Auxiliary verbs are fantastic little things! They act like mini-discourse markers at the beginning of sentences, except instead of signaling an emotion or intent, they signal a time. That’s how we know when an action happened in a question or a negative form, by the auxiliary.
Discourse markers are words or phrases which prepare the listener for what is to come. Like if you’re driving and you see a signpost which tells you that your destination is 200km away and to the left. The sign not only tells you the distance and which way to turn, it also mentally prepares you for the journey ahead. It gets you thinking about whether or not you need petrol, if you need to go to the toilet. You think about when you will stop for a break, now or towards the end of the journey? That sign situates you within your journey. It offers you comfort and the power to make informed decisions. Signposts are important not only for telling us where to go but also for making us feel more comfortable whilst going there.
In language we use signposts too. If a teacher is talking to a student and says I read your essay. Unfortunately…. The student gasps upon hearing this word. There is a small intake of breath as they prepare themselves for what surely will be bad news. Can I be blunt with you? Another signpost. Whatever they are going to say, it’s probably terrible! They will tell me some horrible truth about myself. The answer to can I be blunt with you? is of course, always yes! As human beings we are naturally curious about other’s perception of ourselves. I’ve got some good news and some bad news is an old favourite. Which do you want to hear first?
Which brings me back to auxiliary verbs. They are words like is, was, have, do, will and did. They go with a verb and through them we know the tense. For example, if I ask do you walk to work?, you know that I am asking if you walk to work generally, every day, usually. Did you walk to work? Now we’re talking about a specific point in the past. But that’s an important idea. The listener must know when you are talking about if you use did. They know because you either say it or it’s implicit in the idea. If you walk up to a person and ask did you go to the cinema?, their impulse is to immediately ask when? They need a time because you asked did.
If I ask have you walked to work?, it’s not necessary to specify the time. Have you implies a time before now. Any time. Have you been to Japan? Yes? When? Now you talk in the past. I went three years ago etc. Have you been …ing? Again, the listener knows that the question refers to recently, to a time close to now. This is the present perfect continuous tense, a tense we use when we see evidence of an action. For example, I see someone out of breath (the evidence) and I ask have you been running? As soon as they hear have you been…? They know that my question refers to something recently and also to some evidence that they have spotted. If someone asks you out of the blue have you been sewing? You would most probably respond with why do you ask? You are wondering what possible evidence they see to ask whether or not you have been sewing.
In class, students often have a problem between the simple past (I did), the present perfect (I have done) and the present perfect continuous (I’ve been doing). There is no need for this to be problematic as long as you think about them in relation to time. I did requires a specific named past time. Either you say it or the other person knows exactly what time you are referring to. If you name the time, use the simple past and NOT the present perfect. The present perfect refers to an action which happened in an unnamed time in the past but has importance for now. Perhaps a message for now. If you say I’ve eaten, the message for now is I’m not hungry. If you say I’ve done everything to your boss, the message for now is perhaps can I go now?
If you name the time, use the simple past and NOT the present perfect
Having said all of that, there is a challenge for students regarding understanding the concept. It is often not the same in other languages and does need time to sink in. The good news (nice discourse marker!) is that there is a ‘eureka’ moment. A moment when the student suddenly gets it. It’s one of those really satisfying moments when learning a language which can be so frustrating at times.
In the meantime, learners need to be as aware as possible of those little magic words, auxiliary verbs.
‘Out’ means ‘outside’. There is a journey from inside to outside, a journey which takes you into the light, or into the darkness.
Let’s say you have a problem, like a maths problem. The solution is hidden deep in the problem. Your job is to work it out. Here, the image is slowly removing the answer from a dark hidden place into the light. When you’ve worked it out, the solution is there, in the light. You can see it!
Jim and Mary are trying to work out their marriage problems. By talking through their problems they begin to see solutions.
Likewise, you can also figure something out. Again, figuring out a problem means thinking about it until the solution can be seen.
I couldn’t figure out how to open the door.
It took me ages to figure out the complicated bus timetable.
When you figure it out, you can see the light!
Another case is to find things out. This involves bringing information into the light.
Sometimes you can find out accidentally:
I just found out that Mary is going to have a baby!.
I went on the internet and found out that the company doesn’t exist!
