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Monday, December 31, 2018

Misuse of the Semi-Colon

Misuse of the Semi-Colon

The Semicolon is one of the punctuation marks frequently misused in writing.

A semicolon is used between a dependent clause and an independent clause.

e.g. Although he was very tired; he did not want to go to bed. (incorrect)

e.g. Although he was very tiredhe did not want to got to bed. (a comma should be used instead)

A semicolon is used to introduce a list.

e.g. The box was filled with everything but booksclothing, snacks, hammers and tools. (incorrect)

e.g. The box was filled with everything but booksclothing, snacks, hammers and tools. (a colon should be used instead)

A semicolon is not used between an introductory phrase and the rest of the sentence.

e.g. Her hands tremblingshe managed to pour the toxic liquid into the tube. (incorrect)

e.g. Her hands tremblingshe managed to pour the toxic liquid into the tube (a comma should be used instead)

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Confusing Vocabulary

Confusing Vocabulary

Writing is made up of words. The first requirement of writing English is to learn some English words every day to build up your vocabulary -- you may have to know at least a few thousand words before you can write effectively.

Learning vocabulary may look daunting to you (you may not know the word daunting, but most probably you can still guess that it means something like "difficult"; that is how you learn a new work  by relating it to the context in a sentence), but you have to learn it cumulatively, that is, learning a few words every day. 

Advance / Advancement

Advance, as a verb, means going forward or making progress; advancement means promotion.

e.g. With the advance of winter, days are growing shorter.

e.g. To seek advancement in your career, you need to work extra hard or get a higher qualification.

Observable / Observant

Observable: can be seen or noticed; observant: quick to pay attention.

e.g. The solution to the problem is observable to many scientists.

e.g. To be a good scientist, you must be observant of all the relevant details and data.

Noteworthy / Noticeable

Noteworthy means deserving attention; noticeable means easily seen.

e.g. The candidate's accomplishments are noteworthy.

e.g. The flaws in the Governor's character are easily noticeable to the public.

Pretense Pretension

Pretense is to make believe; pretension is a claim

e.g. She makes no pretense to like her mother-in-law. (She does not pretend that she likess her mother-in-law)

e.g. He made no pretension to that award. (He never claimed that he received that award)

All / All of

All is used for amount, quantity, distance, and length of time.

e.g. all the money, all the way, all day, all night,

All of is used when a simple pronoun follows.

e.g. all of it, all of you, all of us.

All and all of may be used when it refers to number.

e.g. All or all of the employees are satisfied with the new policy.

e.g. All or all of the children in the family have gone to college.

 / Ingenuous

Ingenious is clever; ingenuous is natural, free from deceit.

e.g. I must say that was an ingenious way to fund the project.

e.g. The Mayor's response to the questions from the reporter was sincere and ingenuous.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Learn Some Common American Expressions

Learn Some Common American Expressions

Half-baked: silly.

e.g. What do you take me for? A fool half-baked!

Keep early hours: go to bed early.

e.g. If you want good health, keep early hours.

Hard stuff: whisky or any liquor.

e.g."Would you like a Coke?" "I'd prefer some hard stuff."

Make one's pile: make one's fortune.

e.g. Real estate is where he makes his pile.

Go under: fail.

e.g. I am sorry to say that all your proposals have gone under.

Hook on to: attach oneself to.

e.g. Don't hook on to your computer all day.

Hook it: depart immediately.

e.g. Come on, hook it; our parents will be back soon.

Can't complain: okay.

e.g. "How are things going with you?" "Can't complain."

What gives?: what happened?

e.g. "Hey, guys, what gives?" "We just had an argument; now it's okay."
e.g. "Where's your purse? What gives?"

Heads up: look around; be careful.

Pooped: exhausted.

e.g. I was pooped after working for nine hours in the yard.

Hard at it: busy.

.e.g. "Are you working on the project?" "You bet! I'm hard at it."

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Friday, December 28, 2018

Incorrect Pronouns

Incorrect Pronouns

According to a Stanford University Study, using the wrong words is common in English writing, particularly in ESL learners.

So, be careful with your choice of words. Let’s take a look at the use of pronouns.

Possessive pronouns are: mine, yours, ours, his, hers.

