Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

October 27, 2009

7 great virtues to help you write well in English

In this the 3rd and final piece on writing and error analysis I will look at things to do rather than things not to do. I talk a lot about planning and I feel very strongly that this is key to good writing. Checking comes next, you don’t want to throw away marks, or make yourself look stupid with silly errors. Of course practice is the key and the more you practise the better you will become.

Here are my 7 glorious virtues to help achieve a good, low error, written style.

   1. Less is more – this maxim can refer to several areas of writing

  • don’t make your sentences too long, long sentences give more room for mistakes if they are going on to 3 lines check them carefully!!
  • word limits are a guide – if you have 220 and the guide is 250 don’t add 30 words for the sake of it.  If you have concluded your argument and feel satisfied with the piece you have written leave it. 30 extra words will not gain you marks if they are not relevant in fact they could destroy your essay altogether!
  • don’t write more than 1 essay at a time – if you produce  3 essays at the same time it is likely that they will all have the same mistakes. Have your piece of writing marked or looked at before you begin a second.

  2. Analyse your mistakes – make sure you understand how to improve on any errors and add them to your mental check list for next time

  • this may seem like common sense but I was horrified once to find that an IELTS class of mine were putting marked essays in their folders and not looking at my comments or suggestions! As a consequence their scores were not improving and they produced the same type of writing each week.
  • understanding where you went wrong is key – unless you do this you will simply repeat the same mistakes over and over

 3. Make synonym lists – look at words you use a lot in your writing find synonyms – rich vocabulary demonstrates your language ability and gives your writing sophistication

  • opening phrases (Some people, On the one hand, Although etc.)
  • closing phrases (Finally, In conclusion, In my opinion etc..)
  • linking words (in spite of, moreover, nevertheless etc.. See my post on Linking words)

Find more of these on Gapfillers How to Write.

 4. have a list of knock-out words and phrases – pick out a few words that will enhance your writing and use them once – sometimes a beautiful sentence or word is used in an essay and it has an amazing effect! Then it is used again and sometimes a third time and that initial effect is destroyed.

some examples might be –

  • starting sentences with present participles (…ing) – Having weighed up all the pros and cons, it is vital that …. etc (make sure you don’t lose sight of your subject in these sentences)
  • using the passive –
  • cleft sentences (see my post on this)
  • inversion

Of course it depends on the type of writing you are producing as to which of these is appropriate but you need one or two in your armoury. Use them deliberately for effect (making sure, of course, that you can use them correctly!!)

   5.  look at models – unless you are planning to break the mould with your writing (which would be dangerous in an exam or with a job-related report!) use models as examples. You can find these easily on the internet. If you are an IELTS student look at newspaper versions of data reports (the business sections have lots of these). Type in your essay title and see what comes up. DO NOT COPY THESE, use them to analyse how things are expressed and what words are appropriate for the topic. Make notes and then use these phrases and words in your own writing.

    6.  be bold – (this may seem to contradict 5 above, but I am talking in microcosm here – not the entire piece) try new things (this is best done before the exam or final draft) some new phrases or grammar items -it can only help to give your writing more variety. Even if it doesn’t go completely right you’ll get some credit for trying.

    7.  read more and widely – your reading also acts as a model for your writing. By reading widely you are exposing yourself to different styles and models. You will become familiar with a wider range of phrases and vocabulary as well as good grammatical usage.

You can find more advice here.

So, as with many things, writing is 80% preparation and 20% execution!!

October 22, 2009

7 deadly sins to avoid in your writing

This is the second of 3 posts about English language writing.

A piece of English language writing whether for an exam, an assignment or work should demonstrate your ability and flexibility with the language. Getting your message across clearly and expressing yourself  with good style will gain you more marks and/or make a good impression.

Here are my 7 deadly sins that are easy to avoid and will certainly help you to add a little more sophistication to your work.

