I’m sorry, I can’t follow what you are saying. Can you repeat that please?
I can’t count the number of times I have to say that to my students. It is the number one consistent problem of comprehension for me during my training sessions with learners of English. Are they trying to say can or can’t? I always have to ask. Maybe I need to get my ears checked but somehow I don’t think I’m the problem. So what is the problem?
One main reason is that French learners of English are not accustomed to using stress when speaking English. They tend to give equal weight to each syllable. Consider the word comfortable:
A French person might say: com/for/ta/bul (4 syllables and each one is stressed equally)
A native English speaker probably says: יcomf/ta/bul (the word is reduced to 3 syllables and the first syllable [comf] is stressed – hence the symbol י just in front. (In a dictionary, this י symbol is always placed just in front of the stressed syllable). A native English speaker skips over the second syllable [for] because of the stress on the first [comf] and reduces a 4 syllable word to a 3 syllable word [comf/ta/bul].
In the same way photographer becomes [יftog/ra/pher]. We stress the second syllable [tog] and almost totally omit the first syllable [pho]. But for the word photograph, we stress the last syllable [יgraph]. This difference in stress tells native speakers if we are talking about the person or the image.
Stress doesn’t only occur in words. It also occurs in sentences. In general, the important words such as nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs are stressed whereas the less important words such as pronouns, prepositions, auxiliaries and articles are rarely stressed and are often rolled together. Look at the following examples. The stressed words or syllables are in bold.
Where do you work? Is actually spoken like this: Where djou work? (where and work are stressed and the do and the you melt into one syllable).
I’d like to ask you a few questions. I’d like twaska few questions. (we stress like, ask and the first syllable of questions).
Stressing a word or syllable doesn’t mean that we say it louder. Rather, we take more time to say it. It creates a natural rhythm or beat (dum da dum da dum). Maybe that’s why English is such a good language to sing in.
Another thing that happens when speaking at normal speed is that we omit sounds such as the d or t at the ends of words to make them easier to say. For example:
Next spring becomes nek spring.
Old people becomes ol people.
I can’t see you now becomes I can see you now. (Yes, it looks affirmative, but we take longer to say the can than we would do if it was really in the affirmative).
A student card becomes a studen card.
I haven’t got a pen becomes I haven gotta pen.
A can of lemonade becomes a cana lemonade.
I suppose you are right becomes I spoze your right.
The third important point to know is the schwa [ǝ]. This is the most common vowel sound in the English language and most vowels can be reduced to the schwa. It sounds like the indefinite article a in this sentence: I’d like a coffee please.
So while we stress some syllables and words, we reduce other sounds to the schwa.
I asked a photographer to take some photographs.
I asked a ph/י tog /rǝ/fǝ to take some יpho/tǝ/graphs.
In winter, the trains often arrive late when there’s snow.
In יwin/tǝ, thǝ trains oftǝn ǝ/יrive late when there’s snow.
This can cause problems in oral comprehension for some learners because they don’t hear the words pronounced as they are written. That’s why you understand much more when you read than when you simply listen.
Can or Can’t?
So let’s return to the problem of can and can’t.
Basically, we don’t stress can when it’s in the affirmative. We put the stress on the verb which follows and which is more important to the meaning of the sentence.
I can see you next week. The verb see is the important word in this sentence. The vowel sound in can is therefore reduced to the schwa and sounds more like [kǝn].
However, when it’s negative, we stress both can’t and the verb. The vowel sound in can’t is longer but we often omit the t. So it’s the long vowel sound which actually tells us that it’s negative!
I can’t see you at 2pm but I can see you at 4.30pm.
Next time you are telling someone what you can or can’t do, take a moment to think about the stress. And as you progress in English, spend a little time thinking about the rhythm and stress of the language in general, not just the vocabulary and the grammar. Sometimes it can make all the difference to whether your interlocutor can or can’t understand you!
How many times have I heard learners of English confuse time and times and new and news? Countless times! Too many times to mention! All the time! (notice the difference?) So let’s look at how and when we use these words.
