🇫🇷 French animal idioms

Il fait un froid de canard

In our advanced French class last week we had fun looking at some animal-related idioms.

Learning idiomatic expressions in a foreign language poses a series of cumulative challenges: even if we understand the basic vocabulary, sometimes the unfamiliar imagery can make the real meaning unclear. And then once we have fully understood the meaning, we are tempted to show them off, only to be greeted by polite smiles.

“Sorry, mon ami, but we wouldn’t usually say it like this…”

Knowing the cultural reference points can be just as problematic as mastering the linguistic constructions.

There are some idioms which appear to be cross-cultural:

Avoir une mémoire d’éléphantwould not pose us any problems, and nor would it be difficult to understand just how hungry someone was if they said: “J’ai une faim de loup!”And to be as stubborn as a mule also translates directly: “Têtu comme un âne.”

However, out of context, how clear would this be: “Il fait un froid de canard” (It is a duck’s cold). That’s right: “It’s freezing cold!”

Whether it’s from the cold, or from fear, you might get goose bumps. Every language seems to refer to a different animal for this phenomenon. In French it’s the chicken, and it’s the flesh not the bumps that are referred to: “avoirla chair de poule”.

How unlikely is it that I will ever be taken for a native French speaker? Pigs might fly! A direct French translation of this would produce a Gallic shrug; instead, their metaphorical reference of The Highly Unlikely talks about hens growing teeth: “quand les poules auront des dents”.

“Avoir un chat dans la gorge”, we might assume, is close enough to the English “frog in the throat” for the meaning to be clear. If so, it is something of a faux ami, as it is closer in meaning to “cat got your tongue?” i.e. when you are unable to express yourself, not due to a physical blockage, but because you feel unsure.

There is another cat expression, which is a simple one to remember: “Il n’y a pas un chat!” This would be used when you turn up somewhere, expecting to meet other people, and there is no one there.

I hope this has been interesting to read. If not, you might be tempted to say that you were as bored as a dead rat Je me suis ennuyé comme un rat mort!”

🇬🇧 T for two

How many ways are there to pronounce the letter t?

If you learn words one at a time, the pronunciation is easy – but can be very different from natural speed English.

Let’s look at this sentence:

It takes more than twenty minutes to get across London by train.

Depending on the speaker’s accent there are at least three ways of pronouncing the letter /t/.

  1. For many people, Londoners and Americans for example, the second /t/ of twenty disappears.
  2. The /t/ in train becomes more like a /ʧ/ as in church.
  3. Before a vowel, the /t/ at the end of a word can sound more like a /d/ (…to get across…)
  4. Also, when a word ends in /t/ and the next one starts with /t/ the two sounds join together to make a new one. (This is called twinning, or gemination.) It’s like there is a short pause as you are saying the sound.

It takes an hour

I’ve got two brothers

Is this the hot tap?

The same principle is true for other consonants:

Lamp post

Red door

Slapstick comedy

Listen carefully for these sounds as you hear native speakers talking English, and try to copy what you hear.

🇩🇪 Falsche Freunde

Falsche Freunde

False friendships between English & German.

German and English are related languages with many words in common, but here are a few to be careful of:

Bald means soon, not bald

Chef means boss, not just in a kitchen

Fast means almost

Gift means poison

🇬🇧 Phrasal verb practice

Which phrasal verb fits best – and do you have to change the form?

Choose from the following:

come round            go off            knock out            make up            pass on            run away (run off)          run over             take off            turn out            work out

1. I’ve … … a joke. Do you want to hear it?

2. He was … … in a rugby match. He was unconscious for a few seconds but then he … …

3. The plane … … from Heathrow on time, but there was a delay at Delhi airport.

4. The thief grabbed my bag and then … …

5. It was cloudy earlier, but it has … … nice!

6. Luckily, the bomb … … when the station was empty, so no was hurt.

7. Did you forget to … … my message yesterday?

8. I’m still shaking – I almost … … a dog this morning on the way to work.

9. My daughter has a maths problem that she just can’t … …

🇫🇷 Des faux amis

The false friendships between English and French words.

At the end of a meal you might want to say: “I’m full.”  Google translate suggests “Je suis plein”, but saying this to your host will raise eyebrows. If a man says it, it means “I’m drunk.” The feminine version (Je suis pleine) means “I’m pregnant.” 

 So, you go back to your semi-trusted online dictionary and try it another way. “I’ve had enough” comes back as “J’en ai assez.” This is true, but only in the exasperated sense: “I’m at the end of my tether!”

So you revert to the simplest way possible, and decide to go with the French for “I’ve finished.” In a moment of insight, you recall that some verbs take être instead of avoir in the past tense. Is finir one of them? Your earlier faux pas have lightened the mood, so you go for it and exclaim “Je suis fini.”Now your host looks concerned, as you have announced that you are on the point of death.

So, what is the most polite way to tell your host or the waiter that you have eaten enough and require no more?

« C’était délicieux, mais j’ai assez mangé. »


« Merci, je n’ai plus faim. »

🇬🇧 Their, there and they’re

Their, there and they're

What are the differences between their, there and they're?

They’re really not very difficult; when you learn about their differences, there shouldn’t be too many problems.

