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!

Halloween Vocabulary Exercise

halloween vocabulary exerciseIt’s that fun time of year where the English speaking world prepares for Halloween – with scary stories, films and costumes. Which means it’s also the time of year to practice our Halloween vocabulary – words which cover a range of frightening topics, emotions and mythical creatures! Build your vocab with my nasty nouns and abysmal adjectives, then see if you can complete the exercise below.

Mixed Halloween Vocabulary Exercise

Match the following descriptions with the words below.

  1. Something that is not from this world.
  2. The practice of magic or sorcery.
  3. An ugly, giant creature.
  4. A very old person who wants to suck your blood.
  5. Dead people who refuse to stay dead.
  6. A box to bury dead bodies in.
  7. Illumination from the moon.
  8. A characterisation of Death.
  9. A carved pumpkin that we put a candle in.
  10. The worst kind of dream.
  11. The remains of a person without flesh or muscles.
  12. A home where you find ghosts (or worse!).
  13. A magical person with wings.
  14. An enchantment, poems or other words that create magic.
  15. A person who changes into a wolf.
  • a. fairy
  • b. witchcraft
  • c. werewolf
  • d. moonlight
  • e. spell
  • f. zombies
  • g. haunted house
  • h. skeleton
  • i. coffin
  • j. jack’o’lantern
  • k. the grim reaper
  • l. nightmare
  • m. ogre
  • n. supernatural
  • o. vampire

Answers to the Exercise

  1. n – supernatural
  2. b – witchcraft
  3. m – ogre
  4. o – vampire
  5. f – zombies
  6. i – coffin
  7. d – moonlight
  8. k – the grim reaper
  9. j – jack’o’lantern
  10. l – nightmare
  11. h – skeleton
  12. g – haunted house
  13. a – fairy
  14. e – spell
  15. c – werewolf

How to use suffixes to create nouns from adjectives and verbs

create nouns from adjectives and verbsMany words in English can be adapted to be used for different grammatical functions. We often use prefixes and suffixes (extra parts of the word added at the beginning or the end) to change the meaning of a word for a variety of purposes. Adjectives and verbs can be turned into nouns, for example happy becomes the feeling of happiness, run becomes the doer of the verb, runner. There are many different ways to do this that sometimes have individual quirks – but there are also some general rules to help know how to create nouns from other words. The following is a list of the most common suffix changes to form nouns: Continue reading

Ready, willing and able – different uses of “to be willing to do”

ready willing able to doWhen we talk about future plans in English, the construction “to be willing to do” can be used with a few different adjectives (in place of willing), such as ready, prepared and able. In some contexts these can be used interchangeably with almost no difference in meaning, roughly meaning to be prepared to do something. The idiomatic expression ready, willing and able to … means to be incredibly eager / prepared to do something. It makes use of these multiple words reinforcing the idea of readiness/eagerness by repeating adjectives that with almost the same meaning (similar to a construction such as I am well and good). However the use of such a phrase does demonstrate there is some difference between these words, and in certain contexts the different forms of to be willing to do can have distinct meanings. Continue reading

Halloween vocabulary – abysmal adjectives

halloween vocabulary adjectivesTo get in the mood for Halloween, a favourite holiday in the UK and America, here’s a list of some useful adjectives to describe creepy scenarios! Perfect for building a scary scene and setting some devilish ambience – these are all adjectives with descriptions and examples. You have until October 31st to learn and use these wicked words to their best beastly ability.  Continue reading

Word Order in English Sentences: Grammar Guide

“If you are a non-native speaker intending to write in English, YOU NEED THIS BOOK!” – Amelie Chaloux , Amazon review



Word Order in English Sentences teaches effective sentence structure in English. It explains how and why English word types fit into specific orders. It is available from this site in electronic form, or in print form on Amazon.

Effective Word Order Rules

“The greatest thing about this guide is that it doesn’t simply tell you what to do, it also explains why, so that you understand the subtle (or not so subtle) change in meaning of the sentence.” – Polina Zemsteva, Amazon review

The English language requires specific word order rules, to make sure your sentences make grammatical sense. When you change your word order, you can change the meaning of your sentence. This guide explains standard sentence structures, so that you will always be understood clearly.

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Adjective word order: sentence placement and lists

adjective word order

Adjectives describe nouns, and are usually placed either before a noun (as part of the noun phrase) or after a noun, pronoun or verb. The rules for this placement are quite simple, but when we use more than one adjective the word order is important, to sound more natural and to make the meaning clear. (Note this article is an earlier of version available more fully in Word Order in English Sentences.)


Placing an adjective before or after the noun

Adjectives are placed directly before a  noun to add detail to the noun. In a noun phrase, with additional words (such as determiners and adverbs), the adjective should be the last word before the noun. When they are removed from the sentence, the sentence should still make sense: Continue reading

Adjectives and Adverbs: a brief guide


adjectives and adverbs, good well

Adjectives and adverbs are describing words. For definitions of words, see here, or for examples, see this extensive list. They add details to other components of a sentence. They can be used in a variety of ways, and some uses have regional variations. Generally, however, the simplest way to think of them is that adjectives describe nouns (subjects, objects, things), whilst adverbs describe almost all other word types. The following rules should help you choose when you need to decide on an adjective or adverb: Continue reading