Category Archives: English

Why I Hate the Press!

Why I hate the Press!

I know why they do it (most of the time), but it’s still incredibly annoying and confusing.

I’m talking about grammatical mistakes in the papers.

Yes, it’s important for their copy to be readable, but we have rules on capital letters, spelling, punctuation and other grammar primarily to make language more understandable, not less, so there is a price to pay when mistakes are made.

In addition, newspapers these days employ far fewer copy editors to correct mistakes, so journalists are increasingly having to do spell checks and grammar checks themselves – with predictable results!

As a tutor, I’m in a difficult position. On the one hand, I accept that language changes over time, but my job depends on telling my pupils what is right and what is wrong.

I have to draw a line in the sand and tell people what I would do, but that’s based on the education I got forty years ago!

I’m far more comfortable with language changes that happen over a timescale of centuries rather than years or even decades, and I still teach people not to use words like ‘alright’ or ‘onto’ even though most people wouldn’t know what I was on about.

Anyway, feel free to make up your own mind. Here’s a quick list of the ways in which the ‘style guides’ of newspapers and magazines try to change the rules of English in order to make their articles more ‘readable’:

  • Paragraphs only include one or two sentences (meaning that you often have to check back to see who ‘he’ or ‘she’ is).
  • Commas are omitted before the word ‘and’.
  • Commas are omitted after openers/sentence starters/fronted adverbials.
  • Split infinitives are permitted.
  • ‘Sentences’ may start with conjunctions even though they are strictly speaking only clauses.
  • ‘Likely’ may be used as an adverb.

Writers also simply make mistakes, and my pet peeves are the use of ‘centre around’ (rather than ‘centre on’) and words like ‘focussing’ (rather than ‘focusing’).

I’m sure we can all think of a few more examples, but I thought I’d illustrate my point by putting together a list from just one newspaper on just one day – The Daily Telegraph on Thursday 2 September 2021.

Have a look at the quotations and see how many mistakes you can spot!

‘But, now 34 and in the twilight of his career, it is hard to see Solskjaer using Cavani in the sort of wide role supporting Ronaldo that he became accustomed to for a while at PSG in order to accommodate Ibrahimovic centrally.’

This is not a full sentence as it starts with ‘but’. It is actually only a main clause that needs another main clause before it. The other problem is that we don’t know who or what is 34. By the way it’s phrased, it looks like ‘it’ is 34, but that’s impossible, so maybe it’s Solskjaer, but that’s not right either. It’s actually Cavani!

‘The Norwegian has already admitted he “maybe overplayed” Fernandes and Marcus Rashford is currently sidelined until later next month following shoulder surgery after repeatedly being asked to play through the pain barrier.’

The comma before ‘and’ has been left out. This happens a lot in the papers, but you should be able to see from this example how confusing it is. Commas are a signal to pause when you’re reading, but without that pause It seems as though Solskjaer overplayed both Fernandes and Rashford because it looks like a list. However, the word ‘is’ lets us know that we’re actually entering another main clause. This is just plain confusing and results in readers having to reread sentences in order to make sense of them.

‘Any club sanctioned by Fifa would face further disciplinary action if they defied any ban on fielding affected players – although the teams would likely only do so if they planned on trying to overturn such a ban.’

Pronouns are a problem these days, often because writers don’t want to follow the convention of assuming that an individual is male when using the word ‘anyone’ or ‘everyone’. Using ‘them’ or ‘their’ is an ungrammatical cop-out. Here, the writer uses the plural pronoun ‘they’ to refer to the singular noun ‘club’, which is debatable to say the least. I’d say it was grammatically wrong, but I’ll admit that British English (though not American English) treats clubs as plural when using their names, for example in saying that ‘Liverpool have bought a defender’. That’s all well and good, but that’s not the case here. It’s not the name of a club that’s being used, just the word ‘club’. The other problem is the use of ‘likely’ as an adverb. This is a perfectly acceptable American usage, but ‘likely’ has always been an adjective in British English – until recently!

‘He said: “Monetary policy has always influenced fiscal outcomes — interest rate changes influence sovereign financing costs. But, with QE, the character of the relationship has changed.”’

Colons should be used when introducing a list rather than speech, and ‘sentences’ shouldn’t start with the word ‘but’.

‘In 2019, it was condemned by its own former chairman for celebrating the resignation of a Labour MP, who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group, on its Twitter account.’

The problem here is the use of commas around the relative clause (‘who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group’). Yes, a pair of commas may be used to fence off ‘extra information’ from the rest of the sentence, but relative clauses following ‘who’ and ‘that’ are a special case. They need commas if you’re describing something or someone, but not if you’re defining something or someone. Here, the writer is defining which Labour MP is meant, so no commas should be used. It’s the same when using ‘which’ and ‘that’. You should use ‘which’ with a comma to describe, but ‘that’ without a comma to define.

‘She put longevity above genuine achievement, and popularity above actually tackling Germany’s real problems.’

This is the reverse of the missing comma I mentioned before. The comma before the word ‘and’ here implies that a new main clause is about to start and that the reader should expect a verb after the word ‘popularity’, but in fact it’s just a list. Again, this causes confusion and reduces readability by forcing readers to reread the sentence to check the meaning.

‘Its economy only survives thanks to her predecessor’s labour market reforms, and the fact that the euro is much cheaper than the Deutsche Mark would have been.’

Again, this is another example of the redundant ‘Oxford comma’ in the middle of a list.

‘Reread some of your old columns, dust out your biography of Churchill, and, above all, stop trying to imitate Angela Merkel.’

This is yet another instance of the misplaced comma before the word ‘and’. I presume the writer means ‘dust off’ rather than ‘dust out’…!

‘Many centre-ground voters, while they may not allow themselves to become over-heated by the subject, will nevertheless acknowledge the fact that allowing such migrants to remain indefinitely in Britain when many thousands of others are rejected after applying through formal channels is unfair and unjust.’

All that’s wrong with this is the tautology at the end: ‘unfair’ means ‘unjust’, so you don’t need both adjectives.

‘It all adds up to an entangling web of sclerotic bureaucratic processes that will do little to actually protect the environment.’

I realise that the need to avoid the split infinitive was based on an arbitrary comparison with Latin, in which the infinitive literally can’t be split because it’s one word rather than two, but the convention is still common enough to make most people shiver when they read something like this.

‘There’s a clear need to reduce emissions to tackle climate change and conserve the environment. But we need an approach that doesn’t borrow tools from the old socialist handbook.’

The second ‘sentence’ is only a fragment as it starts with ‘but’.

‘Countries with the most economic freedom perform 50 per cent better on Yale and Columbia universities’ Environmental Performance Index, while those with controlled economies perform worse.’

‘While’ is a subordinating conjunction and so shouldn’t have a comma before it.

‘In response to climate change, the Adam Smith Institute and the British Conservative Alliance are focusing on three areas. First, a border-adjusted carbon tax that would account for the costs to the environment while encouraging innovation. Second, embracing nuclear energy by addressing the high fixed costs to design. And third, a clean free trade agenda including abolishing tariffs and quotas on environmental goods and joining the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability.’

This is just a list, so the writer should’ve used one sentence instead of piling up sentence fragments that don’t have a subject or a verb. The last ‘sentence’ shouldn’t start with ‘and’ either.

‘Former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli once wrote, “ I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best ”.’

Here, the comma before ‘Benjamin Disraeli’ shouldn’t be there because he is one of many prime ministers. If there’d been only one prime minister, then there should’ve been commas before and after his name, but there are no circumstances in which you should only have one comma.

‘A number of scenarios could unfold: among them a really bad flu epidemic, a new variant that evades the vaccines, or a brutally cold winter that fills the hospitals.’

The first problem here is the phrase ‘among them’. I’d say it was a grey area, but I would leave it out – the colon should introduce the list itself. The second problem is the comma before ‘or’. Yes, it’s a co-ordinating conjunction (or FANBOYS word), but that just means there should be a comma in front of it if it’s being used to join two sentences together, not when it’s separating items in a list. It’s the same for the word ‘and’ and other co-ordinating conjunctions.

‘Meanwhile the NHS is at full stretch to try to reduce the waiting times on operations and diagnostics, with its capacity is reduced by ongoing Covid precautions.’

First, there should be a comma after ‘meanwhile’ or any other adverb at the start of a sentence. Second, the word ‘is’ shouldn’t be there.

‘GPs are still reluctant to see patients face to face, and this is putting additional pressure on hospitals, with health problems spotted later and multiple problems are piling up.’

This is a similar problem, the word ‘are’ being left in by mistake after ‘problems’.

‘Even pre Covid, winter meant headlines screaming “ NHS in worst crisis ever”.’

‘Pre’ is only a prefix rather than a word, so it needs a hyphen. There is also an extra space left in by mistake before ‘NHS’.

‘So lets remember Disraeli’s wise words.’

‘Lets’ should be written with an apostrophe before the ‘s’ as it stands for ‘let us’.

‘We must rebuild the Nightingale hospitals now, this Autumn, before it is too late.’

While ‘Autumn’ is a proper noun, it is not capitalised in English.

‘Some 15,000 beds was prepared last year under the Nightingale plan.’

‘Beds’ is plural, but ‘was’ is singular.

‘There is a short, sharp army recruitment advert running at the moment. It’s slogan is Fail, Learn, Win.’

This time, the apostrophe is wrong. The word should be ‘its’, meaning ‘belonging to it’. You might also argue that there should be inverted commas around the slogan itself.

‘We were not prepared. So let’s learn the lesson. We must be prepared. Then we can win the battle against Covid.’

I know writers and politicians like short, sharp sentences, but this is getting ridiculous! The writer here manages to make two sentences into four…

‘We must now put many thousands of retired medics doctors, nurses on standby. A Medical Reserve, along the lines of the Territorial Army.’

This comes from the same article, which was full of mistakes. There should be a comma after ‘medics’, and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘nurses’ as it’s the last item in the list. The last ‘sentence’ has no subject or verb, so it should probably start with ‘It should be’.

‘Some 40,000 retired medics offered to come back to help last year, but only 1 in 8 were engaged due to overwhelming bureaucracy.’

Again, this shows the problem with plurals. The number ‘1’ is obviously singular, so how can you say ‘1 in 8 were engaged’?!

‘Yes it will cost money. But it will be cheap at the price if it helps avoid tier restrictions, more lockdowns, more furlough.’

There should be a comma after ‘yes’ as it’s an interjection, the full-stop before ‘But’ should be a comma, ‘But’ should start with a lower case ‘b’ and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘more furlough’. Apart from that, it’s fine…!

‘Every winter the NHS needs more capacity, we would have both beds and staff.’

There should be a comma after the phrase ‘every winter’ as it’s an opener, and the comma after ‘capacity’ should be a full-stop – this is known as a ‘comma splice’.

 

Americanisms

In the words of Winston Churchill (or George Bernard Shaw or James Whistler or Oscar Wilde), Britain and America are “two nations divided by a single language”.

Quite a few of my pupils live outside the United Kingdom and/or go to foreign schools but are applying to English schools at 11+ or 13+ level.

One of the problems they face is the use of Americanisms.

There are a number of words that are spelled differently in American English, so you just have to watch out for them. English schools want pupils who are fluent in British English, not the American version – however similar it might be!

The first English dictionary was produced by Samuel Johnson, who published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.

However, after the War of Independence, Noah Webster was annoyed by all the ‘English’ textbooks in American schools and decided to try and prove that America had moved on from its colonial past by ‘simplifying’ English spelling and making it more consistent.

The result was A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806, and then An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828.

If you’re trying to learn English, that was an unfortunate decision!

However, there are a few typical changes that are easy enough to reverse.

  • -ize should be -ise, eg ‘realize’ should be ‘realise’ (but ‘capsize’ is the same in both).
  • -yze should be -yse, eg ‘analyze’ should be ‘analyse’.
  • -se should be -ce, eg ‘defense’ should be ‘defence’.
  • -l- should be -ll-, eg ‘traveled’ should be ‘travelled’.
  • -or should be -our, eg ‘color’ should be ‘colour’.
  • -er should be -re, eg ‘center’ should be ‘centre’ (but ‘thermometer’ is the same in both).
  • -e- should be -oe- or -ae-, eg ‘encyclopedia’ should be ‘encyclopaedia’, and ‘diarrhea’ should be ‘diarrhoea’.

Some of Webster’s alterations caught on in Britain, such as deleting the silent -k in words such as ‘publick’ or spelling ‘connexion’ as ‘connection’, but there were many others that didn’t even make it in the States – phew!

1. Cloke — cloak

2. Soop — soup

3. Masheen — machine

4. Tung — tongue

5. Greef — grief

6. Dawter — daughter

7. Korus — chorus

8. Nightmar — nightmare

9. Turnep — turnip

10. Iland — island

11. Porpess — porpoise

12. Steddy — steady

13. Hainous — heinous

14. Thum — thumb

15. Gillotin — guillotine

16. Spunge — sponge

17. Ake — ache

18. Wimmin — women

19. Determin — determine

20. Giv — give

21. Bilt — built

22. Beleev — believe

23. Grotesk — grotesque

24. Stile — style

25. Neer — near

26. Sley — sleigh

Colons and Semicolons

Using colons and semicolons is often an easy way to get a tick in your homework, but it still involves taking a bit of a risk. If you get it right, you get the tick, but if you get it wrong, you’ll get a cross. This article will explain how to use both colons and semicolons so that you can be confident of getting far more ticks than crosses!

Colons (:)

Colons can only be used to introduce a list where the introductory phrase could form a sentence on its own. If not, you shouldn’t use any punctuation at all.

I went to the supermarket and bought the following items: apples, pears and bananas.

Or:

I went to the supermarket and bought apples, pears and bananas.

Note that you can still use colons even if there’s only one item in the list:

I only wanted one thing from my men: courage!

Sample questions

Have a go at the following questions and see if you can add the right punctuation. It’ll either be a colon, a semicolon, a comma or nothing at all.

  1. I love chocolate biscuits and milkshakes.
  2. He said “I always go the gym on Wednesdays.”
  3. There were three items on her shopping list flour, sugar and eggs.
  4. He prized only one quality in his players teamwork.
  5. He stayed in his room it was far too hot to go outside.

Semicolons (;)

Semicolons can be used either to separate two main clauses if one explains the other or to separate items in a list that are long and/or contain commas.

He was very careful not to make any spelling mistakes; his teacher was always having a go at him for bad spelling.

Or:

The entries to the competition came from London, England; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany.

Note that the semicolon before the ‘and’ is optional. We don’t generally use commas before ‘and’ in a normal list, but some people think using a semicolon in the same situation makes things clearer.

Sample questions

Have a go at the following questions and see if you can add the right punctuation. It’ll either be a semicolon, a colon, a comma or nothing at all.

  1. I love chocolate biscuits and milkshakes I used to have them all the time as a kid.
  2. She said, “I always go the pool on Saturdays it’s the only day I get enough time.”
  3. There was only one thing she wanted to do go and get her hair cut.
  4. His team always scored great goals the other team just scored more.
  5. I never cook chicken I’m afraid of making myself sick.

Who or Whom, Who’s or Whose?

The ‘W’ words are useful if you’re trying to understand or summarise a story, but who, whom, who’s and whose tend to cause problems. Here’s a quick guide to what they all mean and how they can be used.

Who v Whom

Who and whom are both relative pronouns, which mean they relate to the person you’ve just been talking about. Note that they don’t relate to animals or things, just people. The difference is just one letter, but it signals that one of them stands for the subject (in the nominative case if you’ve ever done Latin) while the other stands for the object (in the accusative).

  • The subject of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that controls the verb, in other words the person or thing that’s ‘doing the doing’.
  • The object of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that is suffering the action the verb, in other words the person or thing that’s having something done to it.

For example, in the following sentence, ‘the girl’ is the subject, and ‘the boy’ is the object:

The girl tapped the boy on the shoulder.

We could also use pronouns, in which case ‘she’ is the subject, and ‘him’ is the object.

She tapped him on the shoulder.

Note that we use ‘him’ rather than ‘he’ in this case. That tells us that the boy is the object and not the subject. It’s the same with ‘who’ and ‘whom’. In fact, it’s the same letter – the letter ‘m’ – that tells us that ‘him’ and ‘whom’ are both the objects of the sentence, and that might be a good way to remember the difference.

For example, in the following sentence, ‘the girl’ is still the subject, so we use ‘who’:

They saw the girl who had tapped the boy on the shoulder.

In the next sentence, the boy is still the object, so we use ‘whom’:

They saw the boy whom the girl had tapped on the shoulder.

Note that neither who nor whom needs a comma before it in these cases. That’s because we are defining which people we’re talking about. It’s a bit like ‘which’ and ‘that’: ‘which’ describes things and needs a comma, but ‘that’ defines things and doesn’t. If we already know who people are and simply want to describe them, then we do use a comma.

They saw Patricia Smith, who had tapped the boy on the shoulder.

They saw Paul Jones, whom the girl had tapped on the shoulder.

In these cases, we know who the children are – Patricia and Paul – so all we’re doing is describing something that has happened. There is only one Patricia Smith and one Paul Jones, so we don’t need to define them. That means we need to use a comma in both cases.

I hope that all makes sense. Here are a few practice questions. Just decide in each case whether you should use ‘who’ or ‘whom’.

  1. They talked to Jim, who/whom lived in Stoke.
  2. He played football with the boy who/whom had red hair.
  3. She was friends with the girl who/whom played volleyball.
  4. Who/whom do you think will win the egg and spoon race?
  5. Who/whom did they put in prison?

Who’s v Whose

The words ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’ are homophones, which is another way of saying they sound the same but mean completely different things. ‘Who’s’ is short for ‘who is’ or ‘who has’ while ‘whose’ is a possessive pronoun that means ‘of whom the’ or ‘of which the’. For example, take these two sentences:

  • Who’s going to the cinema tonight?
  • He was a big man whose hands were larger than dinner plates.

The first means ‘Who is going to the cinema tonight?’ whereas the second means ‘He was a big man of whom the hands were larger than dinner plates’. The only reason we don’t say those things is that they’re a bit of a mouthful, so it’s easier to use ‘who’s’ or ‘whose’.

I hope that’s clear now. Here are a few practice questions. Just decide in each case whether you should use ‘who’s’ or ‘whose’.

  1. Who’s/whose in charge of the tennis rackets?
  2. Who’s/whose bag is this?
  3. He speaks to the woman who’s/whose behind the counter.
  4. She likes him to know who’s/whose boss.
  5. Who’s/whose been eating all the crisps?

Could or Might?

Could and might mean different things, but a lot of people use them both to mean the same thing. Here’s a quick guide to avoid any confusion.

Here are two sentences that a lot of people think mean the same thing:

  • “I might [or may] go to the cinema tonight.”
  • “I could go to the cinema tonight.”

The first sentence means there is a possibility the speaker will go to the cinema that night. The second sentence doesn’t. I know this is a bit picky and pedantic, but ‘could’ – like ‘can’ – comes from the verb ‘to be able to’, so the second sentence either means “I was able to go to the cinema tonight” or “I would be able to go to the cinema tonight.” Neither of those is the same as the first sentence. Adults might get away with confusing ability with possibility, but if you’re taking an English exam any time soon, it’s probably a good idea learn the difference!

Homophones

Homophones are words that sound the same even though they’re spelt differently and mean different things. Getting them right can be tricky, but it’s worth it in the end.

The reason why homophones are important is not just to do with the general need to spell correctly. Many people think getting them wrong is a ‘worse’ mistake than simply mis-spelling a word because it means that you don’t really know what you’re doing. Anyone can make a spelling mistake, but using completely the wrong word somehow seems a lot worse. That may not sound fair, but that’s just how a lot of people think, so it’s worth learning the common homophones so you don’t get caught out.

Here’s a list of the main ones:

