Q. If I am interested in improving my vocab., can you give me your recommendations on what to do?

A. Here are a few suggestions for vocabulary books - you will have to choose the one that is your level:

English Vocabulary in Use, Michael McCarthy & Felicity O'Dell (This is intermediate)
Heineman English Word Builder, Guy Wellman
The Right Word, W.S. Fowler
Advanced Vocabulary & Idiom, B.J. Thomas

I suggest you also keep a 'vocabulary notebook' and note down every new word you come across in your reading, which of course is one of the best language learning strategies.

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Q. When you ask someone to 'draw the curtains', does it mean you want the curtains shut or opened?

Seems to be a problem to figure out what 'draw' is - thus we end up using the Singlish version of 'open the curtains' to emphasise the position you want the curtains to be left. Are there other descriptive words to use?

A. I agree that it can be ambiguous which way the curtains go when we 'draw' them! It may help to say 'draw back/aside the curtains' to indicate that you want to let in the light and 'draw the curtains shut' for darkening the room.

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Q. I have a question: which is correct?

1. I am interested in joining this club.

2. I am interested to join this club.

The first is correct. You can use the structure 'I'm interested to do something' only if the verb is a sense verb. For example, 'interested to hear, see, know, note, learn, read'.

So for your question, I would prefer to use 'interested in joining' as 'joining' is not very much a sense verb.

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Q. I would like to know how to use the word 'commensurate'.

A. 'Commensurate' has 3 meanings: (1) having the same extent or duration (2) corresponding in degree, amount, or standard (3) able to be measured by a common standard

You may get something like this, 'You are appointed on a Salary scale of xxx, and offered the monthly payment of yyyy, commensurate with your qualifications.' According to the Oxford Dictionary, the correct way to use this word would be something like 'Her low salary is not commensurate with her abilites'.The correct preposition is always 'with'. It is clear from the example above that the word is an adjective. We see this construction very often in job advertisements, and wrongly used too. It should read 'remuneration will be commensurate with qualifications and experience' (meaning 'matching'), and not with the 'be' left out.

Another example of the use of the word 'commensurate' is the following: 'Appointees with commensurate experience and qualifications will receive $6720 per month.' This means that two persons having very similar experience and qualifications will receive $6720 per month on appointment.

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Q. How and when do I use the following?

work on/ at it

mad at/with her

on/at extension 8

Close to/at/in/on hand

Messrs is the plural for Mr, what about Mrs?


1. work on it vs work at it

Both can be used. But the use of 'work at it' often has a sense of advice with it. For example,

To get what you want, you have to work at it. You need to work at it. It does not just happen.

You must have a project going, and work at it.

Let us work at it over the weekend.

To 'work on it', on the other hand, doesn't have this sense of advice with it. For example,

They have to carry the stuff two hundred miles to work on it.

I have to work on it over the Christmas week.

I'll continue to work on it.

He had to find a mechanic who could work on it.

2. mad at her vs mad with her

Again both can be used. But 'mad at her' is far more frequently used than 'mad with her'.

3. on extension xxx vs at extension xxx

There does not seem to be any difference between these two. Either can be used.

4. Close to/at/in/on hand

You can only use two of the expressions here. They are 'close to hand' and 'close at hand'. Both mean 'close by' or near. But the expression 'close at hand' is much more frequently used than 'close to hand.' In addition, 'close at hand' can be used with both abstract objects and concrete ones whereas 'close to hand' is often restrictive to the description of concrete objects.

Examples: Wherever he is, a glass is close to hand. (concrete)


Enjoy a good read with a cup of tea close at hand. (concrete)

That goal is already close at hand! (abstract)

The economic crisis is dangerously close at hand. (abstract)

5. Messrs is the plural for Mr, what about Mrs There is no plural for Mrs.

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Q. Is there a difference between 'at present', 'presently'?

A. 'Presently' usually means 'in a short while' or 'soon'. 'At present' means 'at the moment, in time' or 'currently'. However, many people don't distinguish between the two and use 'presently' to mean 'currently'.

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Q. I know that one can have a 'burning desire' but what about a 'burning question'??

