English language skills

A Quick Guide to Question Tags (Part 2)

The first part in this series threw light on two aspects of question tags: some common uses and the grammatical form.  Let’s now consider how pronunciation can alter the meaning of a question tag and how tags can sometimes be used in unusual ways.  

Pronunciation

In speech, when we use a question tag, the stress is generally on the verb (e.g. isn’t she?, aren’t they?). The intonation is usually falling – i.e. the voice goes down – if we are fairly sure of the answer. However, if there is any doubt, a rising intonation is used to make the uncertainty clear. Here is a comparison:

You’re Cindy’s cousin, aren’t you? (↘)

You would use a falling intonation here if you are pretty sure of what you are saying.

You’re Cindy’s cousin, aren’t you? (↗)

A rising intonation would be the natural choice here if you are not very sure about this fact.

Special features   

In very informal situations, it is acceptable to use the words right and yeah instead of question tags. They are sometimes referred to as universal tags. Here are a couple of examples:

We don’t have to pay for it, right? (less informal – We don’t have to pay for it, do we?)

You will pick her up, yeah? (less informal – You will pick her up, won’t you?)

If you need to emphasise a positive statement, you can use what is called a statement tag. In such a structure, both the statement and the tag are positive.

E.g. He was a great sportsman, Shane was.

We use imperative clauses when we wish to tell somebody to do something. Such clauses are commonly used to offer advice, give suggestions, make requests, give instructions and issue commands. When an imperative clause beginning with the word let’s is used to make a suggestion, the modal verb plus pronoun combination of ‘shall we?’ often appears as the question tag.

E.g. Let’s go watch a movie, shall we?

       Let’s share a large pizza, shall we?

Similarly, when an imperative clause is used to offer advice, we often use the tags ‘will you?’ or ‘won’t you?’ in order to urge the listener to accept our suggestion.

 E.g. Do make it up with your sister, won’t you?

        Don’t stay up all night, will you?

So, if question tags are new to you, do make an effort to learn them because it is a great way to involve someone in a conversation.

You can find more English grammar lessons on our LearnEnglish website here.

A Quick Guide to Question Tags (Part 1)

A question tag is a small phrase, such as ‘isn’t it’ or ‘do they’, that is placed at the end of a statement to turn it into a question.  The use of tags is fairly informal, which means that it is much more common in speaking than in writing.

Uses

We generally use question tags:

  • to invite the listener to agree with what we say.

E.g. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?

  • to check if something is true.

E.g. We won’t be seeing them again, will we?

  • to make an imperative (order) sound polite.

E.g. Pass me the salt, will you?

  • to ask for information in a polite way.

E.g. You wouldn’t know where the nearest ATM is, would you?

Form

Question tags consist of two parts: a verb and subject. The verb can be a main verb (be), auxiliary verb (be, do, have) or modal verb (e.g. can, will). The subject is usually a pronoun (e.g. she, they).  Here are a few things to keep in mind while forming question tags.

  • The subject in the statement should usually match the subject in the tag. Mind you, sometimes it doesn’t have to.

E.g. You are going to be there, aren’t you? (subjects match)

        I can’t imagine him being a good husband, can you? (subjects do not match)

  • If the statement is positive, then the tag is typically negative. On the other hand, if the statement is negative, the tag is positive.

E.g. He will call us when he lands, won’t he?

       He won’t call us when he lands, will he?

  • The verb (main, auxiliary or modal) in the statement needs to usually match the verb in the tag.

E.g. She can come too, can’t she?

  • If the statement does not have an auxiliary or modal verb, then the auxiliary do, does or did is used in the tag. This generally happens when the statement is positive and in the present or past simple tense.

E.g. He called you last night, didn’t he?

Answering a tag

Quite often we respond to a question tag with a Yes or No. However, sometimes we reverse the tag and use it along with the Yes/No response. Here’s an example:

A: They don’t have to pay for the guided tour, do they?

B: Yes, they do. / No, they don’t.

Make sure you read the next part to know more about this unique language structure that appears regularly in conversational English.

You can find more English grammar lessons on our LearnEnglish website here.

Making Your IELTS Essay Sound Formal (Part 3)

So far in this blog series, you’ve read about some handy tips that can help improve your use of academic English, such as avoiding statistics that are made up and limiting the use of personal pronouns.  

In this final part, we’ll introduce you to a few more essential features of academic English.

6. Learn to use passive voice

The passive voice is often used to change the focus of a sentence. Unlike a sentence in active voice, here, who or what gets affected by the action gets more importance than the performer of the action. 

People often destroy woodlands to make way for development. (active voice)

Woodlands are often destroyed to make way for development. (passive voice)

It is clear that people in general are the performers of the action in the above sentence, so the passive version does not even mention them. If used appropriately, passive structures can make your writing impersonal.

