Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Meaning of AT LARGE

I found this on Yahoo Answers and wanted to share it:

Q: Where does the expression 'at large' originate, when referring to escaped criminals?

A: The original meaning of the word "large" included, "abundant, copious, plentiful, liberal" (from the Latin largus), so that "at large" meant "liberated, free". Today, "large" simply means "big" and all the variants of "big", but not "free". But the old idiom "at large" meaning "free" survives on.



Monday, December 14, 2009


Feeling in the Christmas spirit?

Why not learn the lyrics to a Christmas song? It's fun and it'll help you improve your English.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Where is the word OK from?

(From Yahoo Answers)

1839, only survivor of a slang fad in Boston and New York c.1838-9 for abbreviations of common phrases with deliberate, jocular misspellings (cf. K.G. for "no go," as if spelled "know go"); in this case, "oll korrect." Further popularized by use as an election slogan by the O.K. Club, New York boosters of Democratic president Martin Van Buren's 1840 re-election bid, in allusion to his nickname Old Kinderhook, from his birth in the N.Y. village of Kinderhook. Van Buren lost, the word stuck, in part because it filled a need for a quick way to write an approval on a document, bill, etc. The noun is first attested 1841; the verb 1888. Spelled out as okeh, 1919, by Woodrow Wilson, on assumption that it represented Choctaw okeh "it is so" (a theory which lacks historical documentation); this was ousted quickly by okay after the appearance of that form in 1929. Okey-doke is student slang first attested 1932. Greek immigrants to America who returned home early 20c. having picked up U.S. speech mannerisms were known in Greece as okay-boys, among other things.

H.L. Mencken once described "O.K." as "the most successful of Americanisms," an estimation verified by U.S. troops during the Second World War, who reported encountering the phrase all over the world. Of all the scores of theories (and sub-theories) as to the origin of "O.K.," the most widely heard traces "O.K." to the "O.K. Club," a political committee supporting Martin Van Buren's unsuccessful bid for the Presidency in 1840. The "O.K.," it is said, was short for "Old Kinderhook," Van Buren's nickname.

It appears that this theory is not so much wrong (the "O.K. Club" certainly existed) as it is incomplete. Chances are good the Van Buren's partisans would never have named their club "O.K." had the phrase not already been widely known as an abbreviation of "oll korrect," a humorous misspelling of "all correct." American speech in the early 1800s was awash in similar abbreviations, two of which, "N.G." ("no good") and "P.D.Q." ("Pretty Damn Quick"), are still heard today.

Ironically, while "O.K." didn't save Van Buren's campaign, the campaign gave "O.K." a new lease on life -- until then, it had never been as popular as a competing phrase, "O.W." (for "oll wright"). (By the way, before we start feeling too superior to the cornball 1800s, is "oll wright" really any worse than the "excuuuse me!" or "not!" fads of a few years ago?).

OK is without doubt the best-known and widest-travelled Americanism, used and recognised even by people who hardly know another word of English. Running in parallel with its popularity have been many attempts to explain where it came from — amateur etymologists have been obsessed with OK and theories have bred unchecked for the past 150 years.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Prescribe vs Proscribe

To prescribe is to advise or recommend someone to do something, or to impose something authoritatively.

A doctor can prescribe a certain medicine for you (recommend that you take it) by writing you a prescription for it (i.e. its name and details of how you should take it), to be given to a pharmacist.

In addition, he may prescribe (advise) that you take some exercise, e.g. a brisk walk for half an hour daily, for your general health.

When a law prescribes something, it means it imposes something authoritatively on everyone in the country. For example, in certain countries, the law prescribes that parents are responsible for the actions of their non-adult children. So if their children do something against the law, the parents are taken to court and tried.

To proscribe something, on the other hand, means to forbid something through the law of a country, or regulations of certain bodies.

For example, athletes taking part in Olympic games are proscribed from taking certain drugs to improve their performance.

As the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995) points out, it is important to see the difference between prescribed drugs (recommended by a doctor) and proscribed drugs (banned substances).

