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On 1st March we moved to a new blogging system.

The archives of all the student, teacher and staff blogs are still available here to read but commenting has closed.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/learningenglish

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April 2007

Monday, 02 April 2007

BBC Learning English

Samantha, what an interesting time you've had and you've given us over the last two months. You have been our first teacher blogger to work with three students. A challenge no doubt but also, I hope, an enjoyable experience.

Many thanks from all of us at BBC Learning English for your dedication in the face of difficult circumstances and also your innovations with your blogs - the regular tasks were very exciting.

I hope that you'll continue to pop in and visit us from time to time.

As Samantha leaves us, we have a new teacher blogger eager to get started. You can see his photo above and his name, Alex Gooch. I'll say no more other than to wish our teacher blogger and our student blogger an enjoyable time over the next few weeks.

Until May, goodbye

Paul

This is my first blog too!

Hello Ana Paula, and hello everyone out there.

My name is Alex, and as of today I’m taking over from Samantha as the new teacher blogger. Look at the top of this page, and you’ll see a photo of an incredibly handsome man – that’s me! Actually, Samantha and I used to work together in Newcastle a few years ago – but now I live in London, and I teach at a big, busy English language school on Oxford Street, which is the main shopping street in central London. I have a love-hate relationship with London; this city has lots of wonderful cinemas, theatres, and art galleries, as well as restaurants from all around the world, but it can also be very crowded and frantic – especially Oxford Street, which is always full of people pushing and shoving their way into the shops. You seem to have the best of both worlds, Ana Paula – Mogi sounds like a fairly calm and peaceful place to live, but you’re only an hour away from central São Paolo. And close to the beach too! I’m very envious.

Overall, Ana Paula, your writing looks pretty good to me. In particular, you used some nice long, complex sentences with several clauses in them, and that’s always good to see. However, there are a few mistakes that I’d like to point out. First, though, I’d like to say one thing, and it’s so important that I’m going to write it in capital letters: MISTAKES ARE GOOD! In fact, making mistakes is a necessary part of learning a language – you try using a new word or a new piece of grammar, and maybe you don’t use it perfectly, but then you learn from your mistake and next time you can use it better. When you’re writing your blogs, I’d always encourage you to take risks, and experiment with vocabulary and grammar structures even if you’re not completely sure how to use them. If you make mistakes, we’ll discuss them, and hopefully the discussion will be useful for you and for everyone else who reads these blogs too.

Today I’d like to comment on the tenses in just two sentences. The first one is this:

“I live in São Paulo state, in a city called Mogi das Cruzes, where I live since I was born.”

The first part of this sentence, “I live in São Paulo state,” is fine – you’re making a general statement, and you’ve chosen the present simple tense, which is exactly right. In the second part, however, you’re describing a situation which started in the past and is still continuing now, and for a situation like this we need the present perfect tense. So, the sentence should read:

“I live in São Paulo state, in a city called Mogi das Cruzes, where I have lived since I was born.”

Secondly, I’d like to comment on the sentence which starts,

“In addition, if you take a train, in an hour you are arriving at Paulista Avenue…”

I’ve added a couple of commas to this sentence to make the meaning clearer, but again the real problem here is the tense. “You are arriving” is present continuous. We use the present continuous for something that’s happening at this moment. However, this sentence isn’t about something that’s happening at this moment, it’s about something which is generally true (the same yesterday, the same today, the same tomorrow), so we need the present simple here:

“In addition if you take a train in an hour you arrive at Paulista Avenue…”

OK, that’s enough from me for today. I’m looking forward to hearing more about you and about life in Mogi, but right now the sun is shining (this doesn’t happen so often in London!) so I’m going out to enjoy the nice weather.

All the best,

Alex

Useful vocabulary:

We ‘take over from’ someone when we start doing something which that person was doing previously. Samantha was writing this blog previously, and now I’m writing it, so I’ve taken over from her.

‘Incredibly’ means ‘very very’, or ‘extremely’. ‘Incredibly handsome’ means ‘so handsome that I’m amazed, I can’t believe how good-looking this guy is’. I think that describes me quite well, don’t you?

‘Frantic’ is an adjective meaning fast-paced and slightly crazy.

The verb ‘to shove’ means almost the same as ‘to push’, but it’s a little more aggressive. ‘Pushing and shoving’ is a phrase we use to describe people who are pushing each other aggressively – for example, shoppers in a crowded shop.

‘Fairly’ means ‘quite’ or ‘somewhat’.

‘Envious’ is an adjective with the same meaning as ‘jealous’.

Of course, the adjective ‘pretty’ means ‘attractive’ (normally for a woman), but it can also mean the same as ‘quite’ – so ‘pretty good’ means ‘quite good’ (we could also say ‘fairly good’).

I used the adverb ‘hopefully’ to mean that I hope this will be true.

A comma is a small punctuation mark which normally, but not always, indicated a pause in speech, and there are three commas in this sentence.

I also used two more phrases – ‘a love-hate relationship’ and ‘the best of both worlds’. Can you guess the meaning of these phrases?

Wednesday, 04 April 2007

Sunshine!

Hi Ana Paula, and hi to everyone else who’s reading this!

Yes, I enjoyed the sunny afternoon very much, thanks. There’s a park near my house, and after I finished writing on Monday I strolled over there and soaked up some sunshine. I’m happy to say that today’s another very warm spring day in London. However, I think my idea of a ‘very warm day’ might be a little different from yours, Ana Paula – I just looked on the internet and found out that the highest temperature in London today was 18º C. In London, 18ºC is a very warm spring day! I suspect this may be different in Sao Paolo…

Do you get a holiday for Easter? If so, how are you going to spend it? I should explain that Easter is a traditional holiday in Christian countries. This year, Easter is from Friday the 6th to Monday the 9th of April. On Friday I’m going to travel up to the north of England, to the small town where my family live. In this particular small town, people traditionally celebrate Easter with a rather weird and bizarre sport, or game, called ‘egg-rolling’. I’ll tell you more about this next time.

You dropped a few hints about your job, and now I’m very curious about it. You said you wear heavy security clothes and boots – are you a security guard? Or a policewoman? Perhaps you work in construction (or in the petrochemical industry, like Aaron from Beijing)? Please tell us, or at least give us some more hints. I’m quite perplexed.

Your last blog was very well-written. You used some very good vocabulary (such as ‘exaggerate’ and ‘unbearable’) and expressions (for example ‘little by little’ and ‘it’s our own fault’) and most of your sentences were very grammatically accurate. However, many of your sentences are quite short, using only one clause.

In the future, to improve your writing further, I suggest you concentrate on connecting clauses and sentences together with words like ‘although’ or ‘however’.

In fact, I can see that you are already trying to do this, but you need to be very careful with these words because using them correctly is tricky. Let’s look at this sentence as an example:

“Although in some Brazilian families Paula can be a last name, however it isn’t my case.”

I can understand what you mean here, but the grammar isn’t quite right. We can use ‘although’ OR ‘however’ here, but we can’t use both, and we have to be careful because they have different grammar. If we use ‘although’, the grammar looks like this:

[although + clause], [clause]

So, for example, you could say:

“Although Alex is bald, he is extremely handsome.”