7. Avoid vague language and short forms  

One noticeable aspect of academic English is clarity. There is no room for ambiguity when you are putting together an IELTS essay, so avoid language that will make your writing sound vague. For example, do not use the phrases ‘et cetera’ or ‘so on’ – it sort of indicates indolence on your part. Stating one or two specific examples in support of your point will work better, making your writing clearer. Similarly, avoid using short forms such as ‘e.g.’ and ‘i.e.’ in your essay; write phrases like ‘for example’ and ‘in other words’ instead.

8. Do not use sexist language

In the past, it was okay to use words such as he, him and his to refer to all humankind, but not anymore.

If an employee is running late, he will have to inform his line manager without fail.

Sexist language, such as in the sentence above, is language that excludes one gender, or which suggests that one particular gender is superior to the other. In the present-day world, not every police officer is a he, and not every nurse is a she. Because of diminishing gender differences, people are increasingly finding sexist language offensive, so you would do well to avoid it. You could use alternatives such as ‘he/she’ or ‘they’ in place of ‘he’.  

Finally, remember that what you have read here are some basic rules of academic English; getting the tone of your essay right each time will take some practice.

To get more Writing tips and practice, visit the British Council’s LearnEnglish website by clicking here.

How New English Words are Born (Part 3)

Among other things, one aspect that helps English grow at such a steady pace is its extensive use in specialised areas, such as science, medicine, technology and the internet. Naturally, whenever a need arises to express new ideas or define new objects, new vocabulary is born.

In this final part in the series, you will read about three more ways in which new words and phrases get added to the language. 

7. Clipping

Clipping refers to the act of shortening a longer word, quite often making it monosyllabic. For instance, a website where an individual, or an organisation, adds details about recent events or topics of interest was originally called a ‘weblog’ before it got shortened to ‘blog’.

Quite often clipped words gain in popularity, consigning the original words or phrases into oblivion. When was the last time you heard someone say they had ‘influenza’?  The clipped version of the word, ‘flu’, is what you’re likely to hear them say! 

Clipped wordOriginal word
brobrother
examexamination
lablaboratory
zoozoological garden
the netthe internet

8. Abbreviation

Abbreviations, which are short forms of words or phrases, frequently enter the dictionary as new words. One good thing about them is that the average person can use them accurately without having to understand what the initial letters represent. Not everyone who talks about DVDs, for example, is aware of what the initial letters stand for: digital versatile disc.

Oftentimes abbreviations that get popular in quick time tend to be acronyms. They are short forms made using the first letters of the words that make up a name, and they can be pronounced as words. An acronym that pops up regularly when we talk about supermarkets is BOGOF (buy one get one free).      

9. New words

If you were to take a close look at all new words coined in English in recent times, it will quickly dawn on you that most of them have some language feature that we’re already familiar with. As surprising as this may sound, entirely new words that enter English each year are very few in number. An original word such as ‘google’ is a rare sight indeed.

Even though hundreds of words get coined every year, not all of them manage to survive for too long. The survival of new vocabulary depends on frequency of use. Clearly, if a concept becomes obsolete over time, then words representing it will very soon diminish in use and invariably disappear. 

So, in 2035, will we all still ‘Facebook’our friends? Well, your guess is as good as mine!

Read our previous blog posts about how new English words are born: Part 1 and Part 2

Visit the British Council’s Learn English website.

How New English Words are Born (Part 2)

The ability of English to evolve constantly as a language can be put down to several factors, one being that native speakers of the language relish playing with it, resulting in new vocabulary being invented all the time.

Of course, not all new words make it into the dictionary; nor do they manage to stay put if they get listed, for that matter. In a previous post we spoke about some ways in which new English words are born; here are some more ways in which new words enter the English language. 

3. Blending

Blending is the process of creating a new word, called a blend or portmanteau word, by combining parts of existing words. This method of coining new words by putting together the beginning of one word and the end of another has been around for centuries now. Even though there are no hard and fast rules about how to form a blend, it is noticeable that at least one of the words involved in the fusion has something chopped off it. Here are some examples of blends.

BlendCombination of
brunchbreakfast + lunch
smogsmoke + fog
flexitarianflexible + vegetarian
freemiumfree + premium

4. Conversion

This refers to the method of changing a word from one word class (e.g. noun, verb, adjective, adverb) to another. To put it another way, a new word can be formed by simply changing the grammatical function of an existing word. So, the next time you say that you will email or download something, think about this: you are using English words that originally began life as nouns. 

Here are some more nouns that later became verbs: friend, bomb, email, text, elbow, blog, lace, chair, drink, divorce, intern, model, voice.

5. Back-formation

When we form words with back-formation, we chop off a part of an already existing word that is considered to be an affix. This method is most commonly employed to make verbs out of nouns. 