SpellingsMeanings
a lot/allotmuch/distribute
ad/addnotice/put together
ads/adds/adzenotices/puts together/type of axe
aid/aidehelp/assistant
ail/aletrouble (verb)/beer
air/heiratmospheric gas/inheritor
aisle/isle/I’llcorridor/island/I will
all ready/alreadyeverything set/by a certain time
all together/altogethereveryone in the same place/absolutely
all/awltotally/piercing tool
allowed/aloudpermitted/out loud
alter/altarchange/church table
ant/auntinsect/parent’s sister or brother’s wife
arc/arkpart of circle/Biblical boat
assent/ascentagreement/rise
assistance/assistantshelp/helper
ate/eightconsumed/8
aural/oralto do with hearing/to do with mouths
away/aweighoff/up (eg anchors aweigh)
ay/aye/eye/Iyes/yes/organ of sight/1st person
bail/balescoop water out/jump out
bait/batefood on hook/hold (eg bated breath)
ball/bawlsphere/
band/bannedgroup/illegal
bard/barredpoet/banned
bare/bearnaked/tolerate or grizzly
baron/barrenlord/arid
base/bassfoundation/low note
be/beeexist/flying insect
beach/beechsandy area/type of tree
beat/beethit/beetroot
beau/bowmale admirer/bend down or front
bell/bellemusical instrument/pretty girl
berry/buryfruit/inter
berth/birthsleeping place/arrival of baby
billed/buildinvoiced/construct
bite/bytenibble/unit of data
blew/blueforced air/colour
bloc/blockgroup of countries/cuboid
boar/borewild pig/boring person
board/boredflat object/weary
boarder/borderlodger/edge
bode/bowedimply/curved
bolder/boulderbraver/rock
born/bornecreated/tolerated
bough/bowbranch/bend down or front of ship
boy/buoymale child/floating marker
brake/breakslow down/shatter
breach/breechgap/part of gun
bread/bredfood made with yeast/brought up
brewed/broodfermented/family
brews/bruiseferments/scar
bridle/bridalleather strap/to do with brides
broach/broochopen (a question)/piece of jewellery
browse/browslook through/hair above the eyes
but/buttalthough/water tank
buy/by/byepurchase/by means of/goodbye
cache/cashhidden hoard/notes and coins
callous/callusheartless/blister
cannon/canongun/collection of artistic works
canvas/canvasssail fabric/ask questions of
capital/capitolupper case or city/government building
carat/carrot/caret/karatweight/vegetable/arrow/share of gold
carol/carrelsong/cubicle
cast/castethrown/social class
cede/seedgive up/reproductive unit
ceiling/sealingroof/making watertight
cell/sellpart of body/exchange for money
cellar/sellerbasement/person selling
censor/sensorban (film etc)/measurement device
cent/scent/sentUS penny/perfume/dispatched
cents/scentsUS pennies/perfumes
cereal/serialbreakfast dish/TV show
cession/sessiongiving up/period of course
chance/chantsluck/songs
chased/chastepursued/like a virgin
cheap/cheepinexpensive/bird sound
chews/choosenibbles/select
chilly/chillicold/hot food
choir/quiregroup of singers/unit of paper
chord/cordgroup of notes/string
chute/shootdisposal passage/take shot at goal
cite/sight/sitequote/seeing/location
clause/clawsparagraph/talons
coarse/courserough/track or route
colonel/kernelarmy rank/stone in fruit
complement/complimentgo well with/say something nice
coo/coupsound of dove/revolution
core/corpscentre/army unit
correspondence/correspondentsletters/letter-writers
council/counselgoverning body/advice
councillor/counsellorgovernor/advisor
creak/creekwhine/stream
crews/cruiseteams/voyage
cue/queuesnooker tool/line of people waiting
currant/currentdried fruit/electric flow
cymbal/symbolmusical instrument/icon
dam/damnriver barrier/damnation
days/daze24-hour periods/confuse
dear/deerexpensive/type of mammal
defused/diffusedmade safe/circulated
desert/dessertsandy zone/pudding
dew/do/duewater on grass/finish/owed
die/dyeexpire/colour (verb)
discreet/discretenot talkative/separate
doe/dough/dohfemale dear/unbaked bread/oh, no
done/dunfinished/grey-brown
draft/draughtpractise writing/on tap (eg beer)
dual/duelin two parts/fight with swords etc
earn/urn/ern or ernemake money/vase/type of bird
ewe/you/yewfemale sheep/2nd person/type of tree
faint/feintlose consciousness/fake attack
fair/farejust/food
fated/feteddestined/celebrated
faun/fawnrural god/beige or young deer
faze/phase disturb/stage
feat/feetachievement/plural of foot
find/finedseek/told to pay money
fir/furtype of tree/animal hide
flair/flaretalent/bullet making bright light
flea/fleetype of insect/run away
flew/flu/fluepast tense of fly/influenza/chimney
flocks/phloxherds/type of plant
flour/floweringredient for bread/plant
for/four/foreto the benefit of/4/in front
fort/fortecastle/speciality
forth/fourthforwards/4th
foul/fowldisgusting/birds
friar/fryer monk/pan
gait/gateway of walking/door outside
gene/jeanDNA unit/trousers
gild/guildcover in gold/organisation
gilt/guiltcovered in gold/having done wrong
gored/gourdholed/fruit or water container
gorilla/guerrillatype of ape/freedom fighter
grate/greatfireplace/grand
grease/Greecelubrication/a country
groan/grownmoan/past tense of grow
guessed/guestpast tense of guess/invitee
hail/halecelebrate/healthy
hair/harestrands growing on head/rabbit
hall/haulroom/pull
hangar/hangerstorage for aircraft/hook in wardrobe
hay/heydried grass/oy
heal/heel/he’llmake well/back of foot/he will
hear/herelisten/in this place
heard/herdpast tense of hear/group of animals
heed/he’dpay attention to/he would or he had
hertz/hurtsfrequency unit/causes pain
hew/hue/Hughcut/colour/a name
hi/highhello/raised
higher/hiremore raised/rent
him/hymna pronoun/religious song
hoard/hordecollection/mass of people
hoarse/horserough (of voices)/an animal
hoes/hosegarden tools/tube
hold/holedkeep or carry/past tense of hole
hole/wholespace/entire
holey/holy/whollywith holes/sacred/completely
hour/our60 minutes/a pronoun
humorous/humerusfunny/arm bone
idle/idollazy/religious statue
illicit/elicitillegal/draw out
in/inninside/hotel
instance/instantsexample/moments
intense/intentsfierce/purposes
it’s/itsit is/belonging to it
jam/jambfruit spread/door frame
kernel/colonelcore/army rank
knap/napcrest/doze
knead/kneed/needmix dough/hit with knee/require
knight/nightwarrior/dark time
knit/nitfit together/egg of louse
knot/nottied rope/negative
know/no/Nohbe aware of/negative/type of drama
knows/noseis aware of/facial feature
laid/ladepast tense of lay/load ship
lain/lanepast participle of lay/alley
lay/leiplace/flower necklace
leach/leechleak/blood-sucking worm
lead/ledheavy metal/past tense of lead
leak/leekdrop out/vegetable
leased/leastpast tense of lease/superlative of less
lee/leashadow of wind/meadow
lessen/lessonmake less/teaching session
levee/levyembankment/tax
liar/lyreperson who lies/musical instrument
license/licencepermit (verb)/permission
lichen/likenmould/compare
lie/lyefalsehood/alkali solution
links/lynxconnections/wild cat
load/lodeput into/vein of metal in ground
loan/lonelending/single
locks/loxsecures/smoked salmon (American)
loot/lutemoney/musical instrument
made/maidcreated/young woman
mail/malepost/masculine
main/mane/Mainechief/hair/state in USA
maize/mazecorn/labyrinth
manner/manorway/lord’s house
mantel/mantlementalpiece/coat
marshal/martialarmy rank/to do with war
massed/mastbrought together/upright post on ship
maybe/may beperhaps/might be
meat/meet/metetype of food/get together/distribute
medal/meddleaward/interfere
metal/mettleshiny material/spirit
might/mitemay/tiny spider
mince/mintsground beef/plural of mint
mind/minedbrain/dug up
miner/minor/mynahdigger/junior/type of bird
missed/mistpast tense of miss/fog
moan/mowngroan/past participle of mow
mode/mowedway/past tense of mow
moose/mousseelk/foam
morn/mournmorning/regret
muscle/musselpart of body/sea creature
mustard/musteredspicy dressing/broughted together
naval/navelto do with the navy/belly button
nay/neighno (dated)/sound of horse
none/nunnot one/female monk
oar/or/oreblade/alternatively/metal source
ode/owedpoem/due
oh/owe/oah/have a debt of/oh (poetic)
overseas/overseesforeign/manages
pail/palebucket/faint
pain/paneache/window panel
pair/pare/pearcouple/shave/type of fruit
palate/palette/palletpart of mouth/artist’s tray/platform
passed/pastpast tense of pass/in the past
patience/patientstolerance/people in hospital
pause/pawsbreak/animal hands and feet
pea/peevegetable/urinate
peace/pieceharmony/bit
peak/peek/piquesummit/look quickly/annoyance
peal/peelsound of bells/take skin off
pearl/purlprecious stone/knitting stitch
pedal/peddlefoot lever/sell
pedalled/peddledcycled/sold
peer/pierlook carefully/jetty
per/purrfor each/sound of a cat
pi/pie3.14/dish topped with pastry
plain/planeunexciting/2D object
pleas/pleaserequests (noun)/if it pleases you
plum/plumbtype of fruit/measure water depth
pole/pollrod/election or survey
pore/pourconcentrate on/flow
practice/practiserehearsal/rehearse
pray/preytalk to God/victim
presence/presentsbeing somewhere/gifts
prince/printsson of monarch/printed photographs
principal/principlemain/rule of conduct
profit/prophetmoney made/religious seer
rack/wrackwire tray/shipwreck
rain/reign/reinwater from clouds/rule/control strap
raise/rays/razelift/plural of ray/destroy
rap/wraphit/pack up (eg a present)
rapped/rapt/wrappedpast tense of rap/spellbound/past tense of wrap
read/redpast tense of read/scarlet
read/reedstudy/type of plant
real/reelgenuine/cylinder for fishing line etc
reek/wreaksmell bad/cause
rest/wrestrelax/wrench away
retch/wretchvomit/poor soul
review/revuelook over/stage performance
right/rite/writecorrect/ritual/form Leopardtters
ring/wringsound of bell/squeeze out water
road/rode/rowedstreet/past tense of ride/past tense of row
roe/rowfemale deer/use oars
role/rollpart in play/type of bread
root/routepart of plant/roads to take
rose/rowstype of flower/tiers
rote/wroterepetition/past tense of write
rough/ruffcoarse/Elizabethan collar
rung/wrungpast tense of ring/squeezed water out
rye/wrycereal plant/mocking
sail/salecanvas propulsion/selling
scene/seensituation/past tense of see
scull/skullrow alone/head of skeleton
sea/seeocean/be aware of
seam/seemsewn connection/appear
seas/sees/seizeoceans/is aware of/grab
serf/surfagricultural worker/waves
sew/so/sowconnect with thread/thus/plant
shear/sheercut/complete
shoe/shoofootwear/chase away
side/sighededge/past tense of sigh
sighs/sizebreathes out/dimensions
slay/sleighkill/sled
sleight/slightdeceptive skill/faint
soar/sorerise/painful
soared/swordpast tense of soar/bladed weapon
sole/soulonly/spirit
some/suma few/total
son/sunmale child/star in the sky
staid/stayedunadventurous/past tense of stay
stair/starestep/look hard
stake/steakwooden post/joint of meat
stationary/stationerymotionless/writing materials
steal/steelrun off with/metal compound
step/steppestair/European plains
stile/stylefence steps/manner
straight/straitnot bending/narrow strip of water
suite/sweethotel rooms/sugary
summary/summerybrief account/to do with summer
surge/sergerush/type of cloth
tacks/taxnails/levy
tail/taleback end/story
taught/tautpast tense of teach/tight
tea/teemeal/golf ball holder
team/teemgroup of players/swarm
tear/tierteardrop/row
tern/turntype of bird/go round a corner
their/there/they’rebelonging to them/in that direction/they are
theirs/there’sthe one belonging to them/there is
threw/throughpast tense of throw/in and out of
thrown/thronepast participle of throw/royal chair
thyme/timetype of herb/progress of days or years
tic/tickhabit/mark (if correct)
tide/tiedflow of water/past tense of tie
to/too/twotowards/as well/2
toad/towedfrog/past tense of tow
toe/towpart of foot/pull
told/tolledpast tense of tell/rang
trussed/trustbound (with rope)/belief
vain/vane/veinproud/fin/artery
vale/veilvalley/lace face covering (for brides etc)
vial/viletest tube/evil
wade/weighedwalk in water/past tense of weigh
wail/whalehowl/type of ocean mammal
waist/wastemiddle of body/use carelessly
wait/weightdelay or stay/mass
waive/wavegive up/breaker
ware/wear/wherepottery/put on clothes/which place
way/weigh/wheymanner/measure weight/part of milk
ways/weighsmanners/measures weight
we/weepronoun/urination or little
weak/weekfeeble/seven days
weather/whetherclimatic conditions/if
we’d/weedwe would or we had/unwanted plant
we’ll/wheelwe will or we shall/round component
wet/whetliquid/sharpen
we’ve/weavewe have/make cloth
which/witchpronoun/wizard
while/wileas/ruse or cunning plan
whine/winewhimper/alcoholic grape drink
who’s/whosewho is or who has/of whom the
wood/wouldtree material/conditional marker
yoke/yolkpart of plough/yellow part of egg
yore/your/you’reformer times/belonging to you/you are
you’ll/Yuleyou will or you shall/Christmas

Verbal Reasoning

Verbal Reasoning (VR) tests were invented to test pupils’ logic and language skills – although they do sometimes includes questions about numbers. In order to do well in a VR test, the most important thing is to be systematic, to have a plan for what to do if the question is hard.

Fortunately, there are plenty of past papers available online (including on this website!), so the types of question are well known. Here is a guide to the different kinds of problems and the best ways to approach them. I’m sorry that there are so many, but it’s best to be ready for anything…!

First of all, let’s just talk briefly about exam technique. Verbal Reasoning tests are always multiple choice, so it’s very important to answer every question. If you don’t know the answer, you should work by process of elimination until you have as few options left as possible and then guess.

Guessing is fine in Verbal Reasoning: the only thing worse than a wrong answer is no answer at all! You can then mark those questions by circling or underlining the question numbers or putting an asterisk next to them so that you can easily review your guesses if you have any time left after finishing the paper.

It’s very tempting to give up when you see a difficult question, but that won’t get you any marks. Having said that, you shouldn’t spend too long on the hardest questions. In general, you get around 40-60 seconds for each question, so you should be prepared to guess after roughly that amount of time. 

Another part of exam technique is to read the questions carefully. You’re never going to get the right answer to the wrong question, so feel free to read the question again if you’re not quite sure what it means.

Muddled Words (Anagrams)

Anagrams are words in which the letters have been muddled up. A typical question asks you to complete a sentence by putting the letters of one of the words in the correct order.

The easiest way to do this is to write out all the letters in a three-by-three grid (or a circle). That way, you force your brain to look for new possibilities rather than focusing too much on what’s there already.

For example, if you’re told that ‘A hammer is used to drive in SLAIN’, you don’t want to think about the word ‘SLAIN’ because you know it’s not the right answer, so you should write the letters out in a grid like this:

     A
S   N    L
      I

Write the letters out in pairs from the original word, making sure each pair is on opposite sides of the grid, ie the S and L are on the left and right, the A and I are top and bottom and the N is on its own, so you can put it in the middle. Obviously, there might be gaps in the grid, but that’s fine.

Once you’ve completed the grid, think about the context of the sentence. What would make sense? In this case, what would a hammer be hitting? Sometimes, it’s so obvious you don’t need to worry about the anagram, but if it’s not, try to think of words that would make sense beginning with each possible letter. 

Insert a Letter

One common type of question asks you to say which letter will start and finish two pairs of words, eg PRES( )TAND and WIND( )TAIN. Sometimes the answer is obvious (‘S’ in this case), but, if it’s not, the best thing to do is to look at all four words one after the other to see which letter might fit and then try that letter in the other words.

If that doesn’t work, you should at least be able to work out if it’s a vowel or a consonant that’s missing, and it’s also useful to know the most common letters in the English language, which are (in order) E, T, A, O, N, I, R, S and H.

Finally, you might just have to go through every letter of the alphabet, but there are only 26, so it shouldn’t take too long! Bear in mind that there are different ways of pronouncing letters and different places to put the emphasis, so try writing down the likely options as well as saying them in your head.

Find the Odd Words

In this kind of question, you’re given five words, and you have to spot the two that don’t fit with the others, eg Lorry, Helicopter, Taxi, Bus, Plane. The best way is to try and find the three words that go together – whatever is left must be the odd ones out.

Don’t just try to find a pair of words that go together. If you do, you might get the answer wrong if there’s another word that goes with them. You might also get it wrong because the ‘odd ones out’ don’t have anything in common. In this case, ‘Helicopter’ and ‘Plane’ ARE related, but they don’t have to be.

If there are one or more words you don’t know, you can at least work out which parts of speech they are. Once you know that, you will probably be able to see which ones belong together. For example, look at this list of words: spade, dig, cultivate, grow, bulb.

If you don’t know what ‘cultivate’ means, you should write down ‘noun’ next to spade and bulb and ‘verb’ next to dig and grow. After that, you can ask yourself if spade and bulb have anything in common. They don’t, but dig and grow do, so that means ‘cultivate’ must belong with them, and the odd ones out must be spade and bulb.

Alphabet Codes/Code Words

Here, you’ll be asked either to put a word into code or to decode a word. To do that, you’ll be given a word and the coded version, and it’s up to you to work out how the code works, eg STRAW might become UVTCY.

Normally, you just have move one or two spaces forwards or backwards in the alphabet (in this case, it’s +2), but look out for other combinations. They might involve changing direction or a change to the number of spaces or a combination of both, eg -1, +2, -3, +4.

The good news is that you’ll usually have an alphabet printed next to the question, so you can put your pencil on a letter and ‘walk’ forwards or backwards to get the coded version, but you can also write down the code underneath the word and write down how to get each letter with a positive or negative number – just make sure you don’t get confused between coding and decoding!

Synonyms (Similar Meaning)

Synonyms are words that have similar meanings, such as cold and chilly. In synonym questions, you’re given two groups of three words, and you have to find two synonyms, one from each group, eg (FILTER MATCH BREAK) (DENY DRAIN CONTEST).

The first thing to do is to have a quick look at all the words to see if the answer’s obvious (MATCH and CONTEST, in this case). If it is, write it down. If it’s not, you have to be systematic: start with the first word in the first group and compare it with the first, second and third words in the other group. If that doesn’t work, repeat for the second and third words of the first group.

Just be careful to think about ALL the possible meanings of a word, eg ‘minute’ can mean 60 seconds, but it can also mean very small! If you still can’t do the question (because you don’t know one or more of the words), try to work by process of elimination.

That means narrowing down the options by getting rid of any pairs of words that definitely don’t mean the same. Once you’ve done that, feel free to guess which one of the leftover pairs is the answer.

One way of checking words mean the same thing is to think of a phrase or sentence containing one of them and then try substituting all the other options. For example, if the words are (cook, meal, room) and (oven, space, eat), start with ‘I like to cook dinner’ and then try all three of the other words.

Does ‘I like to oven dinner’ mean the same? What about ‘I like to space dinner’ or ‘I like to eat dinner’? If none of the words fits exactly, then move on to the next word in the left-hand bracket and then the last one, if necessary. In the end, you should find the answer, which in this case is ‘room’ and ‘space’.

You can also narrow down the options by checking the parts of speech. If you’re looking for a word that means the same, it will have to be the same part of speech as the other word, eg a noun, verb or adjective.

Hidden Words

These questions ask you to find ‘hidden’ four-letter words between two other words in a sentence, using the last few letters from one word and the first few from the next, eg ‘The bird sat on the roof’.

Again, scan the sentence quickly to see if the answer’s obvious. If it is, write it down. If it’s not, check every possibility by starting with the last three letters of the first word and the first letter of the second word, moving forward one letter at a time and then checking the next pair of words.

You might want to put your fingers on each pair of words with a four-letter gap in the middle so that you can see all the options as they appear just by moving your fingers along the line. In this example, the possible words are theb, hebi, ebir, irds, rdsa, dsat, sato, aton, tont, onth, nthe, ther, hero and eroo, so the answer is obviously ‘hero’, but note that ‘tont’ is spread over three words (sat, on and the), and some words are not long enough to have the usual number of possibilities.

Find the Missing Word

These questions ask you to find a missing set of three letters that make up a word, eg There is an INITE number of stars in the sky. First of all, look at the word in capitals and try to work out what it’s meant to be in the context of the rest of the sentence.

If it’s not obvious, try working out where the letters might be missing – is it after the first letter or the second or the third etc? Sometimes you might not know the word (‘INFINITE’ and therefore ‘FIN’ in this case), but, again, it’s worth a guess – just make sure your made-up word sounds reasonable!

Algebra (Calculating with Letters)

This is one type of question that’s easier if you’re good at Maths! Algebra uses letters to stand for numbers and is a way of creating useful general formulas for solving problems. In Verbal Reasoning tests, you’ll generally have to add, subtract, multiply and/or divide letters, eg A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, so what is A – B + C?

The first step is to convert the letters to numbers, and then you can simply work out the answer as you would in Maths. Just make sure you’re aware of BIDMAS/BODMAS. This is an acronym that helps you remember the order of operations: Brackets first, then Indices/Order (in other words, powers such as x squared), then Division and Multiplication and lastly Addition and Subtraction.

Note that addition doesn’t actually come before subtraction – they belong together, so those sums should be done in the order they appear in the question, eg in this case, A – B must be done first (1 – 2 = -1) and then C added on (-1 + 3 = 2).

Antonyms (Opposite Meaning)

Antonyms are words that have opposite meanings, such as hard and soft. In antonym questions, you’re given two groups of three words, and you have to find two antonyms, one from each group, eg (GROW WATER WILD) (SLICE FREE TAME).

The first thing to do is to have a quick look at all the words to see if the answer’s obvious (WILD and TAME, in this case). If it is, write it down. If it’s not, you have to be systematic: start with the first word in the first group and compare it with the first, second and third words in the other group.

If that doesn’t work, repeat for the second and third words of the first group. Just be careful to think about ALL the possible meanings of a word, eg ‘minute’ can mean 60 seconds, but it can also mean very small!

If you still can’t do the question (because you don’t know one or more of the words), try to work by process of elimination. That means narrowing down the options by getting rid of any pairs of words that definitely don’t mean the opposite to each other. Once you’ve done that, feel free to guess which one of the leftover pairs is the answer.

Complete the Calculation

This is another number question, and it again means you need to know BIDMAS/BODMAS. You’ll be given an equation (or number sentence), and you just have to fill in the missing number to make sure it balances, eg 24 – 10 + 6 = 8 + 7 + ( ).

First of all, work out what the complete side of the equation equals, and then add, subtract, divide or multiply by the numbers in the other side to work out the answer (in this case, 24 – 10 + 6 = 20, and 20 – 8 – 7 = 5, so 5 is the answer). Don’t forget you’re working backwards to the answer, so you have to use the opposite operators!

Rearrange to Make Two New words

In these questions, you’re given two words, and you have to take a letter from the first word and put it in any position in the second word to leave two new words, eg STOOP and FLAT.

Again, check first to see if the answer’s obvious, but then work through systematically, picking letters from the first word one by one and trying to fit it into each position in the second word. (In this case, the answer is STOP and FLOAT.) Remember that both the new words must make sense!

Number Relationship

This is another Maths question in which you’ll be given three sets of numbers in brackets with the middle one in square brackets. The middle number in the final set is missing, though, so you have to calculate it using the two on either side, based on what happens in the first two sets, eg (3 [15] 5) (2 [8] 4) (7 [ ] 3).

The calculation will only involve the four basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), but it gets much harder when the numbers appear more than once!

In this example, all you need to do is multiply the outside numbers to get the answer (3 x 5 = 15 and 2 x 4 = 8, so 7 x 3 = 21), but you might get more complicated questions like this one: (16 [40] 8) (11 [27] 5) (4 [ ] 11). Here, you have to add the first number to itself and then add the other one (16 + 16 + 8 = 40 and 11 + 11 + 5 = 27, so 4 + 4 + 11 = 19).

These kinds of questions can be very difficult, so try not to spend too long on them. If it takes more than a minute or so to answer a question, it’s time to move on. You can always come back later if you have time at the end of the test.

Alphabet Series/Sequence

These questions are a variation on number sequences in Maths – except using letters – and you answer them in the same way. You’re presented with several pairs of letters, and you have to fill in the blanks by working out what the patterns are, eg AB BD CF ??.

The best way to do this is to focus on the first and second letters of each pair separately as there will always be a pattern that links the first letters of each pair and a pattern that links the second letters of each pair, but there usually won’t be a pattern that links one letter to the next.

There’ll be a printed alphabet next to the question, so just do the same as you would for a number sequence question in Maths, drawing loops between the letters and labelling the ‘jump’ forwards or backwards in the alphabet, eg +1 or -2. Once you know what the pattern is, you can use it to work out the missing letters.

Just watch out for sequences with two patterns mixed together, eg CD TS GH RQ KL PO ?. Here, the first, third and fifth pairs of letters make up the sequence (with two letters missing between each pair), so the answer is OP. 

Analogies (Complete the Sentence)

In this type of question, you’re given a sentence that includes three possibilities for two of the words. You have to use logic and common sense to work out what the two other words should be, eg Teacher is to (bus, school, kitchen) as doctor is to (office, train, hospital).

This is known as an analogy: you have to work out the relationship of the first word to one of the words in the first set of brackets in order to find the same relationship in the second half of the sentence.

Again, the best way to do it is to have a quick scan to see if the answer’s obvious. If it is, write it down. If it’s not, go through the possibilities one by one, making sure to put the relationship into words. In this example, a teacher ‘works in a’ school, and a doctor ‘works in a’ hospital, so ‘school’ and ‘hospital’ are the answer.

Word Codes

These are complicated! You are given four words and three codes, and you have to find the code for a particular word or the word for a particular code, eg TRIP PORT PAST TEST and 2741 1462 1851.

Unfortunately, there’s no set way of doing these kinds of questions, so you just have to use a bit of logic and common sense. It’s useful to remember that each letter is always represented by the same number, so you can look for patterns in the letters that match patterns in the numbers, eg a double T in one of the words might be matched by a double 3 in one of the codes, so that means T = 3, and you can also find out the numbers for all the other letters in that word.

In this example, TEST starts and finishes with the same letter, and 1851 starts and finishes with the same number, so TEST = 1851, which means T = 1, E = 8 and S = 5. You can then fill in those numbers for each of the remaining words, so TRIP = 1???, PORT = ???1 and PAST = ??51.

Next, you should be able to see that the letter R is the second letter in TRIP and the third in PORT, and that’s matched by the number 4, which is the second number in 1462 and the third in 2741.

