How to Avoid Misusing the Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark (!), informally known as a bang or shriek, is arguably the most widely abused punctuation mark, especially in the electronic era. Almost every single day we come across text messages, tweets and emails laden with this sign.  

The thing is, when we speak, the tone of our voice and body language make the intent behind what we say quite clear. Written words, on the other hand, might not always convey our emotions effectively.  This is perhaps why many people use exclamation marks generously, hoping that it will make them appear friendly or adequately enthusiastic about something. What they don’t realise, though, is that excessive use will make their writing appear juvenile, or even shouty.

The Use of the Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark is generally used to express strong emotions (e.g. joy, surprise, anger, frustration) or to indicate a sense of urgency. We generally add one at the end of exclamatives beginning with what or how (e.g. What a lovely coat!). Here are a few points to help you use the exclamation mark judiciously.

  • The key to using the exclamation mark effectively is to use it sparingly. Overuse will certainly cause distraction, lessening the impact it can have on the reader. If there are too many bangs, it would be rather tough to identify the really exciting parts of your writing. Solution? Ideally, an exclamation mark should be summoned only if there is a clear need to express very strong feelings. Rewording sentences can oftentimes help you avoid the bang, so do explore this possibility.
  • Using exclamation marks in a row (two, three or more) to stress the way you feel about something is a definite no-no. A single exclamation mark will do, at the very most. 
  • The bang is often spotted in advertisements, novels and signage. Its presence in a piece of formal communication, however, will be considered inappropriate by most. Therefore, it is best to rely on your vocabulary range to intensify what you are saying.

Now that you’ve had some help, remember not to unleash a platoon of exclamation marks on the reader the next time you compose a text message or email; use a bang only when it is unavoidable.

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.

A Quick Guide to Superlatives

In a previous blog post, we explored some features of comparative language, which is used to compare one person/thing with another. 

Now, let’s take a look at the concept of superlatives, used to express the most extreme degree of a quality (e.g. best, worst, fastest, slowest, richest, poorest). It helps us to compare somebody or something with the whole group that he, she, or it belongs to. For instance, when we say someone is the tallest in the class, we are comparing that person with all their classmates and saying that they possess the highest degree of a particular quality.

Here are some basic features of superlatives:

1. We generally use the definite article, the, before the superlative form.  

Examples:

They have four children: Christy is the oldest and Tommy is the youngest.

Drake has just been signed by the biggest football club in Europe.   

2. If there is a possessive adjective (e.g. my, our, your, their) before the superlative, then the definite article should be dropped.

Examples:

She is my brightest cousin. (NOT She is my the brightest cousin.)

Ivan is their most expensive player. (NOT Ivan is their the most expensive player.)

Also, on occasions when we compare the same person or thing in different situations, we drop the definite article.

Examples:

Joe is happiest when he is painting.

(Comparing the levels of happiness felt by the same individual in different situations)

This device is most effective in winter.

(Comparing the efficiency of the same thing in different seasons)

3. As with comparatives, there are two common ways to form superlatives:

adding ‘-est’ to the end of the adjective or adverb, or using the word ‘most’ in front of the adjective or adverb. Generally speaking, the suffix ‘-est’ is added to short adjectives (e.g. talltallest, richrichest), whereas long adjectives (e.g. expensivemost expensive, intelligent most intelligent) have the word ‘most’ before them.

Examples:

She was the prettiest girl he had ever met.

It’s certainly the most interesting film I’ve seen.

4. Like comparatives, superlatives can also be made to sound stronger with the help of degree modifiers, such as almost, easily, definitely, and by far.

Examples:

Yesterday was easily the best day of my life.

She is by far the most efficient manager I’ve worked with.

Now that you know some of the basic rules, it’s time to go online, find some exercises, and put your knowledge to the test.

A Quick Guide to Comparatives

Drawing comparisons is something that we all do quite frequently in our everyday lives. But have you ever thought about the type of language used to make such comparisons?

Comparative adjectives and adverbs are what we use to compare one individual or thing with another individual or thing. They allow us to say which individual or thing has more or less of a particular quality. Here are some features of comparative language.

