Building negative sentences

So you’ve mastered the tenses, you know the difference between the present simple, perfect and continuous, but negative sentences are still difficult? When do we use an extra helping verb and when can just add not? Here is a brief guide to building negative sentences in English.

Present simple

When we form negative sentences in the present and past simple, we need a helping verb as well as the word not followed by the main verb. In the present, we use do or does:

I do not like chocolate. / I don’t like chocolate.

He does not like chocolate. / He doesn’t like chocolate.

do(es) + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing or to)

As we can see from these examples, we can shorten do not or does not to don’t or doesn’t. We do this a lot when we speak or write informally.

It’s not important what the main verb is, we nearly always need the helping verb to make a negative sentence. Sometimes we can have the verb do twice in once sentence, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb:

She does not do her homework. / She doesn’t do her homework.

This rule also applies to the verb have:

We do not have time. / We don’t have time.

Past simple

It’s the same with the past simple too, but this time we use did not or the short form didn’t:

I did not go to the meeting. / I didn’t go to the meeting.

We did not do the work. / We didn’t do the work.

He did not eat at home. / He didn’t eat at home.

did + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing, -ed or to)

The helping verb stays the same here; we don’t need to change it for he/she/it. Another important point to remember is that we don’t need to put the main verb in the past. The did is enough to show we’re talking about the past.

Exceptions

The only time we don’t need a helping verb with the simple tenses are with the verb be or modal verbs (e.g. can, must, should, might, may, will, shall, etc).

I am not at school. / I’m not at school.

He was not in Spain. / He wasn’t in Spain.

We must not open the door. / We mustn’t open the door.

They cannot pass the test. / They can’t pass the test.

She should not drive. / She shouldn’t drive.

Here, we simply add not after be or the modal verb.

Present continuous

Because we already have a helping verb in the sentence, we just add not between the helping verb and the main verb:

I am not going to the party. / I‘m not going to the party.

We are not giving the presentation. / We‘re not giving the presentation.

He is not learning Japanese. / He‘s not learning Japanese.

Other past tenses

Similarly in other past tenses, we already have a helping verb in the sentence (a form of either have or be). This means we just add not after the helping verb and we’re good to go.

We have not been to the cinema. / We haven’t been to the cinema.

I was not talking to my friend. / I wasn’t talking to my friend.

He had not visited Greece before. / He hadn’t visited Greece before.

Future tenses

When we use the helping verb will, we also just add not to the sentence:

I will not go the conference. / I won’t go the conference.

It will not rain tomorrow. / It won’t rain tomorrow.

Summary

The general rule is that if we already have a helping verb in a sentence, we just add not after the helping verb to make a sentence negative. If there is no helping verb (like in the present or past simple), we need to add one (e.g. do or did). There are, however, some exceptions, such as with the verb be or modal verbs.


Do you have other helpful tips for building negative sentences? Or do you have more questions? Feel free to post them in the comments below.

Five common mistakes when learning English

Learning a language is not always easy. There are new words to learn, grammar structures to master and different situations to practise using our new skills. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes when speaking a new language; it’s part of the learning process. I’ve collected five common mistakes when learning English and some tips on how to correct them.

1. If + will/would

If sentences can be confusing. There are lots of different types of if sentences and we can even mix them. However, one important rule is that will or would do not go in the same part of the sentence as if. They do not like each other! Here are some examples:

If I will see her, I will tell her.
If I see her, I will tell her.

If I would get the job, I would be very happy.

If I got the job, I would be very happy.

2. Double past tense

When we make negative sentences or questions in the past tense, we normally use the helping verb did or didn’t. This verb shows we are talking about the past. That means we don’t add -ed or use the past form of the main verb. For example:

I didn’t went to the show.
I didn’t go to the show.

Did you saw the email?
Did you see the email?

More tips on building negative sentences.

3. When to use present perfect

There are several rules that help us to decide if we need present perfect or simple past. Probably the most important one is that we cannot use present perfect with time words that show that something is finished, such as:

  • yesterday
  • last week
  • last month
  • on Tuesday
  • in October
  • in 2017
  • in the morning

Have you gone to the gym yesterday?
Did you go to the gym yesterday?

Has she called the client last week?
Did she call the client last week?

I’ve written on more tips on using the present perfect and past simple here.

4. Negative modal verbs

Modal verbs are special helping verbs. When we make a negative sentence with a modal verb (can, must, may, should, must, might, etc) we do not use don’t. Instead, we just add not after the modal verb.

