Using the determiners a/an or the

Going naked

going nakedThe first step in understanding how a/an or the are used before nouns, is to realise that the default is not to use them at all – just to use the noun alone.Just as the bare verb, known as the Simple Present, is the default form for verbs and needs no justification for its use, the bare noun – no preceding determiners – is the default form of nouns in English. It seems common sense that if a speaker uses a word, they should know why they do so, but many learners have been led to believe that a determiner is required before every noun and so put one in, more or less at random.

It’s very easy to express oneself at length without using any determiners before the nouns. For example:

Jean lives in Paris which, as you know, is in France. He’s young and goes to university where he studies hard. He likes to enjoy himself too. He plays football, listens to music and reads science fiction among other hobbies. In spite of recent events, he’s not afraid of terrorist attacks. He goes out a lot to eat in restaurants, attend concerts and visit friends. He doesn’t often go to bed early.”

In traditional grammar books you will find long lists explaining various reasons for the “absence” of determiners in each case in the text above. Don’t clutter up your mind with them! It’s very difficult and rather ridiculous to justify a negative. If asked why you live where you do, is it normal to give reasons for not living in the myriad of places where you do not reside? If asked why you chose your profession do you usually explain why you are not an opera singer, a Jain monk, a deep-sea diver or any of the thousands of professions you have not adopted?

It’s much simpler to focus on the positive reasons for using the determiners a/an or the.
(Read more…)

Don Cherry’s videos – Questions

Don Cherry's videos - Questions

In April 2014 Don Cherry put up some more videos on his YouTube channel.

Ever since I saw his first videos, I’ve had the project of taking very short sequences (2-3 minutes) and accompanying them with questions to help teachers new to the Silent Way “see” what the teacher and the students are doing. So far, I’ve done just one: the 3 minute sequence “Put one there” vs “Put one here” about 11:00 – 14:00 in Silent Way: “Put another one there.” (2 of 4)

  1. What does the teacher do to help the students find the rhythm of the sentence?
  2. What does the student in the brown top do – and not do – that shows she doesn’t really understand the meaning of “there”?
  3. Why doesn’t Don let her take a rod?
  4. Does she seem embarrassed or frustrated when he stops her?
  5. How do we know the student in the striped top has no idea of the contrast in meaning between “here” and “there”?
  6. The student in the light-coloured clothes makes a gesture that shows she has understood pointing is important but has a slightly erroneous hypothesis. What does she do?
  7. She then says and points correctly “Put one here.” Why doesn’t Don accept it?
  8. She then points correctly and says “Put one there.” How does Don test she really knows what she’s doing and saying?
  9. Immediately after at 13:14, we hear the student in the brown top saying something in such a way that it shows she’s realised the meaning too. What is it? How does her body language indicate understanding?
  10. Why doesn’t Don continue working on the the rhythm of the sentence during this sequence?

There are many more questions that could be asked about these three minutes of class. Would you like to try?

Writing the questions made me see a lot that I hadn’t noticed at first viewing. I’m not a Silent Way beginner teacher but there’s always more to learn.

Creating mental images of English prepositions

Two Palettes - Jim Dine. The Collection Online. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why native-speakers can “guess” the meaning

Words such as up, on and over each evoke a specific mental image, or series of related images, which are shared by all native speakers. This does not mean of course that native speakers can necessarily make explicit in words their exact meaning but that when they come across the word in an unfamiliar context they can spontaneously make a guess at the meaning of the total expression with a high degree of success. This is precisely what many learners of English are often unable to do. Each phrasal verb, each colloquial expression containing a preposition is treated as a new item of vocabulary to be memorised – a slow and laborious process that can never be completed because the number of such expressions is potentially infinite. Native speakers create new ones every day. The number of words such as up, on and over on the other hand, is limited and their meanings can be mastered.. For simplicity’s sake, I will call such words “prepositions” here, though most can also function as adverbs, subordinators, etc., because what I want to emphasise is their base meaning, not their grammatical function.

(Read more…)

So-called phrasal verbs

phrasal verbs

A set of exercises on: Phrasal Verbs.

These exercises are intended for intermediate to advanced students of English who feel they have a problem understanding the meaning of what are called Phrasal Verbs, i.e. verb + preposition or adverb combinations such as give up, turn off.

Given that native speakers almost never have problems understanding phrasal verbs, even new combinations which have only recently been invented, I’ve always suspected that students having a problem with them is due to the way they are presented and taught. This has been reinforced by reading recently that the term “phrasal verb” only dates from 1925(1). Native speakers don’t need to look up phrasal verbs in a dictionary because they have other tools to discover the meaning autonomously. Each word of the phrasal verb combination spontaneously evokes an image in their minds which, when applied to the situation in which they hear or see the words used, suggests the new meaning to them. The new meaning does not come from nowhere, it is closely related to the old meanings in each part of the phrasal verb. Non-native speakers can learn to function in the same way.
(Read more…)

Working on English Tenses: A Train Station

Pedagogical objectives

Oral expression

Linguistic objectives

Tenses and in particular the Present Perfect vs Present Perfect and the Continuous Past vs Simple Past contrasts.

Time words: still; for; ago; since.


Elementary/Lower Intermediate



Cuisenaire rods or similar


1 to 6 hours depending on the students’ readiness to make proposals and explore all the possibilities

General procedure

Only the teacher moves the rods. The teacher says nothing other than the phrases shown in green. The teacher does not model the sentences in blue – they are only produced by the students – not  usually correctly the first time, of course.

In this deductive approach, the students work out for themselves how to express their thoughts and feelings about a situation whose meaning is visible to them. The teacher’s role is to guide them to see what is considered significant in English and to formulate it accurately – the tense distinctions that are natural in English in this situation may not be made in the students’ native language(s). Because the meaning of the evolving situation is directly available, teacher explanations are redundant.
(Read more…)