New Year’s Resolutions and how to make them stick

Resolution is just a fancy word for goal. When we make New Year’s Resolutions, we are just setting goals.

We’re setting them for the whole year though! Most people can’t follow through on their self-challenges for a whole year, but what about for a month? Have you ever thought about setting yourself a 30 day challenge?

Matt Cutts gives a short (3 1/2 minute) presentation about why 30 day challenges are much more effective than big, crazy resolutions. This is an apt discussion for the New Year. Have you considered learning a new English word every day for 30 days? Or simply writing 250 words of whatever you want in English for 30 days? This structure can be especially useful for those who are trying to write academic articles: 250 words a day for a month. Check out the talk below.

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December 30, 2013 · 12:00 pm

The secret structure of great talks | TED.com

Nancy Duarte has discovered a structure for your presentations that can keep your audience engaged and actively listening to your idea. This 18 minute talk gave one piece of advice: describe the status quo and describe what could be. Move back and forth between the two worlds. In this way, we can persuade our audience of the truth or value of our ideas. Watch the talk below to get more details!

 

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December 23, 2013 · 12:00 pm

How to talk about your “appointments” in English

Appointments are an integral part of Dutch life and having to plan get-togethers far in advance is typically Dutch. Some foreigners find this hard to adapt to in the beginning. They say it lacks spontaneity, especially those foreigners who come from the lower latitudes where things are a bit more chaotic spontaneous.english making appointments

I think this is reflective in our use of language: an appointment is something that has been scheduled properly far in advance with one person. A get-together with just one friend at a time seems pretty common in Dutch culture.

However, many times (in other places) social events are not usually planned out so far in advance and frequently happen with groups of people rather than just one. You don’t make an appointment with a group of friends– you get together.

There are so many types of appointments to be made that in English they don’t all fall under one word.

You can use appointment if the meeting is professional in nature, or if you are consuming a service: an appointment at the dentist.

If it’s romantic in nature, then it’s a date.

date

If you’re in a very formal situation and have to excuse yourself without giving a real reason, you can say I have a prior engagement.

However, more casual situations use a completely different sentence structure in English.

If you’re meeting friends then you say: I’m getting together with friends tonight, like at a café.

cafe

If you’re going to grab a beer with some colleagues, then you say: We’re getting beers after work, want to join us?

An appointment in both of these instances sounds stuffy and proper.

You can use a general expression (I have plans) or you can be more precise about your plans.

I’m having dinner with a friend on Tuesday night, can we do Wednesday?

We’re going to the movies on Friday–do you want to join us?

We’re going biking on Saturday if the weather’s nice.

So..

Ik heb an afspraak. = I’ve got an appointment. I’m meeting someone. I have plans.

Bonus tip: Don’t want to say what you’re doing or where you’re going and you’re young (at heart)? Try “Got to go, I’ve got a thing (later).”

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Can or May? The final word. Finally.

Frequently in elementary school, well-intended teachers make you ask permission to go to the bathroom using “May I…?” rather than “Can I…?” (which is what everyone wants to say), leaving grammatically-inept children looking like this:

can or may English

Now the OED has given the final word on the correctness of “Can I go to the bathroom?” in their post Can or May?

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) says that “the ‘permission’ use of can is not in fact incorrect in standard English. ”

I love the British, but for my poor American ears, can we say this more clearly?

not + incorrect = correct (two negatives, right?)

So, “the ‘permission’ use of can is in fact correct in standard English.”

They go on to say that using can in an “asking permission” context is more informal, whereas using “may” is more formal.

Thank you, OED, for giving us the final word word on the topic. If anyone tries to correct you now (I have a certain annoying high school geography teacher in mind, or a number of elementary school teachers), you can just say that the OED says it’s fine. So it’s fine.

So let elementary school children ask away: “Can I go to the bathroom?” and don’t make them sit there and wait while they repeat the “correct” sentence back to you (“May I go…”)

Little kids have tiny bladders.

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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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