  1. nice, get –  useful words but they really don’t mean much. Write down a list of synonyms that you can use instead.
  2. translating – this rarely works, if you can’t express your idea well in English then think of another idea that you can! (see my post on thinking in English)
  3. phrasal verbs – these are not appropriate for formal pieces of  writing – make a list of alternatives. (see my post on Register)
  4. wandering apostrophes – its/it’s, your /you’re – PLEASE make sure you understand the difference and know where and when not to use these!
  5. adding new ideas in the final paragraph – this is usually the result of not planning and it not only destroys your piece it also shows a lack of  joined up thinking. Even if it’s an earth shattering idea if it ruins your essay or report it’s not worth it!
  6. not planning – if you don’t plan you won’t know where you are going and you’ll end up with a very fragmented piece and the danger of Number 5 above!
  7. not sticking to your plan – I have known students who constructed their plan after the essay just because I had asked for a plan! This shows a fundamental lack of understanding, in my view, of the writing process. It causes Nos. 5 and 6 and if you have a good plan then stay with it – remember the ideas will not come across if your language is poor and it doesn’t flow. This, again in my view, can only be achieved by careful planning. (see my last post on planning and checking your writing)

For a general overview of writing and the process of producing exam essays see the section How to Write on the Gapfillers site.

My next post will look at the ‘dos’ rather than the ‘don’ts’ of writing.

October 19, 2009

Warning: mistakes cost marks!

Why would you spend time studying for an English language exam, revise, prepare well before the exam day and then hand marks to the examiner on a plate? It doesn’t make sense, yet I see students time and time again doing this because they don’t plan or check their essays well enough in the exam itself.

Let me dispel some myths:

  1. I don’t need to plan my essays, they flow – er.. I think you do, no, they don’t and with time and exam pressures you’ll waffle and digress.
  2. I don’t have time to plan, it’s wasting my writing time – yes you do and no it doesn’t, it helps you use that time to write a good essay.
  3. I’ll check if I have time at the end – why not check as you go along?
  4. I can’t check, I have to get my ideas across – but isn’t this a language exam? the ideas are important up to a point but isn’t it the way you use language to express those thoughts the priority here?

I think students often lose sight of what they are doing which is demonstrating their ability to get ideas and opinions across in English and the key word here is English. Your exam is not medicine, or sociology although the subject may be – it’s English and it’s important not to forget this!

Two things can ensure that you produce a well written and well expressed essay to the best of your ability – planning and proof  reading.

Planning: some tips (I’m sure you’ve heard it all before!)

1. read the essay title carefully and underline the keywords – have a look at this essay title, what are the key words?

  • Juvenile crime is often ‘blamed’ on single mothers. Young parents today do not have the commitment required to maintain a relationship and look after their children. What measures are required to help young couples keep their families together?

The most important is – What measures – that tells you what sort of essay to write, the main topic is Juvenile crime, single mothers is a possible cause and the second sentence gives you some background.

2. sketch out your paragraphs (this is just an example, your version will depend on your essay and ideas)

  1. introduction: re-hash the opening with phrases like People feel, Some people think that juvenile crime etc…
  2. paragraph 1: maybe the reasons for the situation
  3. paragraph 2: the measures to support families referring to your reasons above
  4. conclusion: this should balance your introduction and may include your own opinion

3.  Decide how many ideas you want in each paragraph and make sure you support each statement and give examples for some of them

your plan will look something like this: (this would be an essay of about 200 – 250 words IELTS type)

  • Intro – juvenile crime – big problem – some people say – single mothers
  • P1 problems – lack of support, stress, commitment e.g. need to work, too busy, children look after themselves….
  • P2 measures – good free child care, parenting classes, mentors/experienced parents in a buddy system etc…
  • conclusion: – society we live in so need to help and support not criticise…..

4. write the essay – your introduction and conclusion will have 2/3 sentences and your main paragraphs perhaps between 6 and 9 (make statement, support it and give (if appropriate) examples). This should give you your 200-250 words and you simply need to convert your notes into sentences. The structure is tight and the writing therefore controlled so there is less room for mistakes.

Now make sure you proof read – don’t leave anything to chance!

