Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christmas Tree

In a previous post, I wrote about Santa Claus being a symbol of Christmas all over the world. Another such symbol is the Christmas tree, but it's not something that has existed for a long time. In fact, it is quite recent, compared to the two thousand years or so of Christianity.
A Christmas tree is usually a fir, a spruce or, in general, an evergreen tree  with a characteristic conical shape, which is decorated with lights, baubles and other objects, and which can be kept inside or outside the home.
The Disney Christmas Tree

The origin of the Christmas tree can be found in pre-Christian central Europe, when people used to take branches of evergreen plants, including mistletoe and holly inside their homes around the winter solstice to keep bad spirits away. As with many other customs, the arrival of Christianity meant that many of these pagan customs merged and mingled with those of the new religion.
Mistletoe_Berries_Uk holly

During the Middle Ages, people used to enact a religious play on Christmas Eve. In this play, a fir with apples and wafers on its branches symbolised the paradise tree from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Even after these plays ceased to be enacted, people continued associating the paradise tree and Christmas.

It was in 18th century Protestant Germany where Christmas trees became popular, and from there they spread to other countries in Europe, taken by the nobility. One of the first descriptions of a Christmas tree in literature is in Goethe's "Werther" (1774). It was Queen Victoria, in the 19th century, who introduced the Christmas tree in Britain, as her mother and husband were both German and brought the tradition with them into the country.
Queen Victoria's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle
Image adapted for Godey's lady's Book
in Wikipedia
In America, German immigrants had brought the tradition of the Christmas tree, but it didn't really catch up until the image of Queen Victoria's tree was published in a popular magazine of the 1850s called Godey's Lady's Book. (See picture above). By the 1860s the Christmas trees could be found in thousands of homes and cities in America.

Some Catholic people didn't like this tradition, as it was seen as a pagan custom, and they preferred to set up a Nativity scene, but after Pope Paul VI decided to put up a Christmas Tree in the Vatican, even the most reluctant Catholics gave up and now they have both in their homes.
Christmas tree and Nativity scene at the Vatican
Today, thanks to globalization, Christmas trees can be seen all over the world, and even people who are not Christian like to put one up in their homes. However, in some cities in America, they are trying to change its name to "Holiday tree", so as to deprive it of its religious connotations.

Now we can learn a few words related to the Christmas tree in the following presentation:

In this video you can hear a short history of the Christmas tree and then do the comprehension exercises.

 Fancy doing some quizzes? Revise the vocabulary of Christmas in this game, or try this Christmas Trivia.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Family words and idioms

A family is a group of people related to each other by blood or marriage. There are several types of family:
  • The nuclear family consists of only the parents and their children.
  • The extended family is formed by parents, children, uncles and aunts, grandparents, etc.
  • In a one-parent or single-parent family there is only one parent living with the chidren, either because they are divorced or because they have decided to raise their children single-handedly.
Young Family Having Fun In Parkextended-familysingle parent
Nuclear familyExtended familysingle-parent family

Let's see the most common family words in English in the following presentation:

Other words related to the family:
  • A relative is someone who belongs to your family. Relatives can either be close or distant: She inherited the money from a distant relative she had never met. 
  • Relation is another way to say "relative", especially in spoken English. A blood relation is someone who is related to you by birth, not by marriage. 
  • Your next of kin is your closest relative: My brother is listed as my next of kin on all my emergency forms.
  • Kinsman is an old-fashioned word to say "relative", but also, by extension, a person of the same nationality or ethnic group: She may marry her late husband's brother or some other kinsman of his.
  • Ancestors or forefathers (notice that you cannot say foreparents) are the people from whom you are descended.
  • Descendants are the relatives of a person or group of people who are born many years after them: He claims to be a direct descendant of Napoleon.
  • Folks (usually plural) is an informal word meaning your family, especially your parents: I'll go home this Christmas to see my folks.
There are many idioms related to the family. Let's see a few of them in the following presentation:

You can see more family idioms in the BBC World Service page.
That's all folks!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Four years old!

