Tag Archives: grammar

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’.


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.


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.


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?
French verbs

French Regular Verbs – Present Subjunctive Tense

The subjunctive in French is generally used in the present tense after expressions such as ‘il faut que’ and some verbs that also take the word ‘que’ after them. These are generally the ones that express feelings or doubts (eg vouloir and craindre), especially when two parts of a sentence have different subjects, eg ‘I want her to be happy’ becomes ‘Je veux qu’elle soit contente’. Verbs ending in -er or -re have one set of endings, but  -ir verbs have another (shown here in red):

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

Je donne          (I may give)
Tu donnes          (You may give – informal)
Il/elle donne          (He/she may give)
Nous donnions          (We may give)
Vous donniez          (You may give – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles donnent          (They may give – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

Je vende          (I may sell)
Tu vendes          (You may sell – informal)
Il/elle vende          (He/she may sell)
Nous vendions          (We may sell)
Vous vendiez          (You may sell – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles vendent          (They may sell – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

Je finisse          (I may finish)
Tu finisses          (You may finish – informal)
Il/elle finisse          (He/she may finish)
Nous finissions          (We may finish)
Vous finissiez          (You may finish – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles finissent          (They may finish – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

What is a Full Sentence?

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.)


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!


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’.


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.


French verbs

Preceding Direct Objects in French

Forming the perfect (or pluperfect) tense in French is sometimes made harder than necessary by what’s called a Preceding Direct Object (or PDO). The object of a sentence is whatever ‘suffers the action of the verb’, eg the nail in ‘he hit the nail on the head’.

If the object is a pronoun and the perfect (or pluperfect) tense is being used, the French put it before the auxiliary rather than at the end of the sentence as in English, eg ‘il l‘a frappé’ or ‘he it has hit’!

You might think that’s bad enough, but the real problem is that the past participle has to agree in number and gender with the PDO, eg ‘il les a frappés‘ or ‘he’s hit them’.

When it comes to reflexive verbs, it gets even worse. By definition, every reflexive verb has a PDO, so that means you have to watch what you write when a female character is speaking, eg ‘Je me suis lavé’ for a boy, but ‘Je me suis lavée’ for a girl.

Having said that, one of my male pupils once told me that the best way to get a good mark in his French prose was to tell a story in the first person and pretend to be a girl – that way, he’d get a tick every time he used a PDO!

French verbs

French Regular Verbs – Conditional Tense

The conditional tense in French is used to show that someone ‘would do’ or ‘would be doing’ something. All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and the endings are different (as shown here in red):

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

Je donnerais          (I would give)
Tu donnerais          (You would give – informal)
Il/elle donnerait          (He/she would give)
Nous donnerions          (We would give)
Vous donneriez          (You would give – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles donneraient          (They would give – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

Je vendrais          (I would give)
Tu vendrais          (You would give – informal)
Il/elle vendrait          (He/she would give)
Nous vendrions          (We would give)
Vous vendriez          (You would give – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles vendraient          (They would give – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

Je finirais          (I would finish)
Tu finirais          (You would finish – informal)
Il/elle finirait          (He/she would finish)
Nous finirions          (We would finish)
Vous finiriez          (You would finish – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles finiraient          (They would finish – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

French verbs

French Regular Verbs – Future Tense

There is only one future tense in French, and it’s used to show that someone ‘will do’ or ‘will be doing’ something. Verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, but the endings are the same (as shown here in red):

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

Je donnerai          (I will give)
Tu donneras          (You will give – informal)
Il/elle donnera          (He/she will give)
Nous donnerons          (We will give)
Vous donnerez          (You will give – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles donneront          (They will give – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

Je vendrai          (I will sell)
Tu vendras          (You will sell – informal)
Il/elle vendra          (He/she will sell)
Nous vendrons          (We will sell)
Vous vendrez          (You will sell – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles vendront          (They will sell – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

Je finirai          (I will finish)
Tu finiras          (You will finish – informal)
Il/elle finira          (He/she will finish)
Nous finirons          (We will finish)
Vous finirez          (You will finish – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles finiront          (They will finish – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

French verbs

French Regular Verbs – Past Tense

Here are the basic forms of French regular verbs in the past tense, which include the perfect (or passé composé), pluperfect, imperfect and past historic (or passé simple). All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red.

