Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

June 30, 2009

Describing the past to present part 2 – Present perfect – simple or continuous?

Yesterday I outlined the main occurances of the present perfect and, I hope, gave a few pointers to help you use the tense correctly.

Today I want to look at the difference between the simple and continuous forms of the present perfect tense and give you some examples of how to make the correct choice and get your message across.

Present Perfect Simple: continuous form

Rule:              auxiliary very to have +past participle of to be (been ) + ..ing form of the main verb (present participle)

Meaning:         actions or states in the present perfect that have been ongoing from past to now (and may continue into the future)

Used for:           talking about ongoing states ( e.g. living, working), focusing on the duration of a state or action, suggesting that states or actions are temporary, talking about a present result and focusing on the activity that led to it.

Some examples:

  • Talking about ongoing states or actions (often used with since and for) – She’s been working at the hospital for years.


  • Focusing on duration –  What have you been doing?


  • Temporary states and actions –  We’ve been insuring the car with Premium Insurance.


  • Focusing on the activity –  He won every match, he must have been training hard!

So what difference does it make when we use the continuous over the simple form?

Let’s have a look.

  • She’s worked in the hospital for years.
  • She’s been working in the hospital for years.

The first sentence states a fact the second emphasises the duration and even adds an emotional dimension. One can imagine the sentence culminating in a strong stress and a high intonation to express the longevity of it all – how could you not realise this fact!

  • What have you done?
  • What have you been doing?

In this pair the opposite seems to be the case. The simple form carries the nuance. There is something secretive perhaps or even sinister. The continuous form is a simple question about a longish period of time up to the present.

  • We have insured the car with Premium Insurance.
  • We have been insuring the car with Premium Insurance.

Here the simple form conveys a fact. The car is insured with this company, it happened some time in the past (we don’t need to know when) it has some permanence. The continuous form suggests a situation that is temporary, yet one that has been going on for a while. The implication is that we may change our insurer.

  • He won every match, he must have trained hard.
  • He won every match, he must have been training hard!

Again the simple form relates the information in its barest form. He trained and so he won. The second places a lot of emphasis on the actual training as an activity which must have been tough but has, in the end , paid off. An extra layer of  feeling is attached by the speaker.

The best way to make sure you get it right is to try them out!


June 29, 2009

Describing the past to present – Present Perfect tense

Mention this tense to any English language learner and they will squirm! Mention it to teachers and there will be much heavy breathing! So, what is the problem?

It is a tense that features heavily in everyday English, it behaves differently in English to other languages (remember the false friends?) and its usage is not always logical! As teachers we know why you need the present perfect but it is sometimes a matter of perception and this is not always obvious to learners.

Even though most advanced learners have the rules nailed down, the ability to use it faultlessly doesn’t always follow so I thought I’d do a little recap of the rules and some tips on usage to act as a reminder and guide.

The Present Perfect

Rule:       auxiliary to have + past participle, simple and continuous forms

Meaning:       actions or states which start in the past but have a link with the present in some way

Used for:     talking about experiences, talking about the recent past, talking about actions with present relevance, talking about ongoing/unfinished states or actions

Some examples:

  • Talking about experience – I’ve worked as a waitress, a postman and a teacher.
  • Talking about the recent past Have you seen Molly? She’s just driven off!
  • Talking about actions with present relevance – What have you done to your arm?
  • Talking about unfinished or ongoing states or actions – They’ve been living in that house for 20 years!

Remember to think of the present perfect as a present tense and not a past tense. We are looking at the past with ‘present eyes’ and whatever we talk about relates to now:


  • I’ve been to Vietnam. really meansI have seen the country and can tell you about it now, when, where, how or why I went and visited are not important it’s my experience of it now which is important.


  • You’ve just missed him!  really means – If you’d been here a few minutes earlier you would have seen him. When he went, why and the fact that it happened in the past are irrelevant, coming here now is simply too late!


