To make or to do? This is the question.

Two verbs, to do and to make, are confusing for English language learners.

You can do your homework, do your exercises, do your best, and still make mistakes and make little progress.

In French it’s relatively simple. One verb, faire, fits all. You can do almost everything and make just about any sentence with faire:

faire du shopping, fait la bise, faire demi-tour, faire des progrès and faire la grasse matinée

GRAMMAR RULE: Well, to be honest, there really isn’t one. Sorry. Here is a general guide to do and make. Hopefully, it will make some sense. Ready? Let’s do it.


Of course, we use DO for questions and answers as an auxiliary verb

Do you live here? Yes, I do. She doesn’t see him anymore.

But, in this article, we are interested in DO as the main verb.

We use DO to talk about work, jobs or tasks.

You can say: I did my homework. I never do the cleaning on Sundays. Susan did the shopping. I have done the dishes (washing-up). I’ll do the cooking tonight.

Important: You can do the cooking, do the cleaning and do the dishes, but you make a cake or make some bread and make dinner.

GENERAL RULE: DO is used for a simple task. MAKE is associated with often more complex tasks that make, produce, or transform something.

DO is often used in a general sense with words such as good, something, nothing, everything.

You can say: She did nothing. She can do better. Do your best. I did everything I could. Have you seen the Spike Lee film, ‘Do the Right Thing’?

DO can also be used to replace a verb when the meaning is clear.

You can say:

Georges: We must make a presentation tomorrow at the meeting. Can you do it for me, Elli? (make the presentation)

Elli: I’ll do it (make the presentation).

Maria: I haven’t finished the business plan.

Sébastien: It’s okay, I’ll do the rest. (I will finish the business plan)

Here’s list of DO expressions to remember:

DO your best, do the shopping, do some exercise, do something, do some sport, do the cooking, do the washing, do someone a favour, do your hair (brush it), do business, do a good job, do nothing, do badly, do harm, do your nails.

Idioms with DO:

What do you do? (What is your job?)

Just do it! has become a well-worn mantra of 21st century. Shia LaBeouf explains.


a to-do list: a list of things to do

to do time: to be in prison

do a double take: Look twice at someone or something because you are shocked or surprised.

do one’s duty: fulfil a responsibility or a duty.

do or die: a critical situation, if you don’t act now everything will be lost.

BRAINTEASER: (advanced level) Your challenge is to write two understandable sentences with the following words together: make do and do make. Send your replies to


MAKE has the sense of creating and producing something. It may involve a number of actions. You can make a cake, make dinner, make a cup of tea, make a bed, make a dress, make a presentation, make a plan. Made in Switzerland.

MAKE is also used to describe an action or result. You can say: Cauliflower makes me sick. She makes me jealous. He makes me happy. That makes sense.

Or as Aretha Franklin says: You make me feel like a natural woman.


You can also: make a decision, make a choice, make love, make a complaint, make a mess, make a suggestion, make a comment, make a mistake, make a fool of yourself, make friends, make someone happy, make a call, make a list, make a presentation, make a joke.

A few idioms with MAKE:

make up your mind: to make a decision (informal)

can’t make heads or tails of something: when you don’t understand something

make your blood boil: something that makes you extremely angry.

make your day: something that makes your day happy; an expression made famous by Clint Eastwood.


A SHORT EXERCISE. Do you best. ?You will need to put the verb make or do in the correct tense.

The children _______ a mess in the kitchen while ______ the cake.

After he ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_______ the washing, he ________ the shopping

Can you ______ me a favour and _____ the presentation tomorrow? I know you will ____ your best. We really need to ____ business with companies like this or we will never ____ a profit.

I suggest you ____ her a cup of tea and then ______ your apology.

I can’t eat pineapple. It _____ me sick.

You must ____ a choice. You cannot _____ nothing. You must _____ something.

You must ­­­­_____ a decision. Now is the time to ­­­­______ up your mind. I am sure you will ­­­­­_____ the right thing.

Well done. Go and make yourself a coffee or a cup of tea.

Confusing words (les faux amis). Are you sensible or sensitive? Or both?

Some words are identical or very similar in both French and English. But that doesn’t mean they have the same meaning.

Some are related in meaning and some are what linguists call false friends or les faux amis.

Do you have some favourite faux amis? Leave a comment below with some of the words that confuse you.

