Category Archives: Language Learning

Holiday Greetings

It’s Sinterklaas season! This Dutch holiday (that has been getting a lot of flak from the international community) is more important than Christmas for Dutch kids. Though the rest of us have to wait until December 25th to get our presents, Dutch children get theirs on December 5th.

Whether you celebrate Sinterklaas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, New Year’s or something else, it seems to be the holiday season for everyone. You send people greeting cards that might even say “Season’s Greetings” so this is the perfect season to talk about the word GREETINGS.

Where you can’t use it

Greetings or Greetz is a favorite among Dutch speakers because groetjes, the literal translation, can be used in many instances:

Say hi to him for me = Doe de groetjes aan hem.

Cheers = groetjes

Bye bye! = groetjes!

(Dutch Word of the Day has done a great little post explaining the use of groetjes in Dutch.)

However, in none of the above instances do we say greetings in English where you say groetjes (or even groeten) in Dutch. Greetings is just not that common a word. Greetz is not a word in English at all, as evidenced by the Urban Dictionary entry: “A term often used incorrectly by non English speaking people who insist on “greeting” people at the end of their message.”

Because both greetings and greetz are used so commonly in Dutch, it can be hard for Dutch people to separate themselves from this word in English. In general, if you’re Dutch, you should take the English word greetings and add it to your do-not-use list.

You might see some old-fashioned usage of greetings occasionally, but as a modern English speaker, you wouldn’t actually say these things because they sound awkward, overly formal, and stuffy:

Greetings if they are still with us to Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, originators of the comic strip.

I reciprocate your seasonal greetings.

Have you been flooded with greetings all day, sir?

In short, do not use it to say hello or goodbye. Do not use it to refer to saying hello or goodbye unless you are trying to sound stuffy.

But of course, there are always exceptions. Around the holiday season, you might see the word greetings in a couple of very specific contexts. This still does not mean that you should use it outside of this context.

Where you can use it

If you are reading a greeting card aloud to someone and it says Season’s Greetings, you can say this out loud. But only in this context–don’t go around wishing people “Season’s Greetings” — instead wish them “Happy Holidays” or the specific holiday they are celebrating: “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy New Year”.

greeting card english

You can use greetings to greet someone if you are imitating a Martian coming to Earth and greeting humankind:

Greetings, Earthlings!

Along these lines, if you are very competent, you can dare to use it in other contexts but keep that mental picture of the alien in your head. I admit that I sometimes receive an email from Coursera with the salutation “Greetings, Courserians!” but I have to think that is done tongue-in-cheek.

You can use greet as a verb, commonly seen in writing (novels, news articles, and the like):

How to greet a customer

He’d usually greet me in the Devon dialect.

When independence came in 1963, the moran were there to greet it with their manyattas intact.

We had all risen to greet them.

Now, go forth and greet everyone appropriately!

Happy Sinterklaas!

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The day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday

Have you heard of Black Friday? It’s another name for the day after Thanksgiving. But why is it called Black Friday?

Thanksgiving is a busy week! You may or may not work on Monday and Tuesday. You cook or travel on Wednesday, you eat on Thursday. After such a busy week, you usually do one of two things on Friday: sleep or shop.

On Friday, everyone is either too tired from eating all that food that they take it easy or, if they have any energy left, they join more hordes of people to go shopping and take advantage of Black Friday sales. It’s called Black Friday because so many people start their Christmas shopping on this day that retail stores traditionally go from being in the red to being in the black, financially.

english course utrecht

There are plenty of good sales on this day to encourage everyone to shop, and to continue shopping throughout the holiday weekend! Some people get up ridiculously early and wait outside big shopping malls at 5 or 6am to get the early bird deals. Some people have actually been killed in the stampede!

Interested in more expressions and posts about Thanksgiving? See Thanksgiving part 1 and part 2.

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Thanksgiving is a big deal

The countdown has begun! Less than two weeks until Thanksgiving!

So how big of a deal is Thanksgiving actually?

When you ask if something is “a big deal” you want to know if it’s important.

Since it always falls on a Thursday, schools always give Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday off. Thanksgiving is the only actual “holiday” but many adults also take off Wednesday and Friday, or at least Friday. Wednesday is usually necessary because great hordes of people travel to see their relatives on Wednesday, and since lots of families live quite far apart in the US, that’s a very busy day for the airlines.

In fact, the Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest travel period of the year. So Thanksgiving is a pretty big deal!

english course utrecht

Thanksgiving is more like a holiday week, since you can imagine that not much gets accomplished on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday is a pretty busy day for those not travelling as they have to start preparing the huge meal on Thursday!

