Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

July 24, 2009

Countable and uncountable nouns – now you get it, now you don’t!

Money is uncountable. What! …giggle, giggle.. but you can count money, that’s crazy!

Of course on the face of it the fact that money is something we count makes sense, but as a noun we are thinking of it in terms of a generic concept rather than a pile of coins.

Countable nouns

These are concrete, can be counted , take an indefinite article and can be pluralised

  • I’d like an apple and three oranges please.

Uncountable nouns

These  are more ‘abstract’, cannot be counted individually, do not take an indefinite article and cannot be pluralised.

  • I’d like some fruit and coffee please.

less and fewer

With countable nouns we use fewer , uncountable less

  • There were fewer people than last year so we served less champagne.

(fewer as a determiner seems to be disappearing and you will see/hear less used even with countable nouns – less people – this is still considered incorrect although it is common)

Quantifying uncountable nouns

We can make uncountable nouns countable by quantifying them or making them more specific.

  • A glass of wine.
  • Three slices of bread.
  • piece of  cake.
  • A bit of luck.

The countable nouns bit, piece, slice etc.. are commonly used to do this along with the preposition ‘of’.

 We can also make them countable by referring to a specific type of the noun:

  • People visit famous Spas to take the waters. (here waters refers to the specific waters of the Spa area)

Nouns connected with emotion can also be made countable:

  • Fear of spiders is common.
  • She had a fear of spiders.

Nouns that can be countable and uncountable

Some nouns can be both countable and uncountable but the  have different meanings in each case and these shouldn’t be confused. Here are some examples.

  • Tea  – Do you like tea? (the drink)                 

                          Would you like a tea? ( a cup of tea)              (this is the same for all drinks and some foods)

  • Drawing – He’s very good at drawing.

                                    He gave me a drawing for my birthday.

  • Newspaper  –  Wrap everything in newspaper before packing.

                                               Did you buy a newspaper today?

  • Glass – She makes tiny animals from glass.

                              Can you pass me a glass?

For more information and an exercise see Internet Grammar

As ever check it in your grammar book to find more examples and ensure that you understand the rules and usage.

Remember you may have to make a conscious effort in the beginning to make sure you use them correctly but with practice it will become second nature.

July 20, 2009

Adjectives – to use an …..ing or …..ed ending, that is the question!

Are you surprised or is this surprising? Either is possible so long as you use the right ending in the right place.

How many students are ‘boring’  with lessons or ‘interesting’ in the film? Many in my experience!

It’s a simple mistake to make and one that can be easily avoided by learning and remembering.

Saying ‘I am very boring’ isn’t a huge language crime, but it does invite ‘smart’ comments and the odd chuckle at your expense.

The difference

…ing adjectives

have an active meaning, the thing that is causing the affect – especially where they describe feelings:

  • A surprising fact.               The fact is causing the surprise


  • I am surprised by that fact.                   The person learning the fact is surprised

…ing adjectives not describing feelings often have the object in front to make a compound:

  • a life-threatening illness
  • a Chinese-speaking teacher

…ing adjectives also describe processes or changes to states

  • a recurring theme
  • a declining market

Some ..ing adjectives are related to verbs but take on a different meaning;

  • That is a very fetching outfit!
  • She can be very trying at times!

Compare the meanings of fetch and try as verbs.

Other …ing adjectives have no verb equivalent. These wouldn’t take an …ed ending either.

examples are; balding, appetising, neighbouring, scathing etc..

Finally some …ing adjectives are used for emphasis when we are angry or irritated;

  • Where’s that blinking report!
  • Who’s got the flaming file!

…ed adjectives

have a passive meaning, the thing affected by the feeling – again where they describe feelings

  • I was totally bored by the film

they can have an active meaning where they are related to intransitive verbs

  • This is a very dated style.
  • He is a retired doctor.

adjectives linked to verbs also have different meanings but this is less striking than the …ing adjectives

  • He spoke in a guarded manner.
  • He was a disturbed young man.

…ed adjectives can be derived from nouns and their meaning is obvious.

e.g. bearded, walled, skilled, gloved, gifted, winged etc..