Or we can reverse the sentence, like this:

[clause], [although + clause]

So the example would look like this:

“Alex is extremely handsome, although he is bald.”

The grammar for ‘however’ is different. If we want to use ‘however’, we need to follow this grammatical pattern:

[clause]. [However, + clause].

So, for example:

“Alex is bald. However, he is extremely handsome.”

OK, now let’s return to the sentence you wrote. The original sentence was like this:

“Although in some Brazilian families Paula can be a last name, however it isn´t my case.”

There are three possible ways you could fix this sentence. If you want to use ‘although’, you could say:

“Although in some Brazilian families Paula can be a last name, it isn’t in my case.”

Or:

“Paula isn’t a last name in my case, although in some Brazilian families it can be.”

On the other hand, if you want to use ‘however’, it should be like this:

“In some Brazilian families Paula can be a last name. However, it isn’t in my case.”

__________


A quick note to all the people who wrote comments last time:

Firstly, thank you very much indeed for all your generous, enthusiastic and entertaining comments! Several people asked questions, and I’m sorry I don’t have time to answer all of them now, but I’ll try to deal with as many as possible in the next few weeks. In particular, there were questions about the present continuous and future tenses. I will say something about these tense soon, I promise!

In particular, I’d like to thank Hyoshil from Lincoln, who wrote a hilarious comment, and Leila from Finland, who mentioned my hero, Darth Vader.

As many people guessed, a ‘love-hate’ relationship is a situation in which you love something and hate it at the same time, and having ‘the best of both worlds’ means having the advantages of two different situations at the same time (for example, Ana Paula’s hometown has the relaxed atmosphere of a small town, and but she can also enjoy the cinemas, theatres, etc., of Sao Paolo, a major city).

One more thing. Some of you mentioned that the man in the picture at the top of your screen DIDN’T look incredibly handsome. Please look again. If you STILL can’t see an incredibly handsome man, I think you probably have a problem with your computer. Or maybe a problem with your eyes.

All the best,

Alex

__________


Today’s vocabulary:


‘To stroll’ means to walk in a slow, relaxed way.

‘To soak up’ means ‘to absorb’. For example, a sponge soaks up water.

‘Weird’ and ‘bizarre’ are both adjectives meaning ‘strange’.

A ‘hint’ is a ‘clue’, or a small piece of information which might help us to solve a puzzle. We can say, ‘give someone a hint’ or ‘drop (someone) a hint’; the meaning is the same.

‘Perplexed’ is an adjective meaning ‘puzzled’.

‘To exaggerate’ means to ‘overstate’, or to say that something (or someone) is better, worse, more important, more interesting, etc., than it actually is. For example, if someone tells you that they can run a kilometer in thirty seconds, they are probably exaggerating.

We use the adjective ‘unbearable’ when something is too strong or too intense for us, and we can’t stand it.

‘Clause’ is a very important grammatical term. A clause is a subject, plus a verb, plus possibly some extra information. This sentence has only one clause:

“I like ice-cream.”

This sentence has three clauses:

“I like ice-cream and I love chocolate, but I hate salad.”

‘Tricky’ is an informal adjective, meaning ‘difficult’.

The adjective ‘bald’ describes someone who has no hair on their head.

‘Hilarious’ means very funny.

Your ‘hero’ is a person whom you admire and look up to. ‘Hero’ is the male form; the female form is ‘heroine’.

Can you guess the meaning of ‘little by little’ and ‘it’s our own fault’?

Friday, 06 April 2007

The Force is strong in this one!

Hello Ana Paula and everyone else,

Easter greetings from the north of England. It's a wonderful day here.The sun is blazing in a clear blue sky, the birds are singing sweetly in the trees, the lambs are frolicking in the lush green fields, and everyone is happy.

Well, actually, the last sentence isn't true. In fact, everyone is happy today except me. I'm in a foul mood today.

Why? Why, on such a wonderful day, is Alex so grumpy?

I'll tell you why. I have TOOTHACHE! Aaaaaargh!

Unfortunately, I won't be able to go to the dentist until next week, so for the next few days I have to deal with my toothache by myself. I'm taking painkillers, of course, and some of my friends have suggested remedies. One friend told me I should use hot, salty water, and another suggested oil of cloves. I'm not sure about either of these treatments, though. So, please, Ana Paula or anyone else who's reading this - do you know any good remedies for toothache? If so, please let me know as soon as possible!

Anyway, let's move on to a happier subject - like films, for example. Did you enjoy 300? I saw it a few days ago, and I thought it was good fun, though sometimes a little over-the-top and silly. You asked about my favourite films: that's always a difficult question, but my list would include The Godfather, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Zoolander (yes, I know it's stupid, but it always makes me weep with laughter), and of course Star Wars. By the way, in case any readers are wondering, the title of my blog today comes from Star Wars - the first film in the series, of course.

How about you, Ana Paula? What are your favourite films?

Thanks for telling us a little about your job. I thought you described the process of galvanization very well; I certainly understand this a little better than I did before. However, as I told you, I'm in a bad mood today, so I'm afraid I'm going to give you and our readers a really nasty spelling exercise. I noticed six important spelling errors in your last blog, and I corrected the spelling of these words, but then I turned them into anagrams. Can you solve these anagrams? Maybe some of our readers can help you. To prove that I'm not completely cruel, I'll give you the first one as an example.

1. hreysctim = chemistry (you spelled this "chemestry")

2. sratsceeni = ?

3. drnhoegy = ?

4. tasayln = ?

5. linsaasy = ?

6. tobtun = ?

Before I go, I'd like to say thanks again to everyone for all your comments - I appreciate them very much, and I'm sorry I can't deal with all your questions in detail. I would like to say to Michi from Japan - thanks very much for your comment and don't worry, my remark about "a problem with your eyes" was just a silly ironic joke. In fact, none of my comments about being "incredibly handsome" should be taken seriously. Of course I'd like to believe I was amazingly attractive and good-looking. However, I have a mirror in my house, so I know the truth!

Oh yes, and well done to all the people who correctly defined 'little by little' and 'it's our own fault'. As most of you guessed, 'little by little' means gradually, and 'it's our own fault' means that we are responsible for our own problem.

Okay, that's all for today. I'm going to sit on the sofa and whine about my aching tooth. Don't forget - toothache remedies! Please please please!

-Alex

Vocabulary

'To blaze' means to burn strongly. If we say, 'the sun is blazing,' this means that the sun is shining very brightly.

'To frolick' means to play in a happy and physically energetic way.

'Lush' is an adjective which we normally use to describe plants. It means that the plants are very full and thick.

A 'mood' is a temporary emotional state. 'Foul' is a strongly negative adjective meaning 'very bad' or disgusting, which we most often use to describe a taste or smell or the weather. However, we can also use this word to describe a mood, so if I'm in 'a foul mood' this means I'm feeling very negative and bad.

Another adjective to describe someone who's in a foul mood is 'grumpy'.

If I have a headache or some other kind of pain, I normally take 'painkillers' - for example, aspirin or paracetamol.

A 'remedy' is something which will cure an illness.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Egg-rolling

Hello again Ana Paula, and everyone else.