Times or Time?
First look at these common expressions using time and think about their meaning.
Time and tide wait for no one. (Chaucer 1395)
Time is money! (Benjamin Franklin)
Time is the wisest counselor of all. (Pericles)
There is no time like the present.
Time flies when you are having fun!
Time refers to the passing of seconds, minutes, hours and days months and years. It is uncountable and has no plural form. All the above expressions use the word time in the uncountable form because they are talking about time in general. You all know the question what time is it? (It's 8 o'clock). But if you want to ask a question about the quantity of time, we use how much. For example:
How much time did you spend on your homework? Much (not many) is used for uncountable nouns.
Times, with an ‘s’ has a completely different meaning. It refers to the frequency that something is done. Look at the examples below:
A: How many times have you visited London?
B: Three times. In 1989, 1995 and last year and I’d love to return.
A: How many times have you spoken with friends this week?
B: Only once (one time) but I’ve spoken a lot with my family.
A: How many times have you clapped outside your house to support people in the healthcare system?
B: Every night!
I’ve heard people make a mistake with the word 'time' many times!
All the above questions and sentences ask about or refer to the frequency of events. Times is a countable noun with a singular form (time) and a plural form (times). This is how we use it:
1 x = once (one time) John has visited New York once (one time).
2 x = twice (two times) My cat has caught a mouse twice this week (two times).
3 x = three times I must have seen this film at least three times.
4 x = four times I've asked you four times to tidy your room!
When we ask a question about the quantity or number of times, we say how many times...?
Many is used with countable plural nouns (not much). We can also use the question how often…?
New vs News
New and news poses a similar problem but the reasons are different.
New is an adjective. The opposite of old. And as you all know, adjectives never have a plural form in English. Look at the examples:
Peter has got a new job. He is starting in three weeks.
I had to buy two new pairs of glasses this year, because I lost my first pair.
News is a noun. It refers to the facts about world events which are reported on the TV, on the radio or in a newspaper (a paper full of news). It is an uncountable noun but which ends in an ‘s’. The rules for uncountable nouns apply:
The news on the TV is often bad.
I’ve got some news to tell you – Martin and Rosie are getting married.
There was only one piece of news last night that made me laugh. The rest was awful.
So now you know the rules, try this exercise. Choose the correct word in brackets in each sentence. The answers are at the bottom.
There is no time like the present to get to grips with this lexical challenge! The next time that you listen to the news, make a new resolution to try and reduce the number of times that you make a mistake with these words! Good luck!
Answers: 1. time 2. time 3. times 4. news 5. time 6. time 7. new 8. times 9. time 10. news 11. times 12. news
So if you have read the previous article, you now know everything there is to know about the Present Perfect Simple, but what about the continuous form?
I have been reading about the present perfect simple and I think I understand it now.
We have been driving for 4 hours! When will we arrive?
Peter has been learning English since he joined the company.
As with all the continuous tenses, it is formed using the present perfect of the auxiliary be (have/has been) plus the verb in the -ing form (doing). Look at the table below.
The present perfect continuous is used when we are focusing on the action. The present perfect simple is more often used when we are talking about the result. But it’s not quite as easy as that, so let’s compare the two.
Present Perfect Simples vs Present Perfect Continuous
So that's a summary of the differences between the two present perfect tenses. It's not an easy concept for learners and it takes a long time to get the hang of it. But as always, practice makes perfect! So listen or look out for it next time you are watching a film, reading an article or listening to a radio programme.
Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”. Albert Einstein
I expect that everyone reading this has made many mistakes while learning to speak the English language. And it's probably safe to say that many of those mistakes have been with the present perfect! Most people say that English is an easy language to learn. Yet the present perfect seems to exist only to dumbfound, confuse and frustrate learners of English!