Finally, a handful of …ed adjectives are not related to nouns or verbs.

e.g. rugged, bloated, assorted, crazed etc..

This has been a bit of a romp through some basic principals. For a serious grammar explanation check out the University College London, Internet Grammar site

To test your skills try this quick quiz.

July 15, 2009

Adjective order – does it matter?

Yes it does!

Unfortunately there is a right and wrong way of ordering adjectives when several are used to describe a noun.

Consider these descriptions – can you put them in the correct order?

house: – beautiful,  historic, old, large, country, rundown

man: – attractive, middle-aged, kind, Swiss, tall, slim, blonde

So how can we know which adjective goes where?

The order for arranging adjectives is usually as follows:

opinion+ size + character/quality + age + shape + colour + origin /nationality + material + type/purpose

a beautiful, big, expensive, old, rectangular, dark brown, French, mahogany, grandfather clock.

This sentence is somewhat contrived to illustrate all the possible adjectives. Great, long sentences such as this would not be the norm, but there will be occasions when you will need to use more than one adjective in your description. It is as well to learn this checklist as a rule of thumb.

Some things to remember.

The most significant (or permanent) adjective should go immediately before the noun.

  • An old grandfather French clock wouldn’t be correct because grandfather describes the type of clock.


  • A delicate, brass, French clock would tell us that the fact that the clock is French is key to the description.

Where a lot of adjectives are required we often use more than one clause.

  • A beautiful, antique, French, grandfather clock made of mahogany and decorated in gold leaf.

We use and where the adjectives are in the same category ;

  • An antique French clock decorated in gold and brass.  Here gold and brass are both materials.

Or where they are colours;

  • The school colours are maroon and gold.

For contrast use but;

  • The house was charming but rundown.

Finally, with more than 2 adjectives use and before the final one;

  • Her dress was green, yellow and orange.

and combine them for a contrast;

  • He was stubborn and deceitful but also gentle.

Did you manage to order the two sentences correctly?

  • A beautiful, large, historic, old, rundown, country house.
  • An attractive, tall, kind, middle-aged, slim, blonde, Swiss man.

These sentences look exactly what they are – a list of adjectives with very little style about them. To describe these objects more effectively use some of the combining techniques above.

  • The large country house was old, beautiful and historic, if a little rundown.
  • The blonde, middle-aged,  Swiss man was attractive; tall and slim yet  kind in nature.

July 8, 2009

Prepositions – Aargh!

Along with use of articles, present perfect tense and 3rd person agreement, prepositions are one of those issues that never seem to go away! Mistakes made in the early stages of learning English seem to remain doggedly even at advanced level. This is especially true of prepositions of place these quite often, like the other false friends we’ve mentioned before don’t translate or seem illogical.

Get on a bus, train or plane but in a car. (the car is lower than us so we have to bend down the others are higher so we step up to them – logical?)

Prepositions normally come before a noun unless they are stranded:

Julie told me about this book.

This is the book Julie told me about

An old rule said never end a sentence with a preposition (it comes from Latin where it isn’t allowed!) and while it might be better written style to avoid it in speaking it isn’t uncommon – in fact – sometimes to avoid so doing we have to create strange sentences!

The second sentence would then read:

This is the book about which Julie told me. (It sounds very formal and even a little archaic)

See also:

Who are you coming to the party with?              With whom are you coming to the party?

What is this bag made from?                                     From what is this bag made?

We have digressed. How can preposition usage be improved? 

  • Firstly, don’t think about prepositions in isolation. The are agents for connecting words and as such go in partnership.


  • Secondly,  think about their function: do they describe place or movement or time etc…


  • Thirdly, group them into these functions when you think about them:

Time:  at five o’clock, on Sunday, in an hour, by next Tuesday

Movement:  towards the cinema , through the park, to to library, across the fields

Position: on the table, in the kitchen, under the car, beside the TV,

Agent: by Shakespeare, with a spoon

An expanded list of these categories can be found in most grammar books. If you can visualise the function/s of a preposition it should help you to use it better.

