Archive for the ‘Grammar’ category

Word Jugglers: Learning the Uses of -er

January 22, 2016

er_jugglerA learner asked me why we add the suffix -er to existing prepositions to form words like insider and inner. What a wonderfully curious question! I love how this person’s mind works. Talk about a teachable moment. I responded with an explanation about the versatility of -er and called attention to the parts of speech we can build using that ending.

Isn’t it both convenient and confusing when a suffix does more than one job?  If you’d like to raise awareness of word parts and focus on the uses of -er, please take a look at The Suffix -er_handout. It’s geared toward lower level students.

Photo credit: 

Juggler by Markus Lütkemeyer. (February 2007) Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr. Changes made: -er added to the pieces being juggled.

Student Stumper 43: Distinguishing between an Infinitive and a Bare Infinitive

January 8, 2016

My colleague Holly Dilatush from Learning English with a World Wide Perspective has invited my thoughts on a grammar point. A community member of LEWWWP kicked off January 1 with an interesting question (click here to read). I already offered my initial ideas, but I know there’s more to say. So thank you, Holly and Irina, for giving me the first Student Stumper of 2016!

Question: Why is “to” omitted in this sentence? Now all she wants to do is return to Northumberland. Isn’t it more logical to write to return to Northumberland?

Answer: It’s funny how this question ties into one of the last YT lessons I posted in 2015. In Lesson 9 of Using English Prepositions I addressed the need to be concise and reduce repetition. Without getting into terminology yet, I’ll just say it’s usually best to be efficient with our structures. If we can reduce the instances of to from three to two in that sentence, why not do it?

A second factor here is context. When ideas are already understood, grammar allows us to omit them. An ellipsis can be our friend in direct communication. For example: I’m going to explore this grammar point because my colleague invited me to (explore this grammar point). Why repeat unnecessary words? In the LEWWWP example, the infinitive to return is understood. Using the base form return is sufficient.

There are other situations when we omit the to from an infinitive because it’s understood:

  • I’d love to go and see her.
  • I plan to meet them at the baggage claim and then drive them home.
  • Ask him to call, text, or email me.

The interesting thing about Irina’s example is that we’re dealing with a complement after a copular verb: All she wants to do is return. My understanding is that infinitive complements are more common than bare infinitive complements. We must use bare infinitives after perception verbs and some causative verbs, namely, let, make, and have.  (See my discussion of bare infinitives used with perception verbs.) But more often we see verbs controlling infinitive clauses. I believe in Irina’s sentence we’re dealing with an infinitive clause, but we can omit to because it’s understood from the earlier verb phrase wants to do.

What I want to ask is why the sentence is even set up to have two clauses? (Like the question I just wrote. Ha!) Greenbaum and Quirk discuss pseudo-cleft sentences as a way to focus on the predicate (415). Isn’t that what we’re seeing in Irina’s example? The basic idea is that she wants to return to Northumberland. Subject + predicate. But in the original statement all she wants to do [is] return home to Northumberland there are two clear parts divided by the copular verb is. Subject with a relative clause + copular verb + an infinitive clause as the complement. The complement became the focus.

In other words, the purposeful sequencing highlights a single idea — the answer to the question what does she want? The variation what she really wants to do is return home would fall in line with the examples Greenbaum and Quirk offer because they cite more instances with a wh- clause (embedded question) as the subject. Using that wh- item in the subject position, we then climax to the main idea: return home. The relative clause all she wants to do in Irina’s sentence performs the same function, right? The listener is waiting for the big reveal at the end. What does she want to do? Return home.

Here are additional examples of what I believe to be at the very least approximations of a pseudo-cleft sentence. They each use to do as part of the subject, so only the base verb is used in the subject complement. You’ll notice how they all express either a wish or an intention, which may help us understand why and when we’d use such structures:

  • All that’s left to do is clean up.
  • One thing I still need to do is buy stamps.
  • Something I’ve always wanted to do is bungee jump.

Do you have any examples of your own?



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.


Full of Holiday Cheer (and Grammar, too!)

December 11, 2015

5319732292_052b3c8f69_zCelebrate the diversity of December! Whether your students are all from a similar cultural background or not, the different December holidays can be a single topic for the ESL classroom. Articles, videos, and blog posts about different celebrations are shared widely over the Internet, so chances are students already have some familiarity with traditions from around the world. Certainly you’d have to take into account any school guidelines, but if presented in an appropriate way, multicultural celebrations are fun to discuss as a group.

I like studying grammar in interesting contexts, and I think it’s just the right time of year to bring a holiday theme into a lesson. In my YouTube series on prepositions I’ve spent a good amount of time looking at specific prepositions and common collocations. At this point, I plan to zoom out and help learners think about the bigger picture — using prepositions at the sentence level. I’d like to show how prepositional phrases basically function as adjectives or adverbs.