That means R = 4, which means TRIP = 14??, PORT = ??41 and PAST = ??51. The only code starting with 14 is 1462, so TRIP = 1462, and the only code ending with 41 is 2741, so PORT = 2741 and the only code ending with 51 is 2351, so PAST = 2351. If PAST = 2351, that also tells us that A must equal 3, so you now know what each letter stands for, and you can answer any possible question they might throw at you. Phew!

Complete Word Pairs

These questions are similar to word codes but, fortunately, much easier! You are given three pairs of words in brackets, and you have to work out the missing word at the end by what has gone before, eg (SHOUT, SHOT) (SOLDER, SOLE) (FLUTED, ).

The best way to go about it is to write down the position of the letters in the second word of the first two sets of brackets as they appear in the first.

In other words, the letters from SHOT appear in positions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the first word, and the letters from SOLE also appear in positions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the first word, so the missing word must consist of the same letters from FLUTED, which means it must be FLUE.

Now, you may not know that a flue is a kind of chimney, but don’t let that put you off. Just make sure you’ve got the right letters, and the answer must be right – even if you’ve never heard of it!

Another variation on this type of question contains a string of letters that appears in both words of each pair, just with a different letter or letters to start, eg (BLOAT, COAT) (CLING, DING) (SHOUT).

The easy bit is to find the repeated set of letters (in this case OAT) and to see that the second letter is dropped each time, but you still need to work out why the first letter changes (from B to C and then C to D).

That shouldn’t be too hard to work out, though, if you just go through the alphabet to find how many positions forwards or backwards you have to go (in this case, it’s +1, so the answer is TOUT).

Number Series/Sequences

These questions provide you with a series of numbers and ask you to fill in the blanks, which might be anywhere in the sequence, eg 1, 3, 5, 7, ?, ?. As with alphabet series, the best way to find the answer is to draw a loop between each pair of numbers and write down the change in value.

In this case, it’s simple (+2 each time), so the answer is 9 and 11, but look out for more complicated sequences. It’s worth knowing the most common sequences, just so you can recognise them at once and don’t have to work them out. Here are a few of the commonest ones:

Even numbers: 2, 4, 6, 8 etc… Rule: 2n
Odd numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7 etc… Rule: 2n – 1
Powers of 2: 2, 4, 8, 16 etc… Rule: 2ⁿ
Prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7 etc… Rule: n/a (each number is only divisible by itself and one)
Square numbers: 1, 4, 9, 16 etc… Rule: n²
Triangular numbers: 1, 3, 6, 10 etc… Rule: sum of the numbers from 1 to n
Fibonacci sequence
: 1, 1, 2, 3 etc… Rule: n₋₂ + n₋₁ (ie each successive number is produced by adding the previous two numbers together, eg 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3)

Things get trickier when the sequence is actually a mixture of two separate sequences, eg 1, 3, 2, 5, 3, ?, ?. Here, the integers (1, 2, 3 etc) are mixed in with odd numbers starting with 3 (3, 5 etc), so you can’t simply find the difference between one number and the next – you have to look at every other number.

In this example, the first missing number is the next integer after 1, 2 and 3, which is 4, and the second one is the next odd number after 3 and 5, which is 7.

Compound Words (Form New Word)

Here, you’re given two groups of three words, and you have to make a word by adding one from the first group to one from the second, eg (sleek pain seek) (search green killer).

Again, it’s important to be systematic, so you have to start with the first word in the first group and try to match it with each word in the second group. If that doesn’t work, repeat as necessary for the next two words in the first group. In this case, ‘pain’ goes with ‘killer’ to make ‘painkiller’.

Create a Word (from the Letters of Two Others)

These questions give you two groups of three words with the middle one in brackets in the first group and missing in the second, eg arise (rage) gears paste ( ) moans. What you have to do is work out what the missing word is by finding where the letters in the word in brackets in the first group come from.

They are all taken from the words outside the brackets, so it’s just a case of working out which letter in the words outside the brackets matches each letter in the word inside the brackets. Your best bet is to write down the second group of words underneath the first and go through each letter one by one.

Just look out for letters that either appear twice in one of the words or letters that appear in both words outside the brackets. Those will obviously give you two different possible letters for the answer word, so you should probably write both of them one above the other until you’ve worked everything out and then simply choose the one that makes a proper word.

In this example, the R from ‘rage’ might come from ‘arise’ or ‘gears’, so the first letter of the answer word is going to be either the second letter of ‘paste’ (A) or the fourth letter of ‘moans’ (N). The same is true of the A and E in ‘rage’. Once you work it all out, the letters are a or n, p or a, m and e or o, and the only sensible word is ‘name’.

Similar Meaning

These questions are slightly different from the synonym questions in that you have to choose a word out of five that has some similarity to or relationship with two pairs of words in brackets, eg (alter, amend) (coins, money) repair, trial, revue, change, passage.

The two pairs of words in brackets usually have different meanings, so you have to look for a word with a double meaning. Again, have a quick look at all the words to see if the answer’s obvious. If it is, write it down. If it’s not, go through the five words one by one, comparing them to the words in brackets.

It’s important to be open to the possibility of different meanings, so try to think laterally. In this example, for instance, the answer is ‘change’ as it can work as a verb meaning ‘alter’ or ‘amend’ but also as a noun meaning ‘coins’ or ‘money’.

Letter Relationships

For these questions, you’re given a sentence that describes the relationship between two pairs of letters – a little bit like the sentence analogies earlier. The final pair of letters is missing, so you have to work out what they are by finding the relationship between the first two pairs, eg CG is to ED as BW is to ( ).

You should see an alphabet line to help you. The first relationship to look at is between the first letter of the first two pairs. In this case, you get from C to E by moving forward two places in the alphabet.

That means you need to move two places on from B to get the first letter of the missing pair, which is D. Repeat this for the second letters, and you’ll find the other half of the answer. In this case, you get from G to D by going back three places, so you have to go back the same three places from W to get T. The overall answer is therefore DT.

Comprehension

The exact format of comprehension questions differs, but you’ll usually be given a lot of information about different people, and you’ll have to find the missing data. The subject could be people’s heights or ages, or it could be a schedule of events.

For example, three children – Susan, George and Ryan – all left school at 1515 and walked home. Susan arrived home first. George arrived home five minutes later at 1530. It took Ryan 10 minutes longer than Susan to walk home. What time did Ryan get home?

The way to approach any of these questions is to build a complete picture of the situation by starting with something you know and then working from there – a bit like building a jigsaw. Start with the absolute data (about heights, ages or times) and then move on to the relative data (comparing other people’s heights, ages or times).

One thing that often helps is to draw a timeline or simply write down the names of the children in order (of height, age etc). In this example, a timeline is probably your best option, starting at 1515 when the children left school and including George getting home at 1530. You can then add in Susan’s arrival time of 1525 (as she arrived five minutes before George) and finally Ryan’s arrival time of 1535 (as he arrived 10 minutes after Susan.

 

Creating Off-the-shelf Characters

Common entrance exams have a time limit. If they didn’t, they’d be a lot easier! If you want to save time and improve your story, one thing you can do is to prepare three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters that you can choose from.

You can work on them beforehand, improving them and memorising them as you go. By the time the exam comes around, it’ll be easy to dash off 8-10 lines about one of your favourite characters without having to spend any time inventing or perfecting them.

Here’s what you need to do.

The first thing to say is that you need your characters to be a little out of the ordinary. Most pupils writing stories tend to write about themselves. In other words, 10-year-old boys living in London tend to write stories about 10-year-old boys living in London!

Now, that’s all very well, and the story might still get a good mark, but what you want to try and do is stand out from the crowd. Why not write a story about an 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives?!

To decide which one you’d rather write about, you just have to ask yourself which one you’d rather read about. One thing you can do to make sure your characters are special is to give them all what I call a ‘speciality’ or USP (Unique Selling Proposition).

It might be a superpower such as X-ray vision or mind-reading, or it might be a special skill such as diving or surfing, or it might be a fascinating back-story such as being descended from the Russian royal family or William Shakespeare – whatever it is, it’s a great way to make your characters – and therefore your stories – just that little bit more interesting.

Secondly, you should also make sure all your characters are different. Try to cover all the bases so that you have one you can use for just about any story. That means having heroes that are male and female, old and young with different looks, personalities and nationalities.

For instance, Clara might be the 18-year-old intern at a shark research institute in the Maldives, Pedro might be the 35-year-old Mexican spy during the Texas Revolution of 1835-6 and Kurt might be the 60-year-old Swiss inventor who lives in a laboratory buried deep under the Matterhorn! Who knows? It’s entirely up to you.

Thirdly, creating an off-the-shelf character is a great way to force yourself to use ‘wow words’ and literary techniques such as metaphors and similes. You may have learned what a simile is, but it’s very easy to forget to use them in your stories, so why not describe one of your heroes as having ‘eyes as dark as a murderer’s soul’?

If you use the same characters with similar descriptions over and over again, it’ll become second nature to ‘show off’ your knowledge, and you can do the same with your vocabulary. Again, why say that someone is ‘big’ when you can say he is ‘athletic’, ‘brawny’ or ‘muscular’?

Fourthly, try to stick to what you know. If you’ve never even ridden on a horse, it’s going to be quite tough to write a story about a jockey!

Alternatively, if you’ve regularly been to a particular place on holiday or met someone you found especially interesting, then use what you know to create your characters and their backgrounds. It’s always easier to describe places if you’ve actually been there, and it’s easier to describe people if you know someone similar.

So what goes into creating off-the-shelf characters? The answer is that you have to try and paint a complete picture. It has to cover every major aspect of their lives – even if you can’t remember all the details when you come to write the story. I’d start by using the following categories:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job or education
  • Looks
  • Home
  • Friends and family
  • Personality
  • USP (or speciality)

Names are sometimes hard to decide on, so you might want to leave this one to last, but you just need to make sure it’s appropriate to the sort of character you’re creating. It wouldn’t be very convincing to have a Japanese scientist called Emily!

Age is fairly easy to decide. Just make sure your three characters are different – and not too close to your own age!

Job or education goes a long way to pigeon-holing someone. You can tell a lot from what someone does for a living or what they are doing in school or at university. You can include as much or as little detail as you like, but the minimum is probably the name and location of the school or college and what your characters’ favourite subjects are. You never know when it might come in handy!

Looks includes hair, eye colour, build, skin colour and favourite clothes. The more you describe your heroes’ looks, the easier it’ll be for the reader to imagine them.

Home can again be as detailed as you like, but the more specific the better. It’s easier to imagine the captain of a nuclear submarine patrolling under the North Pole than someone simply ‘living in London’…

Friends and family are important to most people, and it’s no different for the heroes of your stories. We don’t need to know the names of all their aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, but we at least need to know who they live with and who their best friends are.

Personality covers many things, but it should show what your characters are ‘like’ and what their interests are. Again, you don’t have to go into enormous depth, but it’s good to introduce the reader to qualities that might be needed later on in the story, such as athleticism or an ability to sail a boat.

USP (or speciality) covers anything that makes a character worth reading about. One of the reasons Superman is so popular is his superpowers: his ability to fly, his X-ray vision and the fact that he’s invulnerable. His greatest weakness is also important: Kryptonite. It’s the same for your characters. What can they do that most people can’t? What qualities can they show off in your stories? What will make them people we admire, respect and even love?

If you wanted to make Superman one of your off-the-shelf characters, this is what your notes might look like:

  • Name: Superman (or Clark Kent, Kal-El, The Man of Steel, The Last Son of Krypton, The Man of Tomorrow)
  • Age: Early 20s (when he first appears)
  • Job or education: News reporter at The Daily Planet in Metropolis
  • Looks: Tall, with a muscular physique, dark-haired, blue eyes
  • Home: Krypton, then the Kents’ farm in Smallville, Kansas, then Metropolis (or a fictionalised New York), where he lives in a rented apartment
  • Friends and family: Jor-El and Lara (biological parents)/Jonathan and Martha Kent (adoptive parents), Lois Lane (colleague, best friend, girlfriend), Jimmy Olsen (colleague), Perry White (boss as editor of The Daily Planet)
  • Personality: Noble, honest, caring, gentle, resolute, decisive
  • USP (or speciality): Superpowers, including invulnerability, super strength, X-ray vision, super hearing, longevity, freezing breath, ability to fly (but vulnerable to Kryptonite!)

Once you’ve created the notes for your three characters, you can write a paragraph of 8-10 lines about each of them. This is your chance to create something that you can easily slot into any of your stories, so use the past tense and stick to what the characters are like, not what they’re doing. That will be different in each story, so you don’t want to tie yourself down.

Here’s an example using Superman again:

Clark Kent led a double life. He wasn’t happy about it, but he needed his secret identity so that no-one would find out who he really was. He might have been a mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet with a crush on his partner, Lois Lane, but he was also a crime-fighting superhero: he was Kal-El, Superman and The Man of Steel all rolled into one!

His secret was that he’d actually been born on Krypton and sent to Earth as a baby to protect him from the destruction of his home planet. He’d been found by a childless couple living on a farm in Smallville, Kansas, and Jonathan and Martha Kent had adopted him as their own.

They didn’t know where he’d come from, but they’d provided him with a loving home as they watched him grow into a blue-eyed, dark-haired, athletic young man with a passion for ‘truth, justice and the American way’.

And they soon realised he was special when they saw him lifting a tractor with one hand…! He was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
“Look! Up in the sky!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“It’s Superman!”

Try using your characters for stories you’re asked to write by your English teacher (or tutor, if you have one). The more often you use them, the better they’ll get as you change things you don’t like about them, bring in new ideas and polish the wording.

Next Steps

Try to create three off-the-shelf characters. Make them different ages, male and female and from different parts of the world. Start with the notes and then create a paragraph of 8-10 lines for each one in the past tense, ready to drop into any story…

Children’s Reading List

Books, books, books…

I’m often asked by parents what books they should try to get their children to read, but I don’t think I’ve been much help so far, so this is my attempt to do better! If you’re still not convinced, there are a number of reading lists on my Useful Links page.

Tastes differ, obviously, so perhaps the best thing I can do is to list all the books that I loved when I was a boy. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I read them, so you’ll have to use your common sense, but they did at least provide me with happy memories.

Ronald Welch

My favourite series of books when I was a child was the one written by Ronald Welch about the Carey family. He wrote about the men in the family over the course of around 500 years, from 1500 up to the First World War.

Each novel focused on one character in one particular period – rather like Blackadder, and there was a clear formula: whatever the period, he would have to fight a duel, he would do something heroic and he would win the fair lady!

The duels started with a dagger and a sword and then moved on to rapiers and then finally pistols as the years rolled on. I loved the military aspect to the books – as most boys would – and I read just about every single one I could get my hands on.

Unfortunately, they’re almost impossible to find in print nowadays, but it’s always worth a look…

CS Forester

CS Forester wrote the ‘Hornblower’ novels. I was interested in both sailing and military history when I was young, and this sequence of novels about a naval officer called Horatio Hornblower in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1792-1815 was a perfect blend of the two.

Alexander Kent (Douglas Reeman)

Alexander Kent was the pen name of Douglas Reeman, who wrote a series of novels about Richard Bolitho. I first came across him after finishing all the CS Forester novels, and he provided a similar mix of nautical and military history during the same period. They weren’t quite as good as the Hornblower novels, but I still enjoyed them.

Enid Blyton

I didn’t read absolutely all the Enid Blyton books when I was a boy, but the one that I do remember is The Boy Next Door. Among other things, I loved the name of the character (‘Kit’), I loved the bits about climbing trees and I also loved the word ‘grin’, which I never understood but thought was somehow magical!

Roald Dahl

Again, I don’t remember reading all the Roald Dahl novels, but James and the Giant Peach left a big impression. The characters were so interesting, and the idea of escaping from home on an enormous rolling piece of fruit was very exciting to me in those days…!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I read The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was a boy, and it’s probably still the longest book I’ve ever read. I remember vividly that the edition I read was 1,227 pages long! I listened to the whole thing again recently in a very good audiobook edition read by Stephen Fry, and it was just as good second time around.

I loved the mystery of the stories, and I still read a lot of crime fiction even now. I’ve always had a very analytical mind, so Holmes’s brilliant deductions were always enjoyable to read about.

Charlie Higson

The Young Bond novels weren’t around when I was young, but I read the first few as an adult, and I enjoyed them. James Bond is a classic fictional creation that appeals to boys in particular, and I think I would’ve lapped it up as a teenager. The first one is called Silverfin. Once you’ve read it, you’ll be hooked!

Jane Austen

Jane Austen introduced me to irony with the immortal opening line from Pride and Prejudice, but the first of her novels that I read was actually Emma. I had to read it at school as part of my preparation for the Oxford entrance exam, and I didn’t like it at first.

However, that was just because I didn’t understand what was going on. Once my English teacher Mr Finn had explained that the character of Emma is always wrong about everything, I found it very funny and enjoyable. They say that ‘analysing’ a book can sometimes ruin it, but in this case it was quite the opposite.

Ernest Hemingway

“If Henry James is the poodle of American literature, Ernest Hemingway is the bulldog. What do you think?” I was once asked that question in an interview at the University of East Anglia, and I had no idea how to reply!

As it happens, Hemingway was one of my favourite authors. My interviewer called his style ‘macho’, but that wasn’t the appeal for me. I simply liked the stories and the settings. I particularly loved the bull-fighting scenes in The Sun Also Rises, and there was just a glamour to the characters and the period that I really enjoyed.

If you don’t know where to start, try The Old Man and the Sea. It’s very simple and very short, but very, very moving.

Describing Feelings

In many 11+ and 13+ exams, you have to talk about feelings. Yes, I know that’s hard for most boys that age, but I thought it might help if I wrote down a list of adjectives that describe our emotions. Here we go…

A bloke called Bob (actually Robert Plutchik) thought that people only ever felt eight different emotions:

His list is shown in this ‘wheel of emotions’. The basic eight feelings are:

  • Ecstasy
  • Admiration
  • Terror
  • Amazement
  • Grief
  • Loathing
  • Rage
  • Vigilance

If we had a think about all the adjectives that are associated with these categories (and sub-categories), we might come up with a list like this one:

Ecstasy

crazy
delirious
ecstatic
elated
enthusiastic
euphoric
fervent
glad
happy
joyful
joyous
mad
overjoyed
rapturous
rhapsodic
serene
thrilled
upbeat

Admiration

accepting
admiring
adoring
appreciative
loving
respectful
trustful
trusting

Terror

afraid
aghast
alarmed
apprehensive
awed
frightened
frozen
scared
submissive
terrified

Amazement

amazed
astonished
astounded
awe-struck
bewildered
dazed
distracted
dumbfounded
flabbergasted
impressed
perplexed
shocked
staggered
startled
stunned
surprised
unprepared

Grief

bitter
grief-stricken
grieving
heart-broken
melancholy
mournful
pensive
pessimistic
sad
somber
sorrowful
sorry
unhappy
wistful

Loathing

appalled
bored
disapproving
disgusted
outraged
queasy
tired
weary

Rage

angry
aggressive
annoyed
contemptuous
enraged
exasperated
furious
heated
impassioned
indignant
irate
irritable
irritated
offended
resentful
sullen
uptight

Vigilance

anxious
aware
cautious
circumspect
expectant
interested
keen
observant
optimistic
vigilant
wary

 

How to Write a Letter

Writing a letter is not as easy as it might seem – especially if you have to do it during a Common Entrance exam! In this post, I’d like to explain the typical format of formal and casual letters and the decisions on wording that you’ll have to make.

First of all, here’s a quick list of the main parts of a letter that the examiner will be looking at:

  • Sender’s address
  • Date
  • Greeting
  • Text
  • Sign-off
  • Signature

Sender’s Address

It’s important to put the address of the sender (not the recipient!) at the top right of the letter (see above). The postman obviously doesn’t look inside the letter, so the address of the recipient needs to go on the envelope instead!

The only exception is if it’s a business letter intended to be posted in a window envelope. In that case, it needs to have the recipient’s address positioned above the sender’s address at just the right height so that it shows through the window when an A4 sheet is folded in three.

The address should really be aligned right, so you must remember to leave enough space for yourself when you start writing each line. Otherwise, it’ll look a bit of a mess…

Date

The date should be placed two or three lines below the sender’s address (again aligned right) in the traditional long format rather than just in numbers, eg 7th October 2018 rather than 7/10/18 (or 10/7/18 if you’re American!).

Greeting

Which greeting you use depends on the recipient. If you know the name of the person you’re writing to, then you should use ‘Dear’ rather than ‘To’, eg ‘Dear Mr and Mrs Dursley’. ‘To’ is fine for Christmas cards, but not for letters. You should also put a comma afterwards.

If you’re writing to a company or an organisation and you don’t know the name of the person, you have two options: you can either start the letter off with ‘Dear sir/madam’ or write ‘To whom it may concern’. This works better when it’s a reference for a job or a formal letter that may be circulated among several people.

Text

The text can obviously be whatever you like, but make sure you start it underneath the comma after the greeting. You should also use paragraphs if the letter is more than a few lines.

Sign-off

The sign-off is just the phrase you put at the end of the letter before your signature. If the letter is to a friend or relative, there aren’t really any rules. You can say anything from ‘Love’ to ‘Best regards’ or ‘Yours ever’.

Note that they all start with a capital letter and should be followed by a comma (or maybe a full-stop). If the letter is to someone else, the sign-off depends on the greeting: if you’ve used someone’s name in the greeting, you should use ‘Yours sincerely’, but it’s ‘Yours faithfully’ if you haven’t.

Signature

The signature is very important in letter-writing as it’s a simple way of ‘proving’ who you are, so you should develop one that you’re happy with. It should include your first name or your initial(s) plus your surname, eg Nick Dale or N Dale or NW Dale.

Your signature should be special, so it doesn’t need to be ‘neat’ or ‘clear’ like the rest of the letter. In fact, the prettier and the more stylish, the better!

And there you have it. This is only one way of writing a letter, and there are other ways of formatting the information, but these rules will at least give you the best chance of getting full marks in your Common Entrance exam!

 

 

How to Become a Private Tutor

Adrian-Beckett_09032013_035

I’ve talked to a few people who wanted to become private tutors, so I thought I’d write down a few tips for anyone who’s interested.

How Did I Start Out?

I started as a private tutor quite by accident. It was 2009, and I was finding it hard to get work as a freelance management consultant when I happened to read an article in the Telegraph called 10 Ways to Beat the Recession.

The author mentioned a few ways of earning some extra cash, including becoming an extra on film sets – which I was already doing – and working as a private tutor. I’d never done any proper teaching before, although I was a golf coach, and I’d coached skiing a few times in the Alps, but I thought I’d sign up with a couple of agencies and see what happened.

Within a week, I had two clients, and I’ve never looked back since!

What Qualifications do I Need?

The first and most important thing to say is that you don’t need any teaching qualifications! Yes, that’s right. You don’t need a PGCE, and you don’t need to have done any training as a teacher. As a private tutor, you are just that – private – so you don’t have to jump through all the Government hoops that a teacher in a state school would have to do.

Obviously, potential clients want the best person to teach their child, so you need to show some sort of academic record, but that can be as little as a degree in English – which is what I had when I started. Admittedly, I went to Oxford, which probably counts for a lot with Russian billionaires (!), but you don’t need to have an Oxbridge degree to become a tutor. Far from it.

However, what you probably will need is a criminal records check. This is just a piece of paper that certifies you haven’t been convicted of a criminal offence and was often known as a ‘CRB check’, although it’s now officially called an Enhanced Certificate from the Disclosure and Barring Service, or ‘DBS check’.