Perfect (or passé composé)

The perfect tense is used in formal written French to say someone ‘has done’ something, but they sometimes use it in conversation and casual writing in the same way we use the simple past tense (or ‘preterite’), eg ‘j’ai donné’ might mean ‘I gave’ rather than ‘I have given’ – you just need to look at the context to help you decide which is the right translation.

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

J’ai donné          (I have given or I gave)
Tu as donné          (You have given or you gave – informal)
Il/elle a donné          (He/she has given or he/she gave)
Nous avons donné          (We have given or we gave)
Vous avez donné          (You have given or you gave – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles ont donné          (They have given or they gave – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

J’ai vendu          (I have sold or I sold)
Tu as vendu          (You have sold or you sold – informal)
Il/elle a vendu          (He/she has sold or he/she sold)
Nous avons vendu          (We have sold or we sold)
Vous avez vendu          (You have sold or you sold – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles ont vendu          (They have sold or they sold – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

J’ai fini          (I have finished or I finished)
Tu as fini          (You have finished or you finished – informal)
Il/elle a fini          (He/she has finished or he/she finished)
Nous avons fini          (We have finished or we finished)
Vous avez fini          (You have finished or you finished – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles ont fini          (They have finished or they finished – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)


The pluperfect tense is used to say someone ‘had done’ something. This is common in story-writing when an event is described that happened before that particular moment in the story, eg ‘j’avais donné’ means ‘I had given’.

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

J’avais donné          (I had given)
Tu avais donné          (You had given – informal)
Il/elle avait donné          (He/she had given)
Nous avions donné          (We had given)
Vous aviez donné          (You had given – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles avaient donné         (They had given – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

J’avais vendu          (I had sold)
Tu avais vendu          (You had sold – informal)
Il/elle avait vendu          (He/she had sold)
Nous avions vendu          (We had sold)
Vous aviez vendu          (You had sold – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles avaient vendu         (They had sold – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

J’avais fini          (I had finished)
Tu avais fini          (You had finished – informal)
Il/elle avait fini          (He/she had finished)
Nous avions fini          (We had finished)
Vous aviez fini          (You had finished – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles avaient fini         (They had finished – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)


The imperfect tense is used to say someone ‘was doing’ or ‘used to do’ something, eg ‘je donnais’ means ‘I was giving’ or ‘I used to give’.

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

Je donnais          (I was giving)
Tu donnais          (You were giving – informal)
Il/elle donnait          (He/she was giving)
Nous donnions          (We were giving)
Vous donniez          (You were giving – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles donnaient          (They were giving – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

Je vendais          (I was selling)
Tu vendais          (You were selling – informal)
Il/elle vendait          (He/she was selling)
Nous vendions          (We were selling)
Vous vendiez          (You were selling – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles vendaient          (They were selling – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

Je finissais          (I was finishing)
Tu finissais          (You were finishing – informal)
Il/elle finissait          (He/she was finishing)
Nous finissions          (We were finishing)
Vous finissiez          (You were finishing – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles finissaient          (They were finishing – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Past Historic (or Passé Simple)

The past historic is the equivalent of the simple past tense (or preterite) in English and is used in novels and other formal writing to say someone ‘did’ something, eg ‘je donnai’ means ‘I gave’ or ‘I used to give’. It is never used in conversation, where it is replaced by the perfect tense.

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

Je donnai          (I gave)
Tu donnas          (you gave – informal)
Il/elle donna          (he/she gave)
Nous donnâmes          (we gave)
Vous donnâtes          (you gave – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles donnèrent          (they gave – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

Je vendis          (I sold)
Tu vendis          (you sold – informal)
Il/elle vendit          (he/she sold)
Nous vendîmes          (we sold)
Vous vendîtes          (you sold – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles vendirent          (they sold – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

Je finis          (I finished)
Tu finis          (you finished – informal)
Il/elle finit          (he/she finished)
Nous finîmes          (we finished)
Vous finîtes          (you finished – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles finirent          (they finished – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)


French verbs

Common French Verbs – Present Tense

Language changes over time because people are lazy. They’d rather say something that’s easy than something that’s correct. That means the most common words change the most, and the verbs become ‘irregular’. In French, the ten most common verbs are ‘être’, ‘avoir’, ‘pouvoir’, ‘faire’, ‘mettre’, ‘dire’, ‘devoir’, ‘prendre’, ‘donner’ and ‘aller’, and they’re all irregular apart from ‘donner’. Here are their forms in the present tense.

Note: the irregular forms are shown in red.

