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.
The weather has been very wet recently here on the continent, yet most people think that it’s in the UK where it always rains! Whether this is true or not, it is fair to say that the UK does have an unpredictable climate. One moment it’s raining and then the next moment the clouds clear and the sun comes out! As a result, the Brits love to discuss the weather and our vocabulary reflects this. For example, we don’t just say it’s raining, we can use more colourful verbs and expressions such as:
It’s pouring (raining very heavily)
It’s drizzling (raining very lightly)
There was a shower this morning (a short, sudden fall of rain)
There was a downpour last night (a heavy fall of rain)
We had torrential rain last week (very heavy rain)
It was raining cats and dogs all day yesterday (raining heavily)
We also have lots of expressions connected to the weather and in particular rain. Below are just a few. Try and use one the next time you speak English.
“Last week my car broke down and the repairs are going to cost too much so I’m going to have a buy a new car. Two days later, my washing machine broke too! It never rains but it pours!”
“Sophie cycles to work every day, come rain or shine.”
“I’ll be with you at 6pm on Friday come rain or shine. You can count on me.”
“My grandfather’s best advice to me was to always try and save part of my monthly salary for a rainy day. When I needed to buy a new car urgently, I had the money, thanks to his advice!”
“I was off work last week with the flu. But I’m as right as rain now.”
“Can I invite you for lunch?”
“That’s very kind, I’d love to but I’m in a hurry today. Can I take a rain check?”
With all these verbs and expressions I suppose it is true to say that, despite global warming, it often rains in the UK! But then without the rain, the countryside wouldn’t be so gloriously fresh and green. So you see, every cloud has a silver lining! (there’s always something positive to come out of something bad).
Philippa Stacey a fondé Eureka en 2007. Elle vit et enseigne l’anglais aux professionnels en France depuis 1993.