  1. We often use the word ‘than’ when we compare one person or thing with another.

    Examples:
    He’s taller than his brother.
    Dan is a better player than Christy.  
  2. Sometimes we use double comparatives (i.e. use the comparative twice) along with the word ‘and’ to emphasise how someone or something changes.

    Examples:
    Questions get tougher and tougher as the test progresses.
    The investigation was getting more and more complicated.
  3. When we wish to say that one thing depends on another, or that two things vary together, we use the word ‘the’ with comparative adjectives.

    Examples:
    The faster you drive, the riskier the journey up the mountain gets.
    The longer they walked, the thirstier they got.
  4. It is possible to make comparatives sound stronger with the help of intensifiers, such as much, a lot, and far. Similarly, a group of words and phrases called mitigators (e.g. slightly, a bit, a little) can be used to make comparatives less strong.

    Examples:
    This watch is a lot more expensive than my last one.
    This film is far better than the one we saw last week.
    The task gets slightly easier if you use this tool.
    We have a train to catch, so can you please walk a bit more quickly?
  5. Two common ways to form comparatives is by adding ‘-er’ or by adding the word ‘more’ in front of the adjective or adverb.

    Examples:
    She was taller than I had expected.
    We should get something cheaper than this one.
    We’d like to have equipment that is more advanced. 
    Can you please speak more quietly?

We’ll be back soon with another post on superlative forms.

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.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we began exploring conditional sentences, a set of grammar structures that describe situations and results. We also looked at some uses of the zero conditional.

In this part, we’ll take a closer look at the first and second conditional.

First conditional

The first conditional is used to talk about an imaginary situation in the future and its possible result. Even though the outcome here is likely, it is not guaranteed, as in the case of the zero conditional.

Examples

If it begins to rain, we’ll get a cab.

If you lie to the police, you might get into trouble.

You’ll miss your flight if you don’t wake up before sunrise.

Modal verbs other than will are sometimes used in the main clause to convey different shades of meaning. For instance, might can be used instead of will to show a slightly lesser degree of likelihood (see example 2 above).

Structure

if + present simplewill + infinitive
conditional clausemain clause

Second conditional

We use the second conditional to describe situations in the present or future that are imaginary. By choosing to use the second conditional, we are saying that the situation we are referring to is unlikely to happen in reality.

Examples

If I became president, I would abolish all taxes.

If I were you, I wouldn’t buy those shoes.

I would marry him if I were single.

Remember, in the second conditional, when if is followed by the verb be, it is common to use were in place of was (e.g. if I were, if he were, if she were, if it were). In fact, in the English-speaking world, the phrase ‘if I were you’ often accompanies a piece of informal advice (see example 2 above). You can use it to tell someone what you think they should do in a particular situation.

Structure

if + past simplewould + infinitive
conditional clausemain clause

Although the conditional clause here has a past tense, it does not indicate past time. The use of past tenses indicates a distance from present reality, thereby making what is being said imaginary.

Do make sure you come back to read the final part on conditional structures.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 1)

There’s little doubt that the primary purpose of using language is to communicate thoughts and ideas, but this can only be done effectively if the user has sufficient grammatical competence.  Poor use of grammar can cause confusion, sometimes leading to a complete breakdown in communication.

Not surprisingly, a candidate’s ability to use grammatical features with precision is something that all English language tests assess. One way to show off your grammar skills in a test is by using conditional sentences, a set of structures that can communicate a range of ideas.

Basically, a conditional sentence has two parts, which describe a condition and its result. The if-clause (conditional clause) talks about the condition, whereas the main clause tells us about the result. Here’s an example:

If you do your homework,I’ll get you an ice cream.
conditionresult

The example sentence above begins with the if-clause, followed by the main clause. Alternatively, you may begin a conditional sentence with the main clause and then add the if-clause.

I’ll get you an ice cream if you do your homework.

A change in the order of the clauses does not alter the meaning of the sentence in any way. The only difference is punctuation: when we begin the sentence with the if-clause, we use a comma to separate it from the main clause.