It's now four years since I started writing this blog and, to celebrate the anniversary, I always publish a presentation with the "cartoons of the week" of the last year. Most of these cartoons have been chosen because they are witty puns (I love puns!), but others are here to commemorate important events like the terrible typhoon that hit the Phillipines a couple of weeks ago.
The blogs and webpages that I usually visit for inspiration with the cartoons are the following:
I hope you like them too!

Finally, I would like to thank all the readers who have left comments on the entries and in general all the people who visit this blog. This is for you!
Thank you cake from Truly Amazing Cakes

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Idiomatic pairs of adjectives

There are many idioms formed by two words joined by the conjunction and. You can have:
  • adjective and adjective: high and dry
  • noun and noun: body and soul
  • verb and verb: wait and see
  • adverb and adverb: here and there
  • preposition and preposition (usually identical pairs): on and on.
  • two words of different categories joined by "and": by and large (preposition and adjective), home and dry (noun and adjective).
Today, we are going to deal with "adjective and adjective" idioms. They are usually two adjectives with similar meanings that reinforce the idea given by each of them. As in other idioms, the order of the elements cannot be changed: You can say "alive and kicking", but "kicking and alive" is not possible.

Let's see some of them:
  • Alive and kicking (also alive and well): Well and healthy, active. It is disappointing to see that racism is still alive and kicking.
  • Safe and sound: unharmed and healthy after going through a difficult situation: We drove along a narrow, winding road, but we arrived home safe and sound. 
  • Cut and dried: decided and determined beforehand, lacking freshness and spontaneity, decided in a way that cannot be changed: When it comes to the music industry, there is no cut and dried formula for success.
Cut and dried

  • Hale and hearty: healthy and strong: He didn't look as hale and hearty as his wife, but for a man in his late fifties, he looked good.
  • Bright and breezy: cheerful and full of energy: Maggy is always bright and breezy in the mornings. 
  • Fair and square: honestly and according to the rules: The Socialist Party won the election fair and square. In a direct way that is easy to understand: I told him fair and square to go away.
  • spick and span: neat and clean: Mary's house is always spick and span. She's so houseproud!

  • Free and easy: relaxed: Life is never going to be as free and easy as it used to be when we were young.
  • Sick and tired: annoyed or fed up with someone or something to the point of losing one's temper: I'm sick and tired of wasting my time at long, poinless meetings.
  • Meek and mild: quiet, gentle, and always ready to do what other people want them to do, without expressing their own opinions. "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" is a christian hymn
  • Short and sweet: dealt with very quickly, to the point: We haven't got much time, so I'll keep it short and sweet.
  • First and foremost: most important. First and foremost, I would like to thank you all for coming. (Sometimes we leave the most important thing till the end, in which case, we use "last but not least")
  • Black and white: having no colours except black, white and shades of grey: A black and white film / photograph / television. The expression "in black ad white" means "in writing" or "in print": I never thought they'd put it in black and white on the front page.
  • High and dry: stranded, in a difficult situation, without help or money: When we were about to catch the bus, the driver set off and left us high and dry.
Now you can check what you have learned by doing this exercise:

Many of these idioms can be heard in songs. Here are a few:
Alive and kicking by Simple Minds

Sick and tired by Anastacia
High and dry by The Rolling Stones or Radiohead, and also in the song "Water of love", by Dire Straights.

Safe and sound by Capital Cities or by Taylor Swift:

Do you know any other song in which any of these idioms can be heard? 

Edit: an anonymous reader suggested "That's me", by Abba, in which you can hear the idiom mild and meek.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Predicative adjectives

Most adjectives can have two positions in the sentence:
  • Before the noun they qualify: a pretty woman. In this case the adjective is in attributive position.
  • After a few verbs called linking verbs (be, seem, look, become...): Julia is pretty. In this case, the adjective is in predicative position.
Pretty Woman
However, there are a few adjectives that can only happen in one of these positions. Today, we are going to see those adjectives that can only be predicative.