For working out, figuring out and finding out, a solution sees the light.
To come out can simply mean ‘come outside’.
Are you coming out tonight? Possibly to the pub, or the cinema etc.
Come out also means to reveal that you are gay. The idea here is that it is a secret. When someone is secretly gay, they are ‘in the closet’. Then one day, they tell their friends or family or the world that they are in fact gay. This is when he/she comes out.
Elton John came out years ago.
Again, the secret reaches the light.
To make something out means to be able to see or hear something under difficult circumstances. It is often used with ‘can’. For example, if something is far away and you can see it or read it:
I can’t make it out. A car registration for example or a bus number.
I can’t make out the signature. Here, it’s not far away, the quality is bad.
You can also use it for things you can/can’t hear, usually because of the clarity of the sound.
I find heavy metal lyrics difficult to make out.
I couldn’t make out what he was saying because of the noise.
When you can make something out, there is the lightbulb moment of throwing light onto the unknown.
Sometimes friendships can fall into darkness:
People can fall out. It means that they are no longer friends. They usually fall out over something:
Myself and Peter fell out over the money he owes me
They fell out over a stupid argument
Here are some more verbs which mean ‘go into the darkness, away from the light’:
The first is literal. To blow out a candle or a flame.
He made a wish and blew out his birthday candles.
What do you do with a finished cigarette? You put it out. (extinguish it)
Or when the room is too hot, or your blood pressure is very low? What can happen? You can faint. Lose consciousness and fall onto the floor. You can pass out.
When you pass out, what do you see? Darkness!
As well as flammable material, people can burn out. This is due to excessive stress, usually in work:
He was a stock broker, but burnt out after five years.
When you burn out, you’re finished!
We often hear of governments trying to stamp out crime. (destroy it)
Sometimes, they will phase something out.
At the moment they are phasing out free medical care. (little by little it will be gone)
When you close the curtains, you block out the light. You can also block out sounds.
Some people try to block out bad memories.
Out can be also associated with negative experiences:
If you decide to stick it out, you decide to remain in a bad situation:
I hate my new job, but my friends have advised me to stick it out, at least for another month.
Sometimes, you can stop a negative experience:
We talked him out of doing it. We persuaded him not to do something we viewed as being bad.
He was going to sell the company, but we talked him out of it.
The purpose here is to show that there is a logic and a clear line of thought running through seemingly unrelated phrasal verbs. This logic is, I believe, contained in the preposition. If you can unlock the meaning of the prepositions, you can understand better the idiomatic side of the English language.
When thinking about phrasal verbs and idioms it occurred to me that they are just like shortcuts on a computer. Shortcuts are things like:
• Ctrl+C (Copy)
• Ctrl+X (Delete selected item and save a copy to the clipboard)
• Ctrl+V (Paste)
• Ctrl+Z (Undo)
Obviously, when you start learning how to use a computer, you don’t immediately start learning shortcuts. You learn the long version first and when you have reached a particular level of expertise you can then start learning and using shortcuts. People who are very proficient on computers use shortcuts all the time. People who have an elementary level of knowledge usually don’t.
The reason shortcuts exist is that there are certain things which we do over and over again. For example the copy and paste function is one you perform many times daily if you regularly use Word on a computer. Because of the frequency with which we perform the action, it can be tiresome repeating the same actions over and over again, hence the shortcut.
It’s exactly the same in language. There are thousands of ideas which we regularly express to each other. These are specific ideas which may convey a feeling that we have in a particular situation at a particular time. The nuances of the idea may be really subtle and therefore to express it properly might take a lot of words. That’s where the shortcut comes in. Here are some examples of the long version and the shortcut expressing the same thing.
Everybody worked together and therefore saved time and effort – shortcut – We all pitched in
He spoke for a long time about his car. It was really boring! – shortcut – He went on and on about his car
I don’t know where it came from. It might have been stolen – shortcut – It fell off the back of a lorry
From the A1 to the B1+ levels we don’t learn too many phrasal verbs and idioms. It’s really at B2 that this side of the language comes into the spotlight for the learner who then begins to use language in a more metaphorical way. This is a very exciting time for the learner because this is when they feel that they are speaking and listening ‘like native speakers’.
