Archive for the ‘Grammar’ category

In like a Lion, Out like a Lamb: Practice with similes

March 13, 2014

March Comes in Like a Lion and Goes Out Like a LambOn this mid-March day the snow is falling yet again, and I am reminded of the saying, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.”

Similes are so short, and yet so colorful and exact. Once students are aware of these structures, they’ll begin to note the use of similes in the language they hear and read every day, from songs to novels.

I’ve offered suggestions in the past for using similes and metaphors in the classroom, but today I decided to share my ideas using only similes with animals. There are so many to choose from, and being mindful that too many can cause information overload, I designed an activity only with ten comparisons. It’s optional to add in others. Please look at my In like a Lion_handout. I hope you and your students enjoy it.

Additional similes available at

Photo credit: “March Comes in like a Lion and Goes out like a Lamb” by Jan (garlandcanncon) retrieved from under Creative Commons.

Finding Four-leaf Clovers: Practice with compound modifiers

March 6, 2014

"Clover" by penninoSt. Patrick’s Day is around the corner. Although it’s one of the smaller holidays on our calendar, it still represents a chance to talk about culture and tradition. My Spring Playlist on YouTube highlights an old video I made in honor of March 17.

I’ve shared some teaching ideas in the past connected to St. Patrick’s Day. I’d like to offer a new activity for upper level students who could benefit from a review of and expansion on compound modifiers. Please consider using my  Finding Four-leaf Clovers_handout. Additional information on compound words was posted back in 2009. This newest activity challenges students to identify compound words by structure and form new ones based on these patterns. Enjoy the creative writing segment!

Photo credit:

“Clover” by pennino retrieved from Creative Commons

As Long As We’re on This Topic: Using “as long as” with multiple meanings

February 28, 2014

It never ceases to surprise me how a small grammar question throws me into a quest for information so that I can offer the best explanation possible. A member of my forum asked me about as long as this week, and even as I began to write my initial response, I realized I was only touching the tip of the iceberg.

The learner heard the line “as long as you love me” in a song and asked about the meaning. Was it really part of a conditional statement? Likely, but I’d need to see all the lyrics to understand the context. My first response to the learner addressed only two possible meanings of as long as: condition and time. (Examples: As long as you are careful, you may borrow my laptop. = condition, “if” or “provided that” / You can keep that book for as long as you want. = time, “for that length of time”) Looking at different dictionary entries, I was reminded that as long as could also express reason, much like the conjunction since. (As long as we’re on this topic… = Since we’re on this topic…).

How challenging! Not only can as along as express three different meanings (time, reason, condition), it also has structural variations: so long as and for as long as. I also began to create examples to become aware of patterns in syntax. No wonder there were doubts about the meanings and uses of as long as. There is quite a lot of variation possible.  I started to see how as a time expression, (for) as long as tended to appear after the verb and in a final position. In contrast, adverb clauses of condition and reason with as long as can have an initial or final position.  (Example:  You may borrow my laptop as long as you are careful.)

If you wish to help learners clear up any doubts and deepen their understanding about as long as, please consider using my As Long As_handout. I hope you agree with my explanations. Please feel free to comment or offer suggestions.

Also, you may like to check out different song lyrics with this structure. How about the theme song to an old TV show? As Long As We’ve Got Each Other from Growing Pains.


Moving Day!

February 13, 2014
“Packing in Progress”

“Packing in Progress”

We often draw from our personal experience when we contextualize language for our students. I think this is one way we succeed in connecting with learners and increase the authenticity of the experience.

My next choice for the Language Notes series is prompted by my family’s recent move to a new town. While this is the first move with my children, this is the fifth or sixth move I’ve made with my husband over the years. How common are moves in the U.S. or another country? This is an interesting question to discuss. What are moves like and how does one handle the search for a new home?

If you’d like to start this discussion with your students, please consider using my Language Notes_11_classroom slides. See what language they have for a conversation about types of housing and the process of moving. My video will serve as a focused study of relevant vocabulary. Later on their own, students can use my interactive crossword to review key words and expressions.

The topic of housing could easily flow into a review of structures that express purpose and reason, namely because, so that, as, for, and in order to. Please take a look at my Moving Day_handout and see if the grammar level is right for your group of students.