(courtesy of thestar.com.my)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

21 Accents

This is a great video showing 21 different accents (mostly) in English.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Tweet Tweet Tweet

RoadtoGrammar.com now has a Twitter page and is looking for followers to engage in discussions related to grammar and ESL.

English learners, Twitter is a great way to know what is going on in the world and improve your English at the same time.

Follow RoadToGrammar at twitter.com/roadtogrammar

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Going crazy with idioms!

In English, if you want to say that someone is crazy, you have a lot of choices! We have many idioms for calling people crazy and some of them are very colorful!

You can say that someone is:

Mentally unsound
Daft (UK English)
Out of his mind
A basket case

or that someone...
has lost his marbles
is one can short of a six-pack
is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic
has a screw loose

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Looks great on a projector!

A lot of teachers are lucky enough to have a laptop and projector set up in the classroom and with an internet connection too.

Heads up! Roadtogrammar.com is perfect for use with a projector! Project the quizzes onto the screen and go over the questions and answers with the entire class. I do it all the time and it really gets the students focussed.

Since almost every grammar topic is covered on roadtogrammar.com, it's a great resource that you can use anytime.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A new word every 98 minutes

New words are coined in English all the time. However, I didn't realize how many until I read this article on the BBC website.

Apparently a new word is created every 98 minutes and there are already one million words in English.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

The nature of communication

I have been reading up on linguistics and also reading about different definitions of communication. So far I haven’t found one that I am satisfied with, so I’m going to make my own:

Communication is a tool that we use to interact with the world around us.

When we are babies, we learn to interact with the world around us using our five senses, we see things, hear things, taste things, smell things and touch things. Perhaps communication is a sixth sense (no pun intended). Just as we poke at something with a finger to see how it reacts, we later poke at things with utterances to see how they react. As we grow, utterances become words, words become phrases, phrases become metaphors and so on. Hence when we communicate, we are not sending a message and waiting for a reply, we are sending an action and waiting for a reaction.

Take for example, the angry customer who shouts at the waiter. He isn’t sending a message. He is battering the poor waiter as a release for his frustrations and insecurities. When he sees the waiter react in an ‘appropriate way’, he stops. He then goes on to tell his dinner partners how you have to be tough with ‘these people’. Clearly, this communication is about psychology and status; even about causing pain and hurt.

Okay, from theory to practice. All this is nice, but how is it going to help us teach English? As we know, the communicative method is widely used in language teaching and one of the staples of the communicative method is role play. But how often do we give realistic role play scenarios to our students?
A typical role play may be a customer in a shop and it goes something like this:

Shopkeeper: How may I help you?
Customer: I would like to buy some sausages, please.
Shopkeeper: Certainly. How many would you like to buy…?

This kind of role play teaches communication as a way to send and receive messages. But when I go into a shop, the interaction is something more like the following. (I should add that I live in a country where English is spoken, but as a second language.)

Shopkeeper: (Sees me, recognizes that I am a foreigner, prepares to act accordingly)
Me: (Sizes up shopkeeper, wonder whether shopkeeper can speak good English or whether I should try another language, which would put me at a disadvantage.)
Shopkeeper: Hah? (local way of saying ‘Yes?’)
Me: Do you have sausages? (speaking slowly, still unsure how much English the shopkeeper speaks)
Shopkeeper: Sausages? (in case he heard me incorrectly)
Me: Yes. Four, please. (now confident that shopkeeper can speak English, but thinking to myself ‘this guy isn’t very polite, is he?’)
Shopkeeper: Three dollars. (plops bag on counter, thinks ‘I wonder if he’s American. I don’t like Americans since they invaded Iraq.’)
Me: ‘kay. (I’d usually say thank you, but since this guy is pretty rough and ready, I won’t bother.)