Sorry to hear you found 300 so disappointing. I didn’t think it was great, but on the other hand I didn’t think it was that bad. Maybe it’s just a ‘boys’ film’. I went to see it with a couple of male friends; none of my female friends had any interest at all in watching it.

Anyway, I promised last week to tell you something about the Easter tradition of egg-rolling. To be honest, this isn’t a very widespread English tradition; in fact, it’s traditional in my family but most of my other English friends have never heard of it. Anyway, it works like this: on Easter Sunday, the whole family gathers together for lunch. After lunch, everyone is given a hard-boiled egg. Paints are placed on the table, and each person decorates their egg. Some people personalize their eggs with colourful patterns or traditional Easter symbols such as rabbits, but others choose more off-beat designs. This year I couldn’t decide what to draw on mine, so I asked my four-year-old cousin Lydia for advice. “You should draw a wolf,” said Lydia, so I attempted to draw a fearsome and terrifying wolf. Unfortunately, I’m not a particularly good artist, so the result was neither fearsome nor terrifying.

After lunch, when the eggs have all been decorated, we all walk together to the top of a nearby hill, and then the egg-rolling begins. Somebody shouts, “three… two… one… ROLL!”, then everyone rolls their egg down the hillside. The winner is the person whose egg rolls the furthest. The problem is, the eggs tend to break as they roll. By the time they reach the bottom of the slope, they have normally disintegrated into a mess of egg-white, yolk and painted shell, so it’s impossible to see which egg has actually won. The game usually ends with all the children of the family shouting, “my egg won!”, “no, my egg won!”, “no, MY egg won!”, while the adults pick up the broken pieces of egg and try to calm the kids down.

You asked about favourite books, Ana Paula. It’s difficult to choose just one, but if I had to, I think I’d choose the famous novel ‘The Trial’ by the Czech writer Franz Kafka. I first read this book many years ago, when I was at university, and I immediately fell in love with it; I’ve re-read it many times since then, and I never get tired of it. It’s quite a dark, strange story, and very dream-like – a man called Josef K is arrested, and the book described his attempts to discover why he has been arrested and how he can get off the hook.

OK, it’s time to move on and talk about language. I noticed some very nice sentences in your last blog, Ana Paula. I particularly liked this one:

"The Clarice Lispector´s book that I like most is " Uma Aprendizagem Ou O Livro dos Prazeres ( A Learning Or The Book Of The Pleasures), which tells the story of Lóri, a woman in search of herself, and in search of the understanding of just "being"."

This sentence makes excellent use of relative clauses (“that I like most”, “which tells the story of…”). In fact, it’s almost perfect; the only grammatical problem in the whole sentence is the phrase, ‘the Clarice Lispector’s book’. This should be ‘the Clarice Lispector book’. Similarly, ‘my favourite Hitch’s films’ should be ‘my favourite Hitch films’ (or ‘my favourite Hitchcock films’) and ‘my favourite Dostoievski’s novel’ should be ‘my favourite Dostoievski novel’.

I’d also like to say a little about the present perfect and the past simple. The present perfect is looks like this:

I´ve read Capitães de Areia (Capitains of Sand).”

The past simple looks like this:

“On Saturday I went to the movies.”

Many students find it difficult to know when they should use the present perfect and when they should use the simple past. The simple rule is this: the present perfect is for actions or situations which are not finished, or for actions or situations which are finished but we don’t know when they happened. Therefore, I could say,

I’ve lived in London for three years.” (This is not finished. I still live in London now.)

I could also say,

I’ve read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ .” (I’m not reading this book now, so it’s finished, but it’s not clear when I read it. Maybe it was last week, maybe it was ten years ago).

We use the past simple to describe actions or situations which are finished and we know when they happened. So I could say,

I lived in Manchester ten years ago.” (I don’t live in Manchester now, so this is finished, and we know when it happened – ten years ago).

Please look again at this sentence:

“Later, when I was at home, I´ve picked one of my favourite Hitch films to watch, Rebecca.”

This sentence is about picking a film to watch. Is this action finished? Yes it is. Do we know when it happened? Yes, “when I was at home”. Therefore, you need to use the past simple here, like this:

“Later, when I was at home, I picked one of my favourite Hitch films to watch, Rebecca.”

Also, there’s this sentence:

“Many of his novels were adapted for TV.”

Here, the sentence describes an action which is finished but we don’t know when it happened – maybe they were adapted last month, maybe they were adapted twenty years ago. Because it’s finished but we don’t know when it happened, we need to use the present perfect here:

“Many of his novels have been adapted for TV.”

OK, I’d better go and plan my lessons now. More soon!

All the best,

Alex

PS Thanks very much for your sympathy and helpful suggestions for my toothache. It’s much better now, thanks!


Vocabulary

Widespread is an adjective meaning ‘common’.

A hard-boiled egg is an egg which has been boiled for a long time, until it’s completely solid and hard.

To personalize something means to change it in order to make it uniquely your own. Many of my students personalize their textbooks with pictures, stickers, etc.

Off-beat is an informal adjective, which we use to describe people’s ideas or behaviour. It means unusual, unexpected or unconventional.

Fearsome and terrifying are both adjectives meaning frightening or scary.

If something tends to happen, that means it normally (but not always) happens. For example, I tend to write my blog after lunch – that’s the time when I normally write it.

If something disintegrates, it breaks apart into many small pieces.

An egg has three parts: the yellow yolk in the centre, the white (or egg-white) around it, and the shell on the outside.

To calm down means to become calm and peaceful. So, to calm someone down is to make that person become calm. For example, if someone is shouting and behaving in an angry way, people might say, “Hey! Calm down!”

The prefix re- means ‘again’. Therefore, to re-read a book is to read that book for the second time (or the third time, or the fourth… )

The informal phrase off the hook is used when someone has avoided some kind of punishment or unpleasant task. For example, maybe I tell my students to do some homework and they don’t want to do it. If they persuade me to cancel the homework, I might say, “OK, I’ll let you off the hook.” In this case, I ‘let the students off the hook’; the students ‘get off the hook’.

The verb to pick has several meanings; here, it means to choose or to select.

Friday, 13 April 2007

My family, and other animals.




Hello again everyone.

Today I’d like to start with an apology: in my haste to finish my blog on Wednesday and prepare my lesson, I forgot to give you the solutions to Monday’s anagrams! Here they are – better late than never!

1. hreysctim = chemistry

2. sratsceeni = resistance

3. drnhoegy = hydrogen

4. tasayln = analyst

5. linsaasy = analysis

6. tobtun = button

Easy, eh?

Ana Paula, you asked me to say a little about my family and background. I grew up in a small, rain-soaked town called Lancaster in the north-west of England, with my Mum and Dad, my little sister Julia, and my grandmother, who passed away a few months ago at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. My Dad is an academic who teaches history to university students, and my Mum works for the NHS - she trained as a scientist, but now she works as a manager.

