Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year celebrations

Today is the last day of the year and millions of people will be celebrating the arrival of the new year in many parts of the world. However, it will not be new year for everybody: the Jewish, the Muslims, the Chinese... even orthodox christian countries follow a different calendar.
Wherever January 1st is New Year, celebrations typically include big parties, fireworks and champagne. But there are many variations. Today, we are going to see what people in Britain do when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.
After a special, copious dinner (at home or out) people get ready for the countdown. Many wear party hats and masks and blow noise makers. Some people go out to see the fireworks display while others prefer to watch them on television.

The fireworks in London are so impressive and so many people want to see them live that the authorities have decided to play it safe by restricting the audience. So, this year, if you want to see the fireworks live you have to pay 10 pounds, and you wouldn't believe it but all the tickets have sold out! If you want to see how impressive this display is, have a look at this video:

When the clock strikes twelve, people kiss each other, then make a circle and join hands as they start singing Auld Lang Syne, which is a traditional Scottish song that has become the hymn for New Year's Eve because it symbolises endings and new beginnings. The lyrics was written by the poet Robert burns in 1788, but the music is much older and its author unknown. The song is written in Scots, a dialect of English spoken in Scotland, that's why it's difficult to understand.
Singing Auld Lang Syne
In the following video you can read the original lyrics and a translation into modern English:

And talking about Scotland, the New Year celebrations there are called Hogmanay, and they stretch for two or three days. For the Scots, it's as important as Christmas. Hogmanay, whose roots go back to the old celebrations of the winter solstice before christianity reached these lands, is celebrated in different ways in each city or town of the country. In the following video we can see how they celebrate it in the capital, Edinburgh.

It goes without saying that after Auld Lang Syne, the music, dancing and champagne (or Cava) drinking goes on for hours till the early morning when you can see groups of people going back home to sleep it off.
And, like Ella Fitzgerald, I'll ask you: "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"

Happy New Year!


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Five years old!

Incredible but true! It's five years since I started this blog, and though I don't write entries as often as I used to, it's not because I've run out of ideas or topics to write about, but because I'm so busy!
Anyway, let's celebrate this fifth anniversary by having a look at the "cartoons of the week" I have posted over the last 52 weeks, with the exception of the summer months, when I don't always have access to the internet.

This year, I have come across a great blog in which I can find the type of cartoon I like (generally puns): Brainless Tales. Apart from this, I keep on using my usual sources: Wronghands, So much pun, etc. But, as you can see, not only puns have been used. There are also some cartoons that have to do with important current issues like the situation in Ukraine or the landing of Philae on Comet 67P. I hope you find them interesting!

Finally, I'd like to thank all the readers of this blog and the people who are so kind as to leave their comments. Thank you!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The names of the months

Sometimes I hear people complain about the uselessness of learning Latin. "It's a dead language", they say, "Nobody speaks it any more"... While it's true that it has stopped being the lingua franca, that is, the language in which people from different parts of the world were able to communicate, it's a matter of fact that the Western World is hugely indebted to the culture and language of the Romans, for so much of our own culture derives from it.
Latin is not dead

The calendar is a feature that reminds us of how indebted we are to the Romans. To begin with, the very word calendar comes from Kalenda, which was the first day of the month in Latin.

The old Roman calendar used to have ten months and the priests had to add some days at the end so that it kept with the solar year. Later, King Numa changed it to a 12 month year, adding January and February, which became the last months of the year.

Let's have a look at the names of the months in Latin:
  •  March. The Romans started the year with the month of Martius, devoted to Mars, the God of war. It was in this month when soldiers started their training.
  • April. Aprilis was devoted to the goddess Venus, and although it is uncertain where the name comes from, the Romans thought it came from aprire, which means to open.
  • May (Maius) derives its name from the goddess Maia, to whom a sow (female pig) was sacrificed on the first day of the month. Maia, mother of Mercury, was an earth goddess who promoted growth.
  • June. The month of Junius is devoted to Juno, Jupiter's wife and mother of several gods and goddesses.
  • July was originally called Quintilis, because it was the fifth month. (Remember that the year started in March). However, following Julius Caesar's death, it was called after him. 
  • August was originally Sextillis, that is the sixth month. Later, they changed its name for that of Octavius Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
  • September is called so because it was originally the seventh month. Septem means "seven".
  • October used to be the eighth month. Octo is eight.
  • November comes from nove, or ninth month.
  • December was the tenth month, as decem means "ten".
  • January was named in honour of the god Janus, the deity related to beginnings and ends. He has two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future.
  • February was the month of the purification rituals caled Februa, which used to be carried out in the middle of this month.