Here are some. Tell me which words I have missed…

Society means groups of people living together in communities. A society is NOT a company or a firm.

You can say: I work for a company that makes office furniture.

You can also say: Racism exists at all levels of society.

You cannot say: Our society offers English language courses. You would say: Our company teaches English in Geneva.

There is an exception, of course. There is a type of bank called a building society which lends money to people who want to buy a house. People keep their money in a building society.

 Society, by Eddie Vedder from the film Into The Wild

An avocado is a green fruit that is quite delicious and extremely popular. Not to be confused with un/e avocat (French), a lawyer who is expensive, not so tasty, and not so popular.

You can sit, take or do an exam. When you get the results, you will know if you have passed (succeeded) or failed your exam.

You can say: I sat the exam last Friday and I got the results yesterday. I passed with a B. (I was successful).

You can also say: I was so stressed during the exam that I passed out (fainted).

A résumé (of something) is a short summary or account of somethingIt comes from French and has been absorbed into English. It is pronounced as in French. Résumé has two meanings: 1. a general summary and 2. a Curriculum Vitae which summarizes your professional life.

The verb to summarize (something) is to give a summary of something (= a statement of the main points). It is the act of making a résumé.

You can say: The results of the research are summarized at the end of the chapter.

The verb to resume means to begin again or continues after an interruption.

You can say: She resumed her career after an interval of six years. The noise resumed, louder than before. There is no sign of the peace talks resuming.

You cannot say: She resumed the main point of the meeting. You should say: She summarised the main points of the meeting

Medicine is what you take when you are sick.  It is also the name of the subject that you study at university if you want to become a doctor. A doctor, your GP or a physician prescribe medicine. You buy your medicine at the pharmacy or chemist.

Expression: Laughter is the best medicine (laughter is good for you).

You can say: She studied medicine and she is now a doctor. The doctor told me to take the medicine three times a day.

A library is where you borrow books free of charge. A bookshop or bookstore is where you buy books. Payot has the biggest bookstore in Geneva.

Be careful of the word envy. If you envy someone you have the feeling of wanting to be in the same situation as somebody else; the feeling of wanting something that somebody else has. It’s a form of intense jealousy. It is one of the seven deadly sins, according the Catholic teachings.

It is impossible to envy an ice-cream.

But you can say: I would love an ice-cream or I wish I had an ice-cream or I’d give my right hand for an ice-cream. You can also say: I envy you. You have a great job and a beautiful house and you’re always happy.

A stranger is someone you don’t know. You have not been introduced. A foreigner is someone from another country or another culture (non-Swiss). Read more here

A haven is place that is safe and peaceful where people or animals are protected. A tax haven is a place where taxes are very low. It is often secret and used by wealthy companies and individuals to hide money. There is no such place as a tax paradise. Sorry.

Baskets are containers for holding or carrying things. A shopping basket, picnic basket, a washing basket (for clothes). Baskets are NOT shoes. Shoes that we wear for sport are called trainers or runners.

Most people wear runners or trainers when they go jogging. A person who jogs is a jogger. You might wear shorts, or if it’s quite cold you might wear tracksuit pants or sweatpants. The activity is called jogging.

You can say: I always wear track suit pants when I go jogging in the winter.

As we are talking about clothing, it’s important to know that a bra in English is not a part of your body. It is an item of women’s under-clothing – un soutien gorge. The word bra is short for brassière and has nothing to do with drinking beer.

String or a piece of string is a piece of thin cord used for tying things, such as packages.

He wrapped the book in brown paper and tied it with string.  The key is hanging on a string by the door.

Women’s underwear that has a very narrow piece of material (thin like a piece of string) is called a thong.

A pair of thongs is a type of sandal (open shoe) that has a piece of leather, rubber, etc. that goes between the big toe and the toe next to it. Also known as flip-flops.

Brushing sounds very English. It is the activity to clean, polish, or make smooth with a brush (brossage). I brush my teeth, my hair and my shoes every day.

When your hair is wet or needs to be styled you can use a machine that blows hot air. This is called to blow dry (verb) or a blow dry (noun). The machine is called a blow dryer.

You can say: There is a blow dryer in our hotel room.

You can say: John please answer the phone. I am busy brushing the dog.

A facelift is a medical operation in which the skin on a person’s face is made tighter in order to make them look younger,

There is no such thing as a lifting is English.

You can say: I hurt my back while lifting the boxes.

