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!

Use ‘it’ with care

People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since it cannot be provided by retail shops, online shopping may be the solution.

To make your writing ‘flow’ so that pieces of information connect together well, use ‘itonly when ‘it‘ refers back to the subject of the previous sentence.

When you use ‘it’ then the subject will be either singular countable or uncountable:

  • My watch was expensive. It is a gold watch. I love it.
  • Beer is delicious. It is also expensive. I love it.

In the opening example the reader searches for but cannot find a subject to match ‘it‘. For a start, all of the nouns are plural!

After re-reading the text two or three times we see you are using ‘it‘ to refer to ‘the things people want to buy‘, which is rather confusing since ‘the things people want to buy‘ is not the subject of the previous sentence and it is neither singular countable nor uncountable.

This kind of mismatch interrupts the flow of information in the text and brings down your score for coherence and cohesion in IELTS writing, as well as your score for fluency in IELTS speaking.

In order to maintain ‘flow’ in the online shopping example, you need to do this:

  • People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since the things that people who live in remote areas want to buy cannot be provided by retail shops, online shopping may be the solution.

And for even better flow you can remind your reader about the context of those retail shops. After all, you’re not talking about retail shops in the middle of a large city, are you?

  • People who live in remote areas sometimes have limited access to the things they want to buy. Since the things that people who live in remote areas want to buy cannot be provided by retail shops in those areas, online shopping may be the solution.

Students often complain, “..but now there’s a lot of repetition!”

Perhaps, but your first priority is to communicate effectively. If the only way to achieve this is by repeating a few words, then you MUST repeat them.

And remember – ‘it‘ refers back to the subject of the previous sentence. Do not make the following mistake:

If your dog poos..

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!