Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Idioms with people's names

There are quite a few idioms and proverbs that use proper nouns, which are words that name specific persons, places or things and are always written in capital letters. Today, we are going to have a look at some idioms that use names of people:
  • Every Tom, Dick and Harry means everybody, every ordinary person: If you tell Louisa, soon every Tom, Dick and Harry will know about it.
  • Jack of all trades, master of none is a proverb used for people who are competent with many skills but are not especially good at any of them. As is usual with proverbs, the second part can be left out. There's a chap in the office who can do almost anything; he's a jack of all trades.
  • All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy is a familiar proverb that means that if a person does not take some time off work, they can become boring. It was the phrase that Jack Nicholson kept typing in The Shining, a film based in the novel of the same name by Stephen King.
  • Johnny-come-lately means a newcomer, someone who has just joined a group. She may be a Johnny-come-lately in the office, but she´s doing really well. There's a song by Eagles in which this expression can be heard. You can find it at the end of this entry.
  • Keep up with the Joneses means to try to be as good as the neighbours by getting what they have and matching their lifestyle: Her neighbour bought a new car and she went out and bought another; she's always trying to keep up with the Joneses.
  • Rob Peter to pay Paul is to take or borrow money from someone in order to pay a debt to another person. If you take money from a credit card to pay off another, it's a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It won't take you anywhere
  • John Hancock is a person's signature. It refers to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence of the USA. Put your John Hancock on the dotted line, please.
  • A peeping Tom is a voyeur, a person who takes pleasure from secretly watching others. By way of example you can watch the video below, which is an excerpt from the legendary film "Back to the Future".
  • To live / lead the life of Riley is to live a really good life with few problems. Stop complaining. You're living the life of Riley. The origin of this idiom is in an old Irish song called "Is that Mr. Riley?"
  • (And) Bob's your uncle is used after explaining a simple set of instructions, meaning that it's very easy to do: Boil the pasta, drain it, put the sauce on top and Bob's your uncle! 
  • Take the Mickey (out of someone) is to make fun of someone. This expression, used mainly in Britain, comes from the Cockney Rhyming slang "Mickey Bliss", meaning "piss", because the orignal expression was take the piss out of someone. It is also equivalent to pull someone's leg, which is also used in America. Are you being serious or are you taking the Mickey out of me? 
  • The real McCoy is the genuine thing or person. This isn't an imitation. It's the real McCoy.
  • We are even Steven is an expression used when someone has repaid a debt. It's clear that this name has been used because it rhymes with "even". Now that you have given me back the money I lent you, we are even Steven.
  • John Doe or Jane Doe are names used for a man or a woman whose real name is unknown. 
  • John Bull is a character who represents the typical English man. He is usually pictured as a stocky figure wearing a waistcoat with the British flag on.
  • Uncle Sam is the government of the United States and, by extension, the American people. The name is an expansion of the abbreviation U.S.

 Johnny-come-lately by Eagles. At the beginning of the video there's a grammar mistake. Can you spot it?

Jack of all trades by Bruce Springsteen

Finally, try to complete the idioms in this presentation:

Friday, December 4, 2015

Six years old!

This blog is six years old!

I'd like to thank all my readers for the million visits this blog has had since I started writing, back in November 2009. This cake is for you!

And, as usual, I'm adding a selection of the cartoons of the week that I post every Sunday. They come from my usual sources: Wrong Hands, So much pun, Brainless tales and Cartoon Movement. They deal mainly with puns, but some of them are related to current affairs such as the terrible attacks in Paris. I hope you like them and I hope you keep reading this blog! Cheers!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Indian summer

Today is the 8th of November. It's autumn and yet the weather is mild: it's sunny and warm (about 24º C), there's no wind... It's not the weather you might expect in autumn. That's what is called an Indian Summer, a term that, originated in the USA and Canada, is becoming more widely used in the UK, where this spell of good weather in the middle of the autumn is known as "All Hallows summer" or "St. Martin's summer" (In Spain we say "Veranillo de San Martín") because it hapens around the Day of St Martin, that is, the 11th of November. So, if it's got a name, it's not so strange to get warm days in November, is it?
Indian summer

But where does this expression come from? It was first used in North America around the 1770s, but the origin is not certain. Some say that it was the Indians that pointed it out to the European settlers. Others say that during this spell of good weather the Indians renewed their attacks on the settlers. Whatever its origin, the expression is here to stay and it's already in use in other English speaking countries apart from North America.

Indian summer is the title of a song, a film, a festival,..