This book is mine. = This is my book.

This pen is yours. = This is your pen.

This chair is ours. = This is our chair.

This car is his. = This is his car.

This hat is hers. = This is her hat.

This is its origin. = This is the origin of it.

APOSTROPHES are added to nouns to show possession.

e.g. The manager’s assistant (singular); the managers’ assistant (plural).

APOSTROPHES are added to pronouns to show contraction.

e.g. It’s = it is; they’re = they are; we’re = we are; he’s = he is; she’s = she is.

Pay attention to the difference between the subject pronoun and the object pronoun.

e.g. He and I took part in the competition. (not me)

e.g. It was who won the medal. (not me)

e.g. Please discuss this between him and me. (not between he and I)

e.g. You will have to ride with him and me. (not with he and I)

Stephen Lau

Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Different Types of Writing

Different Types of Writing

Effective writing begins with knowing and understanding which type of writing you are going to do. There are different types of writing, and each type may require constructing paragraphs in different ways. Decide the type of writing you are going to do.


In exposition, a writer reveals what he or she thinks, knows, or believes. It explains complex or difficult concepts; helps readers understand a topic. Exposition is constructed and organized logically around the following:

Assertion and denial

State what is true and what is false, and explain.

Cause and effect

Ask the question “Why?” and then supply the answer.


Define or explain a difficult concept in simple or layman terms for easier understanding.

General and particular

Begin with the general, and then add details with explanation and examples.

Positive and negative

Analyze and compare the advantages and disadvantages, or the positive and negative aspects of two or more ideas or things.


In description, a writer deals with perceptions, especially visual perceptions. It gives readers a clear mental image of an object or event. Description follows a spatial pattern, and a general sequence, such as the following:

Above and below

Before and after

Right and left


In narration, a writer tells a story. It gives the readers a clear understanding image of what happened in sequence over time. Narration uses words and phrases describing time relationships, such as yesterdaythen, and next. Most narration will include description as well.


In persuasion, a writer seeks to change how readers believe or think. Persuasion employs the following strategies:

Arguments: presenting evidence and logical proof

Eloquence: appealing to general ideals and noble sentiments

Satire: making fun of something or someone in order to make the readers see the absurdity

Stephen Lau

Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Learn Some American Colloquial Expressions

Learn Some American Colloquial Expressions

Killer: a very funny joke.

e.g. That last one was really a killer;  everybody laughed.

Kick back: relax and enjoy.

e.g I really want to kick back and enjoy the music.

Shag: depart.

e.g. I gotta shag now!

Kick the bucket: die.

e.g. He kicked the bucket when he smashed his car into the wall.

Keep one's cool: calm down and in control..

e.g. The burglar was able to keep his cool when he was stopped by the policeman.

Jammed up: in trouble.

e.g. He got himself jammed up (arrested) with the police

Face-off: a confrontation.

e.g. After my face-off with the manager, I quit the job.

Screw around: waste time.

e.g. Stop screwing around! Find something to do!

Cop out: plead guilty.

e.g. I decided not to cop out and got a lawyer instead.

Smoke eater: a fire fighter.

e.g. Do you really want to be a smoke eater -- a dangerous occupation?

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Use of Adverbs

The Use of Adverbs

An adverb modifies an action or an adjective.

Adverbs are often formed by adding "ly" to an adjective.

e.g. He sings beautifully.

e.g. Please talk slowly.

e.g. She is driving carefully.

Some adverbs take the comparative and superlative forms with more and most.

e.g. My father walks more slowly than my mother (does).

e.g. He is the most talented student in the class.

Exceptions to the rule are: fast, faster, fastest; hard, harder, hardest; soon, sooner, soonest.

e.g. I can run faster (not more fast) than you (do).

e.g. She is the hardest working student in the class.

e.g. We can get  there soonest by plane.

Certain adjectives do not require adverbs to modify them.

e.g. essential (NOT absolutely essential: essential means “absolutely necessary”)

e.g. unique (NOT most unique or extremely unique: unique means “one of a kind”)

e.g. universe (NOT most universal: there is only one universe.)

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Monday, December 24, 2018

American Idioms for ESL Learners

American Idioms for ESL Learners

Get the blues: become sad.
e.g. Many people get the winter blues in this kind of dreary weather.