Some time in the second century BC, the order of the months was changed, and January became the first month and February the second, and so those months that had been named after ordinal numbers bore no relation to their original meanings any more.

It was Julius Caesar who, influenced by the Egyptian calendar, decided to make a new calendar that syncronized with the solar year. He decided that all twelve months should have 30 or 31 days, except February, which should have 29 and add one day once every four years, making it 30. However, when Octavius Augustus died and the month Sextilis was named after him, the Senate decided to add one day to this month, so that it had as many days as Julius's month, and they took this day from February, leaving it with just 28 days.
Julius caesar

Ceasar's calendar had to be reformed in the 16th Century by Pope Gregory XIII. The astrologists acknowledged that the spring equinox was happening on the 11th of March when it had to happen on the 21st, so they realized that there must be a mistake: the Julian calendar added one day every four years, believing that it took the earth 365.25 days to go around the sun, when in fact, it takes ten minutes less, 365.242, to be exact. A reformation was needed, so they decided to take action and shorten the year 1582 in ten days, and reduce the number of leap years so that those ending in 00 wouldn't be leap years any more, with the exception of those which are divisible by 400. So, the year 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was one.
Pope Gregory XIII

This reform was immediately accepted in all the Catholic countries, but not in Protestant, Orthodox or Anglican countries. In Britain and its colonies it was adopted in the year 1752. That's why, although they say that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day (23rd of April, 1616), this is not true, because the latter died ten days later, on May 5th, according to the Gregorian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is not perfect, as it seems that it will have to be reformed by the year 3300. But, who is going to witness that day? And who's gonna care? 

Now do this quiz to see how much you have learnt:

Thursday, May 1, 2014

In, on or at the corner?

According to the dictionary, a corner is "a point where two converging lines meet, forming an angle, either external or internal". (In Spanish we have two words for this: the internal angle is called rincón, whereas the external one is esquina).

Which preposition goes with corner: in, on or at? The answer is the three o them can precede this word. However, the three expressions have different meanings:
  • When corner means an interior angle formed by two meeting walls, we use the preposition in. A piano was in the corner of the room. 

Hover your cursor over the Image
In the corner

  • On the corner means "occupying the surface". For example, the shop in the picture is on the corner of the street. You can also say that a person is standing on the corner because they are occupying a space.

Image by Jackie Bird 
On the corner
  • At the corner means near or adjacent to a corner.  For example, you can say "Let's meet at the corner of my street". But you can also say that the shop is at the corner of High Street and Station Road, that is, when you give the name of the two streets that intersect each other, at is used instead of on because you don't refer to the surface but the point of intersection.
Here's a tip that can help you remember this: in is used with the idea of being inside a volume; on when there is an idea of surface, and at when we just mean a point or being near something.

Another preposition that can be used with corner is around.  He went around the corner, which literally means that he turned around the corner. However, this can  also have an idiomatic meaning (see below).

Other expressions with corner:
  • Out of the corner of the eye: you see something but not clearly, because you see it sideways rather than directly. He saw something move out of the corner of his eye.
  • Blind corner: a street corner that you cannot see around as you are driving. Never overtake on a blind corner!
  • Corner shop: small local store. I'll pop in the corner shop to get some milk.
  • Just / right around the corner: very near either in space or in time: Exams are just around the corner. My boyfriend lives just around the corner.
  • The four corners of the earth /world: many different parts of the world. People from the four corners of the world gathered for the event.
  • A tight corner: a dangerous or awkward position from which escape is difficult: His lying got him into a tight corner.
Spring is just around the corner!
How about an exercise to see how much you can remember?

In the following song by "The Script", a man is waiting for his lover on the corner of a street. He says he's not moving, he's going to stand his ground until she realizes that she is missing him and so goes to the corner where they first met. Isn't it romantic? 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Traditional Easter food in Britain

Chocolate eggs are undoubtedly the most popular Easter food in Britain, but by no means the only one. Hot cross buns, roast lamb, Easter biscuits in the shape of bunnies and Simnel cake are not to be sniffed at. Today, we are going to have a look at some of these traditional recipes.
Egg hunt
Image by Simon Greig in Flickr

As we said in a previous post, eggs have traditionally been related to spring and the beginning of life, and from the early stages of Christianity, they symbolized the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death on the cross. Today, boiled eggs are still eaten at Easter, but the chocolate egg has become the most popular in the last years, being the traditional present that people give away to family and friends.
In the following video, we can hear a short history of the Easter egg.