You can’t apply for an ‘enhanced certificate’ yourself, but your tuition agency can help you. In fact, they may require you to have one and even to renew it every year or two. It costs around £18 and can take up to three months to arrive, so it’s worth applying as early as possible.

Some agencies may charge up to £80 to make the application on your behalf, so be careful! You can find further information here.

What Subjects Can I Teach?

You can teach whatever you like! Agencies will just ask you which subjects you offer and at what level, so you have complete freedom to choose. I focus on English and Maths, which are the most popular subjects, but that’s mostly led by demand from clients. They are the main subjects at 11+ level, so that’s what most people are looking for help with.

What Age Children Can I Teach?

Again, the choice is yours. I’ve taught students from as young as five to as old as 75, but the peak demand is at 11+ level, when the children are around 10 years old. I make it a rule that I’ll only teach a subject to a level that I’ve reached myself, such as GCSE or A-level, but clients sometimes take you by surprise.

When I turned up to teach what I thought was going to be English to two boys, the nanny suddenly asked me to do Latin instead. When I said I hadn’t done any Latin since I was 15, she just said, “Oh, you’ll be fine…!”

What Preparation do I Need to do?

Research

One of the big attractions of tutoring for me is that the work is very enjoyable. I like teaching, and I like spending time with children, so it’s the perfect combination! The reason I stopped work as a management consultant was the constant stress, the persistent worry that I wasn’t up to the job, but teaching 10-year-olds never makes me feel like that.

Whether it’s English or Maths, I’m confident in my ability to teach and never worry about being asked an impossible question. However, that doesn’t mean you can walk into your first lesson without doing any preparation at all.

In my case, I wanted to teach English, so I needed to find out what kind of questions cropped up in 11+ and 13+ entrance exams and come up with a good method of answering them. Once I’d done that, I was ready.

Maths was a bit easier, but I still looked through a few papers to make sure there was no risk of being blind-sided by something I’d forgotten how to do or had never studied. Whatever the subject you’re offering, I suggest you do the same.

Past Papers

The other thing I needed to do was to find past papers to give to my pupils. That was a bit tricky in the early days until a kind parent gave me a collection of photocopied exams. After that, I carried a couple around with me to take to lessons, but it wasn’t a great solution, so I decided to create a website – this one.

Over time, I collected dozens of past papers and wrote various articles on how to do different kinds of question in Maths, English and French. Now, I don’t have to carry around anything with me or spend time dictating notes. I can simply ask my pupils to look it up online.

Setting up a website is pretty easy using WordPress or something similar, but you should feel free to use the resources on my past papers tab if you don’t want to go to the trouble yourself, and all my articles are available for free if you need them.

The main ones I use for English are about doing comprehensions and writing stories, but there are plenty more. The website proved unexpectedly popular, and I had over 28,000 visitors last year! The other advantage is that it generated enough business for me not to need agencies any more.

That means I can charge what I like, I don’t have to pay any commission, and I can have a direct relationship with all my clients without anybody acting as an intermediary – and often just getting in the way!

Business Cards

I know it sounds a bit old-fashioned, but having business cards is very useful. If you’re just starting out, nobody knows your name, so paying a few quid to market your services is one of the best investments you can make.

You never know when people will tell you they’re looking for a tutor, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to give them a business card. Even if you don’t have a website, it will at least tell them how to reach you, and you should get a lot more clients out of it.

How Can I Find Work?

Tuition agencies are the best place to start, but there are different kinds. Some are online and simply require you to fill out a form for them to check and vet, but others ask you to go through an interview, either over the phone or in person.

Either way, you need to put together a tailored CV that shows off your academic achievements and highlights any teaching experience you’ve had. This may not be very much at the beginning, but you simply need to show enough potential to get you through the door.

Once you’ve shown enough aptitude and commitment to get accepted by a few agencies, you’ll rapidly build up your experience on the job.

Here is a list of the tuition agencies I’ve been in touch with, together with contact details where available. I’m based in London, so there is obviously a geographical bias there, but some of the agencies such as Fleet Tutors offer national coverage, and you can always search online for others in your local area.

Name

Email

Telephone

Website

A-Star Tuitionastartuition@btinternet.com01772 814739astartuition.com
Approved Tutorsapprovedtutors.co.uk
Athena Tuitionathenatuition.co.uk/
Beacon Tutorsinfo@beacontutors.co.uk020 8983 2158beacontutors.co.uk/
Bespoke Tuitionemma@bespoketuition.com07732 371880bespoketuition.com
Bigfoot Tutorstutors@bigfoottutors.com020 7729 9004bigfoottutors.com
Bright Young Things07702 019194brightyoungthingstuition.co.uk
Dulwich Tutorsinfo@dulwichtutors.com020 8653 3502dulwichtutors.com
Enjoy Educationkate@enjoyeducation.co.ukenjoyeducation.co.uk
Exam Confidence
First Tutorsfirsttutors.co.uk
Fleet Tutors0845 644 5452fleet-tutors.co.uk
Gabbitasgabbitas.com
Greater London Tutors020 7727 5599greaterlondontutors.com
Harrison Allenharrisonallen.co.uk
Holland Park Tuitionrecruitment@hollandparktuition.com020 7034 0800hollandparktuition.com
IPS Tutorsinfo@ipstutors.co.uk01509 265623ipstutors.co.uk
Ivy Educationivyeducation.co.uk
Kensington & Chelsea Tutorstutors@kctutors.co.uk020 7584 7987kctutors.co.uk
Keystone Tutorsenquiries@keystonetutors.com020 7351 5908keystonetutors.com
Kings Tutorsemily@kingstutors.co.ukkingstutors.co.uk
Knightsbridge Tutors07890 521390knightsbridgetutors.co.uk
Laidlaw Educationlaidlaweducation.co.uk
Mentor & Sonsandrei@mentorandsons.com07861 680377mentorandsons.com
Osborne Cawkwellenquiries@oc-ec.com020 7584 5355oc-ec.com
Personal Tutorsadmin@personal-tutor.co.ukpersonal-tutors.co.uk
Russell Education Groupjoe@russelleducationgroup.comn/a
Search Tutorssearchtutors.co.uk
Select My Tutorinfo@selectmytutor.co.ukselectmytutor.co.uk
SGA Educations@sga-education.comsga-education.com
Simply Learning Tuitionsimplylearningtuition.co.uk
The Tutor Pagesthetutorpages.com
Top Tutors020 8349 2148toptutors.co.uk
Tutor Houseinfo@tutorhouse.co.uk020 7381 6253tutorhouse.co.uk/
Tutor Hunttutorhunt.com
Tutorfairtutorfair.com
Tutors Internationaltutors-international.net
UK Tutorsuktutors.com
Westminster Tutorsexams@westminstertutors.co.uk020 7584 1288westminstertutors.co.uk
William Clarence Educationsteve@williamclarence.com020 7412 8988williamclarence.com
Winterwood winterwoodtutors.co.uk

That’s obviously a long list, but, to give you an idea, I earned the most from Adrian Beckett (teacher training), Bespoke Tuition, Bonas MacFarlane, Harrison Allen, Keystone Tutors, Mentor & Sons, Personal Tutors and Shawcross Bligh.

Once you’ve been accepted by and started working for a few agencies, you’ll soon see the differences. Some offer higher rates, some the option to set your own rates, some provide a lot of work, some offer the best prospects of jobs abroad. It all depends what you’re looking for.

Where Will the Lessons Take Place?

When I first started tutoring, I had to cycle to all my clients. I put a limit of half an hour on my travel time, but it still took a lot of time and effort to get to my pupils. Fortunately, I’m now able to teach at my home, either in person or online using Skype and an electronic whiteboard, which means my effective hourly rate has gone up enormously.

Travel is still a little bit of a problem for most tutors, though, and I certainly couldn’t have reached my pupils without having a bicycle. I didn’t have a car, and public transport wasn’t really an option in most cases.

You just have to decide how far you’re prepared to go: the further it is, the more business you’ll get, but the longer it’ll take to get there and therefore the lower your effective hourly rate.

The other possibility, of course, is teaching abroad. I’ve been lucky enough to go on teaching assignments in Belarus, Greece, Hong Kong, Kenya, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey, and it’s a great way to see the world.

The clients can sometimes be a little bit difficult, and the children can sometimes behave like spoiled brats (!), but staying with a great client in a sunny getaway overseas can be a wonderful experience.

The only reason I don’t apply for more foreign postings is that I don’t want to let down my existing clients – going away for three weeks just before the 11+ exams in January would NOT go down well!

When Will the Lessons Take Place?

If you’re teaching children, lessons will usually be in the after-school slot between 1600 and 2000 or at weekends. That does limit the amount of hours you can teach, but it’s up to you how much you want to work.

I used to work seven days a week, but I eventually gave myself a day off and then another, so I now work Sundays to Thursdays with Friday and Saturday off.

During the holidays, you lose a lot of regular clients when they disappear to the Maldives or somewhere for six weeks (!), but others might ask for an intensive sequence of lessons to take advantage of the extra time available, and there’s obviously a greater chance of a foreign assignment.

All that means that the work is very seasonal, so you should expect your earnings to go up and down a bit and plan your finances accordingly.

What Should I do During the Lesson?

I generally teach from past papers, so I ask pupils to do a past paper for their homework and then mark it during the following lesson.

‘Marking’ means marking the questions, obviously, but it also means ‘filling in the gaps’ in the pupil’s knowledge. If he or she is obviously struggling with something, it’s worth spending a few minutes explaining the topic and asking a few practice questions.

I’ve written a few articles on common problem areas in English and Maths, such as commas and negative numbers, so I often go through one of those and ask the pupil’s parents to print it out and put it in a binder. After a few weeks, that collection of notes gradually turns into a ready-made revision guide for the exams.

If the parents want you to work on specific topics, that’s also possible. For example, one mother wanted to help her son with ratios, so she printed out dozens of past papers and circled the ratio questions for him to do. He soon got the knack!

I approach English in a slightly different way to begin with. There are two types of question in the 11+, comprehensions and creative writing, so I generally spend the first lesson teaching pupils how to do one of those. I go through my article on the subject online and then ask them to answer a practice question by following the procedure I’ve outlined.

They usually finish it off for their homework. After a few weeks of stories or comprehensions, I’ll switch to the other topic and do the same with that. I also ask pupils to write down any new words or words they get wrong in a vocabulary book because building vocabulary is very important for any type of English exam (and also for Verbal Reasoning).

I ask them to fold the pages over in the middle so that they can put the words on the left and the meanings on the right (if necessary). Every few weeks, I can then give them a spelling test. If they can spell the words correctly and tell me what they mean, they can tick them off in their vocab book.

Once they’ve ticked off a whole page of words, they can tick that off, too! I usually try to reinforce the learning of words by asking pupils to tell me a story using as many words as possible from their spelling test.

It can be a familiar fairy story or something they make up, but it just helps to move the words from the ‘passive’ memory to the ‘active memory’, meaning that they actually know how to use them themselves rather than just understand them when they see them on the page.

What Homework Should I Set?

Most children who have private lessons have pretty busy schedules, so I don’t want to overburden them. I generally set one exercise that takes around 30-45 minutes. That might be a Maths paper or an English comprehension or story, but it obviously depends on the subject and the level.

Just make sure that the student writes down what needs to be done – a lot of them forget! You should also make a note in your diary yourself, just so that you can check at the start of the next lesson if the work has been done.

What Feedback Should I Give the Parents?

I generally have a quick chat with the mother or father (or nanny) after the lesson to report on what we did during the lesson, what problems the child had and what homework I’ve set. This is also a good time to make any changes to the schedule, for instance if the family goes on holiday.

If that’s not possible, I’ll email the client with a ‘lesson report’. Some agencies such as Bonas MacFarlane make this a part of their timesheet system.

How Much Will I Get Paid?

When I first started, I had absolutely no idea how much I was worth, and I ended up charging only £10 an hour, which is not much more than I pay my cleaner! Fortunately, a horrified friend pointed out that it should be ‘at least’ £35 an hour, and I upped my rates immediately.

I now charge £60 an hour for private lessons, whether online or in person. Unfortunately, some agencies such as Fleet Tutors don’t allow you to set your own rates, so that’s one thing to bear in mind when deciding which agencies to work with.

However, they did provide me with quite a bit of work when I first started, so it’s swings and roundabouts. The pay scale often varies depending on the age of the student and the level taught, so you’ll probably earn more for teaching older students at GCSE level or above if the agency sets the prices.

If you have any private clients, you can obviously set whatever rate you like, depending on where you live, the age of your pupils, whether lessons are online or in person and so on. Personally, I only have one rate (although I used to charge an extra £5 for teaching two pupils at the same time), and I raise it by £5 every year to allow for inflation and extra demand.

Tutoring is more and more popular than ever these days, and I read somewhere that over half of pupils in London have private lessons over the course of their school careers, so don’t sell yourself short! You should be able to make around £25,000 a year, which is not bad going for a couple of hours’ work a day!

Foreign jobs are a little different, and there is a ‘standard’ rate of around £800 a week including expenses. That means your flights and accommodation are all covered, and you can even earn a bit more on the side if you decide to rent out your home on Airbnb while you’re away!

When it comes to day-to-day expenses such as taxis and food and drink, it’s important to negotiate that with the agency before accepting the job. It’s no good complaining about having to live in the client’s house and buy your own lunches when you’re in Moscow or Bratislava! It can be a dream job, but just make sure you look at it from every angle:

  • What subjects will I be teaching?
  • How many hours will I have to teach?
  • How many days off will I get per week?
  • Where will the lessons take place?
  • How do I get to and from my accommodation?
  • How long is the assignment? (I refuse anything more than three months.)
  • Where will I be staying? (NEVER at the client’s house!)
  • How old are the children?
  • Will I have any other responsibilities (eg ferrying the children to and from school)?
  • Do I need a visa?
  • What is the weekly rate?
  • What expenses are included (eg flights, accommodation, taxis, food, drink)?

How Do I Get Paid?

Most agencies ask for a timesheet and pay their tutors monthly via BACS payments directly into their bank accounts. That’s a bit annoying from a cash flow point of view, but there’s not much you can do about it – other than using a different agency.

When it comes to private clients, I generally ask for cash after the lesson, but it’s even more convenient if they can pay via standing order – as long as you can trust them! I once let a client rack up over £600 in fees because he tended to pay in big lump sums every few weeks, but then his business folded, and I had to use a Government website to try and chase him up.

Fortunately, his wife saw the email and paid my bill, but it took months to sort out. Normally, though, the worst that happens is that a client just doesn’t have the right change and promises to pay the following week, so you just need to keep track of who owes what.

I hope all this helps. Good luck!

 

Favourite Quotations

images

Studying English for 20 years gave me a collection of useless quotations that are constantly rattling around in my head. Here are the ones I actually thought it worth writing down!

“I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.”

Emily Dickinson

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.”

Walt Whitman

“These fragments I have shored against my ruin””

TS Eliot

“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”

TS Eliot

“It’s a good thing to be loved, even late.”

Samuel Hamilton, East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“Up to 40, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two it’s the story that hurts most.”

James Bond, Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

“It is an intoxicating moment in any love-affair when, for the first time, in a public place, in a restaurant or a theatre, the man puts his hand down and lays it on the thigh of the girl and when she slips her hand over his and presses the man’s hand against her. The two gestures say everything that can be said. All is agreed. All the pacts are signed. And there is a long minute of silence during which the blood sings.”

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

[On being asked by Tiffany Case why he had never married] “I expect because I think I can handle life better on my own. Most marriages don’t add two people together. They subtract one from the other.”

James Bond, Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

“She was wearing something blue that did her no harm”

Raymond Chandler

“I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that, here at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”

Michael Faraday

“For a smart girl, you’re good at stupid.”

Georgia, Georgia Rule

“I feel like Dorothy when everything just turned to colour.”

Don Draper, Mad Men

“Hockey puck, rattlesnake, monkey monkey, underpants.”

Lorelai, Gilmore Girls

“You can’t get old as a woman without having at least one lousy man in your life.”

Mr Brooks

[When asked if his whole body was built in proportion to his height] “No, love. If I was I’d be 8′ 10”!

Wade Dooley

“He looks at me like he’s the spoon and I’m the dish of ice-cream.”

The Jane Austen Book Club

“Get your mittens round your kittens.”

Ray Fontayne, Grease

“When they circumcised Herbert Samuel, they threw away the wrong bit.”

Lloyd George

“Ninety per cent of politicians give the other 10 per cent a bad name.”

Henry Kissinger

“I like baseball, movies, fast cars, whisky and you.”

John Dillinger, Public Enemies

“This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.”

The Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Here, at the age of 39, I began to be old.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“I brought a jar of anchovy paste, half a dozen potato farls and a packet of my own special blend of Formosan Oolong and Orange Pekoe, but I was set upon by a gang of footpads outside Caius and they stole it all.”

Adrian Healey, The Liar by Stephen Fry

“No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.”

Sonnet on Ellen Terry by Oscar Wilde

“His eyes are sparkling like a rippled sea at sunset.”

Jeremy Clarkson

Hud: You’re a regular idealist
Nephew: What’s wrong with that?
Hud: I don’t know. I just ain’t never tried it.

Hud, Hud

Hud: Let’s get our shoelaces untied. Whaddya say?

Hud, Hud

“I think I’d miss you even if we’d never met.”

Nick, The Wedding Date

“Let me see if I have this straight. You’re going to date a different girl every week for the rest of your life, and then you’re going grow old and die alone in a log cabin by a lake somewhere?”

His ‘n’ Hers Christmas

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Mark Twain

“We took risks, we knew that we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.”

Message to the Public, Captain Scott

“In one of the Bard’s best thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”

Anagram of “To be or not to be…”, Hamlet by Shakespeare

“I can remember a reporter asking me for a quote, and I didn’t know what a quote was. I thought it was some kind of soft drink.”

Joe DiMaggio

The National Family

“There is only one family: The National Family.”

I read the poster as I sat on the bus on the way to work in downtown LA. I wasn’t such a big fan of Proposition 1203 and all the anti-nepotism and adoption laws, but it was so long since any mother had actually kept her own child that I’d got used to it by now. I didn’t see the problem with mothers and fathers raising their own children – what could be more natural than that? – but it was too dangerous even to think those thoughts these days.

It had all started with Andrews v Clyde, that case back in the Fifties. We’d learned about it at school. Some 18-year-old kid had objected when he’d lost an internship with a US Senator. Apparently, the senator had taken on his own son instead. It took years, and it ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court. It was discrimination, it was nepotism, it was class privilege… Anyway, it wasn’t long afterwards that more and more people started objecting, and one thing led to another until, finally, every mother and father had to give up their child at birth! It was crazy.

Nowadays, you couldn’t even admit that you thought about your ‘real’ parents. It was a crime to try and contact them, and a few people had been sent to jail, but the really crazy thing was that people seemed to accept it – no, they actually wanted it! They thought that mothers and fathers were ‘wrong’ to want the best for their children. It was like a re-run of the battles against apartheid and sex discrimination that happened way back in the 20th Century. As I say, crazy…

One thing I couldn’t help doing on my way to work was casting the odd glance at a rather pretty girl who always took the same bus as I did. She was in her twenties and had long, black hair and green eyes. She looked just like a model or an actress – although I had no idea why she’d be taking the bus to the studio! She was always fashionably dressed in a way that put me to shame, so I didn’t say anything. I sometimes smiled at her, but I didn’t get much back. Out of my league. But why did she always take the bus? She seemed to know the driver. She always whispered something to him when she got on and off, and she always sat up front. Maybe that was it. But still… He was about 30 years older than she was. Weird. It was almost like they shared some guilty secret.

“Ding!” A man rang the bell, walked over to the door and waited to get off. A few other people joined him. My stop wasn’t for another few minutes, so I stayed in my seat, looking out of the window. Strangely, though, the bus didn’t slow down. It even started to speed up a bit! We passed the sign for the bus stop. What was going on?

“Hey! That’s my stop!” somebody shouted.

“Let us out!” shouted another guy.

I looked at the driver from my seat a couple of rows back. He was looking in the mirror with a rather frantic expression on his face. What was happening? I looked out of the window and craned my neck to try and see what was behind us. There was nothing apart from a police car flashing its lights. Why didn’t it pass us by? It was obviously chasing someone. Then it started its siren, and the bus speeded up again.

The rest of the passengers were still shouting at the driver, but we must have been going faster than 70mph now, so most people decided to sit down and hang on. This guy was crazy. The bus went faster and faster, and the cop car was still behind us. Surely it wasn’t following us? Why would it do that? But still the lights flashed and the siren sounded, and the driver still looked anxiously in his mirrors.

We were coming up to a junction. Surely he had to stop. The lights changed from green…to yellow…to red just as we crossed the stop line! The driver mashed his foot on the gas and accelerated through the junction. Cars and trucks bellowed at him with their horns, but he paid no attention. Behind us, the police car kept coming.

“This is the LAPD. Stop the vehicle!” One of the cops was using his loud hailer to get the bus driver to stop, but it wasn’t working. I decided to find out what was going on myself. I carefully stepped up to the driver’s glass booth, hanging on to the straps as I went, and looked round at the driver, who was a big man in his fifties, dressed in the bus company’s blue and grey uniform and sweating under his peaked cap.

“Hey!” I said. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you stopping?”

“Sit down!” he shouted. “Sit down!”

“What are you doing? You’re going to get us all killed! Are you on the run or something?”

He looked at me suddenly.

“Just sit down,” he said and continued racing through the streets of downtown.

“This is the LAPD. Stop the vehicle!” repeated the cop behind us.

I looked across the aisle and saw the dark-haired girl looking worriedly at the driver.

“I say,” I tried, “can you do something? You seem to know the guy.”

She looked at me and then looked at the driver.

“No, I…well…” she stumbled.

“What is it? What’s going on?”

“Leave her alone!” shouted the driver. “It’s nothing to do with her.”

“Then tell me what’s going on! You can’t keep going like this. You’re going to crash!”

He ignored me and took the exit for the freeway. Oh, no… This wasn’t the normal route. The driver really must be making a break for it. The other passengers noticed, too.

“Hey! Where are you going?!”

“What are you doing? I’ve got to get to work?”

“Come off it, pal! I’m late already!”

I tried again with the girl, this time in a softer voice.

“What is it?” I said. “What’s going on?”

“It’s nothing,” she answered, but she stared at the driver with what looked like tears in her eyes.

“It’s all right,” I said. “We’ll be okay, but you have to help me. Just talk to this guy. Tell him to slow down.”

And then she said the word I’d never heard before.

“Dad!”

The driver looked round and stared at the girl, who stared right back with a pleading expression on her face. I couldn’t believe it. Was she really his daughter? I mean, his real, biological daughter. That wasn’t possible, surely? One or two of the other passengers heard her, too, and started throwing insults.

“You’re her father?! You criminal!”

“I’m calling the cops!”

“You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“Nepotist!”

“No wonder you give her a ride to work every day!”

This was turning ugly. I could see one pretty mean-looking guy making his way up from the back. If he reached the driver and kicked the glass shield hard enough, it might break, and then what would happen? Nothing good.

“Are they after you?” I asked the girl. “Is he really your father?”

“Yes,” she mumbled.

“Don’t say a word, Lara!” said the driver. “I mean it!”

“But Dad…”

“Look!” he said, pointing in the mirror. We both looked back. There must have been five police cars following us now. They weren’t trying to overtake, just keeping pace with the bus.

