Sign up for the international students’ newsletter

Sign up for the international students’ newsletter

In recognition of the fact that many of the students who use Critical Reader guides are located outside the United States, we are launching a monthly newsletter specifically for students international students applying to universities in the English-speaking world (focus on the United States and Canada).

Sign up below, and get news and information about admissions, testing, visas, and scholarships.

Now available: recorded webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers

Now available: recorded webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers

I’m happy to announce that my Working with Struggling Older Readers: What Tutors Need to Know is now available at Although it is geared toward SAT/ACT tutors, it can be adapted by anyone working with struggling older readers in middle school or above.

The program includes the following: 

Part 1 (53:00) covers some of the background issues that influence the reading process and that can interfere with students’ ability to connect letters on a page to authentic language. (If you’ve read my series of blog posts on this topic, some of the material will probably be familiar, but I encourage you to watch this part regardless since it summarizes the major issues and provides important context for Part 2).

Part 2 (1:47) is a step-by-step guide to a series of systematic, age-appropriate exercises designed to help older readers process sound-letter combinations more accurately and fluently so that they can focus on the meaning of what they read. (more…)

How to write a body paragraph for the IELTS Task 2 essay

How to write a body paragraph for the IELTS Task 2 essay

Although it is very important to make a good first impression on your examiner by writing a strong introduction to your Task 2 essay, the body paragraphs are where your overall mark will really be determined.

Body paragraphs form the substance of your essay, and so it is important that they be structured logically (Coherence and Cohesion), and in a way that allows you to respond to the question as directly and thoroughly as possible (Task Analysis).

Because the Writing test requires you to apply so many skills at the same time, it can be very helpful to have a standard body-paragraph “formula” that can be used for virtually any question.

Once you have determined the focus of your paragraph, each new idea can be introduced with linking device + point.

You can then discuss that point or give an example to illustrate it using no more than two additional sentences. The limit prevents repetition, over-explaining, and going off-topic.


Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Slowly but surely, I am making progress on my webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers.

After a crash course in using Zoom to record PowerPoints, numerous attempts, and much time spent finagling computer-camera angles in my office, I’ve actually managed to produce what I hope is a serviceable recording. (I was having a bad hair day in pt. 2, but I’m hoping that everyone can deal;)

There are two parts: a shorter (approx. 40 mins.) introduction part, in which I summarize some of the key issues and background information (the Simple View; the Matthew effect; the three-cueing system); and a longer recording (1:45), in which I present and demonstrate a series of short exercises based on the sequence developed by my colleague Richard McManus at the Fluency Factory in Cohasset, Mass.

Although I spend a lot of time going over the exercises, they can actually be done in about 30 mins. and can thus be split with regular test prep. I’ve also tried to actually integrate SAT/ACT-based materials into the exercises as much as possible.

I’m currently working on the materials packet (probably in the range of 70-75 pages) and will hopefully have the whole thing ready by the week of November 7th. I haven’t yet determined the overall price, but the packet will be included along with the webinar because it would be pretty ridiculous to explain all of the exercises without, you know, actually providing them. Initially, I was going to focus on the ACT since that’s the test where speed and processing issues tend to become most apparent, but because the SAT is the more popular test, I’ve integrated some material from that exam as well.

A few points:

First, the webinar focuses on decoding issues rather than “reading” in the traditional test-prep sense. I want to be super clear about this so that people aren’t surprised.

Now, I understand that when reading issues are discussed in the context of older students, the assumption is that the conversation needs to focus on comprehension rather than letter-sound correspondences, but often that’s a false dichotomy. If a student is having difficulty reading the literal words on the page, and doing so fast enough to connect them to actual language, their comprehension is going to suffer.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work the other way around. There is absolutely no way to address a decoding issue via discussion of a text. Strong readers are not able to decode words because they have a personal connection to them; they are able to decode because their brains have “mapped” numerous letter-sound patterns and stored them for automatic retrieval so that they can process text at the speed of sight.

