Close to edge(?!)

Many countries are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach edge of the universe.

Unfortunately in English nouns usually need some grammar in front of them in order to answer at least one of the following questions:

  • Which one(s)?
  • Whose?
  • How many?

So let’s apply these questions to each of the five nouns in our example and make sure we have the right grammar in front of the noun. Here’s the example with the nouns highlighted:

Many countries are spending a lot of money on space exploration in order to reach edge of the universe.
  1. countries
    1. Which ones? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – Doesn’t matter.
    3. How many? – ‘many’ answers this question. The number is not exact, but it doesn’t need to be exact. It’s enough to know that more than one country is being referred to.

So far, so good!

  1. money
    1. Which? – It doesn’t matter.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the money is being spent by the ‘countries’.
    3. How much? – ‘a lot of’ serves the same function as ‘many’.
  2. exploration
    1. Which? We don’t need any grammar to tell us which ‘exploration’. The word ‘space’ already answers that question. We know that it’s ‘space exploration’, and NOT ‘jungle exploration’ or ‘ocean exploration’.
    2. Whose? – We can assume the countries.
    3. How much? – Not important at this stage.
  3. edge
    1. Which one? – There is some text immediately after ‘edge’ that tells us exactly which edge – the edge of the universe (NOT the edge of the table). However, if it’s clear to both writer and reader exactly which noun is being referred to then in English we have to use the definite article ‘the’ in front of the noun. This was the grammatical error in the sentence – a missing ‘the’: the edge of the universe.
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant.
    3. How many? – Also irrelevant.
  4. universe
    1. Which one? – This is a special use of ‘the’ to tell us which one – when there is only one in the writer and reader’s shared context of reference! (Like the moon, the kitchen, etc.)
    2. Whose? – Irrelevant, although it would make for an interesting philosophical discussion!
    3. How many? – Irrelevant, but also interesting from a scientific / philosophical perspective!

Indonesian flag Indonesian students are generally clear about whose and how many. However, they often forget to use articles to communicate which one(s).

Note that when a noun is followed by a preposition phrase (e.g. of the universe), that phrase usually tells exactly which noun you’re talking about. Next time you write a preposition phrase after a noun, especially one beginning ‘of’, think about using ‘the’ in front of the noun!


There is an idiom – ‘Close to the edge’ whose idiomatic meaning is perhaps best communicated in the song The Message by Grandmaster Flash:

Don’t push me, ‘coz I’m close to the edge
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going’ under

You can listen to The Message here and follow the lyrics, but be warned – it’s full of other less useful idioms!

And while we’re talking about music, back in 1972 British prog rock band Yes made an album called Close to the edge!

Book or film?

Students, especially Indonesian students, often tell me that they would much rather watch a film than read a book. Reading is boring, they say.

I would like to invite you to think again about reading.

My teaching colleagues and I would all agree that reading novels is fun, and we all recommend this kind of ‘extensive’ reading to our students. Most of us would also agree that when a film is made based on a book, the book is always much more satisfying than the film of the book.

Let’s try an experiment. Let’s see which you prefer – the book or the film? First you’re going to read and listen to a short text. Then you’re going to watch a movie clip based on the same text. Finally you’ll reflect on the experience and think again about which you prefer – reading or just ‘watching’.

1. Reading

Read the text shown in the clip below and use your imagination to picture what’s going on in the ‘story’. Think carefully about the imagery and about characters in the story. What do the people in the story look like? Where are they?

2. Watching

Now watch the ‘movie’. Compare what you see in the film to what you saw in your mind as you were reading. Did you ‘see’ the same things? How are the images in the video different from the images you saw in your mind when you were reading?

3. Reflection

So what do you think? Do you still prefer watching somebody else’s thoughts. Who is the best ‘director’? You when you read? Or someone else when they read?

I’d be very interested to know your thoughts about reading vs. viewing. What are your preferences and why? Please comment below.

And why do you think I showed a picture of an iceberg as the featured image for this post?

Be a people person!

The event was extremely successful. It was attended by more than a thousand persons.

The only time I ever use this word (‘persons‘) is in the classroom. Outside the classroom – 99.9% of the time – the plural of ‘person‘ is ‘people‘.

  • The event was extremely successful. It was attended by more than a thousand people.

Only use ‘persons‘ in extremely formal, especially legal situations. I’m such a nice teacher that I’ve prepared some examples (with captions!) for you to click through. This will be followed by some music.

Hope you enjoyed the gallery!

And now, before the music, an idiom. Perhaps you saw the featured image for this post? The ‘people person‘ mug? If you’re a ‘people person‘ then basically you much prefer to be with other people than to be alone.

Well, you’ve had a gallery, and an idiom. Now some music – a song about ‘people‘ from two famous ‘people persons’Barbara Streisand and Stevie Wonder!

Is it worth it?

This post comes with a fun challenge. Continue reading or jump straight to the challenge!

Is it worth to spend large amounts of money on space exploration?

Indonesian flag This is an expression that doesn’t really have a nice translation in Bahasa Indonesia, (closest equivalent = layak) and so I seldom hear it from students. But it’s extremely common in spoken and written English, and so it’s one you should learn to use.

This is the correct collocation:

  • Is it worth spending large amounts of money on space exploration?

Possible answers include..

