Archive for the ‘Grammar’ category

Absolutely Perfect: Understanding More about Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives

February 24, 2015

I’ve been watching clips from Britain’s Got Talent, and I’m always amused to hear Simon Cowell’s comments. When he’s not impressed, he’s brutally frank. And when someone performs with truly admirable talent, he doesn’t hold back in his praise. Earning words like “absolutely perfect” from the likes of Mr. Cowell makes most performers cry for joy.

Gradable and non-gradable adjectives are all around us. I’ve become very attuned to them in real-life contexts ever since I was asked to explain the concept. (See previous post.) I especially like paying attention to which adverbs speakers use to modify their adjectives. Besides TV personalities, I’ve listened to voices in the media. Journalist and editor W. James Antle III recently questioned the president’s request for new war powers: “You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Can you just be a little bit at war?” (I mean to provoke no political responses, please. It’s just an example I came across in my recently mailed copy of The Week.)

Whether we agree with Mr. Antle’s politics or not, we can acknowledge his grammar. When we use classifying adjectives, we normally don’t express them in degrees. Author Charlaine Harris would agree. She titled one of her vampire novels Definitely Dead.  Mr. Cowell’s infrequent words of praise are to be snatched as they come and used as examples. He reminds us that there are a limited number of adverbs we can use to modify non-gradable adjectives.

You might have a fun warm-up asking students to describe people or things that are:

  • utterly perfect
  • absolutely horrible
  • totally uncool
  • so alive (full of life)
  • completely harmless
  • completely hopeless
  • absolutely amazing
  • almost impossible
  • truly freezing
  • totally gorgeous

For a more in-depth study of adjectives that express an extreme or an absolute, please see my Absolutely Perfect_handout.



Antle, W. James., III. (2016, February 16). What kind of war does the AUMF authorize? The American Conservative. Retrieved from

Really, Truly Helpful: Understanding Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives

February 20, 2015

A question from a learner challenged me to formulate an explanation I hadn’t given before. I was asked to explain gradable and non-gradable adjectives. Sometimes students surprise me with their knowledge of terminology. Truthfully, I’ve never taught a lesson online or offline on this specific topic. Why?

I think  the concept of gradable and non-gradable adjectives is commonly broken down and spread out over time. For example, we first teach many descriptive adjectives to beginners, from appearance to size. As students move from high beginner to low intermediate, they learn comparative and superlative forms. It may not be spelled out directly, but learners pick up on the fact that only those adjectives that describe people and things are gradable. One car might be cheaper than another, but it certainly can’t be more American than another…unless you start arguing about parts, workers, factory locations and the like. Such an argument would be reserved for an advanced class.

And so the gradual mastery of adjectives continues. Some classifying adjectives begin to work their way into our lessons when intermediate students can more easily distinguish word forms, like Japan and Japanese or society and social. It’s at this point when students have more vocabulary that we can teach the order of adjectives. That topic is especially useful once upper level learners gain command of noun modifiers.

I think upper level students can benefit from seeing a distinction between gradable and non-gradable adjectives when they learn more advanced adverbs of degree. The many amplifiers and downtoners build up vocabulary. At this level, students already know how adverbs of degree function. They use very and and really all the time. But now they have the desire to write and say more sophisticated sentences, so they will appreciate the chance to learn slightly, fairly, somewhat, and extremely.

I think a helpful lesson on gradable and non-gradable adjectives would be one that prompted students to see the difference between descriptive and classifying adjectives and encouraged practice with adverbs of degree. If you’d like to expose your learners to this topic, please consider my Really, Truly Helpful_handout.

There’s certainly more to share, like the fact that some adjectives are descriptive in nature, but nevertheless non-gradable, such as gigantic. And why is someone either alive or dead, but we can use adverbs of degree to say, “I feel so alive, more alive than ever!” Perhaps I’ll devise a second handout to address those points. As mentioned, I think adjectives as a topic must be mastered in degrees.

Learning Phrasal Verbs: What You Need to Go Over

January 21, 2015

I try never to ask more of others than I do of myself. Creating a 20-day phrasal verb challenge is putting my stamina as a content creator to the test. I’m inviting learners to follow a series of short lessons for twenty days. That means I have to come up with a daily lesson for twenty days straight. We’re at Day 14 now. I’ll be relieved when I get to the homestretch.

Learners are doing a great job keeping pace, and a good number are creating their own examples or using the phrasal verbs in their comments. I can’t stress enough the need for multiple encounters and practice with feedback. I’m also placing strong emphasis on review, and in each lesson we go over meanings and forms. I think some students make the mistake of just learning the meanings, but then they struggle to use phrasal verbs correctly because they didn’t study forms or common contexts.

