Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Down Under

The traditional idea of Christmas is that of a cold, snowy day in which families get together around a fireplace, but, although Christmas is celebrated all over the world, not everywhere is it winter at this time of year. While in most countries in the north it's freezing cold, in the southern hemisphere it's summer, and instead of warming up near the fire, people are getting a tan under the sun.
Christmas Day on Bondi Beach, Australia
One of these countries in which people bask in the sun at Christmas is Australia, or Down Under, as it is widely known. Due to the weather, their Christmas is a bit different from that of northern countries, but not that different, as they still have Santa, Christmas trees and stockings. However, you will much more easily see Santa on a surf board rather than a sleigh!
Santa surfing
 Let's have a look at this presentation to see how similar or different Christmas in Australia is.

In the following video, Brian Sutton sings about a typical Christmas Day in Australia. But before watching it, let's see the meaning of a few words you may not know, as they are Australian slang words:
  • Billabong: a water hole in a dried up river.
  • Coolabah: a eucalyptus tree and a brand of wine.
  • Esky: a cooler, a portable, insulated container for keeping food and drinks cold. It's a shortened version of the trade name "Eskimo Box".
  • Barbie: barbecue (or BBQ).
  • Aussie: Australian.
  • Stubbie: a small short necked bottle of beer.
You can look up more Austalian slang in

Can you answer a few questions on Christmas Down Under now?

Whether in Australia or anywhere else in the world, I wish you a very happy Christmas!


Sunday, December 2, 2012

A British culture quiz

I usually tell my students that in order to learn a language, not only grammar and vocabulary are needed, but also a good knowledge of the culture of the people that speak that language. But what is culture?
Culture is...
The term culture comprises not only the arts but also the language, the religion, the social habits, the cuisine, the history and the traditions of a particular people. As you can see, language is only a piece of the puzzle and to understand it better, you need to take a wider look and try to comprehend the other parts.

As a learner of English, how much do you know about British Culture? Find out by doing this quiz. Take a pen and a piece of paper and write down your answers. Finally, find out how many answers you got right in the answer key. But don't cheat!

British Culture Quiz09 from eoi.soraya

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Three years old!

This blog is now three years old, and to celebrate it we are going to watch a presentation with the "cartoons of the week" for this year. Most of them have been taken from So much pun, others from Time, and others from two great blogs I've discovered recently:  Wrong hands and Liz Climo's blog.

Most of the cartoons that I use for my blog are puns. A pun is a play on words in which two words that sound alike or two different meanings of the same word are deliberately confused, resulting in a funny joke.

Let's have a look at a few cartoons:
In this cartoon we have two different meanings of the word fan: a machine that creates a current of air and a person who is an enthusiastic follower of another person. What makes it funny is the fact that we can see the machine act like the follower. Now let's see another example:
In this one we can see two words that are homophones, that is, they sound alike: weight and wait, and two different senses of the word lift (a polysemic word): to raise something or an elevator.

In the following image there are two meanings of the word tablet, even though it's not even mentioned: a pill (medication) and a portable computer. Isn't it ingenious?
Fancy seeing more cartoons? Here is the presentation that I mentioned before:

And finally, I want to thank all the followers and visitors of this blog, as well as my students, who give me the inspiration for writing it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Used to, would and be used to

It's important not to get confused with these three expressions:
Used to + infinitive
Used to is a modal verb that shows a habit in the past. It shares some characteristics with other modal verbs:
  • It does not have an infinitive form and, instead of being preceded by to, it is followed by it.
  • It has only one form for all the persons: I used to smoke / He used to smoke.
  • It cannot be used in all tenses: *I use to smoke (not possible). Used to is always in the past. In order to express a habit in the present, the present simple tense is used together with adverbs of frequency (usually or generally): He usually smokes twenty cigarettes a day.
  • It is always followed by another verb: We used to study hard when we were at university.
  • It doesn't need an auxiliary verb for questions and negative sentences. Used he to smoke? He used not to smoke, but now he does. However, that form is considered very formal and it is more common to use the auxiliary did in these cases: Did he use to smoke? He didn't use to smoke, but now he does. Please, notice that after the auxiliary verb did, it drops the final d.