Of course, this is an interaction between a native speaker and a non-native speaker in a country where English is spoken as a second language. You may be thinking that your interactions with shopkeepers are rather different. But the point is that these conversations do not follow ‘textbook English’. So we owe it to our students to make role plays a little deeper. Give the characters some attitude. Put them in a socio-cultural setting. It’s not hard and it may even teach the students extra vocabulary. It will definitely help them to form a link between what they experience in English class and what they experience ‘on the street’.

So that is just one way that we can improve our teaching by taking a more realistic view of communication. Know any more? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

You, You, You and You.

Did you know that the word, ‘you’ has at least four meanings?

1 The first use is of ‘you’ as the second person singular:

Jack, where are you going?

We are talking to Jack and you refers to Jack. Hundreds of years ago, English speakers used the word, ‘thou’ as the second person singular and distinguished it from the second person plural, but this was lost in time.

2 The second use of you is the second person plural.

Class, you must complete your homework on time.

We are talking directly to a group of people and we refer to them by you (and your).

3 Next, we have something called the ‘generic you’. Although this is rarely mentioned in grammar books, it is extremely common. The generic you means ‘anyone’:

You can’t make a cake without eggs.

A more formal way of saying this is to use ‘one’:

One can’t make a cake without eggs.

In fact, this is called the ‘generic one’.

English learners first come across the generic you when they learn basic classroom language:

How do you spell that?
How do you pronounce that?

Perhaps that accounts for the common mistake:

How to spell that?

Learners feel that ‘you’ does not make sense, so they substitute it with ‘to’. But the reason it does not seem to make sense is that they have not yet learned the ‘generic you’. Of course, even advanced level students and teachers may not be aware of the generic you.

4 The final use of you is to talk about oneself. Consider this exchange:

Billy: How are you holding up since Linda passed away?

Grampa: Well, you do get lonely sometimes, but I will persevere.

Notice the use of you to distance the speaker from a sensitive topic. Once again, we could use ‘one’ in its place or we could just say ‘I’:

Well, one does get lonely sometimes, but I will persevere.
Well, I do get lonely sometimes, but I will persevere.

This last usage
is the least common.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The world of teaching English is a world of acronyms. People often assume that EFL (English as a foreign language) students are basically the same as ESL (English as a second language) students. Here, I would like to point out one of the main differences and what this means to English teachers.

The EFL student learns English in the classroom, mentally puts it on a shelf, and brings it out to use as a tool, when necessary. The EFL student has less exposure to the language and may use ‘textbook’ or formulaic phrases in conversation. In many cases, even though the student has learned English at school for many years, this may not seem to be reflected in their ability.

The ESL student uses English as a second language. For example, in many families in the US, Spanish is spoken at home while English is spoken at work. It may be that the student has never formally studied English, but has picked it up from being ‘thrown in the deep end’, or forced to use it in the workplace. The ESL student has probably picked up slang and has been forced to speak English without paying attention to accuracy. They have great comprehension skills (listening, reading), but weaker production skills (speaking, writing) and much weaker core language skills (grammar) but excellent vocabulary in their field of work or study.

So which type of student should be easier to teach? For me, it’s the EFL student and I will explain why.

Have you ever heard this story about Zen Buddhism? A new student seeks to study under a great master and talks at great length to impress him with his knowledge of Zen. The master pours him a cup of tea, but continues to pour after the cup is full, spilling tea all over the table. The master explains, ‘You are like the cup. How can I fill you with knowledge when you are already full? Before you study with me, you must empty your cup.’

The EFL student is like an empty cup waiting to be filled. The ESL student, on the other hand, is like the cup that is already full. The ESL student may have ‘false friends’ that he uses to make himself understood. For example, some speakers of European languages like to say ‘no?’ – ‘It’s true, no?’ Because they are understood, they continue to use it and avoid using a more natural way of saying it – ‘It’s true, isn’t it?’ Simply teaching them what is correct and what isn’t is not enough. You are asking them to change the way that they have been speaking, maybe for years. What you are asking of them is behavioral change. And any training that involves behavioral change is a lot more challenging than training that simply involves knowledge transfer or gaining a new skill.

