11 Little Drawings That Will Help You Remember English Rules Forever

11 Little Drawings That Will Help You Remember English Rules Forever

This blog post was so popular that I turned it into a book: 102 Little Drawings That Will Help You Remember English Rules FOREVER (Probably). It’s available as an eBook and paperback. Click here to get your copy.

Have you ever had a problem that you just couldn’t solve for ages?

Then suddenly someone says one word, or just shows you one simple picture, and you get that “aha” moment — you suddenly understand everything?

Well, over the many, many years I’ve been teaching English, I’ve found that some simple images can help explain rules in English that cause so many problems for people.

Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

So here are some of my most effective little pictures to help you remember English rules.



102 Little Drawings eBook


In, on or at for place?

English Rules - in on at location

I’ve actually talked about this in a previous post, but it’s good to see it in a different way.

Usually (but not always), we use:

“In” when it’s 3-dimensional

I’m in this really dark room, and I can’t get out.

“On” when it’s a straight line

I’ve been on this road for about 8 hours, and I still can’t get off it.

“At” when we feel like it’s a point on a map

I’ll meet you at the station.

That’s why we can have one person saying, “Are you at the station yet?” and the other person saying, “Yeah, I’m in the station. Where are you?”


A or the?

English Rules - a or the

There are lots of different rules for “the” and “a,” but they all work the same way.

It’s all about what the person you’re talking to knows and what she doesn’t know.

If she knows what you’re talking about, then use “the.” If not, it’s “a.”

I saw a giraffe the other day. It was talking to a lion wearing a wonderful hat. The giraffe decided to start eating the lion’s hat. I don’t know why.

The small print: there are exceptions to this rule, but even the exceptions follow the same logic.


By or until?

English Rules - by or until

OK. This one can be a little confusing.

You do a short action by 7 o’clock:

Please finish this report by 7.

Remember that this can be any time before 7 o’clock.

You do a long action until 7 o’clock:

I was doing reports until 7.

Remember that the action stops at 7 o’clock and not before.

“By” is usually used with a simple tense, and “until” is used more with continuous ones.


Trip or journey?

English Rules - trip or journey

A trip is a big thing, and it might be several journeys.

A journey is simply going from A to B.

Example? I’ve just got back from a trip to the UK. I travelled by train, car, plane and bus while I was there. I also walked. The trip consisted of about 30 journeys. Yep, we were busy.


Past continuous or past simple?

English Rules - past simple or past continuous

This is an image that went with a story that one of my students told me.

He was telling me about a visit to Prague. He said:

While I was walking down the hill, I stopped at 3 different pubs.

The past continuous gives the long background action (walking down the hill). The important (and fun) stuff (going to the pubs) happens inside this past continuous time frame.


Say or tell?

English Rules - say or tell

This is something that I hear advanced English speakers getting wrong all the time!

Just remember that we say something, but we tell someone something.

So this means that you should never say, “He said me…”

Careful: There are some phrases when we can just use “tell” + noun, e.g., “tell a story,” “tell a lie.”


When to use “would”?

English Rules - would

“Would” is the future of the past.

Remember that “would” is almost always used with a past tense, usually in the same sentence:

I didn’t know what he would do next.

They knew that they would see some weird animals in the zoo,
but they weren’t prepared for that monster!


Present perfect for effect

English Rules - present continuous for effect

As I mentioned in a previous post, we use the present perfect when the time, effect or action started in the past and is continuing now.

It’s kind of easy when the time frame is used. (e.g. Have you seen any giraffes today?) “Today” is clearly not finished.

It’s kind of easy when the action is continuing (e.g. I’ve been working here for far too long) because that’s a clear concept — either you work here now or you don’t.

But to decide if the effect is continuing or not (e.g. What have you done to her? She looks ridiculous!) is a bit trickier.

So imagine an explosive event in the past. Can you still feel the explosion now? If so, use the present perfect.


-ed or -ing?

English Rules - ed or ing

There are -ed adjectives and -ing adjectives (e.g., interesting/interested, boring/bored, infuriating/infuriated).

Learners often get confused between these, which is why sometimes people say, “I am boring.”

Easy: -ed is the feeling; -ing is the cause.

The book is fascinating. I’m fascinated.


Whole or all?

English Rules - whole or all

“Whole” is for one thing.
“All” is for many things.

He slept through the whole film!

He ate all the biscuits.

