Latest Publications

You Can’t Down a Noun

Question: Why can you say slow down and sit down but not money down?

Answer: You can’t down a noun! In general, don’t use the word “down” after a noun. It is possible to use “down” after words that are both nouns and verbs, but if the word is usually used as a noun, we don’t “down” it! Of course there are exceptions, as with all English rules.

Don’t say:

Temperature down (Instead, say lower the temperature.)

Money down (Instead, say lose money.)

Stress down (Instead, say reduce stress.)

Weight down (Instead, say lose weight.) It is possible to use weight as a verb and say “We expect the snow to weight down the branches,” but we don’t use it to mean to lose weight.

Level down (Instead, say go down a level.) It is possible to use level as a verb, as in, to flatten a surface, and say “Level it down, but we don’t use it to mean to go to a lower rank or position.

Speed down (Instead, say slow down.) Speed can also be a verb. We say speed up, but we never say speed down.

But, you can say:

Calm down / Fall down / Sit down / Look down / Move down / Pat down / Run down / Scale down / Settle down / Sit down / Slow down / Stand down / Step down / Tie down

You will notice that the words above can be used as verbs AND nouns (and sometimes adjectives), but when the word “down” comes after these words, the words are considered verbs.

Here are some words (both nouns and verbs) that can be followed by up but not by down:

Speed up / Speed down

Suit up / Suit down

Work up / Work down

Wait up / Wait down

Follow up / Follow down

Build up / Build down

Read up / Read down

So, be careful and don’t “down your nouns”!

Opinion-Generating Activities

Try this activity right now. Open up The Huffington Post or Silicon Valley News and read an article that you’re not very familiar with. Now, in 30 seconds, give me your opinion. Go!

Not easy, is it?

As teachers we often say, “give me your opinion” in order to hear our students speak. We really don’t care one way or another about their actual opinions. We just want them to produce language so that we can give feedback and help them discover new vocabulary and grammar. However, giving opinions is a big deal, especially to people who might not be used to doing it in their first language, let alone their second. When you ask for an opinion, you might be asking students to share their private thoughts, their weaknesses, and even their lack of knowledge of a particular subject. This kind of activity doesn’t lower the affective filter. It does the opposite. It makes students feel nervous and perhaps ashamed. Yet, giving opinions is an important skill for living and working in English-speaking countries, so we need to do something to help our students learn how to speak their mind.

Here are a few opinion-generating activities that will help lower the stress of giving opinions in class. These activities can be done in one-on-one lessons or large classes.

Become an Actor

This is a fun activity for students who don’t have a strong opinion on the topic that you’re discussing or who are too shy to give their opinions about controversial topics. After you introduce the topic that will be discussed, students choose a picture of a random person or a celebrity. (Get photos from magazines, newspapers or the Web.) Have students make up some background information about the person and then introduce themselves. Finally, ask them to give their opinions about the topic while in character.

Take Both Sides

This activity will allow students to have conflicting opinions about a complex story. (This is closer to reality, after all.) After reading (and discussing) an online news story together, ask students to read the reader comments below the story. Ask them to categorize the comments into two types: ‘agrees with author’ and ‘disagrees with author.’ Next, tell students to choose a comment from both sides that they agree (or partially agree) with. Have them present both sides to the class or a small group and explain why they think both sides are correct.

Devil’s Advocate

Use the same activity above, but instead of asking the students to support the opinions on both sides of the issue, ask them to take the opposite side that they would naturally take. You can turn this into a debate, and then have them change sides midway through the debate.

Research and Share

Why not let students prepare their opinions ahead of time? Most people don’t feel comfortable giving an opinion if they haven’t had time to think about all the angles. After discussing an article in class, give students a homework assignment to research what other people have to say about the story. You might have them prepare a short statement, a speech, an essay, or a tweet about what they believe.

Here are a few links to stories that could be used with these activities:

J. Crew’s Pink Toenail Controversy

E-Books Killing Paper Books

There are many ways to get students to share opinions in class, but we thought we’d share a few that have worked for us. We’d love to hear your ideas.

Teaching with “A Google A Day”

Google just launched a puzzle called “A Google a Day“. The webpage gives you a trivia question each day that encourages you to use google to find your answer. What’s more, if you search for the answer from this page, your search will be “spoiler free” because you’ll be searching for the answer through a “wormhole” that allows you to see the web a day before “A Google a Day” launched.

A Google a Day Question

If you teach English as a second language, you can use this site to help your students:

  • Write better search queries in English
  • Improve their Web research in English
  • Improve US cultural literacy
  • Gain confidence in using the English web
  • Help them take responsibility for their own learning

To help students learn how to search for the answer, you can click on “Show Answer” under the question. This will give the search terms that can be used to find the answer. (UPDATE: The questions get harder as the week goes on.)