Photo credit: “Packing in Progress” by Ben W (Ben+Sam)

Retrieved from

(Creative Commons)

Cheering Our Students On

November 6, 2013
Photographer: Michael Neel (Flickr)

Photographer: Michael Neel (Flickr)

Taking taekwondo classes over the past few months has put me firmly back into the role of a learner. As with any subject, I’m discovering that some aspects are more easily mastered than others.  I feel pretty good about picking up the forms, and I’m pleasantly surprised to say I enjoy working with weapons. However, I feel like a fish out of water when it comes to sparring.

No one enjoys being bad at something. If you aren’t immediately good at a particular task, it can be hard to find the will to go on.  But if you keep your end goal in mind and realize that there are many parts of a whole, then you are willing to devote time and effort to mastering each task. That willingness will increase and possibly turn into genuine interest with the right amount of support.

In short, I’ve become more willing to spar because I’m in a supportive environment, and my efforts are meeting with small amounts of success. I am now able to recognize I’m actually getting better! My martial arts experience is not unlike a language learner doing well in one area, like grammar, and struggling in another, say, pronunciation.  The struggle in a particular area can stir up frustration and self-doubt.  If a learner’s effort is not encouraged and supported, then it is difficult to go on. Had my instructor not told me funny anecdotes about his own struggles and had my classmates not cheered for me when I stepped into the sparring ring, I might have given into tears and quit after the first time I got kicked in the head!

I don’t mean to say we need to bring out the pom-poms and the marching band as ELTs, but we do need to think of ways to infuse lessons with a positive tone.  One strategy I sometimes use is choosing or designing uplifting content.

In a recent lesson with a beginner, I felt that more review of irregular comparative adjectives and adverbs was needed. I wanted to reinforce the grammar, but develop comfort with speaking and pronunciation. As a result, I created a simple set of tasks that I can share with classroom teachers in the form of my Good, Better, Best_handout. I hope you’ll appreciate the secondary intention, which was to cheer the learner on.

Photo “Half-time Show” by Michael Neel (Creative Commons)

Retrieved from

Student Stumper 40: Does the verb BE always link a subject to a complement?

October 24, 2013

QUESTION: Does the verb BE always link a subject to a complement?

ANSWER: If there’s one grammar topic that will take me the rest of my life to understand completely, it may be complements!  Recent questions on my forum have tested my humble knowledge on this topic. If only I could start with clear questions. I do not mean to imply that the learners lacked the ability to word questions clearly. Instead, the source of confusion itself is murky, so I must first explore the nature of each question before I can start searching for answers.

One question concerned the use of a prepositional phrase after BE: The professor is of German descent. The learner wanted to know why the preposition could be in that position. I replied that some may identify “of German descent” as a subject complement, but I knew that more of an explanation was needed. Greenbaum and Quirk helped me confirm that complements are typically noun or adjective phrases, while adverbials are generally adverb phrases, prepositional phrases, or a clause (207). However, they also recognize the odd behavior of prepositional phrases when they are semantically similar to adjective or noun phrases: “The distinction between obligatory adverbial and complement is not clear-cut for all prepositional phrases” (208).

In short, if we focus on semantics, “of German descent” describes the subject. We could just as easily use an adjective and say, “He is German.” Greenbaum and Quirk noted other prepositional phrases with noun or adjective equivalents: under suspicion – suspects / in good health – healthy (208). We could add idiomatic expressions, such as out of this world – awesome / off his rocker – crazy. From the standpoint of semantics, all these prepositional phrases can behave like a complement, defining the subject. In contrast, the prepositional phrase “in my office” merely completes the sentence as an adverbial: I am in my office. BE is used to express existence, and the prepositional phrase gives information about my location. Agreed?

A second question had me looking hard at a very common structure, so common that I never really thought about labeling all the parts. Another learner wanted to know about the use of  existential there, i.e., using there as a dummy subject. The question concerned the phrase “There should be…” and focused on the role of BE. I’ve always just worked with  “there is/ there are” as a single unit used to state the existence of something: There are many problems in the world. There will be many joys ahead.  There should be rainbows in every childhood.  “There” isn’t the true subject of the sentence. We know whatever follows BE is the subject: problems, joys, and rainbows. It doesn’t matter what form BE takes.

