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Sunday, 15 April 2007

Fish and vegetables

Hi Ana Paula and everyone else,

A few years ago, I was teaching a class, and I mentioned the fact that I’m a vegetarian. I gave up eating meat when I was about fifteen years old, and apart from a few brief lapses, I’ve been a vegetarian ever since. However, I do eat fish and seafood. In fact, my favourite food in the world is a kind of sour, spicy prawn soup from Thailand. I’m not exactly sure of the correct spelling, but I think it’s called Tom Yum Ga, or something like that. If anyone from Thailand is reading, maybe they can tell me how to spell it properly.

Hold on a moment,” said the students. “How can you eat fish if you’re a vegetarian?” (In fact, we were doing some very serious grammar exercises, and I think they were trying to engage me in conversation in order to distract me from the lesson.)

“Think about it like this,” I said. “Do animals have legs? Yes. Do vegetables have legs? No. And do fish have legs? No, of course they don’t. Therefore, fish are vegetables.”

I should explain that this was an academic writing class in a British university. I knew that all the students were very thoughtful, intelligent people, and I had been teaching them for a while so I knew they had a good sense of humour. However, many of them came from cultures which are very different from Western Europe. In many cultures, university students are expected to respect the authority of their teachers and not to challenge the teacher’s ideas. However, in British universities (and most Western European universities), ‘critical thinking’ is very important; students who accept information without analyzing and questioning it don’t get very good marks.

I wanted to encourage my students to ‘think critically’. So, I explained that fish are vegetables because they don’t have any legs. Then I asked the students if they agreed with me. I was amazed by the results - at first, about 50% the students agreed that fish were vegetables! However, we started to discuss it, and soon all the students agreed that I was talking complete rubbish. I was very pleased with this result, and the conversation was much more fun than the grammar exercises we were supposed to be doing.

So, to answer your question – no, of course fish are not vegetables. I eat them because they taste good. I suppose I’m not really a vegetarian, I’m a ‘pescatarian’ (a new word which means a person who eats fish, but doesn’t eat meat).

Again, your writing is very good indeed, Ana Paula (much better than your taste in desserts). The following sentence is a particularly good one:

‘Although I have healthy feeding habits and work out every day, my cholesterol never goes down.’

Your use of ‘although’ is exactly correct, in terms of both grammar and meaning. I’d change the word ‘feeding’ to ‘eating’, because the verb ‘to feed’ (without a direct object) is normally used for animals rather than people, but otherwise you wrote this sentence exactly as a native speaker would write it.

I’d like to focus on conditional sentences today (in case anyone is unsure, conditional sentences are sentences using ‘if’, ‘unless’, etc). Here’s another example of a very good sentence from your last blog:

‘I don’t mind if I cross the street and meet a black cat, do you?’

This type of sentence is called the ‘zero conditional’. The grammar structure looks like this:

[‘if’ + present simple], + [present simple]

We can also reverse it, like this:

[present simple] + [‘if’ + present simple]

So, I could say:

‘If it rains, I get wet.’


“I get wet if it rains.’

We use the zero conditional to make a general statement about something which is normally or always true – the same yesterday, the same today, the same tomorrow.

There are several other types of conditional sentence, but today I’d like to discuss just the ‘first conditional’ and the ‘second conditional’. The grammar of the first conditional looks like this:

[‘if’ + present simple], + [future simple]


[future simple] + [‘if’ + present simple]

The first conditional is always used to talk about the future, so I could say:

‘If it rains tomorrow, I will get wet.’


‘I will get wet if it rains tomorrow.’

The second conditional is structured like this:

[‘if’ + past simple] + [‘would’ + first form of the verb]

[‘would’ + first form of the verb] + [‘if’ + past simple]

So I could say:

‘If it rained tomorrow, I would get wet.’

‘I would get wet if it rained tomorrow.’

The second conditional can be quite confusing. Although we use the past form of the verb, this isn’t about the past; in fact, the word ‘tomorrow’ shows you that I’m using it to describe a future event. There is one very important difference in meaning between the first conditional and the second conditional: we use the first conditional to talk about the results of something that probably will happen, and we use the second conditional to describe the results of something that probably or certainly won’t happen.

Let’s look at the example again. I live in London. In London, it rains quite a lot, and it’s quite likely that it will rain tomorrow. Therefore, I would probably choose the first conditional:

‘If it rains tomorrow, I will get wet.’

On the other hand, someone who lived in a very dry place (the Sahara desert, for example) would probably not expect rain tomorrow, and so that person would probably choose the second conditional:

‘If it rained tomorrow, I would get wet.’