A Google a Day Answer

Please leave comments below on how you might use this Website in your classes.

Stop Using Your Dictionary!

Do you look up words in a dictionary and try to memorize their definitions? Is it easy for you to actually use a word once you’ve memorized its definition?

To really understand how to use a word,  I suggest that you become a vocabulary detective. Like a detective, you need to do some research, and the best place to go to learn how to use a word is an Internet news website. A search on these sites will reveal how the words are being used today. Doing the search is easy. Go to a news site like Google News or Yahoo News and type your word in the “search news” box. If you want to find a phrase, then use quotation marks (“…”) around the entire phrase. The results page will show your search terms in bold, and you can click on the link to see the entire sentence.

For example, let’s say you read the phrase “edges up” in a book, and you can’t figure out what it means. If you do a Google News search, you will discover the following sentences using the phrase:

  • “Idaho’s jobless rate edges up, work force declines.”
  • “Nikkei edges up on techs, exporters”
  • “unemployment rate edges up to 5.6%”
  • “Kiwi edges up to $0.7070, from $0.7054 earlier”

If you look in an online dictionary, you’ll learn that “edge up” means “to push one’s way into a space.” In fact, this online dictionary says that “edge up” is rarely used as a verb. But after looking at the news articles from the Google search, you’ll see that the phrase is often used as a verb to mean “to increase by a small amount.” You’ll also notice that the phrase seems to be used to talk about money and numbers. The sentences from the news search give you a better picture of how the word is used in today’s media.

You can also refine your search and look for how the term is used in headlines, in the body of a text or by date. In addition, you can search in blogs. (Blogs are not always edited with the same standards that newspapers are, so be aware that you might find more grammar mistakes in blogs.)

If you’d like to investigate more uses of the word, then change the grammar a little and see what happens. If you try the same search using past tense (“edged up”), you’ll see similar results. However, if you do another search but change the preposition to “on” instead of “up,” you’ll see that the phrase doesn’t exist. The results show sentences that use the words separately.

  • …around the grassy edges. On Monday,.. .

If you begin your vocabulary learning by searching for how we use words, rather than by searching for a definition, you’ll be able to quickly add the words to your active vocabulary.

Redefining Networking


Does the idea of networking scare you? Does it bring to mind images of parties and events in which you stand around and talk to strangers while you nervously hold a drink in your hand, secretly looking for the clock to see if it’s time to leave? These kinds of parties are not only nerve-racking, but also time-consuming, expensive and not always fruitful. However, things have improved in the last few years. Today, networking is often done virtually. Although you can’t completely replace real handshakes and small talk around a table, you can grow your network without leaving your home.

In the past, swapping contact information with someone you met at a conference didn’t guarantee that they’d actually do anything with it. As you know, it’s easy to go home from conferences with an overloaded brain. By the time you recover from a conference, you are probably so busy with work that you forget to follow up with the people you met. You might see them at the next conference, but they might not remember you, and there’s probably no chance that you are going to connect before then. With Online networking, you’re always just a click away from a contact. You can make connections with those people once a month instead of once a year.

Are You Online?

If you are a professional and don’t have an Online presence, then how will people find you? If you send in your resume to a company, they will most likely do a search on your name to find out more about you. Don’t you want the search results to show that you are well-connected and an expert in your field? The good news is that you don’t have to be a techie to do this. The following networking suggestions require only an open mind, not a tech background.

Prepare Your Pitch

Before you start networking Online, you need to prepare a few things. Think about a one-sentence description of who you are and what you do. I suggest keeping an “elevator pitch” document in your computer that contains a few self-introductions of different lengths that you can copy and paste into “about me” pages on websites. You should also have an updated version of your resume. Next, you need a digital photo of yourself that you feel comfortable uploading to the Web. The photo should be a headshot that makes you look professional. Finally, think about your purpose for networking. Who do you want to connect with? What are your goals?

Make Connections

Networking is about making connections and engaging in two-way communication, so having a static website is really not necessary unless you run your own business. You don’t need a website to simply grow your network. The best way to network is to join Online networking sites.

As you probably know, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are the biggest and most useful social networking sites for professionals doing business in the United States.

Facebook tends to be a place for more personal connections, so you might want to avoid adding professional contacts as “friends” if you tend post photos and comments that are not related to your professional life. However,  you can interact with professional contacts on Facebook by creating a community page for a unique topic. For example, I know a real estate agent who created a page especially for people interested in Eichler homes, and of course we have an Ovient page. This is a great way to use Facebook to expand your network, and doing this will keep your private life and professional life separate.

