Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


Double Trouble (or Accommodating doubled consonants in English)

Road sign: Unnecessary noise prohibited

Image courtesy of Jack Dorsey via Flickr

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the anomaly of double consonants in certain English words.

The presence of doubled consonants in certain words can present a great challenge for students attempting to get to grips with English spelling. The sound of a word will often give an idea of whether a single letter or a double is required, but it is quite possible for two words to sound alike and yet for one to be spelt with a single consonant and one with a double. Why is there only one ‘b’ in habit but two in rabbit? Why should there not be a double ‘l’ in auxiliary when the letter is doubled in ancillary?

Examples like these might suggest that students will look in vain for any rational pattern. But, in fact, English spelling is not entirely arbitrary; it is just that the spellings of English words reflect the origins of the words rather than their sounds. Rabbit is spelt with a double ‘b’ because it comes from a Flemish word robbe; habit has one ‘b’ because it comes from a Latin word habitus. English has taken its vocabulary from a variety of languages, and each of these languages has its own spelling patterns. The presence of words from different languages side by side in modern English leads to some apparent inconsistencies in its spelling.

So, my first point is that any information you have about the origin of a word can be useful in determining its spelling. This information may come from thinking about the spellings of other words within the same word family: for example, if you can think of perennial and millennium as being members of the same word family as annual (they are all derived from a Latin word meaning ‘year’), you can be confident that these words will be spelt with a double ‘n’.

Some learners may even be able to apply knowledge of the language from which the words came into English. (This is why contestants in spelling-bee competitions sometimes ask for word origins before giving an answer.) Loan-words from Japanese or from Polynesian languages, for example, do not usually have doubled consonants, whereas words from Germanic languages are more likely to have them.

For most students, however, the origins of English words are even more obscure than their spellings. So a more practical strategy for remembering tricky spellings is to learn or make up a little phrase that acts as a reminder. I still remember how to spell necessary from being told that ‘it is necessary for a shirt to have one collar and two sleeves’ (so I think of it having one ‘c’ and two ‘s’s). Here are a few more memory guides along the same lines:

This accommodation has two double rooms and two singles (double ‘c’ and ‘m’, single ‘d’ and ‘t’).

A committee should have as many members as possible (double ‘c’ and double ‘t’).

The show was a success and they doubled their money (double ‘c’ and double ‘s’).

I find such devices to be a powerful learning tool. Not only that, but the model is entirely flexible, so that students can devise their own memory guides, using their own native languages and employing contexts that are meaningful to them, as a way of remembering tricky spellings.

What useful phrases have you taught to your students to help them remember tricky spellings? Share them in the comments below.


Idioms – as clear as mud?

A bird in the hand

Image courtesy of By Matt Reinbold via Wikimedia Commons

Miranda Steel is a freelance ELT lexicographer and editor. She has worked as a Senior Editor for dictionaries for learners at OUP and has also worked for COBUILD. In this post, she looks at some of the weird and wonderful idioms in the English language.

Idioms are commonly used in spoken and written English. They add colour and interest to what we are saying. But how often do we actually find idioms in their original and full form?

Native English speakers are usually confident that their readers or listeners will recognize the idiom, so well-known phrases rarely need to be given in full. You may hear someone being warned not to count their chickens (don’t count your chickens before they are hatched) when they assume a future plan will be successful, or a friend may hint that her colleagues took advantage of the boss’s absence with when the cat’s away! (when the cat’s away, the mice will play).

Some idioms can be shortened in other ways such as long story short (to cut a long story short).

“Anyway, long story short, it turns out Drake isn’t really his father.”

Sometimes only a fragment of the original idiom remains. It is common to see restaurants offering early bird menus or prices (the early bird catches the worm). Someone may describe a terrible idea as a lead balloon (go down like a lead balloon). I recently heard someone talking about a baby and bathwater situation (don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater) when the whole of a plan was rejected because of a problem with only part of it.

Another common way of changing an idiom is to reverse its meaning. For example if you don’t want to deal with a problem straight away, you may put it on the back burner, but if something needs immediate attention, you can put it on the front burner. In your home village you might be a big fish in a small pond but if you move to a large city you could end up a small fish in a very big pond.

Many idioms are very versatile and can be changed in a variety of ways. A carrot and stick approach involves offering rewards and making threats to persuade someone to do something. However, you may come across examples like the following:

“Why use a stick when a carrot will work better?”

“Their approach is all stick and no carrot.”

“They are using every carrot and stick at their disposal.”

One of the most attractive aspects of idioms is their adaptability. It is often possible to substitute one of more of the words in them to adapt to a particular situation. When two people have opposite tastes, you can say one man’s meat is another man’s poison. But how about one man’s junk is another man’s treasure or one man’s madness is another man’s genius? The possibilities are endless.

Substitutions can also be used to alter the meaning of an idiom. For example, a plain-talking person will call a spade a spade, but someone who is more frank than necessary may call a spade a shovel. On the other hand, someone who is reluctant to speak plainly may call a spade a gardening implement.

