English language coaching

As you know, mastering English language isn’t easy.  After all, it’s the world’s biggest language: the result of a collision between two language families — Latin in the form of Old French, and Germanic in the form of Old English — nearly a thousand years ago, with countless contributions and influences from various languages and cultures ever since.

Explore Learn with Lloyd for a few tips on improving your English skills. Check out my posts here (right column or scroll down), and if you’re interested in private coaching/instruction, please contact me directly (link here to “About Lloyd” or in the “More” or “Menu” section).

Have fun learning!

~ Lloyd ~

Pandemic Ending

July 26, 2021

In recent posts, we discussed two ancient Greek roots of the word “pandemic”: “pan-” (“all, every, entire”), and “demos” (“people”). Now let’s examine the “-icending of “pandemic” … and in that spirit, here’s to completely ending the Covid pandemic!

The suffix “-ic” comes from Greek “ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to, related to.”  

Even though its roots are ancient, “pandemic” is relatively recent, inspired by an earlier word: “epidemic,” from Greek “epi” (“among, upon”) and “demos” (“people”). An “epidemic disease” spreads quickly and widely “among people,” but a “pandemic disease” is much broader, affecting an entire country or even the world, as we all know too well. These words started as adjectives, and later became common as nouns.

According to Etymonline (see source note below), several hundred years ago, English nouns for many subjects of study ended in “-ic”: “arithmetic, logic, magic, music, rhetoric.” Words for academic subjects that emerged later often ended in “-ics” (inspired by the original Greek “ikos”), like “mathematics, linguistics, economics, politics,” and “academics” itself.  

Interestingly, the earlier “-ic” subjects continue mostly as non-count nouns (no plural form), while the later “-ics” subjects tend to be either non-count or plural. For example:

  • Logic is a useful tool (non-count) — not “logics” 
  • Politics is a hot topic (non-count) — not “my politic”
  • My politics are different from yours (plural) — but not countable with numbers: not “two politics”

Such “-ics” subjects often have “-ic” adjective forms:

— athletics (N), athletic (ADJ)

— aerobics (N), aerobic (ADJ)

— genetics (N), genetic (ADJ)

— robotics (N), robotic (ADJ)

Other “-ic” words more likely to countable may act as both nouns (with final “s” for plurals) and adjectives:

— an epic (N), many epics, an epic (ADJ) journey 

— a romantic (N, person), a couple of romantics, a romantic (ADJ) comedy  

— a plastic (N), various plastics, a plastic (ADJ) toy

— an acrylic (N), several acrylics, acrylic (ADJ) paint

Some “-ic” words are adjectives only, not nouns, like: 

— energetic 

— manic 

— tragic 

— toxic 

— sonic 

Do you know these words’ noun forms? Test yourself by filling in the missing letters below:

— energ_  

— mani_  

— trag_ _ _  

— toxi_  

— so_ _ _  

Occasionally, an “-ic” word works well as a noun or a verb

— panic (recall the Greek god Pan’s glee in spreading needless fear!)

— picnic

— traffic

— mimic

— frolic

When used in “-ed” or “-ing” forms, “-ic” verbs add a “k” to avoid being pronounced like “ice” (as in “iced tea” or “icing on a cake”): “panicked, picnicking, trafficked, mimicking, frolicked.” 

But wait — some “-ic” endings in this last group do NOT come from our Greek root. Take a look at the etymology of “picnic,” “traffic,” and “frolic” (think fun!) on your own.

SOURCE for information in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “pandemic,” “epidemic,” “-ic,” “-ics,” “picnic,” “traffic,” “mimic,” “frolic” and related entries).


Photo by Lloyd Bishop: Manhattan Rose, 2021

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 23, 2021.

In a recent post, we explored the Greek root “pan-” that begins the word “pandemic.”  Now let’s look at the second root in that word, also from ancient Greek: “demos,” meaning “ordinary citizens, common people.”

Demos” appears as “dem” or “demo” in key English words like “democracy,” whose suffix “-cracy” is from Greek “kratos, -kratia,” meaning “rule, strength, power, authority.”  Several important words end in “-cracy” (meaning “power structure, government by”) and the related “-crat” (“person holding that power or participating in that system”).