Speaking of food…

As we saw last week, food takes center stage at Thanksgiving. One of the most traditional foods for the Fall and Thanksgiving is pumpkin pie, so this week I decided to share a traditional pumpkin pie recipe! Fresh pumpkin pie is creamy and delicious and best served with whipped cream. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Pie

For the crust:

250g walnuts

2 tablespoons butter

Puree the walnuts and butter together in a food processor. Spread and pack into the bottom of a pie pan using your fingers. Bake for about 10 minutes at 175 C (I’m not really sure if this is necessary!) Easy peasy!

For the Filling:

3 cups pumpkin puree (roast a pumpkin or two in the oven, scrape out the flesh and puree)

1 cup sugar (metric: 200 grams)

1.5 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground allspice (piment)

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)

4 large eggs

1.5 cans (12oz each) of evaporated milk (koffiemelk in the Netherlands ~500 ml, but you can also use coconut milk, soy milk, or whipped cream, whatever you want, really!)

Mix everything together in a large bowl and bake at 210 C  for the first 15 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 175 C and bake another 45 to 60 minutes, until a clean knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

This is what the finished product looks like:

English

The filling recipe originally comes from this fabulous site.

Interested in more posts about Thanksgiving? See Thanksgiving part 1.

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Thanksgiving, food-wise

American Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November every year, while Canadian Thanksgiving falls about a month and a half earlier, on the second Monday in October.

english course utrecht

At least in the US, Thanksgiving is all about food. Fall is one of the best times of the year food-wise.  Anything -wise is a pretty hard expression for non native English speakers to master, so once you read through the explanation, you get a free Thanksgiving recipe to try as a little reward. You could just scroll down for the recipe, or you could stick it and out and try to learn a new expression. Ready?

Food-wise

Adding “-wise” behind nouns can mean “with reference to…” or “in terms of…” So “food-wise” means “with reference to food/in terms of food.” That’s a pretty awkward expression, which is why we just say “food-wise.” This is spoken English, not formal, written English and is useful when another construction would sound strange. There is no one rule that can tell you when you can use it–it is just a feeling that you have to develop.

I’m doing terribly bad homework-wise. (I’m doing badly with my homework.)

There’s nothing around downtown dinner-wise. (There’s nothing to eat that would be suitable for dinner.)

I’ve made no progress job-wise. (I’ve still got no prospects for my job search.)

What’s he like, appearance-wise? (What does he look like?)

They all kept up with me, drinking-wise. (They could all drink as much as me.)

Did I do the right thing etiquette-wise? (Did I behave properly?)

He seems ok, health-wise. (His health seems ok.)

Here are some other uses of “wise” that are common enough to be one word (no hyphen):

clockwise (“in the direction of a clock”) and counter-clockwise

likewise (similarly)

piecewise (“in pieces”)

Now, for the food

One of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes is for cranberry sauce. Cranberry sauce is a delicious accompaniment for meat, not only for turkey, but for any wild game in the fall. You can buy this in cans in the US, and when it comes out it looks something like this:

cannedcranberrysauce

Mmm, appetizing, no? No? Well, it does get better. You can also make your own cranberry sauce that is 100 times tastier (if only because it doesn’t come out of a can).

The following recipe is easy and delicious. You can buy fresh cranberries (from Maine!) at the Albert Heijn this time of year. Try it out and let me know what you think.

cranberries

Fresh cranberry sauce

1. one 340g bag of fresh cranberries

2. 3/4 cup – 1 cup white sugar (175-225g, depending on your sweet tooth)

3. juice and zest of 1 orange

4. 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger (optional)

5. a good pour of kirsch (45-60ml)–if you don’t have it, use grand marnier or even rum to great effect 🙂

Put the cranberries and sugar in a saucepan. Zest the orange (grate the rind of the orange into the pan, like this) and then squeeze the orange juice into the pan (don’t add the seeds to the pan though). Add the freshly grated ginger if you like ginger. Turn the stove on medium-high until it starts simmering and then turn it down to low. Let it simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the cranberries have popped. Add the kirsch near the end of the cooking time.

The sauce will thicken as it cools, so don’t worry if it’s a bit thin when you turn off the stove.

Enjoy!

Vocabulary to remember:

a sweet tooth: a craving for sweet things (“I’ve got a sweet tooth.”)

the rind: the hard outer layer of fruit, cheese, bacon, etc.

to zest: when you scrape off the rind of a citrus fruit in small pieces (you can zest a lemon or an orange, but not a kiwi or a banana, yuck!)

to pour: when liquid streams out of a container. a good pour means that you should pour the liquid directly into the pan in the amount you like. You don’t have to measure it, just “eye it”(~guess/estimate the amount that you think is right)

the stove: also called the cooker or the cooktop, this is the hot gas or electric burner that you put the pan on.

simmer: to cook gently at a slow boil, or just below the boiling point. You should see bubbles coming up, but only few and slowly.

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its or it’s?

