Archive for September, 2010

idiom: to be a flash in the pan


The idiom for this week is “to be a flash in the pan”. This expression is used when we want to talk about someone or something that is famous and popular at first, but then stops being popular and disappears from public view. It can be used to talk about entertainers, products, TV shows, etc. For example:

I thought the band Mercury Rising was going to be really successful after their first hit, but they turned out to be just a flash in the pan. Nobody listens to their music anymore.

A few years ago at Christmas there was a really popular doll that everyone wanted to buy, but that didn’t last long. It was just a flash in the pan.

The  TV show Roommates was really good and it was very popular, but it was cancelled after its first season. After the first few episodes the writing wasn’t so good, and it became a flash in the pan.

As you can see in the first two examples, we often use the word “just” at the beginning of the expression. It’s not necessary to do this but it’s a very natural way of using this idiom.

inseparable phrasal verb: run out (of)


Today, I have a very short entry for you about the phrasal verb “run out”. We often can add the preposition “of” at the end of it, but it’s not necessary. We use this when we want to talk about using all our supply of something, and there is no more of it left. For example:

We ran out of sugar, so we need to get some more at the supermarket today.

I ran out of gas while I was driving my car to work. I had to call the motor association to help me.

Billy didn’t finish the marathon because he ran out of energy before he got to the finish line.

Do we still have any cookies? I hope we haven’t run out. My friend is bringing her children over today.

This is a very useful expression, and we use it a lot in English.

grammatical expression: to leave a lot to be desired


In English, we have something we call euphemisms. This means we use a softer way of saying something instead of a very harsh and direct way. For example, instead of saying someone is dead, we often say that they have “passed away”. This sounds much softer and easier to hear.

Today’s expression is “to leave a lot to be desired”, and it’s an example of a euphemism. We use it when we want to find a softer way of saying something is bad. For example:

I like the writing style in your report, but the cover design leaves a lot to be desired. Can you please change it?

The service at Mario’s Steakhouse left a lot to be desired the last time I went there. Let’s go to another restaurant.

A: How was dinner at your girlfriend’s place last night? Was it good?

B: Well, let’s just say that her cooking skills leave a lot to be desired.

The reason this expression means something is bad is that when something is good, you don’t desire (or want) anything more from it; it’s perfect the way it is. If something is bad, you desire (or want) more from it in order to make it perfect. Because it’s a very indirect way of speaking, it’s considered much softer.

adjective: tentative


This week’s adjective is “tentative”. It is used when we want to talk about plans or appointments which have been scheduled but are not definite. In other words, they could change, but we aren’t sure yet. For example:

I have a tentative appointment with Bill Carson from ABC Company tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. He said he’d call to confirm it sometime this afternoon.

A: Would you like to have dinner with me tomorrow?

B: I have tentative plans with my friend to have dinner tomorrow night. Let me call her to find out if she still wants to do that.


A: Why don’t we get together on Tuesday?

B: I’m supposed to play golf with my boss on Tuesday, but it’s only tentative. I’ll find out for sure and then let you know.

We can also use this word as an adverb by adding “-ly” to the end. For example:

A: What time can you meet with me on Friday?

B: I’m very busy that day. Let me see. Let’s make it tentatively for 2:00 p.m. I’ll confirm that time with you later.

This adjective is often used in business situations, but it can also be used when talking about personal plans in your free time.

grammatical word: thought


Today, I have a word for you which can be confusing: “thought”. It can be confusing because sometimes it’s used when we want to say we made a mistake about something, and sometimes it’s used when we want to say we were correct about something. For example:

I made a big mistake at work today. I thought my boss told me to make 50 copies of the report, but actually he said 15.

I thought it would be cold today so I wore a heavy coat, but it turned out to be a warm day.

I thought going for Chinese food would be fun, but nobody else liked the idea.

In the above examples, the person is saying that they made a mistake. Here are some examples of how to use “thought” when we want to say we were right about something:

A: Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, isn’t it?

B: Yes, that’s right.

A: I thought so.


A: Jennifer?

B: Steven! Oh my God! Long time no see!

A: I thought that was you! How have you been?


A: Going for Chinese food was a great idea!

B: I thought people would like it.

So, as you can see, when we use “thought” to say we were correct about something, it’s usually used as a response to another person’s  statement. Also, when we use this word about being correct, we have to stress the word much more strongly. Please compare the following two sentences:

I thought everyone would LIKE the party decorations.

I THOUGHT everyone would like the party decorations.

In the first sentence, the person means that they were wrong and that the people didn’t like the party decorations. In this case, we must stress the word “like”. In the second sentence, the person means that they were right and that the people did like the party decorations. In this case, we must stress the word “thought”.

the difference between words: advice and advise


Last week, I received an email from a reader in India asking me to explain the difference between “advice” and “advise”. So that is what I will write about today.

