Monday, March 28, 2011

A tv show touches and inspires

(Note: Hover over the red vocabulary words to get their definitions.)

I was flipping channels last night waiting for a show to start when I came across "Secret Millionaire" on ABC. I'd seen one episode of this show before and really admired the idea. In each episode, a millionaire is sent to an impoverished community, charged to find people making a difference, and in the end, is given the chance to give a small portion of his or her fortune to help the philanthropic efforts of the people he meets.

I missed the start of last night's episode, so I didn't catch the millionaire's background or the kind of business he was in, but I believe he spent a week on Skid Row, a dilapidated area of Los Angeles filled with the homeless walking the streets by day and sleeping on it by night. In the course of a week, the millionaire's view of the area changed. He had a difficult time approaching people at first; no one wanted to talk to him (and the cameras that were following him). Eventually, however, he made acquaintances and felt safer in general.

I like the show because it's touching and inspiring. It shows us that there are people around us who care, and many of them don't even have much for themselves. They give what they have and what they can, even if all they can give is their time. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own lives that we don't even want to hear about the plight of the needy. I know I'm guilty of this. My hope is that shows like this (and there's a whole slew of them now) will urge us to do something and give what we can, even if it seems like we have nothing to give.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

or so

This phrase is another way of saying approximately and usually goes right after a quantity or amount. So, "5 hours or so" means approximately 5 hours. Sometimes, the phrase goes right after the number: There were ten or so kids there. This structure, though, tends to sound more informal. In addition, although this phrase already means approximately, sometimes you'll hear the word "approximately" or "about" used in conjunction with this phrase. We saw about 10 sharks or so swimming around the boat. However, because this sounds redundant, we usually just use one or the other in our writing. 

like this:
1. There are 10 or so old cell phones in that drawer.
2. How many guests were there at the party? Oh, about 30 or so.
3. The speaker will talk for 15 minutes or so, then we will start the celebration.

Try to make your own sentences. Good luck! 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tongue twisters now at the small guide site!

We recently rearranged our design at the small guide site and added tongue twisters with audio! We're starting with 8 sounds with more on the way. If you'd like to see a particular sound first, just head to our new Exercises page and fill out the quick form. Alternatively, you can email me at

Also new is our latest Try This! exercise and a continuation to our story. This time it's dinner at John and Tabitha's to celebrate John's getting a job. An accompanying dialog among four people is their dinner conversation, which can be used for practice.

Our Spread the Word! section now includes posts on Words of the day (WOTDs), idioms, and other expressions.

Stop by the small guide site. Learn something. Improve your English.

All the best,
Joe Yu  - Drop by. Learn something. Improve your English.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Post a flyer. Get an e-booklet for free!

As a strategy to get help spreading the word about the small guide site, I'm giving out digital copies of The small guide To Improving Your English to anyone willing to do a little bit of legwork. For one week, if you post a copy of our flyers, take a photo of it, and post it on our Wall on Facebook or email me a copy of the photo, I'll send you the digital edition of The small guide.

The small guide is perfect for anyone who needs to organize and make sense of the verb tenses, modal verbs, and conditionals. For more information about The small guide To Improving Your English, please visit our product page.

To download the flyers and get posting instructions, please go to our flyers pageHope you're able to help spread the word and have fun doing it!

Joe Yu -- Drop by. Learn something. Improve your English.

You know the drill.

I've used this expression here and at the small guide site at least a few times, so I'm sure you have an idea of what it means.

This idiom basically says, "You know what to do." We use it to tell people that they've done the activity before and that you expect them to do it. (Drill here means a step-by-step, practiced activity as in a military drill or a fire drill.) 

Keep in mind that this expression tends to be informal and because you're basically telling someone what to do, you shouldn't use it when talking to your manager or supervisor. When you do use this expression, you should also mention what needs to be done to motivate people to start doing it.

like this:
1. Alright, guys! You know the drill. Let's put everything away so we can leave.
2. Alright, everyone! You know the drill! We have to sweep the floor first, then we mop.
3. Ok, class. You know the drill. Turn to the person next to you and practice.

Well, that's all there is to it. You know the drill. You should now try to use the expression as soon as possible.

Good luck!
Joe Yu -- Drop by. Learn something. Improve your English  

Saturday, March 5, 2011

set foot

To set foot in a place is simply to enter or to put yourself in that place. We can set foot more or less anywhere.

like this:
1. Once you've set foot on that island, you'll never want to leave.
2. He said he would never set foot in that store again after being treated horribly.
3. Can you believe he's never once set foot in a museum?
4. It's been awhile since they've set foot in our house.
5. I've set foot in that building, and I liked it.

