How to find the meaning any English idiom without a dictionary (updated for 2020)

If you’re an independent learner of English you’re used to looking up English idioms in a dictionary. You might even have a special dictionary just for idioms. Dictionaries can help you learn the meaning of many English idioms, but dictionaries are not perfect: we’ve all experienced the frustration not being able to find the idiom we’re looking for in the dictionary.

Luckily, there is a simple trick for finding the meaning of English idioms online. It’s so fast and easy that I rarely bother with an actual dictionary anymore unless I really need to go in-depth. Here’ is all you have to do to find the meaning of any English idiom that you come across (it works for slang, too). Go to Google and type your idiom into the search box with a few extra special words to help Google know what you’re looking for. Let’s look at an example.

Imagine you heard this conversation:

Michael: Would you mind if I tried your new guitar?
Lori: Sure, knock yourself out!

What does “knock yourself out” mean here? If your best guess isn’t good enough, you need to check it.

The first thing to try is to just …

Yes, you can teach yourself English!

Do you doubt that you can teach yourself English? Do you think you can’t learn English without a teacher, homework, and exams? Trust me, you don’t have to go to a class or take lessons to learn English. You can teach yourself English, by yourself, at home and make great progress. The hardest thing about learning English at home is that you are responsible for organizing and planning your learning. So you need either good discipline, or high motivation to be able to stick to a regular learning schedule.

You might be thinking that you don’t know enough English to be able to teach yourself. But if you are able to read this article and understand most of it, you know enough English to be able to teach yourself effectively and make great progress.

There are many ways to teach yourself English, and there is no magic bullet or single best way to do it. But here are some things that will make learning on you own easier and more effective.

Make the most of online English learning resources
Learning English online is easy now because there is so much free material available. There is far more English learning material online than you could possibly use in one lifetime. So don’t waste time looking for the “perfect” resource. Pick something that looks good and stick with for a while. Most learners give up too soon, or just read or listen to something one time and think they have learned it. But that isn’t the case: they forget most of what they think they have learned.

Create a review schedule – and stick to it!
Reviewing is the key to effective learning. If you don’t review what you have learned, you forget almost all of it within a couple of days. But if you do a short review, you refresh your memory and the information will “stick” longer. Every time you review, the memory gets a bit stronger. In an English class, the teacher will plan reviews for you. But when you learn on your own you have to make your own review schedule.

There are many suggestions for the perfect review schedule, all of them a little bit different. Here is the one I personally use for vocabulary. I have it automatically programmed into the Anki app, where I collect all of the things I want to learn and remember.

  • 1st review – 1 hour after learning
  • 2nd review – 9 hours after previous review
  • 3rd review – 24 hours after previous
  • 4th review – 48 hours after previous
  • 5th review – 4 days after previous review
  • 6th review – 6 days after previous review

It is very important to review at least one time within a day of learning something new. After one day you will only remember about 33%. After that first review, you can review less frequently. For more information, go to Wikipedia and read about the spacing effect and spaced repetition and the forgetting curve.

Check your progress – Test yourself
The key to staying motivated with your English learning is to …

Common English Learner Mistakes – subject verb agreement

Mistakes in subject-verb agreement are very noticeable in written English. People tend to overlook mistakes in spoken, conversational English. But in writing, subject-verb agreement errors really jump out at the reader. So it’s a good idea to check important pieces of writing for subject-verb agreement errors.

The good news is that subject-verb agreement is based on rules that you can learn. Here is a short overview of how subject-verb agreement works in the most common type of English sentences (declaritive).

Fortunately, person/number agreement only happens in present tenses. There is only one past tense exception: the verb “to be,” (was/were).

List of tenses that need subject-verb agreement

  • present simple (am/is/are and all other verbs are either base form or -s form)
  • past simple (only the verb to be was/were. Other verbs are the same for all persons)
  • present perfect (have/has +V-ed all you have to worry about is getting the has/have correct)
  • present continuous (am/is/are + V-ing. All you have to worry about is getting the am/is/are correct)
  • past continuous (was/were + V-ing. All you have to worry about is getting was/were correct)
  • present perfect continuous (has/have + been + V-ing. All you have to worry about is getting the have/has correct)

Checking subject-verb agreement in English sentences

First, find the finite verb.
Most English sentences have a subject and a finite verb. That is the verb that has to agree with the subject. Finite verbs also change (inflect) to show tense.

If a sentence has only one verb, then it is a finite verb.

My Maserati does 185.
He wants to hold your hand.
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

If a finite verb clause has more than one verb, then the finite verb comes first, and gets marked for person, tense, and number.