I don’t can speak Spanish.
I can’t speak Spanish.

You don’t should wear your hat inside.
You shouldn’t wear your hat inside.

Must has special rules!

We don’t must finish the presentation today.
We don’t have to finish the presentation today.
(We can, but it’s not necessary.)

Note: We mustn’t smoke in the office.
(It is forbidden.)

5. Present simple or continuous?

This is a common mistake for both beginners and advanced learners. If an action is repeated, we use simple present. If an action is right now or for a short time around now, we use present continuous.

Every day I’m starting work at 8am.
Every day I start work at 8am.

At the moment I learn Russian.
At the moment I’m learning Russian.

More tips about present tenses can be found here.


Do you have any other tips to help with these topics? What do you find most difficult in English?

Essential phrases for your English class

Starting a new class can be scary. What if I don’t understand the teacher? What if I forget how to ask for something? What if I can’t talk to the other students? Being prepared can help us feel more confident in a new situation. Here are some phrases to help you in the classroom.

To the teacher

  • What does… mean? (You don’t understand a word.)
  • How do you spell…..? (You don’t know how to write a word.)
  • How do you say this word? (You don’t know how the word sounds.)
  • Can you repeat it?
  • I’ve finished.
  • Can you help me with question …?
  • I don’t understand this question.
  • Where is….?
  • I didn’t hear…
  • What page are we on?

Getting to know other students

  • What’s your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • What’s your job?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • Have you been to this school before?
  • Have you long have you been learning English?

Working together with other students

  • Shall we work together?
  • What do you think about question …?
  • Can you help me with question …?
  • Would you like to do question/role …?
  • Do you have a pen/piece of paper?

Discussions

  • What do you think about…?
  • What’s your opinion?
  • I agree/disagree.
  • I see your point, but …
  • That’s a good point.
  • Have you thought about …?

Online classes

  • Can you hear/see me?
  • How do I turn on the microphone/camera?
  • How do I leave the meeting?
  • How do I mute the microphone?
  • I can’t hear/see you (clearly).
  • The connection is poor.
  • The connection stopped.
  • I will re-start the meeting.

Which of these phrases do you use in class? Can you think of more to add to the list?

Say or tell?

Many languages have just one verb to express both say and tell, but in English there is an important difference between the two. Confusing the two can sometimes change the meaning of the sentence. But, don’t fear! There is a simple trick to remember when to use each verb.

The basic rule is we say something, but we tell someone something.

I said (that) I was leaving.

I told my friend (that) I was leaving.

That is optional in these sentences.

If we use the verb say and wanted to include the person, we need to before the person’s name.

I said to my friend (that) I was leaving.

More example sentences:

We said (that) the meeting room was booked.

We told our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

We said to our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

They said (that) they would go.

They told us (that) they would go.

They said to us (that) they would go.

Phrases with tell

There are also some special phrases with the verb tell, for example:

  • to tell the truth
  • to tell a lie
  • to tell the difference
  • to tell the time
  • to tell tales

Can you think of more examples?

Are there any other verbs you find difficult to use in English?

15 English/German false friends

One challenge – and source of confusion – for all language-learners is false friends. German and English do share many words which have either been adopted from the other language or which have similar linguistic roots. However, so-called false friends look or sound similar in two languages but have entirely different meanings! Here are 15 common false friends in English and German that often catch learners out.

eventuell/eventually

eventuell = perhaps

eventually = schließlich/letztendlich

irritieren/to irritate

This one could cause offence if misunderstood: if you are ‘irritiert’ in German, you are not irritated but confused!

irritieren = to confuse

to irritate = nerven

weil/while

weil = because

while = während (noun = die Weile)

das Gift/gift

das Gift = poison

gift = das Geschenk

aktuell/actual

aktuell = current

actual = tatsächlich

When spoken, different syllables are stressed: aktuell vs actual

sensibel/sensible

sensibel = sensitive

sensible = vernünftig

Note that the stress is different here too: sensibel vs sensible

Who/wer/where/wo

This four-way false cognate is particularly confusing for beginners!

wo = where

wer = who

spenden/spend

The German ‘spenden’ has a more charitable meaning than the false friend ‘spend’.

spenden = to donate

to spend = ausgeben

die Milliarde/million

Numbers are also a sticking point when learning a new language. Mixing these two words completely changes the amount you are talking about!

die Milliarde = billion

million = die Million

(die Billion = trillion)

der Chef/chef

These two professions have very different roles in the workplace!