Checking your writing:

You should know the mistakes you often make. If not then make sure you compile a mental list before your next exam! (see my post on Doing a language audit)

The following mistakes are very common and you should check for them:

  1. articles – are these used correctly? You will have used a lot so it’s a good idea to check as you write.
  2. subject-verb agreement – any problems here?
  3. ‘s’ on the 3rd person –  the silliest of mistakes
  4. use of present perfect tense – check any you have used
  5. past participles – are they right?
  6. check any long sentences to make sure you haven’t got ‘lost’ in them and it’s clear who or what you are talking about (if your sentence is going over 2 lines I would be inclined to look at it as this can be a sign that you’ve got lost.)

For more in-depth study check out this Gapfillers section on writing.

Practice does make perfect but only if you get good feedback 3 essays written in the same evening are likely to contain the same mistakes.

Look at good models for ideas.

Try and read your work out loud and you will see and hear any mistakes more easily.

For short one day and weekend courses in Writing skills and IELTS check here

October 14, 2009

Dealing with Proper Nouns

This is the final post in my series on nouns and noun types. The final category is proper nouns.

Proper nouns

This is the name given to nouns which name people, institutions, organisations, books, paintings, plays etc. Proper nouns need a capital letter. They usually have no plural but can sometimes take a definite article (see my posting on names and titles)

some examples:

  • The United Nations
  • The Thames
  • Beethoven
  • Fanny Adams
  • Paris

Use of the definite article (the) with proper nouns

The following groups of proper nouns are usually used with the;

  • Geographical names the Galapagos Islands, the Rockies
  • Geographical features, canals, rivers, seas – the Suez Canal, the Nile, the Pacific, the Mediterranean
  • Names of ships – the Britannia, the Titanic, the Golden Hind
  • Public institutions (hotels, libraries, galleries, museums, restaurants)-  the Savoy, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Abert Museum, the Karachi
  • Newspapers and magazines – the Times, the Spectator, the National Geographic (note, however,Vogue, Newsweek)

 Some advice on capitalisation

In addition to the proper noun categories outlined above the following groups of words are usually written with an initial capital letter

  • Commercial products/brands – Ford, Mercedes, Mini
  • Holidays, months, and days of the week – Christmas, Monday February
  • Religions and their concepts – Christianity, Islam, a Hindu, God, Heaven, Devil, Hell
  • People or bodies with public function – the King, the President, Parliament, Commonwealth
  • Political parties – the Conservative Party, the Democrats, the Socialists
  • Languages and nationalities French, Chinese, the Germans, an Australian, Dutch
  • Family members – (optional) Uncle, Mother, Grandfather
  • Adjectives from proper nouns  Victorian, the Georgians, Socialism, Londoners

Proper nouns as common nouns

Sometimes proper nouns can behave like common nouns. The following are examples:

  • A person or family called …. – The Pearsons are coming next Friday.  I once knew a Jocelyn at school.
  • A person named for a particular characteristic – We can’t all be a Florence Nightingale! He’ll never be a Churchill!
  • Products or works by someone – Her art collection contained a Monet and a Gauguin. He had three Rolls and a Bentley!

 A little more information on the grammar and a quick exercise .

For more on nouns see these posts

That concludes my series on nouns. As ever practice makes perfect. If you are not sure check in a grammar book or post me a message and I’ll try and help you!

October 12, 2009

How to use collective nouns

This is the fourth and penultimate post in my series on nouns.

Collective nouns general rules.

The main things to be careful about when using collective nouns are; whether to use singular or plural verbs and which collocation you should choose to accompany the nouns.

What is a collective noun?

It is a noun that refers to a group of people or things. Examples are:

army, family, team, press, flock, committee, group

Singular or plural:

Generally speaking  collective nouns can be used in the singular or plural (grammatically it is a singular noun but in our mind’s eye we perceive a group).

  • The family are coming to dinner next week.
  • The army are planning a new offensive.
  • The finance committee meet once a month.
  • A flock of geese is flying over the lake.

A large number of proper nouns also fall into the collective noun type: the United Nations, the BBC,  the Air Force, Parliament, Ford, Coca Cola etc..