“Listen,” I said. “This is never going to work out. The obviously know who you are, and they’ve probably radioed ahead to set up some kind of roadblock. We’re all right for now, but what happens then?”

“I have to protect my daughter,” the driver said.

“Well, you’re not doing a very good job of it so far, are you? I’m sorry, but you need to stop this bus.”

“I can’t,” he replied. “I just can’t…”

“But Dad, please!” said Lara. “Don’t do this. I’ll be all right. We can sort something out. You can do a deal or something…”

“I’m sorry, honey. I never wanted this to happen,” he sobbed. “I don’t know how they found us. I tried to be careful. I thought we were safe.”

“Dad, Dad, I love you, but you need to stop the bus! Please!”

“I love you, too, honey. I’m sorry.”

And at that moment, I saw what was coming. Up ahead was a roadblock with four police cars and an armoured car with SWAT written on it in giant white letters. We’d never get past that.

“Hey, buddy. Let me past,” said the guy who’d been making his way along the bus.

“Just give me a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute!” he shouted. “Look at that roadblock! That crazy asshole is going to get us all killed!”

I turned back to the driver.

“Please,” I said. “If you love your daughter, stop the bus.”

He looked at Lara with tears in his eyes.

“I can’t, I just can’t.”

“Dad!” Lara screamed.

And at that moment, as we hurtled towards the roadblock, I thought of the poster we’d passed just a few minutes before.

“There is only one family: The National Family.”

What is a Full Sentence?

SVO

Teachers often tell pupils to use a ‘full sentence’ in their answers, but what is a full sentence?

Parts of a Sentence

First of all, it’s important to know what all the words in the picture mean. (Note that the parts of a sentence are not always individual words, though they can be. For example, ‘she’ is the subject, but ‘a hot dog’ is the direct object even though it is three words.)

Subject

The subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb, in other words, “who’s doing the doing”. The girl in the picture is obviously the one doing the eating, not the hot dog!

Verb

The verb is often called the ‘doing word’, although some verbs like ‘being’ and ‘having’ don’t really involve much ‘doing’! Again, what’s being done is obviously shown by the word ‘ate’. There are two kinds of verb:

  • Transitive verbs need a direct object, like the word ‘ate’ in the picture
  • Intransitive verbs don’t need an object, like the word ‘swim’ in ‘They swim’.

Object

There are two kinds of object:

  • Direct objects are directly affected because they ‘suffer the action of the verb’. In other words, they have something done to them, like the hot dog in the picture.
  • Indirect objects are only indirectly affected, for example if they benefit from the verb like the teacher receiving an apple in the picture below.

Types of Sentence

Now we know what the parts of a sentence are, we can talk about all the possible kinds of full sentence.

  1. Verb only
    Strictly speaking, all you really need to make a full sentence is a verb. For example, ‘Sit!’ is a full sentence, even though it only has one word in it. That only works when you’re telling a dog – or a person! – what to do. Most of the time, you need a subject as well.
  2. Subject-Verb
    ‘He swims’ is a full sentence because it has a subject and a verb, but this only works because the verb is intransitive, which means it doesn’t need an object.
  3. Subject-Verb-Object
    The picture above shows the main parts of a simple sentence, which are the subject (S), the verb (V) and the object (O). The initial letters give us a typical pattern for a sentence, which is SVO. In this case, the object is a direct object, which means it’s directly affected but it can also be an indirect object, which may benefit indirectly. Here, the hot dog is the one that has to suffer being eaten – not the girl! – but it’s slightly different in the next picture. _
  4. Subject-Verb-Indirect Object-Direct Object (or Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Indirect Object)
    Here, the apple is being ‘given’, so the apple is the direct object, but the teacher also benefits indirectly, so she is the indirect object.

Common Mistakes

  1. Punctuation
    Every sentence should end with either a full-stop, a question mark or an exclamation mark, but one common mistake is to put a comma in between sentences instead, eg He loved pizza, he always chose pepperoni. This is called the ‘comma splice’.
  2. Fragments
    A sentence that doesn’t have a subject, verb or object when it needs one is called a ‘sentence fragment’, eg Gave his teacher an apple. It’s obvious that it doesn’t make sense without the word ‘He’, but it’s easily done.
  3. Starting with conjunctions
    Teachers often tell their pupils not to start a sentence with ‘because’. When asked a question like ‘Why is Jack sad?‘, it’s easy to write ‘Because his dog died‘. That’s all right when you’re speaking in class – when people don’t care as much about their grammar – but not when you’re doing your homework. It’s not always wrong to do it, though. If you use ‘because’ to link two sentences together, that’s fine, eg Because it was so sunny, I had to wear sun cream.

If you think you’re ready, here are a few sample questions. Which of these is a full sentence?

  1. Because I’m cold.
  2. From front to back.
  3. Ran down the road.
  4. The girl brushed.
  5. He always did.
  6. Yes.
  7. Hello.
  8. Why is the sky blue?
  9. Shut the door!
  10. He tapped.

 

True Stories

When I lived in Brisbane, I used to sit by the pool with my friend Eden for hours, days, weeks at a time, swapping stories. He must have heard every one I had. When we both ended up at a party in London a few years later, he was next to me when I was telling someone a story.
“I think I’ve heard this one before,” he said.
“Oh, no!” I said. “I must’ve run out of stories…”

Anyway, I’m getting older now, so I thought I should write a few of them down before even I forget them!

Women can go to Harvard, too…

When I was living with a woman called Anne in San Francisco, she was invited to the very posh wedding of one of her classmates at Harvard Business School and took me as her guest. The ceremony was in a cathedral, and the reception was at the best hotel in town. At one point after dinner, I was sitting with Anne at our table when the wedding photographer came over. He came up to me and asked me to line up for a picture.
“Er, are you sure you want me?”
“Yes, I need a photo of all the Harvard Business School alumni. That’s you, right?”
“Er, I think you mean my girlfriend…”
Oops!

A happy ending and an unhappy ending

In the glory days when I owned an E-Type Jaguar, I drove down one weekend for a party at my uncle and aunt’s house in Oxford. I parked in the drive, and, a couple of hours later, a friend of my uncle’s noticed the car and asked whose it was.
“Ah, that’s my nephew Nicholas’s car. He’s in the lounge if you want to meet him.”
My uncle introduced me to the man, and he told me a story I’ll always remember. When the E-Type first came out in 1961, he had been amongst the first to buy one, and he was very proud of it. Back in those days, there was so much excitement about the new British sports car that owners would get mobbed at traffic lights! Around the same time, he met a girl he liked and decided to ask her out. When she said yes, he planned to pick her up in his E-Type that Saturday night. However, when the day came, his car broke down on the way to her house. Complete disaster! What was he going to do now? As it turned out, things got even worse when the very same girl happened to walk past!
“Oh, dear. I said. “I guess that ruined your date. Did you ever see her again?”
“Yes,” he said, “she’s in the kitchen!”

PS Everyone likes a happy ending, but that weekend finished with my E-Type blowing a head gasket on the M40! It was in the days before I had a mobile phone, so I had to sit for 25 minutes on a slip road while 10,000 cars helpfully honked their horns and flashed their lights at me as they went past. (And, no, I didn’t meet my future wife, unfortunately…!)

It’s better to be lucky than good

I went to see The Open a few years ago at Royal St George’s with my friend Josie. At one point, we were following Sergio Garcia, and he hit a good drive, but the fairway was very bumpy, and the ball ended up in a dreadfully difficult lie in the rough. When Garcia reached it, he spent about 10 minutes trying to decide what to do and even got the officials involved at one point. Meanwhile, I explained to Josie that his best option was to take a penalty drop and hope to get up and down for his par from what was only about 150 yards. Instead, he hacked at the ball as hard as he possible could – and moved it about six inches! The lie was still awful, so I again told Josie that his best option was the penalty drop – this time for a probably bogey. He just had to take his medicine. However, after another lengthy pause to decide what to do, Garcia hit the ball from the impossible lie. It was a good contact, and it sailed towards the green, where it bounced a couple of times…and rolled into the hole for a birdie! As the crowd cheered, Garcia went crazy, running around in circles and waving his iron over his head in celebration. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good…!

Black ice

In 2014, I went on a cruise around Spitsbergen to see the polar bears. On one particular trip in a Zodiac, we found some ‘black ice’. Black ice is ice that has been at the bottom of a glacier for a few thousand years and has had all the oxygen and other impurities squeezed out of it. As a result, it has some rather unusual qualities. It is perfectly clear, it takes an age to melt, and it’s a lot denser than normal ice. This was quite a find, so our guide reached overboard to haul in the chunk of ice – almost falling out of the boat in the process! – and brought it back to put behind the bar. A couple of hours later, I spent a very pleasant half an hour drinking a shot of Islay single malt whisky with a couple of cubes of 30,000-year-old black ice in it. They didn’t float, but sank to the bottom of the glass and were still there when I finished my drink!

Everything’s bigger in Texas

When I was 16, I went on an exchange to Amarillo, Texas, with my parents. While we were there, we went to a restaurant called Texas Lone Star, where they had a special offer: if you could eat a 72oz steak with roast potatoes, vegetables and all the trimmings in under an hour, you got it for free. There was even a roll of honour on the wall to commemorate the biggest of big eaters. I remember one chap had finished his steak in 10 minutes, and another had felt a bit peckish afterwards, so he’d ordered another one!

The camera oft proclaims the man

When people like my pictures, they often ask me what camera I use. I tell them, and then I tell them this story…

A few years ago, Ernest Hemingway went to a photography exhibition in New York. He loved the pictures so much that he asked to meet the photographer. When they were introduced, Hemingway asked him what camera he used.
“Well,” he said, “I have a Hasselblad, but this is a great honour for me, Mr Hemingway. I’ve read all your books. Can I just ask you one question? What typewriter do you use…?”

Alcohol beats sex

I was best man on a stag weekend in Vegas once. We’d been indoor parachuting – yes, it IS a thing! – and gambled for a few hours at the Bellagio when we decided to take a limo and find a strip club. We asked the driver the best place to go, and he said we had a choice:
“What do you mean?”
“Well, here in Vegas, you can go to a topless bar and drink as much as you like, or you can go to a strip club with full-frontal nudity, but NO ALCOLHOL!”
What a choice to have to make at two o’clock in the morning when you’re on a stag do!
We eventually had a vote and decided unanimously that – for 30-something blokes – alcohol was more important than sex…!

Revenge is sweet

We ended up going to a Roman-themed strip club in Vegas. One of the guys called Frank who worked with the stag fancied my girlfriend Anne, and he’d already tried to get rid of me by inviting me to windsurf with him under the Golden Gate bridge – when I would probably have drowned in the rip tide! Anyway, we were queuing up to go into the Emperor Room for a few lap dances, and we were standing chatting with each other when a topless girl came running up to Frank, screaming with excitement.
“Frank?! Is that you? Oh, my God! It is you!” she cried.
“Er, hello Tiffany.”
He was looking a bit awkward at this point, and it turned out that he’d met this girl at a Hooters bar in San Francisco, and he was terminally embarrassed about it. Unfortunately (for him!), the queue was a long one, so he had to talk to her for about five minutes before we eventually got in. As soon as we were sitting in the Emperor Room, he turned to me:
“Nick, this is a bit embarrassing, but do you mind not telling Anne about this? It was nothing. I don’t really know Tiffany, and it was all a long time ago.”
“Sure,” I said. “What goes on tour stays on tour.”
“Thanks. I’m glad you understand.”
“No problem,” I said.
Anyway, once it was Frank’s turn to have a lap dance, I immediately took out my phone and sent a text:
“Anne, you’ll never guess what just happened…”
Revenge is sweet!

“Get the power of sport into your life, love!”

When I used to watch sport at the Pacific bar in Val d’Isère, the manager used to go to great lengths to get the football coverage. At one point, he managed to find the video feed from a Norwegian satellite channel so that he could show the match with the traditional 3pm kick-off one Saturday. However, I don’t think he quite realised what would happen next. At half-time, just as the players were walking off the pitch, the scene suddenly cut to a rooftop where two naked porn stars were having full-on, hardcore sex!

His other experiment was an attempt to provide an English audio commentary to the foreign coverage of the games. One day, he showed pictures from a Scandinavian satellite feed dubbed with commentary from Radio Five Live. The only problem was that there was a two-second delay to the satellite feed, so the commentator ended up announcing it was 1-0 even before the corner had been taken!

Manc nobbers

A few years ago, I lived with Steve and Tom. I worked with both of them, but Tom was always off working in Atlanta, and he eventually met and married a woman called Becki over there. When I went to their wedding, we were all at Atlanta airport with another friend of ours called Damian when suddenly we noticed Oasis a few feet away! It was the Brit Awards the next day, and they were on their way to the ceremony. Now, Damian was a huge Oasis fan and had picked them out to be future stars when Definitely Maybe came out, but he was too shy to go up and talk to them. Instead, it was down to Becki to make the first move. Being American, she had no problem going up to Liam and Noel and introducing us all – she even told them that she and Tom had just got married. They’d just been to MacDonald’s, and Liam offered her a chip by way of congratulations…And I thought it was for me, so I took it by mistake! Awkward…

Beginner’s luck

I was paired up with an Italian chap and his friend when I played golf at Duke’s Meadows a few years ago. He’d only just started playing, so I gave him a few tips as we went round. One bad habit he had was to turn away in disgust when he thought he’d played a bad shot. I told him he should always watch his ball until it stopped rolling: either it would help him find it or he might find out it had got a nice bounce and wasn’t such a bad shot after all. At the 5th hole, he thinned his tee shot and again turned away in disgust, but I told him to watch the ball. It was a good job he did, because it ran all the way along the ground and into the cup for a hole-in-one!

If at first you don’t succeed…

I went to the Brazilian Pantanal in September 2016 to take pictures of the jaguar. We ended up with around a dozen sightings, but my favourite was when we saw a jaguar kill a caiman. We heard on the radio that there had been a sighting, so we went over there in our boat to have a look. It turned out to be a young jaguar that had caught a 12ft caimon – or South American crocodile – in the shallows of the Cuiabá River. Jaguars usually kill caiman by biting them on the back of the neck, but this jaguar was only two years old and hadn’t quite learned how to do it properly. It was gripping the neck of the caiman in its jaws and could easily have killed it just be squeezing a bit harder – like lions do with their prey – but it somehow knew that this wasn’t the way the jaguar was supposed to do it. The only problem was that it couldn’t switch its grip to the back of the caiman’s neck without letting go of it and allowing it the chance to escape. It spent about 10 minutes thinking about it before finally changing its grip and killing the caiman ‘properly’. However, the business wasn’t quite over yet. Jaguars like to hide their kill from other jaguars by dragging it under a bush or a tree, and this one was no exception. The only problem was that the bank of the river was very steep, and the jaguar wasn’t big or strong enough to pull the caiman all the way up. By this stage, there were around a dozen boats watching the show, and we all saw the jaguar spent at least 25 minutes trying to get up the bank in various places. In the end, it finally managed it, and all the tourists gave it a round of applause!

Remember the basics

On the same trip to Brazil, we were coming back from a game drive when we had a call from our home base that there was an anteater in the grounds. It was getting late, so the driver slammed his foot on the gas and led us on a very bumpy and hair-raising race along the dirt roads back home. In the end, we arrived just in time to see a mother anteater with a baby on its back. When the light finally died, someone produced a torch and lit up the scene for all the photographers. Anteaters don’t have very good eyesight, and this one came closer and closer until it was only a few yards away. We all took as many pictures as we could until it eventually loped off into the undergrowth. Afterwards, all the photographers celebrated our good luck – except for Rob, who told us that he hadn’t got a single shot.
“There was something wrong with my camera. It wasn’t working properly, and I didn’t know what to do. In the end, I realised that I hadn’t taken the lens cap off!”
Oops!

I hate surprises

I hate surprises. One of the worst was when I was living with my girlfriend Isabelle in Lyon. We were at home reading the paper when I noticed that Bruce Springsteen was coming to give a concert in the city. He’s one of my favourite acts, so I was very excited, but we never discussed getting tickets. The concert was three months away, so there was no hurry, but, as it got closer and closer, I was getting nervous. I had a sneaky feeling that Isabelle was going to ‘surprise’ me with two tickets, but I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to miss the chance of a lifetime. In the end, I didn’t say anything until, finally, the day of the concert arrived. It was due to start around 1900, and I was desperate to say something, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. At around 1730, Isabelle asked what I wanted to do for dinner. I said I didn’t mind, trying desperately not to give the game away, and then she suggested that we went out for hot dogs. Now, Isabelle loved her food – and even insisted on frying the duck breasts when I offered to cook her dinner on Valentine’s Day! – so this sounded very suspicious! I didn’t know what to do, so I went along with Isabelle to the car. After five or 10 minutes, I was so nervous that I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“You know it’s the night of the Bruce Springsteen concert, don’t you?” I said.
“OF COURSE!” Isabelle cried. “I bought us tickets months ago! Why would you ruin it by saying something like that?!”
Oh, dear. We ended up having a major falling out – which was all totally avoidable! – and Bruce Springsteen didn’t help when he totally ruined my favourite song Thunder Road by singing a dreadful up-tempo version! As I say, I hate surprises…

Here be dragons

I went out with a girl called Lisa once who had a four-year-old daughter called Cluny. She was at school one day when they had a visit from Father Christmas – except it was really her dad in a red suit and with a fake beard! All the other kids recognised him, and they teased Cluny about it. She still believed in Father Christmas, so she was very upset. When she got home, she asked her mother if Santa was real. Now, Lisa was very keen on being very straightforward with children, so she told Cluny that Santa didn’t exist and that it was actually her father who had dressed up and pretended to be him. Cue more tears. Anyway, Cluny spent the next weekend with her father and asked him the same question. He had very different ideas about childcare, and he told her that ‘of course’ Santa was real and ‘of course’ he hadn’t dressed up in a Santa suit!
Now, you need to understand all this in order to know how I felt when Lisa, Cluny and I went to the circus, where they had one of those Chinese dragons carried around by men with poles.
“Nick,” Cluny said, when Lisa had gone to the ladies room, “is that a real dragon?”
What a question? What was I supposed to say? Should I admit that dragons didn’t exist and shatter her childhood dreams or pretend that it was real and upset her mother. I decided to compromise.
“Well, dragons come from China,” I said, “and it would be very expensive to bring one all the way over to London, so this one must be just a pretend dragon.”
Fortunately, Lisa came back at that moment, and I was spared any more awkward questions. Phew!

Retirement

In 1998, I had lunch with a friend of mine called Mark who had an apartment in the Alps. He told me he had 51 days’ holiday as he was working in Germany and wanted to buy a season pass so that he could ski every weekend. On the other hand, he wanted to make some money by renting out his flat. What was he going to do?
“Well, if you rent it out to me, you’ll get the money, but you’ll still be able to stay there whenever you like to go skiing.”
“Deal.”
I gave him a cheque there and then for the whole season, and that was how I came to retire at 29! It was probably the first real decision I ever made in my life. After that, I spent seven years skiing and playing golf in France, Belgium, America and Australia before returning to London to settle down and start a family. That hasn’t happened yet, but I did at least make the decision to go ‘quality of life’. That means I do things because I enjoy doing them. I’m now a private tutor and a wildlife photographer. I teach for a few hours a week, and I also take several trips a year to take pictures of bears catching salmon in Alaska, tigers in Rajasthan, polar bears in Svalbard and the Big Five in Africa. In my spare time, I play tennis and golf. I still have all the same problems as everyone else, but at least I never get up in the morning wishing I didn’t have to go to work!

“You look like you want to dance…”

I once went to a club in London with a bunch of guys and a girl I was quite keen on. Unfortunately, she spent most of the evening being chatted up by an Irish guy, so it was a complete bust from that point of view. I wandered over to the dance floor and happened to see a gorgeous blonde girl just standing and watching. She didn’t appear to be with anyone, so I went up to her and said, “You look like you want to dance.” And we did. In fact, we danced together for the rest of the night. Her name was Caroline, and she was just in London for a couple of weeks on her way home to Melbourne from Holland, where she’d been working for a couple of years. When it was closing time, I asked for her number.
“Well, it’s a bit difficult as I’m staying with friends,” she said.
Hmm, a likely story, but I was desperate.
“Well, do you want me to give you my number?”
“Okay, but I don’t have any paper, so I’ll have to write it on my hand.”
Oh, dear. That didn’t sound very promising.
“That’s fine. Just give me a call.”
We went our separate ways, and I waited for her to call. A couple of days passed, and she still hadn’t called, so I was beginning to give up hope. Then I came home late from the office one night, and my flatmate Ron said someone had called for me.
“Who was it?”
“Oh, just some Australian girl.”
“Caroline?”
“Yes, I think that was it.”
“Did she leave her number?”
“No, she said she was staying with friends, so it was a bit difficult.”
Aaaarrrgghhh!
I thought that was it. I didn’t think she would call again. However, a couple of days later, I had exactly the same conversation with Ron – and I still didn’t have her number! If only I hadn’t had to work so late in those days, I wouldn’t have had to rely on my useless flatmate to take a message! Again, I thought that was it, but, fortunately, she called one more time, and this time I was home. We had a quick chat and arranged to go on a date.
“Where do you want to meet?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t really know London,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, thinking on my feet, “you know where Trafalgar Square is? I’ll meet you under the lions at Trafalgar Square at 12 o’clock tomorrow.”
And so began a whirlwind courtship. Over lunch, I couldn’t stop thinking about kissing her, but I had to wait until later, when we took a walk through Hyde Park. When I tried to kiss her, though, she suddenly got all shy.
“Don’t! Not in public,” she said. “Let’s sit down under that tree.”
The tree obviously made the difference, and after that there was no stopping her. We spent the next two weeks together, day and night, until it was time for her to fly back to Australia. I was very keen to keep seeing her, so I told a white lie that almost led to disaster.
“Well, I’ve just finished a contract, so I have a bit of time on my hands, and I’ve actually been thinking about flying down to Australia. Maybe we could see each other when I’m over there.”
“Yes, that would be great.”
It felt like it was a painfully obvious ruse to spend more time with her, but it wasn’t. In fact, when I took her out for a meal on her last night, she wasn’t in a very good mood.
“Why not?”
“Well, you’re going to fly all the way to Australia, but you’re not coming to see me!”
“Oh, of course I am!”
“No, you said that you were going to go anyway and that we ‘might see each other’ when you were over there.”
I couldn’t believe this.
“Of course I’m going to see you. That was the whole reason for booking my flight. I was just trying to play it cool!”
Anyway, she wasn’t convinced. I couldn’t believe it! How could she think that she was just an afterthought?! The mood was so bad that we didn’t even finish dinner, and I seriously considered staying in England. Fortunately, I took a chance, and it proved to be a good decision. When I arrived in Melbourne, everything was on again with Caroline, and I spent three glorious months over there. She was on gardening leave, so she had plenty of money and plenty of time on her hands. I stayed at her place, and I spent the days travelling around the area and the nights having the best sex of my life! I wanted to stay longer, but my visa was running out, and I had a job to go to as a ski rep in the Italian Alps. I left and tried to stay in touch, but it was almost impossible to make international calls in those days before mobile phones. In the end, I spoke to her and told her I was going to get a work visa and fly out again to see her in the spring, but she didn’t sound too enthusiastic. And that was it! Too bad…

One night in New York…

I have a friend in New York called Ashley, and I have him to thank for a rather memorable night in The Big Apple. He’s very well connected – I think he’s something like the fourth most connected person on LinkedIn – so he knows a lot of people. One of those people was a girl called Lorna who worked for Playboy – although not as a bunny girl! She wanted to spend a summer in London to be closer to her mother, and Ashley asked if I had an empty flat I could rent to her. In the end, we agreed to swap: Lorna would live in my place, and I’d live in hers. When I flew to New York, I called Ashley, and we arranged to meet at his office after work. We had drinks and dinner at Soho House, and then we were joined by a male friend of his from LA and a very attractive blonde called Hope. Ashley had booked us tickets for a lingerie show at the trendy Kane Club at 1130, but we still had time to kill, so we all went for a drink beforehand. It was all good fun, and it’s always nice to be able to flirt with a pretty girl! Anyway, we eventually moved on to the club, and the lingerie show was really something. There were four models strutting their stuff, but one of them was clearly the sexiest – and she knew it! Every time she came on stage, there was a barrage of cheers and wolf whistles. Unfortunately, the show was over all too quickly, and we ended up out on the street. Ashley called a couple of cabs for us and – very helpfully! – engineered it so that I shared a cab home with Hope. It was ‘only’ half-past one in the morning – early by New York standards – so we ended up having a drink together. And, to top it all off, she even gave me a goodnight kiss. Thanks, Ashley…!

