Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

June 14, 2010

Prepositions – pearls of great price!

I’ve been doing some work on prepositions lately and it struck me that for such insignificant little words, they have quite a powerful role to play in English language and seem to be a common bête noire at all levels of learning.

I looked up a definition of prepositions, it seems they are a group of words that show relationships between nouns, pronouns, or gerunds and other words in a sentence. They show place, time, direction and other attributes in relation to these words. The good news is that they never change their form. The bad is – it’s not that simple! They can be free or bound (they can depend on other words).  They can be complex too, they come along in pairs or sometimes threes and fours for good measure and take on new meanings. Occasionally they are in disguise – they might look like prepositions but in actual fact they are adverbs or adjectives! It is often when they hook up with verbs that they are at their most demonic! They form phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and horror, phrasal-prepositional verbs!! Is it any wonder that these enfant terribles of the English language learning world put fear into our hearts

So, I thought in this post I’d try to break down the uses, give some examples and see if we can’t engender a little respect for these feared yet very hard-working and versatile little words!

Prepositions pure and simple 🙂

Using prepositions in their simple form is fairly straightforward.

Place – relationships are bound by position  – on, in, under, above etc..

Some to note are:

over and under (rather than above and below)

  • used when something is  covering something else – the spoon fell under the table, the fog drifted over the village
  • for horizontal movement – the birds flew over the trees
  • to show more, less, fewer than – we made just under/over £3,000!

above and below

  • are used for rank or level – Sergeant is below the rank of captain.

in, at, on

  • these are specific – I’ll meet you at the cinema (probably outside) or in the cinema (inside). It’s on the corner (the outside of the corner). It’s in the corner (surrounded, probably a Square or in a room).
  • In with cities, countries etc.- in France but on with streets – I’m on North Street, at with named places – at Oxford Circus.
  • At when people gather together – at a party, at the conference.

towards and up to

  • towards shows the direction of the movement, up to usually indicates a purpose – I went up to her to get directions.

Time – relationships are bound by duration or a point in time


  • indicate the start and end time – I’ll be here from Monday to Friday. (note American English often uses just through) I’ll be here Monday through Friday. The American usage tells us that Friday is included in the stay the British version is less clear.

Bound prepositions – those with no meaning in life! 😦

Bound prepositions are dependent upon certain words (or the words ‘take’ a certain preposition). These prepositions have no independent meaning as meaning is conveyed by the word/s to which they are bound.

It is important to learn these and commit them to memory as you come across them.

Some general rules exist:

  • Prepositions can follow verbs nouns or adjectives – rely on,  success in, keen on etc… (here is a list)
  • These prepositions always take an object – rely on somebody,  success in his exams, keen on riding horses
  • Where the object is a verb – it is often in the …ing form – They accused him of lying.
  • With adjectives describing emotion then ing form or infinitive with to is possible.  They were angry at seeing animals mistreated. They were angry to see animals mistreated.


verb + preposition

  • These multi-word combinations are called prepositional verbs.
  • Here are a few examples – complain to, rely on, confide in, part with, look into etc..
  • Another verb + preposition combination is the phrasal verb – these  are different because the meaning is changed completely with addition of the preposition, which is not the case with prepositional verbs.
  • Here are some examples – wear off,  break down, look after, put off, own up etc…
  • A third  multi-word verb using a preposition as a particle is a phrasal-prepositional verb (verb + adverb + preposition)
  • Here are some examples –  look up to, hand over to, get out of, put up with, get back to, come out of etc….

noun + preposition

where a noun and a verb are related both will usually take the same preposition

  • They succeeded in getting the contract
  • Their success in getting the contract was the turning point in the life of the company.

sometimes  a noun takes a preposition where the related verb does not

  • She had always had a fear of spiders.
  • She had feared spiders from childhood.

adjective + preposition

as above, where an adjective is related to a verb or noun taking a specific preposition then the adjective will also take this preposition

  • They were very anxious about the merger.
  • We could sense their anxiety about the merger.

adjectives describing feelings and opinions often have bound/dependent prepositions

  • I’m not keen on the blue one.
  • She’s quite nervous about tomorrow.

Try an exercise

Prepositions with a complex! 😦

Complex prepositions are always free prepositions but need support. Although their meaning combines with that of the other word/s  they rely on these other words, which go in front.

Here are a few examples:

  • for:    as for, except for, save for
  • from:    away from, aside from, apart from
  • to:    close to, due to, on to, next to
  • with:    along with, together with
  • of:    ahead of, out of,  irrespective of
  • on:    depending on

Some have such low self-esteem that they require a larger support team!