Does this make sense so far, Ana Paula? I hope so, because I have a task for you. You don’t often make major grammar mistakes, but I’m afraid there is an important mistake in this sentence:

‘If the Minas cheese wouldn’t be perishable, I would send a Fedex straight to Oxford Street… ‘

Can you fix the mistake?

See you soon!


PS Samuel Beckett's most famous work is his play, 'Waiting for Godot'. I recommend reading this one first. It's very funny.

To give up doing something is to quit or stop doing this thing.

A lapse is when you briefly lose your self-control, or stop behaving in a good way. I have occasionally lost my self-control and eaten a little meat.

The adjective sour describes a particular taste. For example, lemons, limes, and vinegar taste sour.

Hold on is a phrasal verb meaning ‘wait’. Therefore, if you say, ’hold on a moment’, this means, ‘wait for a moment’. This phrase is often used when we want to interrupt someone.

To engage someone in conversation means to talk to that person, in order to start a conversation with them.

Your sense of humour is your ability to laugh or to find things funny, or your ability to make jokes.

If you are expected to to do something, this means that other people think you should do this.

To talk rubbish is to say things which are obviously not true. We can add the adjective ‘complete’ to make the phrase stronger and give it more emphasis. When I said that fish are vegetables, I was clearly talking complete rubbish.

Desserts are sweet foods which we normally eat at the end of meals.


Hi,Alex I'm Thais.I was impressive to hear from you about ''Tom Yum Kung''becauae it's also my favourite food.I aways follow and read learning English blogs everyday..I have learned valuable things from you... don't forget Tom Yum Kung not Tom Yum Ka becaues ''Ka'' in Thai language means ''crow'' Thank you very much

Hello Alex, and everyone! I've not read English Bolg on BBC Website for a few weeks, and with pleasure I just read your instruction regarding to conditionals and your so nice experinces with students as well. As I've just noticed the topic of food like vegetarianism, fish and chees is dominated in student/teacher blog, so that after the reading one could have willingness to have a snack... Fish are tasty, and seafood much beter, I like them. Not farther then yesterday I had unpleasent occurance with seafood. When I did shopping at evening, I felt like buy some seafood and I wnet to the place where it was. I saw ingredients looking appetizing, I asked cautiously the shop assinstant about freshness and she answered me evasively, but I decided to buy some. At home when the bottle of wine was opened I tried to eat it - I discovered that it was uneateble! My seafood feast was over, I drank only a glass of white vine - thanks for God it was good South Amerinca one. I realized once again that it is so difficult to reach really fresh seafood in a far distance palce form sea. It is a huge problem for seafood fans. I wish all the best,

Hi teacher Alex Gooch . How are you today ? I am vegetarian too , sometimes in China festival . Actually, I would like to talk about why I am vegetarian . Long time ago some of chinese ancstor immigrated to Thailand in order to leave world war two in particular in many regions Bangkok ,Khon Kaen , Chiang Mai even whereever in Thailand. They traveled for a long distance from China to Thailand until around border between Myanmar and Thailand. You can find Maekong River where is the superb scenery reflecting social norms of Thailand and Myanmar . Thus , nowadays we have good traditions dealing with chinese festival . E.g. Trudjin , Sadjin , Changmang. By the way , teacher Alex Gooch asked " How can spell it correctly in Thai ? " The answer is exactly called Tum Yum Kung . It is the most popular soup in Thailand .And It make of prawn and lots of herbal ingredients that has a unique sour spicy food . Most of foreigner would like to order Tum Yum Kung menu whenever they have a dinner/lunch in restaurants . Nonetheless, this famous food :Tum Yum Kung are named in the action movie acting by Japranum . Have you ever seen it before ? It is such a sophisticated and interesting movie . The last but not least , I would like to thank you for conditional sentence . Even if you does not give pile of useful informations , I will not progress in gramma and vocabulary anymore. I am looking forward to next entry . Keep your finger cross.. << Wisarut >>

Hi,Alex,I am sure you have a better sense of humour than your studentes.

hi Alex and everybody, Alex, I like the way you explained you are a "pescatarian", I love your sense of humour. That may be is equivalent to be a "not-meater" (not a meat eater)?. Just kidding... By the way, may I ask you something? I'd like to know when it is correct to use "not-..." and when we should use "non-..." (e.g. which of the following is correct? non-smoker or not-smoker. May be none of them is right. Thank you for conditional sentences lesson. I did my homework, e.g. If you tried fudge and cheese, you would like it. ;) Being serious: I love fudge and cheese. greetings Angélica

I do like to read your blog and you are good sense of humor.