On Twitter, you can find a huge number of professionals from all over the world talking about interesting topics and exchanging ideas. I recommend making a unique Twitter account for your professional communication. You can use this account to post links, communicate with other leaders, and write your brilliant ideas about your industry. If you are new to Twitter, do a search on “how to use Twitter,” and you’ll find advice and videos on how to use this website.

LinkedIn is a business networking site.  You need to be on this site if you want business contacts or hiring managers to find you. You can add information about your work history and professional interests, make connections with people you know, write and receive recommendations from colleagues, and most importantly join groups. By joining a group, you can participate in discussions and meet new people in your industry. There are groups for alumni, special interests, and clubs that you belong to off-line. Many of your colleagues are probably on LinkedIn already, so look at the groups they are in. You can find groups by doing keyword searches.

There are many other industry-specific social networking sites that you might want to join. For example, The Educator’s PLN is a networking site for teachers.  Do a search to find out if there is one that you should join, or ask your colleagues if they belong to any groups.

Another way to connect with people is to comment on blogs. Writing comments is a great way to connect with authors, researchers, publishers, business leaders, and people in the industries you’d like to work in. Of course, the next step is to create your own blog so that other people can comment on your ideas!

Manage Your Time

At first, you might find yourself spending a lot of time figuring it all out and getting connected. (It can turn into a bit of an addiction!) But you really don’t need to spend all of your time Online. I recommend spending a few hours each month to keep in contact with people, and if you take a leave of absence for a few months, it’s OK. Everyone does. You don’t have to give up your hobbies just because you’ve joined the online world. Set aside time and call it your “professional development” or “ personal marketing” time.

If you’re new to all of this, keep an open mind and be patient with the technology and yourself. Don’t write it off because you don’t understand it. Please feel free to start by commenting on this blog!

English Is All Around You

Let me tell you a secret. You can learn English without a textbook or a teacher!

You can learn from the English that is around you every day. All you need to do is look for it.

Think about all of the “teachers” you have:

friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, waiters and waitresses, cashiers, taxi and bus drivers, flight attendants, sales people, landlords, hair stylists, the person sitting next to you at a party, supermarket signs, brochures, newspapers, advertisements, billboards, email, junk mail, TV, radio, books, magazines, websites, blogs, videos, food packaging, menus, instruction manuals

These are your teachers, and they’re (mostly) free to use!

Read the paper, and look up words you don’t know. Listen to how cashiers and flight attendants talk to you. Listen for different styles of language. Watch TED videos. Read the back of your cereal box. Watch TV sitcoms to learn slang. Read signs more often.

Write your observations in a notebook.

Let the English that is around you be your teacher. (If you’re not living in an English-speaking community, you’ll have to try a little harder and be more creative, but it’s possible to find many of these things if you have access to the Internet.)

Go on, look. English is all around you.

A Presentation is a Story

Do you get nervous when you think about giving a presentation?  Most of us do.  Do you get nervous when telling a story to a friend?  Most of us think this isn’t so difficult. I’d like you to know that giving a presentation should be as easy as telling a story.

When you tell a story, you typically have the following elements:  an introduction (or “hook”), background information, a sequence of events, a climax, and a resolution or conclusion.

Here’s how you might tell a story:

Get their attention: Guess what happened to me yesterday? or I have a funny story to tell you.

Give some background information: Last weekend, I went on a business trip to Vancouver.

Explain the sequence of events: Before my trip, I…. Then I…. When I got to the meeting….

Reveal the most important point or climax of the story: I was greeted by the CEO and immediately realized that he was my old college roommate!

Explain the conclusion or next steps: I invited him to visit me in California.

Your story might be funny, surprising or sad, but in any case, you’ll probably follow this pattern.  Now, think about a presentation that you have given.  Did you tell a story, or did you simply read a bunch of unemotional information? People remember stories.  If you give a presentation in a story form, your audience will be more interested in what you have to say, and more importantly, they’ll remember your presentation long after you’ve finished.

Here is an example of how you can use the elements of a good story when giving a presentation:

Get their attention: What if I told you that you could complete your work in half the time it takes you now?

Give some background information: Our company has created a software product that can save you time and money.

Explain the sequence of events: First you need to download this software, and then….

Reveal the most important point or climax of the story: This product costs only $99 per year.

Explain the conclusion or next steps: If you register today, you’ll get the first two months free.

As you plan for your next presentation, think about the story you are going to tell, and imagine that you are telling this story to a friend.