  • You’ve cut your hair! really means – I’ve just seen it now, I don’t really care when, why or how it was done. The impact for me is now.


  •  I’ve been studying English for 15 years. really means – It’s been a long time and it may go on, aren’t you impressed – now! or something like that.

You can find more examples in your grammar book or course book. If you need more clarification why not post a questions here and I’ll do my best to answer it.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the differences between the continuous and simple forms of the present perfect tense.

June 24, 2009


Although this might sound like a strange affliction, it is really a word to describe how we sometimes omit words in a sentence without upsetting the meaning.

We often do this in more casual speaking

Fancy a beer?

and writing.

Gone out,  back around 10

As you can see this kind of English usage is very natural and if you listen to native speakers you will hear and see ellipsis used constantly.

Here are some guidelines on what you can omit from sentences, how to achieve this natural sounding language  and things to beware of.

  • We can leave out the subject:    Missed the train!(I/We ….)


  • Also the subject and auxiliary verbFinished?   (Have you.. ) Coming!(I’m/We’re …)


  • Articles and determiners can be left out sometimes:  Problems at work. (there are),  Any ice in the freezer? (Is there)


  • Prepositions:  Back Saturday (We’ll be back on Saturday)

We often use ellipsis in:

  • questions             Find your bag? (Did you find your bag?)


  • replies to questions       Not sure   (I’m not sure)


  • with verbs of perception: hear,  see, think etc..  Heard from James? (Have you heard from James?)

Finally with questions such as do you want, or would you like ellipsis is very common:

More tea?  (Would you like more tea?)

Cigarette?  (Do you want a cigarette?)

Things to be careful about.

Remember that ellipsis is informal, so as with other aspects of register (formal/informal) think about who you are communicating with, what the subject is and what is appropriate.

If you saw   Sent flowers!  are you sure who received the flowers? I would assume that I had sent them to someone else. If I had received them I would be more likely to say/write  Been sent flowers! So it isn’t always cut and dried (forgive the pun – which refers to flowers!).

Don’t omit modal auxiliaries or the meaning won’t be clear – compare;

  • Got the promotion!  with Might have got a promotion!

Notice also the use of the article in each sentence. It is important to retain precision in the meaning.

Quite a tricky area I think but one worth spending some time on because it is very common and it does add that extra something to your performance!

June 23, 2009

10 pairs of words that often get confused

Sometimes there are words in one language that are similar to words in another. These can often translate the same but sometimes they have a different meaning or usage. Many of these are called ‘false friends’, a good name as this is what they are – comforting yet deadly! Others are confused because their meaning is very similar yet their usage not. Making sure that you know how to use these words is a good tactic and should be included in the language audit we discussed a few posts ago.

Here are 10 pairs of words to consider.


  • I don’t agree with what you are saying.
  • I can’t accept your offer.


  • You need to check your writing before you hand it in.
  • I have no control over the results of the test.


  • I’m going to take the exam on Friday.
  • The whole class passed the exam – amazing!


  • I popped out for 10 minutes and missed her call!
  • I think I’ve lost my purse!


  • Don’t worry, Jake is very sensible I’m sure he won’t get lost.
  • Don’t shout at Milly she’s very sensitive and might get upset.


  • I left my umbrella on the bus, I need to call lost property.
  • I lost my necklace at the party, it must have fallen off.


  • Can you remind me to set the alarm for 7.00a.m.?
  • Did you remember to buy extra milk?


  • Please bring your own food and drink to the event.
  • Don’t forget to take all your belongings with you when you leave.


  • Can you raise that issue at the next meeting?
  • Our sales figures have risen for the 3rd month in a row.


  • The economy is going through troubled times at present.
  • My father studied economics from books and other publications.

This is a selection and you will find more of these words in your grammar book. Take time to ensure that you are clear about the differences and know how to use them correctly.

If you have any suggestions for other areas I can look at in my postings – let me know!

June 19, 2009

Dealing with names and titles

This, for most people you meet, will be straightforward. The first, or Christan name plus the last, or surname.