Native speakers of course love and use this type of language all the time. Instead of saying I was very ‘excited and nervous’ before my speech, I was ‘keyed-up’. Instead of saying ‘it is very isolated and nobody goes there’ say ‘it’s off the beaten track’. These little phrases are shortcuts. They are a means of saying a lot with little language. And that is a thing of beauty.
Learners who get good at these shortcuts sound very natural when they speak. They also find it easy to understand native speakers as the language is common and familiar. However, it’s not easy to get there. There are many phrasal verbs and the lists of idioms are long indeed. But it is possible. Here are some more examples of shortcuts:
I said something stupid socially – I put my foot in it.
I managed not to laugh when I really wanted to – I kept a straight face
I am very busy at the moment and probably have to refuse your offer – I have a lot on my plate.
In Englishour, this form of language plays a large part of our syllabus. It’s fun to learn and it’s fun to teach. So in future, when faced with a phrasal verb or an idiom, don’t think of it as ‘hard language to understand’. Just think of it as a shortcut – an easy path to expressing an idea.
Natural English in Englishour
First of all, what is idiomatic English and how does it differ from ‘normal’ English?
Idiomatic language is language which sounds completely natural and with a particular style. Also, idiomatic language often doesn’t translate directly from other languages. For this reason, learners of English often find idiomatic language more difficult as it doesn’t directly relate to their own language. For example, idiomatically you might say he kept me in the dark whereas normally it is he didn’t tell me. Normally you might say I said something embarrassingly stupid whereas idiomatically it is I put my foot in it.
Native speakers of English love using idiomatic English because it’s shorter and the images are often more powerful. For example, I have enough money to survive financially becomes I’m getting by.
In Englishour, the secrets of idiomatic language are revealed making it easy for the learner to speak like a native speaker.
Why not test yourself now and see how much idiomatic English you already know? In the two columns below, try to match the phrases with their idiomatic counterparts:
Normal speak — Idiomatic speak
He has a surprising skill/past— He let the cat out of the bag
He got really angry— He has a lot on his plate
He is extremely lazy— He heard it straight from the horse’s mouth
He (accidentally) told the secret— He hit the roof
He is really busy— He’s a dark horse
He got it from source— He is a couch potato
Idiomatic English is fun and is just one of the elements of language focused on in Englishour. In Englishour, students can expect to be taught all of the skills, speaking, writing, reading and listening in both a formal and informal context. Put simply, when searching for an English course in Dublin, Englishour is head and shoulders above the rest! 🙂
It is exciting to be able to speak another language. It can of course be frustrating too. Not being able to articulate what you want or how you feel or what your opinion is on something can feel terrible. Being with a group of native speakers and not being able to follow the group conversation can leave you feeling alone.
Many years ago, when I arrived in Spain for a year of teaching English, this was exactly how I felt. When I arrived, my Spanish was nil. I didn’t even know the word for ‘hello’. I had a little Spanish/English dictionary and a notebook, and I started to learn words and phrases, as I needed them. If I were going food shopping, for example, I would pre-learn the words which I anticipated I would need for my shopping expedition. Leaving my house, I would be repeating the words for ‘bread’ and tomato’ and ‘pork chop’ as I wandered down the foreign street surrounded by signs and people I didn’t understand.
I lived in a small flat with two Spanish guys who didn’t speak a word of English. It was perfect for me to immerse myself in Spanish. For the first couple of months we were like three mime artists in the kitchen, acting out what we were going to cook, flapping our arms to show the rent was due and whatever other messages they needed to pass to me or I to them. At that time, I used to go home for lunch every day and sitting opposite Miguel, I would have conversations with him in my broken language but I was only half sure what we were talking about. But every one seeped in somehow and slowly my brain was accepting this new form of communication.
Then I got really lucky. One evening (still early in my time there) while waiting for a friend outside her school (she was teaching an English class) I was watching a television match in a shop window. There was another guy there also watching the match, and it turned out that he was waiting for his girlfriend who was inside and was one of my friend’s students. We started talking in the usual mime/stone age man-type language, and when they came out we all went for a beer together. This marked the beginning of my friendship with Emilio and Maria Jose.
