Lemon Squeezy

Another song from @GuruEAP – this time to practice the words ‘easy‘ and ‘difficult‘. See also this earlier post for further practice of these not-so-easy items!

A free handout with lyrics and tasks for students accompanies the song. The video features Indonesian EAP students preparing to study abroad. Enjoy!

Not everything is ‘convenient’

Physical shops are more convenient than online stores. Firstly, in physical shops customers are able to touch goods and try on clothes. Secondly, shopping in physical shops can be a social activity.

There is a category of physical store aptly named ‘convenience stores‘. Many countries have 7 Elevens. In Indonesia we have Indomaret, Alfamart and Circle K.

Indonesian flag Indonesians might call a shop that sells everything at a low price ‘convenient‘. However, the prices in convenience stores like Circle K can be quite a lot higher than average. These shops inflate prices precisely so that they can offer ‘conveniences‘:

  • they are numerous, especially in cities
  • they have ample parking if they are situated on a road
  • they can even be found inside large shopping centres
  • they stock items that most people need on a daily basis
  • they provide fast and efficient service

These are all features that native English speakers would consider ‘convenient‘. In English something is ‘convenient‘ when it saves you time and effort. Being able to touch goods is not a matter of ‘convenience‘. It may be practical, but it is not what most people would call ‘convenient‘, and neither is meeting your friends when you go to physical stores.

For your convenience, here are some definitions of ‘convenience’, as well as some pictures of convenient things.

In(the) first place

In the first place is over-grazing, which caused 35% of land degradation.

Not a terrible error – we know what you mean! But still, it’s important to understand the distinction between ‘in first place’ and ‘in the first place’.

In IELTS Task 1 writing we often find ourselves ranking items as follows:

  • In first place is over-grazing, which caused 35% of land degradation. Meanwhile in second place, 20% of land degradation was caused by deforestation.

But what if you’re listing rather than ranking? Let’s say, for example, that you’re listing supports for an argument. In this case you need ‘in the first place’, ‘in the second place’, etc.:

  • Mr Jones cannot be the one who stole your car. In the first place he was in a different city when the car was stolen, and secondly he is blind!

In this case ‘in the first place‘ means ‘as the first consideration‘. It’s often used to introduce reasons that should be obvious but may need to be emphasised, as in the above example. Notice that it is unusual to continue ‘in the second place‘, ‘in the third place‘, etc. Better to switch to ‘secondly‘, ‘thirdly‘, and so on.

To sum up..

  • In first place..’ is useful in Task 1 writing (for ranking)
  • In the first place..’ is useful in Task 2 writing (for emphasising reasons)

TIP! If you’re doing this in IELTS Speaking, it can sometimes help you to structure an argument if you count off items using your fingers, perhaps under the table!


PS. See also my earlier post dealing with ‘in second place’ instead of ‘second winner’ (which does NOT mean ‘in second place’!).

Goodbye to ‘By’

By paying more attention to corruption can improve the welfare of a country.

Yet another Indonesian structure that doesn’t translate directly into English!

If you really must begin with ‘by‘ then you need…

  • By paying more attention to corruption, a government can improve the welfare of a country.
    By + [name of solution] + subject + verb (+ etc):

However, native speakers would probably just say “Goodbye to ‘By’” and go straight to the solution as the theme in the sentence:

  • Paying more attention to corruption can improve the welfare of a country.

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.


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.


How possible 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 there is no possibility of him seeing his friend’s photos. Notice that in this example could is part of a structure called ‘second conditional’, which is used to describe an unreal or imaginary 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.


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!


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.

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!

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

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

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! 🙂

Opinion in topic sentences

A student recently asked what is the difference between..

  • the topic sentence of a body paragraph
  • the main claim of the paragraph

Many students have read about topic sentences and believe that it’s essential to make a separate sentence to introduce the topic before making any kind of argumentative claim:

(sample body paragraph #1)

The first issue to discuss relates to the use of police time in the enforcement of marijuana laws. If marijuana is legalised then valuable police time will be saved. First of all, supporting idea one blah blah blah blah blah. In addition, supporting idea two blah blah blah blah blah. Furthermore, supporting idea three blah blah blah blah blah. Finally, supporting idea four blah blah blah blah blah.

  • sentence 1: topic only (saving police time), no opinion
  • sentence 2: topic (saving police time) plus opinion (valuable police time will be saved)

This is unnecessary repetition. The second sentence already contains the topic AND the main claim of the paragraph, and so it already behaves like a topic sentence:

(sample body paragraph #2)

If marijuana is legalised then valuable police time will be saved. First of all, supporting idea one blah blah blah blah blah. In addition, supporting idea two blah blah blah blah blah. Furthermore, supporting idea three blah blah blah blah blah. Finally, supporting idea four blah blah blah blah.

In academic writing it is generally a good idea to get to the point as quickly and concisely as possible. This kind of writing is much easier to read and is more likely to result in a good score in IELTS Task 2 for task response (TR) and coherence and cohesion (CC).