Josephine Marsh.

There may be a middle name expressed in full or by an initial:

Josephine Helen Marsh.    or      Josephine H. Marsh.

She may have a nickname  Jo or Josie ( a short version of her name) or based on some characteristic such as Slim ( for a thin or fat person) or Brains (for someone clever)

and a title           Miss, Mrs or Ms

All are spelt with capital letters.

(The plurals :   Miss = Misses and   Mr = Messrs are very formal. Ms and Mrs have no plurals)

Names beginning with Mac, Mc or O’ are followed by capital letters McDonald or O’Leary for example.

Some people have ‘double barrelled ‘surnames  (two surnames) such as Harvey-Jones or Macmillan-Smythe, these are hyphenated.

Making references to people

If you know the person you would use the first name;

Jo and I saw Slumdog millionaire last night (use the surname as well if there are several Jos)

We use the title and surname for older people, or in formal situations, or if we don’t know someone very well.

I see that Mr Williams at number 12 has a new car.

We wouldn’t usually use the first name and surname unless we wanted to avoid confusion.

We sometimes refer to couples or families using the and the plural of their surname:

The Richardsons are coming to dinner.

Have you seen the Morgans’ new house?

 We can also use the determiner a when we don’t know a person:

There’s a Mr Jolly on the phone.


Titles are usually used in front of the surname or first name and surname.

Inspector Brown

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Rabbi Lionel Blue

Baroness Thatcher

 Aunt and Uncle are still used for family members.

Aunt Mary

Uncle John

Brother, Sister, Father are now usually used as religious titles for monks, nuns and priests. Father can be used with first and surnames but Brother and Sister are usually used with the christian name.

Aristocratic titles

Should you need to address a member of the aristocracy, you will need the following:

Her (His Majesty) reserved for Queens and Kings

Royal Highness – princes and princesses

Your Grace – Dukes/Duchesses

Sir/Dame – Barons/Baronets/Baronesses/Knights/Dames

Lord/Lady – Earls/Viscounts/Marquesses

His/Her Excellency for Ambassadors

So now you are ready for all ocasions where you might need to address someone, introduce someone or generally refer to people.

For more on aristoctratic titles see this site

June 17, 2009


subject – auxiliary inversion

When we use a particular group of words (called negative adverbials or limiting adverbials) we need to remember to invert the subject and auxiliary verb that follow.

Not once did they invite me to their house. – adverbial + auxiliary verb + subject + main verb etc..

These inversions can be used in writing to give a more formal air to the piece.

  • On no account should you drive while taking these pills. Not only will they make you feel drowsy but they can also affect your vision.

They can also be used more informally in speech and writing for emphasis or to add dramatic effect.

  • Only now do I understand how important a man my Grandfather was.
  • Boy, can she be annoying!

Here is a list of phrases that require inversion:

Not only …. but also ….  

Not only should you return the money but you should also apologise.

On no account ….              

On no account should you leave the room without permission.

No sooner … than        

No sooner had we set out the picnic than the storms started!

Seldom …                      

Seldom before has there been such an important discovery.

Never before ….

Never before have I been so insulted!

Under no circumstances…

Under no circumstances must you speak to them again!

Only now …           

Only now do I realise how difficult it must have been.

No longer …           

No longer can I accept this state of affairs.

At no point …       

At no point was there any mention of redundancies.

Boy, ….                       

Boy, can she talk!

Little …                      

Little did I know what events were going to unfurl during the next few years.

Hardly …                  

Hardly had they left the house when the phone began to ring.

Never …                    

Never have I seen such chaos!

Rarely …                   

Rarely have I heard such an excuse!

These are commonly used devices and I’m sure that you have come across them often in your reading. They are not difficult grammatically although they give the impression of being so – this is the beauty of them!

Happy inversion!