  • for:    in exchange for,  in return for
  • of:    by means of, in case of,  in favour of, on top of
  • to:    in addition to, in contrast to, on relation to
  • with:    in contact with, in comparison with, in line with

In this last group they are hardly visible amidst their entourage !

  • for the sake of
  • with the exception of
  • in the light of
  • on the grounds that

Stranded prepositions (who’d be a preposition!) 😦

Our final example in this woeful tale of prepositions is the stranded preposition.  It stands alone at the end of a sentence or clause.

  • In questions – Who are you applying to work with?
  • In the passive –  What percentage can the cost be reduced by?
  • Relative clauses – Yesterday I saw that woman (that/who) you introduced me to!
  • Infinitive clauses – She managed to see the film that it is impossible to get tickets for!

Don’t forget to check your grammar book for more detailed information!

Prepositions strike back! 🙂

Despite their sorry state prepositions can form interesting and very common idioms which you might want to consider adding to your vocabulary.

Useful idioms formed from prepositions

Sometimes we simply pop a couple of prepositions together

Here are a couple of examples – in for, in on, up to (more examples)

Other prepositions hook up with nouns to form handy little phrases (see here)

Here are some examples – on the go, on the case, on the house

Prepositions certainly do need some respect and it is worth spending time to study and learn how to use them well – it is one of those niggling areas of grammar which, if mastered, can make a big difference to your language performance!

Here are some other posts you may like:

How to keep motivated in language learning

English verbs that confuse

Language Immersion

Prepositions Aargh!

January 12, 2010

Using Modal Verbs – part 3

In this final post on modal verbs I want to look at how modals can be used to suggest levels of intensity and also how we can employ them to be tactful.

For more on Modals (grammar and lists of verbs)

In my first two posts:

Modal verbs 1 and modal verbs 2 we looked at the  way modal verbs are used for expressing different functions. In this post we will look more at how they express intensity and also the nuance that modal verbs can bring to a sentence. Finally we’ll look at a list of verbs which are very often paired with modal auxiliaries.

Expressing levels of intensity.

Look at these three sentences:

  • You must read the instructions before you begin!
  • You should read the instructions before you begin.
  • You could read the instructions before you begin.

What is the difference?

  • In the first we have no choice (or if we ignore the obligation there may be consequences).
  • In the second it is recommended that we read – but not obligatory – so we have choice.
  • The final sentence is quite neutral, do or don’t, it doesn’t seem to matter. The speaker might add – but it’s quite straight forward.

Here’s another example of how modal verbs help us to determine the level if intensity in an utterance.

Consider these sentences:

  • Students may not leave the examination room before the end of the exam.
  • You have to remain in the examination room until after the exam.
  • You can’t leave the examination room before the end of the exam.

 What is the difference here?

  • The first sentence is very formal. It expresses an external obligation (rule) and is more likely to be written than spoken.
  • The second also expresses a strong obligation which may be part of the spoken instructions before the exam begins.
  • The final sentence is more neutral and might be spoken between two of the exam candidates.

We see that it isn’t only the meaning of the sentence that is important but also the participants in a conversation and, also the circumstances. Let’s explore these a little more:

Jack and Henry are brothers

  • Henry, lend me your this afternoon car will you?
  • Henry, can I borrow your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, would you lend me your car this afternoon?
  • Henry, might I borrow your car this afternoon?

Some possible reasons for the different modal use:

  1. The car is old, Jack borrows it a lot, he is a good driver.
  2. Henry may want to use it, Jack doesn’t often borrow the car, Henry doesn’t often lend his car.
  3. Jack doesn’t usually borrow the car, the car is quite new, Henry is very proud of his car, it is for an urgent reason, Jack’s driving ability is unknown, Henry may need it.
  4. The car is special, Henry doesn’t lend his car, Jack damaged it last time, Jack isn’t a good driver, Jack needs it urgently, Henry was planning to use it and Jack knows this.

Our choice of verb depends on the relationship of the speakers, the situation and the ease with which the person can do what they are being asked to do. We can also add a further dimension – how easy is it to make the request etc.. (perhaps we have to interrupt the person). All of these factors dictate how intense, formal or polite we need to be.

Using modal verbs to add depth or nuance:

Modal verbs can also be used to express formality, belief and more subtle levels of meaning. Here are a few examples:

If we go back to the first list of sentences – we can here add another to the list.

  • You might want to read the instructions before you begin.

This sentence suggests that we may not have considered reading the instructions and the speaker (tactfully) suggests we do because they have information which tells them we should (this could be that we always do things badly because we fail to follow instructions, or perhaps the speaker has done this task before and had a bad experience as a result of not reading instructions first – they want us to derive benefit from their experience)

Here are some more examples:

  • You might have told me they had got divorced! 