Apart from boiled eggs, Easter biscuits are eaten for breakfast and also for tea. They are traditionally made with currants and spices, but they can also be made with other ingredients and in the shape of eggs or bunnies. Here is a recipe for traditional Easter biscuits.
Easter biscuits
For the main meal on Easter Sunday, roast lamb is served with mint sauce and vegetables. Lamb symbolizes Christ, who is known as "the Lamb of God". But before the Christians, lamb was already used by the Jews to celebrate Passover, which roughly coincides with Easter. It all started more than 3000 years ago, when the Jews were slaves in Egypt and Moses wanted to free them. The Pharaoh refused to let them go, so God sent a series of plagues, the last one of which was the death of the firstborn sons. To spare the Jewish children, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and paint the lintels of their doors with its blood, so that the angel of death would pass over their houses and leave their offspring unhurt. That's why the Jews call this festivity "Pesach", or "Passover". When Jesus entered Jerusalem he told his Apostles to prepare the Passover meal, and they probably ate lamb at the Last Supper.
Easter roast lamb

For tea, in many households people like to make Simnel cake, which is a delicious fruit cake with layers of marzipan and decorated with eleven marzipan balls which symbolize the twelve Apostles except Judas, who gave Jesus away. In this video we can watch how to make one of these.

And last but not least, my favourite: the scrumptious hot cross buns, which are served hot with butter. They are traditionally eaten on Good Friday, but I start to eat them as soon as I see them in the shops, which can be as early as February! You can watch how they are made in this video.
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!
Finally, try this exercise to see how much you have learnt.
Traditional Easter food

Happy Easter!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Reporting verbs

Apart from say and tell, there are other verbs that can introduce sentences in reported speech, as we saw in another blog entry. These reporting verbs are more specific: they tell us more about the intention of the speaker. Let's see an example:
Bart said: "I won't do it again, dad".
This sentence can be reported as:
1. Bart told his dad that he wouldn't do it again.
2. Bart promised his dad not to do it again.
Both reported speech sentences are correct, but the second one is better because the verb "promise" tells us a lot about the intention of the speaker, whereas "tell" is more neutral.
Bart promised his dad not to do it again.
There are many reporting verbs, which are difficult to master even for native speakers, but when used, they undoubtedly give a greater quality to their writing.
In order to make them easier to learn for foreign speakers of English, we are going to classify them in five different groups according to the structure or pattern they follow. Bear in mind that some of them can be found in two or even three groups:

Verb + to-infinitive
"I'll bring some refreshments", she said.
She offered to bring some refreshments.
These are some of the verbs that have this pattern
agree decide offer
promise refuse threaten
claim swear demand

Verb + object + to-infinitive
"Please, stay!", she said.
She begged me to stay. Note that there is no need to repeat the word "please", because its meaning is given by the reporting verb "beg".
Some verbs that follow this pattern are:
advise ask convince
encourage invite beg
forbid instruct order
request remind urge
persuade warn

Verb + V-ing / noun
"I didn't steal the money", he said
He denied stealing the money.
Some verbs that require a gerund are:
admit confess acknowledge
advise deny recommend
regret suggest

Verb + Preposition + V-ing / noun
Prepositions are always followed by nouns or gerunds, so it's easy to remember that these verbs with prepositions will be followed by the -ing form. Note that you can have an object either between verb and preposition or right after the preposition.
"Yes, you stole the money" she said.
She accused him of stealing the money.
"I'm sorry I'm late!", she said.
She apologised for being late.

Verb + Prep. + V-ing Verb + Object + Prep. + V-ing
apologise for accuse s.o. of
insist on blame s.o. for
confess to congratulate s.o. on
complain about forgive s.o. for
warn s.o. against / about
disuade s.o. from

Verb + that + Subject + Verb
This structure is more formal, so it is more commonly used in written English. The verb in the subordinate clause is in the subjunctive, but in British English it is more usual to use should and the infinitive instead of the subjunctive. Examples:
"Let's go shopping", he said.
He suggested that they go shopping.
He suggested that they should go shopping
He suggested going shopping. (This is less formal, as we have already seen, but much more common.)
These are some of the reporting verbs followed by a subordinate clause:
agree ask claim
demand decide guarantee
promise propose recommend
request swear suggest

One example of one of the above patterns can be found in the following song by KWS, in which we can hear the expression "I'm begging you to stay", which is another way of saying "Please, don't go". Enjoy!


