Help! Confusing Dictionary Entries!

Resultat d'imatges de photos of help


Yes, I know. There has been a long pause between posts. Some students kept reminding me to update the blog. I would make a lame excuse : “I’m not inspired”, which although sincere, wasn’t quite justifiable, nor believable. After a while, they just gave up.

The new school year started off well and yet my mind was blank and I couldn’t think of anything worth sharing! It wasn’t until yesterday that my inspiration came back and this was, once more, a result of a class discussion.

A student of mine  was learning a set of idioms and was quite upset by an explanation given in the textbook for the expression: “For the time being”. It was: ” For the present time, until later”.

She insisted that the part “until later” was confusing. “Well “, I said, ” this expression implies that in the future , or later, things may change”. For me , of course , it was clear  but it made me think about the way words are defined in dictionaries and how confusing dictionary entires may be depending on the learner’s  first language or his/her cultural background.

Funnily enough, in the many years that I have been teaching, this has never crossed  my mind! Mind you,  she was the first student to have said: ” Are dictionary definitions written like this on purpose, to make things more difficult for us learners?” This was a joke, of course, but it did show the depth of her frustration.

As always , I recommended reading examples of idiomatic expressions in context and then deducing their actual meaning and not relying so much on the definition itself.

Later on, out of curiosity, I decided to see how a few dictionaries define the same expression.

Here are the results:

  • : for the present; until some other arrangement is made.
  • : for the moment; temporarily
  • at this time

To be honest, I don’t really see the difference between saying :” until later or  “until some other arrangement is made”, although the latter seems more precise, doesn’t it?

Anyway, as we went on talking about the subject, I told her about the fact that some words in English have two completely opposite meanings. These words are called CONTRONYMS or AUTO-ANTONYMS or JANUS WORDS and there is a fair number of them in English.

Luckily, my student has already reached a solid level of English, but even so, I could see the spark of despair in her eyes. She left the classroom with a  bitter feeling that she will never master this impossible language.

On the other hand, I rushed to Mr Google to find out how many contronyms  there are and started thinking of  ways to help my students work around their vocabulary related doubts, some  of which are so rarely mentioned in the classroom.

At the same time, I’ve got a new topic for my next blog post!

I will help my students.

I can’t help  feeling happy about it!

spoiler: I just used a contronym!









Just about just

My advanced level students keep having doubts when it comes to understanding and using certain adverbs such as: even, just, still or only. While having no problems grasping the general meaning of longer texts, sentences involving these words don’t seem to be easily translated into Spanish or Catalan and this fact often causes a great deal of confusion and a misinterpretation of details.
Quite often it is not really important that the learners get the whole message across, but what I am concerned about most is that such sentences might become a serious obstacle when they are doing a reading comprehension task in an exam, especially when reading for specific details is being tested.

Another situation in which  not understanding such words may have a more serious consequence is in a business context.

For this reason, I’ve decided to dedicate this post just to just.
Just has several meanings:

This house is just right for our family.


She isn’t a woman. She’s just a girl.


I’ve just tried phoning you.


I’m just making a cake.


You know I just might do that!


I just want you to leave the room.


You’re just as bad as the rest of them.


Could I just ask how you found out where he was hiding?


I can just reach the top shelf.


There’s more. Sometimes just doesn’t mean very much.It just emphasizes what you’re saying:

Just what do you think you’re doing?

It’s just unbelievable!

So now that you’ve got these notes, I recommend trying to translate these sentences into your mother tongue as precisely as possible in order to visualise how just is translated in each situation.

After a while you might want to take your translated sentences and translate them back into English. Comparing your results will help you to use and understand just better.

Well, that’s just about everything  I’d like to share with you today.

After the work you’ve done you might want to listen to some music. I have chosen just two songs, but there are many more which will help you think about this little big word!

Watch out for other key adverbs in our next blog post!









Like a Bear with a Sore Head

In one of our last blogs, I mentioned our students’ genuine interest in idiomatic expressions and similes. What I find really intriguing though, is that the very same students don’t really use many idioms when speaking their first language. I guess that in many cases it’s the image of the expression that we make in our minds that we may find  truly fascinating, and not the fact that we could actually one day use the expression. A bear with a sore head  might look something like this:

Resultat d'imatges de a bear with a soar headResultat d'imatges de a bear with a soar head

But the history behind many an expression is not as funny as its visualisation may be.

In Collins’s ” Dictionary of Curious Phrases” I found the following entry for Like a Bear with a Sore Head:

Groses’s Classical Dictionary of Vulgar tongue, which appeared in 1785, illustrates the word ‘grumble’ with the sentence:’ He grumbled like a bear with a sore ear.’ Bears with sore ears would certainly have been found in bear gardens, where bear-baiting took place. This was a popular spectator sport in England between the 14th and 17th centuries. A bear was chained to a stake and had to defend itself against the dogs who were set on it.

Resultat d'imatges de a bear baiting

The riotous atmosphere at such events led to ‘bear garden’ becoming a  term to describe a place where confusion reigns….Eating People is wrong, by Malcolm Bradbury, has:

‘”It’s a mad,crazy world we live in.” Jenkins nodded sagely.”It’s a bear-garden”.’

Frederick Marryat  seems to have been the first writer to amend Grose’s ‘bear with a sore ear.’ In The King’s Own he uses the expression ‘ as savage as a bear with a sore head.’ Ten years later, in a work called Poor Jack, Marryat changed the simile to ‘ as sulky as a bear with a sore head’. Marryat’s stories were immensely popular in the 19th century, and his words would have been widely noted. He was probably responsible for making most of us think automatically, when someone is behaving with a mixture of savagery and sulkiness, of bears with sore heads.

