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!

Noun phrase ‘__ed’ucation

Consequently, people lived in remote areas sometimes have limited access to learning resources.

Here the student wants to post-modify the noun ‘people‘ using a verb – ‘live‘. When post-modifying nouns using verbs, one option is to use a non-finite verb. Don’t worry you don’t need to google ‘non-finite’ – that’s just a fancy name for the following little group of verb forms:

  • __ing (fancy name ‘present participle’)
  • V3 (fancy name ‘past participle’)
  • to + v1 (fancy name ‘infinitive’)

If you’re using V3 to extend or ‘post-modify’ a noun, then you’re really using a kind of shortened relative clause:

  • ..people who are lived in remote areas..

In this case you end up with a passive construction (to be + V3), which obviously doesn’t make sense here because a thing or a person cannot ‘be lived‘.

Live‘ is an intransitive verb – it doesn’t take an object. But no worries, we can easily re-write the noun phrase with a relative clause and a transitive verb so that it makes sense:

  • ..people who are situated in remote areas..

Native speakers will nearly always shorten this relative clause to leave the non-finite verb only:

  • ..people situated in remote areas..

Finally, the noun phrase can now be incorporated into the sentence like this:

  • Consequently, people situated in remote areas sometimes have limited access to learning resources.

Alternatively we could stick with ‘live‘ but use __ing:

  • Consequently, people living in remote areas sometimes have limited access to learning resources.

In this case we are shortening another relative clause but we don’t have to consider whether or not the verb is transitive:

  • ..people who are living in remote areas..

When post-modifying nouns, native speakers generally use the shortened version without the relative pronoun.


To end this post, it’s worth putting non-finite verbs in context with other common methods for post-modifying nouns:

preposition phrases relative clauses __ing, V3, to+V1 time expressions

Sometimes these are interchangeable:

the number of plastic bags used by consumers in 2015 in America
the number of plastic bags used in America by consumers in 2015

And I’ll throw in a relative clause just to show off:

the number of plastic bags used by consumers in 2015 in America which are not made of biodegradable material

Notice that the __ed phrase also has a preposition phrase embedded into it:

used by consumers
used in America

And notice that time expressions are often also preposition phrases:

in 2015
on Tuesday
after I finished work
etc.

I hope all of that helps and look forward to hearing your feedback!

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!

In terms of

Google also increased steadily, although not as significantly as Facebook.

You make us extremely curious. Did Google and Facebook get bigger? Did they multiply? Or is it something more subtle that ‘increased’?

There’s a magic phrase you can use in IELTS Task 1 writing that will help you to make yourself clear:

in terms of

One more time:

in terms of

One mo, one more time:

in terms of

  • Google also increased steadily in terms of the number of users, although not as significantly as Facebook.

How to use it?

in terms of + the statistical unit being described

(In IELTS Task 1 writing the statistical units are usually given on the x and y axes of a graph, or somewhere close to a chart or table).

In terms of‘ is a lexical phrase in which all three words collocate strongly. In terms of IELTS vocabulary this is high band territory! And since it makes your writing clearer, your scores for Task Achievement (TA) and also for Coherence and Cohesion (CC) will also increase!

How low can you go?

Women having a first child was low in both years (1995 and 2005).

Women was low(?!) Here we have some subject/verb disagreement, and so I’m guessing that it was actually a different singular countable noun that was low, and not ‘women‘!

  • The percentage of women having a first child was low in both years (1995 and 2005).

Your opening theme was ‘women‘. If the women you mention were indeed low then this could mean several things (click for captions):

When you’re describing numbers, you must describe numbers. Remember that numbers are represented by statistics words: number, amount, percentage,rate, ratio, etc. If you do not use one of these words then your writing becomes very difficult to follow, and obviously this affects your IELTS score.

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! 🙂