So, why not have a go at adapting some idioms yourself? After all, when in Rome…

Challenge: For extra bonus points, can you tell us which English idiom the image above refers to?

For more idioms, check out the Oxford Idioms Dictionary for learners of English.


Academic writing: The magnificent seven

AA044039Ken Paterson is a freelance ELT writer and consultant, and co-author of the Oxford Grammar for EAP. In this post he looks at the grammatical features that characterize academic writing.

At this year’s IATEFL conference in Liverpool, a Polish lecturer asked me how I would have responded to the question an MA TESOL student had recently put to her: what grammatical features were most characteristic of general academic writing? With a coffee in one hand and two minutes to get to the next talk, the best response I could come up with was the rather underhand counter question: is there really such a thing as ‘general academic writing’? On reflection, however, and after a trawl through a broad variety of text-types, I think there are a number of features that recur often enough to be ‘characteristic’. So, if she’s still listening, here – in no particular order – is an attempt at a list.

1. Complex noun phrases

e.g. … a task-driven approach to software design …

Where there is a need to convey information economically, nouns are often pre-modified by adverbs, adjectives and other nouns, and post-modified by phrases and clauses. Typical language includes

  • compound adjectives such as small-scale or free-market, and adverb + adjective combinations like highly sensitive or rapidly growing
  • noun pairs like government measures, market crash or health policy
  • nouns + prepositional phrases such as research into social work practice or an analysis of the relevant data

2. Hedging devices

e.g. Internet Protocol Television is arguably the most interesting new media development.

Hedging devices reduce the strength of statements that, unless we are dealing with indisputable facts, are always open to doubt. Typical grammar includes the use of

  • hedging verbs such as appear, seem, and tend, and adverbs like apparently, approximately and relatively
  • the language of probability rather than certainty: may, might; be likely to; probably
  • hedging expressions like The evidence suggests that …, as a rule; and to some extent

3. Depersonalizing structures

e.g. There needs to be a proper exploration of the causes of the riots.

Depersonalizing structures tend to reassure the reader that the views expressed are the result of analysis rather than prejudice. Typical structures include the use of

  • the preparatory subject It … as in It may be preferable for the newspaper industry to regulate itself.
  • There to suggest that something exists rather than claim it as a personal opinion: There seems to have been a disagreement over the exact date of the discovery.
  • essay, report, evidence etc. as the subject of the sentence: This report focuses on …

4. Passives

e.g. Twelve new species of Peruvian insect were identified by Swiss naturalists in 2011.

With its desire to foreground events, results and processes rather than human agents, it’s not surprising that the passive is fairly common in academic writing. Typical grammar includes

  • passive forms of the modal verbs can, could, must and shouldExporting to a new market could be described as one of the key challenges facing an expanding business.
  • reporting verbs in the structures It + passive verb + that …  e.g. It is estimated that …
  • passive verbs + prepositions such as be associated with, be based on, be composed of etc.:  From its discovery in 1930 until 2006, Pluto was classified as a planet.

5. Particular types of linking language

e.g. Swans, in contrast, appear to mate for life.

The requirement in academic expression for a logical flow means that certain linking devices are more common than in other styles of writing. Typical language for

  • expressing results includes as a result, consequently, therefore, thus
  • expressing contrast includes in contrast, however, on the contrary, on the other hand
  • expressing additional information includes in addition, furthermore, similarly
  • structuring a text includes firstly, subsequently, finally, in brief, in conclusion

6. The frequency of signalling language

e.g. Anders and Silver do not share the same views on the technical aspects of stem cell research. Armstrong (2012) explains why this disagreement matters …

The complexity of an academic text may mean that the reader needs more guidance than would be necessary in other types of prose. Typical language to refer backwards and forwards to specific parts of the text includes

  • this, these, that and those on their own or with nouns that summarize a recent idea, e.g. this phenomenon, these objectives, that argument
  • such, the same; one, both, some etc., e.g. if such a theory (i.e. the one recently mentioned) holds true, then …
  • the former/latter; respectively; above/below etc., e.g. in the preceding section of this report, we attempted to show …
  • modal will/shall to tell readers what they may expect to find further on in the text: In the second part of this report we will argue that new legislation is required to …

7. Particular uses of verb tenses/aspects

e.g. Both studies conclude that a sudden drop in temperature delays the bonding process.

Certain verb tenses/aspects carry specific meaning in academic English. The most typical are:

  • present simple to report research results (as above) and the arguments of other academics (As Steele explains, …) and to summarize articles, chapters etc. (This report considers the effects of … )
  • past simple to describe the procedure in particular experiments/studies as in Bernard (2007) interviewed 146 soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • present perfect to summarize arguments made up to a particular point in a text: The first part of this report has outlined how one-way road systems can be beneficial … and to place emphasis on the strength of current arguments: Keirston (2010) has shown that the onset of Type 2 diabetes can be delayed by …

Other grammatical features such as the frequency of the relative pronoun ‘which’ and the use of the ‘it cleft’ could be mentioned but in the interests of drawing the line somewhere, I’m stopping at seven! As usual, your comments are welcome.

