Archive for August, 2010

grammatical word: would

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For today’s blog entry, I want to go over a word that has various uses in the English language: “would”. There are six basic functions for this word, and I will explain each one and give you examples.

1. used to indicate imagined situations. For example:

If I were rich, I would travel all over the world.

If I were you, I wouldn’t smoke so much. It’s really not good for you.

I would drive to my hometown if I had a car.

2. used to indicate frequent actions in the past. This usage has the same meaning as “used to”. For example:

My family and I would have breakfast together every Sunday when I was young.

After school, my friends and I would play video games.

In the 1950s and before that, women would stay home with the children and the men would work. Nowadays, the situation has changed for many families.

3. used with “like” to express desires. In this case “would like” is a more polite way to say “want”. For example:

Would you like something to drink?

I would like you to do me a favor.

I would like a hamburger, and my daughter would like a cheeseburger.

4. used as the past tense form of “will” in reported speech. For example:

“I will never smoke.” (direct speech)

He said he would never smoke. (reported speech)

“Will you help me with my project?” (direct speech)

She asked me if I would help her with her project. (reported speech)

5. used as a polite form of the word “will”. This form is used when making requests. For example:

Would you be able to help me this afternoon?

Would you please stop tapping your pen on the table? It’s bothering me.

Do you think Cheryl would be able to work overtime tonight? We really need her.

6. used with a verb in questions in order to make the question sound softer and more polite. For example:

How much would a one-way ticket to Chicago cost? (more polite form of “How much does a one-way ticket to Chicago cost?”)

It would cost $80.00.

How long would it take to drive to Osaka? (more polite form of “How long does it take to drive to Osaka?”)

It would take about three hours.

Who would that be? (more polite form of “Who is that?”)

That would be my wife.

In these last examples, we can use “would” in the answers because the other person used “would” in the questions. However, if the person asking the question doesn’t use “would”, the answer should also not use “would”. In these situations, the use of “would” makes the sentences sound more formal.

As I’ve said in the past, the best way to improve your English and to master difficult words like “would” is to memorize complete sentences and then change the small details to make new sentences. In this way, you can think directly in English instead of translating from your native language. Good luck! 🙂

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the difference between words: recently and these days

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In my classes, many times I have had to explain the difference between “recently” and “these days”, so that will be the subject for today’s blog entry.

The word “recently” is used to focus on the present moment and the recent past, but it does NOT focus on the future at all. The term “these days” is used to focus on the recent past, the present moment AND the near future. For example:

Recently, I’ve been working a lot of overtime at work.

I’ve recently found a fantasic new Italian restaurant downtown. We should go there sometime.

Recently, I saw the movie Star Wars for the first time. It was really good.

These days, I’m working a lot of overtime.

I don’t drink much beer these days. I’m trying to lose weight.

I’m studying English very hard these days. I want to get a high score on the TOEIC test.

So, because the word “recently” doesn’t focus on the future at all, it uses different verb tenses from “these days”. The word “recently” will use the present perfect (have + pp), the present perfect continuous (have been + ing form of a verb) or the simple past tense. On the other hand, “these days” will use the present continuous (be + ing form of a verb) or the simple present.

idiom: to be hit and miss

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I hope everyone is having a great Sunday. The idiom for this week is “to be hit and miss”. It is used to talk about either the quality of something or a person’s rate of success at something. When we use this expression, we are saying the the quality of something is sometimes good and sometimes bad, or that someone is sometimes successful at doing something and sometimes not. For example:

The quality of the food at this restaurant is very hit and miss, so I’d rather go somewhere else.

These days, the quality of Jim Harmon’s movies is really hit and miss. He used to make consistently good films though.

Drew Littleton’s game is really hit and miss right now. He used to be a much better golfer.

Chris used to be the top salesman at ABC Company, but nowadays his sales performance is extremely hit and miss.

When we use this expression, it’s very common to add the words “very”, “really”, or “extremely” at the beginning of the idiom. If anyone has any questions, please let me know.

inseparable phrasal verb: feel up to

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Today I have a phrasal verb for you that is quite simple but very useful and commonly used: “feel up to”. It is used when we talk about having enough energy or being healthy enough to do something. For example:

I want to go to the party with you, but I have a cold. I’m just not feeling up to it. Sorry.