If a student is chronically guessing, skipping, and misreading words, particularly if they’re also reading slowly, something in that process got interrupted or was never developed properly, and their overall reading will not improve significantly until it’s addressed. And if you’re working with a student who reads very slowly and has comprehension problems, it’s entirely possible they have a decoding problem that no one’s ever picked up on. This happens far more often than you might imagine. (On the other hand, if a student can decode quickly and with 100% accuracy but can’t understand what they read, the material in the webinar probably* doesn’t apply to them.)

Obviously, you need to continue to discuss vocabulary, meaning, summarizing, etc. But if you’re a tutor, you probably already know how to do that just fine and don’t need any help from me; it’s the other piece that people generally don’t know about. I certainly didn’t, and it would have made my life a heck of lot easier when I was tutoring. At the very least, it would have given me a framework for understanding a lot of the difficulties I was seeing and saved me from 10 years of trying to figure out what to do about them.

Next: Even if you’ve read my blog posts on these issues, I’m still going to recommend that you watch Part 1 because I think I’ve managed to really crystallize the issues and bring them into focus in a test-prep context. I spent many, many hours (weeks, actually) organizing and rewriting slides to make things as clear as possible, and the exercises I cover in Part 2 will really only make sense in that context.

Finally, I have received some requests for one-on-one consulting, but I’m going to ask that even if you’re interested in working with me privately, you view the full webinar first. If what you see piques your interest and you want to learn more, then feel free to get in touch.



*Richard McManus has a famous story about a student who appeared to be reading aloud perfectly but understood virtually nothing that she read. He was baffled until a colleague recognized that the girl couldn’t hear vowel sounds properly. They worked on the vowels, and her comprehension improved markedly. Sometimes decoding problems aren’t obvious.

To make your IELTS writing more idiomatic, stop trying to use idioms

To make your IELTS writing more idiomatic, stop trying to use idioms

Fiona Wattam at IELTS Etc. recently put up an excellent post on some of the trickier aspects of using idioms well in IELTS essays, and it got me thinking about that topic as well. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a very popular subject: a quick Google search turns up almost four million results, some of which offer very contradictory advice.

I spent a lot of time thinking about idioms while writing (and repeatedly rewriting) that section of my IELTS grammar book, and at a certain point—perhaps after my tenth revision?—I came to a realization and finally managed to put the issue into words: using idioms is not the same as speaking or writing idiomatically.

I realize that statement might sound very contradictory so, to use a frequently memorized Task 1 General Training phrase, allow me to explain:

Essentially, the problem lies in the similarity of the terms idiom and idiomatic. One could very reasonably assume that they refer to the same thing, but in reality… not quite.

Generally speaking, idioms are fixed phrases in which words are frequently used in non-literal ways. For example, the American idiom out of left field (a baseball reference) refers to something said or done very unexpectedly.

The word idiomatic, however, does not just mean “filled with idioms.” Rather, it is a more general term that describes language in which words are put together naturally, the way a native speaker would arrange them.

Now, idiomatic language may contain idioms in the sense of fixed, non-literal phrases—indeed, it often does, since English makes considerable use of these expressions—but that is not necessarily the case. Rather, using language idiomatically is a matter of using the type of language that is appropriate to a given situation. This is what you need to be able to do to receive high marks in Writing and Speaking. 

You can also think of it this way: Just using idioms will not make you sound more like a native speaker. Using idioms the way native speakers use idioms will make you sound more like a native speaker.

As Fiona pointed out in her post, this is not a simple task. It involves, among other things, (in)formality, age, social status, and what type of language is currently “in”.

That’s a lot of factors to take into account, and unfortunately there isn’t any room to get things wrong. Idioms are idioms because they’re fixed by definition: you can’t make tiny changes such as adding, changing, or omitting articles, or making singular nouns plural, without creating constructions that sound obviously and immediately wrong to a native ear.

To take just a few examples I grabbed from social media:

It should be, “There’s no use crying over spilt/spilled milk” (no “the”).

Or this:


It should be “as old as the hills” (outdated; almost never used).

This should be, “It runs in the family.” The present continuous cannot replace the simple present.


Misusing idioms in ways they’re misused above will actually make your English sound less natural than not using idioms at all.

