The BLC Blog

A forum and learning place for British Language Centre students

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Less and fewer

+ or -

Before we start, I should confess that what I'm going to talk about is a grammar mistake which lots of native speakers make, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.

You probably all know that more is the comparative of much and many. You probably also think that less is the opposite of more. Well it is, so you're right. However, more also has another opposite: fewer.

Technically, we use less with uncountable nouns and fewer with countable ones. For example:
  • I wish I had less work to do. I'd really like to go to the swimming pool this afternoon. [work is uncountable]
  • I have fewer friends here in Madrid than I do back home. [friends are countable]
However, according to "...less is used in some constructions where fewer would occur if the traditional rule were being followed. Less than can be used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles. Less is sometimes used with plural nouns in the expressions no less than (as in No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter) and or less."


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Turning things on and off

Sometimes the most everyday objects are the ones we don't know the name for. Today we'll look at things for turning (or switching) things on and off.

For the lights in your house, you'll probably have a light switch. (This poster is from World War II, encouraging people to save electricity.)

Your cooker [AmEng] probably has knobs for turning the gas (or electricity) on and off.

I don't know where this button is from, but I like the old brass.

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Monday, May 21, 2007


Many of you will be thinking about planning your summer holiday [AmEng vacation]. One thing that inevitably comes up at a time like this is money, you know, dosh [BrEng], dough [AmEng], cash, readies [BrEng], green stuff [AmEng], moola [AmEng], scratch [AmEng], brass [BrEng]. This brings me to a very common word that in my experience is hardly ever known by students: "afford", which means something like have enough money to do something.

"Afford" is usually found with the auxiliaries "can" and "can't", most especially "can't", I think because when we use the word, it's often because we DON'T HAVE THE MONEY!

Just this morning, one of my students was telling me that she was going to Portugal on holiday. Where she'd really love to go is either London or Rome, but they're so expensive that she can't afford to go. I've been to both cities, and I'd definitely have to say she's right, they're really very expensive for a student, but still well worth a visit!

Things I want but can't afford:
  • to visit my aunt in Australia.
  • that pair of wonderful Dolce and Gabbana boots I saw in a shop window last winter.
  • a summer house by the sea.
  • any house in Madrid.
  • to fly home more than once a year.
  • to have my brother squatting in my house in Scotland and not paying me any rent.
  • to use taxis.
What's on your list?

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

'I want' never gets

Although you might say '"I want" never gets.' to a child (or Big Brother participant) to show them that you should ask for thinks politely, the fact is that we use 'I want' A LOT in everyday speech. A common grammar mistake for Spanish speakers involves this phrase.

Here's an example:
  • Native speaker: I want you to eat all your vegetables, young man!
  • Spanish speaker: I want that you eat all your vegetables, young man!
When you see the two side by side, the influence of the Spanish verb + que + subjunctive structure is clear. In English, the verb pattern for want is simple, and IT DOES NOT CHANGE when you add an object to the sentence.

want + (object) + to infinitive

Of course, when you add an object you change the meaning of the sentence. To wit,

'I want to go.' means I will be the one who (hopefully) goes.
'I want you to go.' means that you will go.

Now, I want you to go away and practice: write 10 sentence with want + object + to infinitive and post them as a comment.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Wish III - regrets

Well, we've already looked at "I wish" and "wish" plus the past to talk about wishes for the present or future. Today we're going to talk about regrets. You regret something (or regret doing/having done s'thing, or regret not doing/having done s'thing) when you look back at the past and think to yourself, "Why, oh why did I (not) do that?!", "What on earth was I thinking?"

For example, when I was in high school, I had the opportunity to go to a Talking Heads concert. At the time I liked them, but wasn't super crazy about them. They later released a concert film called Stop Making Sense, which I absolutely adored. I then realized [BrEng realised] that I'd missed a really great show. I have always regretted not going to that concert. I wish I'd gone to that concert!

something you regret doing or not doing in the past

My other regrets:
  • I wish my father had taught me Spanish as a child, things would have been much easier when I moved to Spain.
  • I wish I'd studied more at school.
  • I wish I had visited my sick friend in the hospital more.
  • I wish I hadn't let my cat scratch up all the furniture. Now I'll have to get it re-upholstered.

I sincerely hope you don't have any regrets, but if you do, feel free to share them in a comment.

* Both past perfect simple and continuous are possible.

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Friday, May 4, 2007


You've probably realized by now that we use quite a lot of French words in expressions in English. Sometimes we even retain a vaguely French pronunciation, but they are probably more often anglicized. One of my favorites [BrEng favourites] is voila!

You might guess from Spanish that it has something to do with looking or seeing, and it does. Very often it's the equivalent of something like "look (here)" or "here it is", or even "here you go".

"Simply apply the stickers in the proper layout (mapping scheme included) and voila! There's your Arabic-English keyboard"

"I took advantage of some of the cheap, cheap prices on decent LCD monitors these days, and voila! Two-monitors on my desktop."

"Mrs. Doubtfire; A Wig, a Dress and Voila! Dad Becomes the Nanny."

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