Are you feeling up to cooking tonight? If you’re too tired, we can order a pizza.

A: If you’re not feeling well, we don’t have to go out for dinner.

B: It’s ok. I had a headache before but it’s gone. I think I’m feeling up to going out now.

Do we have to invite Dan to our party? He always talks shop, and I’m really not feeling up to hearing him complain about his job.

If you feel up to it, I’d like you to help me cook dinner.

With this expression, it’s much more common to use it in negative sentences or in questions. It’s a little unusual to say “I’m feeling up to going out tonight.”, but sometimes we can add “I think” to the beginning of the sentence and that makes it sound more natural (as in the third example sentence). So, instead of saying “I’m up to going out tonight”, we would probably say something like, “I want to go out tonight.” or “I feel like going out tonight.”

In the fourth example, I use the idiom “talk shop”. If you don’t know this expression, you can check my blog from June 2, 2010.

grammatical expression: so much for

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Today, I have another common expression that English speakers use in casual conversations: “so much for”. It is used when we want to say that something we were expecting to happen will not happen. It can also be used to indicated that something we thought was true is not true. For example:

It’s just started to rain! So much for our picnic!

The prime minister just announced a tax increase! So much for his promises not to raise taxes!

I just got laid off at work! So much for buying a new house this year!

A: Bill made a huge mistake and lost the company one of our biggest clients!

B: Well, so much for the promotion he was supposed to get.

The Shepherds only had two successful songs, and then the band broke up. So much for all the predictions that they would become as successful as the Beatles.

When we use this expression, the feeling is usually either neutral or negative. If someone uses this when they feel happy about the situation, it sounds as if they are gloating. So, in the fourth example, if the person who says “so much for the promotion he was supposed to get” is happy that Bill made a mistake, it sounds like that person either doesn’t like Bill or is in line for the same promotion.

adjective: fine

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Today, I’d like to write about a word that many of my students use but don’t fully understand: “fine”. Whenever I ask a Japanese person, “How are you?”, almost all of them reply, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” Now technically this is correct, but native English speakers almost NEVER say, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” Instead, we will say things like:

I’m great. How about you?

I’m good. You?

Pretty good. Yourself?

I’m not bad. And you?

Sometimes we say, “I’m fine”, but the above examples are more natural, in my opinion. However, if someone is concerned about our physical or emotional well being and asks us, “Are you ok?”, we often say “I’m fine.” to tell them that they don’t have to worry about us, and that we’re ok.

Now, there is another misunderstanding about “fine”. Generally speaking, when we say something is “fine”, the feeling is neutral, but not extremely positive. For example:

A: How was your day?

B: It was fine.

A: Just fine? Is there something wrong?

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A: Did you enjoy the party?

B: It was fine.

A: Only fine? I thought it was really fun.

However, sometimes the word “fine” can have a much more positive feeling when we use it. These cases are more rare and sound a little old-fashioned. For example:

George is a fine man and you’re very lucky to have a husband like him!

It’s a fine ring that you bought your fiancee. I’m sure she’ll love it.

When we use “fine” in this way, we must stress the word “fine” in order to indicate that it’s very positive. Also, it’s important to note that when “fine” is used positively, it must come in front of a noun. Therefore, if we say, “The ring you bought your fiancee is fine.”, it sounds like we’re saying it’s just ok.

Finally, many of my students use “fine” to talk about the weather. For example:

The weather is fine today.

It’s a fine day today.

This is not natural in North American English, although I did hear people say things like that in Australia, so perhaps it’s more British English. In the United States and Canada, it’s more natural to use the word “nice” to describe good weather conditions. For example:

The weather is nice today.

It’s a nice day today.

So, I hope this clears up some of the misunderstandings about the word “fine”.

grammatical word: stop

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Last week, I wrote about the different between “tried” + infinitive and “tried” + -ing. This week, I would like to do the same thing with the verb “stop”.

When we use “stop” + infinitive (“to” + base form of a verb), it means that we cease our current activity in order to do something else. When we use “stop” + gerund (-ing form of a verb), it means that we quit a certain activity forever. For example:

While I was driving to my hometown, I stopped to get something to eat.