Back-formationExisting word
absorbabsorption
babysitbabysitter
burgleburglar
editeditor

6. Loanwords

Perhaps the most straightforward way to create new words is to borrow them from other languages. Over the years, English has borrowed generously from other languages, some of which are Latin, French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Hindi. When English speakers come across a word in a foreign language that describe something that they don’t yet have a word for, they tend to borrow it. Here are some popular loanwords:

LoanwordLanguage borrowed from
pandaNepali
kindergartenGerman
shampooHindi
caféFrench
platonicGreek
karaokeJapanese

Do not forget to read the final part in this series if you wish to know about some more methods of inventing new words.

Visit the British Council’s Learn English website.

How New English Words are Born (Part 1)

English has to be the most dynamic language around, forever evolving and adapting to the needs of its users. Year by year a great number of words enter the language, while some others leave. The marked rate at which English has expanded in recent years is a good indication that it has managed to keep pace with changing times and technology.

Having a basic understanding of how new words are created can be handy. If you know how new words enter the language, you will be better placed to identify strategies to help you cope with new language. Let us take a closer look at some ways in which new English words are born:

1. Affixation

A letter or a group of letters, known as an affix, can be added to the beginning or end of a word to make new words that express new ideas. This method of using a prefix (affix added at the beginning) or suffix (affix added at the end) to create new words is called affixation.  

PrefixMeaningExample
micro-extremely smallmicrobe, microscope
post-afterpostgraduate, postnatal
tri-threetriangle, tricycle
re-againreconsider, rewrite
SuffixMeaningExample
-doma state of beingboredom, martyrdom
-er / -ora person whoexplorer, narrator
-ismdoctrine / beliefBuddhism, communism
-nessa state of beinggoodness, sadness

As you can see, it isn’t too difficult to work out the meaning of such words, as prefixes and suffixes are often attached to words that already have known definitions. However, prefixes don’t usually change the word class of the words they modify (e.g. cycle, tricycle → noun), whereas suffixes often change the form entirely (e.g. explore → verb, explorer → noun). 

2. Compounding

Compounding is the process of making up a fresh word by joining two or more independent words. Although compounds are found in all word classes, the most common types are nouns. Here are some examples:

NounsVerbsAdjectivesAdverbs
bus stopbabysitheartbreakingnevertheless
rock bandchain-smokesugar-freeself-consciously

When existing words are combined to form a compound, it could sometimes carry a meaning that is different to what the individual parts convey. The noun fur baby, for instance, refers to a person’s pet animal with fur, such as a cat or dog, especially when it receives the kind of love and attention that a child would receive from its parent. 

The next couple of parts in this series will introduce you to more types of word formation.

Visit the British Council’s Learn English website.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 3)

In this final part, we’d like to tell you a bit more about how subtitled content can be good news for your English.  

7. Learning topical vocabulary

We’ve already established that subtitled content is generally rich in phrasal verbs and colloquialism. What is also true is that it can be a shortcut to discovering topical vocabulary. In other words, if you wish to learn new words and phrases related to a particular subject, all you have to do is find a movie or programme on it. For instance, it’s hard to think of a better way to improve your legal English than by watching a law-related TV show.  As well as entertaining you, it will also introduce you to the specialised variety of English used by lawyers and seen in legal documents.  

8. Understanding appropriacy

In any language, mastery of grammar and vocabulary alone cannot fully equip you to communicate effectively. Having a limited understanding of cultural or situational contexts will most certainly lead to communication breakdown, with the possibility of offending others. If you fail to use the style of communication that a context demands, the outcome could be something undesirable. This is where subtitled movies and videos come handy – they can teach you when to use formal and casual language, and when not to. 

9. Controlling your learning experience

Perhaps the greatest benefit of using subtitled content is the degree of flexibility it allows the learner. For a start, since you are free to choose your own “learning materials”, there’s no question of you losing interest midway. If action is your thing, you could watch thrillers; if you are a romantic at heart, there are scores of romcoms to choose from. Another good thing is that you can pause or replay sections to your heart’s content. This gives you a rather unique advantage: you get to review the language components in subtitles at leisure, allowing you to learn at your own pace.

To sum up, if learning English the conventional way leaves you bored silly, subtitled content could help break the monotony. Do give it a shot if you haven’t done so yet.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 2)

In the previous part, we began discussing some benefits of taking an unconventional approach to language learning – watching English movies or programmes with English subtitles on.

Here are some more reasons why this method can be both entertaining and productive.  

4. Building vocabulary

If there’s one thing that almost all English learners wish to have, it is a wide vocabulary. And one of the best sources of conversational phrases and idiomatic language is films and programmes made in English. While watching them, you are likely to come across tons of phrasal verbs, phrases and colloquialisms of the street that native English speakers commonly use in everyday conversations. The added advantage here is that you get to experience vocabulary in context, so you’d have a fair idea of how to use the lexical items you learn.

