What does it mean to “be of help”?

The phrase “to be of help” is a construction roughly synonymous with “helpful”. “Of help” is particularly common in formal settings, and has a subtly different meaning and application to the adjective “helpful”. I briefly touched on such “noun of noun” constructions when looking at the phrase “bird of prey” – as this structure can show one noun has the quality of another. But if “helpful” already describes a noun as having the quality of help, what do we use “be of help” for?

What does “to be (of) help” mean?

To start, it’s worth considering the specific meaning of “to be of help”, as it is usually applied in particular settings. It can be used with or without of, and may be used in a negative way. There are number of stock phrases you are likely to see in settings such as business correspondence or hospitality. Here are some examples:

  • How can I be of help?
  • Sorry we couldn’t be more help.
  • The tour guide was no help at all.

In all these cases, the suggestion is that the help provided, or not, is specific to a certain circumstance – most likely a single instance of assistance. Context is therefore important, as we are using the noun help as a shorthand to refer to such specific assistance.

  • How can I be of help (with your visit to our hotel today)?
  • Sorry we couldn’t be more help (with your enquiry about booking an appointment).
  • The tour guide was no help at all (when I asked what the sign meant).

We use various forms of “to be of help”, therefore, when referring to an understood and specific instance of help. Helpful, on the other hand, is a general adjective, that can refer instead to a person’s willingness to help in general. When faced with formal settings or when discussing specific incidents requiring help, helpful is less appropriate because it refers more to attitude. Consider the difference in the two questions:

  • How can I be of help?
  • How can I be helpful?

The first is an offer to provide specific assistance, usually related to a particular task. The second is a question of demonstrating willingness to help. In fact, we might say that by asking How can I be of help? a person is already demonstrating they are helpful. Now consider these two scenarios:

  • The tour guide was no help when I asked what the sign meant.
  • The tour guide was not helpful when I asked what the sign meant.

In this case, the first sentence tells us the tour guide provided no specific help, whereas in the second sentence the tour guide demonstrated a lack of willingness to help. It would be possible to be helpful, willing to help, without actually helping.

  • The tour guide read the words out many times, but he was no help in actually explaining what they meant. (helpful, but not actually of help)

The reverse could also be true, that someone might successfully be of help in a specific situation without actually being helpful by nature:

  • The tour guide was a lot of help in locating our hotel, but only after we gave him an extra £20. (provided help, but not by virtue of helpfulness)

Hopefully this goes some way to exploring the differences between these very closely related phrases, if you’ve got any questions do let me know!

The Gift of Time – Christmas English Tenses Exercise

It’s that time of the year again where we put lights in the windows and try to bring good cheer, so I’ve got a new Christmas-themed exercise for you. In the style of the popular Christmas Mess exercise I shared before, the following is a short Christmas story that tests different verb usages.

Complete the text by choosing the correct tense or verb form for the verbs in brackets to complete the text. Some numbers could have multiple options, and some require negatives. The answers are given below.

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17 English Tenses Exercises

english exercises practice

I’ve been asked a few times recently about exercises to go with The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide – a book I always intended to produce a companion exercise book for. There’s no exercise book yet, but I do have 17 exercises to offer right now.

When I first released The English Tenses, I started creating accompanying exercises for it, many of which are already available on this website. Check out the list below – and if you like them, I’m pleased to announce that I’m focusing on completing the book now. I’ve drawn up a plan and got through perhaps 15% of the writing already – right now there will be a minimum of 90 exercises. Continue reading

How to Add Emphasis in Writing

how to add emphasis in writingEmphasis is when a particular stress or importance is given to something. Many exceptions to grammatical rules in English relate to emphasising particular words or ideas, making it a very important and also very broad topic. Structure, word order, vocabulary choice, formatting and punctuation can all be used to add emphasis. Continue reading

My Advice on Getting Started Teaching Abroad

teaching abroad training to be a teacherI’ve answered a few emails recently from potential teachers asking for advice on how to get into TEFL teaching, or teaching abroad in general, so it’s time I shared some of my thoughts. I started teaching English as a foreign language, as many teachers do, because I enjoyed travelling. It’s a great way to explore new places – and I ended up in some rather unusual places with my teaching. But that wasn’t always a good thing! So, what’s the right way to do it? Continue reading

Using commas to add extra information to sentences

commas and additional informationI recently shared an extract from Advanced Writing Skills covering how we use commas to separate clauses (which you can read here). Another useful function of commas in complex, or even just slightly more complicated sentences, is when we use commas around additional information. To cover this, I’ve got another extract from the book below, with some extra information on how this can affect word order. Continue reading

Using commas to separate clauses

separating clauses with commasThe following lesson is an adapted extract from the book, Advanced Writing Skills for Students of English. I’ve decided to share it here as I’ve had a few questions relating to punctuation and sentence structure lately, and this gives a useful introduction to how commas help signal longer sentences. Commas are typically used to separate clauses in complex sentences, when we have a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses:

  • The passengers waited outside, while the steward refused to open the door.

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The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth (Book Review)

Here’s something for anyone who really wants to go beyond the basics of English. Having recently released Advanced Writing Skills for Students of English, I’ve had a few readers share comments that while they see the value in a clear and simple writing approach they also love long sentences and creative use of English. Once you’re able to write flawless advanced English, what structures and styles can be used to really stand out? How do turns of phrase and idiomatic or poetic language that doesn’t fit the rules work? The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth is an excellent introduction to such ideas.

Forsyth aims to revive a study of rhetoric, the many rules (or, rather, recorded patterns) for very specific, very advanced language techniques. His starting point is the suggestion that Shakespeare was not merely a very talented writer, but a diligent student of the language. Shakespeare used rhetorical devices very deliberately and would have studied them as strategic rules, much as foreign learners have to study the basic rules of English.

Some of the ideas The Elements of Eloquence expand on concepts found in my ELB books, referring to the flexibility of rules and matters of style. Rhetoric puts names to these ideas, such as hyperbaton, the practice of creating sentences that do not fit the usual word order expectations. Some are structural, others more poetic, such as synaesthesia, the cross-application of senses  (e.g. Hanslick’s quote, criticising Tchaikovsky, “this music stinks to the ear”). There are some 39 such rhetorical devices covered in the book.

This book is lightly written, making the subject accessible and giving an easy summary of the ideas. It goes beyond the ordinary in English writing (and general usage) to explain why many supposed errors may actually be deliberate (particularly consider enallage, a deliberate grammatical mistake), and how very unusual sentences work. It won’t necessarily tell you exactly when you can get away with using these devices, as they are very nuanced, but it will raise your awareness of them.

Such incredibly specific techniques in English are ideas I would like to explore myself, as a future instructive guide for foreign learners, but it makes me happy that a book like this already exists, providing a window into a fascinating and rarely discussed area. If you’d like to give it a read, check out The Elements of Eloquence here.

Simple States or Passive Voice?

simple passive verb formsI recently had a question through this website but the return email didn’t work, so I’ve posted my answer in the hope that the reader sees it! It relates to spotting the difference between the past simple and the passive voice – specifically, how we can use different verb forms to follow the verb to be. Here we go: Continue reading

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