  1. Note, however, that in American English the plural form is often considered incorrect and the singular form preferred.
  2. We also tend to use a singular verb if the collective noun is used with the indefinite article a/an rather than the definite.    A team of accountants has been appointed to oversee the project.
  3. Some collective nouns always take the plural form:  police, people
  4. Some only take the singular: press, public

Collective nouns cannot be used with numbers:

  • We cannot say Four staff have been made redundant – rather – Four members of staff have been made redundant.

For more information on collective nouns 

Choosing the correct collocation

Now comes the fun bit!

  • a pride of lions
  • a host of angels
  • a swarm of bees
  • a clutch of eggs

The list goes on and on and even native speakers get into competitions about who know the most obscure ones (especially for animals).

These collocations (see my post on collocation in general) are mostly associated with certain groups collective nouns, most especially


  • a pack of wolves, a flock of birds, a shoal/school of fish, a herd of cows


  • a bunch of daffodils, a clump of trees, a bouquet of flowers

inanimate objects

  • a battery of tests, a batch of cakes, a set of books, a group of friends

Bunch of, group of and set of  are the most commonly used and can be attached to a variety of nouns.

So, how to choose which one? Again it is something to study and remember. Choose a group (the animal collocations can be fun) and try out a few.

For noun collocation in general try this exercise from Gapfillers.

For collective noun collocation try this .  or this

For a complete list of animal collocation             Just for fun – try this!

Next time – Proper nouns!

October 8, 2009

Some rules about compound nouns

Compound nouns are hybrids made up of two or sometimes more words combined to make one single noun.

Creating new words from old is very common in English and we have an array of different types.

You will be pleased to know that there isn’t a great deal to say or learn about compound nouns beyond whether they are one word, separate words or hyphenated words.

Unfortunately how to write them down depends on the individual word and is something you’ll need to learn and /or check in the dictionary. You will also find that some words have more than one way of writing them.

Here are some examples of compound noun types and their written forms.

Compound nouns:

  • noun + noun – (these are the most common) – housewife,  suitcase, seafood. database
  • noun + er (noun or verb) – housekeeper, backwater, screwdriver, eye-opener
  • noun + verb-ing – skydiving, window shopping, film-making, trainspotting (train spotting)
  • verb+particle – handout, giveaway, checkout, lookout
  • particle-verb – income, output, bypass, outsource
  • adj + noun – greenhouse, blackbird, whiteboard, real estate
  • verb + noun – swimsuit, driving licence, rocking chair, washing machine
  • three word compounds  – washing-up-liquid, sister-in-law, birds-of-prey

For more information

 Making compound nouns plural:

Most compound nouns follow the normal convention that would be used if the final part of the compound were pluralised:

  • suitcases, handouts, swimsuits
  • housewives, bypasses

Where compounds end in the prepositions by or on the first word in made plural:

  • passer-by  passers-by
  • hanger-on  hangers-on

Where compounds have three parts the first word is made plural (if this word is the defining word):

  • sisters-in-law   but   washing-up-liquids

Try a short quiz to check your knowledge.

More on nouns next time but this time we’ll tackle the rather more colourful topic of collective nouns!

October 6, 2009

Everything you should know about concrete and abstract nouns

This is the second post in a series on nouns, their types and things to watch out for when using them.

Concrete and Abstract nouns.

This category of noun poses few problems. Concrete nouns describe something that is visible or can be touched. Abstract nouns describe concepts, qualities, ideas etc..

Concrete nouns:

Most are common nouns and take both singular and plural forms. These are usually countable.

Nouns such as furniture, money or luggage describe a group of objects and are uncountable

  • Can you get the luggage out of the car please?
  • There is too much furniture in this room!
  • I haven’t any money in my purse!

One other group behaves differently and those are nouns describing substances – water, cheese, wine – these are uncoutable unless they are ‘defined’

  • Plants need water to grow.
  • Could I just have a mineral water please?
  • There are many flavoured waters available in the shops.


  • Most European countries produce cheese.
  • We found a wonderful Italian cheese at the supermarket last week.
  • There are so many French cheeses to choose from!