Essentially, when compared to other languages, English is an easy language to learn. Many of the difficulties in other European languages (e.g. the two forms for ‘you’, nouns being masculine or feminine and sometimes neuter, adjectives agreeing and all those verb endings you need to learn) just don’t exist in English. However, in return, we do have the wonderful, intriguing and extremely useful present perfect! So what is this tense?
Firstly, the most important thing to know is that it is really a present tense. Secondly it acts as a bridge between the present and the past. Thirdly, although it looks like the French passé composé, it is not used in the same way. So direct translations will lead to mistakes. Finally, it is a tense that we use a lot! So it is worth trying to learn it and use it.
The very name of the tense suggests what it is: present + perfect. Perfect means past and comes from the Latin verb perficere which means to complete or achieve. So just in the name, we can see that this tense combines the present and the past.
How do we form the Present Perfect Simple*?
* There is also a present perfect continuous (I have been learning English for many years) but we’ll leave that for a future article.
To form the present perfect, we use have or has and the past participle of the verb. Once again, it is a mixture of the present (have/has) and the past. And that is exactly what the present perfect is: a tense which is a bridge between the present and the past, where an action may have started in the past and continues in the present or where a past action is finished but the consequences continue to be important in the present.
When do we use the present perfect simple?
1. When an action started in the past and continues in the present.
I have lived in New York for 10 years.
I started living in New York in the past, 10 years ago, and I live in New York today.
I lived in New York for 10 years.
The action is finished and I don’t live in New York now.
So we must remember:
- The present perfect is a bridge between the past and the present.
- We use the past simple (I lived) when the action is finished and we know when it happened.
2. For general experiences in life. We don’t specify when the activities occurred.
I have worked in several companies since I left school.
I have never visited Australia.
The present perfect is used as a bridge to cover time. Our life started in the past and continues in the present and we don’t give any precise dates.
I worked in several companies between 1997 and 2005.
I visited Australia 10 years ago.
In these sentences, we know when the events happened. We can situate them on a timeline.
My wife has just received a promotion. (She is going to have more responsibility)
You’ve had a haircut! I like it. (It looks nice)
Again, we don’t know exactly when the event happened. Although the action is past and finished, the consequence is in the present. It’s news. So once again, the present perfect is acting as a bridge between the present and the past.
4. When we are in the time period we are talking about.
I haven’t seen Sophie today. (But I may see her later today)
Mary has had three interviews this week. (This week isn’t finished)
We’ve been to the cinema several times this month. (We may go again before the month finishes).
What did you do this weekend? (Past simple because the weekend is finished)
Other points to remember
1. There are key words that are often used with the present perfect because they cover time, such as:
Since, just, so far, until now, recently, ever
I haven’t been to Paris since I was a child.
I’ve just had a job offer.
What have you done so far today?
Have you ever eaten sushi?
We’ve recently employed three new engineers.
2. For or Since?
Both for and since can be used with the present perfect but be careful.
For is used to talk about a duration. It answers the question how long?
A: How long have you lived in London?
B: I’ve lived in London for 12 years.
Since is used to talk about a specific moment in the past. It tells us when the action started.
I’ve lived in London since I was a child/since 1981/since May/since Christmas.
3. Been or Gone?
The verb to be is used like the verb to go in the present perfect. But there is a difference.
We use been when the person has returned from wherever they went.
Mary has just been to the bank. (she has returned)
I’ve been to Australia twice. (I’m not in Australia now)
Mary has gone to the bank. She’ll be back soon. (She is at the bank now - she is not here)
John has gone to Australia. (He is in Australia at the moment - he is not here)
There is a lot to think about when using the present perfect tense. But the first step is to learn the rules and try and use it. As Einstein said, “anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”! Making mistakes is an integral part of the learning process.
However, to limit these mistakes, really make an effort not to translate word for word from your own language. If you do, you will make a mistake 9 times out of 10! The best way to progress is to read and listen to as much English as possible so that you can hear the tense being used in lots of different contexts. Eventually it will just sound wrong when you make a mistake. And it will sound right when you get it right! Good luck and go for it!
