Archive for October, 2010

idiom: to get the hang of something

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The idiom for this week is to “get the hang of” something.  This expression is used when we want to talk about becoming skillful at something after starting to do it for the first time. For example:

I know chess can be hard, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it eventually.

I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of this new computer software. It’s so confusing!

At first, speaking Japanese was really hard for me, but I got the hang of it after a little while.

My grandmother tried to teach my mom how to knit, but she never got the hang of it.

Hey, I’m think I’m actually getting the hang of this new video game! I just scored 10,000 points!

When we use this expression, we use either the past tense (I got the hang of it), future tense (I will get the hang of it) or present continuous tense (I’m getting the hang of it). We can’t use the simple present tense with this expression.

Also, if we use it in the negative, it’s very common to use the word “never”. Therefore, we often say “She never got the hang of it.” or “I’ll never get the hang of it.” However, if we use the present continuous, we don’t use the word “never”. So, we would say “I’m not getting the hang of this.” Note that we use the word “this” instead of “it” because it’s happening at that moment.

I know that English idioms can be hard, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of using them if you study hard!

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separable phrasal verb: bump up (to)

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Have you ever been selected to sit in business class or first class on an airplane even though you just had a ticket for the economy section? Well, if you have, today’s phrasal verb will be very useful for you. The phrasal verb “bump up” has two meanings:

1. to put someone in a higher group (usually on an airplane). For example:

I can’t believe it! The airline bumped me up to first class for my flight to Hawaii!

I was bumped bumped up to first class for my flight to Hawaii! (passive voice)

I’ve never been bumped up to business class or first class on a flight, but many of my friends have.

2. to arrange for an appointment to be earlier than scheduled. For example:

I’m afraid the doctor has to leave the office at 4:00, so we’d like to bump up your appointment to 2:30. Would that be alright with you?

My appointment was bumped up to 2:30. (passive voice)

We had to bump up the time for the meeting to 11:00 a.m. Could you please tell everyone about the change in schedule?

As you can see, the preposition “to” always comes between either the words “business class/first class” or the new time for the appointment.

grammatical expression: can’t help/couldn’t help

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Have you ever heard the old song “I can’t help falling in love with you”? Elvis Presley did the most popular version of it. Have you ever wondered what “can’t help” meant? Well, today that is what I’m going to write about.

The expression “can’t help” means that a person cannot control some kind of behavior that they do. So, in the case of the song, Elvis meant that he cannot control his feelings of love for the other person; he fell in love because he had no choice.

Here are some more examples:

You shouldn’t tease Rachel because of her acne. She’s a teenager, and she can’t help it if she’s got pimples.

Your uncle can’t help walking with a limp because his leg was injured in an accident a long time ago.

I got the hiccups during my exam, and I couldn’t help making a little noise.

I couldn’t help being late today. The trains were delayed for a long time because of an accident.

The first two examples use “can’t” because the situation which the person can’t control is still happening. The last two examples use “couldn’t” because the situation is now over.

adjective: dead

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I think everyone understands the main meaning of the adjective “dead” which is for someone or something to no longer be alive. However, many people don’t know that we can use the word “dead” in other situations. Let me go over them for you now.

1. for a place such as a restaurant or bar to not have many customers. For example:

The bar was dead on Saturday night, so we didn’t stay long.

The restaurant where my sister works has been really dead recently. She wants to find another job.

2. for a business deal to be cancelled. For example:

Our business partners backed out of our deal, so now it’s dead.

I thought our merger with ABC Company was dead, but they just told us they want to go ahead with it.

3. used to express that someone is in trouble with another person. For example:

I just broke my mother’s favorite vase! I’m dead when she gets home!

It’s because of Jim that we lost our biggest client! He is so dead when the boss finds out!

This last meaning of “dead” is only used in casual conversations because this meaning is a little bit slang.

It’s also important to know that when we use “dead” in the normal sense of someone or something losing life, we use the present tense, but not the past tense. For example:

My grandfather is dead now. He died about five years ago.