Julia is 18 months younger than me, and we are about as different as two people can possibly be. I’m quiet, prone to daydreaming and interested in philosophy and abstract ideas, while Julia is outgoing and practical and has a very successful career as a lawyer. People sometimes find it difficult to believe that Julia and I are from the same family. Nevertheless, I get on with her well. She got married in January to Nick, who’s also a very positive and outgoing guy. When Nick and I meet at family get-togethers we usually end up talking about our shared, secret love of computer games.
That’s it for my immediate family. I also have a large extended family, most of whom live in and around a small town called Ashbourne, about 50 miles south of Manchester. There’s my grandmother (‘Granny’, as everyone calls her), Aunt Mary and Uncle Morris, Aunt Petra and Uncle Steve, cousins Paul, Hannah, Freya, Henry and Lydia, and hundreds of others. It’s almost impossible to walk down the street in Ashbourne with my Mum or my grandmother, because it seems we’re related to almost everybody in the town - every 30 seconds we have to stop and say hello to some distant relative or some other.

Feijoada sounds delicious, but… cheese with fudge? CHEESE WITH FUDGE? Are you serious? If so, you are a strange, strange woman.

Thanks again for all your comments, and especially to Adriana from Brazil – a kind and sympathetic woman with an amazing knowledge of dental and medical vocabulary. I have followed your advice, Adriana, and made an appointment with a qualified dentist, so I think my teeth will be OK now. Leila from Finland – yes, I read ‘Darkness at Noon’ at university too, and I loved it. We also read Samuel Beckett, another favourite of mine. Have you read any of his books?

Romana from Italy asked about a newspaper headline: “Prince Harry to serve in Iraq”. The grammar of newspaper headlines often looks quite strange, because the writers shorten their sentences by missing out words. In this case, the word is has been omitted. The full sentence would read: “Prince Harry is to serve in Iraq”.

Sorry I can’t answer all your questions – but please, keep your comments coming. I always enjoy reading them.

Here’s today’s vocabulary:

Haste is a noun meaning high speed. In my haste to (do something) is a rather formal expression meaning, ‘because I was rushing to (do something)’. We normally use it to describe the negative consequences of rushing. For example:

‘In my haste to get home after work, I forgot to finish an important task.’ (I forgot to finish the important task because I was rushing to get home)

The phrase better late than never expresses the idea that it’s better to doing (or receiving) something late is not a perfect situation, but it’s better than never doing (or receiving) it at all.

I used the adjective rain-soaked to indicate that in Lancaster it rains a lot.

To pass away is a phrasal verb meaning to die.

We use the phrase at the ripe old age of to indicate that somebody was unusually old when something happened, or when they did something. For example, I learned to drive at the ripe old age of 25.

An academic is a person who teaches at a university. Academic can also be used as an adjective, meaning ‘connected to universities or university study’.

The NHS is the (British) National Health Service – a health-care system which is (at least partly) free to use. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find an NHS dentist at the moment!

If you are prone to something, this means that you normally do this, or this normally happens to you. For example, I’m very prone to colds – I always seem to have one!

An outgoing person enjoys talking to people and socializing.

To get on with someone well means to have a good relationship with that person.

Get-together is an informal word for party or social gathering.

A relative is a member of your family. My parents, my sister, my aunts and uncles etc are all members of my immediate family, but apart from them I have many, many distant relatives.

Fudge is a soft, sweet food made with butter and sugar. It should NOT, under any circumstances, be eaten with cheese.

Be careful with the word sympathetic. In many languages, a sympathetic person is simply a nice, pleasant, friendly person – but not in English! In English, a sympathetic person is somebody who cares about your problems.

To shorten is a verb meaning ‘to make something shorter’.

To omit something is to leave it out; not to include it.

I’ll be back in a day or two, to describe my favourite food and to explain why fish are, in fact, vegetables.

All the best,

Alex

Egg-rolling! (Thanks to cousin Paul for the photo)

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.’

Or,

“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]

Or,

[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.’

Or,

‘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!

Alex

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.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Music

Hi Ana Paula and everyone else,

I'm worried today. In particular, I'm worried about some of the people who read these blogs and write comments on them.

I think you'll agree that, in general, our readers seem to be particularly smart, good-natured people who have their heads screwed on. Their comments are intelligent, supportive, and often very funny.

However, several readers have commented on the 'cheese with fudge issue', and I'm sorry to say that almost all of them think that cheese with fudge is a good idea. What is wrong with these people? I think you are having a bad influence on them, Ana Paula. Of all the readers who commented on this subject, only Spanish Antonio from Belgium agreed with me that cheese with fudge sounds terrible. Spanish Antonio from Belgium, you are a scholar and a gentleman, thanks very much for your comment.

I'm writing quickly today I'm afraid, as I have to go out soon - I'm going to a concert tonight. When I was younger, I used to like loud, nasty, aggressive music, and in fact I used to play the guitar in a punk band with some friends. The band was absolutely awful, with no musical ability at all, but we had a lot of fun playing together. When I turned thirty, though, something very strange happened. Suddenly, almost overnight, my musical tastes changed. I no longer wanted to listen to strange, evil-looking men screaming and making horrible noises on electric guitars. Instead, I wanted to listen to people in cowboy hats singing sad songs about mountains and horses and things like that. I don't know how and I don't know why, but at the age of thirty I suddenly became a country and western fan.

Weirdly, the same thing happened to my friends from the punk band - when they turned thirty, they lost interest in punk music and got into country music instead. Now we have another band, playing country music together. We're still awful musicians, but we still have fun playing music together. And this evening we're all going together to listen to some country singers.

What kind of music do you like, Ana Paula? Actually, before you tell me I'm going to guess. I think you're a fan of the American band Nirvana. Why do I think you're a Nirvana fan? Because of one small mistake which you've made a couple of times recently. In English, we sometimes use the phrase 'never mind' when we want to say that something doesn't matter or that it is not important. Please note that 'never mind' is two words. However, when Nirvana used this phrase as the title of their album, they put the two words ('never' and 'mind') together and made one word, 'Nevermind'. I don't know why they did this, but I've noticed that you often do the same thing - you write 'nevermind' when you mean 'never mind'. Did you pick this up from the title of the Nirvana album?

I asked you to correct this sentence:

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

You wrote this:

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

Well done, this makes a very good second conditional sentence. However, it's important to remember that this is an informal sentence. In the second conditional, we can make the sentence more formal by changing was to were, like this:

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

Both are good sentences, and the meaning is the same; we just use them in slightly different situations.

I'd like to continue from Monday and say a little about the third conditional. The third conditional looks like this:

['if' + past perfect] + ['would have' + third form of the verb]

Or,

['would have' + third form of the verb] + ['if' + past perfect]

So, I could say:

'If it had rained yesterday, I would have got wet.'

Or,

'I would have got wet if it had rained yesterday,'

As we can see from the word 'yesterday', the third conditional is about the past. The important thing to remember in this example is that it did not rain yesterday. We use the third conditional to imagine something, in the past, which did not happen. Here's another example:

'If I hadn't gone to work this morning, my boss would have been angry.'

In fact, I did go to work this morning, and my boss wasn't angry. In this sentence I'm imagining a situation in the past, and I'm imagining the results of that situation, which are also in the past.

I hope that's clear to all the readers, because I'm going to set an exercise for everyone today. please rearrange these words to make correct English sentences. I've done the first one for you, to give you an example.