Smoking is the activity of inhaling or breathing in a cigarette, cigar or other combustible substance. The black formal suit that James Bond often wears to the casino is a tuxedo.

 A jolly woman or man is a happy and cheerful person. They may not be attractive or pretty, but they are definitely happy, which is much more important.

A sympathetic person is kind to somebody who is hurt or sad; showing that they understand and care about your problems. A sympathy card is a card of condolence usually after someone has died.

The French word sympathique mean nice or friendly in English.

Sympathy for the Devil, by the Rolling Stones

People who are sympathetic are sensitive and caring. This mean that they are aware of, and able to understand other people and their feelings.

You can say:  She is very sensitive to other people’s feelings.

Sensitive can also be used  to describe  someone who is easily offended or upset. You can say: He’s very sensitive about his weight. She’s very sensitive to criticism.

A sensible person is someone able to make good judgement, based on reason and experience rather than emotion; practical. It’s a very positive term.

You can say: She’s a sensible sort of person. I think that’s a very sensible idea. Say something sensible. I think the sensible thing to do would be to take a taxi home. John is only 14, but hes very mature. He is very sensible for his age.

The Logical Song, by Supertramp

Photo top of the page: Unsplash


Stairway to heaven loses out to swimming pool in a basement

Greek history tells us that when the Gods are forced into close contact, the heavens rain blood and the earth shakes.

Fast-forward to London today where two deities, Jimmy Page, rock guitarist and founder of Led Zeppelin, and pop megastar Robbie Williams are hurtling lightning bolts at each other over their garden fence.

The bone of contention is not a stairway to heaven, but a swimming pool and fitness centre in a basement.

They are neighbours in Holland Park, one of London’s most stately and salubrious quarters. It’s très swish and très sploofy. The mansions are large and the fences are high. But clearly, it’s a little cramped for two titans.

Williams won a five-year battle with his neighbour when he was granted conditional approval to build his basement swimming pool in his London home.

Page lives next-door in a magnificently restored modern castle which could be described as one of the Houses of the Holy. It was designed by the self-styled “art architect” William Burges between 1875 and 1881, in 13th-century French Gothic style. You can read more here. Page fears excavation work will damage his  Grade-1 listed chateau.

It’s clear they don’t share a Whole Lotta Love. Each wishes the other were banished to the Dark Side of the Moon or at least as far away as Kashmir.

Here’s where it all gets a bit distorted. A letter to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, (the local council), claims that Robbie Williams is tormenting his neighbour by “blasting Black Sabbath music” every time he sees Page in his garden. At this stage, (small pun intended), we do not know if he’s channelling songs from the 1970 album Paranoid, the Sabotage album (1975) or Dehumanizer, recorded in 1992.

And not just Black Sabbath. The letter claims Mr William’s mind games also involve blasting Pink Floyd and Deep Purple songs at high volume, when he sees Mr Page in the garden, because “he knows this upsets” the 75-year-old guitarist.

This odd letter, tabled by the local council, is signed by “Johnny”, a friend or neighbour of Mr Page.

It’s clear they don’t share a Whole Lotta Love. Each wishes the other were banished to the Dark Side of the Moon or at least as far away as Kashmir. Holy Smoke (on the water)! You might say. But, it even gets weirder.

The correspondent adds that Williams has also dressed up to imitate Robert Plant, the Led Zeppelin singer by “wearing a long hair wig and stuffing a pillow under his shirt in an attempt to mock or imitate Mr Robert Plant’s beer belly that he has acquired in his older age”.

Their musical realms, unlike their homes, are separated by much than another brick in wall. Page is the Gandalf of the guitar rock, only a place, or two or three, below that of Zeus himself, Jimi Hendrix. Led Zeppelin floated atop Mt Olympus during the late sixties and seventies dwarfing other demi-gods such as Jagger and co.

Robbie Williams ruled the nineties in the UK, first in the boy-band Take That, and then as a solo artist. But he’s just an upstart, with album sales of only 75 million compared to Led Zeppelin’s sales of around 250 million. He did sing at the opening of the Football World Cup in Russia. Sadly, he didn’t sing Party like a Russian. He should have.

Turn it up loud. Torment your neighbours.



PETA has a bee in its bonnet about anti-animal language

PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has never been shy when it comes to viral marketing.