  • Finally, you cannot get prepositions by osmosis so take some time to check and learn.

Try this exercise on prepositions of position or place

Dependant prepositions.

These are prepositions that like to hang out with certain verbs. They are often particular about their partners and don’t relate well when paired with the wrong verb!

Practise and memory are the two tools required to nail these down!

You’ll find lists of verbs and their prepositions in grammar books and you’ll need to knuckle down and learn them Do them in batches to make it more manageable and don’t forget to use them as soon as you can to help you remember!

Here’s an exercise to try to get you started.

8 verbs plus preposition

July 2, 2009

Conditional Sentences – how lovely!

I love conditionals! I really do – all types 1, 2, 3 and mixed, real and unreal – they’re fab! Right from when I started teaching (many eons ago!), I looked forward to conditionals. I don’t believe many students share my adoration, I hope there are a few and I hope that they may be former students of mine!

So, what’s so great about them I hear you say. I think the uncertainty, the speculation, the planning, admonition and finally regret that they represent. They cover a wide emotional spectrum that really exposes how we feel and not just what we do. Like most of grammar, they are simply tools to help us express something and connect with others which, I’m sure , is the ultimate reason for learning a language whatever other reasons may present themselves along the way.

It’s all in the conditionals – a salutary tale.

Imagine, if you will, a saloon bar. Four men; Jethro, Wade, Rusty and Wild Beau Bronson (yep, cowboys) looking downcast. They’ve just lost all their money in a game of poker.

J: “I reckon we ought to rob the stagecoach”

W: “Nah, too risky, what about a bank?”

R: ” Good idea, and if we do it really early in the morning nobody will see us!”     (1st condit. suggestion/planning)

WBB: “Aw, if we do that, there won’t be any money inside!”     (1st condit. suggestion)

W: “You’re right Beau, but if we hit the bank at closing time we’ll clean up!”        (1st condit. suggestion)

J: “Sure, and if we use our wild rags over our faces then nobody will recognise us!”         (1st condit. suggestion)

Next morning

W:“OK, Jethro, all set? If I were you I’d go first then we can back you up”         (2nd condit. advice)

J:“If I went first they might not take me seriously, I think it would be better if Beau was the front man.”  (2nd condit. speculation)

W:I see your point but if Beau were to go first he might shoot someone! What about Rusty?” (2nd condit.  warning)

WBB:“If Rusty and Jethro started then we could run in behind as back-up!”   (2nd condit.  suggestion)

R:“Let’s just get on with it, if we go round in circles we’ll never get it planned!” (1st  condit. command)

Two days later

WBB:“Sheriff, what about some grub in here?”

R:“It’s all your fault Jethro, if you hadn’t been late then we wouldn’t have met the Sheriff”  (3rd condit. admonition)

W:“And if you hadn’t told the Sheriff we were waiting to withdraw money from the bank he wouldn’t have been suspicious!” (3rd condit. admonition)

WWB:“Yep, but what could we do, if he hadn’t grabbed my arm I wouldn’t have drawn my gun!” (3rd condit. regret)

J:“And if we’d done our homework we would have known that the bank closed on Wednesday afternoons!” (3rd condit. admonition/regret)

ALL: “And if we hadn’t lost the poker game in the first place, we wouldn’t be here now!!” (mixed 3/2. regret)

Conditionals – the rules

  • First, likely or possible:  if + pres simple + will + infinitive without to (offers, plans, suggestions, warnings)


  • Second, unlikely or improbable: if + past simple + would + infinitive without to (advice, requests, desires, warnings)


  • Third, past or impossible/unreal:  if + past perfect tense + would + have + past participle (hypothetical situations, regrets, warnings, admonition)


  •  Mixed 2/3 – a hypothetical present situation contrary to to known facts

If the house were mine I would have painted it green.

  • Mixed 3/2 –  a hypothetical past situation contrary to known facts

If they hadn’t missed the flight they would be on the beach now.

I hope this helps to illustrate the usage a little and you too will come to love conditionals!

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