Another night, another blonde

Ashley set me up with another girl on that trip, and she arranged for us to go and see another lingerie show, this time starring Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson. We met for a drink beforehand, but the only problem was that she had some sort of cast on her leg. She explained that her kitten had been running along the windowsill, and it had knocked off a piece of china. When she’d tried to catch it, it had broken and cut her leg quite badly. This was obviously a shame, but it was even more of a shame when it came closer and closer to the time of the lingerie show. Eventually, I asked my date if it was time to leave.
“Well, I don’t think I’m up to it, to be honest, not with my leg. But feel free to go on your own if you want to.”
This was one of the trickiest problems I’d yet encountered. Do you a) do the noble thing and stay with your date or b) go and see one of the most beautiful women in the world wearing her underwear? I did the British thing and, with a stiff upper lip, chose option a)…

Yet another one…

The third blonde I went out with on that New York trip was an actress called Maureen Flannigan. She lived in the apartment above Lorna’s, so she put me in touch with her in case I wanted to drop by for a coffee. The first day I arrived, I unpacked my stuff and put the TV on. I was flicking through TV Guide when I suddenly saw a thriller starring – you guessed it – Maureen Flannigan! I turned over and watched a bit of it. She was certainly attractive, so I went up and knocked on her door. We ended up going out for lunch at the deli across the road, and I told her the story.
“And the movie was on this afternoon?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, that’ll be good for my residuals…”

And the winner is…

I’ve never regarded myself as a ‘lucky’ person. I don’t win things like competitions, and I don’t end up with unexpected windfalls, but there was one thing I did win. It was in the days when I’d just joined a consulting firm, and all the new joiners were issued with an American Express card to pay for their expenses. The loyalty programme offered us a choice: we could either accept a bottle of wine each or pool our rewards in exchange for an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Istanbul. We decided to go for the holiday, and we arranged a time for the prize draw one Wednesday afternoon at three o’clock. Some of the analysts were working abroad in Sweden and South Africa, so it was agreed that they would call the office at 1500 and join in with the rest of us. When the time came, I was just about to go down to the conference room for the draw when one of the partners grabbed me.
“Do you have a minute, Nick?”
“Er, is it really just a minute, or do you need longer?”
“No, I just need a quick word.”
I looked at my watch. It was 1458, and I was cutting it pretty fine, but I agreed. In the end, it was 1505 by the time I dashed out of the partner’s office and down the stairs. On the way, I met my friend Steve, who just said, “Nick, you bastard.”
Bizarre. Anyway, when I got to the conference room, everyone had left apart from the organiser.
“What happened?” I asked. “I just met Steve, and he called me a bastard…”
“Ah, yes. He had the choice of the last two envelopes, and he picked the wrong one!”

Hours and hours

Some people laugh when I say I have to ‘work hard’ occasionally. Given that I only do a couple of hours of teaching a day after playing a round of golf or a couple of sets of tennis, this doesn’t seem like hard work to them. However, it wasn’t always like that. When I was working as a management consultant, I had to build a model of the railway network. Time was short, and there were no interviews to do, so there was no particular reason to go home! As a result, I worked seven days a week and even pulled an all-nighter. We had fortnightly timesheets in those days, and I remember one that showed I’d worked 192 hours in the previous two weeks. I was strangely proud – but also disappointed I hadn’t quite passed 200…!

Cheetah cheater

The first time I went on safari, I booked the wrong flights. The trip was supposed to be from 14-28 January, so I obviously booked flights for 14 and 28 January. It was only when I was chatting to the other guests that I heard them talk about going back on the 27th.
“I thought we left on the 28th,” I said.
“No, it’s an overnight flight, so we leave on the 27th and get back on the 28th.”
Oops! I felt dreadful. I’d have to tell the guide and try and sort something out. I wasn’t sure what he could do, so it was very stressful. Right up until I actually spoke to him.
“I’m so sorry, but I’ve booked the wrong flight going home. I leave on the 27th rather than the 28th.”
“Right, then,” said the guide after a moment’s pause, “what do you want to do with the extra day? You could go white-water rafting or canyoning or perhaps go on a private all-day game drive.”
I hadn’t thought of it like that! In the end, I went on the game drive, and I had one of the most exciting wildlife encounters I’ve ever had when the driver and I spotted a cheetah ‘timing’ – or hunting – an impala. It was a hectic chase, and at times we were travelling at 40mph over a very bumpy dirt road, trying to keep up with the cheetah. It was the first time I’d seen one of the big cats – apart from a quick glimpse of a lion the previous day – and it was a sensational finish to the trip. The only problem came when I put a couple of cheetah photos on Facebook. When I got home, I saw the other guys from the trip, and one of them was confused.
“I saw you’d put a picture of a cheetah up on Facebook,” he said, “but we didn’t see any cheetahs, did we?”
“Well, er…”

Beware the bear

A few years ago, I went to Brooks Falls in Alaska to see the bears catching salmon. The bears were free to walk around the camp just as we were, so we had to get a lecture on how to stay safe. That involved singing as we walked to the falls or even wearing bells to frighten off the bears! However, I still came uncomfortably close to bears on a couple of occasions.

The first was when I was just dropping off a bag at the outdoor locker room. I turned the corner of a building and there, right in front of me, only five yards away, were a mother bear and her cub. Not a good place to be! Now, bear safety is very counter-intuitive. If you see a bear, you’re supposed to stand still rather than running away, and, if you’re attacked, you’re not supposed to fight back! In this case, I kind of did the right thing by backing slowly away round the corner of the building until I was out of sight – but then I pegged it. It’s the only time I’ve ever run away from anything in my life…

The second close shave came early one morning when I was the first person to arrive at the raised wooden viewing platform next to the waterfall. It was fairly secure, but there was one part that had a short staircase down to the ground. It was roped off, but that was it. After a few minutes, another photographer arrived, and we started chatting. I had my laptop with me, so I showed her a few pictures I’d taken. As I was doing that, a bear walked past the staircase, a matter of 10 feet away! We carried on chatting, and it carried on walking past. Thank Goodness for the rope. Otherwise, the bear would never have known that it wasn’t supposed to eat us…!

Paul Smith

I bought a Paul Smith suit a few years ago, but it had a pink pin-stripe, so I needed a few new shirts and ties. The only problem was that the assistant gave me a pink and white check shirt and a pink and purple flowered tie. They obviously didn’t go together at all, but, when I tried them on, the chap just looked at me and said: “Ah, that’s very Paul Smith…”

Paul Smith (again)

When I went in to buy a suit at the Paul Smith boutique in Notting Hill, I accidentally went into the bespoke tailoring room on the top floor. An old, white-haired chap with a tape measure around his neck came up to me and asked if he could help. I told him no and went across the landing to the off-the-peg section. As I turned to leave, though, I heard someone say: “Are you all right, Paul? Do you need any help?” It was only when I went downstairs and looked at a few pictures of the staff that I realised the chap I’d been talking to was Paul Smith himself!

Paul Smith (this is getting ridiculous…)

The first function I went to in my new Paul Smith suit was a wedding in Barbados. The rehearsal dinner was at a restaurant on the beach, and I was just talking to a pretty girl as the sun set when a chap came up to me and asked if I was wearing Paul Smith. When I said yes, he told me a story about an Emmy award ceremony he’d been to a few years earlier. He’d been nominated for an Emmy, but he’d had nothing to wear, so, on the day of the awards, he called the local Paul Smith store at five o’clock in a last desperate bid to find something appropriate. Unfortunately, the store was just about to close, but the manager agreed to wait for him if he came right away. He rushed out of the office, found the store and ended up buying a suit, a shirt, a tie and a few accessories to wear on his big night. It was a good job, too, because he ended up winning the Emmy!

(By the way, the girl I’d been talking to said it was the first time she’d ever been completely ignored by two blokes talking about fashion!)

Africa

I’d always wanted to go to Africa, but I wanted to go there for the first time on my honeymoon. However, that didn’t happen, so, when I received an email from a friend asking me if I wanted to climb Mount Kenya and go on safari, I signed up immediately. When I finally boarded the plane, I was very excited, and, as we crossed the Mediterranean, I was constantly looking out of my window to catch my first glimpse of Africa. When I first saw land, a big smile crossed my face…until I noticed on the seat-back map that we’d just reached Crete!

“We’ll always have Paris”

When I started working for PwC as a computer programmer, I had to go on an eight-week training course. When it was over, it was a tradition to do something special to celebrate. The previous intake had gone to Brighton beach for a barbecue, but we decided to go to Paris. We didn’t have much of a budget, though, so we decided to save money by taking a coach early one morning and coming back late the same night! Now, one of the tutors was called Jane, and I had a big crush on her, so imagine how jealous I was when I saw her dancing with some French bloke in a cellar bar we went to. However, when we left, she took my hand and led me to a bridge over the Seine, where we kissed for the first time. We must have been enjoying ourselves, because a passing Frenchman took one look at us and said: “Un peu, mais pas trop!” [“A little bit, but not too much!”]
It was only two years into our relationship that I found out Jane’s side of the story. When I recalled how she’d taken my hand on the way out of the Paris bar, she said with chilling certainty, “No, I didn’t take your hand. You took my hand!” As Yeats once wrote, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams…”

Dating disaster

I once invited a girl to dinner at my place in Notting Hill. After a few drinks, I cooked a Spanish stew with potatoes, onions, chorizo and white wine. The ingredients needed to be fried on the hob, and then I had to put the frying pan in the oven for 40 minutes. When everything was ready, I opened the oven door and lifted out the pan…and the handle fell off! The stew spilled all over the oven door, and my evening looked to be over before it had even started! Fortunately, my date was a good sport and helped me scrape the remains on to two plates, and we carried on as if nothing had happened…!

Snare spill

I went to a recording session with Eden once, and I was led into the producer’s booth while they were setting up the drum kit in the studio. A drummer was drumming away, and then the producer turned on the microphone and told him to put a piece of carpet against one of the drums as he was getting ‘snare-spill on the overheads’. I think he meant that the volume was too high from the overhead microphones. Anyway, what a great line! Now, when I’m with a pretty girl on the dance floor and I can’t hear what she whispers in my ear, I can just say: “Sorry, I was getting a bit of snare-spill from the overheads.” If she looks at me funny, I’ll say, “Sorry, I thought you must be in the music business…”

Northern lights

I flew to Kiruna in Sweden a few years ago to stay at the Ice Hotel and see the northern lights. After a couple of washouts, I decided to book a trip to Abisko on the final night to try and see them. My friend Amanda came along, too, and we ended up sitting next to the driver on the minibus. After half an hour or so on the motorway, I started to notice a few swirling, grey shapes in the sky.
“Is that the northern lights?” I asked.
“No, it’s just light pollution. There must be a town over there.”
Five minutes later, I saw similar shapes in the sky.
“Are you sure it’s not the northern lights?”
“No, it’s just light pollution. Trust me”
Ten minutes later, all hell was breaking loose in the skies outside, so I leaned over to speak to our Swedish guide.
“I’m sorry, mate, but isn’t that the northern lights outside?”
He’d heard what I’d said before, and he was getting a bit testy.
“All right,” he said impatiently, with a strong Swedish accent, “I’ll stop the bus, and I will get out and see if it’s the northern lights. Okay?!”
So he stopped the bus and opened his door to have a look outside. After only a couple of seconds, he came back, and he was very excited.
“Yes, it is the northern lights! Everybody out! Get your cameras! It’s the northern lights!”

Tango Argentino

When I was planning my trip to Buenos Aires last year, I asked the sales girl to book me a ticket to a tango show. She said she’d investigate, and she called me back a couple of hours later.
“Apparently, there are two major shows, but one is a bit raunchier than the other. It’s up to you, but I know you’re probably used to seeing scantily clad women, so I’ve booked the raunchier one. Is that all right?”
“Er, yes, but why did you say that?”
“Well, I just looked at your website, and I saw some of your pictures.”
I was still a bit confused. Why should pictures of wildlife make her think I was used to looking at naked women?! It was only later that I realised what had happened, so I called her back.
“Are you sure you went to nickdalephotography.com?”
“No, I think it was nickdale.com.”
“Ah, that’ll be the other photographer called Nick Dale, the one who does glamour shots!”
“Oops! I’m so sorry…”

Thank you!

I like doing nice things for people, things that are nice enough to get a really heartfelt thank you. The one that always sticks in my mind is when I was training for the Oxford University ballroom and Latin dancing Varsity Match. (Yes, it does exist!) I was with a partner called Sian, but we weren’t doing very well. Eight couples were going to be selected, but we were only the ninth-best. Things got even worse when Sian had to pull out just two weeks before the match with glandular fever. I was given a girl called Caroline to dance with, but she’d been part of what was probably the tenth-best couple, so we had our work cut out! We had completely different routines, so we almost had to start from scratch, but it was difficult to get lesson time with our coaches Bruce and Jean because they wanted to spend more time with the better dancers. We needed to train a lot harder, and I found somewhere for us to go. It was the fencing salle on Iffley Road, and it had full-length mirrors all down one side, so it was perfect for us to check our lines. We danced a couple of hours a day in that room every day for two weeks – and I spent another five hours a day in there just practising on my own! When the tryouts came along, Jean stopped the first record after the first few bars.
“What’s going on?!” she snapped. “It’s only a few days before the Varsity Match, and I can only see one couple smiling.” There was an awkward silence as we all looked at one another. “And that’s Nick and Caroline!”
That was a good start, and we did make the team in the end, but we didn’t have very high expectations. The deal was that we would only get our Half Blues if we beat at least half of the Cambridge couples, but that was a tall order. During the Varsity Match itself, nothing went too disastrously wrong, and we had a good time. Afterwards, they announced the results in reverse order, but we were too busy chatting to notice who finished where. When the MC announced third place, Caroline and I looked at each other, wondering where we had finished. It couldn’t possibly be higher than third, could it?
“And in second place overall, congratulations to Nick Dale and Caroline Flint…!”
As soon as she heard those words, Caroline ran over to me, threw her arms round my neck and said, “Thank you, Nick! Thank you so much!”
I’ve never been thanked like that, either before or since…

Top of the charts

Eden was a budding musician, but he was always dirt poor, so I lent him some money to release his first single Halo. It was covered by another band and used for a White Horse whisky advert on TV in Greece. All that publicity led to a lot of sales, and one day he emailed me at work to say that Halo had reached number four in the Greek charts. I was just about to go to lunch when I saw another email from him, telling me that he’d just ‘knocked Alanis Morissette off her perch’ and reached number one. I walked over to my colleagues and raised my hand:
“Quick question: how many of you have financed a number one single? Is it just me…?”

The hole-in-one

I went to watch the World Matchplay at Wentworth a few years ago with my Uncle Michael and his friend Chris. They weren’t sure where to watch the action, so I suggested standing behind the 10th hole. It was a par three, so we’d be able to see the tee shots and the putts. The first pairing we saw was Hansen and Stenson. Stenson was eight holes up with nine to play, but Hansen stepped on to the tee and hit an iron straight towards the pin. We were right behind it, and we saw it bounce once, bounce twice and then bounce into the hole!
“That’s only the fourth hole-in-one I’ve ever seen live,” I said, “and two of them were mine!”

It’s All About the Apostrophe

Apostrophes. The difference between feeling you’re nuts and feeling your nuts.Apostrophe

The apostrophe is tricky. It means different things at different times. This article is meant to clear up any confusion and help you use apostrophes, which might mean you get straight As in your exams – or should that be A’s?!

  1. The main reason for using apostrophes is to show a contraction, which is a word made up of two other words shunted together – the apostrophe just stands for the missing letter(s), eg didn’t = did not, could’ve = could have and won’t = will not.
  2. The second most common usage is in showing the possessive, in other words showing that something belongs to someone (or something). This is where it gets tricky, because where you put the apostrophe depends on how many things you’re talking about. If the noun is plural and ends with -s, you just need to put an apostrophe on the end of the word. In all other cases,  you should put ‘s, eg two horses’ hooves, BUT a horse’s hooves or the children’s books or St James’s Palace.
  3. The other occasion when you might find an apostrophe is in the plural of individual letters or numbers. Somehow, it just looks better, eg he got three A’s at O-level back in the 1980’s.

If you think you’ve mastered the rules, try taking this quiz! Alternatively, here are a few sample questions. Just choose the correct option.

  1. He stole James’s/James’/Jameses book.
  2. She marked the childrens/children’s/childrens’ homework.
  3. He didnt/didn’t/did’nt mind at all.
  4. They wont/wo’nt/won’t be back in time.
  5. The two girls/girl’s/girls’ bags were next to each other.
  6. You need to get three As/As’/A’s to get into Oxford.
  7. I love the clothes we used to wear in the 1970s/1970’s/1970s’.
  8. He stroked the cats/cat’s/cats’ back.
  9. The Smiths/Smith’s/Smiths’ house was gorgeous.
  10. Diana was the peoples/peoples’/people’s princess.

Spelling Rules

The problem with the English is that we’ve invaded (and been invaded by) so many countries that our language has ended up with a mish-mash of spelling rules.

Keep calm and check your spelling

 

 

 

 

 

 

English is among the easiest languages to learn but among the most difficult to master. One of the problems is spelling. We have so many loan words from so many different languages that we’ve been left with a huge number of spelling rules – and all of them have exceptions!

Contrast that with Spanish, for example, where what you see is generally what you get. The problem for students of English, then, is that it’s very difficult to find shortcuts to improve your spelling, and an awful lot of words just have to be learned off-by-heart. Considering that there are over a million words in English, that’s a big ask!

There are lots of lists of spelling rules on the web, but I thought I’d put down what I think are the most useful ones.

  1. I before E except after C when the sound is /ee/.
    This is the most famous rule of English spelling, but there are still exceptions! Hence, we write achieve with -ie- in the middle but also ceiling, with -ei- in the middle, as the /ee/ sound comes after the letter c. The most common exceptions are weird and seize.
  2. If you want to know whether to double the consonant, ask yourself if the word is like dinner or diner.
    One of the most common problems in spelling is knowing when to double a consonant. A simple rule that helps with a lot of words is to ask yourself whether the word is more like dinner or diner. Diner has a long vowel sound before a consonant and then another vowel (ie vowel-consonant-vowel, or VCV). Words with this long vowel sound only need one consonant before the second vowel, eg  shinerfiver and whiner. However, dinner has a short first vowel and needs two consonants to ‘protect’ it (ie vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel, or VCCV). If the word is like dinner, you need to double the consonant, eg winnerbitter or glimmer. Just bear in mind that this rule doesn’t work with words that start with a prefix (or a group of letters added to the front of a word), so it’s disappoint and not dissapoint.
  3. If the word has more than one syllable and has the stress on the first syllable, don’t double any final consonant.
    This rule sounds a bit complicated, but it’s still very useful – particularly if it helps you spot your teacher making a mistake! We generally double the final consonant when we add a suffix starting with a vowel, such as -ing, but this rule means we shouldn’t do that as long as a) the word has more than one syllable and b) the stress is on the first syllable, eg focusing and targeted, but progressing and regretting. The main exceptions to this are words ending in -l and -y, hence barrelling and disobeying.
  4. When adding a suffix starting with a consonant, you don’t need to change the root word unless it ends in -y. This is among the easiest and most useful rules. There are loads of words ending in suffixes like -less-ment or -ness, but spelling them should be easy as long as you know how to spell the root word, eg shoe becomes shoelesscontain becomes containment and green becomes greenness. However, words ending in -y need the y changing to an i, so happy becomes happiness.
  5. When adding a suffix starting with a vowel to a word ending in a silent -e, the must be dropped unless it softens a or a g.
    An at the end of a word is often called a ‘Magic E’, as it lengthens the vowel before the final consonant, eg fat becomes fate. However, that job is done by the vowel at the start of the suffix when it is added to the word, so it needs to be dropped, eg race becomes racing and code becomes coded. The main exceptions come when the word ends with a soft or g, which need to be followed by an -e, an -i or a -y to sound like /j/ and /s/ rather than /g/ and /k/. If the suffix doesn’t begin with an e- or an i-, we still need the to make sure the word sounds right, eg managing  is fine without the -e, as the in -ing keeps the soft, but manageable needs to keep the -e to avoid a hard /g/ sound that wouldn’t sound right.
  6. The only word ending in -full is full!
    There are lots of words ending in what sounds like -full, but the only one that has two ls at the end is full. All the other words – and there are thankfully no exceptions! – end in -ful, eg skilfulbeautiful and wonderful.

 

Parts of Speech

When is a verb not a verb? When it’s a part of speech.

Chart of the nine parts of speech

English exams often ask questions about the ‘parts of speech’. This is just a fancy term for all the different kinds of words, but they’re worth knowing just in case. Just watch out for words such as ‘jump’, which can be more than one part of speech!

If you struggle to remember what they all mean, think about the words themselves. Sometimes, there’s a clue in the way they sound, eg adverbs describe verbs, pronoun sounds like noun, preposition contains the word position and a conjunction is the ‘junction’ between two sentences.

Noun

A noun is a word for a person, place or thing

  • abstract noun: a word to describe an idea, eg peace
  • common (or concrete) noun: a word for a thing or object, eg table
  • proper noun: the name of a person, place etc, eg Nick, London
  • collective noun: the name of a group of animals, eg herd or flock

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with ‘the’ in front of the word. If it makes sense, it’s probably a noun, eg He looked at the ______.

Adjective

An adjective is a word that describes a noun or pronoun, eg green or young

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence putting the word between ‘the’ and a noun. If it makes sense, it’s probably an adjective, eg The ______ book lay on the table.

Verb

A verb is a doing word, eg jumped, was, pays

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence putting the word after a pronoun such as ‘he’. If it makes sense, it’s probably a verb, eg He ______ it or He ______ in the garden.

Pronoun

A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun

  • personal pronoun: a word that shows a person or thing, eg he, she, them
  • possessive pronoun: a word that shows the owner of an object, eg his, their
  • relative pronoun: a word that ‘relates’ to the subject just mentioned, eg who, that, which

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with a verb after the word (but without ‘the’ or ‘a’ in front of it). If it makes sense, it’s probably a pronoun, eg ______ looked at the wall.

Article

An article is a word that introduces a noun, ie aan or the.

Strictly speaking, an article is just one kind of ‘determiner’, a word that introduces a noun:

  • Articles (indefinite article: a/an, definite article: the)
  • Demonstratives (thisthatthesethose)
  • Quantifiers (manymuchmoremostsome etc)

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with the word in front of a noun. If it makes sense, it’s probably an article, eg ______ book lay on the table.