Use it correctly, please

Everyone seems to confuse its and it’s. Sometimes it seems like more people use it incorrectly than correctly! This mistake is all over the internet, and I can’t imagine how confusing it must be for all the non-native speakers who see this word misused and think that it must be correct– because if English is someone’s native language, they should be able to write it correctly, right?

Is this distinction really so confusing that even native speakers can’t use it correctly, or is it more that no one cares anymore what the difference is? Could we be in the middle of a grammatical shift or will we continue to judge the its/it’s mistake as grammatically uncouth?

Misuse of these two words will get you at best raised eyebrows, and at worst your resume discarded. Correct use does not actually make you competent in your field, but it does make you appear more competent, which is half the battle sometimes, isn’t it?

Just remember: its means possession and it’s means it is.

Possession: its

When something belongs to you, you say it’s yours.

That’s my mistake

That’s your problem

That’s his way

That’s her prerogative

That’s our opinion

That’s their loss

My, your, his, her, its, our, their

Notice how its belongs with his and her. It is exactly like he and she, but it has no gender, it is neither male nor female.

It=the monster

Its smile is terrifying. (The monster’s smile: his smile/her smile/its smile)

It=the unborn child.

We are keeping its gender a secret. (The child’s gender: his gender/her gender/its gender)

It=the dog on the street

Its dirty paws ruined my pants when it jumped on me! (The dog’s paws: his paws/her paws/its paws)

Notice that when we use a regular noun (the monster, the child, the dog) we use an apostrophe to show possession. But it doesn’t belong with nouns, it belongs with pronouns.

He, she, it → his, her, its

His, her, and its are new words that show possession, there is no “added s” (you don’t say hes and shes, do you?).

Contraction: it’s

When you have a regular noun, you add ‘s to show possession, but we just saw that it is the exception–it isn’t a noun, it is a pronoun. So it’s does not show possession.

it’s always means it is or it has

This is really simple. Read your sentence. If you can replace it’s with it is or it has then you’re right. If you can replace its with my, your, his, her, etc, then you’re right.

itsits

Click here to visit the YUNiversity.

In summary…

Its = my, your, his, her, its, our, their

The Dutch team impressed its foreign competition with its extraordinary command of the English language.

It’s = it is

It’s not a disaster if you use this incorrectly, but it does lose you points with a lot of people.

It’s been a while since we did a purely grammatical post, hasn’t it?

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Trick or Treat

Halloween

You can’t be in the US without celebrating Halloween it seems, one way or another. Whether it’s going to a Halloween party with friends or sitting on your doorstep handing out candy to the kids who come by, Halloween is a pretty big deal for adults as well as children. There’s dressing up for the adults and trick-or-treating for the kids.

When you’re a kid, it’s fun to dress up and there’s a point that you can really believe that the spaghetti you’re putting your hands into is really human intestines, that the peeled grapes are human eyeballs. That haunted house really was scary at some point! (and maybe it still is…)

haunted house

And you know what was really scary? Taking a night time hayride and having crazy men jump out of the woods at you, screaming and brandishing chainsaws. Yes, that’s what we did in Texas. Terrifying.

Here is some vital vocabulary for talking about Halloween:

1. Pumpkins

As an adult, I would prefer to eat them rather than carve them and watch them rot, but still. Carving pumpkins was fun as a kid. Carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns are lit from the inside with a small candle and can be put in your window or outside your front door. It makes for a nice effect on the street, especially when the carvings aren’t too scary.

pumpkin1

pumpkin2

2. Dressing up

Who doesn’t love to dress up? You’ve got to admit, babies are especially cute in their little pumpkin costumes.  You can do something crazy or just go for a traditional toned-down witch costume, like this one:

english lessons utrecht

3. Trick-or-treating

You basically go from door-to-door and ask people for candy, except that the magic word is no longer “please” but “if you don’t give me candy, I’ll play a (practical) joke on you/I’ll trick you.” And that’s what “Trick or Treat” means. It’s not very nice stuff, is it?

trick or treat

You can even sing:

Trick or Treat

Trick or Treat

Give me something good to eat!

Happy Halloween!

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Tricky words in English: Sure

One of my favorite dictionary blogs, Macmillan, posted about the meaning of sure:

I’m sure: the most usual way of saying that you are sure about something

via Macmillan Language Tip of the Week

You can be/feel sure of something: you’re certain, you know for sure.

However,

they didn’t address one of the meanings of sure that English language learners rarely learn, and one of the more common sources of confusion between native and non-native speakers.

english lessons utrecht

“I’m sure” only means “I’m certain” when you say it with conviction. “Sure” by itself doesn’t mean yes. When someone asks you a question and you answer “sure” without any inflection, you are actually saying “Whatever– I don’t know and I don’t care.” “Sure” is also frequently used sarcastically.

