouble the fight can be stopped by the trainer by throwing a towel into the boxing ring. This therefore means to give up.
'To be saved by the bell' refers to the bell ringing at the end of each round which temporarily stops the fight. This means to get out of a difficult situation at the last minute.
'Below the belt' refers to a low illegal punch in a match. This means something is unfair or not following the rules.
See if you can understand this dialogue between two salesmen discussing a new position available at work.
Frank: Hey Ashley, have you heard the latest?
Ashley: Yeh, the position of Sales Manager has come up again.
Frank: I’d heard that Adams was on a sticky wicket.
Ashley: Yeh, apparently the board said that he wasn’t up to par and asked him to resign but he told them he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel so they sacked him!
Frank: No way…that’s just not cricket. So who do you think’ll get it this time?
Ashley: Apparently, Redknapp from the South West sales team has applied again.
Frank: Well, that’s par for the course. Any serious contenders?
Ashley: I think that Ferguson has a chance, his presentation last month really impressed me.
Frank: Seriously, the man’s an idiot!
Ashley: Well, that’s a bit below the belt but maybe he isn’t really up to par.
Frank: I’ve always rated O’Neill, he’s been the top salesman for the last six months.
Ashley: No, you’re backing the wrong horse there; he’d never go into management
Frank: I’ve got it - Ancelotti! Hard working, respected and the board love him!
Ashley: Too true, Horses for courses I say!
Frank: Although could be neck and neck between him and Ferguson, I believe he’s applied and I think he’s on a par with him in experience. So Ashley, what are you up to?
Cheryl: Hi Ashley, ready to go?
Ashley: Sorry Frank, catch you later…Thanks Cheryl, saved by the bell, didn’t want to tell him that I’ve applied for the job!”
We are all very familiar with symbols that we use everyday on the internet and on our computers, but are we always sure how to say them?
“At” symbol (@)
The @ “at” symbol is used in email addresses.
You would read this as: “David dot Jones at international hyphen indemnity dot com”
Another symbol that produces a lot of problems is the underscore (_):
“Jennifer underscore Bateson at H W X dot org”
The forward slash (sometimes just called “slash”) (/) is used in web page addresses:
“Universal hyphen Appliances dot co dot UK (forward) slash customer underscore enquiries”.
The back slash (or backslash) (\) is only really used for file paths on a PC (personal computer).
E.g. See if you can find the file in C:\Users\User\AppData\Local\Temp
This would be read as:
C (drive) Users backslash User backslash AppData backslash Local backslash Temp
If you have to read this out (typically when you are speaking to someone on an IT helpdesk or in a technical support department) you would probably just say:
“C Users User AppData Local Temp”.
Maths and science
Even though they are all perfectly familiar, the symbols used in maths and science can cause a lot of problems when you have to say them, or read them out loud (e.g. during a presentation, or dictating to someone over the phone).
Plus / add (+)
3 + 4 = 7
Say: “Three plus four equals seven”
Minus/Subtract/Take away (-)
9 - 8 = 1
Say: “Nine minus eight equals one”
Times (multiply) (X) (*)
8 x 8 = 64
Say: Eight times eight is 64.
Or: eight eights are sixty-four.
Divide( ÷) (/)
24 ÷ 8 = 3
Say: “Twenty-four divided by eight equals three”
Greater than (>) and less than (<)
These symbols are used to show that something is either “greater than” (>) a certain amount – or “less than” (<) a given figure:
<50% means “less than fifty per cent”, e.g. 49%
>50% means “greater than/more than fifty per cent”, e.g. 51%
30°C – Thirty degrees centigrade (or Celsius).
Note: Americans, and some British people, use Fahrenheit instead of centigrade. In Britain this is particularly common when demonstrating a dramatically high temperature, for example, “PASSENGERS ROAST IN 100° TUBE CARRIAGES”
The percentage symbol (%) is read as “per cent”, e.g. 56% “fifty-six per cent”.
The hash symbol (#) and the asterisk (or star)(*) symbol are often used in automated instructions, e.g. when you phone a call centre using a touch-tone phone:
Enter your sixteen digit card number followed by the hash key (#).
Thankyou. Please press the star key now (*). Note, the hash key (#) may be called the pound key in the USA.
This is a very common punctuation mark which sometimes gives problems.
1. The main use of the comma is to separate items in a list:
I have seen Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and Evita.
You can also use commas to separate actions:
When I go on holiday I like to lie on the beach, read a book, go for a swim, take long walks and try a different restaurant every night. What about you?
2. One use of the comma which causes learners a lot of problems is its use before the word ‘which’. In some languages you always use a comma in this situation, but in English you may, or may not, depending on the situation, and the difference may be important.
2.1 Madonna’s concert, which is on Monday, is sold out.
This is called a non-defining relative clause. The phrase ‘which is on Monday' gives you extra information but doesn’t tell you which concert it is. We can assume that there is only one concert. In this case the commas act just like brackets: Madonna’s concert (which is on Monday) is sold out.
2.2. Madonna’s concert which is on Monday is sold out
Madonna’s concert which is on Friday is not sold out
This is called a defining relative clause. There are two concerts and the phrase starting with ‘which’ gives you essential information to help you see which is which.
3. Don’t use a comma to separate sentences. This is a modern trend (unfortunately) but wrong: the comma suggests only quite a light pause.
E.g. The photocopier we bought last year has stopped working, the engineers are coming tomorrow.
This is much better as two separate sentences:
The photocopier we bought last year has stopped working. The engineers are coming tomorrow.
4. Remember that in the UK when we write a number in figures we never use a comma to separate whole numbers from decimal fractions:
E.g. Don’t write 47,2. Write: 47.2 (forty-seven point two).
We often use a comma to separate the hundreds from the thousands in a 4-figure number (and to break up long numbers):
2,546 (Two thousand, five hundred and forty-six).