To add yet another layer of confusion, idiomatic language is often associated with informality, but it can actually be used in more formal situations as well. The two types of situations require different types of constructions, however. In Task 2 essays, the real challenge is using idiomatic language that is appropriate for formal contexts.

One of the biggest problems here is that the idioms ESL students learn are in fact clichés, or phrases that are extremely overused and that make a writer or speaker sound unoriginal (and sometimes very old-fashioned). These types of phrases are also informal and should not be used in Task 2 or Task 1 Academic Training essays. Unfortunately, most IELTS idiom lists are filled with them.

Common examples include it’s a piece of cake (to describe something very easy); every cloud has a silver lining (something good can result from something bad); once in a blue moon (very rarely); and every coin has two sides, or there are two sides to every story (people can interpret the same situation in opposite ways).

It’s not a bad idea to be familiar with these phrases since you will probably encounter them sooner or later, but you shouldn’t go out of your way to use them.

On the other hand, idiomatic language associated with more formal situations tends to fall more into the category of collocations—words or phrases that are typically used together by native speakers. A few examples from this post include take into accountyet another layer, and could reasonably assume.

Of course, things aren’t so simple here either: some collocations are informal only; others can be used in both formal and informal situations; and still others are primarily used in formal situations.

This also goes beyond “phrasal verbs = informal; single-word verbs = formal”. Some phrasal verbs are in fact perfectly acceptable in formal situations, while some single-word verbs are perfectly acceptable in informal ones.

For example, consider the following example (adapted from a real essay):

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by offering the facility to hit the gym.

The writer gets it right in the first part of the sentence: speak highly of is an outstanding example of a formal-only idiom/collocation. In an informal context, a person might say I’ve heard such great things about you! This is Band 7+ vocabulary usage.

The problem occurs at the end of the sentence: the phrase hit the gym is something that would normally be said in casual speech, e.g., Ok, guys, I’m outta here. I’m gonna hit the gym for an hour or so and then head home.

In addition, the writer refers to friends and companies, plural, so the plural facilities is more natural than the singular facility here. (And if the writer were to use the singular, rather than the would need to be used before facility since there are many such facilities in existence.)

The student has a good general grasp of English, but the details aren’t quite right. Errors like this throughout an essay can easily knock an overall Writing score into 6.5 range.

Some examples of more idiomatic—that is, more formal—constructions would be as follows:

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by offering workout facilities.


Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by providing facilities for them to work out. (Note that workout is one word as a noun, two as a verb.)


Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by making workout facilities available to them.

Or even:

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by making exercise facilities available on-site.

Note that while none of the rewritten phrases contains an idiom in the sense of hit the gym, they are all far more idiomatic than the original version. 

In the Speaking test, and in Task 1 General Training letters to friends, this is reversed: you should absolutely make an effort to use informal collocations such as hit the gym (e.g., Working out isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do, but I make an effort to stay in shape. I try to hit the gym at least a couple of days a week after work.) But for purposes of the IELTS, you can probably skip most idiom lists (with perhaps a few exceptions) and focus instead on “collecting” collocations when you read or listen to English produced by native speakers.

Yes, this requires much more active though; however, you’re much more likely to 1) remember various expressions and 2) use them correctly if you can associate them with a specific context. Your goal is always to write or speak the type of English that is most appropriate at a particular moment, and that’s something no word list can possibly teach you.

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

At the beginning of the summer, after I did my series of posts for tutors who have unexpectedly found themselves working with struggling high-school readers trying to prepare for college admissions tests, I started putting together a presentation for a webinar to address the major issues at play and demonstrate some of the exercises that can be used to help remediate such students.

Alas, my summer and the beginning of my fall got hijacked by my IELTS books, followed in rapid succession by necessary updates to my GMAT, ACT English, and ACT Reading books (followed by the IELTS again).

I’m happy to announce, however, that I finally seem to be back on track and am planning to record the webinar in the next week or so, and then people can access it at their convenience. I’m also doing my best to put together an accompanying materials pack that includes all the exercises covered. (more…)

“IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary” is now available

“IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary” is now available

The print version of my IELTS grammar and vocabulary guide covering both Academic and General Training is now available on Amazon as well as the Books page. If you’re studying for that exam, or are a tutor who prepare students for it, here is what you need to know.

IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary is based on a simple premise: to write a good essay, one must first be able to write well at the sentence level.  

Many IELTS Writing guides focus on overall essay organization and construction and treat grammar and sentence-structure almost as an afterthought. And if they do emphasize these aspects of English, they often include example sentences that are much simpler than those required by the exam, or that are not fully relevant to the kinds of topics it involves. As for books written by non-native English speakers… well, I’m not even going to go there.

This is book is different. To the greatest extent possible, it focuses on direct application to the IELTS. It shows how specific structures are particularly suited to certain topics and scenarios, and points out traps to avoid. It also walks readers through the process of constructing “complex” sentences without losing control of their writing, and covers common errors that many test-takers do not even realize can easily (and quickly) prevent them from achieving their desired score. (more…)

Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

As you may have heard, the ACT is tweaking its Reading test to include some graph- or chart-based questions similar to those on the Science test and the SAT Reading test. I’ve received several inquiries regarding these changes, so I wanted to let everyone know where things stand in terms of my materials.

First, yes,  I will be updating The Complete Guide to ACT Reading, although not immediately.

Unfortunately, the 2021-22 ACT Official Guide does not include any sample passages accompanied by the new question type; as of July 2021, the only example I’ve been able to locate is the one posted on the ACT website, and, well… It doesn’t seem particularly well done (to put things diplomatically). In the absence of any material from administered tests, there’s also no way for me to tell how well it reflects what the actual exam will look like. (more…)

The three types of conjunctions, and how to punctuate them

There are three main types of conjunctions in English. Some words in different categories have identical meanings, but they have different grammatical functions. As a result, they are punctuated differently when used to begin a clause or sentence.

Although the conjunctions discussed below may also appear in the middle or at the end of a sentence in certain contexts, this post concerns their placement at the start of a sentence or clause only.


 1) Coordinating Conjunctions (“FANBOYS”) 


There are seven coordinating conjunctions, known collectively by the acronym FANBOYS:

These words are placed in the middle of a sentence to join two independent clauses and should follow a comma. Although the punctuation is often omitted in everyday writing, you should make an effort to use it because the comma serves to clearly separate the parts of the sentence and helps the reader follow your ideas more easily. (more…)

Comma splices: the two main causes

Comma splices: the two main causes

Image by TypoArt BS, Shutterstock


I was looking back through my grammar posts the other day when I made a rather startling discovery: in all my years of writing this blog, I had somehow neglected to write a piece covering the two major causes of comma splices.

I suspect that because I’ve given this explanation in a total of five books now, I took it for granted that I had covered both issues  in a single post, back in… oh, I don’t know… 2012 maybe? But apparently not.

Since this is among the most frequently tested concepts on the SAT and the ACT, an occasional target of questions on the GMAT, and a HUGELY common error in IELTS essays, I would count this omission among the greatest oversights in Critical Reader history.

So here goes. (more…)

How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors

How to identify and assess a reading problem: some strategies for tutors


In a recent post, I talked about the challenges that (ACT) tutors often face when working with struggling readers; I also discussed how different types of problems can signal difficulties in different component skills that combine to produce reading. In this post, I’m going to cover how to identify a reading problem and provide some strategies for determining whether it stems from decoding, aural comprehension, or both.

To quickly review, the Simple View (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that General Reading Ability = Decoding x Aural Comprehension, with the weaker factor limiting overall skill.

Proficient teenage-adult readers decode at approximately 200 words per minute, or the speed of speech; however, many struggling readers never learned sound-letter combinations well enough to “map” them orthographically—that is, to store them in their brains for automatic retrieval. As a result, they read slowly and dysfluently, and may guess at, skip, misread, reverse, add, or omit letters/words.

On the other side, weak vocabulary (particularly words denoting abstract concepts); difficulty making sense out of complex syntax; and poor general knowledge can cause students who are solid decoders to have trouble understanding what they read.