There are several types of conditional sentences in English. Here, we’ll consider four basic structures that are commonly used.

Zero conditional

We use the zero conditional to talk about things that are generally true. What we mean to say by employing this structure is that something always leads to something else, and that the result is guaranteed. Zero conditionals are particularly useful for talking about scientific facts, or general truths connected to rules and laws.

Examples

If you heat iron, it turns red. (scientific fact)

If I drink tea at night, I don’t fall asleep. (general fact about an individual)

You get fined if you ride a motorbike without a helmet. (general truth connected to law)

Structure

if + present simplepresent simple
conditional clausemain clause

We’ll be back soon with another blog post on some more common conditional structures.  

A Quick Guide to Nouns (Part 2)

In the previous part, we spoke of three different types of noun – countable, uncountable, and collective.

Here are some more varieties that pop up in our everyday conversations.

Common and proper nouns

We use a common noun to refer to people, things, or places in a general sense. For instance, the word woman can mean any adult female, while the word restaurant can be used to talk about any place where you can buy and eat a meal.

By comparison, a proper noun refers to a specific person, thing, or place. It can be the name of an individual, a place, an organisation, etc. For instance, Emma Watson refers to a particular adult female, whereas Hard Rock Café is the name of a specific chain of theme restaurants.

As a general rule, proper nouns always begin with capital letters in written English. If a proper noun has more than one part (e.g. Martin Luther King, NOT Martin luther king), then the first letter in each gets capitalised.

Here’s a quick comparison to help you understand the difference between the two types:

Common noun Proper noun
woman Emma Watson
man Martin Luther King
city London
country Germany
restaurant Hard Rock Cafe
motorbike Suzuki Hayabusa

Concrete and abstract nouns

As the name suggests, a concrete noun refers to people or things that exist physically. In other words, they can be experienced using our senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Examples of such nouns include light, aroma, music, coffee, and cotton.

Abstract nouns, on the contrary, have no physical existence. They refer to ideas, qualities, and conditions, none of which can be experienced via senses. Words such as honesty, joy, friendship, sorrow, lies, and time are all abstract in nature.

Compound noun

A compound noun is formed by joining two or more words to make a single noun. It can be a single word, a hyphenated word, or two separate words. Here are some examples: sunrise, toothpaste, passer-by, mother-in-law, washing machine, fish hook.

Remember, a noun can fall into more than one category. Sydney, for example, is both a concrete noun and a proper noun. Being aware of various types of noun can help you use language more confidently and accurately.

A Quick Guide to Nouns (Part 1)

What is common to the words Philip, Melbourne, elephant, table, and love?

They are all nouns, words which are the central building blocks of English. It’s next to impossible to avoid nouns when using English, because we need them to refer to the subject of a sentence. A noun can refer to a person, a place, an animal, a thing, or an idea. Here are some quick explanations to help you understand some commonly used types of nouns.

Countable and uncountable nouns

In English, certain nouns are treated as separate items and so can be counted. For instance, we can count words such as camera (one camera, two cameras, three cameras, etc.), pen, book, and girl. We call such words countable nouns. They can appear in two forms – singular or plural. When a countable noun is in singular form, the indefinite article (a/an) is usually used before it.

Could I please have a pen? (Not Could I please have pen?)

Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, cannot be treated as separate objects or items, as they are seen as a whole. Some examples of uncountable nouns are milk, juice, homework, luggage, advice, snow, feedback, and information. Naturally, such words are not used in plural form (milks, juices, homeworks, feedbacks). Also, the indefinite article (a/an) does not appear before uncountable nouns.

Could I please get some advice? (Not Could I please get an advice?)

Collective nouns

A collective noun is a word that we use to talk about a collection of people, animals, things, etc. as a single group. The words audience, family, team, police, orchestra, and council are all examples of collective nouns. One problem that learners face is to decide what verb to add after a collective noun – singular or plural. In British English, most collective nouns can be followed by the singular or plural verb, depending on the context. If in doubt, it’s best to consult a dictionary.

The next time you come across a new noun, try to understand what type it is. All good dictionaries list such information.

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