1. FEEL / IF / SUN / I / SHINES / HAPPY / THE = If the sun, shines I feel happy.

2. BE / MORNING / OUT / TOMORROW / WILL / I / STAY / LATE / I / TIRED / TONIGHT / IF =?

3. CHEESE / I / WITH / WOULD / FEEL / FUDGE / IF /PROBABLY / I / SICK / ATE =?

4. HAVE / INSTEAD / HAD / THE / BLOG / WALK / WOULD / GONE / IN / NOT / THIS / I / WRITTEN / I / FOR / TODAY / IF / A / PARK =?

Have fun! I've got to go, or I'll be late for the concert. As the cowboys say, so long!

Alex

The adjective smart sometimes means well-dressed (and it suggests that someone is wearing more formal clothes). However, it can also mean 'intelligent', and that's what I mean in this sentence.

If someone is good-natured, they have a nice personality.

I've included a couple of more complex idioms in today's blog. The first is an informal one, to have (his / her / their / etc) head screwed on. If people have their heads screwed on, this means that they are sensible, and aware of the world around them.

The second idiom is 'you are a scholar and a gentleman'. This is a compliment; it simply means, 'I think you are a good person'. It's a formal and old-fashioned idiom, but sometimes it's fun to use formal, old-fashioned language.

Nasty is the opposite of nice.

Punk is a particularly loud and aggressive style of music. Probably the most famous punk band was the Sex Pistols.

I turned thirty means that I became thirty years old. We can use the verb 'to turn' with any age, in this way - for example, my cousin Lydia will turn five this year.

If something happens suddenly or very quickly, we can say that it happens overnight.

Country and western is another style of music, but it's much softer and quieter punk. Country and western music (sometimes called 'country music') comes from the southern USA, and is associated with cowboys.

The adjective 'weird' means 'strange', so the adverb weirdly has the same meaning as 'strangely'.

To lose interest in something means to stop being interested in this thing.

To get into something means to become interested in this thing.

An album is a group of songs or pieces of music which have been put together. for example, if you buy a CD, the music on it will probably be an album.

So long is American slang for 'goodbye'. If you watch cowboy films, you will probably hear this phrase!

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Antonio's suggestion

Hi Ana Paula, and all my friends out there.

Antonio from Belgium has made a suggestion. He has suggested that perhaps we should actually taste cheese and fudge before we decide that it's disgusting. Clearly, Antonio is a more courageous man than me, but I suppose he's right. Later this afternoon, after I finish writing this blog, I'm going to go shopping at the local supermarket. I will buy some cheese, and I will buy some fudge, and I will eat a (very small) piece of fudge with a (very small) piece of cheese, and in my next blog I'll describe my cheese-and-fudge experience to all our readers. Are you satisfied now?

The concert was pretty good, thanks, but I stayed in my seat throughout the evening and didn't dance at all. My natural dancing ability is probably even worse than yours (if that's possible). In general, British men are probably the worst dancers in the world, but even compared to other British men I'm a terrible dancer. I think we should change the subject hastily.

Thanks for your answers to my nasty conditional questions, Ana Paula; I'm going to repeat my questions and your answers, so I can make some short comments about them.

2. BE / MORNING / OUT / TOMORROW / WILL / I / STAY / LATE / I / TIRED / TONIGHT / IF

'I will be late tomorrow morning, if I stay out tonight.'

This is a grammatically-correct sentence, but what about the word 'tired'? As several people wrote in their comments, the correct answer is: 'I will be tired tomorrow morning if I stay out late tonight.' (Of course, we could also do it like this: 'If I stay out late tonight, I will be tired tomorrow morning.' We can reverse all these example in this way.)

3. CHEESE / I / WITH / WOULD / FEEL / FUDGE / IF / PROBABLY / I / SICK / ATE

'If I ate cheese with fudge, I probably would not feel sick.'

I think I'll have to accept this as a good answer, although it appears an extra word has mysteriously appeared in the sentence. My original sentence was, of course, like this: 'If I ate cheese with fudge, I would probably feel sick.' I suppose I'll find out later this afternoon!

4. HAVE / INSTEAD / HAD / THE / BLOG / WALK / WOULD / GONE / IN / NOT / THIS / I / WRITTEN / I / FOR / TODAY / IF / A / PARK

'If I had not written this blog today, I would have gone for a walk in the park instead.'

This answer is bang on the money; well done.

However, I'm afraid we can't drop the subject of conditionals yet, because I noticed the following sentence in your most recent blog:

'If she were alive nowadays, she would never danced to Axe music.'

Can you find the mistake here, and correct it?

On Tuesday, you used some really good adjectives in your blog (for example, 'superb', 'unique', 'eclectic', and 'dizzy'), and you used them very well. However, on Wednesday I noticed a few adjective mistakes, and I'd like to point these out. The first two are spelling mistakes: 'fauvorite' should be spelled 'favourite' (maybe this is just a typo), and 'especific' should be 'specific'. There were also two grammatical mistakes related to adjectives. The first is this:

'a totally disaster'

'Totally' is an adverb, and we need an adjective here, so it should be 'a total disaster'. Secondly:

'in Brazilians dance'

We never add '-s' like this to adjectives in English, so this should simply be, 'in Brazilian dance'.

However, these are relatively small mistakes; in general, your writing is excellent, and it keeps getting better and better. Keep up the good work!

Before I go, I'd like to respond to some comments and questions from my last blog. Monica from Brazil asked if my 'weird' surname (Gooch) is English. Actually, Monica, it's Welsh. I'm sorry to say that I know almost nothing about the Welsh language, but I believe 'Gooch' comes from the Welsh word 'goch', meaning 'red'.

Sevinç from Turkey asked about the following sentence:

"If someone is good-natured, they have a nice personality."

Sevinç correctly noticed that 'someone' is singular, and 'they' is plural, and asked why. In fact, I could have written the sentence like this:

"If someone is good-natured, he or she has a nice personality."

However, the phrase 'he or she' is a little longwinded. In modern English, if we're writing about one person but we don't know if that person is male or female, we often use 'they' instead. Of course, if we use 'they', we have to remember to use 'have' instead of 'has'.

Well done to Melissa from China, who spotted a mistake in the example answer. I wrote,

'If the sun, shines I feel happy.'

Can you see the mistake? Yes, of course you can - I put the comma in the wrong place. The sentence should look like this:

'If the sun shines, I feel happy.'

Sorry!

Finally, Hyoshil's son is continuing to make rude comments about me, and I think he should be punished. Hyoshil, I suggest you make him eat some cheese and fudge. That should teach him a lesson.

Sorry I can't answer all your questions, but it's time for me to go shopping now.

All the best,

Alex

Vocabulary:

Courageous is a rather formal adjective, meaning 'brave'.

If you do something hastily, you do it quickly - perhaps a little too quickly.

In this context, the verb to spot means to notice.

'Bang on the money' is a very British slang phrase which means 'exactly correct'.

To drop the subject of something means to stop talking about this subject.

The noun typo is an informal abbreviation, meaning 'typing error'.

'Keep up the good work!' We use this phrase when someone is doing something well, and we want to encourage them to continue doing it.

Longwinded is an adjective which is usually used to describe a way of speaking or writing. It's a negative adjective, which means that there are too many words.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

A short message from Alex's doctor.