Adverb

An adverb is a word that describes an adjective, adverb or verb, usually ending in -ly, eg really or quickly

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with the word after a verb. If it makes sense, it’s probably an adverb, eg He ran ______ around the garden.

Preposition

A preposition is a word that shows the position in time or space, eg in, at or after

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence about placing something somewhere, putting the word before the location. If it makes sense, it’s probably a preposition, eg She put the book ______ the table.

Conjunction

A conjunction is a word that connects two sentences together (sometimes called a connective), eg and, but or because.

    • Coordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘compound’ sentence when the clauses are equally important, and the two ‘main clauses’ should always be separated by a comma, eg ‘The sun was warm, but it was cooler in the shade’.
      There is a useful way of remembering the coordinating conjunctions, which is to use ‘FANBOYS’. This consists of the first letter of ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’.
    • Subordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘complex’ sentence when there is a main clause and a subordinate clause. (Subordinate just means less important.) If the sentence starts with a subordinating conjunction, the clauses need a comma between them, eg ‘Even though it was very hot, he wasn’t thirsty’.
      However, if the subordinate clause comes at the end, there is no need for a comma, eg ‘He wasn’t thirsty even though it was very hot’. There are lots of subordinating conjunctions, such as ‘after’, ‘although’ and ‘because’, but the easy way to remember it is to ask yourself if the conjunction is in FANBOYS. If it is, it’s a coordinating conjunction; if it’s not, it’s a subordinating conjunction.
      Alternatively, subordinating conjunctions are sometimes known as ‘WABBITS’ because some of the commonest ones start with those letters (when, where, while, after, although, before, because, if, though and since).

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence with two clauses joined by the word. If it makes sense, it’s probably a conjunction, eg He looked at the problem ______ decided to do something about it.

Interjection

An interjection is either an outburst like hey or a word people say when they’re playing for time, eg well or now.

Tip: Make up a phrase or a sentence that someone might say, putting the word at the start, followed by a comma. If it makes sense, it’s probably an interjection, eg ______, can we go to the mall?

Quiz

You can test yourself by reading any passage in English and going through it word by word, asking yourself what parts of speech they all are.

Why not start with this article? See how fast you can go. If you’re not sure, ask yourself the questions in each of the tips shown above, eg if you think it’s a noun, can you put it into a sentence with ‘the’ in front of it?

Here’s a quick quiz…

  1. What are the nine parts of speech? (9 marks)
  2. What do they all mean? (9 marks)
  3. What are the four different kinds of noun (4 marks)
  4. What are the three different kinds of pronoun (3 marks)
  5. What are the two kinds of article? (2 marks)
  6. What are the two kinds of conjunction? (2 marks)
  7. What are the two words that help you remember the different kinds of conjunction? (2 marks)

Total: 31 marks

Capital!

I always sign Christmas and birthday cards with a capital ‘N’. It makes me feel like Napoleon…

Letter N

The three main things to check after writing anything are spelling, punctuation and capital letters, so when do you use capitals?

  1. For the important words in titles, either of individuals or pieces of writing, eg Chief Inspector of Schools or This Blog Post is Great!
  2. For proper nouns, eg Peter, Tuesday and Chelsea.
  3. For titles and ‘vocatives’, eg Sir or Mum (but ‘his mum’ not ‘his Mum’ as there are many possible mums)
  4. For abbreviations, eg BBC (although acronyms you can actually pronounce only need one at the start, eg Nato, not NATO).
  5. For the first word in a sentence, eg This is a sentence.
  6. For the first word in direct speech, eg he said, “Hello.”
  7. The word “I”.

Speech Marks

Speech marks, inverted commas, quotation marks, quote marks, quotes, 66 and 99 – does any other punctuation mark have so many names or cause so much confusion…?!

speech marks

Writing a story means striking a balance between what I call The Three Ds: Drama, Description and Dialogue. I’ve read quite a few stories from my pupils in which nobody talks to anyone – which is a bit odd! – but you need to know the rules of punctuation before you start.

  • Start a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes or someone stops talking.
  • Put speech marks before and after the actual words spoken, eg Hello, he said, NOT “Hello, he said.”
  • Start the first spoken word with a capital letter, eg she said, “This needs a capital letter,” NOT she said, “this needs a capital letter.”
  • Put either a comma, question mark, exclamation mark or colon between the speech and the ‘he said/she said’, eg “Don’t forget the comma,” he said, NOT “Don’t forget the comma” he said.
  • Put punctuation that belongs to the speech inside the speech marks, eg “The exclamation mark belongs inside!“, NOT “The exclamation mark belongs inside”! (The only exception comes with inverted commas, which look the same but are used with quotations rather than speech.)
  • Put a full-stop after the ‘he said/she said’ if it comes in the middle of the speech and the first part is a full sentence; otherwise, just put a comma, eg “This is a full sentence,” she said. “This is, too.” BUT “This is not a full sentence,” she said, “and nor is this.”
  • Don’t start the ‘he said/she said’ with a capital letter, even if it comes after a question mark or exclamation mark, eg “Don’t use a capital letter!” he shouted, NOT “Don’t use a capital letter!” He shouted.
  • If a speech lasts more than one paragraph, put speech marks before each paragraph and after the last one but NOT after the ones before.
  • Finally, don’t put ‘he said/she said’ after every single line of dialogue in a long conversation if it’s obvious who is speaking.

Sample Questions

Format and put the correct punctuation and capital letters into the following lines of speech:

  1. I say john what time is it she asked
  2. hello she said my name is tara
  3. what are you talking about he cried I never said that
  4. hello he said whats your name Sarah she said Im Alan Nice to meet you you too
  5. I hate chocolate she said I only really eat chocolate ice-cream

Commas

Commas

Comma or apostrophe?

If you had the chance to take a contract out on one punctuation mark, most people would probably choose the comma. Unfortunately, that’s not possible although modern journalists are doing their best to make it into an optional extra!

Punctuation should be there to help the writer and the reader, and the comma is no exception. If I know the rules for using commas, I expect one in certain situations and not in others. If there isn’t one when there should be, or there is one where there shouldn’t be, then I end up getting confused.

I may even have to re-read the passage to make sure I understand it. There are certainly ‘grey areas’ when even experts don’t know whether a comma is required or merely optional, but those should be the exception rather than the rule.

You might say that nobody has the right to decide what grammatical rules are ‘correct’ and that the plethora of rules I go by were taught to me back in the 1970s, but clarity comes first in my view, so here goes…

  • Lists are the obvious example of using a comma. In the old days, people used to use what’s called an ‘Oxford comma’ before the word ‘and’, but we don’t any more, eg ‘I went to the market and bought apples, pears and bananas’. There are some circumstances when using the Oxford comma makes the sense of the text clearer, but most people would agree that you don’t need it. The list may also be a list of adjectives before a noun, eg ‘It was a juicy, ripe, delicious peach’.
  • Conjunctions (or connectives) make two sentences into one ‘compound’ or ‘complex’ sentence with two separate clauses.
    • Coordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘compound’ sentence when the clauses are equally important, and the two ‘main clauses’ should always be separated by a comma, eg ‘The sun was warm, but it was cooler in the shade’. There is a useful way of remembering the coordinating conjunctions, which is to use ‘FANBOYS’. This consists of the first letter of ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’. If a FANBOYS word is NOT used to separate two clauses, then you don’t need a comma, eg in lists.
    • Subordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘complex’ sentence when there is a main clause and a subordinate clause. (Subordinate just means less important.) If the sentence starts with a subordinating conjunction, the clauses need a comma between them, eg ‘Even though it was very hot, he wasn’t thirsty’. However, if the subordinate clause comes at the end, there is no need for a comma, eg ‘He wasn’t thirsty even though it was very hot’. There are lots of subordinating conjunctions, such as ‘after’, ‘although’ and ‘because’, but the easy way to remember it is to ask yourself if the conjunction is in FANBOYS. If it is, it’s a coordinating conjunction; if it’s not, it’s a subordinating conjunction. Alternatively, subordinating conjunctions are sometimes known as ‘WABBITS’ because some of the commonest ones start with those letters (when, where, while, after, although, before, because, if, though and since).
  • Which (but not that) needs a comma before it when used as a relative pronoun, eg ‘The sky, which was tinged with orange, was getting darker before sunset’ or ‘He looked up at the sky, which was tinged with orange’. If you don’t know whether to use which or that, the word ‘which’ describes something, whereas the word ‘that’ defines it. The rule about commas also applies to ‘who’ when it comes to describing people, although you still use the same word whether you’re defining or describing someone. Relative pronouns such as ‘which’, ‘that’ and ‘who’ all create a relative clause, which is a type of subordinate clause, so the sentence will be a complex sentence.
  • Openers are a useful way of starting a sentence, usually in order to specify a particular time or place, eg ‘At half-past three, we go home to tea’ or ‘At the end of the road, there is a chip shop’. The subject of the sentence (ie the noun or pronoun that governs the verb in the main clause) should come first. If it doesn’t, you should put a comma after whatever comes in front of it.
  • Direct speech needs something to separate what’s actually said from the description of who said it, and this is normally a comma (although it can sometimes be a question mark or exclamation mark if it’s a question or a command), eg
    “Hello,” he said.
    …or…
    He said, “Hello.”
    The tricky bit comes when the description of the speaker comes in the middle of what’s being said. Here, the rule is that a comma should be used after the ‘he said’/’she said’ if the speaker hasn’t finished the sentence yet, eg
    “On Wednesday evening,” he said, “we’re planning to go to the cinema.”
    When the sentence is over, though, you need a full-stop afterwards, eg
    “I like chocolate biscuits,” she said. “They’re so delicious.”
  • Vocatives and interjections and are simply interruptions to a normal sentence – usually when someone is speaking – to incorporate a name or an exclamation, such as ‘well’ or ‘now’. They should therefore be separated with one or more commas – even if that leads to a long list of words followed by commas, eg
    “Well, now, Mum,” he said, “let me explain.”
  • Certain adverbs fall into the same boat, such as ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘furthermore’ and the humble ‘too’, and should be separated by commas, eg ‘She played on the swings and the roundabout, too.’
  • Extra information (or ’embedded clauses’ or ‘interrupters’) is sometimes added to a sentence to describe something or someone. If the sentence would still make sense without it, you should put commas before and after the phrase to separate it from the rest of the sentence, eg ‘He stood, cold and alone, before his fate.’ A tricky example of this is when you introduce people with a description of who they are, for example by saying ‘his best friend, James, is coming for dinner’. This is extra information, so there does need to be a comma before and after the word ‘James’. However, that’s only because the meaning is NOT changed by adding his name: nobody can have more than one ‘best friend’, so it HAS to be James, and including his name therefore makes no difference as to whom we’re talking about. If you said ‘his friend James is coming for dinner’, on the other hand, you shouldn’t put commas around ‘James’ because James is not the man’s only friend – or let’s hope not, anyway!  That means adding the name ‘James’ DOES. change the meaning of the sentence, so it’s no longer just extra information.
  • Eg and ie are useful shorthand to mean ‘for example’ (exempli gratia in Latin) and ‘that is’ (id est) and should be preceded by a comma, eg ‘He knew lots of poetic devices, eg metaphors and similes.’
  • Names and places sometimes need a comma to separate their different parts. If the day comes after the month and before the year, it should have one, eg ‘December 7, 1941′. If someone has a qualification or letters after his or her name, you should use a comma, eg ‘John Smith, PhD’. If a town is followed by a state or country, the state or country should be separated by commas, eg ‘He lived in Lisbon, Portugal, for five years.’
  • Numbers need commas to separate each power of a thousand. Start on the right at the decimal point and work left, simply adding a comma after every three digits, eg 123,456,789.0.
  • Repetition of a word or phrase also demands a comma, eg “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…”

Quiz

Put the correct punctuation in the following sentences:

  1. I like music shopping and dancing
  2. The food was good but he didn’t like the service
  3. The book arrived after she went to the shops
  4. He put on a jacket that was thick enough to keep out the cold
  5. She called her mother which is what she usually did on Sunday evenings
  6. At the end of the road he saw a fox
  7. These apples are expensive he said
  8. What are you doing she cried I need those biscuits for the charity bake sale
  9. When Im on my own she admitted I watch a lot of daytime TV
  10. Could you help me please David he asked
  11. Fortunately he was experienced enough to avoid capsizing the boat
  12. He stood nervous and bashful in front of the prettiest girl hed ever seen
  13. He loved 19th Century novels eg Emma
  14. She was persona non grata ie she wasnt welcome
  15. He lived in Paris France
  16. The Germans invaded Poland on September 1 1939
  17. He watched 1001 Dalmations
  18. All he could see was rain rain rain

Poetic Devices

Poetic devices

It’s important to be able to recognise and analyse poetic devices when studying literature at any level. Dylan Thomas is my favourite poet, and he uses so many that I decided to take most of my examples from his writings.

  • A simile is just a comparison using the word ‘like’ or ‘as’, such as ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’ or ‘happy as the grass was green’.
  • A metaphor treats an object or person as if it is something else to make the comparison more vivid, as in ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. If you prefer Churchill to Thomas, Russia is ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.
  • Personification goes one step further and treats an inanimate object as if it were a person with human habits, as in ‘It is night, moving in the streets’.
  • An analogy is sometimes just a simple comparison, such as ‘the heart is like a pump’, but it is more often more complicated than that, for instance when it describes a relationship between two things, eg ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly’.
  • Hyperbole is another word for extreme exaggeration. As Dylan Thomas once said, “Our discreditable secret is that we don’t know anything at all.”
  • Tone just means ‘tone of voice’, or the way in which you would read a passage. It could be anything from matter-of-fact to lyrical, but one of the most common moods is irony.
    • Irony takes many forms, but a typical example comes from the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ The joy of this quotation (and irony in general) is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean! To Mrs Bennett (and any other mother who values marrying off her daughters more than anything else in the world), this is a simple statement of fact. To Mr Bennett (and anyone else who believes there are far more important things in life), it is funny because it is such a ridiculous exaggeration.
    • Dramatic irony is a kind of foreshadowing, when the audience or reader knows more than the characters, usually when we are told something in advance. The classic example of this is in a horror film, when we see the axe murderer in the loft, but the blonde cheerleader still climbs the rickety staircase to see what’s wrong. Shouting at the TV won’t do any good – she’s just a victim of dramatic irony.
    • We also use irony to describe a situation that’s the last thing we would expect, such as ‘Water, water, everywhere, | Nor any drop to drink’. Alanis Morissette even wrote a song about it, although her examples are incongruous rather than ironic. Now that’s irony!
  • Rhyme is fairly easy to spot when the ending of one word matches that of another, eg ‘night’ and ‘light’, but it is useful to be able to map out the rhyme scheme of a poem by giving each different sound at the end of a line a different letter, eg the rhyme scheme of a limerick is aabba. There are also a couple of variations that often introduce a discordant note into a lot of 20th century poetry: an eye-rhyme is a pair of words whose endings look the same but sound different, eg ‘wove’ and ‘love’, and a ‘half-rhyme’ involves two words that don’t quite match, eg ‘frowned’ and ‘friend’.
  • The rhythm of a poem is often not obvious, but it’s worth becoming familiar with the two main types of meter, or rhythmical pattern. The first is based on the number of beats to a line. A beat is simply a syllable that is given extra stress, and the obvious example is again the limerick. It doesn’t matter how many syllables the lines have as long as the number of beats is 3, 3, 2, 2 and 3. The second is more common and is based on the number of syllables. Each line is divided into a number of metrical ‘feet’, each of which has one stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables in a particular order. Shakespeare wrote almost all his plays and poetry in iambic pentameter, as he thought that best matched the natural rhythm of English. All it means is that there are five feet in each line, each containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, eg ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’. You can also have dactylic, trochaic or anapaestic feet if you so desire! A pause in the middle of a line of poetry is called a caesura. Anglo-Saxon poetry was full of them, and even Shakespeare used one in his most famous line: “To be, or not to be, that is the question”. The second syllable of ‘question’ is also an example of what’s called a feminine ending, which just means it’s unnecessary. (No jokes, please!)
  • An allegory is a story that works on two levels. In the days of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, religion was a far greater part of people’s lives, and priests and their congregations would be more familiar with interpreting texts on many different levels: the literal, the metaphorical, the spiritual, the tropological, the anagogical and the allegorical! Just be thankful times have changed…
  • Alliteration is often the simplest technique to identify but the most difficult to talk about. It is simply the repetition of the first letter in two or more words, usually but not always right next to one another, eg ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Yes, we know it’s there, but what can we say about it? I’ll leave that for you to decide…
  • Assonance is similar to alliteration, but it’s the vowel sounds that are repeated. The classic examples are from 19th century elocution lessons, such as ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’.
  • Onomatopoeia is the choice of words that sound like the actual sounds they represent, such as ‘crash, bang, wallop’.
  • Enjambment describes a line of poetry that doesn’t end with any punctuation, such as a comma or full-stop, eg ‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs | About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green’. It encourages the smooth flow of the words and is the opposite of the usual end-stopped line, which adds an extra beat to the natural pause at the end of the line (and/or stanza). This emphasises whatever happens to be the last word, particularly if that word is part of a rhyming couplet.
  • Rhetoric used to be taught in school way back in ancient Greece, but most people would only recognise a few examples these days. An oxymoron is a paradox, or something that appears to be a contradiction, such as ‘military intelligence’! It is usually meant as a joke or a surprising truth, but one or two have now become clichés, such as ‘deafening silence’. The tricolon or rule of three appeals to a uniquely human habit of listing things in threes. If you want someone to blame for starting it all off, look no further than Julius Caesar, when he arrived in Britain and said ‘veni, vidi, vici’. Rhetorical questions are questions that don’t have to be answered – even in class! In one of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes, Romeo answers his own question: “But, soft! what light from yonder window breaks? | It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Juliet tragically receives no reply to hers: ” O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” Finally, metonymy or synecdoche is when a part stands for the whole. There are many variations, but an obvious example is ‘the crown’. It is only something the king or queen wears, but it has come to stand for the monarchy or government in general.
  • Repetition is again something that’s easy to spot but difficult to talk about. It is simply the repeated use of a word or phrase to add emphasis, eg
    ‘Half a league, half a league,
    Half a league onward,
    All in the valley of Death,
    Rode the six hundred.’
  • Diction is the choice of words that a writer makes. Are they long or short? Where do they come from – Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon or elsewhere? What connotations or associations do they have – pleasant or unpleasant, dreamy and romantic or painful and humiliating? In Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, the words are remarkably straightforward and monosyllabic. ‘Gentle’, ‘against’ and ‘dying’ are the only polysyllabic words in the opening stanza, and the simplicity and spare, conversational style of the language is appropriate to the subject of loss and bereavement. Thomas Hardy adopts a similar approach in The Voice, which at one point has 41 monosyllables in a row!
  • Imagery is the use of pictures or other visual comparisons to make a piece of writing more vivid and appeal to our imagination. Thomas’s Fern Hill seems to have more pictures in it than the National Gallery! In the first stanza alone, we are invited to imagine the poet ‘young and easy under the apple boughs | About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green, | The night above the dingle starry’, and later he recalls having ‘the trees and leaves | Trail with daisies and barley | Down the rivers of the windfall light’. The frequent references to things that are ‘green’ and vibrant and the flood of images conjured up by powerful childhood memories make us long for the innocence of youth and the joy of being at one with Nature.
  • A transposed epithet sounds complicated, but it’s just an adjective that’s used to describe the ‘wrong’ noun. ‘Transposed’ means swapped, and ‘epithet’ means a word or phrase used to describe something (like an adjective). Hence, Dylan Thomas writes about ‘the dogs in the wet-nosed yards’ in Under Milk Wood. Obviously, it’s not the ‘yards’ that have the wet noses, but the ‘dogs’!
  • The pathetic fallacy means using the weather or landscape to create an upbeat or downbeat mood. ‘Pathetic’ means to do with emotions while a ‘fallacy’ is something that people believe even though it’s not true, such as the idea that the Earth is flat. We all know that it’s possible to be happy on a rainy day or unhappy on a sunny day, but that’s not how we feel sometimes, and that’s why the pathetic fallacy can be so powerful. Thomas uses it a lot in Fern Hill, telling us, for example, that ‘All the sun long it was running, it was lovely’ when he was young, but the mood changes in the final verse when he starts talking about death, and that’s emphasised by words such as ‘shadow’ and ‘moon’.
  • Sentence structure is the pattern or frequency of long and short sentences and the use of different types of sentence, either simple, compound or complex. Whereas something like a simile or alliteration is easy enough to spot, this is the kind of device that’s not generally obvious on a first or even a second reading, so it’s worth counting the words in each sentence to see what you find. It might just give you a clue to understanding the rhythmic effects that the writer is aiming for. There are only seven sentences in the 54 lines of Fern Hill, and the first has 76 words in it!

These are just a sample of the most important poetic devices. If you still want more, try reading a little Dylan Thomas. If ‘the dogs in the wet-nosed yards’ catch your eye, you can congratulate yourself on spotting a rare example of the transposed epithet!

Enjoy…

Sample questions

Can you spot the poetic devices used in the following examples?

  1. bothersome badgers
  2. as flat as a pancake
  3. faster than a speeding bullet
  4. death stalked the land
  5. it’s an oven in here
  6. the trees danced in the wind
  7. how now, brown cow?
  8. the cat in the hat
  9. hiss
  10. “Why, why, why must you do that?”
  11. “What is the most important question facing our country today?”
  12. He had 12 pens in his pencil case, but not one pencil.
  13. the long arm of the law

Story mountains

Story Mountains

Are we nearly there yet…?

Whether you’re doing something as easy as climbing Mount Everest or as hard as writing a story, you always need a plan!

One of the ways of planning a story is to use story mountains, with each stage of the tale labelled on the diagram.

The drawing doesn’t have to be any more than a big triangle, but the five stages help to provide a good structure.

However, the story mountain is only part of the process.

Even before the exam, you could invent two or three interesting characters to use or practise telling a particular story – perhaps an old fairy tale in a modern setting.

It’s always good to be prepared, and it’s too late by the time you sit down in the exam hall.

If you’re taking an 11+ or 13+ combined English entrance exam, you should have around half an hour left for the composition after doing the reading comprehension.

The routine to follow includes choosing the right question, brainstorming ideas, creating the story mountain, writing the story and checking your work afterwards.

Depending on the total length of the exam, you should plan to leave yourself a set amount of time for each stage (shown in brackets, assuming you have a total of 30 minutes).

1. Choose the Right Question
(Less than 1 minute)

Sometimes you won’t be given a choice, but you will always have different options in a proper 11+ English exam.

One might be a description (often based on a drawing or photograph), and another might be an essay on a factual subject, but there will always be the chance to write a story, either based on a suggested title or in the form of a continuation of the passage from the reading comprehension.

The important thing here is to try to find a topic you know a bit about and – in an ideal world – something you’d enjoy writing about.

If you’ve never ridden a horse, it would be pointless trying to write a story all about horse racing, and it would probably be pretty boring!

2. Brainstorm Ideas
(5 minutes)

Some pupils go straight into writing the story at this point.

The story might occasionally be quite good, but the danger is that you don’t give yourself the chance to come up with the best possible ideas, and you certainly won’t make it easy for yourself to structure it when you don’t have a plan to help you.

Whether in business or at school, the best way of coming up with ideas is to spend some time brainstorming.

That means coming up with as many ideas as possible in a limited time.