A. Yes, 'a burning question' is fine. See New Oxford Dictionary of English: 'the burning question of independence'.

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Q. How do I construct sentences with the word START as in
kick start
jump start
head start
false start etc
in the proper sequence please. Thanks

A. Your list of 'start' phrases breaks down into two parts: verbs and nouns. Kick-start and jump-start are both verbs and nouns, based on 'start'. The 'kick' and the 'jump' are often hyphenated, as in this example from the Oxford English dictionary online, which you can consult via intranet using the NUS Library's digital library section under 'dictionaries and references':

kick-start, -starter, a device for starting an internal combustion engine, esp. on a motor-cycle, by a downward thrust on a pedal; hence kick-start v. trans. and intr., to start (an engine) thus;

However, 'false start' and 'head start' are not verbs Ð at least, not yet. Both are countable nouns. So to use these expressions correctly in sentences, you need to sort out whether the noun form of start is wanted, or the verb, and then check whether it actually is used as a verb according to the dictionary.

As verbs, plus one use as a noun: 'You don't start the bike by turning the ignition key; you have to kick-start it.'
'My car wouldn't start this morning, so I called AA and the mechanic jump-started it.
'My car won't start. Do you have jumper-cables? Can you give it a jump-start?'

As nouns: 'One of the speaker's problems is that he doesn't correct himself smoothly--he goes back to the beginning of a sentence whenever he makes a small mistake. This means his speech is full of false starts, which annoys the audience.' 'In this version of the story of the tortoise and the hare, the hare is so cocky that he offers the hare a head start.'

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Q. 1. Can you please tell me when should we use Champions and when do we use Winners? Kindly give a few situations, debates, tournaments, business idea competitions, etc.
2. Which is right? 1st Runners-Up or 1st Runner-Up?
3. Which is right? 1st and 2nd Runners-Up? Or 1st and 2nd Runner-Ups?
4. Which is right? Joint Runner-Ups? Joint Runners-Up?

Thank you so much for providing such a useful service. I appreciate it very much.

A. 'Champions' and 'winners' are different in two respects. First, 'winners' can be both living and non-living. A vintage wine or a book can be a medal-winner, for instance. A successful strategy, a good suggestion or a bright idea can each be called 'a winner'.

Second, 'winner' is a broad term which can be used to refer not only to specific contest conditions, but to success in general, as the examples above show.

But if you say 'the winner' (using the definite article) you are implying contest conditions in which there can be only one winner.

Champions are almost always living, and they get this designation by winning not just one contest, but a succession of contests. So in athletic competition, we have the winners of heats but only one champion or one team who are the champions in a particular division or category. If the contest or competition is formal enough to have its name capitalised, you'll capitalise Champion, too.

Ref 'runner-up'; you inflect the noun (runner). In a single contest there is usually only one '1st runner-up', but if you had some reason to refer to more than one contest, or to refer to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd runners-up as a group, then you make 'runner' plural by adding 's' as usual. So, while you have many examples, the principle is simple. Runner is a countable noun. It needs a determiner, usually an article (a/an the) when it's singular and adds 's' to make the plural. We've made some special expressions by using '-up' just as we do with our 'in-laws' Ð our mothers-in-law, our fathers-in-law, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, etc. You put the 's', where the sense is plural, on the noun part of the compound.

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Q. Please recommend the best sentence in following cases:

(1) I want to know the number of years from the time he finished his undergraduate study up to now. How many years is it since you finished your undergraduate study?
How long have you graduated?
How long have you been graduated?
Or just simply
When did you finished your undergraduate study?

(2) I am sitting in a bus, next to the windows. How to ask the person sitting next to me for a way to alight?
Sorry, give me a way please?
Sorry, I'd like to get out?

A. In case number 1, simplest is best and most grammatical! Here are some variations to consider:
When did you graduate?
When did you finish/complete your undergraduate studies?
How long has it been since you graduated?
How many years has it been since you completed your first degree?
Your first sentence 'I want to know how many yearsÉsince he graduated' is not a direct Question. If you need to report a question:
I want/need to know how many years it has been since he graduated/completed his undergraduate studies. The 'it' is similar to the impersonal it used to refer to a context rather than a particular person or thing, as in 'it's raining' (or 'it has been raining hard for the past ten minutes')

On the bus, simplest is again best: 'Sorry, I'd like to get out' is just fine. You can also use 'Excuse me, I need to get out' and 'Excuse me, this is my stop'.