I am sorry to tell you that Alex is gravely ill. He came to my office late on Thursday evening, suffering from two problems. Firstly, his stomach was in terrible pain and I saw immediately that he had severe food poisoning. Secondly, he appears to be suffering from temporary insanity. He was weeping as if he had experienced a terrible trauma. When he arrived in my office, he could not speak coherently; he could only say these words: “cheese… fudge… cheese… fudge… NO! NO! NO!”

Later, when he had calmed down a little, I asked him how he had become so sick.

“Doctor,” he said, “I made a terrible terrible mistake.”

“What did you do?” I asked him.

“I ate cheese with fudge!”

“NO!’ I gasped. “Not… not… not CHEESE WITH FUDGE???”

“Yes, doctor. CHEESE WITH FUDGE!!!”

‘Why did you do it?” I asked him.

“It’s Ana Paula’s fault,” he said. “She told me that I should eat it. I think she wants to kill me.”

I called an ambulance immediately, and Alex is now in hospital, recovering from his ordeal. It is possible that he will never completely recover, and he will probably have nightmares about his horrible cheese and fudge experience until the end of his days. However, he will write his blog again in a couple of days, if he is healthy enough to do so.

I hope everyone who reads this blog will learn from Alex’s traumatic experience. The lesson is simple: never, never, NEVER eat cheese with fudge.

Signed,

Dr Loco Exhag

Vocabulary

We often use the adverb gravely when we are talking about health problems. It means ‘seriously’ or ‘terribly’. So, ‘gravely ill’ means very ill.

If you eat food which is too old or not properly cooked, you might get serious stomach problems. This situation is called food poisoning.

‘Insanity’ is the noun form of ‘insane’, which means ‘crazy’. ‘Temporary’ is an adjective which means ‘only for a short period of time’. Therefore, ‘temporary insanity’ is the medical phrase for being insane for a short or limited period of time.

The verb ‘to weep’ means ‘to cry’.

A trauma is a very bad physical or mental experience. The adjective form is traumatic.

If you speak coherently, this means that your words and ideas make sense, and people can understand you.

To gasp is to breathe in suddenly, when you are shocked or surprised by something.

A dream which causes fear or other bad feelings is called a nightmare.

Until the end of his days’ is a rather ‘poetic’ phrase, meaning, ‘from now until the end of his life’.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Recovering

Dear Ana Paula,

First of all, I’d like to reassure you that I’m feeling much better now. I’m able to sit up in bed, and to eat a little solid food, and Dr Exhag tells me that in a few weeks I might be able to leave the hospital and resume a more-or-less normal life. And I’m not going to bear a grudge against you for this. In fact, I think I have learned something from this horrible, horrible experience. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” It is true that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ almost killed me, but I have survived, and now I am a sadder man but, perhaps, a wiser one. In fact, I’m almost grateful that you made me eat chee… fud… ch… no, I can’t say it… I feel sick again… oh, the horror, the horror… Nurse! Nurse! More tranquilizers! QUICKLY!!!

I’d like to say thanks to all the readers who have given me their support during this difficult time. Dr Exhag passed your comments on to me, and I appreciated them very much. However, I would not like to thank Leila from Finland, who told a disgusting story about her friend from New Zealand who ate sardines with jam. This is possibly even stranger than cheese with fudge; I feel nauseous just thinking about it. I’ve certainly never eaten anything as weird as sardines with jam. Many years ago, when I lived in Poland, I was served strawberries and cream with spaghetti, which was actually quite good. Also, I had a friend in Poland who liked to drink Coca-Cola with milk, but he was a strange guy. I don’t think Coca-Cola with milk is normal in Poland (or anywhere in the world). Ana? Adek? What do you think?

Ana Paula, please say hello to your sister Rosana from me. Her writing is excellent – in fact, her vocabulary is possibly even better than yours. She used really good phrases, like “total perplexity” and “a catatonic state”, and she used them very well indeed. However, she occasionally seems to have a small problem with prepositions. Now, I’m sure your knowledge of prepositions is perfect, Ana Paula, so perhaps you can help your sister to make some corrections.

I’ve written four sentences below, and each of them needs a preposition. Can you tell me which preposition we should choose in each case? Maybe our readers can help too.

1. Ana Paula was waiting anxiously for a message _____ her dear teacher.

2. Her finger was glued _____ her computer screen.

3. Soon she fell _____ a catatonic state.

4. We hope she recovers _____ this catatonic state very soon.

That’s all from me today – Dr Exhag says that I must relax now, and recover my strength. I’ll be back soon; meanwhile, take care, and don’t eat anything too strange!

All the best,

Alex

Vocabulary

If someone is worried, and you tell them something which will stop them from worrying then you reassure them.

To resume something is to start something again, after stopping for a while. Halfway through my lesson, I might say to the students, “OK, let’s have a break now – we’ll resume the class in twenty minutes.”

If I continue to think, “Ana Paula is mean, she made me eat cheese and fudge, she’s not my friend…” etc etc, then I bear a grudge against her. Of course, I don’t think this. She isn’t mean, she is just a woman with very strange tastes in food.

The noun horror is related to words like ‘horrible’, ‘horrifying’, etc. You’ve probably heard of ‘horror movies’ – movies which make you feel horror. In fact, “the horror, the horror” is a quotation from a movie. Can anyone tell me which movie?

The adjective ‘tranquil’ means calm and peaceful. Tranquilizers are drugs used by doctors to make their patients feel calm and peaceful.

Sardines are a kind of fish with a very strong ‘fishy’ taste. In Britain they are normally sold in cans.

If you feel nauseous, you feel sick in your stomach and you want to vomit. Another good word for this is ‘queasy’.

To serve someone has a general meaning, of course, but it can mean ‘to put food in front of someone’. A waiter serves the customers at a restaurant. Was served is the past simple passive form of this verb.

Prepositions are words like ‘in’, ‘at’, ‘to’, ‘from’, etc. If you have problems with these words, don’t worry – most students do. In fact, one of my students always talks about the ‘preposition lottery’.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Enough of this!

Dear Ana Paula and everyone else,

OK, I think that’s enough daft jokes about cheese and fudge. If we continue with this, then new readers will either think we’re all bats, or they’ll think that I’m actually sick and in hospital. (New readers, please note: I'm not sick, and I'm not in hospital; my last two blogs were a joke!). Ana from Poland suggested that we should make a new rule: no more writing about food. I’ll try to follow this rule, Ana, but it might be difficult today. Ana Paula has asked me to write about my experiences in Poland, and my most memorable experience in Poland involved food.

Ten years ago, I was a newly-qualified English language teacher, and I needed a job. I looked through the newspaper and found two advertisements for suitable jobs; one was in Greece, and the other was in Poland. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I’ve been to Greece before, on holiday, and I know I like it there, but I’ve never been to Poland. I know absolutely nothing about Poland. I don’t know what the weather’s like, I don’t know what they eat, I don’t know what the people are like. In fact, I’ve never even met a Polish person in my life. What the heck, I’ll go to Poland!”