Alright, everyone. What's the best museum you've set foot in and why would you call it the best?

Good luck!
Joe Yu

Thursday, March 3, 2011

G2R - more examples of the second conditional

This is an extra post of our lesson on the second conditional. My goal here is to show sample sentences to clarify the subtle differences between using the infinitive and using the past tense or the ing form in a second conditional sentence. Please review parts 1 (Feb 4), 2 (Feb 23), and 3 (Mar 2) of our blogs on the second conditional.

I would like to reiterate that the advanced form of the second conditional (using "were" in the beginning of the "if clause") is the least commonly used of the conditional structures. Nevertheless, it's important to know and be familiar with it especially if you want to use English at the professional level.

Take a look at these sentences and notice the differences (Their meanings are italicized in parentheses):

If we had a dog, we'd be less lonely. (We don't have a dog.)
If we were getting a dog, we'd be less lonely. (We're not getting a dog.)
(advanced form) Were we getting a dog, ...
If we were to get a dog, we'd be less lonely. (We're probably not getting a dog, but let's consider the possibility.)
(advanced form) Were we to get a dog, ...

If he took the train everyday, he'd save money on gas. (He doesn't take the train everyday.)
If he were taking the train right now, he wouldn't be stuck in traffic. (He's not taking the train.)
(advanced form) Were they taking the train right now, ...
If he were to take the train, he would save some money. (He probably won't take the train, but let's consider the possibility of his taking the train.)
(advanced form) Were they to take the train, ...

If they ate meat, ... (They don't eat meat.)
If they were eating meat, ... (They are not eating meat.)
(advanced form) Were they eating meat, ...
If they were to eat meat, ... (They probably won't eat meat, but let's consider this possibility.)
(advanced form) Were they to eat meat, ...

Alright everyone, I know it can be challenging the first time you see a grammar point. The important thing is you've seen it, and that the next time you see it or hear someone use it, you'll recognize it and it will begin to make sense and sound easy. Eventually, you'll be able to use it, yourself.

To practice, finish the sentences in the last group: Were my friends to eat meat, they would ...

Good luck!
Joe Yu

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

G2R - the second conditional part 3

In part 1 of our Grammar2Remember lesson on the second conditional (Feb 4, 2011), we covered the basics of this unreal conditional and talked about its structure and meaning:
If I were the President, I would build a better train system.
If he were poor, he wouldn't be able to buy that Ferrari.
If she had some extra money, she would take a break and go on vacation.

In part 2 (Feb 23, 2011), we looked at an advanced structure of the second conditional using nouns and adjectives in the "if clause":
Were I the President, I would build a better train system.
Were he poor, he wouldn't be able to buy that Ferrari.

Now in part 3, we ask what if the "if clause" had a verb other than "were"? How do we then form the advanced structure. Well, to create the advanced structure, we also get rid of the word "if", place "were" in front, and change the verb to the infinitive. Because it's the second conditional, it's still unreal. However, using the infinitive makes us focus more on considering the possibility of the option mentioned. In other words, "this option" may not happen, but let's think about the possibility of it happening.  

like this: 
1. If we had a pool, we could swim everyday. (We don't have a pool.)
    If we were to have a pool, we ... (Let's think about this possibility.)
    (advanced form) Were we to have a pool, we could swim everyday. 
2. If they lived near the ocean, they would know how to swim. (They don't live near the ocean.)
    If they were to live near the ocean, they ... (Let's consider this possibility.)
    (advanced formWere they to live near the ocean, they would learn how to swim. 
3. If she worked in New Jersey, she would have a much longer commute. (She doesn't work in New Jersey.)
    If she were to work in New Jersey, she would have ... (Let's consider this possibility.)
    (advanced formWere she to work in New Jersey, she would have a very long commute. 

This structure is probably the least used among the advanced structures of conditional sentences, and even advanced students are sometimes surprised when they first see it after years of studying English. Nevertheless, it's important to be familiar with it as with the advanced structures of the first and third conditionals, which we will cover in the future.

So, to practice, let's finish these sentences: (Consider the possibility, and say what you would or could do.) 
1. Were I to stay in the U.S. for good, I would ... 
2. Were I to get promoted in my job, I could ...

Good luck!
Joe Yu