He has been having trouble with his Maserati for a week now.
She has been wanting to hold his hand for a long time.
Penny Lane was being turned into a shopping mall last time I checked.

Subject-verb number agreement

The rule here is pretty simple: singular subjects take singular verbs. Plural subjects take plural verbs.

What’s tricky is identifying the subject of the sentence, and then deciding if it is singular or plural. It’s not always obvious. We’ll look at some difficult cases later, but first let’s look at some easy examples. …

Listening a lot for language learning

I get a lot of email from people asking me questions about how to learn English better. Instead of just sending my replies to each person individually, I will post my answers publicly here so everyone can benefit. Note that I am not spending a lot of time researching or writing these answers…it’s the advice that comes to me spontaneously and off the top of my head. This first entry is from “D”.

D’s email question (verbatim):

Hello maim [sic], I am new here. I just want to increase my confidence level and English too. I hesitate alot in asking questions to my teacher and also in my group activity.what should I do. I have tried reading newspaper alot, but it don’t work. Because the newspaper contain too many difficult words, that is too difficult for me to memorise.
Can you give me some suggestions about this?
I will be very thankful to you.

My email with advice:

Hi D,
Thanks for writing. I agree with you that newspapers aren’t great for general English listening and speaking skills. Everybody is different, but all I can do is share my own language learning experience with you and hope you find it useful.

I’ve found that doing LOTS of listening works best for me, combined with studying at least some grammar and vocabulary. When I was learning to understand spoken Dutch, I found some Dutch language podcasts (for native speakers) about topics I was interested in, and would listen to them as much as I could. I listened when I was walking my dog, cleaning my house, exercising, working in the garden, driving the car, etc. I would say I spent a couple of hours almost every day with my headphones on, listening to Dutch.

I also practiced a “listen and repeat” style audio course (I think it was Pimsleur). Honestly, the course was not compelling or interesting, but I forced myself to do it — the whole thing — several times. I really focused on getting the pronunciation as good as I could when I was repeating out loud, and I really think this did a LOT to help my understanding.

I admit, sometimes all this was pretty boring. And at first it was really difficult and frustrating. But I persisted …

Topics and questions for English language exchange

One of the most common problems learners of English have during language exchanges is not knowing what to talk about, especially for the first meeting. Both you and your partner are probably feeling extra nervous during that first conversation, and it can be hard to think of things to talk about. That is why it is good to prepare a list of general topics to talk about for your first few conversations. If the conversation flows naturally and you don’t need them, that’s great! But you will feel more confident if you know you have some conversation topics to fall back on.

General advice for choosing language exchange topics

Unless you know someone well, you should talk about safe topics, topics that aren’t likely to be too emotional, sensitive, or raise strong feelings. Topics to avoid include: politics, wars, health-care policies, religion, personal finances, people’s appearance, gun control, abortion laws, corruption, democracy (or lack of it), crime, international relations between specific countries or regions, questions about gender identity, terrorism, racial issues, etc. None of these topics are advisable to talk about with people you don’t know.

Tips for keeping a conversation going

Ask follow-up questions.
If you have something to add to the conversation, say it! Don’t just ask questions. It’s natural in conversations for people to take turns asking and answering questions.
Feel free to change the topic if you get stuck. Normal conversations change topics all the time.

List of English language exchange topics

Talking about the weather
How’s the weather there today?
What’s the weather like today?
It’s really hot/cold/rainy/cloudy/snowy/stormy/windy/smoggy here today. What’s the weather like where you are?

Follow-up weather questions
Do you like rain/snow/hot weather/cold weather/windy days? …

Speaking English fluently: Breaking the intermediate plateau

Are you stuck at the intermediate level, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, and not sure how to make progress? Are you over-complicating things, hopping from one English learning resource to the next and getting nowhere? Are you tired of not feeling fluent?

Feelings like these at the intermediate stage are very common. They lead to frustration, and learners often end up over-complicating things and getting even more frustrated. At worst, they give up.

language learning mastery curve
Getting stuck in your language learning is normal. But it still doesn’t feel good.

Improving your English fluency past the intermediate level doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be frustrating and overwhelming. You can do it on your own, even without a class or a teacher.

Try this simple 6-step system for one week. Look at it as a 7-day experiment. You are going to test something new and see how it works.

If you commit to the process and put in consistent effort for 7 days, you will be amazed at how much your fluency improves.

But even better than that, you will have learned a simple and effective system you can use to keep improving your English for as long as you want.

This is “teach a man to fish” turbocharged.