The world’s largest animal welfare group is about as subtle as a bull in a china shop when it comes to using shock horror tactics to attract attention to its message. Why? Viral means lots of clicks, lots of attention, heated discussion and, of course, free publicity. And it works. Powerful and shocking messages such as these have helped to change the eating habits of millions.


PETA now has a beef with language. It’s got a bee in its bonnet about anti-animal language. It wants to remove the language of speciesism from our daily conversations.

PETA says we should replace curiosity killed the cat with curiosity thrilled the cat. You might bring home the bacon in your family, however PETA suggests that to bring home the bagels is a cooler and more ethical expression to celebrate a breadwinner.

PETA has even developed a lesson plan for eager teachers who wish to encourage their students to replace expressions such as kill two birds with one stone (faire d’une pierre deux coups), with feed two birds with one scone. (It sounds kind of cute, but when I think of scones, I think of jam and cream. Furthermore, scone as it is pronounced by most English speakers, rhymes with don, not stone, and I am sure scones, with or without jam and cream, would be terrible for a bird’s digestion system.  It would be high tea murder.)

The internet reacted with typical cynicism saying PETA was barking up the wrong tree and that there were bigger fish to fry than trying to change a few animal expressions

Changing language habits isn’t that simple. Or to put it another way, a leopard cannot change its spots, and as you know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The internet reacted with typical cynicism saying PETA was barking up the wrong tree and that there were bigger fish to fry than trying to change a few animal expressions.

The English language, as against French, is far from static. It’s forever changing, just like our eating habits. We absorb, with differing degrees of success, new words for technology, products, ideas, fads and fashions as well as words that morph in meaning, sometimes almost naturally and sometimes propelled by politics and propaganda.

Some words like selfie, explode into usage. Others like gay, which once meant happy and full of life, and now refer to homosexuality, have taken literally decades to come out of the language closet.

It is less painful and more woke, we are told, to consciously uncouple than to divorce

Workers, once upon a time, were sacked or fired. Now they are made redundant, laid-off, discharged, decruited, outplaced, part of a workforce imbalance correction or simply let go

It is less painful and more woke, we are told, to consciously uncouple than to divorce.

People who speak English as a second or third language (now the largest group of English speakers on the planet, and quite possibly that means you, my dear reader) have also made the language simpler, more standardised, and a little more robotic. Many of these old and odd animal expressions, such as there is more than one way to skin a cat (not particularly uplifting) will over time simply drop out of circulation. Charming old-world expressions like How do you do? are now almost redundant, replaced by Nice to meet you or Pleased to meet you.

The Trump administration recently tried a bit of Orwellian-style language pruning. Seven words; foetus, entitlement, diversity, transgender, vulnerable, evidence-based and science-based were officially banned by one of the Federal Government’s health organisations.

Language is sometimes not very sexy. For many, neither is eating greens and grains all day, every day. This PETA message below, however, will transform the wildest meat-eating Conan or Caren the Barbarian into eager-beaver vegans. It hits the bulls-eye.



Animal idioms explained:

like a bull in a china shop – to behave recklessly and wildly; the opposite of gentle and subtle

to have a beef with someone – to have a dispute or disagreement

to have a bee in your bonnet –a be a little obsessed or agitated about something

curiosity killed the cat – being too curious can be dangerous

to bring home the bacon – to earn a regular income

to kill two birds with one stone -to solve two problems with one action or solution

a leopard cannot change its spots – it is difficult for people to change

you can lead a horse to water (but you can’t make it drink) – you can’t force people to do something

to bark up the wrong tree – to have a wrong idea, or do something in a way that will not give you the information or result you want

an eager-beaver – someone who is very enthusiastic

to hit the bulls-eye – to get something exactly right or be on target.

Ten tips for better emails in English (part two)

Here are some more tips for writing professional emails in English. But first, some email trivia:

How many emails were sent and received in the world each day in 2017?

Yes, you’re right. A lot. A mammoth amount. If we add-in yours and mine the total comes to about 269 billion per day. There are an estimated 3.7 billion email users, and climbing. The most astounding (and scary) statistic is that on-average an office worker will receive about 120 emails per day, according to several studies. We are drowning in emails.

Understandably, the general rule is to keep your emails short. Some purists say a maximum of five sentences and you can always attach a document if you have more information to share.

You can read Ten tips for better emails in English (part one) here


  1. When can I change from Dear Ms Johnson to Dear Sue?

Anglo-Saxons move from formal family names to first names quite quickly. It’s part of their culture. The Swiss, in general, are a little more reserved. French mother-tongue speakers often find it difficult to judge the right moment to drop a level in formality and switch from family name to first name.