Back to back: following immediately.
e.g. We were busy with appointments back to back.

Come to think of it: I just remembered.
e.g. Come to think of it, you owe me some money.

Have one's head in the clouds: not knowing what is happening.
e.g. She drifted along with her head in the clouds.

Bark up the wrong tree: ask or choose the wrong person.
e.g. If you think I'm the guilty person, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Get a load off one's mind: say what one is thinking.
e.g. I have a lot to tell you; I just want to get a load off my mind.

Bury one's head in the sand: ignore the obvious danger.
e.g. You need to deal with the situation; you just cannot bury your head in the sand.

Johnny-come-lately: a late comer.
e.g. We have been doing this for years. Why should we let a Johnny-come-lately tell us what to do?

Kiss and make up: forgive and be friends again.
e.g. We had a big quarrel, but in the end we kissed and made up.

By the same token: in the same way.
e.g. I gave you financial assistance before; by the same token, I expect you to help me this time.

Stephen Lau 
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Choice of Words

Choice of Words

Writing has to do with words, in particular, the choice of words. A good stock of vocabulary is of course important. But other than that, you also need to know the exact meaning of each word so that you will use it correctly. There are many words that may sound similar, but they have different meanings, and thus they are confusing. 

Mellow / Melodious

Mellow: mature; soft and pure; rich and full.
e.g. As he continues to age, he become more mellow and compassionate.

Melodious: tuneful; pleasant to the ear.
e.g. He voice is melodious; he should take up singing.

Reign / Rein

Reign means to rule over; rein means to control (e.g. an animal)
e.g. The emperor reigned over the country for decades.
e.g. You must rein in your hot temper.
e.g. Beware of giving free rein to your reason. (i.e. not release from any restraint).

Defuse / Diffuse

Defuse means to decrease the danger, such as deactivate a bomb; diffuse means to spread over a wide area.
e.g. It is difficult to defuse the conflicts in the Middle East.
e.g. Once you open the bottle of fragrant herbs, their scents will diffuse.

Genteel / Gentle

Genteel: well-bred, polite; imitating the lifestyle of the rich.
e.g. Your friend is genteel. Is he very rich?
e.g. All along he has been living in genteel poverty. He is not practical.

Gentle: soft and tender.
e.g. Be gentle with that little puppy.

Faint / Feint

Faint (both as a noun and a verb) means loss of consciousness; feint means a misleading attack.
e.g. She fainted when she heard the bad news.
e.g. The robber, who gave a feint, began to attack the policeman.

Studio / Studious

Studio: a place where pictures are taken, or films are made.
e.g. The film was made in a Hollywood studio.
Studious: fond of study; careful and thoughtful.
e.g. To be a good scientist, you must be studious.

Hail / Hale

Hail means to greet or salute; hale means healthy and strong.
e.g. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee."
e.g. A man is hale when his complexion is rosy.

Some time / Sometime / Sometimes

Some time means a period of time.
Sometime, as an adverb, means approximately; as an adjective, means former or occasional.
Sometimes, as an adverb, means now and then.
e.g. We have been for the train for some time.
e.g. Why don't you visit me sometime?
e.g. She was my sometime girlfriend.
e.g. Sometimes I like her, and sometimes I don't -- that's our relationship.

Lose / Loose

Lose means being unable to find; loose means to set free or to become less tight.
e.g. Here is your ticket to the game; don't lose it.
e.g. Don't lose your temper (become angry).
e.g. You are too loose with your children (you have little or no control over them).
e.g. This dress is too loose for me; I need a smaller size.

Decorative / Decorous

Decorative: having an artistic or showy effect.
e.g. The ballroom with all the ribbons and flowers are very decorative.
Decorous: showing good taste.
e.g. The Princess looks decorous in that simple but elegant dress.

Foul / Fowl

Foul means dirty or offensive; fowl  is a bird, such as hen.
e.g. The smoke from that factory fouls the air. (as a verb)
e.g. He always speak foul language, even in the presence of ladies. (as an adjective)
e.g. We are going to have a roast fowl for Thanksgiving.

