Used to using ‘used to’

I’m not used to invite visitors to my house.

Used to‘ can have more than one meaning:

  1. I used to invite visitors to my house. (= I don’t invite them any more.)
  2. I’m not used to inviting visitors to my house. (= I don’t do it very often.)

If you’re talking about something you did regularly in the past, but don’t do now:

used to + V1

On the other hand if you’re talking about an activity that you don’t do very often and as a result find difficult or awkward:

used to ___ing

Let’s contrast these meanings one more time:

  • When Europeans visit Bali and eat in a restaurant, the staff assume that these visitors do not want to eat spicy food because Europeans are not used to eating spicy food.
  • On the other hand I have a Balinese friend who used to eat spicy food but had to stop because he developed stomach ulcers.

Ouch!

When ‘s’ is not enough

When you add an ‘s’ to some spoken words, you may need to do more than simply add ‘s’. Sometimes you have to add ‘Iz’, instead.

This happens to words that in their normal form end with these sounds:

/s/ – /ʃ/ – /ʧ/ – /ʤ/

  • box (/bɒks/) becomes boxes (/bɒksɪz/)
  • wash (/wɒʃ/) becomes washes (/wɒʃɪz/)
  • church (/ʧɜ:ʧ/) becomes churches (/ʧɜ:ʧɪz/)
  • language (/læŋwɪʤɪ/) becomes languages (/læŋwɪʤɪz/)

Try reading the following sentences aloud!

  • Bosses sit in offices filling pages with percentages.
  • Boxes, faxes and packages are all sent by businesses.
  • Nurses apply bandages and cure viruses.
  • Sausages and sauces stay fresh in fridges.
  • Witches make sandwiches from leeches and eyelashes.
  • An artist mixes paint and brushes it onto canvases.
  • Oranges grow on branches in the gardens of cottages.
  • Men who repair watches wear glasses with thick lenses.
  • People enter races to win prizes.
  • Foxes hide in bushes to avoid surprises.
  • People of both sexes sunbathe on beaches.
  • Birds in cages face disadvantages.
  • Noses of all shapes and sizes detect gases emerging from ashes.
  • When he’s away, he misses her kisses.
  • Students in colleges follow classes in the sciences. They write sentences using tenses in different languages.
  • People buy cars from garages, then drive inches from the edges of bridges.
  • Musicians of all ages appear on stages.
  • My friend washes dishes to earn wages and pay taxes.

Below is a recording of these statements made by a native English speaker.

Listen, pause, repeat. Try to sound like the speaker in the recording, especially at word endings – /Iz/!

I would if I could, but I can’t

I enjoy using Facebook because I could see photos of my friends there.

Students are often confused about can/could, will/would. Sometimes they have learned at school that could and would are more formal, or more polite than can and will. That may be true when you are requesting something, but in IELTS speaking and writing you’re usually using can and will to communicate possibility or ability rather than to make a request.

Possibility / Likelihood

How possible or likely is it?

  • I enjoy using Facebook because I can see photos of my friends there.

In this case there is a strong possibility (almost 100%) that I will see my friend’s photos on Facebook. In this case I need to use can.

Let’s imagine a similar situation where there is no possibility:

  • If I had an Internet connection, I could see photos of my friends on Facebook.

Here the writer clearly does not have an Internet connection and so he is not likely to see his friend’s photos. Notice that in this example could is part of a structure called ‘second conditional’, which is used to describe an unlikely situation in the present:

If + subj + V2 + ‘,’ + subj + could/would + V1

In the ‘second conditional’ the situation you are describing is unlikely:

  • If I found a million dollars in the street I would buy a new house.

This kind of imaginary situation is by far the most common context for could and would.

Will

Indonesian flag Indonesian students tend to overuse ‘will‘ because they want to translate ‘akan‘. But ‘will‘ is not used in English as much as ‘akan’ is used in Indonesian. Actually there are generally only three situations where will is suitable:

  1. ‘First conditional’ – a situation in the present that is highly possible:

Look at those clouds. I forgot my umbrella. If it rains I will get wet!

  1. Predictions

Look at those dark clouds! It will probably rain soon.

  1. Habits (usually annoying habits)

He drives me crazy. He‘ll (he will) trim his nails and then leave the cuttings all over the floor for me to clean up!

Ability

How able are you (or were you)?

It’s unusual to talk about past abilities, because once you acquire an ability, for example the ability to swim, you rarely lose that ability. It would be ridiculous, for example, to write:

  • When I was younger I could swim, but then I forgot how to swim so now I can’t.

We generally only lose this kind of ability when something terrible happens to us:

  • When I was younger I could swim, but then I lost my arms and legs in an accident and so now I can’t swim.

On the other hand ability can sometimes be a matter of degree. for example we can talk about partial ability, and about changes in our level of ability:

  • When I was younger I could swim 20km, but now that I’m old I can only swim 20 metres!

Most of the time when we talk about ability we use can – present tense – because, most of the time, we’re making a claim that is true now or always.

Practice

Select words from the drop-down menus to complete the text. When you have finished, click 'Check your answers!' for feedback.

OK I understand

My brother is at university. He says university assignments be very stressful. He actually failed his last assignment because didn’t answer the question properly. If he misinterprets the next assignment question he fail again and this be bad for his future career.

Answer Key

Answers here, but only if you're really stuck!

Summing up

Next time you write could or would stop and think. You probably should be writing can or will!

Children living behind the bar

Famous people are followed everywhere by the press. Their families sometimes feel they have to hide from reporters, and the children of famous people may feel that they are living behind the bar.

Here, again, we have a breakdown in communication caused by inaccurate use of articles.