The speaker found themselves in an embarrassing situation and is angry.

  • I might have been a famous singer ! 

We understand that something in the speaker’s past made this a possibility but it was never realised.

  • You really shouldn’t treat her that way.

Here the speaker is taking a moral stance as well as giving advice. What is happening is wrong in the eyes of the speaker.

  • I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think your ideas are a little odd!

Would here is used to express polite disagreement.

  • It would have been a good idea to let us know yesterday that the meeting was cancelled.

Again would is used to make this reprimand more polite.

  • They will keep spelling my name wrongly!

We know from this use of will that the speaker is very irritated.

Modals are the most common way of expressing stance in English especially in conversation.

Try this Gapfillers exercise on modal verbs which show a speaker’s belief or stance (the ex. shows probability).

Check out my post on Register for more on formality.

Finally, here is a list of verbs that most often occur with modal auxiliaries:

abide,  admit,   afford,  appeal, cope, guarantee,  handle,  imagine, interact, resist, survive, tolerate

and some that frequently do:
advise, aid, believe, benefit, claim, continue, contribute, count on, deduce, end up, expect, exit, focus, forgive, get over, grumble, harm, overwhelm, pause, reach, rely, respect, solve, withstand

As ever, check in your grammar book and try these out as soon as you can!

You may like to look at these posts:

Doing a language audit

Making progress as an Advanced learner

Advanced learners – a Pecha Kucha

December 30, 2009

Using Modal verbs – part one

Modal verbs in English loom large as an area for study. They can be categorised in terms of function, intensity and meaning. Modals can be confusing as individual verbs can be used in many different ways.

The best way to tackle these verbs is to split them up into batches and learn the different usages of these groups of verbs.

Let’s begin with a definition.

What is a modal verb? –  a modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb, they can be used to express a certain functions such as possibility, necessity, ability etc.. or make an utterance more polite or tactful.

How are sentences with modal verbs constructed? – the modal verb is the first verb in the verb phrase and is followed by the infinitive (without to) of the main verb.

  • People may (modal verb ‘may’) arrive (main verb – infinitive without ‘to’) late because of the snow.

Modal verbs:

can, could, may, might, shall, should, will would, must, dare, be able to, ought to, need to, have to

Try this Gapfillers exercise on mixed modals to see if you can choose the correct one in each sentence.

In this first post on Modal verbs we will look at the following functions and explore which verbs can be used and how they differ.

  • ability
  • prediction
  • permission
  • deduction

Ability – being able to do something

Can is used to describe ability and can’t/cannot the lack of ability.

  • Joe can help us with this problem but Paula can’t.

We can also use  able to

  • Joe is able to help us with this. (there is a sense of surprise or confirmation when using this form).

NB: don’t use able to with the passive

For the future, present perfect, past, gerunds and infinitives  we use be able to –

  • They will be able to fix the pipes.
  • I wasn’t able to visit them over Christmas.
  • I haven’t been able to get out of the house since Tuesday.
  • I like being able to arrange my own timetable.

Unable to – is used for absence of ability in formal situations – We regret that we are unable to agree to your terms.

Could is used for possessing an ability in the past and in questions, and sentences with adverbs such as hardly or only

  • She could speak before she was a year old.
  • Could the doctor see you? 
  • I could only see the nurse.

Other uses of could for ability are:

  • inability – Even though he was a vet he couldn’t cure his dog.
  • missed opportunity – We could have visited them but we didn’t have enough time.
  • disappointment – You could have told me that they had divorced!

Prediction – making statements about what will happen in the future

Will and won’t are used for prediction in the present tense:

  • You should take warm clothes – it will be cold in December.
  • Maisie won’t be home yet she doesn’t finish work until 6.00.

Would is used for the past:

  • We always knew they would marry eventually!

Must, should and have (got) to can also be used for prediction.

  • That must be Stephen’s brother. (deduced from information you have)
  • That has got to be Stephen’s brother! (He looks just like him)
  • We shouldn’t have a problem recognising Stephen. (We have a very good description)

Try this Gapfillers exercise on prediction


Can, can’t, could, may and might are usually used for expressing permission or absence thereof. There are degrees of politeness inherent in the choice of verb.