Pronounce iPad and iPod

Listen to the difference between the pronunciation of iPad and iPod in American English.


iPad iPod
/ɑɪpæd/ /ɑɪpɑd/

iPad vs. iPod? iPainful Pronunciation Problems – An Open Letter to Apple

Dear Apple,

I don’t know whether to thank you or hate you for naming your new product the iPad.  As an instructor of professional English, I spend hours every day helping my clients improve their pronunciation.  Much of this time is focused on vowels.  As you know, “iPad” /ɑɪpæd/ sounds a lot like “iPod” /ɑɪpɑd/.  Having grown up in Ohio, this distinction is not lost on me.  “Pod” is easy for me to say.  “Pad” is even easier, especially with my northern Ohioan accent in which I often say things like, “Where’s it at?” (with a very strong, perhaps even whiny, /æ/).  But what about the rest of the world?  Do you know that you just created an iPainful pronunciation nightmare for my clients?

In Japan, for example, “iPod” is pronounced /ɑɪpoʊd/.  Your shiny new iPad, on the other hand, is pronounced /ɑɪpɑd/.  Sound familiar?  Yep, the Japanese pronunciation of “iPad” is almost exactly the same as the American English pronunciation of “iPod.”  Nice.  Do I correct my clients when they pronounce “iPad” as /ɑɪpɑd/, or are they really just talking about the iPod, in which case their pronunciation would be correct? And, if they overcorrect the pronunciation of “iPad,” they would be saying /ɑɪpɑɪd/, at which point I would be wondering whether they “paid” for the pad or the pod.

Maybe your real goal was to get the international community to talk about the features of both devices.   A 30-second conversation could quickly become a discussion of features.  The iPod (/ɑɪpɑd//ɑɪpoʊd/) would become “that music thingy” and the iPad (/ɑɪpæd//ɑɪpɑd/) would become “that big thingy that plays music, but also does other cool stuff.”  If your goal was to promote conversation about your products, well done.  If your goal was word-of-mouth marketing, well, let’s just say that you may see an unexpected jump in sales of iPods in some parts of the world.

Perhaps I am being too harsh.  Perhaps I should be thanking you for the perfect opportunity to practice vowels in a relevant and interesting way:  “Okay, Hiro, explain the differences between the iPad and the iPod.”  I can finally entice my clients to see that these subtle differences in pronunciation really do matter. Or, maybe this calls for visual aids, in which case every language instructor will be buying an iPad.  Hmmm, maybe that’s the best solution:  “This is an iPad and this is an iPod.”  Hey Apple, how about a volume discount?


Ovient English

Which is better for learning English: private lessons or classes?

Clients often ask me which is better, private lessons (1-1) or classes? My answer always depends on what the client wants to learn. I often ask two questions, “What do you want to improve?” and “What kind of classes have you taken before?”

Regarding the first question, if the client wants to learn how to speak up in meetings, get comfortable with small talk, improve listening, practice negotiating, learn to debate, or gain confidence in public speaking, I would say, “classes.”

If the client wants to improve speech clarity and pronunciation, learn how to speak in 1-1 settings,  improve writing, learn industry-related vocabulary, practice interviewing, or have all of his errors analyzed and corrected, then I would answer, “private lessons.”

As for the second question, if the client says that he has taken classes before and didn’t like them because he didn’t get personal attention from the instructor, then I might suggest 1-1, with an option of trying out some small groups at some point. Some people have had bad experiences in classes, and I don’t want to force them into a situation in which they come to class already thinking that it’s not going to help them. However, if a client says, “I really want to improve my communication with my international colleagues,” I would immediately suggest a class. Regardless of what research and experience has taught us about learning in groups and classes, in order for a learner to improve, he or she needs to believe that the environment is right for him or her.

That said, the cost and time will also dictate which option a client will choose. Classes are usually much less expensive than 1-1 for obvious reasons, but if the client wants to have a flexible lesson schedule, then 1-1 would be better. As you can see, the answer is not so simple.

In addition to thinking of the answer in terms of the client, we must also think about what the instructor wants. Jason Renshaw wrote in his blog that he prefers to teach classes, and you can see from comments on his post that instructors have various opinions. Personally, I enjoy teaching 1-1 and very small classes.

Here are some additional points to consider when thinking about teaching or taking a class or private lesson:

Classes (or Small Groups)

  • Interacting with classmates can be more effective than learning from an instructor.
  • Mixed-level classes can help everyone learn more. The lower-level learners will be pushed more than if they were alone, and the higher-level learners can cement their knowledge by helping others.
  • Questions and additional information from other learners in class add to the instructor’s lesson plan.
  • Learning in a group can take the pressure off each individual.
  • Class members can make friends and business connections.

Private (1-1) Lessons

  • The lessons can be personalized and reflect exactly what the learner wants/needs.
  • Instructors can give individualized attention and feedback.
  • Lesson times and locations can be more flexible.
  • Learners can work on sensitive work-related material that they don’t want to share with a class.

When considering the ideal class size, we need to consider the learner’s needs, learning-style and motivation. We also need to consider the instructor’s needs, teaching-style and motivation as well. I believe there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but there is likely a perfect fit for the circumstances.