To help with the first half of my list, I already offered my Brushing Up_handout. Now for those who wish to cover the second half of the list with their students, here’s a similar activity: Going Over Phrasal Verbs_handout.

Brushing Up On Phrasal Verbs

January 9, 2015

I’ve decided to take on phrasal verbs again. I published four video lessons as an introduction to this grammar topic a few years ago, but of course, mastery of phrasal verbs is something that many learner still desire. I’m trying to follow my own set of Dos and Don’ts when it comes to teaching this topic. I think the most important factor is limiting the number of items presented and practiced at one time.

In my new series on YouTube, I’m going to present only twenty phrasal verbs. I intend to offer adequate practice and review. If you’re interested in helping students master the same twenty, you might like to have my Brushing Up_handout, which targets the first ten. I’ll come up with another activity for the second half of my list.

A Portrait of the Artist: Practice with Prepositions through Art

December 5, 2014

As I continue to discuss prepositions on YouTube, I find myself really searching for areas of confusion. Which prepositions do students confuse? In what contexts? How are some prepositions similar and what can I tell students to help them see distinctions?

I decided to study by, in, of, and with mainly in the context of art. In the video and in an interactive exercise, I explore other contexts. If you think your upper level students would enjoy returning to the context of art, I offer this: A Portrait of the Artist_handout. My suggestions make use of famous art and literary works. Other activities could easily extend from my handout. For example, students could be invited to read the works mentioned (Thurber’s “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”)

How-to Lists: Understanding and Using Parallel Structure

November 20, 2014

Certain instances of parallel structure are easy to understand. Compound subjects or objects, for example, are often the first types students put into use. A beginner can say, “Soup and pasta are my favorite foods.” or “I like TV and books.” Lists, either within a sentence or in bulleted form, tend to pose more challenges. I’ve often seen an incorrect mix of gerunds and base forms of verbs in a list of skills on resumes, for instance. Then come the correlative conjunctions, such as either…or. These structures are put into use at the intermediate level and above, and key to using them is understanding parallel structure.

Recognizing the need for exposure to and practice with parallel structure, I’ve created my How To_handout. It’s a writing activity that is designed for classroom use, but could easily be adapted for private lessons. I hope your upper level students will find it enjoyable to use.

Commenting on Halloween Costumes: Activities for Beginners

October 15, 2014

Halloween TreeSome of you who’ve been visiting my blog over the years may recall that I love Halloween. It’s one of my favorite U.S. holidays. I’ve already shared many activities with this holiday theme. However, looking over my past posts, I see that I should bring some balance into the offerings by creating at least one or two more activities that can be done with beginners.

Costumes are a very fun part of this holiday celebration, so that’s what we can focus on this year. Here are two activities you could try:

 1. Shop for costumes. This is more like window shopping from the comfort of the classroom. Select images of about a dozen costumes in advance (men’s, women’s, and unisex) and post the images for the class to view. I’d suggest a few popular choices (e.g., vampire, witch, ghost) to familiarize students with some vocabulary frequently used in conjunction with the holiday. However, I’d also recommend using some so-called career costumes. Students will already know doctor and basketball player. Introduce them to some new occupations: police officer, construction worker, scientist, pilot, astronaut, or sailor. You can throw in king and queen. After identifying the costumes, follow these steps:

Step 1 – Questions to practice with a partner: You can scramble the sentences and then have students unscramble them in pairs before taking turns with the Q&A.

  • What’s this costume?
  • Is there a (nurse) costume?
  • How much is it?
  • Is it expensive?
  • Do they have my size?
  • What sizes are there?
  • What size are you?
  • Do you like this costume?

Step 2 – Discussion. You have $50. You need a costume for a Halloween party. Which costume do you want? Why?

This activity could lead into a larger lesson on counting money, a vocabulary lesson related to shopping or jobs, or a grammar lesson on question formation. (Note: Many of the women’s…ahem…skimpy costumes sold online may not be appropriate, so choose carefully. You can always find images of homemade costumes and put sizes and price tags on them yourself.)

2. Describe costumes. This activity is like a Halloween version of the Fashion Police who patrol red carpet events. You can choose amazing, funny, cheap, and otherwise notable costumes. Sites like Pinterest might help your search. The idea is to see what language students already have and then build on that. Focus on adjectives. Help students use both attributive and predicative adjectives:

  • That’s a (silly) costume.
  • That costume is (silly).
  • I like that costume. It’s (clever).
  • I don’t like that costume. It looks (cheap).
  • What a (beautiful) costume!

You can lead into a deeper look at intensifiers: very, really, so. You can also introduce comparative adjectives if the students are ready.

For all levels, please consider ideas shared in previous posts:

Also, in the past, I discussed reasons for ELLs to be exposed to Halloween traditions. Click here to read.

Photo credit: “Halloween Tree” by Heather Franks. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.


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