  • Can I borrow your pen? – Yes, you can/Sorry, I’m afraid  you can’t, I’m using it.
  • Could I borrow your pen? (more polite) (answer with can/may or can’t)
  • May I borrow your pen? (more formal) (answer with may/can’t)
  • Might I borrow your pen? (very formal – perhaps the person is a stranger) (answer as before)

Deduction – drawing a conclusions

Can, could, may, might, must, have (got) to, should

  • Take sandwiches as food can be very expensive on the train.
  •  A temperature could be a sign of something more serious.
  • The trains may be running late with all this snow.
  • That might be Jasper he said he would call.
  • He must be on his way.
  • He has got to be at least fifty years old now.
  • We should all get decent bonuses this year judging by the company results.

Remember this is a quick summary to help you test your knowledge of the rules and how to apply them. It is worth checking for more detailed information in your grammar book.  (see my post on choosing dictionaries and grammar books)

You may like to look at these posts:

Doing a language audit

Making progress as an Advanced learner

Advanced learners – a Pecha Kucha

December 21, 2009

Using narrative tenses

This morning I woke up bright and early. The ground was covered in a thick blanket of snow and everything looked so beautiful outside. I pulled on warm clothes and boots and took my two dogs Duffy and Maguire for a  snowy walk.

At the end of our walk I let them off their respective leads and into a small paddock at the side of our house where they could run freely. As I stood looking at the scenery I thought how marvelous it would be to have more students come to stay and study with us in 2010.  In any season the scenery is wonderful, the place welcoming and the opportunity for making excellent improvement in English language skills assured.

As I was thus looking and contemplating, I heard a loud meow and there, atop the gate was our little black cat, Nip (her brother, Tuck,  has gone walkabout again). I called to her and she came bouncing over the snow towards me. All of a sudden Maguire spotted her and leapt across to join us followed, in a flash, by Duffy.  All three animals began gambolling in the snow – it was a lovely scene and I hadn’t a camera!

Leaving the cat and dogs I flew into the house to get the camera. It hadn’t been put back in its usual place so took a while to track down. After a frantic hunt, I rushed back to the paddock camera in hand to find the animals scattered!

The perfect picture of animals having fun in the snow had gone! I did manage a few shots which you can see here but sadly the original masterpiece will remain forever in my head only!!

OK,  let’s get down to the topic. I’ve highlighted my use of tenses in the piece.

Can you identify them all and consider why each one was used?

I wrote the piece ‘off the cuff’ and completely spontaneously so the tense usage is random.

  • Past simple – you will see that this tense is used far more than any other. This makes sense, the incident is in the past and the ‘story’ mostly relates the events that happened in a sequential way.
  • Present perfect – there is only one use here – in a reference to the missing cat. The cat is missing , we only know this – no other information is provided.  He may return. This is a classic Present perfect use. (see posts on Present perfect  and choosing simple or continuous )
  • Present simple –  again one use when describing the scenery. This is a state and unchanging.
  • Past perfect – two occurences; when referring to the whereabouts of the camera – clearly the camera was used by someone else before the events of this story took place and on returning to the paddock – the frolicking of the animals in the snow is now relegated to the past.
  • Future tense – this is the final tense used referring to a missed chance to capture the scene and preserve it for the future.

When relating stories and events we tend to use mostly the past simple,  present perfect and past perfect tenses as a frame work and hang on the other tenses where required. It is important to sequence the events in order to choose the correct tense.

Try this Gapfillers exercise on narrative tense use.

This post is the second of six on English verbs and tenses.

More information on English courses at Fleetham Lodge  and see here on the blog Fleetham Life

December 14, 2009

English Verbs that Confuse!

Before I begin this post I have to report that a few days ago I was asked ‘What is a tamper-evident-seal? I was thrilled at this question. It proves that some of what I am saying about language exposure is right!! So flowers for me. Hurray!!! If you have read my posts on increasing vocabulary you will know what I am talking about if not then you can find out here (More Vocabulary on the go)

I thought it was time to say something about verbs in English. This is a daunting task as there is so much to say! I decided to begin with two thorny verb problems

  • verbs that are similar in usage and as a result often confused
  • verbs which are confused although they are in fact opposites

Verbs with similar meanings

make/do, take/bring, been/gone etc..

The difference between these verbs is often quite subtle. They often have similar meanings but are used in different ways.  Sometimes the meaning is identical but a preference for one has been made in English (see post on collocation)

Here is a list of the most commonly confused verbs:

These verbs collocate with certain words. Find a list of these in your grammar book and make sure you know which to use when. 

  • lay/lie

Lay describes an action – They laid out the papers for signing.

 lie a state  – He found the papers lying on the table.

Lay takes a direct object.

  • raise/rise

Raise describes an action done by someone – to raise tax

rise describes the action itself  – taxes will rise 

Raise always has a direct object.

  • talk/speak

These have very similar meanings and can be used interchangeably. – I’ll talk/speak to her about it.