  • I’ve never really enjoyed wine.
  • My father-in-law gave us a very fruity Australian wine.
  • You can buy wines from all over the world in most supermarkets nowadays.

Abstract nouns:

Abstract nouns are usually uncountable but can sometimes have countable qualities. This occurs when the reference to the noun is specific.

  • I was overwhelmed by her kindness.
  • It was those little kindnesses that my mother performed that made her loved by everyone.


  • Education is a subject much in the news.
  • They wanted the best education. for their children.


  • Prison is not always the answer when someone commits a crime.
  • He spent several years teaching a prison before joining the college.

Here’s a noun-spotting exercise for you to try.

As ever, make sure you are clear, internalise the rule by looking at the examples and then try and practice and use these nouns as soon as you can.

Next time we’ll be considering compound nouns and their vagaries.

October 5, 2009

Advanced learners – re-visiting Nouns

Back to the knitting!

After a few posts about general issues around language learning I think it’s time to get back to the knitting (this expression means to do what you are known for or good at) and discuss some more points of English grammar and skill and how to improve these.

I was marking my students’ essays recently and discovered several errors around the use of nouns.  You may, as an advanced student,  find mixed conditionals and ellipsis rather more sexy grammatical concepts than nouns, in my experience, however,  it is often the ‘easy’ aspects of English grammar that create errors. So, ‘yawn, yawn’ I will romp through a quick reminder of nouns, some of their forms and their usage!


Nouns come in different shapes and sizes:

  • singular/plural
  • concrete/abstract
  • compound nouns
  • collective nouns
  • proper nouns
  • countable/uncountable

I hope you are familiar with these terms and understand the differences.

In the next few posts we will look at some of these categories (countable and uncountable has been explored in a previous post)  in more detail and point out the pitfalls for advanced students.

1. Singular and Plural Nouns

These are the nouns you probably think about when you hear the word noun. They are usually accompanied by a definite (the) or indefinite (a) article and only change their form in the plural.

  • a/the book – the books

They are countable or uncountable  and concrete or abstract.

Much of this is probably ‘old hat’ , however, the areas which it is worth spending some time on are those of  plural uncountables or nouns which don’t have a singular form and pluralisation of ‘foreign’ words in English.

Nouns with no singular

Typical groups of these nouns are:

  • clothes – trousers, pyjamas, tights, knickers, jeans
  • tools – scissors, binoculars, scales, goggles
  • school subjects/activities  – maths, athletics, economics, physics
  • games –  cards, dominoes, darts
  • other –  conditions, manners, thanks, goods etc…

We don’t use numbers with these nouns but they can be made countable with the addition of phrases such as a pair of or a set of etc…

  • You need a pair of warm trousers and two pairs of pyjamas.
  • I’ll bring a set of dominoes and a pack of cards.
  • Can you pass me that pair of scissors?

Some plural nouns lose their plural ending when combined with other nouns e.g. pyjama trousers, trouser leg etc..

Try this Gapfillers exercise on Noun Collocations

Plurals of ‘foreign’ words in English

Where words have been imported into English, especially from Latin and Greek, plural forms sometimes follow the original language.

Latin forms:

  • ending in -us           alumnus =alumni, terminus =termini
  • ending is -um         millennium = millennia, curriculum = curricula, datum = data
  • ending in – ex/ix    index = indices, appendix = appendices    
  • ending in a               formula = formulae, antenna = antennae    

Note some of these words appear differently in general usage corpus = corpuses, forum = forums, datum and medium are rarely used (data and media), indexes is sometimes also used. The latin forms are, however, still used and sometimes preferred.

 Greek forms:

  • ending in -is     hypothesis =hypotheses, axis = axes
  • ending in -on   criterion = criteria, phenomenon = phenomena

Phenomena and criteria are sometimes used as singular forms.

A word on agreement:

Failure to agree the verb with the subject is one of the most common mistakes made by students of all levels. Remember to check your nouns when used as subjects and ensure that you use the correct verb form.

Check for more detail in your grammar book. It isn’t possible in these short posts to cover every example. My aim is to give you a snapshot of some the English language areas you could be exploring to improve your skills.

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