As you can see, “democracy” means “people power.”  President Abraham Lincoln aptly expressed it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in an eloquent speech he made in 1863, known as the Gettysburg Address.

Look up the roots of the “-cracy”/“-crat” words below — this will reinforce your comprehension & long-term memory of them:

aristocracy / aristocrat

autocracy / autocrat

bureaucracy / bureaucrat

meritocracy / (“-crat” form is not common … yet!)

plutocracy / plutocrat

technocracy / technocrat

Another word featuring “dem/demo” is “demography,” whose suffix comes from Greek “-graphia,” meaning “description of.”  So “demography” means “description of the people [in a particular place].”  In English, we often use the form “demographics,” which are statistics of measurable aspects of a population, like age, marital status, income & education levels.

By the way, “-graphia” comes from the Greek verb “grapho,” meaning “write, draw, scratch.”  Inherent in writing/drawing is the idea of recording information, so the English suffixes “-graph,” “-graphy” & “-graphic” express some aspect of recording or describing.  Think about that when you see words like “photograph” (“photo” is from a Greek noun meaning “light”) and “geography” (“geo” refers to “world, land”; also from ancient Greek).

“Graph” and “graphic” are not only suffixes; they stand alone as individual words in English, as you probably know from developing visual aids for presentations at work or in school!

Now take “dem” and add the Greek “agogos,” meaning “leader,” and you get “demagogue.”  A leader of the people? Yes … but in this case, “a leader of the mob”: a political manipulator who exploits people’s “prejudices, wishes, ignorance, and passions,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

The word “demon,” meaning “supernatural spirit, evil spirit,” also comes from ancient Greek, but from a different root (“daimon,” not “demos”).  English author John Milton combined “demon” with the prefix “pan-” (discussed in our recent post) to create the word “pandemonium.”  Interestingly, the pre-Greek heritage of “daimon” & “demos” is closely related.

Another word unrelated to “demos” is “demonstrate” — it’s from Latin, not Greek, and it’s a cousin of the word “monster”!  If you’re interested, research the etymologies of “demon,” “pandemonium” & “demonstrate” on your own.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “dēmotic,” “-cracy,” “-graphy,” “demagogue,” “pandemonium,” “photo-,” “geo,” “demonstrate” & related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “dēmos,” “demon,” “-graphy” & related entries); English Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org: “Gettysburg Address” & related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 15, 2021.

With the Covid pandemic beginning to subside, we can breathe a little easier & wonder about things like: What does “pandemic” mean, anyway?

Many English words have their roots in ancient Greek and Latin.  “Pandemic” consists of three Greek word-parts:

pan,” meaning “all,” “every,” “entire”  

demos” (reduced form “dem”), meaning “people

ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to

As you can see from these roots, the original sense of “pandemic” is something “affecting all people.”  As the word developed, it became associated with diseases spreading across entire populations.  

If you can recognize roots in new vocabulary words you’re hearing or reading, you’ll be able to guess their meanings and remember them longer.  Hundreds of English words include one of these three Greek roots: “pan”, “dem,” and “ic” (modern English form of “ikos”).  

Let’s talk more about “pan” today, and the other two roots of “pandemic” in follow-up posts.

The “all” meaning of “pan” arises when “pan” is a prefix: a word-part appearing at the beginning of words.  Sometimes this prefix is attached with a hyphen, as in “pan-American” or “pan-African.”  In these cases, “pan-” means “affecting all parts of,” “across all of,” or “relating to all people described as.” 

Other words with the prefix “pan” do not feature a hyphen.  Can you guess the meanings of the words below?

panacea (“acea” comes from Greek “akos, akeia,” meaning “cure”)

panorama (“orama” comes from Greek “horama,” meaning “sight, spectacle,” and Greek verb “horan,” meaning “to look, to see”)

pantheon (“theon” comes from Greek “theios,” meaning “of/for the gods,” and “theos,” meaning “god”)

Another cultural & linguistic legacy from ancient Greek is “Pan” (with a capital “P”): a god imagined with a man’s upper body, a goat’s lower parts, and goat-horns on his head!  Embodying nature, Pan was the god of shepherds & herd animals, forests & fields, wild places & rustic music, and was associated with sex, fertility & spring.