In this use, Biber et al. refer to there as an anticipatory subject (88).  If the true subject follows BE, then we cannot label that subject as a complement as well.  Instead, we could place “there” in parentheses and label our true subjects as problems, joys, and rainbows,  noting that BE remains a copular verb expressing existence, but it isn’t there to link the subject to a complement: Many problems are in the world. Many joys will be ahead. Rainbows should be in every childhood. In these new sentences, aren’t we simply using a prepositional phrase or an adverb to indicate time and place (i.e., adverbials)?

Now the short answer: Does the verb BE always link a subject to a complement.  - No.


Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.

Multiple Meanings of Adverbs

October 1, 2013

MC900320634_partnersA question about adverbs from an advanced learner sent me to my reference books recently. If he had asked about only or fortunately, it would have been much easier. Some adverbs are easy to classify. As Jay Maurer explains, only helps us focus our attention on some element in a sentence (301): I can answer only the first question, not the second. (Focus is placed on “the first quetion.”) Fortunately falls into the category of adverbs that help us express viewpoint (300): Fortunately, I had help. (A favorable opinion is expressed about the main statement.)

However, the student was asking about mostly. The dictionary told me that a similar word was mainly. Although Maurer lists mainly among viewpoint adverbs (300), a larger discussion reveals how nimble this word can be. Consider the following sentences, noting that mainly could be substituted:

  • Mostly I get questions about grammar on my forum.
  • I get questions mostly about grammar on my forum.
  • I get questions about grammar mostly on my forum.
  • I get questions about grammar on my forum mostly.

In some cases, more context is needed to interpret the speaker’s meaning, correct? Is mostly modifying the whole sentence or focusing on one element and somehow limiting its meaning? Now please look at this pair of examples:

  • I really appreciate your help. Really, truly I do, and I want you to know that.
  • I really appreciate your help.  I am so very grateful.

Would you agree that the first “really” expresses the truth of my statement and the second “really” helps me express the extent of my gratitude? It’s interesting to note that word order doesn’t always change the meaning of an adverb; context and intonation play important roles.

When Biber opens the discussion on stance vs. circumstance adverbials, he recognizes ambiguity, particularly with adverbs expressing extent or degree (857). Biber helps shed light on multiple functions of adverbs such as really by noting an epistemic stance meaning (e.g., really meaning “in truth”) in an initial or final position (857): Really, I appreciate your help. Truly I do!

I think mostly, mainly, and really have a high degree of flexibility compared to other adverbs. But instead of confusing students with teacher jargon like “epistemic stance meaning” and “adverbials of extent,” I suggest we let them explore the multiple meanings of a given adverb through use. I offer my Multiple Meanings_handout as a way to guide students’ explorations.

A reasonable amount of terminology could be helpful to label uses of certain adverbs. If you choose to work with my handout, you might also make use of Biber’s Longman Student Grammar of Written and Spoken English, in which intensifiers and diminishers are discussed (209-210). Then everything should be mostly clear!


Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Biber, D., et al.  (2002).  The Longman student grammar of spoken and written English.  London:  Longman.

Maurer, Jay. (2006). Focus on grammar: an integrated skills approach. Book 5. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education Limited.

Chain of Events: A reading activity with complements

August 30, 2013

kittenComplements seem to be a popular topic among learners on my forum lately. One question already led to a new Student Stumper post here on my blog. Now another one is guiding my own study of what forms complements can take and how they function in a sentence.

A learner asked if nouns can behave like adverbs and posted, “We could have parted friends.” Obviously, part is not a transitive verb in this example, so what function does friends serve? I hope you’ll agree that could have parted is linking the subject and its complement. I don’t see the noun as an adverb, as the learner assumed, but instead friends identifies we. Correct? The verb part is not as common as become or remain, but all three verbs can function in the same position for the same basic purpose.

I found it helpful to review the presentation of copular (linking) verbs given by Biber, Conrad, and Leech (141).  They conveniently identify “current” and “result” copular verbs, breaking it down further into verbs that express a state of existence, verbs used for sensory perception, and verbs that identify a result. With these functions clearly in mind, it becomes easier to understand sentences, such as, “We parted friends.” In that example, I see the friendship as a result of some experience or process. I can then identify friends as a subject complement.