Predicative adjectives
Most of the adjectives only used in predicative position begin with the prefix a-.
(This prefix comes from the Old English "an", meaning on, which helped form adjectives and adverbs from nouns, or the prefix ge- that used to go before participles. It doesn't have anything to do with the negative prefix a-, which comes from Latin and Greek, and is thus used in words coming from these languages).
Some examples are: ablaze, afraid, aghast, ajar, alive, alike, alone, ashamed, asleep, awake, aware...
You can say He is alive, but *An alive man is not possible. However, most of these adjectives have an equivalent attributive adjective. Let's see a few:
Predicative Attributive
afraid frightened
aghast terrified
ajar slightly open / half-open
agog eager
alight lighted
alike similar
alive live / living
alone lone /lonely /solitary
ashamed embarrassed
asleep sleeping
awake waking

So, you can say: The boy is afraid,  or a frightened boy. But *An afraid boy, is not possible.

Apart from these adjectives beginning with a-, there are other predicative adjectives:
  • Poorly (attributive: ailing) Mary is very poorly today.
  • Well (attributive: healthy) She was well yesterday. 
  • Ill (attributive: sick) when it means "unhealthy": He is ill, he is a sick man. However, ill can also be attributive when it means "bad", instead of "unhealthy": Ill fame, ill luck, or in the expression It's an ill wind that blows nobody good.
  • Sorry is predicative when used for apologies: I am sorry, but when used attributively, it means "sad" or "unhappy": a sorry sight.
I'm sorry!

Very is not used with some predicative adjectives. So, we say wide awake, fast asleep...

In the following exercise we can practise the use of predicative adjectives.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Raise or rise?

Compare these two sentences:
The prices are rising.
They are raising the prices.
These two verbs are often confused because they look similar but, in fact, they are quite different.
When you raise something, you lift it to a higher position or increase it. When someone or something rises, they move from a lower to a higher position. Rise can also mean to increase in number or quantity.
Raise is a regular, transitive verb, which means that it is always followed by a direct object:
The little girl raised her hand.
In this example, "her hand" is the direct object. If you don't add a direct object, the meaning of the sentence is not complete. If you just say: "The little girl raised", people would expect you to say something else to complete the sentence.
The little girl raised her hand

On the other hand, rise is an irregular, intransitive verb, so it is never followed by a direct object. Something rises, but you cannot rise something. Examples:
The temperature is rising.
The sun rises in the east.
The past tense of this verb is rose, and the past participle is risen.

The sun rises in the east
Another verb that can get confused with these two is arise. It is intransitive and irregular too (arise, arose, arisen), but much more formal than rise. It can also mean "get up", but rise is preferred for literal meaning, while arise is mostly used with figurative meaning: They are trying to deal with the problems that arise from immigration. A new crisis has arisen.

Let's have a look at a few collocations and idioms:
  • Raise your voice: shout. Don't raise your voice like that, please. I'm not deaf!
  • Raise money / funds / a loan means to collect money. They are raising money for charity.
  • Raise a child means to bring up a child. They raised her daughter as a Catholic.
  • Raise animals: take care of or breed animals They raise chickens on their farm.
  • Raise your glass to somebody means to hold up your glass and wish them happiness or good luck before you drink. 
  • Raise hell is to protest angrily or cause a considerable disturbance.
  • Raise the roof is to produce a lot of noise in a building.
  • Raise the salary.
  • Raise the flag.
Raise your glass

  • Rise early: He rises early every day.
  • Rise to one's feet is to stand up.
  • Rise to the occasion / challenge: to show that you are able to deal with an unexpected situation.
  • A river rises where it begins to flow. The Thames rises in the Cotswolds.
  • If mountains rise in the distance, they become visible.
  • Rise from the ashes is to come to life again.
  • Rise to power. Adolf Hitler's rise to power began in 1919.
  • Rise and fall. Today we've studied the rise and fall of the British Empire in our History class.
  • Rise through / from the ranks is to work one's way to the top. She rose through the ranks to become managing director.
  • Your hair rises when you feel cold or frightened.
  • If your spirits rise you get happier.