“Pan” appears in the word “panic,” originally meaning “pertaining to Pan.”  The ancient Greeks believed Pan made “mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

Other ancient languages produced “pan” meanings unrelated to Greek (or with complex or less direct connections to Greek), which appear in nouns like “pan” (as in “frying pan,” “pancake”), “panda,” “panache,” and several meanings of the verb “to pan.”  If you’re interested, research the histories of those words on your own!  The etymological notes (very brief word histories) at the end of a dictionary definition can help you learn & remember new vocabulary; etymology is the study of the origins & evolving meanings of words.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “pan,” “dēmos,” “ikos” & related entries); English Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org: “Pan (god)” & related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 8, 2021.

In a recent post, we discussed how indefinite article a/an introduces a singular count noun for listeners/readers who are NOT expected to be familiar with it yet:

I bought a bicycle yesterday.

Such a first mention of a noun often starts a story or description: 

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.  The bike is built for long-distance riding, so it’s really sturdy.  I plan to take trips with it on country backroads.

… or a conversation:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did the bicycle cost?

After introducing “a bicycle,” we can switch to definite article the, since the bicycle is now familiar in context.

Here’s some good news: the is used in the same way for singular, plural & noncount nouns, so you don’t have to worry about grammatical number:

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were the eagles doing?

—————————————————

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was the advice about?

—————————————————

And no worries about grammatical gender, either — no feminine, masculine, or neuter forms to keep track of (as in French, where the-equivalents la & le apply to feminine & masculine nouns, respectively). Thankfully, in modern English, the is always just the 

More good news: the is similar to its “th-cousins” this, that, these, those, which helps us understand WHY we use it.  All five words point at specific nouns or definite concepts, and their th– spelling suggests a close relationship.  This, that, these & those point more emphatically at their target nouns than the, but all five words’ pointing function — indicating something specific or definite — is often similar.

So it can be useful to consider the a short form of this, that, these, those.  Notice the meanings of this, that & those in the dialogs below are nearly identical with the preceding the-versions:

A: I bought a bicycle yesterday.

B: Really?  How much did this bicycle cost? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the bicycle”)

————————————————–

A: We saw two eagles in Central Park.

B: Wow!  What were those eagles doing? 

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the eagles”)

————————————————–

A: I gave my nephew some advice.

B: Oh yeah?  What was that advice about?

(more emphatic, but very similar to “the advice”)

————————————————–

However, sometimes the is not exactly equivalent to this, that, these, those.  This happens when we refer to generally understood concepts/institutions or nouns that listeners/readers are expected to be familiar with.  

For example, if I say I’m going to “the bank” today, I usually mean “some branch or other of whatever bank I use”; “one of those places we call ‘bank,’” NOT “this bank” or “that bank.”

This leads to more good news: you can use the the first time you refer to nouns in such ways! Here are some examples:

a) Unique or ubiquitous nouns:

The sun is about 93 million miles from the earth.

I love the night sky when the air is clear and the stars are bright.

The weather is getting warmer as the environment is changing fast.

————————————————–

b) Common/familiar concepts, types of places & institutions in everyday life:

In the morning, I plan to go to the post office and the library. 

Would you rather live in the city, the suburbs or the country?

I prefer the beach: I love gazing at the ocean.  

————————————————–

c) Nouns referred to generically (general, abstract meaning):

The giraffe is known for its long neck, and the elephant for its long trunk.

Was the harpsichord an early version of the piano?

Tech companies plan to further miniaturize the smartwatch and implant it in the human body.

One interesting note: this meaning of the can sometimes be conveyed by a/an in its generic meaning of “any”:

The unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

A unicycle is a one-wheeled, pedal-propelled vehicle.  

As definitions of “unicycle,” these two sentences are interchangeable.  They both express “unicycle as a concept; any unicycle.”

————————————————–

d) Nouns immediately understood in context (in a particular situation or given scenario):

What’s the problem?

Pass me the dictionary, please.

Turn off the lights and come down to the lobby.

————————————————–

If you can enjoy understanding & using the, then here’s some final good news: it’s the most commonly occurring word in English — so that’s about a thousand bits of enjoyment in an average English-speaking day!