  • Yes, it’s (it is) worth it.
  • Yes, it’s (it is) worth spending money on space exploration.
  • No, it isn’t (it is not) worth it.
  • No, it’s (it is) not worth it.
  • No, it isn’t (is not) worth spending money on space exploration.

When you ask “Is it worth it?” you’re asking..

  • Is it basically more advantageous than disadvantageous?
  • Is the extra expense justified?
  • Is the additional time investment justified?

And so we have the idiom “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!” If you’re investing extra time and/or money into a job or task, then it would be a sin to put in less than 100% effort:

one job to do - school

And now for the challenge. Can you think of 5 activities that require additional time, effort and expense but are still worth it? Comments below! 🙂

Dogs don’t have voices

Moving on to look at the various factors irritating theatregoers, six include undesirable voice including sneezing, whispering, snoring, rustling sweet papers, mobile phones and coughing.

Indonesian flag Indonesians stop and think the next time you want to translate ‘suara‘!

None of the sounds in the above example represent an attempt to ‘voice’ (v) speech or song, and so they are not examples of voice‘ (n), they are simply examples of ‘sounds‘. Note that whispering, which is a form of speech, is nevertheless notvoiced‘ (your larynx does not vibrate when you whisper):

  • Moving on to look at the various factors irritating theatregoers, six include undesirable sounds including sneezing, whispering, snoring, rustling sweet papers, mobile phones and coughing.

When you are sick with a heavy cold or flu you sometimes ‘lose your voice‘, so that people cannot hear very easily what you are saying, and singing becomes impossible. However, only humans can lose their voices. All other animals, vegetables and minerals simply make ‘sounds‘.

Pronoun substitution and an alternative

When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Almost! But..

A personal pronoun at the beginning of a sentence refers back to the subject of the previous sentence, and in this case the subject of the previous sentence is ‘the goods’. ‘When people go to real shops’ is an adverb phrase. So obviously that doesn’t make sense: The goods can try clothes on!?

If you want to use ‘They’ as a substitute for ‘the goods’, that’s tricky but not impossible:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. They can be touched, and the material from which they were made can be seen and felt.

But that’s probably not what you wanted. You wanted ‘People’ as the subject of the second sentence, right? In that case you simply need to state the subject in the second sentence:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

Now you have nice cohesion between the two sentences, with ‘people’ in both sentences. However, to make your writing more coherent you could be more specific about ‘people’:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. People in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

And finally to avoid repetition you can do this:

  • When people go to real shops, the goods are visible. Customers in real shops can try clothes on and know what materials were used.

So in fact you didn’t need to use pronoun substitution. Instead the two sentences are glued together (cohesive) thanks to the use of ‘people (who) go to real shops‘ in sentence 1 and ‘customers in real shops‘ in sentence 2.

You could probably also use a synonym for ‘real’ in sentence 2, but I can’t think of one. Can you? Comments below! 🙂

Experiencing failure with countability

Moreover, a failure can be caused by a lack of practical experiences.

It’s annoying, I know, but while some nouns are countable and others are uncountable, yet others can be either countable or uncountable, and here are two examples in the same sentence: failure and experience.

Generally speaking, if a noun can be either countable or uncountable, and if you’re speaking generally, use the uncountable form. On the other hand if you’re talking about specific things then use the countable form – for example you may be talking about the time you failed an exam and saying what a terrible experience that was.

In the original example, I think we’re talking generally, right?

  • Moreover, failure can be caused by a lack of practical experience.

Meanwhile, using the countable versions of these words:

  • His brothers were all successful, but he was a failure. Receiving his exam results was an experience he would like to forget!

Can’t get no results satisfaction

If I am given more time in the reading test, I will answer all of the questions with satisfied results.

This is like the bored/boring distinction, right? Let’s say Bill is talking to Mary about space travel, but Mary is not interested in space travel. In this case Mary feels bored (the effect), but Bill is boring (the cause). (Indonesian flag In Indonesian there is an easy translation, where the suffix ‘kan’ behaves a bit like ‘ing’: boring > membosankan).

If we return to the original problem..

  • If I am given more time in the reading test, I will answer all of the questions with satisfying results.

‘Satisfying’ is the cause. The effect – satisfied – is something that you might feel when your results are satisfying.

You can also use a related word with a slightly different meaning:

  • If I am given more time in the reading test, I will answer all of the questions with satisfactory results.

Were you able to bargain for IELTS?

Budi tried to teach himself IELTS but made no progress. Then he discovered @guruEAP and last Saturday he could achieve band 7.0.

Ok,ok.. I made this one up. It may look like shameless self-promotion, but it’s a problem I often see in student writing.

Consider this scenario:

When @guruEAP first arrived in Indonesia he could speak only English and French. Now, after 20 years in Indonesia, he can speak Indonesian fluently. Last weekend he bought some bananas from the local market and he was able to negotiate a reasonable price.

Here there are two kinds of ability:

  1. A permanent ability that existed/exists continuously over time (“..he could speak../..he can speak..“). Note that this can be past or present.
  2. A temporary ability in the past that existed momentarily, relating to a particular event (“..he was able to negotiate..“). Note that this is always past.

So if we return to the original problem:

  • Budi tried to teach himself IELTS but made no progress. Then he discovered @GuruEAP and last Saturday he was able to achieve band 7.0.

Note that the temporary ability was required in a situation that was difficult and required effort / struggle.