If you think your upper level students would benefit from a grammar review along with some prompting to reflect on traditions around the world, then please take a look at my Full of Holiday Cheer_handout. The treatment of different cultural traditions is done with care. It’s really the teacher’s choice whether to keep it light or go deeper into certain aspects of a holiday. Enjoy.

Useful links:

Winter Celebrations on National Geographic Kids

Teaching Tips on Education World

Article on omisoka on Kids Web Japan

Facts about Kwanzaa on PBS

Article about Boxing Day on

Photo credit:

Christmas Tree 2010 by Rexness. (January 2011) Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Some Things Are Easier than Others: Some vs. Any

December 3, 2015

A YouTube viewer asked me about some vs. any. It’s one of those topics that seems simple at first, and then certain examples start revealing complexities. Early on, we teach the guideline to use any in questions and in negatives. That helps with simple There isn’t/aren’t any… statements and Do you have any.. questions. But what about this one: Where can I find some stamps? That’s the question the student asked me.

Greenbaum and Quirk refer to the difference between some and any as assertive vs. non-assertive use (124). To be honest, those terms don’t help me as much as a later remark about positive and negative contexts. I interpret that as some is more cup-half-full in nature and any is more cup-half-empty in nature. Yes, there’s still some water left.  vs. There’s hardly any water left.  The use of hardly reminds us that not isn’t the only word that makes a context negative. Here’s another example: Without any water, my throat grew dry.

I like to emphasize existence. If you think a thing might exist or you know it exists but can’t put a name on it, you use some or any of its compounds (someone, something). Did someone call my name? If there’s no certainty about existence, use any: Did anyone call?

Greenbaum and Quirk further explain that “some is generally specific, though unspecified, while any is nonspecficic” (225). I think a helpful way to explain this to students is that with any it’s not important to be exact: I don’t need any special reason to hug my children. In contrast, some refers to a number or amount that probably could be determined or is known to someone: She must have had some reason to leave so quickly without saying good-bye.

If you’d like to help your students gain confidence with some and any as determiners, please see my Party Planner_handout. I also included use of someone, something, anyone, and anything.



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

Beyond Prepositions of Place 101

November 25, 2015

We teach in, at, and on to beginners. Of course, the study of prepositions of place doesn’t end there. Students move on to words like near and next to. This is when confusion can grow. What’s the difference between near and nearby? What about beside and besides? Is it correct to say near to?

9733520035_5284cdb08c_zIf you’d like to review and practice prepositions of place with intermediate students, please take a look at my Near and Far_handout. I hope it increases their confidence when expressing location. The topic is one most people enjoy discussing: best places to live.

Photo credit:

On a Country Road by Carl Shinoda. (March 2012.) Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Back to the Basics (2)

November 5, 2015

Recent questions from students have prompted me to consider additional opportunities for review. Basic level students have asked me about the verb form after people and the reason for using helping verbs in questions. From subject-verb agreement to question formation, students need more practice with grammar. Comments and email sent to me reveal further doubts over similar words like it’s and its as well as the use of negative words.

I realize that a single exercise isn’t enough to master a grammar point. Whether it’s a beginner or an advanced student, multiple encounters with a particular grammar pattern are necessary, and the student needs the chance to put the target grammar into use. Along with the chance to have a meaningful exchange with the grammar, I believe in the benefits of controlled exercises. They can call attention to a single language structure that the student needs to consciously build. Through the process of error correction, for instance, a student may finally understand the rule. Additional practice will reinforce that understanding.

A few years back, I offered my first Back the Basics post with a handout on a few basic grammar points, including demonstratives and the difference between pronouns and possessive adjectives. Now I’d like to offer my Back to the basics 2_handout. I hope the exercises will facilitate learning for basic level students. The short tasks focus on it’s vs. its, subject-verb agreement, question formation, and negative statements.

Teaching Adverb Phrases with More Support

October 15, 2015

Previous posts on reducing adverb clauses to phrases assume that study and focused practice have been done to some extent already. One of my activities involves text manipulation and pushes students toward creative writing. A second activity also uses storytelling and offers practice with more types of adverb clauses. In connection with that second post, I discussed the variation we sometimes see with the negative adverbs not and never.

I think what’s needed now is a handout with more scaffolding. Before asking students to manipulate and generate text, we should allow them more opportunities to identify patterns when changing adverb clauses to shorter phrases. With this goal in mind, I’d like to offer my Before Going to Sleep_handout. I limit the types of clauses to time and reason. I hope it helps your learners master this grammar point.


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