1. When used flat, without any inflection, “sure” is not an answer to a question, it is neither yes nor no. It says “I am totally uninterested.”

-Do you want to go to the Art Fair in Amsterdam?

-Sure.

-Well, you don’t have to go if you’re not interested.

2. When used sarcastically, it says “yeah, right, I don’t believe you.”

-I won the race last Sunday.

-Sure you did.

Urban dictionary defines sure as “the quickest way to answer a question when not paying attention that usually doesn’t include any thinking whatsoever,” “to show sarcasm, lack of interest,” among others.

As you can see, “sure” can mean much more than just certainty, and if you use it with the wrong tone of voice, you might be implying something you don’t necessarily mean.

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Best free online dictionaries

learn english dictionaryToo many people depend on google translate to help them with their language learning.

I hate to break it to you, but Google Translate isn’t intended to provide the depth of meaning and nuance typically necessary in an academic or professional environment.

Try these options instead:

1. Wordreference.com

especially useful for the forums

2. thefreedictionary.com

offers a medical and financial dictionary as well as acronyms and idioms

3. thesaurus.com

a dictionary of synonyms–use with care and preferably in combination with number 4

4. Oxford Collocations Dictionary online

This is not the most comprehensive dictionary ever, but helpful with putting appropriate words together

5. Google search

Not technically a dictionary, but will help you find the meaning of lots of idioms and phrases. If people are using the construction you are looking for, it will come up in google search. Use + or ” ” and don’t underestimate the auto complete feature!

6. Linguee.com

This dictionary uses a language corpus to show you examples of the phrase you are looking for and its translation in another language, so you can easily see the different translations of a word or phrase depending on the context. A delightful discovery!

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Improve your English vocabulary | 21st century tools

Continually improving your vocabulary is a constant struggle when living and working in a foreign language. At one point, you reach a plateau and then you feel you aren’t improving anymore. You have enough language to feel comfortable, but you also know that you could be more precise, more nuanced, or more stylish.

Luckily, we have more resources to help us today than ever before. Gone are the days of hand-made flashcards and endless repetition that only got us somewhere very slowly. Vocabulary-learning software and helpful websites keep popping up to help you use your study time more efficiently than ever.

Check out these online resources to help you build your vocabulary in English.

English course Utrecht

1. lingro.com

makes any webpage clickable with definitions using either uni lingual or bilingual dictionaries.

Advantages: nothing to download, just go to lingro.com and paste the url of the website you are reading into the box. Now you can just click on any word to get the definition! You can read more easily because you don’t have to go back and forth to a dictionary.

Disadvantages: Unfortunately, there is no way to study new vocabulary, and some of the dictionaries are better than others (English-English is the most comprehensive)

2. anki

download the open-source software onto your computer, phone, or tablet and study word lists more efficiently

Advantages: download word lists or add your own to use these advanced flashcards. You have the option to say how well you know a word when it comes up–then anki will show you that word again at an appropriate interval to maximize your memorization potential. Good for on-the-go studying in short intervals.

Disadvantages: You have to download the software (or mobile app), some downloaded word lists are not correct (but easily editable), creating your own word list can be time-consuming.

3. lingua.ly

Plug-in for chrome to define any word you are reading anywhere on the internet and add it to a word list with picture, definition, and sentence. The program makes automatic quizzes and reminds you to study. It also suggests reading for you elsewhere on the web that incorporates your new words. Cool!

Advantages: Saves words with sentences, definitions, picture (context!) and reminds you to study. Plays a nice sound when you get the right answer (good for motivation!)

Disadvantages: Sometimes you will need to change the definition or picture as they may not be relevant.

4. iknow.jp

Used to be smart.fm, this site is no longer free, but the software is still pretty good. Study “SAT vocabulary” (don’t study “erudite vocabulary”) or add your own word lists.

Advantages: Good software for memorizing words and sentences, plays a nice sound when you get the answer right and gradually asks harder questions (multiple choice among 5, then 10, then fill in the blank)

Disadvantages: This site is not free and you will have to manually insert your words and sentences.

**Do you use any interesting sites to help you remember or activate new vocabulary? Add them to the comments!

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Could you care less? | Macmillan

Grammar frequently doesn’t make sense. When you find yourself asking why, the answer is usually “that’s the way it has evolved.”

Macmillan Dictionary Blog has taken on the question of the logic of grammar and expressions in one of their recent posts Could you care less?

“We make the rules; they don’t spring from some utopian realm of transcendent consistency.”

via Could you care less? | Macmillan.

What I love about this post is that Macmillan argues that expressions don’t have to make sense. “I could care less,” one of those expressions that doesn’t make sense at all, actually means “I couldn’t care less” (read: I don’t care at all).

Why? Because everyone started using it that way.

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August 26, 2013 · 12:00 pm