An earlier version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on May 13, 2021.

A/An, Anyone?

April 30, 2021

Look at these little words:

a

an

any

one

Notice any similarities?  These common old words are closely related, and they’re literally Old English: the earliest form of English spoken in the centuries before the language was transformed by an infusion of Latin (via early French) starting about a thousand years ago.  

The similarities in spelling and meaning of a, an, any, and one help explain how to use our indefinite article a/an.  Consider these three simplified uses:

-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

So a/an means one, any, or a blend of one & any!  

__________________________________

-1- a/an = one 

— I bought a bicycle yesterday = I bought one bicycle yesterday 

“I” am aware of my new bicycle, but I know you’re not: you’re hearing/reading about it for the first time.  Even so, you immediately understand that it’s one particular bicycle, NOT just any bicycle.  

Such first-time references to singular count nouns that listeners or readers are not yet (or not fully) familiar with are usually introduced with a/an.  

More examples:

— We saw an eagle in Central Park = We saw one eagle in Central Park 

“We” know something about this eagle, but you’re NOT expected to know anything about it, so the first time we mention it, we introduce it with an.   

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for one web design company 

This is one of many web design companies, NOT any web design company: it’s a certain web design company that goes unnamed here.  The phrase “a certain” often conveys this meaning of a/an = one — “a particular one; one of many possible ones”: 

— My cousin works for a web design company = My cousin works for a certain [unnamed] web design company. 

So useful!  A/An is extremely efficient when you want to introduce a quick reference to a particular noun without bothering to name or describe it specifically in the same sentence

— Spinach is a leafy green vegetable = Spinach is one leafy green vegetable

Spinach is defined here as one type of leafy green vegetable.  There are many varieties of “leafy green vegetable,” and “Spinach” is just one of many.  Here, a/an = one means “a type of; one type among many possible types within a particular category.”  This reference to type is more abstract than our previous examples, which indicated one actual individual among many, but it still does NOT mean any type.

__________________________________

-2- a/an = any

A bicycle is great for getting around the city = Any bicycle is great for getting around the city

Here, “A bicycle” is an abstraction, a generic concept of any bicycle.  This is not about “a certain” or “a particular” bicycle; it’s the general idea of the pedal-powered two-wheeled vehicle we call “bicycle.”

More examples:

— You should try a unicycle: it’s even more fun to ride = You should try any unicycle … 

I’m NOT thinking of a particular unicycle for you; I’m just making a quick remark about any member of the category of pedal-powered one-wheeled vehicles we call “unicycle.”

— I’d rather learn how to ride a horse = I’d rather learn how to ride any horse

For the purposes of this sentence, any horse will do.  No need to discuss particular horses or types of horse.  Here, horse means “horse in general; the concept of horse.”  

__________________________________

-3- a/an = one/any

— I’d like to get a bicycle for long-distance riding = I’d like to get one/any bicycle for long-distance riding

This sentence blends the general idea of any bicycle and a degree of concreteness in the sense of one bicycle I could own in the future: a potentially particular bike!  It’s not one actual bike yet, but it’s not just any bike either: only certain types of bike will suit my purposes.  

More examples:

— We’re looking for a new apartment = We’re looking for one/any new apartment

One apartment?  Yes, of course: one is all we need, but we haven’t found the right one yet.  Any apartment?  Not exactly; we’re interested in size X, location Y, and price range Z.  But we’ll consider almost any apartment fitting our X/Y/Z description.  

— You should send her an email about that = You should send her one/any email about that

This is the mere thought of a hypothetical (any) email + a suggested actual (future one) email with a certain type of content.  So “an” has a blended one/any meaning here.

— I take a bath every evening = I take one/any bath every evening

This one-bath-per-evening is a recurring one, not a particular/individual one, so as a conceptual bath, it has a spirit of any.  It’s the idea (abstraction) of one of this type of NOUN (bath) per recurring time (any given evening).