Perhaps your students will find it helpful to approach copular verbs and complements through their function as well. To make it even easier, I’ve created a context for all three kinds of copular verbs. Please take a look at my Chain of Events_handout, and see how this reading activity familiarizes learners with the functions of copular verbs and the kinds of complements they can appear with. This simple story about a woman finding a lost kitten is written in the style of those choose-your-own-adventure books many of us read as kids.  Enjoy!


Biber D. et al. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Student Stumper 38: The Grammar of Perception Verbs (Part 2)

August 8, 2013

Q: If you say, “Listen to Mona sing,” how is the word sing functioning in that sentence?

A: It took some thinking and digging for me to decide on an answer. I had originally addressed verbs of perception in Student Stumper 14, but one thing I did not focus on in that post was labeling the verb forms that follow the direct object. In that earlier discussion, I explored only the difference in meaning of two similar structures: I saw the man enter the building. [completed action] and I saw the man entering the building.  [action in progress] I feel the discussion was productive, and the difference became clearer to me in the process of writing.

However, I won’t shy away from revisiting a tricky topic in order to understand it more fully. A recent question on my community forum prompted me to think more about the grammatical functions of each word in those structures. I suppose it would be easier to recognize “sing” and “enter” in our examples not as the base form of the verb, but as a bare infinitive. Once we start talking about infinitives, we can then jump into the category of complements. So if you help me (to) figure this out, we can discover similarities between infinitives as object complements and bare infinitives as object complements.

Greenbaum and Quick discuss this pattern with perceptual verbs (as well as causative verbs) under the heading Direct object and bare infinitive clause (351).  When you say that you see someone do something or hear something happen, those are examples of what they call complex-transitive complementation.  In other words, “see” and “hear” take an object, and that direct object is followed by a complement.  The words “do” and “happen” are bare infinitives that function as the complements.

Biber, Conrad, and Leech agree with the label bare infinitive clause (329). They note that the pattern verb + noun phrase + bare infinitive clause is more frequent in conversation and fiction, though infinitive clauses are more common in general.

As for sentences, like “I heard the song sung by Mona” and “I heard Mona singing that song,” I believe we’re dealing with present and past participles also functioning as complements. Agreed? Greenbaum and Quick cite such structures as additional examples of complex-transitive complementation (352).

Whew! That wasn’t so bad, was it? I’ve known other topics to give more trouble. (See the final example of an infinitive complement clause?)


Biber D. et al. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.

What the World Needs Now: Practice with embedded questions as subjects

June 11, 2013

MC900437801love earthI realize that the title of my post can be read more than one way. I actually meant the title to follow the pattern of many of my other posts: title of activity + targeted language point. What resulted was an unintended proclamation that the world needs more grammar, specifically practice with embedded questions! Well, that’s not wholly inaccurate. Many people do indeed need more grammar practice.

The activity that I’m sharing today resulted from a question a YouTube viewer posted on my channel. I realized that in my videos on embedded questions I hadn’t adequately addressed the nature of these noun clauses when used in the subject position. In most cases, embedded questions will take a singular verb, like any subject that refers to a singular idea.

  • How much I love grammar is likely clear by the number of posts I have on this subject. [subject = embedded question]
  • Studying grammar is every teacher’s responsibility. [subject = gerund phrase]
  • That grammar can be confusing even to teachers is no surprise. [subject = noun clause with that]

However, what-clauses behave differently. At the prompting of that YouTube viewer, I came up with examples to recall the patterns:

  • What we need are people with communication skills.
  • What we need is a person with strong communication skills.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find confirmation of this pattern in any of my reference books, so I turned to Stacy Hagen, who restored my peace of mind by confirming that I was on the right track. A huge thank you to Stacy for clarifying that a what-clause + BE followed by a plural noun calls for a plural verb. She added that the rule should be observed in formal English. I see this behavior of  what-clauses as similar to “There…” in the subject position.

  • There is a need for clarification.
  • There are no books in my library that helped me.
  • There is a clear pattern here.
  • There are always patterns when you open your eyes and look for them.

The only thing left to do was to confirm these findings for that student and come up with a fun way for other learners to gain practice with embedded questions in a subject position. I hope you, too, will enjoy using the song What the World Needs Now Is Love and my What the World Needs Now_handout.

By the way, when I searched on YouTube for recordings of Dionne Warwick singing this tune, I found one with clear audio and one with a wonderful comment posted by a viewer: “Great song, great singer. What the world needs these days are more of both.”


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