How to start a sentence with “only after / when / if”

only after when ifSentences that start with an “only” adverbial, usually referring a particular time or condition, have a curious structure as they typically require an auxiliary verb and an inversion. These sentences can come in many tenses, and are usually emphatic. Here’s few examples:

  • Only after the sun went down, did the bats come out.
  • Only if you finish your homework can you go to the park.
  • Only when we had eaten the pie did we realise that it was out of date.

So how do we use this structure?

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Recognising verb constructions following “to be”

to be verb formsThe verb “to be” can be used in descriptive clauses or as an auxiliary verb to create certain grammatical structures, such as the continuous tenses and the passive voice. This can lead to confusion when a verb or verb form follows the verb “to be” – how do you recognise which structure is being used? Consider this example: “The museum is supposed to be _______ in the morning.” (open) Opening would form the continuous tense, open would be an adjective form, opened would form a passive sentence. Each of these could be arguably correct – so how do we know the difference? Continue reading

When can we use “not so” instead of “not as” for comparatives

comparatives not as so

A recent question I’ve had is which comparative form is more correct, using so or as: “England is not as hot as France” or “England is not so hot as France”. It’s an interesting point as they are both possible so neither is really more correct – and one of my reference books covers it in one simple point “After not, we can use so … as instead of as … as.” This doesn’t give you much room for discussion! So, do the two forms differ? Continue reading

When can we use the past simple for timeless rules?

past simple timeless rules

When we write a rule in a past tense narrative, should it still be in the present simple tense? This was an excellent question raised by a reader, from a fairly unexpected source – this Christmas reading exercise. It contains the phrase “everyone knew how magical Santa was”. The issue is that saying “was” in the past tense suggests Santa is either no longer magical (or perhaps has died?!). So, how can past simple still be correct here? Like much in English, it depends on our context. Continue reading

Why “keep doing” is present simple and not continuous

keep doing continuous tenseI’ve been asked about the tense of “keep writing” – and how it relates to the rules and patterns we use for the present continuous form of “to be writing”. Many verbs can be followed by other verbs in an –ing form, such as “keep doing”, “enjoy doing”, “avoid doing” – but they are not the same as the continuous tense “to be doing”, and are actually used in the present simple tense. A verb like “keep” may be particularly confusing, as it suggests a continuing action. So why is “keep doing” not the same as the present continuous? Continue reading

Using -ing forms for perfect meanings

ing forms perfect A recent question I’ve been asked is whether or not the following sentence is correct, as it sounded strange to the learner: “With the restaurant having closed, there was nowhere to eat.” What do you think? Better as “As the restaurant had closed…” or “With the restaurant closed…”? Perhaps – but the sentence is actually possible – it’s just difficult to explain how it is used. Continue reading

Comparing Examples of all the English Tenses

comparing examples of tensesI have had a few requests recently to provide more examples of sentences as they are used across all the English tenses. This is useful to show how and why we might use the different tenses to describe the same situation. One example was given in my timeline (I go school…) and you can go into detail about why we use the different tenses in my book – but for here, let’s just look at 4 different sentences across all 12 aspects of English. Continue reading

Bird of prey and other “noun of noun” constructions

bird of prey noun phrasesSubjects formed with multiple nouns connected by of can mean consisting of, or taken from, for example ‘piece of cake’, but can also mean belonging to, or with the purpose of, such as ‘father of the bride’. ‘Bird of prey’ can be confusing, though, because it seems to have the opposite meaning – bird of prey may sound like it belongs to prey, but actually it is a predator. So how do these different examples work? Continue reading

What’s the correct date format for business letters?

correct date format business lettersIn my article on the different formats for dates in UK and US English, there are plenty of rules and variations – some covered very briefly. Across business letters and other correspondence you may find uses that you do not recognise (or did not notice) in that list. For example if someone uses November 22nd, 2016 – a less common form. The question is what is the correct form to use in writing? Continue reading

2 Examples of Troublesome Dictionary Definitions

troublesome dictionary definitionsThe rules given in reference books, and indeed dictionaries, can sometimes be rather misleading, or represent incomplete ideas. As I teach (and study!) advanced language use, I often have to question reference guides, and have recently encountered two examples of this. To show how the dictionary does not always tell the whole truth, here are some additional considerations for this/next and the not only…but also rule. Continue reading