In summary then, one of the main differences between teaching ESL and EFL students is that, although ESL students often have better skills in many areas, to move forward, they need behavioral change.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Some idioms

It's time to look at some idioms on the topic of punishments! The first idiom we will look at is, 'Heads will roll!' When someone says heads will roll, what they mean is that there will be strong punishments given out. This idiom goes back to the days where people got their heads cut off as a punishment (and the heads rolled along the ground).

The next idiom is 'call for his head', which pretty much works the same way. If you call for someone's head then you are asking for an extreme punishment to be given. Sometimes, people ask for 'his head on a plate'. This idiom refers to the Bible story of John the Baptist, whose head was presented on a plate. (Yuck!)

The final idiom is 'marching orders'. If someone is given their marching orders, it means they are asked to leave (the company). Occasionally, this idiom may be used in a different way, and it may mean to 'start something', such as a battle or fight.

Here are some examples in use of our three idioms:

The advertising campaign was a disaster! Heads will roll for this.
After the politician was caught stealing, the media are calling for his head.
After yet another mistake, Alan was given his marching orders.

Google the three idioms and see what you find!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fun vs Hard Work

I have known a lot of teachers who I would call ‘activity teachers’. They fill their class time with games and songs and physical activities. On the other hand, there are the ‘book teachers’, who go through the textbook, never missing an exercise and getting the students to do plenty of hard work.

So who is right?

My belief is that learning English should be a balance between hard work and fun.

The problem with the activity teachers is that a fun game may take twenty or thirty minutes to play and the students may end up learning a handful of words. Imagine trying to learn English this way. It would be a slow and, in the end, tedious process.

The problem with the book teachers is that books often do not put the language in context or make it fun. Although a lesson from a book may be richer than a game in terms of language knowledge gained, the students are less likely to relate and less likely to retain the knowledge.

So the learning process needs to be a balance to get it right. And in particular, games need to be focused and rich in learning points. Exercises from books need something to give them bite and make sure the students remember. A roleplay is a good example of a balance between these two styles – it is fun like a game, but it can be rich in learning and easily related to a book lesson.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Word Forms

It is important to be able to recognize word forms. Why? So that when you learn a new word, you will be able to use it properly. Many learners struggle to know the difference between 'confidence' and 'confident', for example. However, if you understand word forms, and you have a dictionary, you can work it out for yourself.

There is a new exercise on Road To Grammar at www.roadtogrammar.com/wordforms that will allow you to practice over 300 word forms at easy or advanced level. The questions are randomized and you will be retested on incorrect answers. At the end of the quiz, you will have a chance to review any wrong answers.

Best of luck with your English!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Learn about collocations

Collocations are word-pairs that go together. For example, we match the words, ‘afraid’ and ‘of’ – Tomi is afraid of spiders.

English is full of collocations and this is something that is often difficult for English learners. Let’s have a look at eight word sets that we can use to describe job responsibilities:

responsible for
report to
work for
liaise with
in charge of
deal with
come up with
take care of

You can use these phrases to describe your job:

I work for a company called Synnexia. I am responsible for the company website and I report to the IT manager. I am also in charge of our online ordering systems and I liaise with the Accounts Department. I come up with ideas for improving and upgrading the site. I deal with the online orders that we receive and I take care of any technical problems which occur.

For more practice on word combinations, try quizzes 1, 45, 342 and 343 at http://www.roadtogrammar.com/

Monday, January 26, 2009

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs have confused English learners for a long time. They seem to be made up of a verb plus a preposition; for example, 'watch over'.

Sometimes the meaning is clear, as it is in 'drive away', meaning to drive away from this place. Sometimes the meaning is tough to guess, as in 'take up', meaning to start a new hobby. There are thousands of idioms in English and they were made popular by William Shakespeare, who used them extensively in his plays.

Learn 80 of the most common phrasal verbs here:


New Quiz: YOUR and YOU'RE

There is another new quiz on Road to Grammar on the topic YOUR and YOU'RE - many learners - and even native speakers - mix up these two ...