Problems can be restricted to either of these areas; however, they often involve both factors and together produce a general reading problem. (more…)

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Image by GOLFX, Shutterstock


When Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I helped found last summer, held its most recent workshop last week, I stuck an announcement in my newsletter almost as an afterthought. A test-prep tutor had participated in our previous workshop and seemed to have gotten a lot of out of it, and it occurred to me that others might be interested. Nevertheless, I was a bit taken aback at the number of inquiries I received from ACT tutors—more emails, incidentally, than I got from elementary-school teachers.

In retrospect, this should not have been at all surprising, but I guess that given all the current backlash over standardized testing, I neglected to realize how many students are still getting tutored for college-admissions exams, and how many tutors are encountering the exact same kinds of reading problems I repeatedly saw. The issues I discuss here do also apply to the SAT (and any other standardized test), but I’m focusing on the ACT here because it brings a set of specific issues into particularly sharp focus.  (more…)

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

After reading a certain number of Band 6 #IELTS Task 2 essays, one (or rather I) can’t help but notice certain patterns. In particular, the persistent use of certain informal words, phrases, and abbreviations is quite striking.

I’m not the first person to point this out, or to post about it on the internet, but given sheer frequency with which they’re used, it’s clear that the message isn’t getting through.

So I decided to compile the greatest hits into one very short list. 

Bottom line: if you stop using the informal terms, you’re taking a real step towards Band 7; if you keep on including them, expect your score to stay where it is. These are very high-frequency words and constructions, and they are relevant to pretty much any question you might be asked.

In fact, I would actually wager that it’s possible to accurately gauge, in only a few seconds, whether an essay has any chance of earning a 7 simply by scanning it for the terms in the left-hand column, plus standard punctuation, capitalization, and spacing. 

Let’s look at a comparison:

Band 6-6.5 

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact, local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products, services etc. Thus, without these small business, lots of factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for stuff e.g. rent and food. 

Band 7

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact, local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products and services. Thus, without these small business, many factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for necessary items such as rent and food.

I strongly recommend keeping this list next to you when you write practice essays for as long as you need to. Underline the “formal” words as you write them to reiterate their importance and remind yourself to keep on using them.

There aren’t many quick fixes when it comes to IELTS Writing, but this comes pretty close. 

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Image by Charlotte May from Pexels


In theory, parallel structure is a relatively easy concept to master: it simply refers to the fact that items in a list, as well as constructions on either side of a conjunction such as and or but, should be kept in the same format (all nouns or all verbs).

In very simple sentences, e.g., I went to bed late but woke up early, this rule is generally quite simple to apply.

When sentences are long and contain a lot of information, however, things get a bit trickier. Keeping forms parallel requires the writer to keep track of and understand how words and phrases in different parts of a sentence relate to one another.

One very common issue involves the use of main verbs after modal verbs such as canshould, or might. As anyone who speaks English at a reasonably high level knows, main verbs are never conjugated in this construction, e.g., one would say it might work, not it might works. But when the two verbs are separated, there’s a common tendency forget about the first one and to stick an -s on the second.

This is an issue that appears in the writing of both native and non-native English speakers, but it’s particularly rampant in IELTS essays. It may also be tested in GMAT Sentence Corrections. (more…)

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Image from Andrea Piacquadio,


I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with social media. Given what I do and the nature of my audience, it’s pretty much a necessary evil, albeit one I dip in and out of depending on the demands of my other projects. For the past month or so, I’ve had a bit more free time than I’ve had in a while, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should make an attempt to revive my long-neglected Instagram account (a decision of which the algorithm unfortunately does not seem to approve). Having recently taken some steps into the world of English-language proficiency exams, I got curious and decided to explore the social-media ESL world. If nothing else, it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

I don’t have a clear sense of what proportion of my readership is made up of students living outside the United States, although my sense is that most of them attend either international schools or English-immersion programs and speak the language at a very high level. Based on some of the messages I’ve received, however, I’m aware that this is not the case for everyone.