Hi everyone, I found your blog very helpful today Alex. Conditional sentences make sense; the explanation that you gave was so easy to understand. It was also fun to read that fish is not a vegetable after all. I used to be a strict vegetarian many years ago, even today I eat meat in small portions. Once my eating habits were described: she does not eat corpses. I guess we all must go to a library today and borrow “Waiting for Godot.” Thank you.

Hi, Alex. I absolutely agree with you that the spicy prawn soup from Thailand tastes delicious. It's my favourite too. But! But I wouldn't agree about cheese with fudge: any curd cheese with something sweet is abslutely delicious. I don't know what Minas cheese is like (Ana Paula didn't mention of it) but I'm sure it's white and plain or something of the kind. I suggest that you should try Ana Paula's dessert. Bon appetit.

Hi teacher. You turn the things easier to us. I like your explanations. Thank you. I always have doubts about prepositions. I have already noticed that you have a pleasent good sense of humor. I'm your fan. Bye

Hello Alex, you are a very good teacher!Your explanations are very clear and easy; you said you started to be vegetarian at 15; may I ask why? I think that fish aren't vegetables but just another kind of meat, so I think you created an alibi to eat meat anyway. In Italy vegetarians are a minority in fact food in Italy occupy a big part of our culture and for me beeing vegetarians means not to give much importance to food. Food is very important to me; How could I leave apart sausages pizza, ham pizza and hot salami pizza: they're wonderful! Aren't you missing one of the joys of life? Thanks for the attention you 'll give to my comment,bye Maela

Dear Alex!I'm very glad that you focused our attention on the conditionals.I've got one question for you about them.Some time ago somewhere on this site I found such a phrase(sorry,that I can't quote it all,I've totally forgotten where have I seen it):"If you will have read this book..some text missing". I was puzzled,as I've never seen such tense used in the conditional in my life.Or maybe it was just an error?Could you bring some light to this complicated (for me)point?Thank you in advance :)Have a nice day!

hi alex,i wonder how you could give up eating meat,,it realy delicious,,however,as you said,you sometimes cheat...your blog today was realy funy im sure it makes all the readers've got a great sense of humour.

Hi Alex, I had never heard the word « fudge » before. Since I have read it in your blog and exchanges with Ana Paula I have come across twice. Yesterday I was queuing in a supermarket and my subconscious read it. Where I have seen this word ? The blog !! Ana Paula and Alex, "cheese with fudge". Today I have seen it again in another supermarket. Well I imagine that it is not the same “fudge” that Ana has in mind, otherwise I would agree with Alex that it is quite strange to eat this kind of “toffee” with cheese. Very happy to read both of you.

Hello, my teacher.your grammar class can be such vivid,how i envious your students!your blog remind me of my grammar class when i was in university.the teacher who teached us is an old kindness professor,he knew that we all felt grammar is dull,so he always start his lesson by telling us an English joke or singing an English song.actually ,he sings very that time we all wished that we could sing with him for the whole class and put the grammar apart. Alex,my tell you the truth,i really like to read the front part of your blog , but for the last part about grammar,i almost neglect it.i know grammar is important,i will read it carefully next time.thank you your explanation about the tense especially about the difference about the simple past and the present past, i always make mistakes about them,but this time you make it clearly. thank you. Best wishes.

I'll try to guess the ansewr of your question: If the Minas cheese hadn't been perishable, I would send a Fedex straight to Oxford street. Is that OK?

Hi, Alex, great, great great! I'm sure your students never get bored when you you are with them. Lucky them ! Can I ask you the right pronunciation of your family name and where it comes from? Tks a lot. All the best Romana

If the Minas cheese wasn't been perishable, I would send a Fedex straight to Oxford Street.

Hi Teacher Alex, Your explanations and English lessons are very funny, therefore it' s easy enouth lo improve. Please continue this way, in my opinion it' s the best one. Mauro

hi. i'm vietnamese and i'm learning English on BBC because my English is not good. your blog is very helpfull for me to improve my problem. thanks

HI, Alex! I read "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett two years ago and actually somehow neither me nor my best friend with whom I used to share my impression could not find it very funny, it is exceptional, worth reading but somehow after reading it both of us got such associations as loneliness, loss, absurdity of life... maybe at that time we were influenced by a lot of books obligatory for us to read which highlited such aspects like dispair, depression. Who knows when I take that book once again in order to reread it will be completely different perception

I think it is better if there are some practice for using zero, first, second conditional. That will help students to learn more.

please explain about exeptions in conditional sentences

Thanks for all your contributions. This blog has now closed and can no longer accept new comments.

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