Your 7-day English fluency goal

Your goal is simple:

To be able to speak fluently* about a specific topic for at least 90 seconds.

For the next 7 days, you will work exclusively toward mastering this specific task.

S.T.A.R.T.R — a 6-step English fluency system

I’ve broken the fluency-building process down into 6 steps. It’s even got an easy-to-remember acronym: S.T.A.R.T.R. It’s pronounced “STARTER. The letters stand for Select, Test, Analyze, Research, Train, Repeat.

How to use the S.T.A.R.T.R English fluency system

Choose a topic that excites you
Your topic should make your feel like this.
1. SELECT an interesting topic
Choose a topic that feels interesting and exciting. It should be something that you can look forward to working on for the coming week. It makes no sense to choose something you would never need to talk about, or something that bores you. Can you feel excited about it for a week of study? If yes, then it’s a good topic.

2. TEST your current fluency
What is your starting point? It’s time to find out. Do a self-test before you study or prepare anything. …

Finite verb forms in English

Why should you care about finite verb forms?

Finite verb forms in English contain a lot of information. They mark number, person, tense, and mood, all of which contribute to meaning.

Finite verbs are also the the part of the verb phrase that has to agree with the subject (in person and number). In the example below, the subjects are green and the finite verbs are in bold.

If my neighbor’s stupid kids don’t turn down that awful music soon,   I   am going to lose my mind.

Subject-verb agreement is an important part of English grammar. When you make mistakes with subject-verb agreement, it makes it harder for people to understand what you mean. Unless the context is very clear, listeners don’t know if the mistake is in the verb form or in the subject. For example, where is the error in the sentence below?

The package you ordered have arrived. X

We don’t know for sure which is correct:
The package you ordered has arrived (one package).
The packages you ordered have arrived (more than one package).

Even if the meaning is clear from the context, subject-verb agreement errors tend to draw more than their fair share of attention, distracting and even annoying the listener. So it’s worth making the effort to get them right!

Finite verb forms

All English verbs have finite forms for present and past; for example, go vs.went, and stop vs. stopped. (NOTE: A few irregular verbs (put, set, cost, etc.) have present and past forms that are the same.)

All non-modal English verbs (except be) also change form for the third person singular in the present tense (he/she/it goes).

All of this might seem confusing, but the pattern is really pretty straightforward. Look at Table 1 below, and you’ll see it’s a lot simpler in table form.

Table 1. FINITE VERB FORMS
NUMBER PERSON PRESENT PAST
SINGULAR
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • I walk
  • you walk
  • he/she/it walks
  • I walked
  • you walked
  • he/she/it walked
PLURAL
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • we walk
  • you walk
  • they walk
  • we walked
  • you walked
  • they walked

Finite forms of be

The verb be is the naughty problem child of the finite verb family, because it doesn’t follow the regular pattern of most other verbs. (See Table 2 below.)

Table 2. BE
NUMBER PERSON PRESENT PAST
SINGULAR
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • I am
  • you are
  • he/she/it is
  • I was
  • you were
  • he/she/it was
PLURAL
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • we are
  • you are
  • they are
  • we were
  • you were
  • they were

The two most frequent verbs in English – be and have

Be and have are extremely frequent in English — in fact, they are the two MOST FREQUENTLY OCCURRING verbs. It’s not just because being and having are generally common things to talk about. The finite forms of be and have used in many English tenses, for example: …

Phrasal verbs – essential things to know

Josh Evans of Spoken phrasal verb english lesson
Josh Evans, online English teacher from the Spoken Language Learning Platform
There is one topic that English learners seem to ask about more than any other: phrasal verbs. These strange little verbs are a real challenge for learners!

In this English lesson from Josh Evans, you will learn the main reasons that phrasal verbs are difficult for English learners, and how you can make learning them easier.

Josh has taught English in many different settings — all across China, at a university in the USA, and now teaches English online with the Spoken language learning platform.

Take it away, Josh!

All You Need to Know about Phrasal Verbs! (Plus a Bonus Exercise for FB Messenger!)

by Josh Evans, Head of Instruction at Spoken.io

Phrasal verbs get their name from the fact that, unlike other verbs, they consist of more than one word. Here are three examples:

1. “I’m afraid I must turn down your offer.” (turn down = reject)
2. “I’d like to think over the plan before making a decision.” (think over = consider)
3. “You can use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.” (look up = search for)

Why are phrasal verbs so difficult to learn?

There are four main reasons why English phrasal verbs are such a challenge for English learners.

1. Phrasal verbs are deceptively familiar