For that reason, and because the internet has basically swallowed real life whole, I feel obligated to offer this warning: to anyone attempting to use social media to supplement their study for English proficiency exams (TOEFL or IELTS), please be extraordinary careful about whom you follow and take advice from. And if you are a tutor who works internationally, please make sure your students understand the difference between “Instagram English” and “school English.” To describe the linguistic misinformation out there as “mind-boggling” is an understatement. (more…)

New 2021 APUSH books from Larry Krieger: “Fast Review” and “Doing the DBQ”

New 2021 APUSH books from Larry Krieger: “Fast Review” and “Doing the DBQ”

Larry Krieger, my friend, colleague, and APUSH master extraordinaire, has just released two new guides for the 2021 AP US History Exam.

The Insider’s Fast Review  is a general overview of the exam content, boiled down to the absolute essentials:

The Insider’s Fast Review is an efficient review based upon the AP US History Course and Exam Description (CED) book and authentic APUSH questions and answers. It is an EFFECTIVE review of the key historic developments and patterns in all 9 required time periods. The Fast Review is designed to live up to its title. It provides you with a carefully organized presentation of the key developments, trends, and patterns you must know to achieve a high score on your APUSH 2021 exam. There are no fun facts and trivial topics. Everything in Fast Review is taken from the CED and APUSH questions and answers.

The second book, Doing the DBQ, focuses exclusively on how to write the Document-Based Question:

The Insider’s Doing the DBQ is a bold new approach to doing the DBQ. This book provides you with 11 practice DBQs. Each DBQ is followed by an annotated essay enabling you to pinpoint how the essay fulfilled rubric requirements. The annotated sample essays are based upon insights from featured essays on AP Central and from best practices recommended by experienced DBQ readers.

If you’re taking the exam in a couple of weeks and need to know what figures/movements/terms to focus on, Larry Krieger is your guide. He knows the exam inside-out, backwards and forwards. In fact, you could probably replace the entire APUSH-writing team at ETS with Larry alone, and no one would know the difference!

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

When I was putting together my IELTS grammar guide, I read dozens of practice essays, primarily by students who had scored in Band 6 on previous exams. It quickly became apparent that many test-takers were struggling with similar grammatical concepts, and one of the most common ones involved the use of articles with a specific group of “quantity” words.

On one hand, this is entirely understandable: a(n) and the are notoriously tricky for people whose native languages do not use articles the way English does, and it is often not fully clear to them why these words even need to be used at all. As a result, they may not realize how omitting them can change the meaning of certain statements and/or make their English seem unnatural.

In everyday life, this is unlikely to seriously impede communication; however, in terms of the IELTS—and particularly IELTS Writing—it can create real problems. Phrases involving words like majority and number are relevant to most IELTS Task essay questions (Task 2 as well as Task 1 Academic Training) and may need to be used multiple times within a given response. Furthermore, these terms are frequently used in introductions, and errors there can subtly influence a reader’s impression of an entire essay—a poor first impression can be hard to counteract.

So that said, here is what you need to know.


Few vs. A Few


Both few and a few are always used with a plural noun, e.g., few people or a few people.

However, each term has a specific and a separate meaning; few is not simply a shortened version of a few. If you do not use the correct form, you may unintentionally write things that do not make sense, or that imply something other than what you intended to imply.

Few = hardly any; has a negative connotation: indicates unpopularity

A few = a small number, several; has a neutral or positive connotation: indicates slight to moderate popularity


The vast majority of errors involve omitting the indefinite article and writing few when a few is needed.


Correct: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but a few researchers (= a small number of researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.


The sentence serves to introduce conflicting perspectives according to a standard formula: most people believe x, but others people believe y. The point is that although the minority viewpoint is held by only a small number of people, it does have some popularity.


Incorrect: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but few researchers (= almost no researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.


This version does not really make sense: the sentence is intended to imply that the “comet” theory has some support, but the use of few eliminates this implication.


If you want to suggest that a group is really quite small, you can also say just a few or only a few.

You cannot, however, say just few or only few. These constructions do not exist.


Correct: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only a few people remained.

Incorrect: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only few people remained.


