The BLC Blog

A forum and learning place for British Language Centre students

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

No besos

Contrary to popular belief, in English we do NOT end personal letters with "Kisses,". The closing you use will depend on your relationship with the person you are writing to, and will range from "Love," (for family and close friends) to "Best wishes," or "All the best," (for people you know personally, but are not very close to you).

If you would like to add some kisses (and hugs), you can include "xxx ooo" ("x" for the kisses and "o" for the hugs) after your name. These are usually written like the example: three and three, but of course, you can add as many or as few as you like.

Collins Word Exchange has some nice examples of personal letters.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Beats me!

Now, before you get worried, let me tell you that no one is actually getting beaten (hit) here. "Beats me!" is an expression we use when we have absolutely no idea about the answer to a question.

Another expression with the same meaning, and one of my favorites [BrEng favourites] is "I haven't the foggiest!" Again, nothing about the weather here, it just means "I really don't know."

Both of these expressions are often accompanied by a shrug (moving your shoulders up and down, as in the picture). This emphasizes the fact that you really don't know.

A word of caution, however. These are quite emphatic, colloquial expressions, and if you use them to casually they can sound rude or flippant (too casual and unconcerned).

More neutral expressions include: "I'm not (really/very/entirely) sure." and "I don't (really) know."


Monday, March 19, 2007

Woodsy Owl

Give a hoot, don't pollute!

When I was a kid, the USDA Forest Service started using a character called Woodsy Owl to raise awareness about the environment. I still think his most popular slogan is my favorite [BrEng favourite]. It's clever in that it is a play on words:
  • The sound an owl makes is a hoot. Like all the animal sounds I can think of in English, the same word is used as a noun and a verb, so an owl hoots (verb), or you can hear an owl's hoot (noun).
  • To give a hoot means to care about something. It's very often heard in the negative, as in, "I don't give a hoot about what politician insulted what other politican in yesterday's debate!"
If you've got kids, you can print out Woodsy coloring sheets [BrEng colouring] at the USDA Web site.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Human and humane

Sometimes languages are funny. I've found that often one language will have two similar words for two different things, while another will use the same word for both. Today's example: human and humane. These are two different things in English, but the same word in Spanish.

Human is a noun or an adjective. As an adjective, it simply means "related to human beings".

Humane is an adjective only. It most commonly refers to something "characterized by kindness, mercy, or compassion". The Humane Society, for example, has nothing to do with humans, but everything to do with being kind, merciful and compassionate towards animals!

Just to make things a little more confusing, the uncountable noun humanity refers to both of the above meanings!

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Monday, March 12, 2007

It's been a long time...

I've been feeling a little homesick lately, so I thought we'd take a look at one of those English structures that's so different from Spanish that it always seems to throw Spanish speaks into confusion:

It's (been) a long time since
past simple/present perfect.

For example:

It's (been) a long time since I went/I've been home. (I last went home in December 2005!)

The Spanish translation would be:

Hace mucho que no voy a mi país. (or something similar)

The confusion lies in two things:
  • In English, to express the idea of a period of time which began in the past and continues until the present, we use the present perfect, whereas Spanish uses the present.
  • In addition, in English we don't use a negative, as the idea of not doing something is implicit in the construction: If the last time you did it was x time ago, you haven't done it in the entire intervening period.
Incidentally, "It's (been) a long time since" has several variations to express really long period of time, or for emphasis: It's (been) ages / forever / eons / yonks [very colloquial] since ...

You can also use "a while" instead of "a long time", or a specific period, such as "five years", "a weeks", "a few months", etc.

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Thursday, March 8, 2007


No, it's got nothing to with cats! It does have everything to do with the French word quatre, or four, though. This wonderful American word is used to talk about the location of things, usually on the street. It's most often used of intersections (where two or more roads come together), which generally have four corners.

It means that something is located diagonally across from something else. For example, the Bank of Spain is kitty-corner from Casa de América on Cibeles Square: the Corte Inglés's Goya store has two buildings, which are kitty-corner from each other at the intersection of Goya, Alcalá, Conde de Peñalver and Narvaez streets.

Alternate forms include catercorner, kitty-cornered, cata-cornered, and cater-cornered.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Grand Central Station

Imagine you're at work, and it's a crazy day: the phone is ringing off the hook (a lot!), people are coming and going, and it's generally a hive of activity. You might be inclined to sit back and exclaim, "It's like Grand Central Station in here!".

Grand Central is one of the main railway stations in New York City, and I can tell you from experience, it's a very busy place, with a constant hustle and bustle.

The British equivalent would be "It's like Piccadilly Circus!"

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Wish, Part II (present/future)

A long long time ago, we started to look at talking about wishes, with a look at "I wish!" and "I hope so!".

Today let's look at a bit of grammar for talking about situations you're not happy with. The little girl is blowing out the candles on her birthday cake. What could her wishes be?

Imagine this girl, Priscilla, really wants to take piano lessons, but she can't because her family doesn't have a piano. She could say, "I wish I HAD a piano." It is understood that Priscilla doesn't have a piano, and we use the past simple to express the contrast between her wish (an imaginary situation) and reality, NOT to talk about the past. We're still talking about the present here. So...

something you'd like to be different about the present (or sometimes the future when talking about plans or obligations)

She could also say:
- I wish I had a baby brother. (She's an only child.)
- I wish I were old enough to drive. (She's only 8.)
- I wish I had a big dollhouse like Molly's. (Her friend Molly has one, but she doesn't.)
- I wish my bike was/were** pink. (It's white.)
- I wish I didn't have to go to school tomorrow. (Unfortunately, she does.)
- I wish knew French, so I could speak to my friend Etienne in his own language. (We can only speak to each other in English.)
- I wish my mother wasn't going on a two-week business trip. (She is, and Priscilla will miss her a lot when she's gone.)

* You can also use the past continuous, if appropriate.
** Both are correct with the first and third person singular (I & he, she, it). "Was" is more informal and more common in BrEng, and "were" is more formal and more common in AmEng.

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