I’m a little tired right now. Can we stop to relax for a few minutes?

A: Where’s Ben? I thought he was working.

B: He was, but he stopped to have a cigarette. He’ll be back in a few minutes.

Last year, my father stopped smoking. I’m so proud of him.

Would you please stop tapping your pen on the table? It’s really annoying!

My doctor tells me I should stop drinking so much beer, but I really love it!

The difference between these two forms is very important, so my suggestion is that you memorize the sentences and then change the small details to make new sentences. That way it will be less confusing for you, and the English structures will eventually become natural in your mind.

the difference between words: hear and listen to

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Last week, I went over the difference between “see”, “look at” and “watch”. Today, I want to go over the difference between “hear” and “look at” which is closely related to the post last week. The word “hear” means that we physically pick up sounds with our ears, but we are not focusing on those sounds. In this way, “hear” is similar to the word “see”. The term “listen to” means that we are focusing on those sounds. In this way, “listen to” is similar to “look at”. Here are some examples:

Didn’t you hear the phone ring? I’ve been trying to call you all day.

Can you hear that? It sounds like a baby crying.

I could hear a strange sound coming from my neighbor’s apartment last night. I wonder what he was doing.

On the weekend, I listened to music. I especially like to listen to old time rock and roll.

You have to listen to this joke! It’s so funny!

The doctor listened to my heartbeat and told me he thinks I have a problem with my heart.

The term “listen to” also has another meaning. It can also mean to pay attention to what someone says to you and to do what they say. For example:

I didn’t listen to my parents when they said I should go to university, and now I really regret that.

If you listen to what Frank has to say, you’ll be very successful at this company. He’s been here for a long time.

Listen to me! If you don’t stop smoking, you’re going to have a lot of health problems in the future!

So, that is how we use these words in English. I hope everyone has a great week!

idiom: to get/have cold feet

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Today is Sunday, and that makes it idiom day! So today, I have an interesting expression for you: “cold feet”. We use this when we talk about a person who is really nervous about something that they are planning to do and is considering changing their mind about doing it. For example:

A: My wedding is tomorrow, and I’m really nervous about it!

B: I hope you’re not getting cold feet!

My brother agreed to make a speech at the conference but, at the last minute, he got cold feet and said he couldn’t do it.

A: You look really nervous about giving this presentation. If you have cold feet and don’t want to do it, I’ll understand.

B: No, it’s ok. I’m a little nervous, but I don’t have cold feet. I’ll do it.

I just heard that the Mark Jackson’s wedding was cancelled. I guess either Mark or his fiancee had cold feet and decided to call off the wedding.

This idiom is often used in situations to do with weddings and getting married, but it can be used in other situations as well. If we use it in the past tense, as in the second and fourth example sentences, it means that the person actually did actually cancel the plans because of being too nervous.

inseparable phrasal verb: live up to

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The phrasal verb for this week is “live up to”. It’s an example of a three word phrasal verb. Another example of this that I’ve written about in the past is “come up with”. Almost all three word phrasal verbs are inseparable which means that the object, whether it’s a noun or a pronoun, will come after the third word (a preposition).

The phrasal verb “live up to” is used when we talk about a person who fulfills someone else’s expectations or follows their example. For example:

My father has such high standards for success. I could never live up to his expectations.

My father’s expectations for success can never be lived up to. (passive voice)

My mother is an amazing woman. I’ve tried hard all my life to live up to her example.

I really admire my teacher. I hope I’ve been able to live up to her expectations.

So, when we use this expression, the person whose expectations are trying to be lived up to must be someone in a high position in comparison with the speaker. Often it’s someone’s mother or father, but it’s possible to be another person as well. When using this expression, we usually DON’T say something like , “I lived up to my father’s expectations.” Instead, it’s more natural to use it in the negative. For example:

I didn’t live up to my father’s expectations.

We can also use it with the word “try”. For example:

I tried to live up to my father’s expectations, but I couldn’t.

I’m trying to live up to my mother’s example.

So, that’s the phrasal verb for this week. I hope everyone has a great weekend!

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