__________________________________

A quick review of the three simplified meanings of a/an:

-1- a/an = one = a certain; one particular; an actual/tangible individual; one among many; a type of 

-2- a/an = any = generic concept of; general idea of; abstract/hypothetical vision of 

-3- a/an = one/any = a potentially particular; hypothetical (any) but actualizable (one); a future one; a recurring one  

__________________________________

An important point: a/an is for singular count nouns only.  Plural nouns can’t use it, since it refers to one, not more than one.  Noncount nouns can’t use it, since they can’t be counted with one or any other number.

As for a vs. an — for smooth pronunciation, article a partners with nouns beginning with a consonant sound, and an with nouns beginning with a vowel sound.  One tricky consonant issue is the hidden y- sound in some words beginning with the letter u, as in university (yu-nih-VER-sih-tee).  Remember to say “a university” and “a union.”

And watch out for silent initial h: words like honor begin with a vowel sound (for example, ah in honor or ow in hour).  Say “an honor” and “an hour.”  Finally, a couple of initial h words may be pronounced in different ways, like historian: a historian (with consonant h- sound) and an historian (with silent initial h) are both acceptable.  

If you’re wondering, “Hey, what about the — the other article in English?” link to my post on that topic here: The Good News About “The”!

__________________________________

An earlier version of this article appeared as two posts (part 1, part 2) in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 22 & 29, 2021.

Writing coaching

Small talk plays an important role in American culture, as we discussed in a recent post.  However, too much of a good thing can backfire: that is, produce the opposite of the intended (good) effect.  

When we have a special request or favor to ask of someone, starting with a little small talk is natural, but if we do NOT have a close personal relationship with that someone, it’s often useful to limit initial chitchat to 2-3 exchanges, and then introduce our request with minimal context … and ASK!

Let’s strategize about small talk first, and then the request.  Why strategize?  Because we’ll probably be a little nervous: asking for help from people outside our closest social circle can be psychologically demanding.  This isn’t something we do every day, so choosing the right words and the right way to say them can be challenging.  

If you intend to ask a favor of an acquaintance, associate, colleague, or anyone else who is NOT a close friend or relative — and especially if you haven’t spoken to this person in a long time — try to limit small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner keeps it going by asking YOU some questions).

This little bit of foresight may help you AVOID a one-sided “exchange”:

A: Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  

B: [short response]

A: Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  

B: [short response]

A: So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  

B: [short response]

A: How’s your wife doing?  Is she still in the fashion industry?  

B: [short response]

A: Oh wow, that’s great!  And your parents — how are they doing? 

If you find yourself driving this kind of “interrogation,” cut it short: your partner will be relieved!  Notice this example includes a couple of “dead-end” yes/no questions likely to elicit yes- or no-only responses.  

But there’s an even more serious problem here: the question content may be unwelcome.  Your partner may not be in the mood right now to discuss work, wife, or parents — especially if your relationship is not close.  Imposing such questions could even affect how the other person responds to your eventual request.

Now let’s consider how you might structure your request.  Expect to feel a little anxious (it’s normal) and do your best to push through it.  Express your purpose in two very short parts — CONTEXT (essential background information, condensed into one sentence or phrase) and REQUEST:

CONTEXT: Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and … 

REQUEST: … I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about …

Note that the CONTEXT does not tell a long story.  Long-story-SHORTextremely short! — is our goal here.  

And notice the REQUEST features indirect words to soften its impact: 

I was wondering: common introductory softener; signals that a request (or other special/sensitive remark) is coming, alerting the listener to a “turn” in the conversational flow.

if I could ask you: “if” conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “I” asking, not the listener “you” giving (NOT: “if you could give me …”); this additional signal gently & politely announces, “Incoming question!”

any: meaning “any possible” or “if you happen to have any”; the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer, which lowers expectations and helps lighten a request.

might: conditional modal, with an implied if”: if you happen to have ideas, if you can think of anything spontaneously, if you would be willing to share your thoughts.

In most routine situations in the USA, you’ll probably receive warmer and more thoughtful responses to your requests if you limit small talk, get to your point relatively quickly, choose words that burden YOU instead of the other person, and soften your wording with a few “if”s, “might”s & “any”s!


This article is a revised version of an earlier post that appeared in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 16, 2021.

English language coaching

“I see you’re wearing a Yankees cap.  Are you a baseball fan?”