 However there are some differences;  

a formal speech uses speak – He spoke to the Board of Directors.

Also when referring to languages – She speaks French, Italian and Japanese.

Talk would be used for speaking at length – He talked to them about his war experiences.

  • steal/rob

Again very similar in meaning. We use rob for the place that suffered the theft and steal for the items taken.

They robbed the shop and stole cash.

Check in your grammar book to make sure you have them right.

Verbs with opposite meanings

Although this may sound strange some verbs with opposite meanings can be confused. The two most common pairs are;

  • lend/borrow

Borrow from (you take the item) –  Can I borrow your pen?

Lend to (they give the item) – Can you lend me your pen?

  • bring/take/fetch

Bring means that you carry the item with you here – Can you bring some salad with you to the picnic? (towards the speaker – the picnic may be at the speaker’s home)

Take means you carry the item with you there – Can you take some salad to the picnic?  (away from the speaker – the picnic is in some other place)

Fetch is used when you have to collect something and then bring it with you. – Can you fetch the car from the garage tomorrow?

Make sure you understand the difference and then memorise and practise!!

Try these exercises on Gapfillers

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.

August 25, 2009

Linkers – using these to best effect.

In writing and formal speaking linking words can create a great impact. It is, however, not always easy to know which ones will be correct, most appropriate or give the best impression.

Have a look at these sentences – can you spot the problems?

  1. At first we found skiing difficult but at the end we became quite good.
  2. Joe caught an early train, because he could get to work early. 
  3. Despite he was a great actor, he didn’t appear in many films.
  4. At first you mix the sugar and butter, then add the eggs and finally the flour.
  5. Even I see your point of view, I cannot agree with it.
  6. Beside your family and mine who else should we invite?
  7. Although we have spoken about this many times, but you still won’t accept my decision.
  8. Because of people spend too much time using computers, they can become overweight.
  9. I am going to cover four main areas of grammar in this section, like tenses, adverbs, gerunds and prepositions.
  10. Our sales figures for 2009 are somewhat disappointing, moreover they are better than last year.

 These are some of the problems I often come across. The answers!

  • At first we found skiing difficult but at the end we became quite good.

              At first (the beginning of the process) …..in the end we became quite good.

  • Joe caught an early train, because he could get to work early. 

            so that he could get to work early.

  • Despite he was a great actor, he didn’t appear in many films.

             Despite the fact that he was a great actor…. (Despite being a great actor…)

  • At first you mix the sugar and butter, then add the eggs and finally the flour.

              First you mix the sugar and butter ………

  • Even I see your point of view, I cannot agree with it.

             Even though I see your point

  • Beside your family and mine who else should we invite?

              Besides your family ….

  • Although we have spoken about this many times, but you still won’t accept my decision.

             Although …………………………., you still  …

  • Because of people spend too much time using computers, they can become overweight.

             Because people spend…..

  • I am going to cover four main areas of grammar in this section, like tenses, adverbs, gerunds and prepositions.

             ……………………………………… namely tenses, adverbs ……………

  • Our sales figures for 2009 are somewhat disappointing, moreover they are better than last year.

               Our sales figures ……………………………., nevertheless they are …..

The ‘rules’.

There are basically 3 types of linking word that we use in English:

  • Conjunctionsbut, while, although, though, even though, even if etc..
  • Prepositions – despite, in spite of, though, etc..
  • Adverbs – however, nevertheless, still, moreover, besides, though etc..

Remembering the part of speech might help you to assess whether you have made the right choice. The linking words have a greater function than simply linking ideas – they also dictate the relationship between the ideas. These relationships can be, for example, contrast, concession, cause/effect, addition, temporal relationships.

Some examples:

If we use the linking words from the above sentences as examples we can see how they should be used and why they are used wrongly here.

  • At first – the beginning of a process – goes with in the end and shows a time-related relationship – the beginning and end of a process
  • First – the first point, item or step – goes with finally – another time-related relationship
  • At the end – denotes the point at which something finishes
  • Because –  explains the reason for an action because of – expresses a consequence
  • So that – explains the outcome of an action
  • Despite expresses contrast and must be used with -ing, a noun, or the phrase ‘Despite the fact that..
  • Even if/though- also expresses contrast and is not used by itself
  • Besides –  don’t confuse this with beside (preposition) it expresses additional information
  • Namely – is specific and mentions all items on a list (compare with such as, or like, which give examples)
  • Moreover/furthermore – add information, nevertheless/nonetheless show a contrast

This is a quick romp through some of the linking words that can be used to add style to your language. It is an area that requires some study but in the long run it will be worth the effort especially if you want to make an impression!

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