By extension, it also means a pleasant period of someone's life, especially when they are older:
  • After marrying his new wife at the age of 59, he entered into the Indian summer of his life. 
  • She is in the Indian summer of her career.

Apart from Indian summer, there are other proverbs and idioms related to the seasons and the weather. Here are a few:
  • One swallow does not make a summer, meaning that because one good thing has happened does not mean that others will follow:  Her latest book was a success, but a swallow does not make a summer. She still has to prove that she is a good writer.
  • To buy straw hats in winter is mainly used in the stock market and it means to buy when demand and prices are low in order to sell when the prices are higher so as to make big profit.
  • In the dead of winter means in the middle of winter, when it is the coldest:  In the dead of winter, just when it was colder, she came out wearing just a skimpy dress and no coat on. 
  • No spring chicken is used to refer to people who are no longer young: Stop doing that. You're no spring chicken!
  • To be full of the joys of spring is to be very happy. Look at him, he's full of the joys of spring.
  • Autumn years are the later years of a person, especially after retirement: In the autumn years of his life he took up painting.
  • Make hay while the sun shines means to make the most of opportunities when they come: Now that the children are at school, I'll set to work in my book. I'll make hay while the sun shines.
  • To be / feel under the weather is not to feel well: I won't go out today. I'm feeling a bit under the weather.
  • It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. This proverb means that even the worst events can be beneficial for someone: After the fire in the building, many workers were given jobs to repair it. It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
  • Come rain or come shine / rain or shine: no matter what the weather is like, in any case: After a long week working in the office we'll go out at the weekend come rain or come shine.
The following presentation can help you remember these idioms. Try to complete them and then remember their meaning. 

In this song by Stereophonics you can hear the expression Indian summer:

In this other song, Frank Sinatra says that he is going to love his sweetheart come rain or come shine; that is, in any case, no matter what life brings about. Enjoy it!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Suggest and recommend

My students usually make mistakes when using these two verbs.
A typical mistake:
* I suggest you to buy a new car.

The verb suggest cannot be followed by the infinitive. It can be followed by the gerund or a that-clause. Let's see:

I suggest buying a new car.
I suggest that you buy a new car.
I suggest buying a new car

In the first sentence the suggestion is good for the person who suggests or a group of which they form part.
However, in the second sentence, the suggestion is meant for another person, not for the speaker.
In the second sentence, the verb buy is in fact in the subjunctive mode, which uses the same forms of the indicative, except for the third person singular, which doesn't take the final "s":
I suggest that he buy a new car.
The subjunctive form of the verb to be is be for all the persons or were if it is in the past:
I suggest that she be here as soon as possible.
I suggested that she were here as soon as possible.

In British English, the sentence using the subjunctive can more commonly be expressed:
 I suggest that you should buy a new car.
As you can see, the modal verb should is used instead of the subjunctive. Another thing to take into account is that the word that can be left out in this type of sentences:
I suggest you buy a new car.
I suggest you should buy a new car.

After suggest you can also use just a noun or noun phrase:
A: "Which dress should I wear?"
B: "I suggest the black one"
I suggest the black dress

For the use of suggest in indirect speech, have a look at this blogpost.

As for recommend, it cannot be used with the infinitive either. It can either be followed by the gerund or a that-clause:
I recommend reading that book.
I recommend that you read that book.
In the latter sentence, read is a subjunctive.
I recommend this book

You can also use a noun after recommend:
I recommend this book to you.
However, you cannot use the indirect object next to the verb, so, these sentences wouldn't be correct:
*I recommend to you this book.
*I recommend you this book.

So, to put it in a nutshell, both verbs are never followed by the infinitive. Instead, they are followed by:
  • A noun or noun phrase
  • A gerund
  • A that-clause + subjunctive
  • A that-clause + should + infinitive

In the following video you can hear an example of suggest. At one point, the lady says: " I suggest you just go away". Can you hear it?

Finally, let's do some exercises:
Suggest and recommend

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Vocabulary: crime and punishment

Today we are going to have a look at the vocabulary related to justice: crimes, criminals and how they are punished.

First of all, this Prezi presentation will show us the most important terms and then we'll look into the ones that need further explanation.

As you can see, many names of criminals derive from the crime words, or the other way around. There are also verbs associated with them:
burglary burglar burgle
robbery robber rob
murder murderer murder
mugging mugger mug
kidnapping kidnapper kidnap
smuggling smuggler smuggle
bribery briber bribe
shoplifting shoplifter shoplift
pickpocketing pickpocket pickpocket
forgery forger forge

For the difference between rob and steal, have a look at this blog post.