So, next time when you find a certain simile or expression interesting, look it up and find out where it comes from, and how and where  it was used first.  You might be (un)pleasantly surprised!

Building your vocabulary skyscraper

21st Century Guide to Building Your Vocabulary by

In 1995, I bought a book called ” “21st century guide to building your vocabulary”.It has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages and I thought it’s worth reminding the world of its existence. Here’s the download:

The idea of its authors was that we will need excellent communication skills in order to prosper in the following, 21st century. This idea still seems to be valid, just think about the US president who is, by all means, a true example of a  perfect orator.

However, what happens in classrooms is quite different.Students of all ages tend to be reading less and less and teachers are much more preoccupied by having fun classes, which should miraculously lead to effective learning, than by their students really understanding the contents being presented. The issue becomes even more serious when it comes to remembering vocabulary of a foreign language. Mind  you, this is just a personal opinion based on  years of experience  and there are always resplendent exceptions to the rule.

Many secondary school students, and even college students, doing our language courses have a limited vocabulary range of their own mother tongue. Many times they just don’t know the simplest of nominal  words, not to mention abstract nouns explaining more complex ideas.

As a solution, I  usually tell them to make lists with a definition in English, and example sentence and then the translations, in this case into Catalan and/or Spanish if the word is completely new to them followed by a Catalan/Spanish definition and example sentence.

You can imagine how many student actually do this! The most they would do is write a Spanish/Catalan translation, which makes no sense, of course , as they don’t know the word in the first place.

Needless to say, my suggestion of having their own glossary, which they could consult before doing any language exam, is not fun. So we start on a vicious circle of vocabulary games, vocabulary exercises and so on just to avoid the easiest way of expanding vocab, which is READING and taking out some of the words and expressions you find important or you might want to use in the future or for t writing  tasks and presentations.

I am aware of the fact that the grammar translation method has been dead and buried for decades. However, in the times when a great deal of teaching is done by using new technologies, I think students might be double challenged by aiming  to improve their overall  language skills using one of the oldest teaching materials – a book.

Words, New Words, Real words

Having noticed that our most visited posts are about vocabulary, we thought you might enjoy this Ted talks video:

For those interested in the word(s) of the year 2014:

Our last comment on the video is: don’t forget to be critical about the dictionaries and language resources in general that you use. You might have noticed  that we  had mentioned this tip in many past posts.

Unsurprisingly, our second most visited posts are about  how to learn. Today we found an intriguing video questioning the myth of  learning styles.

Love it or loathe it, it might  actually help you to reconsider the way you study or give you an idea why old-fashioned memorization  and repetition  methods are resurrecting, the most recent in Spain being  the too-well-marketed Vaugham method.

Our students keep asking our opinion about it. For all students of English in Spain who wonder if it is really more efficient than any other method,which is what its “author” claims, our answer will always be: keep trying out what might work for you best. Even after listening to the video questioning learning styles, and wondering how far it really is valid, learning preferences can never be questioned.

The more effort you make in order to find a way that helps you to learn, the more likely it will be that you will eventually come up with the one that works best for you.Stick to your preferences and follow your gut feeling. Results will eventually follow.

Past Perfect vs. Future Perfect

The Past Perfect Tense is used for an action that had happened before another past action or point in time. In this case, before these guys were born:

The Future Perfect  Tense is used for an action that will have happened before another future action or point in time. In this case, well, you know, before we kick the bucket.

If you don’t think  this explanation is clear enough, here you can find a more serious approach to the matter:

Nouns formed from phrasal verbs

I remember once, it must have been 10 years ago, a student in his fifties claimed that he had learned English without ever using a phrasal verb. I told him that was impossible and that he must have learned them without being aware of it.

Now, ten years later, I doubt whether I was right or there might have been a twisted methodology at that time that just avoided phrasal verbs by all means.Let’s face it, many phrasal verbs have their more formal latin based equivalents such as: to put off= to postpone or to set up= to arrange so it  just might be possible to reach a certain basic level of English without phrasal verbs, without ever mentioning when you get up or wake up, for example.

Most Spanish-speaking students find phrasal verbs simply devastating. They are made to learn them by heart at school, which in most cases results in frustration and confusion.They end up always questioning if they have got them right. Generally speaking, this happens at all levels and  with all age groups.

To make things worse, finding out nouns can be made out of phrasal verbs just throws them off-balance thinking that English vocabulary is definitely impossible to master.

Unfortunately, there are many compound nouns formed with a verb+preposition combination. Some examples:

Here is an update on the news.

At the outbreak of war, I was just three years old.

The health service is suffering from budget cutbacks.

The town has a  bypass, which keeps traffic out of the center.

Furthermore, some of these nouns operate as phrasal verbs and some don’t.

Rioting broke out in the middle of the night.

Funds allocated to research have been severely cut back.

There is no verb to date up and to bypass is used literally:

We passed by the park on the way to the station.

Here are some examples with te verb break.

A new and successful development is a breakthrough.

You break through something such as a barrier ,you succeed in forcing your way through.

In  the  same song a break up is mentioned:

You break up with your partner or you talk about the end of a marriage as a break-up, e.g

All marriage break-ups are traumatic.

Some people have nervous breakdowns  and machines break down i.e stop working.

So, how should you learn these nouns? The first and most important thing is that you notice a phrasal verb is  being used and then you might want to look it up in your dictionary and check if there is a noun formed from it.  Of course, you should always copy the example together with the definition.

If all this seems like to much work,just go to the BBC learning English sight.There you will find a “Words in the News “section, which often marks out many phrasal verbs and nouns formed from them, as well offering a range of exercises to  help you to expand your  vocabulary. Here’s a link:

 Have fun!