As we saw in Part Two, we can put two nouns together in English to create compound nouns. But we are not limited to just two nouns. We can precede a noun with three, four even five other nouns, a common occurrence in business vocabulary. We can say for example:
A nuclear power plant.
The production department quality procedure.
A two-door company car.
A manufacturing company health and safety manual.
A company insurance policy plan
Over the years, I regularly see learners having difficulty putting the words of expressions like these into the correct order. I misunderstand what they are saying and furthermore, they misunderstand texts because they do not translate the meaning correctly. The problem is knowing where the principal noun is (i.e. the subject or object of the sentence).
The number one rule you must always remember is that the most important word is the noun (the subject or object of the sentence) and this is always the last one in the list. Every word before the last one functions as an adjective and is therefore additional information and can be removed from the sentence. The last word (subject/object of the sentence) cannot of course be removed without making the sentence incomprehensible. In conclusion, you need to read the phrase backwards!
1 . A nuclear power plant.
We are talking about a plant (factory). What type of plant? A power plant (not manufacturing). What type of power plant? A nuclear power plant. The most important word/noun is last (plant). The second most important word is next to plant (power) and the first word is the least important (nuclear).
2. The production department quality procedure.
We are talking about a procedure. What type of procedure? A quality procedure. What type of quality procedure? A department quality procedure. Which department’s quality procedure? The production department quality procedure.
(We don’t have to put an apostrophe ‘s’ on department because it is part of the name of the procedure but we can say: the production department’s quality procedure).
3. A two-door company car.
We are talking about a car. What type of car? A company car. What type of company car? A two-door company car.
Note: Door is not plural because it is functioning as an adjective and we never make adjectives plural.
4. A production plant health and safety manual.
We are talking about a manual. What type of manual? A health and safety manual. What type of health and safety manual? A plant (factory) health and safety manual. What type of plant? A production plant health and safety manual.
5. A company insurance policy plan.
We are talking about a plan. What type of plan? A policy plan. What type of policy plan? An insurance policy plan. What type of insurance policy plan? A company insurance policy plan.
Remember the rule: the most important word is last and the least important word is first. If you want to contract, you can remove words before the last word, but you must always keep the last one because it’s your object/subject of the sentence!
For example, a golden Labrador is contracted to a Labrador in English, not a Golden because golden is an adjective.
Remember this rule next time you want to write a production department quality procedure!
Question: What's the difference between a packet of crisps and a crisp packet?
Answer: The first is full of crisps, the second is empty!
If you got the answer wrong, read on!
Problems with word order in English sentences are not, unfortunately, limited to adjectives. The English language is full of what we call compound nouns - where two or more nouns are put together to create a word or expression (e.g. raincoat, company report). The problem for learners is to know whether to write these expressions as a single word (raincoat), as separate words (company report) as a hyphenated word (a twentieth-century problem), whether to use the apostrophe ‘s’ (the government’s decision) or whether to use 'of' or 'from' (a packet of crisps).
For example, when we want to talk about a factory that produces cars, should we say a car factory or a car’s factory?
(Right answer: car factory)
And do we say the company cars or the company’s cars? (Right answer: both are possible but the nuance is different!)
Unfortunately, the rules are not easy. But here is as simple an explanation as I can offer.
When we put nouns together, there are three types of structure, and compound nouns usually fit into one group or another.
Group 1 (apostrophe ‘s’)
In this group, the second word belongs to the first.
There is a notion of possession, so we use an apostrophe ‘s’ .
We found a bird’s nest in the hedge. (The nest belongs to the bird)
My sister’s bicycle is blue. (The bicycle belongs to my sister)
The cat’s bowl is dirty. (The bowl belongs to the cat)
The Director’s car is a Mercedes. ( The car belongs to the Director)
The Government’s decision was unpopular. (The decison was made by and therefore belongs to the Government)
In this group, there is no apostrophe ‘s’ because there is no notion of possession. The first noun functions as an adjective.