der Chef = boss

chef = der Koch

das Gymnasium/gymnasium

And these two locations have very different functions!

das Gymnasium = grammar school

gymnasium = die Sporthalle

kontrollieren/to control

Though these two words can sometimes have a similar meaning, for example in the sense of ‘quality control’, they are often confused by learners of both languages.

kontrollieren = to check

to control = steuern/leiten/beeinflussen

checken/to check

checken = to understand/get it

to check = prüfen/kontrollieren

Note that ‘checken’ is a colloquial word most often used by younger people. It can also be used in the context of checking emails (‘meine E-Mails checken’).

die Nudeln/noodles

German uses ‘Nudeln’ to describe both noodles and pasta. To avoid confusion, you can specify that you’re talking about ‘asiatische Nudeln’ when you mean noodles.

die Nudeln = pasta/noodles

noodles = asiatische Nudeln

bekommen/to become

Lastly, the ultimate English/German false friend:

bekommen = to receive

to become = werden


I hope you find these tips helpful. 🙂 Do you know any other English/German false friends? If so, feel free to share them below.

Top podcasts to learn English

Podcasts are an excellent way to practise listening skills. There are podcasts out there for every level and interest, and often they are short, so you can listen more than once to understand as much as possible. Many podcasts also come with an audio script or even interactive activities, so you can read along as you listen or test your understanding. Another great thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them while you’re doing something else, like travelling to work or cooking dinner. This means you can practise English without finding extra time in your day.

My top tip for working with podcasts would be not to worry about understanding every word. Even when we listen in our native language, we miss words or we don’t understand a phrase. It doesn’t matter because we understand enough information to know what the presenter is talking about. This is the same when we’re learning a new language: we don’t need to know every word. Instead, it’s better to try and understand the main ideas. If we listen again a second or third time, we can pick up more details.

There are plenty of podcasts specifically for learners on particular topics or grammar structures, but we can also use more general interest podcasts in English to help improve our skills. I have collected some of my favourite podcasts for English learners below.

British Council

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate +
  • These podcasts are like radio shows.
  • The LearnEnglish podcasts discuss different topics from every life and also follow the story of a student moving to the UK.
  • There are also podcasts aimed at professionals, as well as ones focusing on writing skills and British culture.
  • On the website there are online activities and transcripts (can also be downloaded as a PDF).
  • The LearnEnglish Podcasts app shows the script of the podcast and highlights the sentence so you can read along. It’s possible to make the audio slower. There are also interactive activities for each episode.
  • Average length: 5-30 minutes

BBC 6 Minute English

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate + (depending on grammar topic)
  • 6 Minute Grammar podcasts are short, understandable podcasts from the BBC are a great way to help you understand tricky grammar topics. Each episode includes a short, clear description, lots of examples and a short quiz at the end.
  • 6 Minute English is like a short radio show on general interest topics, such as politics, the economy and psychology. There are also notes on key vocabulary and a question to answer when listening.
  • 6 Minute Vocabulary focuses on different vocabulary topics, such as words for particular situations or words easily confused. It also gives tips on how to use the new words.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are also available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 6 minutes

BBC The English We Speak

  • Aimed at upper intermediate +
  • These are short podcasts on special expressions or idioms to help you sound more natural when speaking English.
  • The transcripts are available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 2-3 minutes

TED

  • Aimed at native speakers, for upper intermediate and advanced students.
  • These talks are on a range of topics, including science, technology, the economy, society, the environment and personal development.
  • The talks are usually clearly spoken and well structured, making them easier to follow. They are also a good way to get used to different accents.
  • In the app, it’s possible to shows subtitles in a language of your choice (I recommend English) and to reduce the speed.
  • Average length: 15-20 mins (Radio hour 60 mins)

Luke’s English Podcast

  • Aimed at intermediate +
  • Relaxed talk shows on a variety of topics, including British culture,general interest and the presenter Luke’s life.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are available in the app.
  • Most of the podcasts are free, but there is some premium content.
  • Average length: 1 hour

Which podcasts do you listen to? Share your favourites in the comments below.

Asking questions in the present simple

When we learn a new language, we learn lots of new vocabulary. We quickly learn to make sentences. But it’s also important to ask questions. We need questions when we are travelling, at work or at school. This post focuses on making questions in the simple present tense.

Questions with a helping verb

Let’s take a simple sentence in the present tense:

I like chocolate.
Subject – verb – object

The main verb in this sentence is like.