Careful: When we’re talking about one thing, we can also use “all of the” — it means the same as “whole.”

He slept through all of the film.


Will or going to for predictions?

English Rules - will or going to

This is when we use “will” and “going to” for making predictions. (If you want more details, check out my post on the future forms.)

OK, just to be clear, the guy in the top picture is pointing at a satellite image. He’s a weather forecaster. (It’s not a window.)

We usually use “will” when we don’t have any evidence in front of us to make our prediction with.

We usually use “going to” when we can see the evidence (like the black cloud in the picture).

That’s why we can say:

Go ahead and tell him. He‘ll understand.

I can see in your eyes that you’re going to understand everything.

OK. I hope you found these useful.

If you did, don’t forget to be awesome and share this post. Go on! It’ll make me very happy!

Do you want more little drawings like these? You can get 92 more in my book, 102 Little Drawings That Will Help You Remember English Rules FOREVER. Click here to get your copy.

73 thoughts on “11 Little Drawings That Will Help You Remember English Rules Forever

  1. Visuals are great for teaching and these are very helpful! Thanks for sharing (and I’m definitely sharing to my FB page). I also wondered about the one on “trip” and “journey.” I’m from the US and I’m more likely to say a “short trip to the store” and “a long journey that involves many trips between A and B”. Just another difference between American and British usage, I think. : )

    1. That’s fascinating. So it looks like the UK and US Englishes are the opposite when it comes to these words.

      Buuuut…. I guess a trip to the store works — there’s a journey there and a journey back. I mean, saying “trip” implies you’re coming back, right?

      1. It might just be me, or where I grew up in the Midwest. The US is a big country and there are differences in usage all over the place and some of them can be a bit odd. Yes, a trip implies that I’m coming back. It’s like saying “round trip.”

        1. Ah. In that case I’d say that in this case, we’re sharing the same meaning with trip, but not with journey — the trip to the shop consists of 2 journeys. Although, to be fair, it would be a bit weird calling them journeys as they’re rather short.

          1. Yes, I’m from the NW side of the US, and here journey implies a long and possibly very difficult travel of some sort – often walking or travelling by slower types of transportation such as by horse or camel through mountains, rivers, canyons, etc. “Life is a journey.” You could say, “on my journey home from work,…” but it implies that it was a very long commute. A trip is often shorter distance and/or duration or easier type of travel. Mode of transportation, amount of time travelling, and level of difficulty are the factors involved in choosing trip vs journey. Language and it’s evolution are so interesting!

          2. In reply to Hollie.
            That’s such a nice, and valuable comment. Thanks Hollie.

            I love the points you make, mostly because they highlight that evolution of language. As teachers, I think it’s really important to point out that different speakers of English may use the language differently.

            Thanks again!

  2. thanks a lot! I’ll share it with my students now : a good way to revise their English during this hot summer in Italy!

  3. Thank you! I just discovered I had a couple of these wrong 😉 .
    BTW, as an Italian, and having learned English mostly “on the road”, I’m not surprised. 🙂
    Now I have to change a number of mental “patterns” in order to correct the old mistakes. 😉

    1. That’s great to hear Davide. I’m happy to have helped.

      We should always be cautious, though. These are a good overview, but, as usual, there will always be exceptions.

      Good examples of these are “all day” and “I was waiting in the queue forever.”

      But I’m glad these helped you get ON the right track!

  4. That’s so functional. Rules are simple and easy. Would you mind suggesting to improve my fluency in English?

    1. Thanks Poongothai!

      Keep reading our blog!
      We also offer lessons via Skype with awesome teachers. Speaking on a regular basis with a language expert will help you out loads. https://www.clarkandmiller.com/skype-english-lessons/

      There are hundreds of other small things you can do to improve your English.

      I guess the most important thing is to include a little English in your day-to-day life. Read blogs, keep a diary and watch films and TV.

      These suggestions are kind of obvious, but that’s the point! It isn’t so much what you do, just how much you do it and how much you keep doing it!

      Good luck!

  5. Hi Gabriel,

    New reader here. This is a super useful post, especially for a non native speaker like me.

    Will check out other posts as well. : )

  6. Your ideas are great???. But can You explain why we use e.x. I slept all night long( this is one night so why do not use I slept the whole night)???

    1. Thanks Edyta.

      And good question.

      Actually, you can use both. “All night long” (or “all day long”) is just a phrase that means more or less the same as “the whole night.”