A car company (car is functioning as an adjective to describe the type of company - it’s not a chemical company)
A business report (business is describing what type of report it is – it’s not a medical or school report)
A government decision (government is functioning as an adjective - the decision was made by a government, not a school or city council)
A water-bottle (water is describing what the bottle is used for - to contain water not wine)
A raincoat (rain is describing the type of coat – to protect against the rain as opposed to the cold)
Nouns in this group can be written as one word, if they are expressions which are used very often (e.g. raincoat, homework, snowman). Or they can be written as two separate words (e.g. car factory, business report, coffee bean, car seat). Or they can be written with a hyphen (a water-bottle, a paper-clip).
There are no easy rules for this, so the best thing to do is to check in a dictionary if you are in doubt.
Group 3 (of and from)
In the last group we put the nouns together using the prepositions of or from.
A bag of crisps (a bag which contains crisps)
A bottle of beer (a bottle which contains beer)
A woman from London (a woman who comes from London)
The gravity of the Earth (the gravity belonging to Earth)
When to be extra careful!
Sometimes, an idea can be expressed in more than one way. We can say: a London woman or a woman from London and there is no difference in meaning. Similarly, we can say: the gravity of the Earth or the Earth’s gravity.
But sometimes the meaning changes, so you need to be careful. Look at the following examples:
Cat bowls are sold in most supermarkets. (Bowls for all cats)
We’ve put the cat’s bowls in the garage. (The bowls for our individual cat – there is a notion of posession)
Would you like a bottle of beer? (A bottle containing beer)
Please put all the empty beer bottles in the recycling bin. (The bottles which are used for beer but which are now empty – beer is functioning as an adjective)
Would you like a cup of tea? (A cup with tea in it)
Oh no, I’ve broken a tea cup! (A cup which is used for tea but which is currently empty and now broken! – tea is functioning as an adjective)
The company cars or the company’s cars?
So going back to the example of the company cars or company’s cars. What is the difference? Well, company cars (no apostrophe ‘s’) are cars given to employees as part of their salary package. Company is used as an adjective to describe the car and show that it is not a personal car (i.e. personally bought).
The company’s cars (with apostrophe ‘s’) refer to cars truly belonging to a company which stay on site as part of a car pool and can be used by employees during the day or for a business trip but not for personal use.
So now you know the difference between a packet of crisps and a crisp packet. But it's not easy. The best way to learn which structure to use is to read as much as you can and as often as you can in English. If you read regularly you will gradually learn instinctively whether it’s right to use an apostrophe ‘s’ , the preposition ‘of’ or neither. It’s a question of contact time with the language.
The difficulties with word order do not stop here! The flexibility of English means that we can put more than two nouns together (e.g. a two-door company car!) creating more dilmmmas about word order! All will be explained in Getting words in the right order in English Part 3 – coming soon!
Word order in English often poses the learner a big problem. Mistakes are usually made in writing as well as when trying to understand a text, because the learner applies the rules that they use in their own language. Living in France, I am only familiar with the mistakes that French leaners of English make but I’m sure that the same problem arises elsewhere in the world.
Take this sentence for example: A red car.
The majority of learners know that the adjective red comes before the noun car. So far so good. But if we add the word beautiful. Where do we put that in the order? The correct answer is: A beautiful red car. And what if we add the word new? Now we have to say: A beautiful new red car.
So what is the rule? In English, adjectives have an order depending on what type of adjective they are.
Below is the most usual sequence of adjectives with, most importantly, the noun coming right at the end. In other words, the most important word is last!
Look at some examples:
We won a fantastic new red sports car in the village lottery!
Mike is an amazing young British entrepreneur.
Sue has just acquired a lovely big golden labrador.
James bought Helen a big shiny black leather handbag.
The order isn’t easy to remember, I know and it won’t cause major problems if you get it wrong and say a leather shiny black big handbag. It's just that you certainly won’t sound English! So try and pay attention to word order next time you write, read or speak English.