Check what you have learnt by doing this exercise:

Note: if you cannot see the exercise above, try this link.

Finally, let's relax with this beautiful song by Craig David, featuring Sting, called "Rise and fall"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Scotland: a project by 2º ESO students

Last year I had a great group of 2º ESO students. They were just 12 or 13 years old. However, their level of English was quite high, so I asked them to do a project presentation about Scotland and I was very pleased with the result.
Old men of Storr, by Iguana Jo in Fickr

The idea was to create a collaborative presentation with Google Docs. First, I showed them how easy it is to use this web tool. You can see it in this video.

Being digital natives, they had no problem whatsoever to learn the basics. Then, I showed them a presentation with the procedure they had to follow and the questions they had to answer. Here it is:

I also created the presentation they were going to work on. I just put the title and a picture and sent it to their e-mail addresses, enabling them to edit it. I also warned them to be careful not to delete their classmates' work!

And here is their presentation. Isn't it great?

I hope this can be an inspiration for EFL classes, because sometimes it is not easy to find topics for projects.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Compound adjectives

English is a very creative language in the sense that new words are invented every day, and one easy way to create a new term is to make compound nouns or adjectives. Thus, an animal with cold blood is a cold-blooded animal. Cold-blooded is a compound adjective made up of an adjective and a noun, to which the suffix-ed has been added. This word ending in -ed may look like a participle but in fact it is not, because in order to be a participle, the root has to be a verb, not a noun.
A few more examples:
A man with dark hair and blue eyes is a dark-haired, blue-eyed man.
A person with long legs is a long-legged person.
As you can see, all these examples are formed by adding -ed to an adjective-noun combination. But this is by no means the only one possible. Keep reading to find others.
Frogs are cold-blooded animals
Image by Drriss

A compound adjective is a combination of two or more words that works as an adjective. These words can be adjectives, nouns, adverbs or participles, and they can be hyphenated or not. A hyphen is a punctuation mark in the form of a short line (-) that is put between two words to join them.
These compounds can be written as one word (waterproof), two separate words (brick red) or they can be hyphenated (snow-white). The compounds that are used more often tend to appear in one word. Those that combine occasionally but keep their individual meaning tend to use a hyphen. And those that come in two words keep their independent identity. But British and American English don't always use the hyphens in the same word combinations, so, when in doubt, check a good dictionary!

Sometimes, more than two words can be found forming a compound (up-to-date, state-of-the-art,..) These expressions are only found hyphenated when they precede the noun they qualify, but not when they follow linking verbs. Examples:
If you are a fashion lover, read these tips to stay up to date.
I like to follow the latest up-to-date trends.
His house is state of the art. It is full of the latest gadgets.
I love state-of-the-art technology.

State-of-the-art technology
Let's have a look at the different combinations that we can find:
Noun + adjective
Trustworthy, blameworthy, duty-free, tax-free, seasick, watertight, waterproof, colour-blind, worldwide, knee-deep, self-conscious, and other compounds that are equivalent to the construction "as...as..." : brick red (as red as brick), stone-cold (as cold as a stone), paper-thin (as thin as paper)
  • A combination of two qualities: bitter-sweet, deaf-mute.
  • A combination in which the first element takes the suffix -o: socio-economic, Anglo-Saxon, Franco-German, Anglo-American. In this case, all the combinations are hyphenated.
  • A combination in which the first adjective qualifies the second adjective: dark-blue, red-hot, Roman-Catholic.
Evergreen, oversensitive, all-American
Noun+present participle
Self-defeating, self-denying, heart-breaking, breath-taking, law-abiding, 
Noun+past participle
Self-taught, hand-made, thunderstruck, home-brewed, heart-felt, brightly-lit, open-minded, well-behaved
Adjective or adverb+present participle
Forthcoming, everlasting, neverending, easygoing, good-looking
Adjective or adverb+past participle
Far-fetched, well-meant, widespread, new-laid, long-awaited
Number+ noun
Second-hand, first-rate. Notice that adjectives using numbers, like any other adjectives, are not found in the plural. Thus, a boy who is twelve years old is a twelve-year-old boy, or a tree which measures three metres is a three-metre-tall tree. These expressions with numbers are always hyphenated.
Adjective+ noun
Apart from the common formation that we have seen at the beginning of this post, in which the noun takes the suffix -ed, there are other possibilities such as last-minute, deep-sea, ...
Verb+adjective or adverb
Feel-good, buy-now, pay-later

And remember that new combinations are always possible. You can create your own adjective!