Etre (to Be)

Je suis          (I am)
Tu es          (You are – informal)
Il/elle est          (He/she is)
Nous sommes          (We are)
Vous êtes          (You are – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles sont          (They are – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Avoir (to Have)

J’ai          (I have)
Tu as          (You have – informal)
Il/elle as          (He/she has)
Nous avons          (We have – formal and/or plural)
Vous avez          (You have – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles ont          (They have – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Pouvoir (to be Able to, ‘Can’)

Je peux          (I can)
Tu peux          (You can – informal)
Il/elle peut          (He/she can)
Nous pouvons          (We can – formal and/or plural)
Vous pouvez          (You can – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles peuvent          (They can – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Faire (to Do, to Make)

Je fais          (I do or make)
Tu fais          (You do or make – informal)
Il/elle fait          (He/she does or makes)
Nous faisons          (We do or make – formal and/or plural)
Vous faites          (You do or make – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles font          (They do or make – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Mettre (to Put)

Je mets          (I put)
Tu mets          (You put – informal)
Il/elle met          (He/she puts)
Nous mettons          (You put – formal and/or plural)
Vous mettez          (You put – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles mettent          (They put – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Dire (to Say, to Tell)

Je dis          (I say or tell)
Tu dis          (You say or tell – informal)
Il/elle dit          (He/she says or tells)
Nous disons          (We say or tell – formal and/or plural)
Vous disez          (You say or tell – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles disent          (They say or tell – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Devoir (to Have to, ‘Must’)

Je dois          (I have to or must)
Tu dois          (You have to or must – informal)
Il/elle doit          (He/she has to or must)
Nous devons          (We have to or must – formal and/or plural)
Vous devez          (You have to or must – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles doivent          (They have to or must – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Prendre (to Take)

Je prends          (I take)
Tu prends          (You take – informal)
Il/elle prend          (He/she takes)
Nous prenons          (We take – formal and/or plural)
Vous prenez          (You take – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles prennent          (They take – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Aller (to Go)

Je vais          (I have)
Tu vas          (You have – informal)
Il/elle va          (He/she has)
Nous allons          (We have – formal and/or plural)
Vous allez          (You have – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles vont          (They have – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

French verbs

French Regular Verbs – Present Tense

Nobody likes French verbs – not even the French! – but I thought I’d start by listing the most basic forms of the regular verbs in the present tense. All French verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red:

Verbs Ending in -er, eg Donner (to Give)

Je donne          (I give)
Tu donnes          (You give – informal)
Il/elle donne          (He/she gives)
Nous donnons          (We give)
Vous donnez          (You give – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles donnent          (They give – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -re, eg Vendre (to Sell)

Je vends          (I sell)
Tu vends          (You sell – informal)
Il/elle vend          (He/she sell)
Nous vendons          (We sell)
Vous vendez          (You sell – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles vendent          (They sell – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

Verbs Ending in -ir, eg Finir (to Finish)

Je finis          (I finish)
Tu finis          (You finish – informal)
Il/elle finit          (He/she finish)
Nous finissons          (We finish)
Vous finissez          (You finish – formal and/or plural)
Ils/elles finissent          (They finish – masculine or masculine and feminine/feminine only)

If you’re learning French and have to memorise the present tense, it helps if you can spot the patterns:

  • The je, tu, il/elle and ils/elles forms all sound the same for -er and -re verbs (and the same is true of the je, tu and il/elle forms of -ir verbs)
  • The nous and vous forms always end in -ons and -ez (although -ir verbs have an extra -ss- in the middle)

People learn things in different ways, but the best way I’ve found is to make a recording on my phone and try to repeat the words at the same time as I listened to them on my headphones. I did a lot of acting at Oxford and in the Edinburgh Fringe, and that was the way I learned my lines.

If I made a mistake or forgot something, the recording prompted me with the right words, and I could carry on repeating the exercise until I was word-perfect. It meant I could learn my lines any time, anywhere – whether I was watching sport, making dinner or cycling around town!

Good luck…

It’s All About the Apostrophe

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

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.

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.
  7. Words ending in -f or -fe always change the f to a v in the plural, eg leaf becomes leaves, and knife becomes knives. The only exceptions are chief, dwarf and roof. You can remember them all by memorising this sentence: “The chief dwarf sat on the roof.”
    PS I know Tolkien writes about ‘dwarves’ rather than ‘dwarfs’ in The Lord of the Rings, but that’s just because he thought ‘dwarves’ sounded better!


Parts of Speech

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


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 ______.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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


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

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…?!

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