Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Connectors showing cause and result

Connectors or linkers are words or groups of words that help us connect words, phrases or sentences. Thanks to them, we can express relationships between ideas and improve our expression by making longer, more complex sentences. For example, take these two sentences:
Our teacher was ill. We had to put off the exam.
The first sentence is the cause of the second, and the second is the result of the first. The idea would be understood more easily if we could express the relation between both sentences. Thus, we could say:
Our teacher was ill, therefore we had to put off the exam.
We had to put off the exam because our teacher was ill.
As you can see, these two examples sound better than the first two sentences, thanks to the use of the connectors therefore and because.
Image: 'The teacher'

Connectors can be used to show contrast, purpose, sequence, etc. but today we will be concentrating on the linking words that show cause or result.

  • Conjunctions followed by a complete sentence:
    • Because: it usally follows the main clause: Everybody likes her because she's very kind and friendly.
    • As and since are very similar. As is less formal than since. They are used when the reason is well known. The clauses that start with these words often begin the sentence:
      As I was very tired, I went to bed early.
       Since you are not interested, I won't tell you about it.
      (As and since can also be used as time connectors).
    • For suggests that the reason is given as an afterthought. For-clauses never come at the beginning of the sentence. For is mainly used in literary texts, therefore, it is very formal.
       We listened eagerly, for he brought news of our families.
  • Connectors followed by a noun, a noun phrase, a pronoun or a gerund:
    • Because of: They have had problems raising cash because of the credit crunch.
    • Due to and owing to are considered by many speakers as exact equivalents, but this is not so, because due to is adjectival (it follows a noun or pronoun), whereas owing to is adverbial (it complements a verb). Compare these examples:
      The game was cancelled owing to torrential rain. 
      The cancellation of the game was due to torrential rain.
      If you are doubtful as to which of these you can use, here's a trick: try to substitute due to with “caused by” and see if it works. *The game was cancelled caused by torrential rain.* doesn't sound correct, so it's not possible to use due to in this case. On the other hand, The cancellation of the game was caused by torrential rain, sounds fine. 
      Owing to is interchangeable with because of: The game was cancelled because of torrential rain.
    • On account of: The nurse had to keep the baby in another room on account of my illness.
    • Thanks to suggests that there is some cause for gratitude, though it can be used sarcastically. She was given a scholarship thanks to her excellent grades.
      Image: 'Swing Chain

  • Thus (very formal): He was the eldest son, and thus, heir to the title.
  • Therefore (formal, used mainly in written English): She is only seventeen and therefore not eligible to vote.
  • As a result: There has been a rise in the number of accidents. As a result, the government has decided to lower the speed limit. As a result of is followed by a noun, pronoun or gerund. Can you rewrite the previous example using as a result of?
     As a result of the rise in the number of accidents, the government...
  • So (less formal): There was nothing on TV, so I decided to go to bed.
  • That's why: Cold temperatures kill mosquitos. That's why you won't see them in winter.
  • For this reason: The Colonel was confident that war was impending, and for this reason he hurried his preparations to leave the country.
  • Consequently (used especially in written English): This poses a threat to the food chain, and consequently to human health.

    In the following exercise you can check how much you have learnt. Good luck!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What / how ... like?

There are several expressions that are quite similar and pose problems for learners of English because they don’t know when to use one or another. These expressions are:
  • What does she look like?
  • What is she like?
  • How does she look?
  • How is she?
We should take into account that the word like in these cases is not a verb but a preposition. When it follows the verb look, it means "to resemble" or "to be similar in appearance to".
Q: “What does she look like?” A: “She’s very pretty, with big blue eyes and blond hair”.
Image: 'Bucket-Head

On the other hand, if you ask “how does she look?” you are inquiring about her situation at that moment, not her description. For instance, if you’ve recently visited a friend who is ill in hospital and somebody asks you “How does she look?”, you might answer “She looks better”, or “She looks pale and drawn”. They are not expecting a complete physical description but rather an account of her health. However, this question is not only used for health reasons. Another example: “How did the bride look?” “Oh, she looked absolutely gorgeous”.

When you ask the question “What is she like?” you are inquiring about somebody’s character, so you are expecting an answer that explains some characteristics of that person’s personality, such as, “She’s a wonderful person, she’s kind and generous”.

If you ask “How is she?” you are inquiring about that person’s health or state of mind. The answers you could get would be: “She’s fine”..."She´s exhausted”, …"She´s depressed”... etc.

Now you know when you can use these questions, but there is one that I’ve heard people use and doesn’t exist: *”How does she look like?”* So, forget about it!

Here is an exercise for you to check what you have learnt.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Conditional sentences

A conditional sentence is a type of subordinate clause that states a hypothesis or condition that can be real or imagined. They are usually introduced by the conjunction if, but there are other possibilities, like unless, providing, as long as, in case (of), etc.
Wordle: if
Created with Wordle

There are four different types of conditional sentences, but some linguists consider that they can be reduced to three, since types 0 and 1 are very similar. Have a look at this table:

If clause Main clause
Present simple Present simple
Present simple Future

Past simple Conditional

Past perfect Perfect conditional

would/could/might+have+past participle

As you can see, in both types, 0 and 1, the subordinate clause or “if clause” has the same tense: the present simple. That's why, some grammarians consider that they are just two varieties of the same group.

In the following presentation there is a complete explanation and some examples of the different types.

When we use the verb to be in type 2 conditionals, we should use the form were for all the persons. This is so because in these sentences we have to use the subjunctive mode, which normally has the same forms as the indicative mode except for the verb to be. Therefore, this is the only verb in which we realize that the subjunctive is being used. However, many speakers tend to avoid the use of the subjunctive, which is considered very formal.
If I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari. (more formal)
If I was rich... (more colloquial)
Image: 'Ferrari F50'

Nevertheless, were is always preferred in the expression If I were you...

There are many songs in which you can find examples of conditionals, but today we will listen to Beyoncé singing “If I were a boy”. Note the use of the contracted form of would ('d)

And now some exercises to check what you have learnt today.
Type 1 conditional
Types 1 and 2 conditionals
Type 3 conditional
Mixed types

Acknowledment: I'm very grateful to Nuria Ortiz for her wonderful exercises!
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