Remember that for any noun there are 3 possible meanings:

  • all of them everywhere (or all of it for non-count nouns)
  • one of many (or some of many for plurals)
  • this one exactly (or these exactly for plurals)

I think the writer of the opening example meant to describe the bars in a prison, and was trying to use the idiom ‘behind bars‘ (grammar = some of many).

  • the‘ indicates this one exactly. If you are talking idiomatically about a prison window then that doesn’t look right. If there’s only one bar and unless it’s a very small window – or a very large bar – then the prisoner will be able to escape easily!
  • Meanwhile ‘the bar‘ has very strong connotations with the part of a pub or restaurant where people sit to drink alcohol. Add ‘behind‘ and you get ‘behind the bar‘ – the area where drinks are stored and where the bar staff prepare drinks for customers. Clearly this is not a suitable place for children!

behind the bar

I’m pretty sure the writer meant something like this:

  • Famous people are followed everywhere by the press. Their families sometimes feel they have to hide from reporters, and the children of famous people may feel that they are living behind bars.

Now the text carries two correct meanings:

  1. The ‘s‘ on ‘bars‘ gives us the grammatical meaning some of many – so, more than one bar. (high score in IELTS writing for grammar)
  2. behind bars‘ is an idiom – we don’t imagine the children actually in prison, they’re just ‘trapped‘ somehow, or their movements are restricted. (high score in IELTS writing for vocabulary)

Be careful with your meanings and choose articles (or ‘s‘) with care!

Eyeing the perfect past

In this post we’re looking closely at, or eyeing, past perfect tense. In a previous post I showed that past perfect tense is probably not very useful in IELTS writing and speaking. It belongs more to the narrative genre, and in IELTS we don’t write stories!

When I explain this to students and they look at me as though they don’t really believe me, and so we go ahead and look at a story to see how past perfect works. Continue reading

Less than perfect past

Through television broadcasting many people had known about the president’s vision and mission.

Even without looking at the surrounding text, it’s extremely unlikely that past perfect tense was the right choice here.

Actually there are very few situations in IELTS writing where past perfect is appropriate. The only time you might need it in the writing test is in Task 1. I deal with this in another post: past perfect in Task 1 writing.

Past perfect is used mostly in narrative when the writer wants to introduce events in non-chronological order, for example when certain events are for some reason more important than other events.

Most of the time past simple tense is all I need to recount a series of events in the past:

  • This morning I went to the bank and then I went to the post office.

On the other hand, if someone asked me “When did you go to the post office?” then I might reply:

  • This morning I went to the post office after I had been to the bank.

The chronology is the same – bank, then post office – but I was asked specifically about post office, and so I mentioned post office first.

Indonesian flag Again, this re-ordering of events is almost never necessary in IELTS writing, and seldom used in speaking. Indonesian students over-use past perfect tense and rarely use it appropriately. My advice would be to stop using it altogether, at least in the IELTS test!

For my next post I’m planning a listening activity to focus on the sequencing of events in narratives. Stay tuned!

The smartest use of articles

Before we get into the grammatical meaning of articles, I would just like to point out that in British English ‘smart‘ is more commonly used to mean ‘elegantly dressed‘. In American English it usually means ‘intelligent‘, hence the term ‘smartphone‘, although a lot of smartphones these days also look ‘smart‘!

Article‘ is also used in connection with clothing. We can talk about an ‘article of clothing‘ just as we can talk about an ‘item of clothing‘. And so ‘article‘ is sometimes a useful word for classifying clothes.

An ‘article‘ can also be a piece of writing in a magazine or newspaper!

But let’s get back to articles and grammar! (a[n], the, zero)

I was browsing through DIGG this morning and saw an interesting headline – interesting because it demonstrates two important functions of articles.

img_20160507_103141.jpg

This Isn’t a Smart Remote

If we say “a smart remote”, we’re not talking about one remote in particular. We’re talking in this case about a hypothetical remote – one of many.

This use of the indefinite article ‘a‘ to talk about one of many is extremely common in English, but is often neglected by students.

Indonesian students either omit the article completely, or use a strategy from their first language to communicate one of many, usually translating directly from ‘salah satu‘ (one of), or simply ‘satu‘ (one).

It’s The Smartest Remote

If we say it’s “the smartest remote” then we’re talking about this one exactly, without comparison.


Clearly the advertisers, or journalists, want us to think of this smartphone as somehow unique. It’s not one of many, it’s this one exactly.

One last time for good measure:

  • one of many – ‘a
  • this one exactly – ‘the

Try to use these articles in your writing and speaking to communicate these meanings accurately. Then watch as your IELTS grammar scores begin to increase!

Pronunciation by George

Indonesian flag Indonesians hate to add ‘s‘ to plurals, possessives and third person verbs. In Bahasa Indonesia these grammatical features are produced in other ways.

It’s also extremely unusual in Bahasa Indonesia to see two or more consonants together, which is often what happens when you add ‘s’ to the end of a word:

  • Mike’s (possessive, 2 consonants together)
  • expands (third person, 3 consonants together)
  • texts (plural, 4 consonants together!)

Pronouncing this final ‘s‘ is difficult for Indonesians and for some reason embarrassing, rather like when English people attempt to pronounce the French ‘r‘.

But if you want to communicate well, and if you want a good score for pronunciation in IELTS speaking, then you had better start producing the ‘s’ at word endings!

In this video, former student George does his best to put ‘s‘ in all the right places. I’ve added a scoring feature to help you follow his ‘performance’!

A good way to practice ‘s‘ is to record yourself, and then listen back following a tapescript. Focus on the ‘s‘ in particular. Exaggerate it. Make it longer and louder. In the IELTS test make sure the examiner can hear it!