To make a question, we also need a helping verb. The helping in the simple present is normally do. This goes at the beginning of the question, and the subject and the main verb swap places:

Do you like chocolate?
Helping verb – subject – main verb – object

Here is another example:

They work in Manchester.

Do they work in Manchester?

Here is an example with the main verb do. It sounds strange because we say do twice, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb.

I always do my homework.

Do you always do your homework?

He/she/it

If the subject in the sentence is he/she/it (a person or a thing) we add an ‘s’ to the verb.

She plays tennis.

To make a question we use the helping verb does but the main verb does not have an ‘s’. We only need one ‘s’ in the question.

Does she play tennis?

Most verbs use do as a helping verb in the simple present, but there are some special verbs with different rules.

Questions without a helping verb

The verb to be doesn’t have a helping verb. To make a question, just swap the verb and the subject:

I am happy.
Are you happy?

He is here.
Is he here?

They are finished.
Are they finished.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs include can, must, should, etc. They are used with other main verbs in the sentence. They are like helping verbs. If there is a modal verb, there is no extra verb helping verb in the question. We just swap the modal verb and the subject.

I can speak Spanish.
Can you speak Spanish?

They should be here.
Should they be here?

We will see the film.
Will we see the film?

With W question words

If we use a W question word (when, where, why, what, etc.), this comes at the beginning of the question. After that comes the helping verb do.

When do you start work?
Where do you live?
Why do you like the film?
What do you think about the new project?


Extra practice
It can feel strange to use "do" to make questions, but it's 
important to practise this form. Make a short list of verbs 
from your course. For each verb, say and then write a 
question with "do" as a helping verb. 

What questions do you often ask at work or at school?

Present simple or present continuous?

English is famous for having lots of tenses to choose from. The first tenses to learn are the present tenses, talking about now. In English, we have different ways of thinking about what ‘now’ means. In this post, I’ve explained some of the main differences between the present simple and present continuous and when to use these tenses.

Form

Let’s take a look at the form of these tenses first.

The present simple is constructed like this:

I work. – I don’t work. – Do you work?

She works. – She doesn’t work. – Does she work?

When we form negative sentences and questions, we use the helping verb do. When we talk about he/she/it, we add an ‘s’ to the main verb (or helping verb in negative sentences and questions).

The present continuous is constructed like this:

I am working. – I am not working. – Are you working?

She is working. – She is not working. – Is she working?

In these sentences, we always need the helping verb be and the ing form of the main verb.

Facts

When we talk about facts and things that are always true, we use the present simple. For example:

Water boils at 100 degrees.

The town is 20 miles from the coast.

He has dark hair.

Routine

When we talk about routines and repeated actions, we use the present simple. There are some signal words that show this, including often, usually, sometimes, rarely, never, every day, once a year, etc. If we answer the question “How often….?” we use also the present simple.

I leave the house at 7 am every morning.

We go to the cinema once a month.

He usually has meetings on Tuesdays.

The company closes over Christmas every year.

Actions right now

When we talk about actions taking place at this moment, we use the present continuous. Signal words for this include right now, at the moment, at this minute, today, this morning, just, etc. For example:

I’m doing my homework.

Right now I’m finishing the report.

At the moment I’m trying to call the hotline.

Today we’re discussing the budget.

Actions around now

We also use the present continuous for actions around now. This means something might not be happening at this moment, but it is a temporary situation still ongoing. For example:

I’m learning Spanish.

We’re working on the new project.

She’s staying with a friend for a month.

Changes

To describe changes taking place now, we use the present continuous. For example:

Our customers are using our online chat more often.

More people are cycling to work.

Young people are becoming more interested in politics.

Future plans

We can also use the present continuous to describe future plans that are set and have been planned, often with someone else. For example:

I’m going on holiday in June.

We’re visiting our sister at the weekend.

They’re going out for lunch tomorrow.

Summary

As a general rule, it could be helpful to remember that if something only happens once or for a short time, we use the present continuous, and if it happens more than once, we use the present simple.


Extra practice
Make a short list of verbs from your course. For each verb, say
and then write two sentences with that verb, one in the present
simple and one in the present continuous. For example: 'work' -->
'I work from nine to five every day.' / 'I am working on an 
important project at the moment.' 

Do you have any more tips and tricks to remember which tense to use?

Top tips for learning vocabulary

Whether you’re learning English with a teacher, a course book or through self-study, one of the hardest things is learning all the new words and phrases you need. Which words should you learn? How should you record them? How often should you practice? Here are my top tips for vocabulary-learning success.