We CANNOT say: “My grandfather was dead.” because that would mean that he is alive again! Sometimes we say “was dead”, but only when the grammar demands it, such as when we use reported speech. For example:

Martin said his grandfather was dead.

So, these are the common ways to use the adjective “dead”.

grammatical word: eat

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As I’ve done in the past, today I would like to go over a common verb which has other meanings that many people don’t know about. Today, the verb is “eat”. Of course, everyone knows the main meaning of this word which is to consume food. However, we can also use it in three other ways:

1. for some kind of public vending machine or payphone to take money and then not work properly. For example:

That drink machine ate my dollar. Is there someone in the building who can get me my drink or my dollar back?

The payphone ate my coin and then disconnected me! I hate it when that happens!

2. for something to require a lot of money in order to maintain it. For example:

My car is costing me a lot of money. Between parking costs and gasoline, it’s eating a lot of my monthly paycheck.

Having kids is so expensive. After my wife and I had our son, the cost of taking care of him really ate through our savings.

3. for something to put someone in a bad mood. For example:

Edgar and Henry just left the room as soon as I said hello to them. What’s eating them?

I just heard Charlene tell her friend to shut up! What’s eating her?

If you look at the fourth example, you’ll see that I used “eat through”. When talking about something that is reducing our savings, we often add the word “through” to the verb “eat”.

In the final meaning of “eat” which is for something to put someone in a bad mood, we almost always use “eat” in the question form, What’s eating + someone. Please be careful about saying it directly to a person, as in “What’s eating you?”. This is very strong and could be offensive to the person you are talking to.

the difference between words: put on, wear and take off

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In English, we often have a special word or term that is used to describe the first part of an action. One of my previous blogs was an example of this: the difference between “find out” and “know”. As I explained before, first we find something out, and then we know it.

This is the same case for “put on” and “wear”: first we put something on, and then we wear it. For example:

The shirt you’re wearing now is really wrinkled. You should put on another shirt.

A: What do you put on first when you’re getting dressed in the morning?

B: I put on my underwear first of course! After that, I put on my pants.

I love what you’re wearing. It’s such a nice outfit.

It’s time to leave. Go and put on your coat because it’s cold outside.

I need to wear a heavy coat today because it’s very cold.

So the term “put on” refers to the time that we put a piece of clothing on our bodies. This is very fast and would usually take no longer than a minute. After the piece of clothing is completely on our bodies, we then say that we are wearing it.

When we talk about removing that piece of clothing from our bodies, we use the term “take off”. For example:

It’s time for a bath. Go and take off your clothes, and I’ll fill the bathtub with water for you.

I often take off my shoes when I’m sitting at my desk at work.

I don’t want to take off my coat because it’s really cold in the office today.

Please note that we don’t say “put off” when talking about removing clothes; we always say “take off”. Also, please note that in English, we use “put on”, “wear” and “take off” for any piece of clothing: hats, shirts, pants, shoes, socks, etc. We also use these terms for other things we put on our bodies such as jewelry, glasses and make up.

idiom: to be all ears

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Last week I heard someone on a TV show use an idiom that I’d like to write about today. The expression is to be “all ears”. This is used when we want to say to another person that we will listen to them with our full attention. For example:

A: I have something to tell you.

B: Ok, I’m all ears. What is it?

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A: I have some great news for you guys!

B: Really? We’re all ears! What’s your news?

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A: There’s something I have to say to you.

B: Ok, give me just one minute to finish this and then I’m all ears.

So, as you can see, this expression is used as a response to another person’s statement that they want to say something to us. We use it when talking about ourselves or our group. Therefore, we can say “I’m all ears.” or “We’re all ears.”, but we DON’T say things like, “He’s all ears.” or “You’re all ears.” If we say this, it will sound strange.

separable phrasal verb: blow up

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Today’s phrasal verb, “blow up” has a few different meanings. Some of them you may know and some of them you may not. Let me go over the different meanings for you now.

1. to inflate something with air using one’s mouth. For example:

Can you help me with these balloons? I need to blow them up before the party starts.

I had to blow up an air mattress for my daughter, so I’m really out of breath now.