Every Friday they invited me out with their large group of friends. I remember the first ten minutes always going well, everybody sober, talking slowly to me and me listening intently, trying to follow the conversation. Then the beers kept coming and the conversation got faster, the lights got brighter and everything became more garbled. People would look at me and see that I didn’t understand and would stop the group to bring me up to date but I hated that as I felt that I was ruining the dynamic of the group. I didn’t want them to stop just to keep me up to date.
I felt lonely. I was surrounded by friends, but they were friends who I couldn’t really communicate with apart from smiles and a nodding of my head.
I returned to Ireland for Christmas and when I went back in early January and something strange happened to me. I started to understand! It was if my absence for a couple of weeks had given my brain the time to digest all the backlog of new language I had, and it was now able to run past my lips with a degree of fluidity. Words I heard or read began to have meaning and I felt that I was no longer a beginner, but someone on a (slightly) higher rung of the language ladder.
Breaking through this barrier felt so good! I still had many problems understanding and expressing myself of course, but this was peppered with the joy of catching a word, or a difficult expression which I actually understood! I began to feel that their language was now also becoming my language. It was something we shared rather than something that separated us.
This experience informs what I do today in my English classes. I feel that the job of the English teacher is to empower the learner. To give the learner ‘bullets’ for their ‘language gun’. I know the joy of being able to express oneself beautifully in another language (or at least thinking I do) and to be able to understand subtlety coming from someone else’s lips. When that happens, all the frustration and loneliness suffered at the beginning becomes worth it.
Often students say that they feel that they have stopped learning. That they have reached a plateau or even worse have regressed and are now understanding less. This, unfortunately, is the game of learning a language. It’s swings and roundabouts, highs and lows. But like all the great things in life you have to work. You have to suffer before the good stuff comes. And it does come… just ask anyone who has done it!
Have a thought for a new quiz lets us now.
Dublin has more than 1000 pubs!
Dublin is known throughout the world for its unrivalled pubs and nightlife, so it’s not really a surprise that the city has over 1000 pubs. The Brazen Head (just near the Guiness brewery) is one of the oldest pubs in the world, first opening in 1168! The real surprise, however, is that Dublin has the fewest pubs per person than any other capital city in Europe!
Dublin means ‘Black Pool’
Dublin comes from the Gaelic phrase ‘Dubh Linn’, which can be translated to ‘Black Pool’. The name’s thought to originate from the dark, large lake situated between the River Liffey and the River Poddle. The lake’s long disappeared, replaced by Dublin Castle’s Dubh Linn gardens.
If you really want to impress family and friends, though, you could use the official Irish name for Dublin, Baile Átha Cliath, which is translated as ‘Town of the Hurdled Ford’.
St. Valentine is buried in Dublin
If you think Paris is the capital of love, you’re in for a surprise! The remains of St Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, are kept at the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church and you can visit his shrine there, too.
The O’Connell Bridge is wider than long
The O’Connell Bridge’s unique dimensions make it famous throughout Europe, being wider than it is long at an amazing 49metres! Up until 1863, Dublin only had a weak rope bridge, so the city’s come a long, long way.
Dublin is one of UNESCO’s six cities of literature
Dublin has a brilliant reputation for literary excellence, being home to numerous famous authors, including Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.With multiple libraries, publishing companies and literary institutions, bookworms are in heaven here! The other five UNESCO cities of literature include: Norwich, England; Reykjavik, Iceland; Edinburgh, Scotland; Melbourne, Australia and Iowa City, USA.
You’ll never run out of Guinness
Dublin’s most famous brewery is not only Dublin’s oldest business and a tourist attraction you should definitely visit, but you can rest assured there’ll be plenty of time to visit it. The Guinness Brewery is on a leasehold of 9,000 years, which expires in the year 10,759!
Dublin’s twin cities
Whilst you may not think twinned cities provide any benefits, it helps cities maintain good commercial and financial links. Dublin is twinned with a number of cities, including Liverpool, England; Barcelona, Spain and San Jose, California.
Dublin boasts Europe’s largest city park
If you’re looking for the perfect outdoor space to practice your English skills, you’ll be spoilt for choice. With over 2,000 hectares of parkland and miles of cycling and walking paths, Phoenix Park is the largest in Europe. Dublin Zoo is also based here, which is second in size only to New York’s Central Park.
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