There are many factors that affect familiarity, such as jobs, positions in the hierarchy, company culture and, of course, your culture and language and that of the person receiving your emails.

Unfortunately, there are no rules.  Sometimes, you can clearly sense a first-name-relationship in the friendly style of the first email or by the engaging voice on the other end of the telephone. Young people are much more open to first names. The older generation have grown up on a diet of formal letter writing, with phrases such as Je vous prie, Madame, Monsieur, de bien vouloir agréer l’expression de mes sentiments distingués, which are today viewed as olde worlde and impersonal.

Here are a few guidelines on when you can start to reduce the formality:

  • If your recipient signs off with his or her first name.
  • If you are on first names in your telephone conversation
  • If you are basically the same age or have a similar position or are passionate about your shared interest.
  • Mirror the style of your recipient. If his or her style is friendly and informal, keep your emails relatively informal.
  • When a prospective client turns into an actual client it is often the right time to make the written relationship less formal. It’s a bit like welcoming them into the family.

But don’t push it. If you are not sure, play safe. Stay neutral/formal until you get a clear sign.


  1. Subject/title

Use the subject line to help your reader focus on the content of your email. The quicker your reader can focus on the subject the more effective he or she will be in dealing with your request. I get annoyed when I receive an email with a blank subject line.

I want to have an idea of the content just from reading the subject line. Our brains start to load relevant information if the subject line is clear and informative. Re. English course in Australia, Re. Cancellation of Nick Cave concert, Re. Student visa for New Zealand, Re. Your blog in Le Temps


  1. Simple terms for simple understanding

Many phrases or words are totally unnecessary and can be deleted or simplified. Be active and edit your email. Cut and slash. Rewrite. Use your delete button like a sword and kill off unnecessary phrases like these below:

  • as far as I am concerned – I think, I believe
  • at the present time – now
  • due to the fact that – because
  • for the most part – generally
  • in my opinion – I think, I believe
  • in the event of – if
  • let me start by saying – firstly
  • and I would like to finish by saying – finally
  • the point that I am trying to make – I think, I believe
  • what I want to make clear – I think, I believe

Remember to use active verbs:

  • We need to make an improvement – We need to improve
  • We made an application –   We applied
  • I think we need to have a discussion about the matter – Can we discuss the matter?


  1. Punctuation

Good news. Minimalist punctuation is fine for emails. Obviously, you need some punctuation to make the ideas flow and make sense. Look at the differences in the two emails below. Example B is my style.

A: Dear Julia,

I am sorry, I can’t make it on Thursday, January 6th. Can we meet on Friday, November 7th at 4 p.m.?

Kind regards,

Claudia Schenker 

B: Dear Julia

I am sorry I can’t make it on Thursday November 6. Can we meet on Friday 7 at 4 pm?

Kind regards

Claudia Schenker

Some people are far too attached to their exclamation point. It’s crazy!!! Every sentence is followed by one! Or even two!! Life is just so exciting!! I even receive emails with the title: Hello Garry!!!

Using an exclamation point can convey excitement but overusing them can make you look a little pretentious and inauthentic. Let your language speak for itself and keep your excitement for the meeting. Yes!!!

  1. Keep your audience in mind from start to finish

When you have finished your email, take a step back. Have a cup of a tea or coffee or finish another task. Then come back to your email and imagine you are the recipient. Is it clear? Do you know what you have to do? Is all the information there? Is there any jargon or language in the email that the recipient might not understand? Can you cut out some unnecessary words or phrases?

Never forget the KISS principle – Keep it Short and Simple.

Take you time. Always have that final check and read-through. Minimise those “OH, NO!” moments when your eyes and finger are synchronised: Your eyes on a spelling mistake just as your finger presses the SEND key.

Here’s a little exercise for you:

The following paragraph below contains more than 90 words. Can you rewrite it in 35 words or less?

This company document is for the purpose of giving the reader a detailed explanation of the reservation process used by all our hotel affiliates and subsidiaries around the world. It describes the step-by-step process we currently use as outlined in our software system which has been, as of August 2018, installed in all our hotels world-wide. In order to provide an introduction to the process for employees who work on a part-time contract, we also have prepared an overview, which describes the highlights of the global reservation process in just two pages.