Basically, the difference between these two words is very simple: “advice” is a noun, and “advise” is a verb. Both are used to talk about giving or receiving suggestions from another person about how to solve a problem. For example:

I had a problem with my boyfriend, so I asked my friend for her advice.

I don’t know what to wear for my job interview. Can you give me some advice?

A: I have a problem with my neighbor. He’s really loud at night.

B: Take my advice, and call your landlord. I had the same problem and that worked for me.

My friend advised me to read this book in order to improve my computer skills.

I don’t know any good places to eat here. Can you advise me as to where I can go?

Your new boss can be quite short-tempered. I advise you not to be late for work.

The verb “advise” is much more formal than the noun “advice”. Therefore, in regular conversations, English speakers will usually use “advice”. If you want to sound very formal for a business situation, you can use “advise”.

Speaking of “advice”, I would like to give my readers a recommendation. Many people ask me how they can improve their English in their free time. My advice is to read in English all the time. However, if you read newspapers or novels, the language in them is not conversational; it’s too formal. So my recommendation is to read an advice column. This is a newspaper column which is published everyday in which people write letters asking for advice about personal problems. These letters are a wonderful source of natural conversational English. Also, the letters are short, which is good for people who are very busy. The one I recommend is called Dear Abby. The website version is at this URL:

I will add this link to my blog. I think people will be able to learn a lot of useful expressions and language from this advice column.

idiom: to call it a day/night


The idiom for this week is “to call it a day”. We can also say “to call it a night”. These expressions are used when we want to say it’s time to go home after doing something like working. It can be used for work, but we can also use it in social situations. We usually use “to call it a night” in social situations. For example:

We’ve been working for over ten hours! Let’s call it a day. I’ll see you tomorrow.

I’m really tired now. What do you say we call it a day and continue working on this tomorrow morning?

This party has been really fun, but I think it’s time for me to call it a night. Thank you for inviting me to your party though.

My last train will leave soon, so I should call it a night. Let’s go drinking again sometime!

This idiom is a good way to wrap up an evening and let people know that you want to go home. However, in work situations, only the boss or high level person should say it. It’s NOT appropriate for a person to say, “Let’s call it a day.” to their boss.

separable phrasal verb: lead on


The phrasal verb I have for you this week is “lead on”. It is used when we want to say another person gives false hope to someone about a romantic relationship. For example:

I thought that girl really liked me, but she was just leading me on.

I was led on by that girl. (passive voice)

If you don’t want to be my boyfriend, just tell me now. Please don’t lead me on.

A: Have you ever been led on by someone?

B: Yes, I have. I dated a guy in university and I thought he was serious about me, but he wasn’t. I hate it when guys lead you on like that!

As I mentioned before, this expression is only used for romantic relationships; it can’t be used to talk about friendships or business relationships.

I hope none of you have ever been led on by someone.  🙂

grammatical expression: the sooner…the (sooner), (better), (happier), etc


Today I have another good expression for you that is used a lot, especially in conversational English: “the sooner…the…”. The last word can be changed to make various sentences. This expression is used when we want something to be done as soon as possible. It is basically saying that if we do it soon, the situation will be good. For example:

The sooner we leave, the sooner we can get home.

The sooner I get a job, the sooner I’ll be able to pay you back the money I owe you.

The sooner you get a job, the better it will be for you.

A: When should I finish this project by?

B: The sooner the better.

The sooner this movie is over, the happier I’ll be.

The sooner you finish this project, the happier your boss will be.

With this expression, it’s possible to use it with words other than “sooner”, “better”, and “happier” but, in my opinion, these words are the ones most commonly used.

In the fourth example, I used “The sooner the better.” as a complete expression on its own. We can only do this with the word “better”, and it’s used as a reponse to someone’s question asking about when something should happen.

adjective: sure-fire


The other day, one of my students was asking me about the adjective “sure-fire” and how to use it properly, so that’s what I’d like to write about today. The word “sure-fire” is used to describe a way of doing something that is guaranteed to work. For example:

One sure-fire way to get fired is to punch your boss in the face.

If you have the hiccups, you should hold your nose and drink water at the same time. It’s a sure-fire way to get rid of them.

Do you know any sure-fire ways to make a lot of money quickly? I really need some money to pay for my school.

I just bought a book about how to lose weight. They claim it’s a sure-fire method to lose at least ten kilos.

Generally speaking, the adjective “sure-fire” is placed in front of a noun (usually “way” or “method”). It’s possible to say, “This method is sure-fire.” or “That way is sure-fire.”, but it doesn’t sound very natural. The most natural way is to put “sure-fire” in front of the noun. Also, it’s important to note that the situations are usually positive but can also be negative, as in the first example about getting fired. In this sentence, it sounds like the person is making a joke about how to get fired.

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