Find a system

When learning a language we hear and read lots of new words and phrases. Before we can memorise the words, we need a way to record them. There are lots of systems people use to write down their vocabulary. There is no right or wrong system, but here are some examples:

  • a traditional vocabulary book:  a list of English words and either translations in their language (sometimes translations are not possible!) or descriptions
  • flashcards: the new word of phrase on one side of the card and a description, picture or translation on the other
  • mind maps: the topic in the middle of a page and related vocabulary sorted into categories, e.g. ‘restaurants’ and then the categories ‘verbs in a restaurant’, ‘phrases to order food’, ‘food types’, ‘objects in a restaurant’, ‘adjectives to describe restaurants’, etc.
  • spreadsheets: a list of English words and the translation or description in the next column.
  • apps: there are lots of apps available to help with vocabulary. Some let you add your own words; some already have set categories.
  • post-its: label objects around your house with post-it notes, or have a wall/door where you stick up words you are trying to learn. The words can be colour-coded according to word type or situation.

Start small

Take five new words you would like to learn, the most important words for your job or everyday life. Every day when you are eating breakfast, sitting on the bus or cooking dinner, make a sentence with each new word. Repeat this every day for a week or until you know the words very well. The next week you can try new words. If five words are too easy, try eight or ten words. It’s better to start small and then make it more difficult if needed.

This is a good method because we remember new words and phrases better when we actively use them. It also means that you don’t need to find extra time in your day to learn vocabulary. You can practise when you are doing something else. Follow the link to read more about practising English you don’t have much time.

Practice makes perfect

When we have worked hard to learn new words, we want to remember them for a long time. It’s good to regularly review vocabulary using the systems above, for example, by covering the English words and then testing how many you remember. Instead of just saying the word or writing it down, try to put it in a sentence. You can also try to make a story with groups of words. Learning vocabulary is an active process.


Do you have any more tips for learning vocabulary? I’d love to hear them in the comments below! Also, let me know if you try out any of these methods.

Easy English: How to practise when you have no time

One of the most common reasons people give up learning a language is because they do not have enough time. They have a busy job, a family to look after, friends to visit and they play sports too. When should they practise English?

It’s true that learning a language needs work and takes time, but there are lots of things we can do to practise that take no extra time from our day. Here are some tips for fitting language learning into your schedule.

Vocabulary

Learning new vocabulary doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Make sentences with new words when you are doing something else, like eating breakfast, sitting on the bus or cooking dinner. Repeat this every day for a week or until you know the words very well, then try new words. Apps are also a good way to quickly practise vocabulary for a few minutes each day.

In addition, write down a few words you want to learn on post-it notes and stick them somewhere easy to see, like a mirror. Every time you look at the mirror you will see the words you want to learn. It’s even better if you can make sentences with these words too.

Here are some more tips for learning vocabulary effectively.

Reading

You don’t need to do anything extra in your day to practise reading in English. Change your phone, laptop or social media account settings. This way, you will be reading English regularly with no extra work. It’s also a good way to learn some new vocabulary.

Lots of us like to read the news in the morning when we have breakfast or are on the bus or train. Instead of doing this in your own language, why not read a short article in English? It’s also a great way to keep up-to-date with news in different countries.

Listening

I am a big fan of podcasts when it comes to learning languages. There are podcasts for every level and interest. Some are made for people learning English, but more advanced students can also listen to general podcasts too. Choose a short podcast to start (5-10 minutes) and listen to it when you are on the bus/cooking dinner/cleaning your house.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything first time – you can play it through again.  Remember we don’t need to understand every word to understand the main ideas in the podcast. This is a great way to practise listening to different accents and to get a feeling for the language.

Speaking

Speaking is probably the hardest skill to practise regularly if you do not live in an English-speaking country or need English in your job. If you have a friend or family member who speaks English, you could always speak to them in English, or choose one day of the week to be ‘English day’. It feels strange at first but it’s a great way to practise together.

If there is no one to speak to, you can practise on your own too. For example, every day when you come home from work you could talk for two minutes about what happened during your day. You can get used to speaking English, and there is no pressure from other people.

Writing

Write to-do lists, shopping lists and notes for yourself in English. We write these things anyway, so it’s not extra work. It may take a little longer the first time, but you will quickly learn the words and phrases you often use.

If you have a friend or a family member who speaks English, you could also message or email them in English for extra practice. This way, you can help and correct each other too.


These are my tips for learning a language when you don’t have much time. I’d love to know if you try any of them. Do you have any more ideas?