You can send your response to me:

Photo: Unsplash

You can read Ten tips for better emails in English (part one) here

Ten tips for better emails in English (part one)

Emails are one of our most important communication tools. The email has the immediacy of a phone conversation, and a similar sense of informality. It is like a written conversation; neutral, polite and straight-to-the-point. That’s how we like to get things done, isn’t it? For example:

I am happy to confirm our meeting on December 15 at 3pm.

Please send me a copy of the auditor’s report of May 2018.

Could/Can we please meet on Tuesday (tomorrow) at 3pm? I’m afraid I won’t be free at 2pm.

We have received your payment. Many thanks.

Please find below a proposal for your English lessons at The Language House…

Neutral, polite and straight-to-the point…This sounds a lot like The KISS principle.


1. Keep It Short and Simple (KISS).

The KISS principle is a fine rule to live and write by.

This is the best advice for writing professional emails in English (or for writing anything). Forget those long verbose French phrases. Be brief. You don’t have to be boring. You can be creative and add some personality, and still be succinct. Plain English or simple clear English is faster to write, faster to read and easier to understand.

Which do you prefer; A or B?

A. I trust this clarifies the matter for you and we look forward to hearing from you in due course in respect of your decision whether or not you intend to take out a loan.

B. Please contact me if you would like to take out a loan. My direct line is…

English has become the language of business. Here is one reason why:

A. Je me tiens à votre entière disposition pour tous renseignements complémentaires et vous prie, Madame, Monsieur, d’agréer l’expression de mes respectueuses salutations.

B. Please call me if you have any questions. Kind regards


2. The verb is Queen

Life and work is all about action. In almost all emails the most important information relates to the verb (action): update, cancel, postpone, resend, order, propose, calculate, check, recommend, deliver, invite, send, find…

People want to know “what do you want me to do?” If possible, state this quickly in the first sentence of your emails. Don’t hide the important things to do in the middle or at the end.

The world of work is about action (doing things and getting things done) and action is all about verbs. The verb is Queen. But you don’t need to sound like a dictator. Remember what your mother taught you. You should always say…


3. Please and thank you

You can soften (adoucir) the content with politesse, so you sound more like a benign leader or a caring colleague rather than a dictator. If the email is for a colleague or client who you deal with regularly it is important to get straight to the point; but with politesse:

Please send me a copy…

Please contact John in marketing…

Could/can/would you please organise a meeting with…

Thank you for your email. I will do that immediately…

Please confirm the bank details for client 54A234.

If it is first contact, or needs to be slightly more formal, change the wording to:

Could/Can/Would you please send me…

Could/Can/Would you please cancel our order…

Could/Can/Would you please contact our marketing department… 

The use of please softens any awkward language that may sound a bit direct, clumsy or rude. How many times have you received (or sent) a cold or rude email? A please or two in the right places change the tone completely.

I often reply to emails with: Thank you for your email or Thank you for contacting The Language House. This polite phrase thanks the receiver for selecting my company (instead of a competitor) and for taking the time and energy to write.

Be empathetic: I know you are really busy, but I need you to look at the figures attached. Can you please give me your response before 5 pm? Much appreciated.

If the issue is sensitive. It is a good idea to follow up your email with a telephone call.

I think company B is unhappy with our delivery times. Do you think it would be a good idea to invite them to lunch? Can we have a chat about this? I will call you later this afternoon around 3pm. Please confirm.

Advice: Please use please and thank you. Start and end with polite phrases. For example start with: Thank you for your email and finish with Please call me if you have any questions. My direct line is 022 321 52 63. I look forward to hearing from you (Read more here) Not every sentences has to include please. But most sentences should.


4. Subject-Verb-Object

Generally, humans of the English language variety understand information easily if it is given in the following order: Subject-Verb-Object. This is the most digestible order of words in an English sentence. If you have a complex sentence that’s giving you (and therefore your future reader) difficulty, the simplest way to fix it is to rewrite it in a subject-verb-object format. This reduces confusion. If necessary, turn a long or confusing sentence into two shorter sentences. Make a general rule: one idea per sentence. If you have many ideas to share use bullet points.

Which do you prefer?

A. In the case of a board member announcing their retirement, the retiring member must offer the company the first option to purchase their shares no longer than 30 days after their official retirement date.

B. The company has first option to buy a retiring member’s shares.The shares must be offered to company less than 30 days after the member’s date of retirement.