Yes, learning English is as easy as pie, if you put your mind to it and decide to practice little and often.
But what often causes problems of understanding is when native speaker use idioms. Like any language, English has a vast array of idioms and expressions that we like to drop into our speech in order to add colour, interest, drama or humour. And one such type of idiom is the as easy as pie variety which is structured as follows:
As + adjective + as + noun
As + easy + as + pie
There are lots of these types of idioms and below is a selection of some of the most used. Try and pop one of them into your next discussion in English.
Learning English is as easy as pie.
This cardboard box is as light as a feather, it must be empty.
This cardboard box is as heavy as lead! It must be full of books.
Margaret turned as white as a sheet when she heard the bad news.
Paul was as happy as Larry when he got the promotion.
Paula turned as red as a beetroot when everyone congratulated her on her performance.
I’m always as red as a beetroot when I come out of the gym.
The company owner is always finding ways to avoid paying his social contributions in full. He’s as crafty as a fox.
The village we stayed in, in Scotland, was as pretty as a picture.
The weather’s been doing weird things again! Australia has had its hottest December and January on record. Some areas reached brutal temperatures of 48°C and night time temperatures of around 33°C resulting in roads melting, animals dying including thousands of bats, and of course major bush fires. Meanwhile, in the USA, they’ve been experiencing the same extreme temperatures only in the minus as the Arctic freeze took over the country encouraging Donald Trump to make yet more ridiculous tweets concerning global warming. Here in Europe, the winter has been mild, grey and rather dreary. I think we are all ready for a change of season, and for us it’s a move into Spring, a season of expectation, renewal, growth and colour. No wonder there are so many expressions in English concerning Spring. Here are jsut a few.
During the second half of the match, the striker finally sprang into action and scored a great goal.
So, spring to life and learn some of these expressions. Even if you are no spring chicken, it’s never too late to improve your English!
Cliquer iThe 29th March is fast approaching, the fateful day when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s future will change for better or for worse. The day we finally leave the European Union. The last months have seen debate after debate in the House of Commons, vote after vote, clashes between the parties, clashes within the parties, proposals, amendments, negotiations and a lot of trips to Brussels for Prime Minister Theresa May! But it seems nothing can be agreed. In January, a group of more than 200 members of parliament from all parties signed a letter to the Prime Minister, asking her to rule out a no-deal Brexit, a Brexit with no agreements in place concerning trade, customs, industry, education, defence and so much more. But despite this, there is still no deal yet.
The major sticking point is the border between two countries which share the same island: Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (a separate country which is still a member of the EU). Years of violent conflict and terrorism were finally ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Part of the agreement was to remove the security checks along the 310 mile border between Northern and Southern Ireland. It was an integral part of the peace agreement and the fact that both countries were within the EU made it so much easier. Every day, over 30,000 people freely cross the border for work, as well as huge amounts of goods and services. The economies of the two Irelands are completely interconnected.
So when Northern Ireland leaves the EU, what will happen to the border? Nobody wants to reintroduce a hard border with security checks and customs controls because this could result in a resurgence of the old conflict. As a result, the UK and the EU have agreed on a legal guarantee known as the backstop to prevent the reintroduction of a hard border at all costs. However, neither side is happy about the details of this guarantee: it gives Northern Ireland a different status which the Northern Irish do not want; it is a potential threat to the union of the United Kingdom which the UK Parliament does not want; and it keeps the UK in a single customs agreement temporarily until a solution can be found, which those wanting to leave the EU completely refuse to accept. But unless the UK Parliament can agree on the backstop, the EU refuses to ratify any Brexit deal.
So, at the time of writing, it seems we are in fact heading for what no-one wants, a no-deal Brexit. Does this mean that catastrophe is looming on the horizon? What are the implications of a no-deal Brexit? Well here are some possible consequences which are being put forward in the British press:
Only history will tell!ci pour modifier.
Philippa Stacey a fondé Eureka en 2007. Elle vit et enseigne l’anglais aux professionnels en France depuis 1993.