There’s no such thing as a bad idea, so try to think positively rather than crossing out anything you don’t like.

It takes time to come up with well-thought-through ideas for a story, so be patient, and don’t just go for the first one you think of.

That’s like walking into a shop and buying the first pair of trousers you see: they might not be the right size or colour or design, so you have to browse through the whole range.

Try to come up with at least two ideas so that you can pick the best one.
If you’re having trouble, think about the different elements you can change: the plot, the characters, the setting, the period and the genre.

Those are the basics, and imagining a particularly good character or setting might just provide the clue you’re looking for, and you can always change what kind of story it is – a thriller will look a lot different from a romance or a comedy!

3. Create a Story Mountain
(5 minutes)

Once you’ve decided on an idea, you can create your story mountain.
You don’t actually have to draw a mountain or a triangle, but you do need to map out the five main stages of the story.

You don’t need to write full sentences, just notes that are long enough to remind you of your ideas.

Try to use five or six words for each section (missing out ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘an’), such as ‘M frees dog from fence’ or ‘Shark bites F in leg’.

Just remember that the opening has two parts to it, so your story will have six main paragraphs, not five.

(That doesn’t include any lines of dialogue, which should be in separate paragraphs.)

A. Opening (or Introduction)

The best way to open a story is probably to start ‘in the middle’.

Most fairy stories start with something like this:

Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess with long, golden hair. Esmeralda was madly in love with Prince Charming, but her wicked stepmother kept her locked up in a tower a thousand feet above the valley below…

The trouble with this kind of description of the characters and their situation (‘exposition’) is that it’s just a bit boring!

Nothing actually happens.

Far better to think of the most exciting moment in your story and start from there:

“Aaaaaaagggghhh!!!” screamed Prince Charming as his fingers slipped from Princess Esmeralda’s icy window ledge and he fell a thousand feet to his death…!

Once you’ve written a paragraph or so grabbing the reader’s attention, you can then introduce the main characters, where they live, when the story is set and so on.

That means the opening needs two paragraphs:
1. Grab the reader’s attention
2. Describe the main character

Why do you need to describe your heroes?
Well, the more the reader knows about them, the more they can imagine what they look like, how they sound like and how they might behave in certain situations.

That leads to sympathy, and sympathy is important because the reader has to care about the heroes in order for stories to be exciting.

So what do you need to write about your heroes?

Here’s a quick list of the major details in roughly the right order:
1. Name
2. Age
3. Job or school
4. Looks (including eye colour, hair colour and style, height, build, skin tone, favourite clothes)
5. Home
6. Friends and family
7. Personality and interests
8. USP or ‘Unique Selling Proposition’

You can be as detailed or as general as you like about some of these things.

Your hero’s home, for instance, could just be ‘London’, or it could be ‘the famous Blue Cross lighthouse on the promontory overlooking Shark Bay in Antigua’!

Overall, though, you should probably be writing eight to 10 lines of A4 for the whole description.

You can even save yourself time by thinking up, say, three ‘off-the-shelf’ characters and memorising them (see article).

B. Build-up (or Rising Action)

The build-up should describe what the main character is trying to do.
For instance, is he or she robbing a bank, escaping from prison or fighting off an alien invasion?

C. Problem (or Climax or Dilemma)

Every story needs drama, which is really just conflict.
If you show what the hero’s trying to do in the Build-up, the Problem is just what gets in the way.

It might be guilt at leaving a friend behind, say, or a prison warder spotting the escaping convicts or a searchlight lighting up the yard.

Whatever it is, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.

D. Solution (or Resolution or Falling Action)

The solution to the problem is what the hero tries to do to fix it.
It may not work, but it’s usually the best option available.

E. Ending (or Outcome)

Not many 10-year-old boys like happy endings, so the plan doesn’t always have to come off!
If you want your hero to die in a hail of bullets like Butch and Sundance, that’s up to you.
Another way to end a story is to use a ‘cliffhanger’.

In the old days, that meant the hero of a TV serial might literally be hanging on to the edge of a cliff, and the viewer would obviously have to ‘tune in next week’ to find out if he managed to hold on or not.

These days, it just means adding another mystery or problem that needs to be fixed.

For example, the hero could escape from prison…only to find a police car chasing him!

Finally, you could always have a ‘twist in the tale’, in which the good guy turns out to be a bad guy, for example.

It doesn’t take long to write – just a sentence or two – but it’s a great way to leave readers scratching their heads and thinking, “Wow! I never saw that coming…”

4. Write the Story
(15 minutes or more, depending on the length of the exam)

Now for the important bit!

Stick to the Plan

The most important thing to remember is to stick to the plan!

It’s very tempting to get carried away when you’re writing and follow wherever your imagination leads you, but the downside is that your story probably won’t have a proper beginning, middle and end, and you might run out of time trying to get the plot back on track.

Make Readers ask Good Questions, not Bad Ones

A good story will have narrative tension.In other words, it will be exciting.

Part of that involves doubt about whether your heroes will succeed or not, and that’s where the ‘good’ questions come in.

If readers are asking themselves questions like “Will the hero escape?” or “Will the hero survive?”, then you’re doing your job as a writer.

Those are ‘good’ questions because they get to the heart of what the story is all about and keep your readers guessing.

Excitement comes from uncertainty and doubt, so you want your readers to wonder what’s going to happen.

Look at it another way: imagine if they didn’t ask themselves any questions at all. That’s basically the same as saying they’d be bored stiff!

However, you don’t want them to be asking ‘bad’ questions.

These are the ones that crop up if you don’t give good enough explanations for your characters’ actions or abilities.

For example, if your hero is robbed and tries to solve the crime on his own, the obvious (‘bad’) question would be “Why didn’t he just call the police?”

Alternatively, if your hero has a special power like being able to read minds, you either need to explain where it came from (like Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider) or admit that it’s somehow ‘mysterious’ so that your readers can stop worrying about it.

Balance the Three Ds

You should also strike a balance between the Three Ds: Drama, Description and Dialogue.

Every story has a plot, so drama will always be there, but a lot of pupils focus so much on what’s happening that there is very little if any description or dialogue.

Readers want to imagine what people look like and how they feel, so you have to give them something to go on.

People also generally have a lot to say when they get emotional or find themselves in tough situations, so you won’t be able to capture that unless they talk to one another in your story.

Show off Your Vocabulary

This is also a chance to show off your vocabulary.

Including a few ‘wow words’ (or ‘golden words’) such as ‘cerulean’ instead of ‘blue’ will impress the examiner no end – as long as you know how to spell them!

Use Poetic Devices

What’s the difference between ‘in the evening’ and ‘on a night as dark as a murderer’s soul’?

If you think one of these is a little bit more descriptive and atmospheric than the other, then why not use poetic devices in your own writing?

Just make sure the comparison is appropriate. If you’re describing a picnic, things might be ‘as black as Bovril’ instead!

I’ve written an article on them if you want to find out more, but the most common ones are these:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Alliteration
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Repetition
  • Rhetorical questions
  • Imagery
  • Sentence structure (ie long and short sentences or simple, complex and compound sentences)

5. Check Your Work (4-5 minutes)

If there’s one tip that beats all the rest, it’s ‘Check your work’.

However old you are and whatever you’re doing, you should never finish a task before checking what you’ve done.

However boring or annoying it is, you’ll always find at least one mistake and therefore at least one way in which you can make things better.

In the case of 11+ or 13+ exams, the most important thing is to test candidates’ imagination and ability to write an interesting story, but spelling and grammar is still important.

Schools have different marking policies.

Some don’t explicitly mark you down (although a rash of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!), some create a separate pot of 10 marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total and some take marks off the total directly – even if you wrote a good story.

Either way, it pays to make sure you’ve done your best to avoid silly mistakes.

If you think you won’t have time to check, that’s entirely up to you.

You’ll almost certainly gain more marks in the last five minutes by correcting your work than trying to answer one more question, so it makes sense to reserve that time for checking.

If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for.

You may want to make a quick checklist and tick each item off one by one.

Spelling

This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling.

Firstly, you can look out for any obvious mistakes and correct them.

It can help to go through each answer backwards a word at a time so that you don’t just see what you expect to see.

Secondly, you can check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question.

If it does, you can simply copy it across.

Finally, you can choose another, simpler word.

If you’re not quite sure how to spell something, it’s often better not to take the risk.

Capital Letters

This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish.

Proper nouns, sentences and abbreviations should all start with capital letters.

If you know you often miss out capital letters or put them where you don’t belong, you can at least check the beginning of every sentence to make sure it starts with a capital.

Punctuation

This simply means any marks on the page other than letters and numbers, eg full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks.

Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.

Other Grammar

It’s always useful to read through your story to make sure everything makes sense.
It’s very easy to get distracted the first time around, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing letters or missing words on a second reading.

And that’s it! I hope these tips on story mountains will help.

Quiz

Test yourself on what you’ve learned about story mountains from this article!

  1. What are the five steps to writing a story?
  2. What are the five stages of a story mountain?
  3. How many main paragraphs should be in your story?
  4. How do you know which title to pick?
  5. What’s wrong with using the first idea you think of?
  6. What are the Three D’s?
  7. What are five different poetic devices?
  8. What should you check your work for?

Sample Titles

Try going through the whole five-step process to write a story based on the following choice of titles (all but one taken from actual 11+ papers):

Left Behind

A Summer’s Day

The Ghost from the Future

Saying Sorry

The Lie

The Race

Lost Boy

A Fresh Start

The Voice in the Darkness

Noah’s Ark

Smoke

Silence

The Hot Afternoon

My Father Was Furious

The Swimming Lesson

Caravanning

The Choice

The Garden

Sleeping

Twins

Junk Food

The Picnic by The Lake

A Gift

Great Things Come from Small Beginnings

Saying Goodbye

The Person in The Queue

Through The Window

The Photograph

The Long Hot Summer

The Joke

The Loner

The Dare

The First Day of Term

Crossing The Line

Weird Habits

Mirror

Show And Tell

Going Underground

Echo

A Visit from Uncle

‘The room was so quiet that I noticed the clock ticking’
(Write a story that opens with this sentence.)

‘Every day, she sat alone by the upstairs window.’
(Write a story that opens with this sentence.)

‘Nobody’s perfect.’
(Write a story that uses this as its final line.)

Remember the Iceberg!

Remember the iceberg!

What, that tiny thing…?

To pass Common Entrance, you have to remember the iceberg.

Only a small part of any iceberg is visible above the waves, and only a small part of any answer to a question is visible in the text.

To discover the rest, you have to ‘dive in’ deeper like a scuba diver…

There are two main types of English question at 11+ and 13+: reading comprehension and composition.

Most 11+ papers last an hour or an hour and a quarter, and the marks are equally divided between the comprehension and the composition. That means half an hour or so for the comprehension.

The 13+ exam is a little different and may involve two papers, one covering a prose comprehension and the other a poetry comprehension and a story.

Whatever the format, it’s very important to read the instructions on the front cover. They will tell you exactly what you have to do and – crucially – how much time to spend on each section.

When it comes to doing a comprehension, I recommend a five-step process:

  1. Read the passage
  2. Read the questions
  3. Read the passage again
  4. Answer the questions
  5. Check your work.

Read the Passage
(5 mins)

The text is usually taken from a short story, a novel or a poem.

Whatever it is, the most important thing to do is to make sure you understand it and remember the main points.

Don’t just read it as fast as you can to get it over and done with, but take your time and read it as if you were reading aloud.

If you don’t understand something, re-read it and look at the context.

For example, it might say there are dozens of ‘delphiniums’ in the garden.

You might not know what delphiniums are, but it’s pretty obvious they must be plants or flowers!

To make sure you’ve got the main points of the story, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the W questions at the end:

  • Who are the characters?
  • What are they doing?
  • Where is the story set?
  • When is it set?
  • Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • How are they doing it?

It might help to tell yourself the story – just to make sure everything makes sense.

Read the Questions
(1 min)

Once you’ve read the passage, it’s time to read the questions so that you know what to look out for when you read the passage a second time.

Again, understanding and remembering them are more important than sheer speed.

If it helps, you can ask yourself how many questions you can remember after you’ve read them.

Alternatively, you can underline key words and phrases in the questions to help you focus on what you have to do.

Read the Passage Again
(5 mins)

Reading the text twice is probably a good compromise between speed and memorability.

It also gives you the chance to underline or highlight the answers to any of the questions you happen to find.

Some people suggest only reading the passage once, but that means you wouldn’t know it well enough to answer any questions off the top of your head.

If you can’t do that, you’ll end up having to hunt through the text for the answers, so you’ll have to read most of the passage three or four times anyway!

Answer the Questions
(15-30 mins, depending on the length of the exam)

You’ll probably have around 15 minutes to answer the actual questions.

There are usually 25 marks available, which means around 30 seconds per mark.

The number of marks available for each individual question will tell you how much time you have to do each one, eg two minutes for a four-mark question.

Answering the questions is obviously the most important job, and there are a few things to remember…

Answer Each Question in the Same Way

Try to be consistent in the way you answer the questions, and make sure you do all the things you need to do:
a) Read the question carefully.
b) Read it again (and again!) if you don’t understand it.
c) Check the mark scheme to work out how many points and pieces of evidence you need.
d) Scan the text to find the answer, underlining any words you might need.
e) Write down the answer.
f) Read it through to make sure you’ve actually answered the question correctly and you haven’t made any silly mistakes.

Read the Question Carefully

You’re never going to get the right answer to the wrong question, so make sure you understand exactly what you need to do.

If that means reading the question two or three times, then that’s what you’ll have to do.

Make Sure You Answer the Question

I often see pupils writing down facts that are true but don’t actually answer the question.

For instance, if the question asks how Jack feels after losing his dog, it’s no use saying he cries – that’s not a feeling.

It’s a bit like writing “2 + 2 = 4”. Yes, that may be true, but it’s completely irrelevant!

Use the Mark Scheme as a Guide

Most exam papers will let you know the number of marks for each question, so you should bear that in mind when writing your answers.

There’s no point spending ten minutes on a question that’s only worth one mark, and it would be daft to write only one sentence for a question worth ten marks.

You should also try and work out how many ‘points’ and pieces of ‘evidence’ you’re being asked for:

  • A point is the basic answer to a question, and it might be a fact, a reason or an explanation.
  • A piece of evidence is usually a quotation that backs up whatever point you’re trying to make.

Working out the mark scheme can be a bit tricky as there are three possibilities for the breakdown of marks:

  1. Points only
  2. Evidence only
  3. Points and evidence

You just have to read the question and see what makes the most sense.

Here are a few tips:

  • If the question asks you to ‘refer to the text’ in your answer, that’s code for saying you need evidence.
  • If the question asks you to explain a quotation, that means you’ll just need points because they’ve already given you the evidence. Try making a point for every keyword in the quotation.
  • If there’s an odd number of marks, you probably won’t need to provide a mixture of points and evidence. In that case, you’d end up with a point without any evidence or evidence without any point!

Follow any Instructions to the Letter

All these hints and tips are useful, but they are only general rules.

Occasionally, examiners will let you off the hook and tell you that you don’t need to use full sentences, eg for the meanings of words.

Just be sure to follow what they say.
If you’re told to answer a question ‘in your own words’, that means you can’t use any of the words in the text.

The only exceptions are ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘of’ or words that don’t have any obvious alternative, eg ‘football’ or the names of the characters.

You need to show that you understand the passage, and you’ll actually be marked down for using quotations – even though that’s what’s usually needed.

Look in the Text

Even if you read the text twice, you can’t possibly expect to remember the answers to all the questions and all the quotations to back them up!

The answer is always in the text, so don’t be afraid to spend a few seconds going back over it. That way, you can make sure you get the answer right and support it with the right evidence.

Use Full Sentences

Even if a question is as simple as ‘What is Jack’s dog’s name?’, the answer should be ‘His name is Rover’ rather than just ‘Rover’.

The only time you don’t need to use a full sentence is either if it’s the meaning of a word or if the question gives you special permission.

Make Sure any Word Meanings Work in Context

Words have different meanings, so you must check to see whether you have the right meaning and the right part of speech.

For example, ‘bark’ can be a verb meaning to make a sound like a dog or a noun meaning the outside of a tree!

Nouns also vary in number, and verbs vary in tense and person, so it’s easy to lose marks by putting down ‘destroy’ rather than ‘destroys’.

Don’t Use PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation)

PEE is designed to help you write essays rather than do a comprehension.

At Common Entrance, it’s unlikely a question will ask you for a point, a piece of evidence and an explanation.

That would mean two points and only one piece of evidence, which is unbalanced.

It’s also confusing because it suggests that an ‘explanation’ is somehow different from a ‘point’.

This is not true: points can be explanations as well as facts.

Answer ‘How’ Questions by Talking About Language

Comprehensions often start with a simple one-mark question such as ‘In what country is this passage set?’ This is a ‘what?’ question, a question about content, about facts.

However, there is another kind of question, the ‘how?’ question, which is all about language.

Suppose you’re asked, ‘How does the writer explain how Jack feels after losing his dog?’ What do you have to do?

What you definitely shouldn’t do is just describe how he feels.

The question is not ‘What are Jack’s feelings?’

You’re not being asked for facts but for an analysis of the techniques the author uses.

If it helps, you can keep a mental checklist and look for each technique in the passage:
a) Poetic devices
How has the author used metaphors, similes, personification or sentence structure?
b) Parts of speech
What can you say about the kind of adjectives, verbs or adverbs used in the passage?
c) The Three Ds
Has the writer used Drama, Description or Dialogue to achieve a particular effect?

However difficult the question is, just remember to write about language rather than what happens in the story.

Use the Same Tense as the Question

Most of the time, people use the ‘eternal present’ to talk about works of fiction. Sometimes, though, passages are about historical events, so the past is more appropriate.

For example, if the text comes from The Diary of Anne Frank, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the Second World War as if it were still going on!

So which tense should you use?

The simple answer is to write in the same tense as the question.

That way, you’ll never go wrong.

Don’t Repeat the Question in Your Answer

In primary school, teachers often tell their pupils to do this to make sure they’ve understood the question.

It’s not wrong and you won’t lose a mark for it, but it just takes too long.

I’ve seen children spend a whole minute carefully copying down most of the question before they’ve even thought about the answer!

If it helps, just start writing from the word after ‘because’, eg Jack was crying because…’His dog had just died.’

Just remember you need to use full sentences, so you can’t start with the word ‘because’ (or another conjunction like ‘so’).

The best way is usually to use a pronoun like ‘he’ or ‘she’ – whatever the question talks about, just turn it into a pronoun and start with that.

Answer All Parts of the Question

Examiners will sometimes try to catch you out by ‘hiding’ two questions in one.

You should be careful with these questions, eg ‘How do you think Jack feels about losing his dog, and how do you think you’d feel if you lost your favourite pet?’

It would be easy to answer the first part of the question and then forget about the rest!

Don’t Waste Time With Words You Don’t Need.

You never have enough time in exams, so it’s pointless trying to pad out your answers by including waffle such as ‘it says in the text that…’ or ‘the author writes that in his opinion…’

Far better to spend the time thinking a bit more about the question and coming up with another quotation or point to make.

Use Quotations

Using quotations is tricky, and there are a lot of things to remember.

  • Make sure you use quotation marks (“…”) or inverted commas (‘…’) for anything you copy from the text.
  • Copy the quotation out accurately.
  • Drop the keywords into a sentence of your own, eg Jack feels ‘devastated’ by the loss of his dog.
  • Quotations are not the same as speech, so the full-stop goes after the quotation marks, not before, eg he felt ‘devastated’. ‘Devastated’ is not a full sentence, so it doesn’t need a full-stop after it. The full-stop belongs to your sentence.
  • Don’t just tag a quotation on the end of an answer, eg Jack is really sad, ‘devastated’.
  • Don’t start with a quotation followed by ‘suggests’ because it won’t make sense, eg ‘Devastated’ suggests Jack is really sad. ‘Devastated’ is not a noun or a pronoun, so it can’t suggest anything!
  • If you really want to use ‘suggests’ or ‘shows’, it’s better to start with ‘The word…’ or ‘The fact…’, eg The word ‘devastated’ suggests Jack’s really sad or The fact Jack is ‘devastated’ suggests he’s really sad.
  • If the quotation is too long, you can always miss words out and use an ellipsis (…), eg Liz went to the supermarket and bought ‘apples…pears and bananas’.
  • If the quotation doesn’t use the right tense, you can always change the verb. Just put the new ending in square brackets, eg Jim ‘love[s] strawberries’ instead of Jim ‘loved strawberries’.

Remember the Iceberg!

As you can see from the picture, the vast majority of an iceberg remains hidden from view.

It’s the same with the answers to questions in a reading comprehension.

Don’t be satisfied by what you can see on the surface – that won’t get you full marks.

Like a scuba diver, you have to dive in deeper to find the rest…!

Check Your work
(5 mins)

If there’s one tip that beats all the rest, it’s ‘Check your work’.

However old you are and whatever the subject, you should never finish a piece of work before checking what you’ve done.

However boring or annoying it is, you’ll always find at least one mistake and therefore at least one way in which you can make things better.

In the case of 11+ or 13+ comprehensions, the most important thing is to test candidates’ understanding of the passage.

However, spelling and grammar is still important.

Schools have different marking policies:

  • Some don’t mark you down for bad grammar (although a lot of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!)
  • Some use a separate pot of marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total
  • Some take marks off for each grammatical mistake – even if you got the answer ‘right’.

Either way, it pays to make sure you’ve done your best to avoid silly mistakes.

If you think you won’t have time to check, make sure you manage your time so that you have a few minutes left at the end.

You’ll probably gain more marks by correcting your work than trying to finish the last question, so it makes sense to keep that time for checking.

If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for.

Check the Answers are Correct and Complete

This is the most important thing to check, and it takes the longest.

Make sure that each answer is correct (by referring back to the text if necessary) and that each part of the question has been covered.

Quite a few of my students have lost marks by forgetting to look at all the pages, so you should always check you haven’t missed any questions.

Check Spelling

This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling.

  1. Look out for any obvious mistakes and correct them. It can help to go through each answer backwards a word at a time so that you don’t just see what you expect to see.
  2. Check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it out from there.
  3. Choose a simpler word if you’re not quite sure how to spell something. It’s sometimes better not to take the risk.

Check Capital Letters

This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish.

Proper nouns, sentences, speech and abbreviations should all start with capital letters.

If you know you often miss out capital letters, you can at least check to make sure all your answers start with a capital.

Check Punctuation

Make sure you’ve put full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks in the right places.

Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.

Check Other Grammar

It’s always useful to check for missing words and to make sure everything makes sense.

Grammar may not be the first thing on your mind when you’re answering the questions. However, you can usually spot most silly mistakes if you read through your answers carefully at the end.

Quiz

If you want to test your knowledge of this article, here are a few questions for you.
You can mark them yourselves!

  1. What are the five steps involved in doing a comprehension? (5 marks)
  2. Name three things you should do when reading the text for the first time. (3 marks)
  3. Why should you read the questions before re-reading the text? (1 mark)
  4. What should you be doing when you read the text for the second time? (1 mark)
  5. What are the six steps to take when answering a question? (6 marks)
  6. What are five hints and tips for answering questions? (5 marks)
  7. What are the two types of things that questions might ask for? (2 marks)
  8. What are the two occasions when you don’t need to answer in a full sentence? (2 marks)
  9. Name five poetic devices. (5 marks)
  10. What five things should you be checking for at the end? (5 marks)

Total: 35 marks