A. At this point in time, despite our investigations we are unable to ascertain the reason as to why the door was left open.

B. We still don’t know why the door was left open.

When making a request use a simple question.

A. I don’t know what your schedule looks like, but if you’re available, I would really appreciate the chance to have lunch with you sometime next week. I hope you are free.

B. Are you free for lunch next week? Do you prefer Tuesday or Wednesday? Please confirm.

A request presented in a short, simple sentence won’t to be overlooked.

Advice: A general rule: One idea per sentence.  If you have many ideas to share use bullet points.


5. Greetings and signing-off

Dear and Hello are fine for most emails. Dear is a little more formal.

Important: In English, ALWAYS use the name of your recipient (if you know it), even if you haven’t had any contact with him or her.

Dear and Hello are fine for most emails. Dear is a little more formal.

In English we only say Dear Sir/Madame if we don’t know the name of the person who will receive the email, for example a government office. Be careful, these impersonal emails often end up in the spam box.

The correct title for a woman named Sue Johnson is Ms (pronounced MIZZ) eg. Dear Ms Johnson. (Read more here: Ms, Mrs and Miss)

Never write: Dear Mr Garry. It is either Dear Mr Littman or Dear Garry

Don’t start your email with How are you? – an open-ended question, that normally demands an answer. You can, instead use the expressions, I hope you are well, I hope you are keeping well, I hope you had a great weekend, I hope the week started/ended well. No replies are necessary.

Don’t (please) finish an email with the robotic and over-used phrase: Have a nice day – (Read more here)

Sign off with Yours sincerely for a formal email and Kind regards/Best regards or Thank you for less formal/neutral emails.


So, there are five tips to think about. More tips to come next week. Comments welcome.



Life in plastic. It’s not so fantastic.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic in a Barbie world 

Aqua, Barbie Girl 1997


I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

– Britney Spears, Toxic 2003


The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

– Simon and Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence 1964


The words of the prophets are also in the dictionary. The words of the year 2018, according to Oxford and Collins dictionaries respectively, are toxic and single-use.

According to the dictionaries, toxic and single-use capture the ethos, mood and preoccupations of today. Ouch! A bit grim, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, toxic was used exclusively to describe something as poisonous.

Its origin is Greek – toxikon pharmakon – a lethal poison used by the ancient Greeks for smearing on their arrowheads. Last year it oozed into the language bloodstream and rapidly spread.  Toxic politics, toxic relationships, toxic workplaces, toxic masculinity, toxic environment, toxic culture… to name a few.

Toxic chemicals also headlined this year when Russian military spies allegedly used a toxic nerve agent to poison a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in the sleepy provincial city of Salisbury in the UK. International relations between the UK and Russia became rather toxic for a few weeks.

Here is how the Oxford Dictionary announced its word of the year:

Obviously, Britney Spears knew something we didn’t. She had a hit song Toxic in 2003.

And, of course, there is toxic plastic which brings us to the term single-use, which is the Collins dictionary word of 2018.

Single-use refers to products, mostly made of plastic, which are manufactured to be used only once before they are thrown away. Plastic bags and straws are a good example. Here a few statistics to try and wrap your head around:

  • Nearly two million single-use plastic bags are distributed worldwide every minute. That’s about a trillion a year.
  • A person uses a plastic carrier bag on average for only 12 minutes.
  • On average we only recycle one plastic bag in every 200 we use.
  • It takes 500 or more years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. The bags don’t break down completely but instead become micro-plastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
  • 500 million single-use plastic straws are used every day in America.

The term single-use has allowed some people, mainly in wealthy, industrialised countries, to identify and question their easy-come, easy-go, throw-away lifestyle and obsession with plastic. This scene from the BBCDavid Attenborough documentary Blue Planet II, shocked many people.

Life in plastic, is now not so fantastic.  Plastic is found throughout the food chain and tiny plastic particles and fibres (no surprise, please) are now found in human waste. We also are ingesting plastic. We are now part-plastic.

The European parliament recently backed a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, cotton swabs, disposable plates and bottles and cutlery. It is expected to come into effect in 2021.

But there’s a long, perhaps impossible voyage ahead. Almost every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).

We go from breast to plastic teat, to plastic spoons and forks and plates and pens and bags, from plastic nappies or diapers to windproof jackets and ski pants. We fly on airplanes that are made head-to-tail with carbon-fibre reinforced plastic.

