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Conversations about English

by Alan Townend

The important thing about a conversation is that two people are talking to one another about a particular topic. The question is: How can you and I talk to each other about English when you don't know me and I don't know you? Let me try to explain. I have taught English for many years now and I think I know many of the problems that a learner of English faces. You can look up words, phrases, constructions, grammatical points in literally thousands of grammar books. They will tell you that this is right and that is wrong.

They will tell you some people say this and some people say that. Now I am not being rude about grammar books. They are very important and also very useful when there is a question in your mind about something you want to say or write and something you want to check to make sure that what you write and say is correct. I have no intention of even thinking about going into competition with any of these grammar books. I only want to talk about the different elements in the language. When I say 'talk', what I mean is write about these elements in a way that is as near as talking as I can manage. And that brings me back to what I said at the beginning about a conversation. I want to have a conversation with you and want to imagine that you are 'listening to' or reading what I have written. The 'conversation' bit from you is when I have to imagine what you want to ask me. That is the part that you will have to accept. Only in that way can we have any sort of communication. I can only hope that you are still reading and want to carry on with this conversation.

There are no tests or questions in this collection of articles. I am not going to check to see if you have understood what I have explained. I know if you want to that you can read something again that you haven't understood. You can decide to read section 4 without reading section 3 and perhaps come back to section 3 later. This isn't a story although of course there is a main character in the collection, called English.

It's worth remembering that there is of course a language used to describe language. Special terms are sometimes used and they can be confusing. Why do we talk about finite and infinite verbs? Why do some people talk about the 'ing form' and others the gerund? What is a relative pronoun and come to that what is a pronoun? Words like these need to be explained so that we both know what we're talking about. That's why with each section headed by one of these words I have tried to explain what the word means.

And talking of words I see no point in learning any new word in isolation, on its own. A word is interesting in itself from the point of view of formation and sound but it has a job to do. The best way to know what that job entails is to see it at work in a sentence, in a context. That way you can avoid using the word in the wrong sense. Apart from having a meaning in context, a word is also part of a family. It can sometimes be a verb and also a noun. It can change into an adjective or an adverb with a slight change or addition of other letters. To know the word properly you have to know the family it belongs to. Learning new words this way is less frightening because the individual word isn't just another word to add to your vocabulary list but part of a group. Once you get to know the group, the separate members are easier to keep in your mind. One way to find out the meaning of a word pf course is to look it up in a dictionary. If you're going to do that, make sure it's a big dictionary. Small dictionaries can obviously provide the first step but because they don't have enough space, they can also mislead. Big dictionaries give you more depth and the best ones show you how and when the word is used.

Now in any conversation, which as I have said is the style I want to use in this book, there are bound to be expressions and idioms (don't worry we'll come on to this second type of expression later on). This isn't going to be a grammar book where every word and phrase has to be measured and considered before it can be used – it's going to be as near as I can make it to how I would be talking to you and that's why I use these expressions, some of which it's not easy always to explain from a logical point of view. If I think that the idiom is not obvious in meaning immediately, I will add an explanation in brackets so that you don't get lost.

Now, let's start talking here!

New words and expressions

Questions and exercises

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