June 16, 2009

Doing a Language audit

It’s good to stop and take stock of where we are with our language skills development now and again. I like to call this an audit. Like any audit we need to be thorough and honest with ourselves. How do we feel things are progressing, or maybe they’re not! Have we taken any steps to improve of late or are we happy just coasting along. This is fine and sometimes we simply haven’t got the time or we may feel that we’re happy with the status quo.

It pays to drill down into each area:

Speaking – have I been speaking much, am I better than I was last month, last year etc.. what evidence do I have of this?

Listening– outside of the people I have conversations with, have I stretched my listening skills using the radio, TV, songs etc.. (see this article on the value of listening for language learning)

Reading – what was the last thing I read, how did I get on? Do I need to find more challenging things, or do I need to spend more time on what I am reading now.

Writing – how are my emails, facebook pieces or twitter postings – are they error free, natural, grammatical. Do I need to improve any other areas of writing? How will I do this?

Vocabulary – can I honestly say that my vocabulary is good or even good enough? Where would I like to be ? Should I be more flexible in my use of words and how can I find the words that would help me in the areas of my language that are important – such as that used for work or study?

Pronunciation – do I ever do anything about this? How could I improve (listen more carefully and imitate, articulate words in the mirror, sing as if you were native speaker – speak to the dog with perfect pronunciation!)

My mistakes – come on you know the ones that you always get wrong, always forget!  You’ll most likely find them in the Elementary course book as it’s the old chestnuts that come up again and again at all levels.

Here’s a short list of the most common mistakes I see:

  • articles – omitting them, using the wrong one, using one when it isn’t required – a tricky area but worth checking out
  • ‘s’ on the 3rd person – (He likes) often omitted
  • verb-subject agreement – a very common mistake and one to check easily in writing and think about in speaking
  • it’s vs its  – it is has the apostrophe
  • your vs you’re – pronoun or 2nd person +verb to be?
  • use of present perfect – also tricky so worth making sure you know how and when to use it

Some others:

  • In speaking don’t rush many students use the following formula when speaking


It isn’t true, native speakers don’t always speak quickly, give yourself time to think!

in writing:

  • Don’t rely on the spell check – use some common sense.
  • Don’t make your sentences too long – you’ll get lost

So you’ve done your audit what next?

Use it to pinpoint the areas you need to study further and as a mental check list for writing and speaking.

This is not to say don’t try things! I’m a great believer in jumping in and having a go – but don’t do it when the stakes are high or you’ll throw marks to the examiner or make a fool of yourself.

June 15, 2009

Cleft Sentences

As with the other topics posted, cleft sentences are about trying to make your English more natural and, dare I say it, sophisticated.

I have worked with many students who need English for their job or who are preparing for English language exams and one of the points that comes up again and again, is a lack of flexibility and variety in using vocabulary and sentence structure. Giving yourself an ‘armoury’ of structures and synonyms can greatly enhance your performance both spoken and written.

Many of the topics addressed in this blog are things you can use effectively to make a better impression in your essays, reports and presentations. It is worthwhile looking at them in more detail and making sure that you are able to use them.

So to cleft sentences: these are ways of changing the emphasis in a sentence by using  clauses beginning with What, Who, Where etc..or It .

  • What helped us was the support of family and friends.
  • It was the fact that we’d spoken on the phone that made meeting easier.

You can see in these examples how the emphasis is placed on the helping in sentence one, instead of the more neutral;

  • We were helped by family and friends

and the fact of having spoken on the telephone in sentence two over;

  • We had spoken on the telephone, a fact that made meeting easier.

The impact of what is important is strong. The wishes, plans or decisions in cleft sentences are clearly defined even though they may not materialise into actions. For example:

  • What he’d hoped for was to retire to the seaside.

We understand here that this didn’t happen but what is important in this sentence is the desire for the move to the seaside and not whether or not they actually went there.

Check this further in your grammar book. You will find exercises there to help you get to grips with it. Don’t forget to use cleft sentences as soon as you get the opportunity! That way you will remember them better.