So I applied for the job, had a telephone interview, and two weeks later I was in a small town in central Poland called Wlaclawek. (By the way, I’d like to apologise to Polish readers – I know I haven’t written that name exactly right, but my computer can’t do the Polish letter ‘L’ properly!)

In fact, I had an excellent time in Poland. Wlaclawek is quite a small town, and very few people spoke English, so I had to learn the Polish language quite quickly. This wasn’t easy, as Polish grammar is horribly difficult, but I felt very proud when I said my first grammatically-correct Polish sentence.

The people there were amazingly friendly and hospitable, and I made some very good friends there, but I soon learned that there were some major cultural differences between Britain and Poland. Soon after I arrived, I had started going out with a Polish girl, Anna, and one day she asked me if I’d like to come to her parents’ house for dinner. I accepted, of course. I could only speak a few words of Polish, and her parents couldn’t speak any English at all, so there wasn’t much conversation. I arrived, they sat me down at the table, gave me a gigantic plate of food, and said one word, “jec!”. I already knew this word – it means “eat!”. It was the middle of the afternoon, not a normal meal-time. Anna and her parents weren’t eating, and I wasn’t really hungry. However, I thought it would be rude to refuse, so I ate the food. As soon as I had finished, Anna’s mother brought me another gigantic plate of food. So I ate the second plate of food. And the third, and the fourth, and the fifth… I’m serious, I ate continuously from about three o’clock in the afternoon until about ten o’clock at night. Anna’s mother kept bringing me more and more and more food, and I felt more and more sick, and my stomach became more and more painful, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I had to keep eating and eating and eating and eating and eating…

I didn’t eat for three days after that. Later, Anna and I talked about hospitality in our countries, and I finally understood my mistake. In Britain, if your host cooks some food for you, you should normally eat it. To refuse would be impolite. However, Anna explained to me that the rules in Poland are different. In Poland, or at least in that area of Poland, the host’s job is to force the guest to eat as much food as possible. The guest’s job is to refuse point-blank to eat anything at all. So, the conversation should go like this:

POLISH HOST: Eat!

POLISH GUEST: No thank you.

POLISH HOST: Go on, have something to eat!

POLISH GUEST: No, really, I’m not hungry. I just had lunch.

POLISH HOST: Eat! Eat! Eat!

POLISH GUEST: No! I absolutely refuse to eat anything at all!

POLISH HOST: Eat this food, or I’ll punch you in the face…

And so on and so on. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I realized that British and Polish ideas about politeness and hospitality are very different. After I’d realized this, I had a very good time in Poland and I didn’t have to over-eat again.

Right, let’s move on to a very serious subject: prepositions. The answers to the questions in my last blog were as follows:

1. Ana Paula was waiting anxiously for a message from her dear teacher.

2. Her finger was glued to her computer screen.

3. Soon she fell into a catatonic state.

4. We hope she recovers from this catatonic state very soon.

These were nasty questions - well done to Angelica from Codoba, whose answers were bang on the money!

Leila, your guess about the film quotation was half-right; it wasn’t from ‘The Godfather’, but it was from another film by the same director, ‘Apocalypse Now’. Two people answered this correctly: Andrea from Austria and Inok from Earth. If any readers are not from Earth, please let me know!

Oh dear. I planned to ask you some more nasty questions today, Ana Paula, but I’ve run out of time. I’ll ask you some REALLY nasty ones on Friday, I promise!

All the best,

Alex

Vocabulary

Daft is an adjective meaning ‘silly’.

Bats looks like a plural noun, but in this case it isn’t. It’s another informal British adjective, meaning ‘crazy’.

Be careful with the word actually. In many European languages it means ‘at the moment’ or ‘right now’, but not in English. In English it means ‘really’ or ‘in fact’.

If something is easy to remember, or if it ‘sticks in your memory’, then it is memorable.

The adjective suitable means ‘good in this situation’.

’What the heck’ doesn’t really mean anything. We sometimes use this informal phrase when we decide to do something that’s a little crazy, or not completely sensible.

If you welcome strangers or new people into your home (or your workplace, etc) then you are a hospitable person. The noun hospitality refers to relationships between guests and hosts.

If you’re having a romantic relationship with someone, but you’re not married to them, we say you are going out with them. Americans would use the word ‘dating’.

Gigantic means very very big.

To refuse is to say, “no, I will NOT do this!”

To refuse point-blank means to refuse absolutely.

The adverb continuously means ‘without stopping’.

If you keep doing something, this means that you do this thing again and again and again.

If I come and visit you at your house, you are my host, and I am your guest.

To over-eat is to eat too much – it’s a negative word.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Poetry and Nasty Questions


Dear Ana Paula, and all our other readers,

My goodness, you are in a poetic mood today, aren’t you? Your descriptions of the weather in the afternoon, and the Pinacoteca, were wonderful. I’m particularly impressed that you used the word ‘nuance’. I’ve been teaching English for about ten years, and I can honestly say that until today I had never seen the word ‘nuance’ in any student’s writing. I take my hat off to you!

I’m sorry to say that I’ve never been to South America, but someday I will, and when I’m in São Paolo, I’ll make sure I visit the Pinacoteca. Personally, when I have a free afternoon in the summer and I just want to loaf around, I often go to an area of London called the South Bank. It’s called the South Bank because it’s on the south bank of the river Thames, and it’s the home of some of London’s most important arts venues. I like to browse at the second-hand book stalls, and then to sit at a café beside the river and sip my coffee (I love coffee almost as much as I love books), and then perhaps to go and watch an obscure old movie at the National Film Theatre. In the evening, after the sun goes down, you can stroll beside the river and look at the beautiful lights of central London. Ah, just thinking about it makes me want to go back there… Maybe I’ll go this evening.

However, before I go out and enjoy this beautiful evening, I have to fulfill my promise and ask you some difficult questions. As usual, I read your last blog carefully, looking for grammatical mistakes which I could discuss, and as usual it was quite difficult to find any. However, I did notice these two sentences:

‘The green colour of the grass becomes more vivid when starts to rain.’

‘Sometimes is really good to find yourself alone.’

As you know, sentences in English are made of clauses. Some sentences have only one clause, like this:

‘Alex likes coffee.’

Some sentences have two or more clauses. For example:

‘Alex likes tea, but he prefers coffee.’

A clause is always made of a subject, plus a ‘main verb’, and sometimes some other information. For example, in this sentence:

‘Alex likes coffee.’

The main verb in this sentence is likes, and the subject is Alex (who likes coffee? Alex likes coffee).

Are you with me so far? Good. Now let’s look again at one of the sentences from your last blog:

‘The green colour of the grass becomes more vivid when starts to rain.’

There are two clauses in this sentence. The first clause has a subject (‘the green colour of grass’) and a main verb (‘becomes’), so there’s no problem there. However, the second clause is problematic. There’s a main verb in the second clause (‘starts’) but this verb doesn’t have a subject.

There’s a similar problem in the second sentence:

‘Sometimes is really good to find yourself alone.’

This is a one-clause sentence, but the main verb (‘is’) doesn’t have a subject either.

Can you find a way to fix these sentences, so that the main verbs have subjects? In fact it’s very easy, you simply have to add one extra word to each sentence. To make it even easier, I’ll show you where the missing word should go:

‘The green colour of the grass becomes more vivid when _____ starts to rain.’