Murderer and killer both mean "someone who deliberately kills a person". A serial killer (but not *serial murderer) is someone who has killed a number of people over a period of time, usually in the same fashion. An assassin, on the other hand, is someone who kills an important or famous person for money or political reasons.

In the next 80s song by Bananarama we can hear a few expressions related to the topic we are dealing with today.

Finally, let's do some exercises:

Sunday, February 1, 2015

I wish / If only

We use wish and if only to express how we would like things to be different if we had the power to change them. They both have the same meaning, but if only is more emphatic.
They can be followed by another clause using the following tenses:
  • Past simple. It's used to express things you would like to be different in the present, but which you deem impossible or unlikely: I wish I were taller. As in conditional sentences, we use the subjunctive (were) for all the grammatical persons. However, was is also possible in a less formal context: I wish he was my friend.
I wish I were taller

  • Past perfect. It's used to express regret or criticism about things that happened or didn't happen in the past. I wish I had studied harder for the exam. (Now it's too late. I can only regret I didn't study more). I wish you had told me the truth.

  • Would + infinitive. It's used to:
    •  Complain about things that you find annoying. I wish you would stop making so much noise. If only this wind would stop. In these sentences, the subject of the subordinate clause must be different from that of the main clause. 
    •  Express wishes for the future when we think the action will probably not happen  (could can be used instead of would) I wish I could go on holday with you, (but I know I can't). If there is a stronger possibility that the action will happen, we use hope: I hope I can go on holiday with you. (I don't know if I can or not). 
          We can find another example of wish + would in this song by Phil Collins:

There are many songs in which you can find examples of  wish or if only. Here are a few:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The verbs of the senses

A typical mistake my students make:
*You look well.
*I feel well.
The use of "well" in these sentences is incorrect because look and feel, as verbs of the senses, should be followed by adjectives, not by adverbs. Instead, the sentences should be: You look good / I feel fine. Let's see how these verbs work.

We have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. (Some people talk about a sixth sense, which is in fact extrasensory perception). But today we are going to deal with the verbs of the senses. Here are the most important:
sight see, look
hearing hear, listen, sound
taste taste
touch feel
smell smell

Are these verbs followed by adjectives or by adverbs?
Some of these verbs can be used either as action verbs or stative verbs. In the former case, they are followed by adverbs, but in the latter case, they are followed by adjectives, because we are describing the subject rather than the action of the verb. Compare these sentences:
- She looked at him angrily.
- She looked angry.
In the first sentence, look is an action verb, so, it is complemented by an adverb: "angrily" describes the way that she looked at him. However, in the second sentence look is a stative (or state) verb meaning "seem" or "appear", and the adjective "angry" does not refer to the verb but to the subject. It is similar to saying that "she is angry". As you can see, the second sentence does not describe an action but a state. Going back to the sentences at the beginning, do the verbs show action or state? That's right! There's no action implied, so, they must be followed by adjectives.
In this page you can see many examples of state vs. action verbs.
She looks angry
Can they be put in continuous (progressive) tenses?
Sense verbs can involve involuntary perception like hear or see, or voluntary perception, like look or listen.
Involuntary perception verbs cannot be put in continuous tenses: *I'm seeing the ocean from my window. Instead, we use can or could with them: I can see the ocean from my window.
On the other hand, voluntary perception verbs can be used in continuous tenses: What are you listening to?
However, see and hear can also be action verbs and can have different meanings to that of perception, in which case they can be put in continuous tenses: see can mean "meet someone": I'm seeing Mary for lunch. Hear can also mean "to listen to and judge a case in court": The judge will be hearing the evidence today.
Feel, taste and smell do not have different forms for voluntary or involuntary perception, so, they can only be put in continuous tenses when they are voluntary:
- What are you smelling?
- The cook is tasting the soup.
- I'm feeling the material to see if it is soft enough.
Whereas for involuntary actions, they can never be used in continuous tenses:
- This smells awful.
- My mum's food tastes delicious.
- This blanket feels so soft!
The cook is tasting the soup

The verbs of the senses can be used with like, as if and as though.
She looks like her mum. (noun)
She looks as if / as though she is tired. (clause)
To see the difference and more examples have a look at this entry.
In the following video you can hear the great James Brown giving us some examples of feel followed by adjectives (I feel good / I feel nice) and also by like + noun  (I feel like sugar and spice)

See and hear can be followed by verbs in gerund or infinitive with a slight change in meaning, as we saw in this blogpost.

Finally, let's check what we have learnt by doing this exercise.

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