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!

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!

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).

IELTS Task 2 opening with balls

The topic of change in people’s lives has been widely discussed recently.

The opening sentence of any essay is an opportunity to:

  1. introduce the topic
  2. arouse the reader’s interest in the topic

In the opening example the first aim was just about met – the topic is some aspect of change.

The second aim is not met. Let us not forget that the reader is an IELTS examiner. He or she is a well-educated person who reads a lot and keeps up to date with current events.

Is there anything at all in this opening sentence that is likely to arouse such a reader’s interest and make him or her want to continue reading?

  • Yes. Adding the word ‘recently‘ puts the topic in a time frame that is automatically attractive for most people.
  • No. The reader will be less interested in the fact that the topic has been ‘discussed‘. And since you’re not specific about the context of this ‘change‘, or what kind of ‘change‘, then the reader cannot yet predict the content or direction of your writing.
  • At the very best, the reader is hopeful that you will go on to say something interesting about ‘change‘ and that you will explain the significance of ‘recent discussion‘. If you don’t do these things then your writing will be dull and will lack coherence.

Next time do something more ballsy:

  • Recent economic and technological developments have caused unprecedented social change.

Your reader will find this interesting because..

  1. this reader is interested in anything ‘recent
  2. this reader is familiar with recent economic developments in general
  3. this reader is familiar with recent technological developments in general
  4. this reader is familiar with social change associated with recent economic developments
  5. this reader is familiar with social change associated with recent technological developments
  6. this reader is interested to know more about all of the above
  7. this reader is interested to know what you have to say about all of the above

If you can continue from this opening and satisfy your reader’s curiosity, then you will achieve a high score in IELTS Task 2 writing, at least for task achievement! (See public band descriptors)

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.

Consumptive consumers?!

Advertising tends to make people more consumptive.

Once upon a time consumption meant ‘wasting away’, but in the context of tuberculosis, not shopping. Of course these days consumption is still a kind of wasting, but not as life-threatening!

Coughing, consumptive customers

The modern habit of wasting money on wants rather than needs is consumerism:

  • Advertising tends to make people more consumeristic.

Compare: consumptive and consumeristic.