This week’s featured exercise on Gapfillers is cleft sentences – check it out.

June 12, 2009


Filed under: Improving English language skills — rliberni @ 4:49 pm

This is another area of language that can cause some difficulty for learners and where getting it right helps to improve fluency.

Collocations are words which often go together and are instinctively associated with each other. (The word comes from Latin meaning ‘put together’). It can seem a strange idea that words are linked in this way and also impossible to know which words go with which!

Getting them right is probably more about English style than comprehension. When they are used wrongly they simply sound strange even though you may still be understood.  For example we would always say;

  • raise a family – not – lift a family
  • if I remember rightly – not – if I remember perfectly

Collocations can be

adjective + noun      real leather,  a lengthy meeting

verb + object     throw a party,  raise your hand

verb + adverb      feel strongly,  apologise profusely

adverb + adjective    happily married,  deeply worried

It is worth spending some time on collocations learning certain useful ones as they can make your English sound more natural and also be economical (compare he is in a very deep sleep with he is sleeping soundly)

Here are some words that you might want to investigate further for their collocations:

utterly    This is utterly ridiculous! (you would never use dreadfully)

perfectly   She is perfectly happy with the arrangements. (you would never use utterly)

happily       They have been happily married for 30 years. ( you would never use perfectly)

badly           He was badly affected by losing his job.  (you would never use dangerously)

dangerously      She liked to live dangerously. (live badly would mean something different entirely)

ridiculously    These are ridiculously over-priced! (you would never use utterly)

You should be able to find more examples of collocations in course books and vocabulary books.

I have tried to find some good web-based examples but have so far failed. I will certainly put some on Gapfillers in the near future. If anybody knows of any other sites then please comment here!

June 11, 2009


A Euphemism is a way of expressing concepts that we are uncomfortable with, such as death (He passed away), or afraid to express directly, for example weight (He’s a little overweight). Use of these phrases softens the idea and makes it more palatable.

Euphemism comes from Greek and means: – good or auspicious speech. We can find such phrases being used in many different situations. One interesting collection of euphemisms is that used as a substitute for the word ‘toilet’. The word originally  came from French and may have been itself a euphemism as it referred to a whole process of hairdressing and body care and not the one meaning we understand today.  In American English, in particular, the preference is for words such as bathroom (often an interesting one in the UK where toilets and bathrooms can be separate) or rest room (which sounds a bit like a station waiting room) is common and it is important for learners of English to be aware of the use of these words and phrases so as not to misunderstand or cause offense by using more direct language.

Areas where euphemisms are being invented everyday (and it’s quite hard to keep up) are: education, war and business. There is a lot of criticism for this and organisations such as the Plain Speaking Campaign  is busy highlighting some of the more ridiculous examples.

Here are some common euphemisms that might be useful for understanding and usage;

Useful Euphemisms

  • senior citizen old person
  • bit of a handful (of a child) – naughty
  • hard of hearing – deaf
  • getting on a bit – old
  • behind the times – old fashioned
  • under the weather – ill
  • a bit heavy/overweight/chubby/plump – fat
  • resting (of actors etc..) – out of work
  • capital punishment – death penalty
  • illegal substances – drugs
  • secure facility – jail/gaol
  • studio apartment – bedsit
  • vintage – second hand

Understand (use too if appropriate)


  • conflict/engagement – war
  • collateral damage – innocent deaths
  • air support – bombing
  • friendly fire – shooting your allies


  • unmotivated – lazy
  • underachiever – a bad student
  • challenging behaviour – naughty/badly behaved


  • downsize – get rid of staff
  • outplacement counselling – redundancy counselling
  • exit bonuses – redundancy
  • sub-prime – less good/dodgy
  • negative cash flow – losing money
  • remuneration – pay
  • a challenge – a problem
  • off-message – disagreeing with the organisation
  • headcount management – getting rid of staff

Although many would like to ‘call a spade a spade’ and get rid of these, many are here to stay and you need to ‘get to grips’ with them!

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