This is small talk: a useful conversation-starter, or just an add-on to “Hi, how are you?”  Notice the comment (“Yankees cap”) + question (“you a fan?”) structure — we’ll come back to that soon when we discuss techniques.

But first — why bother reading about small talk?  After all, you probably do it naturally with people you want to interact with.  That’s great … but remember those awkward times when you wanted to interact with someone but couldn’t think of the right thing to say? 

Small talk can be a BIG challenge for anyone facing new or anxiety-inducing situations, including many key moments in our careers.  And small talk can be a BIG deal in relationship-building: people prefer to socialize and do business with others they feel comfortable with, and this sense of comfort can be established & maintained through light conversation that feels natural and builds rapport.

So strengthening your small talk skills can enhance your personal & professional encounters.  Here’s a simple formula that can remind us what small talk is, and what it’s for:

small talk = SHOWING INTEREST

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too new to make me feel “interested” yet?

I hear you!  That’s why the key word SHOWING is helpful.  Showing interest can come from (a) having genuine interest and expressing it … or (b) making an effort: finding something — anything — to comment on!

In the “Yankees cap” example, (b) is likely to apply to me, as I’m not a Yankees fan; I’m not even a baseball fan, and I have no natural interest in discussing baseball or baseball hats … but hey: I’m making an effort by noticing something and remarking on it!

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too intimidating or tense, and I feel literally frozen?

I know — I’ve been there too!  Sometimes we have to “break the icebefore showing interest.  (The “ice” in this idiom indicates the initial frozen state of a new social situation; the awkward paralysis of people together not communicating.)

One of the easiest ways to break the ice is asking about the weather.  This works even for remote video-conferencing and phone calls:

“How’s the weather where you are?”

Notice this question doesn’t even require knowing where the other person is, which makes it very easy to use.  It leads naturally to discussing where the other person is, where you are, and suddenly the “ice” is broken, the conversational stream is flowing, and now you can show interest!

“I heard you say you’re from Italy.  What part of Italy are you from?”

That’s another example of the comment + question structure.  Comments set context for questions, and sometimes even prompt them: I may say “you’re from Italy” without knowing what else to say … and “What part?” naturally emerges!  

And by adding space between questions, comments create more comfortable pacing: focus on me (comment); then you (question); me; then you.  And you, I hope, do the same!  Asking questions only turns small talk into an interrogation, which can be unpleasant for your partner.

The “Italy” example features an information question (“What part?”), which unlocks more conversational potential than most yes/no questions do.  Information questions — those beginning with who, what, where, when, why, which, how — elicit specific and often revealing responses.  In contrast, yes/no questions may result in one-word answers: “Yes.”  Or “No.”  And nothing more!

As your small talk warms up, think of simple questions — especially information questions and yes/no questions with like — to follow up on what your partner says:

— “Did you like growing up there?”

— “Oh really?  Why?”

— “When was that?”

— “Where was that?”

— “That’s interesting; and then what happened?”

— “Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Follow-ups are short, easy to generate, and more fun to answer.  Since they demonstrate you’re listening and showing interest, they encourage meaningful conversation and transform small talk into real engagement.


A version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 1, 2021.

A Good Time for Writing

December 4, 2020

With the current pandemic prompting restrictions on public gatherings and onsite classes, we’re all more physically separated from each other.  Devising your own independent study activities can be a reassuring way to engage with the world … and keep your joy-of-learning flame burning.  

Communicating at a distance means that writing is probably playing a more significant role in your life: you may be composing more text messages, emails, and written assignments than ever before.  As your need to write increases, along with enforced time alone, consider refining your writing skills with the help of the best teachers: good writers.

Start from the source: books, stories, articles, and other texts that you find interesting and well-written.  The “you” part here is important: allow your own preferences, feelings, and instincts to guide you.  This is a chance to explore writing that is meaningful to you — NOT what someone else chooses for you or claims you “should” read.  

Notice sentences that make an impression on you.  Did you like one particular part of a piece you just read?  Did the opening page of a novel have a mysterious or magical effect on you?  Did your boss or teacher write something so useful or clear that you’d like to emulate their technique?  

Re-read those sentences carefully.  What did you like so much?  Why do you think so? 

The answers to these questions can lead directly to improving your own writing skills, but you’ll need to exert some energy.  Are you ready?   