      The only difference is that it’s slightly stronger. When you say “all night long,” you’re kind of emphasising how long the night was.

  7. #1 IN or ON
    Charles Prentiss: You were going to spend your redundancy money on a pub.
    Martin McCabe: No, no, no. I was going to spend my redundancy money IN a pub.

  8. LOVE your ideas. They’ll definitely help my students, especially the article a and the. it gives me ideas for a lapbook. My ESL students always put ‘s in every plural nouns they use even though they don’t show possessive. Hope you can help with your drawings.

    1. Thanks so much Lin! I really appreciate the positive feedback and I’m glad this was useful for you.

      The apostrophe s problem definitely needs a pic. I’m working on a book of these, so I’ll think about including it. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Juli!

      I’ve written a couple of blog posts on the ever-baffling -ing vs. to.

      Here’s one: https://www.clarkandmiller.com/verb-ing-or-to/
      And here’s part 2: https://www.clarkandmiller.com/ing-or-to-subject-object-extra-information/

      I’m also in the process of writing a book based on this blog post called “101 little drawings to help you remember English rules forever (probably).” It should be out before September. It includes a few gerund/infinitive explanations.

      Keep an eye out for it on this site.

      Thanks again! 🙂

  9. They are wonderful ideas! I liked them. Thank you, Gabriel, for your work and the big wish to help to all of us! If my English isn’t so good, sorry. But with your help I ‘ll improve it.

  10. Thanks a lot for your job! I like your explanations. They help me a lot, when I? find it confusing to explain. Last time was when I had to do mixed conditionals. Some times you feel like a dog: you know everything, understand, but can’t say a word! To find the way to present grammar, to make studens understand is not always easy. Some people say that grammar is not important. It’s true if we learn English, but if we study it, it’s essential!

    1. Totally agree!

      And I love your dog analogy. I totally feel like that, too, sometimes. Even in English — which is my first language! 😀

      Keep up the good work, Bela!

  11. Gabriel, can you explain the difference between “in time” and “on time”?
    I always get confused with proper using of these expressions.
    P.S. Shame on me, I thought that a trip is much more smaller than a journey o_O

    1. Well, “on time” usually just means “not late.”

      Like, “He always arrives on time.”

      “In time” often means “sooner or later … not sure when. But it’ll happen.”

      Like, “She doesn’t like it now, but she’ll learn to appreciate it in time.”

      I guess it’s a bit like “over time.”

      And to be fair, “trip” and “journey” are used differently in different countries. I think Americans look as trips as being quite little things. Like a trip to the shops.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Gabriel,
        Thanks for your drawings and explanations! They will help my students so much! I will also recommend that a friend in the Philippines look at your site; her English is excellent, but these subtle differences require extra study, and you make it fun.
        Regarding the use of “trip”and”journey” in the US: “trip” can be short (“a trip to the store”) or long ( “a trip to the UK”). “Journey” is seldom used, except in such phrases as “journey to the center of the earth” or ” a difficult journey” (long and arduous), not as parts of a trip. “A trip home” is a short errand, usually”round trip” (return); “a journey home” would only be used after a sojourn far away.
        “In” and “on” are problematic. When you queue, it is “standing on line” in the Northeast (New York, Boston) and “standing in line” in most of the rest of the country. “On line” is gaining in popularity, although by your excellent rule I think “in” is preferable (three dimensional, between two people). Also, we stand “in the street” ( in front of your house, for example), but “on the street where you live.” I wish I had your skill to explain that difference!
        My thanks to Bela for the dog analogy. And thank you again for your great rules!

        1. Hi Susan,

          Thanks for the comment. I’m glad this is gonna be useful for you and happy to hear that it’s going to be used in the classroom.

          I agree that there are always going to be differences between everyone’s different “Englishes.” Some people have already pointed out the most notable one here — the difference between “trip” and “journey” in American English and British English.

          I never thought about “in” and “on” for waiting in lines. It’s nice to see that the logic of “in” for 3D spaces and “on” for lines fits into the Northeast.

          Thanks again for your positive feedback!

  12. Sir, thank you so much. English is our second language here, in India. I teach English, and I must admit that ever so often I struggle with the rules. I love illustrating everthing i need to learn. our books work for me. I appreciate the visuals. I have downloaded some of your free books, and I wanted to say thank you.

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