He used to smoke
Image: Homer's first smoke, by Kevron
The verb used to followed by a verb in the infinitive can express:
  • A habit in the past.  I used to smoke, but now I don't smoke at all.
  • A repeated past action. In this case, would can also be used: When I was a child, my mum used to / would tell me fairy tales every night before going to bed.
  • A state which no longer exists: I used to have a motorbike, but I sold it.
Be used to + gerund / noun
It means that something is familiar and you are accustomed to it. It can be used in all tenses, as the main verb is to be and used is an adjective not a verb. Please, notice that this structure is followed by a noun: I am used to the traffic because I live in a big city. or a gerund (-ing): He has lived in Britain for a long time, so he is used to driving on the left.

Get / become used to + gerund / noun
It expresses the process of something becoming familiar to us. It can also be used in all tenses for the same reason. You will get used to cooking in your microwave soon. I have become used to doing all my work on the computer.
Driving on the left

In these three structures, used to is pronounced [juːst to] and shouldn't be confused with the verb use [juːz], meaning "employ", "utilize", or its participle used [juːzd].
These exercises will help you check what you have learnt:

Need more exercises?:
Complete the sentences.
Mix and match
Used to or would

Now you can watch this video of a song titled "Somebody that I used to know" by Gotye.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Bonfire night: the story of Guy Fawkes

On the evening of November 5th, thousands of bonfires are lit and fireworks exploded all over Britain. Many groups of children make their guy or dummy, which is an effigy of Guy Fawkes, they take it to the bonfire and burn it there to the merriment of all and sundry. Previously, the children have taken their dummy from house to house asking for “a penny for the guy”, and that money is later spent in fireworks.
Children asking for a penny for the guy
Image credits
But who is this Guy Fawkes that is burnt in effigy every year? Well, he certainly isn’t famous for being a nice person. In fact, he was a traitor who tried to blow the Houses of Parliament and kill the king. But, fortunately for the king, the plot was found out and those responsible for it were executed. Then, as an act of remembrance, it was ordered that every year the 5th of November should be an official day for celebration, and British people still celebrate it to this day.
Guy Fawkes
Image credits
However, safety regulations regarding fireworks and the lighting of bonfires in public places, has made it quite different from what it used to be some decades ago. Now bonfires are only allowed in certain open spaces and children cannot handle fireworks as they are much too dangerous for them. Older people feel that the festivity is not what it used to be any more, but for young children it’s still a possibility of having a good time out, watching the firework display and  feeling the heat of the flames in a cold autumn evening.
Guy burning on top of a bonfire
Image credits
In the following presentation by the Parliament’s Education Service we have an account of the gunpowder plot.

Now you can watch this video and answer the questions to see how much you have learnt about the story of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Special constructions with the comparative

In a previous post, we saw the formation of the comparative and superlative in English. Today, we are going to deal with two special comparative constructions:
  • The comparative of gradation or double comparative: two comparatives of the same adjective connected by and. This structure is generally used with the verbs get, grow and become and it implies constant change. (In Spanish it translates as “cada vez más...”)
    • -er and -er: It’s growing darker and darker. I’m getting fatter and fatter.
    • more and more: This situation has become more and more difficult. Note that when we use more and more we don’t repeat the adjective or adverb.
    • less and less: Fortunately, her headaches became less and less frequent, until they ceased altogether.
  • Comparative of proportion: two comparatives preceded by the forming parallel sentences. It is used to express proportional increase or decrease, or two changes that happen together. (In Spanish it translates as “cuanto más... más...)
    • the  -er... the -er: The older you are, the happier you get. The sooner, the better.
    • the more... the more.../ the more... the less... / the less... the less...:  The more I study, the less I know.
The more I study, the less I know
Image by betta design in Flickr
Idioms with comparisons
The comparative of equality, (not) is not a special construction as such, but there are many idioms that contain a comparison of this kind. They are mostly used in the description of people, and as all idioms, they cannot be translated literally, but a similar expression must be found in the other language. For instance, in Spanish, most of these comparisons will translate as comparatives of superiority (más... que) rather than equality: As black as coal (más negro que el carbón), as quick as lightning (más rápido que una centella), as pleased as Punch (más contento que unas pascuas). A literal translation will not have any meaning at all.

As pleased as Punch

These comparisons usually follow the pattern “as + adjective as + noun” where the adjective generally expresses the quality that the noun is known to possess. But there are many of them in which adjective and noun rhyme (as loose as a goose) or there is alliteration, that is, repetition of a sound (as busy as a bee).
As a learner of English that wants to excel, you should try to use these idioms whenever necessary, but try not to overdo it, as you may not sound natural and the result may be the opposite of what you expected to achieve. Let’s try to learn a few of these comparisons in the following presentation. Then you can do the exercises below to check how much you have learnt.