5. Bettering pronunciation

English pronunciation could be a nightmare, especially if your first language is syllable-timed and the idea of word stress is something you’re new to. Listening to words pronounced the right way is the easiest way to improve your diction, which is what you get to do when you watch something in English with subtitles on. When you see as well as hear words, you tend to learn pronunciation a lot faster. What’s more, you also get to watch the mouth of the speaker move, helping you produce difficult sounds that are perhaps absent in your first language. Subtitled content is also an excellent source of various intonation patterns in English.

6. Improving word recognition and grammar

Quite often films and TV programmes use less formal English that is common among native speakers. Exposure to such content is a great way for a learner to get introduced to chunks that form a key part of a native speaker’s spoken language. These can be lexical chunks like fixed collocations (e.g. crying shame) or grammatical chunks (e.g. If I were you, I’d + bare infinitive). On seeing and hearing the same chunks repeatedly, your brain begins to gradually recognise patterns and process language in real time.

Watching a favourite movie of yours again is a good idea – since you already know the plot well, it allows you to focus on subtitles. We aren’t done yet, so do read the final part in this segment.

Fun Ways to Learn English: Using Subtitles (Part 1)

Learning a new language, whether it be English or any other, doesn’t have to be drab and stressful, at least not in this day and age. Thanks to modern technology, there are now many ways to make the whole experience engaging.

In this segment of the series on ‘Fun Ways to Learn English’, we’ll see how watching a movie, documentary, or web series, in English with English subtitles on can be an enjoyable way of improving your language. Here’s why you should consider the idea.

1. Improving listening comprehension

If you’re someone from a non-English speaking background, understanding native English speakers can be tricky. Movies and programmes in English with a subtitles feature are an entertaining way to work on your listening skills. Unlike audio materials produced for language learners, conversations in movies are done the exact same way they happen in real life – fast and without long pauses. So, use subtitled content to better your listening skills: watch a scene first without subtitles, and then watch it again with subtitles on to check comprehension.   

2. Increasing reading speed

When you watch something in English that is subtitled, you are relentlessly trying to connect the English you hear to the English you read on screen. Subtitles typically flash by, allowing the viewer very little reading time. That said, some practice should make it easier to keep pace with the text. Little by little your brain learns to adapt to the task, that is speed reading, and you get quicker at deciphering information.   

3. Learning to speak naturally

If you live in a non-English speaking country, it might not always be easy to keep your English up-to-date. Occasionally, your English can sound a bit unnatural. Watching movies and programmes in English exposes you to the kind of natural language used in everyday situations by native English speakers. If you keep doing this over a period of time, it will help you avoid unnatural sounding language.    

If you’ve never tried learning with the help of subtitles, it may be best to start with short, subtitled videos; you wouldn’t feel too overwhelmed. We’ll be back soon with more on this topic.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 3)

So far in our series of blog posts on conditional sentences, we’ve discussed the zero, first and second conditionals.

In this final part, we’ll talk about the third conditional and then do a quick comparison of all four structures.  

Third conditional

Unlike the first and second conditionals, which talk about situations in the present or future, the third conditional is used to talk about a past situation that is unreal. In fact, we imagine a change in a past situation, where something did or did not happen, and then imagine a different result for it.

Examples

If Tom had played, he would have scored for sure.

If I had married her, I would have lived in Switzerland.

Sam wouldn’t have passed the test if his girlfriend hadn’t helped him.

The first example is about Tom, who did not play in a particular match. However, the speaker imagines just the opposite and then talks about an imaginary result, i.e. Tom getting his name on the score sheet. The third conditional is often used to express regret or to complain about something.

Structure

if + past perfectwould + have + past participle
conditional clausemain clause

Comparison

Even proficient language users would be quick to admit that it isn’t easy to get your head around the concept of conditionals. One thing to remember is to NOT focus on form, as it may be misleading. For instance, although the second conditional structure has the past tense, such sentences usually talk about the present or future.      

Here’s a quick comparison of the various conditional structures to help you decide when to use what:

ConditionalExampleTimeMeaning
ZeroIf you heat chocolate, it melts.AnyTalks about something that is always true
FirstIf I get this job, I’ll buy you a new phone.FutureTalks about something that is likely to happen
SecondIf I won the lottery, I would buy a Ferrari.Present or futureTalks about something that is unlikely to happen
ThirdIf I hadn’t drunk so much, I wouldn’t have got into trouble.PastTalks about an unreal past and its imaginary result

Conditional sentences can be hard to master, but remember, if you know how to use them well, you can talk about imaginary situations with confidence.

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