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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.
In, on or at for place?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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”?
“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
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?
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?
“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?
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.