More idioms here.
More exercises here.
In The phrase finder you can see the origin of some of these idioms.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Collocations: spend and waste

Both verbs spend and waste are related to time and money, but there is a big difference in meaning:
  • You can spend your money on things, but if you buy more than is necessary or things that are not useful, you are wasting your money. She has spent a lot of money on her wedding dress. (and she thinks that’s money well spent). She wastes lots of money on clothes she doesn´t need. (that money is not well spent)
  • Likewise, you can spend time doing something, which is possitive, but if you feel that the time passes in a negative, unproductive manner, then you’re wasting your time. You spend a lot of hours watching TV and I think you are wasting your time. Go on, do something useful!
Picture by 401(K) 2012
So, both spend and waste can form collocations with words related to money and time. Here are a few: spend your free time, the day, the weekend, an hour, a fortune, thousands,...

Apart from these, they can also be found in other collocations which are not related to time or money:

  • Waste an opportunity. Never waste an opportunity to say “I love you” to someone you really like.
  • Spend (a lot of) effort. You spend too much effort on things that are not important.

Waste is also a noun that refers to an unusuable or unwanted substance or material. In this case, we can find expressions such as: industrial waste, nuclear waste, waste disposal, waste pipes,...
A Complete Waste of Time
There are also some idioms and proverbs:
  • Waste one’s breath: to waste time talking trying to persuade someone.  Don’t waste your breath, you’re not going to make me change my mind.
  • Waste not, want not is a proverb which means that if you use your resources wisely, you will never be poor or needy.
  • Go to waste: to be unused and therefore thrown away. If you don’t eat the meat in your fridge today, it will go to waste.
  • A waste of space: a thing or person that is not useful. Her husband is a complete waste of space.
  • Spend a penny means to go to the toilet. In England, public toilets for ladies used to have coin operated locks, and if someone wanted to use them they had to introduce a penny coin in the slot. This idiom is a bit old-fashioned these days.
Penny slot toilet door lock

Finally, let’s watch an excerpt from Fawlty Towers that always comes to my mind when I hear the expression “a waste of space”. Poor Manuel! Always being bossed around by Basil!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The names of the days of the week

While it is rather clear that Sunday is the day of the sun and Monday the day of the moon, where does Tuesday or Wednesday get their names from? Are they all related to the names of the planets?

The first thing that springs to my mind is why there are seven days in the week. We are so much used to it that it may seem natural to us, but nothing related to the calendar is natural. It’s just a convention, a system humans invented to divide time, and it’s not perfect, as most things made by humans.

A T-shirt for each of the seven days of the week.
The seven day week came into use in Roman times after the Julian calendar was introduced in 46 BC. However, both the Jews and the Babylonians had used it before: in the Bible, God is said to have created the world in six days and needed the seventh to have a rest, while the Babylonians divided the lunar month in four seven day periods.
It was the Greeks and later the Romans, who always followed in the steps of the Greeks, who started to call the days of the week after the main celestial bodies that were seen from the earth, and of course, these bodies were called after their main gods and goddesses.

Apart from the day of the sun (dies solis) and the moon (dies lunae), they had dies martis for Mars, god of war, dies mercurii for Mercury, god of commerce, dies iovis for Jupiter, the father of the gods and responsible for thunder and lightning, dies veneri for Venus, goddess of love, and dies saturni for Saturn, god of agriculture.
Most of these names still survive in Romance languages, with some exceptions such as the change of Sunday for “the day of the lord” or dominicus dies, which gave “domingo” in Spanish or “dimanche” in  French. A different case is Portuguese, which changed the names of these pagan gods for ordinal numbers.
The Germanic peoples, however, substituted the names of Roman gods with their own, forgetting in this way that week days owed their names to the planets. They also used their own words for sun and moon. English being a Germanic language, it kept the names of these, and so we have:

  • Tuesday: the day of the god Tiw or Twia, the god of war.
  • Wednesday: the day of Woden or Odin. He was the carrier of the dead.
  • Thursday: the day of Thor, god of thunder.
  • Friday: the day of Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility.
  • Saturday: the day of Saturn, the only Roman god they kept.

Finally, remember that it’s not the same to say “day of the week” or “weekday”. The former is any day of the week, while the latter is used for work days, that is from Monday to Friday, excluding Saturday and Sunday.