Thursday, March 20, 2014

As, like, as if, as though

Let's compare these two sentences:
Helen works as a teacher in a local school.
Helen works like a dog all day.
The first sentence tells us that Mary is a teacher. The second one compares her to a dog, but she is not a dog! So, we use as to say what the job, function or role of a person is, whereas like is used for comparison.
As can also be used for comparison, but it must be followed by:
  • A clause (Subject+Verb): She makes the cakes as her mother used to make them.
  • A prepositional phrase: In London, as in New York, there is too much traffic.
Like is used for comparison but it's always followed by a noun or noun phrase, not by a clause. However, in colloquial English you can hear it in cases in which as should be used. Although not considered correct, it seems that this trend is getting more and more common these days, and might become the rule in the future. Who knows?
This usage of like is very common in songs, which use colloquial expressions and even slang. This song by RIO titled "Like I love you" is a good example.

As must be used after the expressions the same and such:
When I arrived at the party, another woman was wearing the same dress as me!
We can do many things to help the environment, such as recycling, saving energy and using public transport.

As is also used in expressions such as as expected, as requested, as you know, as we agreed, as suggested,... Again, like can be heard in some of these expressions, but bear in mind that it's colloquial English.
Finally, as is used in the comparative of equality, as we saw in a previous blog post. Let's remember some of the idioms we saw in this presentation:

With the verbs of the senses (look, feel, taste, smell and sound) we can use like and as if or as though. (The last two are the same). You only have to take into account that like is followed by a noun or noun phrase and as if, as though are followed by a clause.
  • Your brother looks like a rugby player. (noun phrase)
  • You look as if you haven't slept for ages! (clause: Subject + Verb)
  • You are so pale! You look as though you had seen a ghost! (clause: Subject + Verb).
When the verb in the clause is in the past, the comparison is unreal or improbable. In the last example above, it's clear that the person has not seen a ghost, it's just a comparison. However, in the second sentence (with a present tense verb) there's a strong probability that the person has not slept for a very long time. 

Please, note that the verbs of the senses can also be followed directly by an adjective:
These shoes feel comfortable.
What are you cooking? It smells delicious!
You look tired.
It sounds familiar to me.

It smells delicious!

And now, some exercises:
As or like?
As, like or as if / as though?

Monday, February 10, 2014

The environment. Vocabulary

Droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons... While these natural disasters have always happened in the world, there is no doubt that they are becoming more and more frequent these days. The world is warming up and this is having an effect in the climate. Can this be blamed just on nature or is it man-made? There is a great deal of controversy among scientists about this issue, but it's not for me to go into it today. Instead, what I would like to look at in depth is the vocabulary about climate change and the environment.
In order to learn the vocabulary related to the environment, let's have a look at this presentation:

Let's see some words and expressions that need further explanation:

  • Biodiversity is the variety of plants and animals that can be found in a geographical region. This variety needs to be preserved, as these organisms depend on one another to survive.
  • Our development will be sustainable if we can cover our present needs without putting at risk the ability of future generations to do the same. That is, we shouldn't use up all the resources today because we are not leaving enough resources for our children and grand-children.
  • If we don't want to cause any harm to nature, we should be carbon neutral, that is, we shouldn't throw carbon dioxide to the atmosphere or, in any case, try to compensate it by recycing, planting trees or giving money so that other people can do that for ourselves. In that way, we would be offsetting our carbon footprint.

Reduce your carbon footprint
Though it's true that industries are greatly responsible for polluting the environment, we are not too small or unimportant to fight pollution. There's a saying in English: "Every little helps". Have you ever thought about what you can do to help the environment? In this video there are a few ideas. After watching it, you can do the comprehension questions below.

Finally, here are some exercises:
Choose the correct option.
Match the words and the definitions.
Reading comprehension.
"Save tropical rainforests". Choose the right option to fill in the gaps.
A complete exercise about global warming.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Music vocabulary

Today we are going to have a look at words related to music, not from the point of view of the musician but from that of the listener. In the next presentation, we'll revise the musical instruments, types of music, musicians and equipment needed to listen to music, as well as adjectives related to sounds and a few idioms that will be very useful for the learner of English.