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Q. I have one question which I hope you will help me to clarify.

Sentences: The elevator has spoilt.
The toy has spoilt.

These are commonly heard sentences. I know that 'spoilt' is wrongly used here.

What other words can we use besides 'broken down'?

Both 'broken down' or 'not working' seem to be more appropriate for large items like machines. It would sound strange to me if I hear someone says 'The toy has broken down.'

A. (1)
You're right that the verb 'spoil' is wrongly used in your two example sentences. In most cases, the verb 'spoil' is used as a transitive verb. It means that 'spoil' has to be followed by an object. Some of the objects one can spoil include (with slightly different meanings):

an evening party / one's last tender moments / Christmas / dinner / one's vacation
one's enthusiasm / enjoyment / pleasure
one's smile / food a building / appearances / a garden / one's clothes
the chance of a victory / relations
a child / yourself / someone you love

The only occasion when 'spoil' doesn't have to be followed by an object is when it is used to refer to 'food'. For example, you can say: Dinner's ready and it'll spoil if you don't come straight away.

(2) You're also right in saying that 'break down' is used mainly with a machine type of things like computers, boilers, cars and lifts (or elevators). But for the non-function of a toy, I would simply use: The toy is broken / It's damaged; or even: it's not working (especially for those electric types).

Hope this answers your questions.

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Q. 'There is a big tree at the back of my house. My father built a tree house ________ the tree.'
The above is an extract taken from a cloze passage exercise from a Primary Two Examination English Paper from a government school. There were given words to help them fill in the correct preposition. Both 'in' and 'on' were given as one of the many choices. My son who sat for this paper wrote 'in' and was marked as incorrect. Subsequently, he was told that 'on' was the correct answer. I disagree with this. I feel that a tree house should always be built on a tree as its deemed as a structure that's built 'on' an object and that object happens to be a tree. 'In' would be deemed as something inside an object and from my given knowledge, tree houses are never built 'in' trees. This is my argument and reason for disagreement. Could help me on this by advising me if my argument is valid before I raise this with the examiner.

A. For the item you mentioned, I would use 'in' rather than 'on'. The preposition 'in' here means 'inside' or 'in the midst of ', indicating the tree house is surrounded and enclosed by the tree. If we use 'on' in this context, it would mean that he built a tree house ON TOP OF or ON THE UPPER SURFACE OF the tree, which hardly makes sense to me.

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Q. I know that the next question might seem to be silly. But isn't the phrase 'please kindly' redundant? As is used in 'All competitors please kindly report to the competitors' steward'.

A. No, it's not a silly question. On the contrary, it's a relevant question. 'Kindly' is not needed, but keep 'please' so that your utterance doesn't sound like an order.

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Q. Is it wrong to say 'Can you keep your books?' The phrase 'put away the books' doesn't seem to convey the same meaning as 'keep the books'. Is there any way to say it if I mean to put the books back into the proper place?

A. The phrase 'Can you keep your books?' may be heard in various situations, and depending on the tone with which it is said, the intended meaning would also vary. If said by a teacher, it might mean to remove the books from the table so that you have a clean workspace. (On the other hand, it might just be a request for you to pay attention! ) In such a context, 'put away your books' is the more polite form.

If you want to mean 'put the books back into the proper place' (an instruction you would commonly find in a library) you might say 'return the books to the proper shelves', for instance.

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Q. What is the antonym of 'improve'? I know that it is deteriorate, but what if I want the word to mean from good to bad. The word 'deteriorate' seems to mean from bad to worst.

A. Yes, 'deteriorate' does seem rather harsh to most people. A milder alternative would be worsened. Again, the context would determine the usage of the word. For example, you would say that the weather has worsened, but someone's performance has deteriorated. 'Deteriorated' can also be used to refer to the quality of something.

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