A good song to practise the days of the week is “Friday I’m in love” by The Cure. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

English verb tenses

One of the things language students fear most is learning the verbal forms, as they can be really complex. Just have a look at the conjugation of verbs in French and Spanish: there are so many different moods, tenses... and you also have to learn the different endings of the persons! That can be complicated and time-consuming! However, English verbs are so simple to learn compared with the verbal forms in those languages that I always tell my students they are lucky to be learning English and not Spanish.
Image by Paalia

In English there are three verbal moods or modes: indicative, subjunctive and imperative. The most widely used is the indicative, as the subjunctive has almost disappeared from the language and is only used in certain types of sentences like the conditionals; and the imperative has only one form, which is the same as the infinitive.
So, today, we are only going to deal with the indicative mood in the active voice, and we will just see the form and not the uses of the tenses, which have been dealt with in previous posts.

Apart from the tenses, there are other verbal forms that do not change:

  • the present participle or gerund, also called “the -ing form”. (working)
  • the past participle, which ends in -ed for regular verbs (worked), while for the irregular verbs, it’s the third column (break, broke, broken)
Both these forms help us construct the tenses as we are going to see right now.

All the tenses express either the present, the past or the future and they all follow the same pattern, so it’s really easy to learn them:

  • Simple
  • Continuous
  • Perfect:
    • simple
    • continuous


The simple tenses use the infinitive or root of the verb:
  • In the present they do not add any suffixes to the root, except for the -s in the third person.
  • In the past they add the suffix -ed to the root (only in regular verbs, of course).
  • In the future they go with the verb will and do not add any suffixes.
The continuous tenses need the auxiliary verb to be:
  • In the present the verb to be is in the present: am / is / are.
  • In the past the verb to be is in the past: was / were.
  • In the future the verb to be follows the auxiliary will.
The perfect tenses need the auxiliary have:
  • In the present, have is in the present: have / has.
  • In the past have is in the past: had.
  • In the future, have follows the auxiliary verb will.
Notice that the perfect tenses can either be simple or continuous. In the latter case, apart from the auxiliary have, they also need the verb to be. Besides, the auxiliary have is always followed by a past participle, while the auxiliary to be is always followed by the -ing form.

Let’s have a look at this table to see the conjugation of the verb to work. Please, note that I have left out the pronouns when there is no difference in inflexion.

SIMPLE I work /he works worked will work
CONTINUOUS I am /you are /he is working I was /you were working will be working
PERFECT SIMPLE I have / he has worked had worked will have worked
PERFECT CONT. I have / he has been working had been working will have been working

Now, do you agree with me that learning the English tenses is as easy as ABC?
If you want to check that you can remember the names of the tenses, do this exercise:

Monday, July 2, 2012

Last or latest?

Last and latest are both superlative forms of the word late, but they do not have the same meaning:
  • Last means “final”. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play. (He didn’t write any other after that and, being long dead, he won’t write any more).
  • Latest means “newest”, “most recent”. Dan Brown’s latest novel is The Lost Symbol. (That’s his newest novel, but not the last one, because he is alive and kicking, so he can still write more and he will probably do so).
Late also has two comparative forms: one is regular (later) and the other is irregular (latter). They cannot be used as synonyms either:
  • Later means “afterwards”. It is widely used as a connector of time and sequence along with words like: then, next, after that, etc.
  • Latter refers to the second of two things or people mentioned: I love my two cousins, George and Don, but the latter is clearly my favourite. In this example, “the latter” refers to the second cousin mentioned: Don. If we wanted to refer to George, we would use the term former, which means “the first of the above mentioned”.

The word late can be used as an adjective or an adverb:
  • adjective: She got married in her late twenties.
  • adverb: The birthday card arrived three days late.
There is another adverb derived from late: lately, which means “recently”: I haven’t heard from Peter lately. (Note that this adverb is usually used with a perfect tense).
Another adverb related to late is lastly, which is used to introduce the last in a list of things. I’ve got many things to do this weekend: first I'm going to the supermarket, secondly to the zoo, and lastly to the cinema.
For more information about the difference between adjectives and adverbs you can read this previous post.

  • Last but not least is used when mentioning the last person or thing of a group, in order to state that they are not less important than the others. And last but not least, I’d like to thank my parents for their help and support.
  • At (long) last: after much delay, finally. At last we’re home!
  • Last orders: the last opportunity for people to buy drinks in a pub before it closes. It’s mainly used in British English.
  • The day /week /month before last is the penultimate day, week or month.
  • The last straw is the last in a series of events that, when added to the others, makes the situation unbearable. It’s a variation of the Arabic proverb the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Now you can do this exercise to check how much you have learnt.

Fancy another exercise? Choose the correct word.

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