Currant / Current

Currant means a kind of black berry; current means a movement of air or water; or of the present time.
e.g. We enjoy the dessert made with honey and currant.
e.g. The water may not be safe for swimming because there is a strong current below the water surface.
e.g. His secretary always keeps him updated with current affairs.

Terminable / Terminal

Terminable: can be ended.
e.g. Your job is only temporary and terminable at any time.
Terminal: at the end.
e.g. The doctor told the patient that she had terminal cancer.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Some Catch Phrases for You

Learn Some Catch Phrases

The English language is rich in catch phrases, which have caught on with the public. Learn some catch phrases to enrich your use of the language. 

There’s blood for breakfast: someone’s temper is very bad this morning.

e.g. Your Mom got off on the wrong side of the bed. So behave yourself: there’s blood for breakfast!

Mum's the word

Not a word of the pudding: say nothing about it; Mum’s the word! (don’t say a word; keep it a secret!).

e.g. It’s just between us; Mom’s the word!

And that’s that: that’s the end of the matter.

e.g. I’m not going, and that’s that! (i.e. the matter is closed; no more discussion)

Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do: giving a piece of good advice.

e.g. Bye now! And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do! (i.e. be good)

Go up one: excellent; good for you.

e.g. Good job! Well done! Go up one!

Not if you don’t: a responder to “do you mind?”—i.e. I do mind!

e.g. “Do you mind if I use yours?” “Not if you don’t!”

He thinks he holds it: conceited and vain.

e.g. I don’t like his attitude: he thinks he holds it.

Don’t I know it: how well I know it.

e.g. You don’t have to tell me! Don’t I know it!

Back to the kennel: go way (in a contemptuous way); get back into your box!

e.g. You’re annoying me! Get back into your box!

Don’t pick me up before I fall: don’t criticize prematurely.

e.g. I don’t want to hear a word from you. Don’t pick me up before I fall!

That’s playing it on the heart-strings: that’s being sentimental instead of realistic.

e.g. Falling head over heals for that girl is more like playing it on the heart-strings.

A snake in your pocket: reluctant to buy his friends a round of drinks or to pay the bill

e.g. Now it's your turn to foot the bill! Have you got a snake in your pocket or something?

Spare a rub: let me have some.

e.g. Don’t take everything: spare me a rub!

Every barber knows that: that’s common gossip.

e.g. That is no longer a secret: every barber knows that.

Easy as you know how: it’s easy—if you know how.

e.g. There is nothing to this: it’s easy as you know how!

I see, said the blind man: a humorous way of saying “I understand!”

e.g. You’re telling me! I see, said the blind man.

I’ll take a rain check: I’ll accept, another time, if I may.

e.g. “Come over to my place for a drink.” “Some other time; I’ll take a rain check.”

Where’s the fire?: what’s all the rush?

e.g. What’s the matter with you? Where’s the fire?

Where’s the body?: why look so sad?

e.g. That’s not the end of the world! Where’s the body?

You must hate yourself!: don’t be so conceited!

e.g. The way you talked to her just now—you must hate yourself for doing that.

Head I win—tail you lose: I’m in a win-win situation.

e.g. It’s mine! Head I win—tail you lose!

Like a red rag to a bull: something that provokes annoyance or anger.

e.g. His very presence was like a red rag to a bull—immediately she looked sullen and sulky.

It’ll all come out in the wash: It’ll be OK; it doesn’t really matter.

e.g. Don’t worry about these minor details; they’ll all come out in the wash!

It’s boloney: it’s utter nonsense.

e.g. To do this is in the wrong order is like putting the cart before the horse—it’s boloney!

A fiasco: a complete failure of organization or performance.

e.g. The government’s bailout of the banks was a fiasco.

Hot from the mint: something “brand new” (mint is a place where money is coined).

e.g. The concept is innovative; it’s hot from the mint!

Straight from the horse’s mouth: first-hand news.

e.g. The story is v
ery reliable—it’s straight from the horse’s mouth.
No second prize: used for someone making an unoriginal suggestion

e.g. I must say there’s no second prize for your proposal!

Nothing to do with the case: it’s a lie

e.g. What you're telling me has nothing to do with the case!

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Choose the Correct Words

Writing has to do with words, in particular, the choice of words. A good stock of vocabulary is of course important. But other than that, y...