For more information on ‘hedging’ and its use in academic writing, join my webinar ‘Language for hedging in academic English’ on 15 October.



Ten things you might not have known about the English language

Mystery boxAlex Hammond writes for ESL – Language Travel. In this guest post, he reveals a few little-known facts about the origins of the English language.

Hey, English speaker! Congratulations. You speak a language that straddles the globe like nothing before. Statistically, English is unlikely to be your first language and you are likely to be from an educated background. Again, congratulations.

Here are ten things that you may not have known about this wonderful language of ours:

1. It is the only major language without an academy to guide it

L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. Part of its job is suggesting alternatives for the English words that are pouring into French. That’s how email became courriel, for example (although you will still hear it called e-mail in French).

For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent to L’Académie for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.

There are political reasons for this. The closest Britain ever came to having a language academy was at the start of the eighteenth century, when Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift was lobbying hard for an academy because “our Language is extremely imperfect… its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions (and) in many Instances it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Queen Anne supported the idea but died before a decision could be made, and the issue was largely forgotten.

In the USA, a bill for the incorporation of a national academy was unsuccessfully introduced into congress in 1806. Fourteen years later, an American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres was launched with John Quincy Adams as president, but broke up after two years after receiving little political or public support.

Nowadays, the only English-speaking country to have a language academy is South Africa. Because the English language has become so ubiquitous without any guidance, there is little prospect of anyone starting an academy any time soon. Where would it be? In Britain, the home of the language? Or the USA, where the largest English-speaking population lives?

2. More than 1 billion people are learning English as you read this

According to the British Council, around 1 billion people around the world were learning English in 2000. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.

3. 96 of the 100 most common English words are Germanic

Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots. Together, those 100 words make up more than 50% of the Oxford English Corpus, which currently contains over 2 billion words found in writing around the world.

Surprised? The most frequently used words are the meat and bones of the language, the essentials that make communication work, including I, you, go, eat, and so on. Old English developed from various Germanic languages that came to the British Isles in the second half of the first millennium AD.

Whereas the language has changed almost unrecognisably since then, including the grammar, the basic words have remained.

4. …but most words that have entered the language since 1066 have Latin origins

If English is your first language but you find French or Spanish easier to understand than German, you are not alone. This may seem strange when English and German are on the same branch of the Indo-European language tree.

The Renaissance, which started in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas, or old ideas rediscovered, started flooding out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. So the language adopted or adapted the Latin words. During the Renaissance, the English lexicon roughly doubled in size.

The shift away from the Germanic languages, however, had started much earlier, because…
Continue reading


Using colour and hand signals to licence learners to drive their own connected speech

Man holding thumbs upIn this guest post, Arizio Sweeting, a Cambridge ESOL Oral Examiner, shares his tips for using colours and hand signals to help learners grasp pronunciation.

To teach or not to teach pronunciation? That’s the question. As paradoxical as this question may be, the answer for it should be simple: pronunciation is communication, and thus, worthy of attention in the language classroom. As an advocate for the teaching of connected speech, I am always looking for ways of raising my learners’ awareness of this productive capacity of spoken language.

In this post, I would like to share a colour-coding system I have been using with my learners to help them focus on prosodic features such as stress, elision, assimilation, linking and intonation. I have called it, Traffic Lights.

The rationale

Traffic lights are useful signals, so I thought they would be a helpful aid to guide my learners in their journey of discovery about connected speech. The Traffic Lights system is also supported by hand gestures such as finger clicking, hand waves, hand strokes and finger to thumb movements, which I believe help learners to relax rather than worrying too much about trying to work out what is happening in the mouth in order to allow themselves to enjoy the pronunciation practice via a more active and kinaesthetic approach.

Understandably, articulation exercises tend to focus too much on the ear and the mouth at times. However, for many learners this experience is rather daunting and unpleasant. By giving them an opportunity to visualise and cognitively shift the focus of the brain away from these body ‘instruments’, they stand a better chance of visualising and thus becoming more attune to natural speech. While observing my learners in action in the classroom, I have noticed some clear improvement in their ability to speak more intelligibly, even though their initial reactions to the approach being reserved.

The preparation

At the beginning of your course, introduce the learners to the systems. For this, the learners will need to have a four-colour pen and a copy of the Traffic Lights card below (which I like to laminate for them).

Traffic lights

Ask the learners to attach this card to their file, as they will need to refer to it on a regular basis during the course.

The application

Start by showing the learners some functional language for introductions of your choice. Here are some common get-to-know-each other questions:


First, get the learners to use the red ink in their pen to mark the STRESS in the language above e.g.


Encourage the learners to analyse this language in pairs or small groups.  Monitor and assist where necessary.

Continue reading