Let's look deeper into the adjectives for sounds, as I think they need further explanation:
Sounds can be loud (strongly audible) or soft (quiet and pleasant to listen to). Synonyms for loud are: earsplitting (extremely loud), deafening (so loud that you can hear nothing else because it makes you deaf!), piercing (loud and unpleasant) or shrill (high and unpleasant).

Ear-splitting sound
Synonyms for soft are: quiet (making very little or no noise), muffled (not easy to hear because it is blocked), inaudible (difficult to hear).
According to the pitch, a sound can be high-pitched (like the cry of a baby) or low-pitched (like a tigers growl)
Sounds can also be lively or energetic if they fill you with energy, or soothing, calm and relaxing if they make you less nervous.
Finally, they can be melodious or tuneful if they are pleasant to listen to, or tuneless, if they are unpleasant, catchy if they are pleasing and easily remembered or bland if they are uninteresting.
Let's see some examples:

  • He lowered his voice so much that it was almost inaudible.
  • We coud hear muffled voices from the next room.
  • The noise of the machine was deafening.
  • I love listening to soothing music when I come back home from work.
  • "Call me maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen is a catchy song.

In the following presentation there are several questions. See how many you can answer correctly. 

Did you pass that test?

Finally, let's listen to this song about music by Abba.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Gerund or infinitive?

When a verb is complemented by another verb, the second one can be:
  •  a gerund (as we saw in a previous post): I enjoy listening to classical music.
  •  a to-infinitive: He wants to stay, but I want him to go.
  •  a bare infinitive (that is, without to): Let me go
In order to know which verbs are followed by a gerund or an infinitive (with or without to) you have to learn the lists of verbs by heart. However, there is something that can be of help: most verbs are followed by the to-infinitive, so if you learn the verbs followed by the gerund and those followed by the infinitive without to (which are just a few), you can be pretty sure that the rest of the verbs will be followed by a to-infinitive.
Gerund or infinitive? That is the question!

To make matters more complicated, there is a small group of verbs that can be followed by either a gerund or an infinitive. Some of them show a change of meaning when taking one or the other, while others don't change their meanings at all. Let's see them:

Same meaning: attempt, can't bear, begin, continue, intend, propose, start. Examples: We start working at 8 in the morning. We start to work at 8 in the morning.

Love, hate and prefer are followed by the to-infinitive or the gerund without much difference in meaning. However, the infinitive is preferably used when we refer to one particular occasion. When would precedes these verbs, the to-infinitive is always used: I'd love to go, but unfortunately I can't.
Love and hate
Image by Alex Hillman

Same meaning but different use:

  • Allow, advise, forbid and permit are followed by a gerund when there is no personal object. Otherwise, they are followed by a to-infinitive: I advised seeing a doctor. I advised him to see a doctor.
Different meaning:
  • With remember and forget, the gerund refers to things that happened earlier, whereas the infinitive refers to what must be done: I remember posting the letter (that is, "I can remember that I have posted the letter") Please, remember to post the letter (that is, "you have to post the letter") 
  • Stop + gerund means "to stop the activity you are doing" or "to break a habit": She stopped eating chocolate last year. Stop + to-infinitive  means "to make a pause in order to do something else": She stopped to eat some chocolate. (meaning that she stopped what she was doing in order to do something else).
  • Regret + gerund means "to be sorry for what has happened": I regret telling her my secret. Regret + to-infinitive means "to be sorry for what is going to be said": I regret to tell you that we have offered the job to somebody else.
  • Like + gerund means "to enjoy". I like reading adventure books. Like + to-infinitive means "to have a preference for" I like to know the facts before forming an opinion, or even "want" I didn't like to say no. Please, note that the infinitive must be used after would like: I'd like to tell you that...
  • Try + gerund means "to make an experiment": I tried using the new method, but it didn't work. Try + to-infinitive means "to make an effort": He tried to pass his university entry exam.
  • Go on + gerund means "to continue with the same action": Mary went on reading the letter. Go on + to-infinitive means "to start something new". He first talked about the problem, then went on to discuss the solution".
  • See, watch and hear followed by the gerund imply that we observe part of the action, but when they are followed by the bare infinitive they suggest that the action is observed completely, from beginning to end: When I looked out of the window I saw him crossing the street. I saw him get out of the car, cross the street and go into the supermarket. Notice that in the second example we mean that the actions that are seen are complete.
I saw the Simpsons crossing the street.

Now you can try to do this exercise:

Fancy another exercise? Try this one.

Still not tired? You can practise with this gap-fill exercise. Yet more?

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