Archive for the ‘Grammar’ category

Couldn’t Be Better: Understanding the Modal Verb ‘Could’

July 28, 2015

After exploring the forms and uses of could in my previous post, I feel it’s a good time to offer an activity for upper level students who need to strengthen their mastery of this particular modal verb. Please consider my Couldn’t Be Better_handout. The activity tests students’ ability to understand the different meanings of could. Students are not only exposed to this modal verb in meaningful contexts, but they are prompted to respond in a variety of ways to demonstrate their comprehension. Enjoy.

Spotlight on the Little Guys: Prepositions

June 9, 2015

Prepositions may not get as much attention as verb tenses or modal verbs, but they sure raise a lot of questions. Every so often I think we can take some time and provide some answers.

My goal for this month is to continue building my video playlist on prepositions. As I continue to work my way through points of confusion, I recognize both the divisions and the overlap in usage. How challenging it is for a language learner! On the other hand, the overlap raises the odds that a guess will prove to be right.

Of course, those should be educated guesses, so as teachers we can serve our students by helping them understand the meanings of prepositions. For example, both during and throughout can refer to a period of time, but throughout really emphasizes the whole period, so it’s a good choice when you wish to emphasize that an action or condition is constant: My parents have supported me throughout my academic career. / There have been conflicts among humans throughout history.

If you’d like to test the accuracy of upper level students with prepositions of time, namely at, in, on, during, throughout, and over, then please consider my At Any Time_handout.

Chances Are: Practice with “That” Clauses

June 5, 2015

I’m taking on the topic of noun clauses with a private student. I plan to cover embedded questions, but first I want to work with that clauses. Those are the first kind of noun clauses students likely understand and produce. Even high beginners can start making statements with “I think (that)….” By the time learners reach the intermediate level, they easily understand many more that clauses in context, especially with reported speech (She said that…), direct objects (I know that…), and even adjectives (I’m happy that…).

Context is always key, so in my Chances Are_handout I focus on the topic of life dreams. It’s an easy topic to use for speaking or writing activities should you wish to connect my exercises to other activities of yours. I had upper level students in mind for this handout. Enjoy!

The Answer to Everything: Practice with the Prepositions For, To, and With

May 29, 2015

Prepositions are problematic for many English language learners. Presenting some collocations to students can certainly help them understand what a particular preposition expresses and what kinds of nouns, verbs, or adjectives that preposition combines with. For example, talk with someone, argue with someone, and speak with someone all refer to communication involving two or more people. “With” expresses the idea of being together or being involved in some activity. That’s why we can also say bored with something or fascinated with something.

There are a lot of collocations, so the key is to limit exposure and make time for meaningful practice. If you’d like to give your students some practice with for, to, and with, please consider my discussion activity: The Answer to Everything_handout. I’ll tackle more collocations in my next video lesson on prepositions.

Dedicated to You: Practice with the Prepositions TO and AT

May 20, 2015

I’m finally turning my attention back to prepositions. My goal is to address some common points of confusion. In my next video lesson, I’ll explain some uses of TO and AT. Have you ever heard someone confuse throw a ball to someone versus throw a ball at someone? That’s one point I’d like to cover. The difference in meaning is rather important, isn’t it?

You could have some fun teaching some collocations with TO and AT.

  • Song Dedications. Guess the most popular songs people dedicate to their loved ones. Look at some lists online. Do students approve of the song choices?
  • Reasons for Anger. Can students predict common reasons for coworkers getting mad at others? Look for articles on negative coworkers.
  • Tips for Explaining Things. Challenge students to come up with tips for explaining complex things to others. shares some ideas.

I also offer my Dedicated to You_handout for further controlled and meaningful practice.

Having Always Wondered: Practice with Reduced Adverb Clauses

March 20, 2015

Grammar excites me and humbles me. With each passing year I teach English, I only realize more and more how many questions remain unanswered. I think I know a topic quite well, and then  – whoah… a question from a student makes me pause. I start to answer, and at the same time I’m questioning myself. I begin a new study of the topic to confirm and deepen my understanding. Does this happen to you?

A YouTube viewer asked me about the placement of “not” in reduced adverb clauses. I’m actually covering this topic with a private student, so the structures are fresh in my mind. However, I hadn’t thought much about negative adverb phrases. I know we can place “not” in front of the verb, no matter the form:

  • Not knowing what to do, I looked to my coach for help.
  • Not seriously hurt, I stood up, took a deep breath, and continued playing.

The question, though, was about passive verbs and perfect forms in adverb phrases. True, they aren’t used as much, but inquisitive minds deserve answers. The learner wanted to know which was correct, “not having been invited” or “having not been invited.” I’m inclined to go with the first, but I’m not ready to identify the second as incorrect. Moreover, I thought about our use of “never” in reduced adverb clauses. I can say, “I invited Mary, never thinking my invitation would anger her father.” But wouldn’t the following be acceptable? “Having never met him, I did not realize how protective he was.” I feel a certain degree of variation is tolerated in negative forms. Do you agree?

I’ve put together my Having Always Wondered_handout for advanced students in need of review and expansion. As with many grammar topics, one lesson is rarely enough, so please consider the use of these additional materials. Enjoy!

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


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