On the other hand, few without the article is used to emphasize that hardly anyone or anything belongs to a particular group.


Correct: Although it is reasonable for politicians to listen to the opinions of business leaders when writing environmental regulations, few people (= almost no one) would suggest that manufacturers alone should be responsible for determining policies that affect natural resources.


The use of few is logical here since presumably manufacturers would be more interested in using up natural resources than in preserving plant and animal habitats.

If the writer had written a few instead of few, the contrast between the two parts of the sentence would be lost, and the statement would not make much sense.



The Majority, A Majority


Majority = most (>50%)

This word is always used with an article: the is standard, although a is generally acceptable as well. It has a slightly less strong implication, but for practical purposes, the two versions are the same.


Correct: The majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.

Acceptable: A majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.

Incorrect: Majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.


When majority is modified, however, a is used. Again, the article is required; it is not replaced by the adjective.


Correct: A large majority voted in favor of the new policy.

Incorrect: Large majority voted in favor of the new policy.



A Number, The Number


Number must be used with an article, either a or the. Both are typically followed by of + noun.


A number = many; can be used alone or with a modifier such as large, small, etc. 

The number = the quantity   


Correct: A number (= many) people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.

Correct: A substantial number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.

Correct: The number of people who said they would come to the party but then changed their minds was quite substantial.

Incorrect: Number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.







“Can” vs. “could”:  simple present vs. conditional

“Can” vs. “could”: simple present vs. conditional

Over the past several months, I’ve read an enormous number of essays written by non-native English speakers, and in addition to the expected difficulties, I’ve noticed a handful of recurring issues that rarely get addressed — I suspect because most native English speakers don’t realize that the particular concepts in question can get confused in those particular ways.

One of the most common of these issues is the confusion between the simple present and the conditional, and more specifically between can and could.

Errors involving these forms are often fairly subtle; they’re not absolutely wrong in the same black-and-white way as errors involving, say, confusion between the present perfect and the simple past (e.g., I have graduated from university last year rather than I graduated from university last year), and I think that’s also why they tend to get missed. Using could correctly is often more about implication and context than adhering to a clear-cut rule, which is why even very advanced speakers may still struggle with it.

To be sure, there is a more formulaic usage: “if” clause is in the past, then the conditional must be used in the main clause (e.g., If I left home 15 minutes earlier, I could get to class on time). But when there isn’t an “if” clause to serve as a clear indicator that the conditional is required, things sometimes get a bit muddled.

I recently came across a perfect example of a not-quite-correctly-used could on an Internet forum, and I’m going to use it to illustrate my point. In a discussion about a restaurant, a person who generally has excellent English wrote a sentence similar to the following

Three-star restaurants don’t normally serve just pasta with sauce. La Pergola is a three-stars (sic) Michelin restaurant in Rome, and there you could eat dishes like battered squash blossoms over shellfish and saffron with caviar. 

The use of the conditional here isn’t a gross error, but it is “off”. The rest of the sentence is written with simple-present verbs (don’tserveis), and the shift to the conditional disrupts that consistency (parallel structure) unnecessarily.

Presumably, the writer assumed that the conditional was needed because she was describing something the reader was not actually doing, and the sentence contained an element of suggestion. The issue, however, is that a real situation is being described: the dish in question is actually on the restaurant’s menu, and it is possible for a diner to order it. As a result, the simple present is more appropriate, particularly in context of the surrounding verbs.

The conditional, on the other hand, is used only when there is a “but”, either stated or implied: it is used to an signal that an action/situation might not happen, or (very often) that it probably won’t happen. Either way, the emphasis is on the theoretical aspect.

I could buy a new iPhone phone now, but I’d really rather wait until the next version is released in a few months. (= I probably won’t buy the phone now) 

There are several major steps that local governments could take to reduce car usage among commuters. For example, they could encourage the establishment of new bus routes in poorly served areas; they could also fund the construction of additional subway lines.  (= This is theoretical discussion; the writer is clearly making suggestions) 

So, to sum up:

Can = real situation; something that currently exists or is doable 

Could = suggestion, theoretical situation (one that might not/probably won’t occur)