2. for someone to cause something to explode. For example:

Did you hear about what happened to the mayor’s car? Somebody blew it up yesterday! He was killed instantly.

The mayor’s car was blown up yesterday, and he died in the explosion. (passive voice)

On the TV show 24, people are constantly blowing things up.

Things are constantly being blown up on the TV show, 24. (passive voice)

3. for something to explode. (intransitive) For example:

The plane blew up after it crashed into the mountain.

There was a gas leak in my friend’s trailer, and it blew up. Luckily, no one was in it at the time.

4. to enlarge a photograph. For example

I can’t see the people in this picture very well. Can you blow it up for me?

We can blow this photo up a little, but if we do it too much, the image won’t be clear.

5. to lose one’s temper and get angry at someone. (usually used with “at” and is inseparable) For example:

My mom blew up at my dad yesterday when he came home drunk again.

I blew up at my friend yesterday after she kept me waiting for half an hour. I hate it when she’s late!

As I wrote above, the third meaning is intransitive, so it doesn’t take an object. The difference between the second meaning and the third one is that in the second meaning, somebody intentionally causes the explosion, but in the third meaning, the explosion happens naturally or we don’t know the cause of it.

With the fifth meaning, we use the preposition “at” after the phrasal verb. This means that the person gets angry directly when talking to another person. If we say, “I blew up at my friend.”, it means I got angry when talking to my friend and shouted at him or her.

grammatical expression: in the meantime

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Last week, one of my readers asked me to write about the expression “in the meantime”, so I will do that today.

This expression is used when we want to talk about the period of time between two events. The first period of time can be now or a certain date or time; the second period of time is when something is supposed to happen. For example:

You can cut up these vegetables. In the meantime, I will start making the sauce.

I will start my new job at an international company in two months. In the meantime, I plan to study a lot and improve my English skills.

The party was supposed to start at 7:00, but I arrived in the area at 5:00 so, in the meantime, I went to a cafe and read a book.

A: Our work finishes at 6:00, but the office dinner doesn’t start until 7:30! What are we supposed to do in the meantime?!

B: Let’s just have a beer at the bar near the office.

As you can see, this expression can be used to talk about the past, the present or the future. In the case of the first example, the period of time that “in the meantime” is referring to is the time the person starts cutting up the vegetables, and the time they finish doing that. In the second example, the first period of time is now, and the second period of time is two months from now when the person starts their new job. In the last two examples, the periods of time are quite obvious because the person mentions exact times: between 5:00 and 7:00 (third example) and between 6:00 and 7:30 (last example).

adjective: bitter

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Most people know the word “bitter” refers to the taste of something being strong and unpleasant. However, there are other meanings which many people don’t know about. That’s what I’d like to write about today.

There are three basic meanings for the word “bitter”. Let me go over them for you.

1. the taste of something which is strong and unpleasant. For example:

This coffee is really bitter. I’d like to get another cup please.

I don’t like the taste of this vegetable. It’s really bitter, and it tastes like medicine.

2. something that is very strong in a negative way. It’s often used to talk about cold weather, the truth or a struggle. For example:

I hate the bitter winters in my hometown.

I really hate the weather in my hometown in the winter because it’s bitterly cold.

I know you’re having a hard time dealing with your divorce, but you have to get over it. The bitter truth is that your husband doesn’t love you anymore.

There is a bitter struggle going on right now between various leaders to see who will become president.

3. used to describe a person who remains angry about something for a long period of time. For example:

My father got fired from his job about a year ago, and he’s still bitter about it.

My friend is a bitter woman when it comes to men. She has had her heart broken many times, and now she hates men completely!

In the second definition, I used the word “bitter” as an adverb – “bitterly” – in front of the adjective “cold”. This is a special case though; we don’t use “bitterly” with most other adjectives. Let me give you some other examples of how it can be used.

It was bitterly painful to see my ex-husband with another woman.

The war between the two countries was bitterly fought.

The smell of sulfur is bitterly pungent.

There are probably other examples of how to use the word “bitterly”, but these are the main ones I could think of for natural conversations. However, you might see it used in novels but, in those cases, it’s not natural for conversational English.

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