Let's watch this video about two beautiful brown-eyed girls. Notice that the song by Van Morrison is called "Brown Eyed girl". Why doesn't it have a hyphen? Because you don't need it in titles! Enjoy!

Choose the correct  adjective from the ones given
Complete the sentences with a compound adjective
Choose the appropriate compound adjective
For advanced students
Match the compound adjectives with their definitions

Monday, February 4, 2013

Groundhog Day: an American tradition

On February 2nd, a curious ceremony takes place in several American States: a group of men dressed in tuxedos and wearing tall hats go to a groundhog’s den and wake him from his hibernation. As the poor creature gets out of his burrow, the men watch his behaviour. Two things can happen:  If he gets frightened by his shadow and he goes back to the protection of his lair, that means that there will be still several more weeks of cold winter weather. However, if he decides to stay, the forecast is that spring will come early.
Groundhog Day
The most famous groundhog in America is Punxsutawney Phil, from Gobblers Knob, Pennsylvania. According to his followers, Phil is the true and only weather forecasting groundhog, and the others are just impostors. They also sustain that there has only been one Phil and that he goes on living thanks to some secret recipe punch that he drinks during the summer: just a sip gives him seven more years’ life. Of course, this must be taken with a pinch of salt, as it is known that a groundhog lives only for seven or eight years.

This tradition of weather forecasting was introduced in America by German immigrants, who in their homeland used to watch the behaviour of hedgehogs on Candlemas for their predictions. They also had some proverbs about the weather:
“If Candlemas is mild and pure,
Winter will be long for sure.”
“If Candlemas brings
wind and snow,
Then spring will very soon show.
But if it's clear and bright,
Then spring won't come so right.”

For the translation of these proverbs see this page.

But why was the religious festivity of Candlemas chosen as the day of the prediction? Candlemas was celebrated on February 2nd, which is right in the middle of the winter, between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and thus it is the right time to make a guess whether the long-awaited spring is near.

Unfortunately, our little friend Phil is not very reliable, as only about 40% of his predictions turn out to be true. Anyway, each year this tradition draws thousands of people to the home of this cute rodent and puts a warm smile upon our faces in the long dreary winter.

In the following video we can learn a bit more about the habits of these animals (also called woodchucks) that are related to squirrels. Then you can answer the questions below. Happy Groundhog’s Day!

For more information, visit http://www.groundhog.org/

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The gerund

The gerund is a nonfinite verb form that is made by adding the suffix -ing to the root of the verb. The spelling rules are the usual when a suffix is added:
  • Most verbs just add -ing: learn=> learning
  • Verbs ending in silent -e, drop it and then add the suffix: live=> living
  • When the last three letters of a verb are consonant-vowel-consonant and the vowel carries the stress of the word (which always happens in monosyllables), we need to double the last consonant: get=> getting, prefer=> preferring.
  • Verbs ending in -ie drop both letters and add -ying: die=> dying
Although it's a verbal form, the gerund works like a noun, so it can do all the functions that nouns do. In the sentence, the gerund can work as:
  • Subject: Smoking is bad for your health.
  • Object of a preposition: when a verb is placed after a preposition, the gerund form must be used. Paul is interested in collecting stamps.
Stamp collecting by KLMircea
  • Noun modifier. They can modify other nouns, thus forming compound nouns: I've bought new running shoes. 
  • Complement of certain expressions such as  it's no use, it's (not) worth, there's no point in, it's a waste of money/time, to be used to, to get used to. (For the last two expressions see a previous post) Examples: There was no point in waiting, so we left. It's a waste of time watching that film. That car isn't worth repairing. It's no use repairing that car.
It's not worth repairing that car.
Image by Dr. Keats
  • Complement of certain verbs: when one verb is followed by another, the second verb can be an infinitive or a gerund, and that choice depends on the first verb. In this entry, we are going to see a list of the most common verbs followed by the gerund, leaving the ones followed by the infinitive for a future entry. Let's see an example: He suggested going out for dinner. Notice that *He suggested to go out for dinner is not possible. Here is the list of the most common verbs always followed y the gerund:
admit endure can't help put off
appreciate enjoy imagine resent
avoid escape involve resist
consider excuse leave off risk
contemplate fancy mention can't stand
delay feel like mind suggest
deny finish miss understand
detest forgive postpone
dislike give up practise