Their is the possessive form of the pronoun they, like the more common possessive forms: my, your, his and her

 “They bought their car on eBay.”

Their is generally plural, but increasingly it is accepted in place of the singular his or her in some situations:

“Someone’s left their book on the table.”

There is an adverb which means “in, at or towards that place,” as in “He is there on holiday.” So, there is really the opposite of here. There is also used as a pronoun introducing a sentence or clause, as in “There is still a chance that we will win.”

They’re is a contraction of the words they and are, as in “They’re looking for a way to master these difficult words!”

Little tips for spelling:

  • There (like “over there”) contains the word hereHere and there go together nicely.
  • Their contains the word An heir is someone who inherits something, so (by coincidence) there is a sense of possession in this word as well.

🇬🇧 Mixed conditionals

Mixed Conditionals

If I had studied a bit harder, I would be more confident about mixed conditionals!

We are very grateful to our students and social media followers for all interactions, especially suggestions for blog topics. This post is in response to a question from one of our Instagram followers: mixed conditionals. In English there are two typesof mixed conditionals:

  1. Present result of a past condition

We use this mixed conditional when we refer to a hypothetical (unreal) past situation and its probable result in the present.


If + past perfect (condition clause) + present conditional (main clause)


  • If I had caught the earlier train, I would be at home by now
  • If she had married David, she would probably be travelling a lot more
  • If she hadn’t lost her ticket, she would be at the concert now

Note: these examples can be swapped around without any change in meaning:

  • I would be at home by now if I had caught the earlier train
  1. Past result of present condition

This mixed conditional is used to explain a hypothetical (unreal) present situation and its most likely past result.


If + simple past (condition clause) + perfect conditional (main clause)


  • If they were interested in birdwatching, this holiday home would be perfect for them
  • If she could ride, her dad would have bought her a horse
  • If I had more money, I could have helped you out

As with the examples in the first section, these phrases can be switched around without any change in meaning:

  • I could have helped you out if I had more money

Also note: if you are able to use these mixed conditionals it is a sign of high-level English use – congratulations! But remember: they are not as common as the more straightforward first-, second- and third conditionals.

🇬🇧 Question Forming

When using a question word:
Use this formula to form questions:


Question word    Auxiliary verb     Subject    Main verb [and then the rest of the sentence…]

Here are some example questions on the topic of holidays, and some model answers which include some common mistakes (corrected for you).

Where did you go on holiday?

I went in to France.

When did you go to Sweden?

I went there the last summer.

How did you get there?

I went there in by plane. = I flew there.                        I got there on foot. = I walked there.

Who did you go with?

I went with my family.

How long did you stay there?

I stayed (for) two weeks.

We decided to stay for an extra week.

What did you do at night?

Yes/No questions: The formula is almost the same:


Question word    Auxiliary verb     Subject    Main verb [and then the rest of the sentence…]

Did you have a good time?

            No, I had a terrible time!

Did it rain in Scotland?

            Yes, it rained every day!

Do your parents still live in Sicily?

             Yes, they have lived there for seventy years.

🇬🇧 World Cup Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs pop up everywhere! This post is a way of saying goodbye to England’s footballers, until it all kicks off again in a few weeks…

[How many phrasal verbs can you spot? And how many of them do you understand without having to look up in a dictionary?]

England have been knocked out of the world cup. They didn’t give up but they fell short at the semi-final stage. Some people were very worked up about this; someone I saw in the town centre even threw up after the match – but that could have been for other reasons.

So now we can carry on with our normal lives, and some of us need to work off the weight we have put on. Now, instead of sitting on the sofa watching TV and drinking beer, maybe we can take up a new sport…

Never give up - frog and heron illustration

Remember: most phrasal verbs have a more formal equivalent which is usually a Latinate word, and many have two meanings – one literal and one abstract. These are the phrasal verbs that appeared above:

phrasal verb


meaning/example sentence

second meaning?

pop up


Appear or occur suddenly


kick off


the first action of a football match

“The match kicks off at 7pm”

to start, more generally

look up


(of a word) to search for

(of a situation) to improve

“Things are really looking up”

knock out

(very often used in the passive voice)


to remove a player or team from a tournament by beating them

to make someone unconscious

“The boxer knocked out his opponent”

give up


to stop trying

to stop doing something

fall short


to not have the ability to achieve the success that was expected


throw up



carry on


We carried on singing, even when the players had left the pitch


work off

get rid of

To lose something by work or effort


take up


to start something new, usually a new hobby


🇬🇧 The contracted ‘have’.

A third pronunciation.

I have two sisters. Do you have a dog?

The pronunciation of “have” is easy, right?

In a recent post we saw that the verb ‘have’ is pronounced as /hæf/ when it’s used as a modal verb.

“I have to finish this essay today!”

But there is a third way to pronounce “have”. Listen to these sentences.

“If I’d passed my exams, I’d’ve become a doctor.”

“If my parents had stayed in France, I’d’ve gone to a French school.”

These sentences both contain contractions: I’d’ve is how we pronounce “I would have” in natural-speed English. So, “have”can be pronounced /əv/. This pronunciation is very common in conditional sentences, but it’s not the only time you’ll hear it. Here are some more examples.

“Your documents should’ve been delivered yesterday.”

“I would’ve helped you.”