‘Sometimes _____ is really good to find yourself alone.’

There, those questions aren’t so nasty, are they?

Good luck!

Alex

Long ago, when people in Britain normally wore hats, you could show respect for someone by taking off your hat. Of course, we no longer do this, but we can still say ’I take my hat off to you’ if we want to express respect for someone in a slightly old-fashioned way.

The phrasal verb ‘to loaf around’ means to spend your time being lazy and doing nothing in particular.

Of course, a bank is a big building or institution that deals with money, but it also means the land at the side of a river.

A venue is simply the place where something happens. Art galleries, theatres, and cinemas are example of arts venues, because art exhibitions, plays, and movies happen there.

To browse is to look at things which are for sale, without really wanting to buy anything.

If we describe something as obscure, this means that very few people know about this thing. I generally don’t like big, popular, Hollywood movies, I prefer obscure old movies.

To stroll is to walk in a slow and relaxed way.

Nuance is an excellent word. If you want to know what it means, go and ask Ana Paula – she used it, not me!

Monday, 30 April 2007

An Embarassing Experience

Dear Ana Paula, and everyone else,

I’ve just had a very embarrassing experience on the bus. I travel to and from work on the bus every day, and the journey takes about half an hour (or 45 minutes in the early morning rush-hour traffic). As I mentioned last time, I’m an inveterate bibliophile, so I like to read on the bus. This morning I finished a book (it’s irrelevant to this story, but the book was ‘Fictions’, by a writer from Argentina called Jorge Luis Borges – a wonderful book). I didn’t want to be bored on the bus home, so after class I went to a bookshop opposite my school to get another book. I could think of several books that I wanted to read, but none of them were in stock. For a while I wandered around the bookshop, unable to find anything that I wanted to read. “This is no good,” I eventually thought to myself. “I have to get home and write something for Ana Paula and all my new friends. What the heck, I’ll just choose something at random and get out of here.” So I hastily found a book that looked kind of interesting (and wasn’t too expensive), paid for it, and went and got on the bus.

The bus was very crowded, and there was no space for me to sit down – in fact, there was only just enough space for me to pull the new book out of my bag and start reading. But when I started reading, I soon realized that I had a problem. This book was very weird, but also funny. In fact, this book wasn’t just funny, it was side-splittingly hilarious. As I read, I started to smile, then to giggle, then to chuckle, and soon I was laughing so hard that tears ran down my face.

Why was this a problem? If you’ve ever visited London and traveled on public transport, you’ll probably understand why. There is a very strong social rule on public transport in London – when traveling on the bus or the tube, you must stay completely stone-faced and silent. You must never, never, never speak or express any kind of feeling or emotion. In the opinion of most Londoners, someone who speaks on the bus is at best annoying, and at worst mad. And if someone stands on a crowded bus shaking with uncontrollable laughter, this person is certainly mad, and probably also dangerous.

As I laughed and laughed and laughed, I could see the other passengers looking at me strangely, and shuffling away from me. I struggled to control myself, but I couldn’t. Eventually, a group of young schoolchildren got on the bus, with a couple of teachers, and I could see the fear in the teachers’ eyes as they tried to move the kids away from this laughing madman. When I noticed that, I finally forced myself to stop reading and put the book away, but it still took several minutes for my laughter to subside.

In case anyone is curious, the book is called ‘Lint’, by a writer called Steve Aylett (I know this sounds like an advertisement, but honestly it isn’t – until today I had never even heard of Steve Aylett, or this book). As I said, it’s a very strange book, and I’ve only read the first 20 pages or so. But the first 20 pages or so are funnier than anything I’ve read for a long, long time.

Anyway, let’s get down to business. Today, there’s some good news and some bad news. Let’s start with the good news – you got the answers to my nasty questions exactly right, Ana Paula, and so did Paco from Spain. Well done to both of you! Just to refresh your memory, the questions looked like this:

‘The green colour of the grass becomes more vivid when _____ starts to rain.’

‘Sometimes _____ is really good to find yourself alone.’

In both cases, we have to add the word ‘it’ in the gap, as a subject for the main verbs (the main verbs are ‘starts’ and ‘is’).

Perhaps I made those questions a little too easy. The first piece of bad news is this: today I’m going to ask you a similar question, but I’m not going to give you any help! Please have a look at these two sentences:

‘Just like you, I love coffee and books (and of course, films is among them), actually I think they make a perfect partnership, though I’ve never read a book sitting at a café beside a river.’

You mentioned my poetic mood in your blog, in fact, I felt like this because yesterday I read an article about a new temporary exhibition at Língua Portuguesa Museum (Museu da Língua Portuguesa) inspired by Clarice Lispector’s works.

These are almost very good sentences. However, I’m afraid both of these sentences contain a sentence-structure mistake. Just like last time, it’s the same mistake in both sentences – but this time, it’s not missing subjects, it’s something else. Can you find and correct the mistakes?

This month is almost finished, and Ana from Poland left a very generous comment, saying goodbye to me. The second piece of bad news is… I’m staying for another month! Yes, another month of bad jokes and nasty, nasty grammar questions!

Mwahahaha!

Alex




Lots and lots of vocabulary today!

If you do something silly in public, and your face turns red, you feel embarrassed. ‘Embarassing’ and ‘embarassed’ are related in the same way as ‘interesting’ and ‘interested’, ‘frightening’ and ‘frightened’, etc.

The period of time in a city when the streets are particularly busy, because everyone is going to work or going home, is called the rush-hour.

The adjective inveterate is used to describe someone who always does something and probably will not stop. We use it in phrases like ‘an inveterate liar’, which means someone who always tells lies, and probably will never stop telling lies. We often use ‘inveterate’ with negative words, like ‘liar’, ‘drinker’, ‘smoker’, etc.

A bibliophile is someone who loves books. Therefore, an ‘inveterate bibliophile’ is someone who is always reading or hanging around in bookshops, and will probably never stop.

Something is irrelevant if it’s not connected to the subject you’re talking about.

If something is available to buy in a shop, it is in stock.

To wander is to walk around at random, with no purpose or aim.

If you do something at random, you do it without a purpose or an aim.

Side-splitting’ and ‘hilarious’ are both words meaning ‘very funny’. I’ve combined them together by changing ‘side-splitting’ into an adverb, ‘sidesplittingly’. (This is a tautology. Can anyone tell me what ‘tautology’ means?)

To giggle is to laugh just a little bit. Chuckling is a little louder and stronger than giggling.

The adjective stone-faced is used to describe a person when their face shows no feelings or emotions at all.

To shuffle is to move in a slow or awkward way, without taking your feet off the ground.

To subside is to decrease or stop in a slow, gradual way.

We use the informal phrase ‘or so’ to mean ‘approximately’. So ‘20 pages or so’ means ‘approximately 20 pages’.

Finally, there is ‘Mwahahaha!’ This doesn’t actually mean anything at all; it’s the sound of ‘evil laughter’. Imagine you’re watching a stupid movie. The bad guy probably explains his plan to rule the world, and then he probably laughs, ‘Mwahahaha!’. Obviously, this is a very informal phrase; don’t use it in your university essays!

April 2007

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