English in the sky

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Planes are an interesting place to think about English. They reflect changes in vocabulary due to social attitudes, the language of warnings and instructions, and the need to allay fears. The term ‘air hostess,’ is dead and buried, thank goodness. ‘Flight attendant’ rocketed to use between the 1960’s and 2000 (according to frequency sreaches) but has since often been substituted with ‘cabin crew,’ perhaps due to the slightly derogatory, menial sense of ‘attend.’ Unfortunately, the singular of ‘cabin crew’ is ‘a member of cabin crew,’ which hardly trips of the tongue.  “Crew unified at the same time as it creates hierarchies – flight, cabin and ground crews (in that order of importance, and pay.)


It’s not what you say it’s how you say it matters on planes. ‘In the unlikely event of a landing water,’ instead of ‘If we land on water.’ ‘Should there be a drop in oxygen…’ reminds students of grammar that we use ‘should’ instead of ‘if’ when we don’t expect something to happen.


If the cabin crew are British, listen out for some useful expressions –


  • Any empties? (used cans or bottles)

  • Do you want ice with that?

  • Still or fizzy? (water options)

  • That’ll be five pounds (pay me)


Of course, one of the most interesting aspects of flight English is the captain’s chat. As Tom Wolfe explained in his book The Right Stuff, ever since pilots were able to speak to the passengers or control tower there have existed strict unwritten rules about the tone of voice to be used. You should sound relaxed, even a bit bored, as if it were an enormous effort just to form a sentence. This rule must be observed even if you are flying into a storm with one engine missing and a co-pilot with food poisoning.


Opportunities are often described as moving things

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Opportunities are often described as moving things (objects, time, vehicles etc) we have the chance to obtain or join. Look at the following examples:


  1. Seize the day!
  2. (Take advantage of the opportunity)
  3. Don’t let the opportunity get away.
  4. Just grab the chance while you can.
  5. Take the offer before they change their mind.
  6. (It might escape)
  7. Don’t be left flat-footed.
  8. (Too slow to take advantage of an opportunity.)
  9. He let the chance pass him by.
  10. If you wait too long to decide you’ll miss the boat.
  11. The offer is no longer on the table – I’m afraid the train has left the station.
  12. I hope all the staff will get on board with the new strategy.
  13. The early bird catches the worm!
  14. Can you think of any other expressions like these? If so, please add them to the comments section.

Multi-Word Verb Exercise

Daniel Brint Language, Literature & Literary criticism 1 Comment

Multi-word verb exercise

Match a verb from list A with a sentence from B that expresses the meaning of the verb.


  1. Get across
  2. Hand over
  3. Put through
  4. Look through
  5. Ask out
  6. Chew over
  7. Let down
  8. Jot down
  9. Break off
  10. Let in
  11. Put off
  12. Make up
  13. Take in
  14. Pick out
  15. Move around



  1. I will think carefully about what you told me before deciding what to do.
  2. Why don´t you invite her to go to the cinema if you like her so much?
  3. I find it hard to absorb and understand so much data.
  4. The minister was unable to communicate his policy effectively.
  5. I’ll just write your phone number on the back of this ticket.
  6. When I read the negative reviews going to see the film lost its appeal.
  7. I was relying on you to help me, when you didn’t, I was really disappointed.
  8. He invents such interesting stories!
  9. Come with me to the shop and help me choose a present for her.
  10. See if you can find your passport by searching for it in your suitcases
  11. Knock seven times on the door and they will permit you to enter.
  12. The engagement was terminated last week.
  13. I don’t like where those pictures are on the wall – I’ll put them in a different order.
  14. The little boy had to return the toy he had taken from the shop.
  15. When I phoned it took me ages to get connected to the complaints department.


1 – D

2 – N (note that the sense here is to return something you do not own or have obtained illegally)

3 – 0

4 – J

5 – B

6 – A

7 – G

8 – E

9 – L

10 – K

11 – F (note that this is a usually expressed as ‘being put off by something’ – ‘I wanted to buy the watch but the price put me off.

12 – H

13 – C

14 – I

15 – M

Some not quite correct exam answers…

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This is a compilation of authentic student GCSE answers.
(GCSE is a British School exam for 16 year-olds.)

All Giza Pyramids

It has been said that pedantry is the last refuge of the witless, and this certainly, or sadly, has been my experience. Finding mistakes amusing is a dangerous habit, in life as in teaching – it tends to establish a false sense of superiority usually based on an embarrassment at one’s own intellectual limitations. However, in the case of the following examples, the joke is more on the way history is taught and memorized than the offering of young teenagers. Confronted by a mass of names, facts and consequences, these errors remind us of the laborious reproduction of course content and the unintended humour produced as a result. Enjoy. 



Ancient Egypt was inhabited by mummies and they all wrote in hydraulics. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere.
Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened
bread which is bread made without any ingredients. Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.
Solomon had three hundred wives and seven hundred porcupines.

The Greeks were a highly sculptured people, and without them we wouldn’t have history. The Greeks also had myths. A myth is a female moth.
Nero was a cruel tyranny who would torture his subjects by playing the fiddle to them.
In midevil times most people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the futile ages was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verses and also wrote literature.

Another story was William Tell, who shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son’s head.

Writing at the same time as Shakespeare was Miguel Cervantes. He wrote Donkey Hote. The next great author was John Milton. Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Then his wife died and he wrote Paradise Regained.

One of the causes of the American Revolutionary War was the English put tacks in their tea.

Soon the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the constitution the people enjoyed the right to keep bare arms.

Meanwhile in Europe, the enlightenment was a reasonable time. Voltaire invented electricity and also wrote a book called Candy.

Gravity was invented by Issac Walton. It is chiefly noticeable in the autumn when the apples are falling off the trees.

Johann Bach wrote a great many musical compositions and had a large number of children. In between he practised on an old spinster which he kept up in his attic. Bach died from 1750 to the present. Bach was the most famous composer in the world and so was Handel. Handel was half German half Italian and half English. He was very large.

Beethoven wrote music even though he was deaf. He was so deaf he wrote loud music. He took long walks in the forest even when everyone was calling for him. Beethoven expired in 1827 and later died for this.

Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years. She was a moral woman who practised virtue. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.

Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbis. Charles Darwin was a naturalist who wrote the Organ of the Species. Madman Curie discovered radio. And Karl Marx became one of the Marx brothers.

The First World War, caused by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by an anahist, ushered in a new error in the anals of human history.



Metaphors of Transport

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Metaphors of Transport

Metaphors of transport can highlight challenging or good circumstances, often related to progress or direction. Here are ten examples:

1. I lost my train of thought
(Train suggests connections and direction)

2. You could drive a coach and horses through his argument
(His argument was so weak it provided easy opportunities for attack)

3. The minister is hoping to ride out the allegations against him
(‘Ride out the storm’ is a common expression, the image is a boat at sea capable of surviving in bad weather)

4. She really drove a hard bargain!
(A common collocation suggesting someone who has a clear and unwavering negotiating position)

5. By half time Italy were leading 4-0 and cruising to an easy victory
(Another originally nautical image of easy progress)

6. We had a couple of problems but after than it was plain sailing
(Rather like cruising, a vessel progressing with ease)

7. The region was victim of galloping inflation in the early 90’s.
(Going fast and accelerating)

8. We made a few mistakes but we’re definitely on the right track.
(Going in the right direction)

9. He launched into a vicious verbal attack on his critics.
(Begin in an aggressive manner)

10. They rocketed to fame with the success of their first album.
(Became famous very quickly)

Can you think of any other ‘transport metaphors’? If so, please add them to the comments section.