If English is your second language, try a back-translation — a challenging but effective self-directed activity: 

a) Translate several well-written English sentences or paragraphs into your first language.

b) Wait a few days (or longer) so you can forget the details of the original English.

c) Without looking at the original text, translate your translation back into English.  

d) Compare your English translation with the English original, notice the differences … and learn from them!

Back-translation is a simple idea, but doing it takes commitment and effort!  So limit your first attempt to just a few sentences that really interest you: a short excerpt that struck you as useful, meaningful, or beautiful. 

The final step — comparing your back-to-English translation with the original — will show you how you can improve your written English.  You’ll notice differences in word choices, sentence structures, and punctuation & style elements that you can immediately apply to your next writing task.  Pay special attention to aspects of the original that you did NOT include or incorporate fully in your translation: these oversights will show you what you need to learn, as opposed to what you’re already good at.  

One rewarding aspect of this comparative analysis is that you choose the material and you manage the process yourself.  The text itself is the key, the writer is your virtual teacher, and you are in the driver’s seat.  Drive on … and enjoy the journey!

A version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on December 1, 2020.

(“Quarantine 1” “2,” “3,” “4” — photos by Lloyd Bishop)

Are you looking for ways to enhance the quality of your communication with others? 

Try validating, affirming, and building on what your conversation partners say, or “offer.”

In improvisational acting (“improv,” for short), this has become a core principle: it’s called “Yes, and” because it’s as simple as saying “Yes” … that is, affirming that what was just offered was valid … and then saying “and …” + adding to what was said or offered — that is, building on the offer.

For example, let’s say you and I start chatting — in real life or in an improvised role-play scenario:

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Yes, it is — and I wish I were somewhere way up north.”

You: “Yeah, me too; I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!”

Me: “Vermont sounds good; I hear it’s really pretty up there …”

Smooth!  You offered “really hot,” and I replied, “Yes, and …” and then you responded “Yeah + Vermont …” and then I said “sounds good + really pretty …” — we used various words as “Yes, and” substitutes.  Simple and natural, right?  But it’s not always easy to do this in actual conversations!  (More on that in a moment.)

In improv, “Yes, and” is lesson #1!

English language learners can boost their confidence, creativity, and fluency with improv exercises & role-plays.  Improvisation means making things happen or solving problems spontaneously, on the spot, without advance planning.  Engaging in improv — even very briefly — can help *YOU* handle unexpected situations, workplace conversations, and public speaking challenges more effectively. 

In improv scenario role-playing AND in the many real roles you play in life, you can enhance the quality of your interactions by validating & affirming what others offer.  As you probably know, brainstorming — generating fresh ideas in a context where all ideas are welcome, and no ideas are initially rejected — is built on this principle.

Why isn’t this always easy to do?  Well, a full answer to that might require some psychological & sociological insights, but for now, just consider how often we do this: 

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Do you think so?  Actually, it seems fairly cool to me.”

Oops — sorry!  I immediately denied the validity of your offer, negating your “really hot” with my “fairly cool.”  This can have a chilling effect on our conversation and even deflate your confidence.  My bad!  I should have realized that my “Actually” would lead to trouble.   

In improv scenarios, this trouble is serious: If you said it’s hot, and I said it’s cool, then what is the weather in our scenario?  The  imagined reality we could have built together for an audience (or just ourselves) has been undermined, and will need rescuing … or restarting.

An even more common troublemaker than “Actually” is “but” — often disguised as “Yes, but …”:

You: “I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!” 

Me: “Yes, but Canada’s even better than Vermont.”

Ouch!  My “butcanceled my own “Yes” — and maybe I didn’t consciously mean to deflate your “Vermont,” but subconsciously I did!  Watch out for this subtle conversation spoiler.

Improv & acting exercises offer ways to overcome the impulse to contradict, invalidate, negate, and deflate each other’s contributions to conversations & situations.  The imagined realities of role-play scenarios help stretch our sense of self and appreciation of other selves, expand our interpersonal comfort range, and enhance the quality of our real-life interactions & relationships!


A version of this article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2020.

(photo by Lloyd Bishop: “Vine Improvising Its Way Across a Wall”)