After the verbs need, require, want, and deserve, the gerund is used with a passive meaning: Your work needs correcting  (to be corrected). My shoes want mending (to be mended).

After certain verbs it's also possible to find a possessive adjective followed by the gerund, in which case the possessive is like the subject of the gerund. Compare:
My dad dislikes working late.
My dad dislikes my working late.
In the first sentence, both verbs refer to "my dad", but in the second sentence, the gerund refers to "me", not "my dad"; what he dislikes is that I work late, not him.
In informal English an object pronoun is used instead of the possessive adjective. So, the example above could be My dad dislikes me working late in a more colloquial style.
A noun in the possessive case, or just a noun in an informal style, is also possible in between verb and gerund: I don't mind Mary's coming with us, or I don't mind Mary coming with us.
This structure is quite similar to that of Verb+Object +Infinitive, in which the object of the verb acts as the subject of the infinitive.
Running out of ideas
Note that not all verbs ending in -ing are gerunds. They can also be present participles, which are more related to adjectives than to nouns. If you want to know more about adjectives ending in -ing and their -ed counterparts, have a look at this blog entry.

Now is the time for you to check what you have learnt by doing these exercises:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Collocations: do, play or go with sports and other activities

In British English, you can "do sport". In American English you can "play sports".
A typical mistake Spanish speakers make is using the verb practise for sports:
*I love practising sport. This should be: I love sport.
*I usually practise sport every evening. This should be: I usually do sport every evening.
However, in American English you can use the verb practise or practice (as it is spelt there) to mean "to train": The team is practicing for tomorrow's competition.

When other words related to sports are used, we may use other verbs:
"What sports do you do?"
"I play tennis".
Observe these pictures:

downhill-skiing karate Man Playing Tennis Clipart
Go skiing Do karate Play tennis

There are three verbs that collocate with sports and other free time activities: go, do and play, but they are not interchangeable:
  • Go is used with activities and sports that end in -ing. The verb go here implies that we go somewhere to practice this sport: go swimming.
  • Do is used with recreational activities and with individual, non-team sports or sports in which a ball is not used, like martial arts, for example: do a crossword puzzle, do athletics, do karate.
  • Play is generally used with team sports and those sports that need a ball or similar object (puck, disc, shuttlecock...). Also, those activities in which two people or teams compete against each other: play football, play poker, play chess.
In this table there is a list of sports and activities that collocate with these verbs:
Go Do Play
riding aerobics badminton
jogging gymnastics table-tennis
hitch-hiking taekwondo football
fishing judo basketball
sailing karate chess
windsurfing kung-fu cricket
skiing ballet board games
snowboarding exercise snooker
swimming yoga hockey
dancing athletics baseball
skating archery rugby
cycling a crossword puzzle volleyball
running tai chi squash

Some exceptions to the rules:
  • You use do with three activities that end in -ing: do boxing, do body-building and do weight-lifting because they don't imply moving along as the other activities ending in -ing.
  • Golf: if there is an idea of competition, you use the verb play. However, you can say go golfing if you do it for pleasure: Tiger Woods plays golf. We'll go golfing at the weekend. 

Tiger Woods

Now try doing these exercises:

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