Plastic was a miracle invention as the American Plastics Council tells us:

Today supermarkets are introducing plastic free aisles, as we start to think about ways to slow down the massive plastic juggernaut, which has served us so well and is now a threat to our health. It’s become toxic.


Top photo: Unsplash

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”

In British history one person stands head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s neither Shakespeare nor Queen Victoria. Not the Queen, not Princess Di, not even Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin.

It’s Winston Churchill, a man of small stature with a towering greatness;  a writer, orator and leader who as Prime Minister led Britain to victory in the Second World War. In nation-wide polls, he is regularly named the greatest Briton of all time.

Churchill is also an iconic figure for many non-English, especially French speakers. Politically, he would sit on the political spectrum knee-to-knee with Donald Trump and is still widely detested by many on the political left. He had many failures, some terrible and spectacular, which perhaps gave him the grit and determination for his greatest success.

As an English leader and orator in a time of war – we shall fight on the beaches, we shall never surrender – he is admired by all. He’s been given the eponymous accolade, joining an illustrious club that includes Shakespearean, Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, Freudian, Marxist and our very own Calvinist, to name a few.

A Churchillian leader is one who is uncompromising, focused, determined and able to electrify great swathes of the population with their words.

President John F. Kennedy said of Churchill: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” (The president was quoting Edward R. Murrow of CBS News).

In the clip above, Gary Oldman potrays Churchill in the film The Darkest Hour. The speech is clearer and better enunciated that the real Churchill who managed to often sound as if he had a mouthful of marbles and a belly-full of whisky; the latter more likely.

Here’s the original speech from the man himself.

He had an upper-class plummy accent, but what we hear is not the ring of a haughty aristocrat, but of a man who suffered from a lisp and stammer much of his life. A fine pair; Winston Churchill and the stammering King George VI, both tongue-tied with speech defects, bullied and social recluses in their childhood led the fight against Nazi Germany.

Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience 

Churchill has since become an entertainment industry. About 500,000 people visit the underground Churchill War Rooms in London each year. Hundreds of biographies have been written, many by political leaders and many more by aspiring leaders. Albert Finney, Rod Taylor, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Burton, Timothy Spall, Bob Hoskins, John Lithgow and Michael Gambon have all sucked deep on the cigar, filled their mouths with marbles and spoken forth: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

It was said that Hitler could persuade you that he could do anything, but Churchill could persuade you that you could do anything.”

Churchill did this in his own words. He was his own speechwriter. His granddaughter, the author Celia Sandys, said that Churchill’s facility with words was most helpful to his family. “Whenever he needed some money, he picked up his pen. We lived from pen to mouth,” she said in an interview, sounding very much like her grandfather’s grand-daughter.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Churchill did not do only gravity and inspiration, but was also a master of humour and put-downs that had them rolling with laughter in the aisles of Westminster parliament and in front of radio sets in lounge-rooms throughout the isles.

Like Oscar Wilde, he is still outrageously quotable.

He mastered a wordplay  known as a paraprosdokian, loved by satirists and humourists. It is usually a short phrase that features two ideas. The first idea is often positive or an expression the listener may identify with, such as this one from Groucho Marx:

She got her good looks from her father…

The second part of the phrase has the dramatic effect. It’s a kind of verbal ambush, that forces the listener to radically reinterpret the complete phrase.

She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.

Some of Churchill’s best-known ambushes and put downs:

The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on my list.

If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober, and you will still be ugly.

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.

Yes, indeed. So we also have.

Ms, Mrs or Miss?

Ms, Mrs or Miss? The titles given to women can be quite confusing and challenging to non-native speakers and native speakers.

Men have it easy. They are the entitled sex. Mr (Mister) is a title which can be worn comfortably like a pair of old slippers by any man at any time, from Mr President to Mr Jones who lives around the corner and drives a taxi.

Addressing a woman is a little more complicated. There are three main options; Ms (pronounced Mizz), which startles many non-native speakers, and Mrs and Miss.

Titles are important. Just ask any president or director. Titles that describes half of the human population should be well-understood and used correctly, which is not as simple as it sounds in today’s fast-evolving and militant world of identity politics.

Here’s a rough guide. But first, a simple piece of advice: If you are not sure, then simply ask the woman in question which identity she prefers. 

Mrs (pron. missus) – means married woman. This a term that is losing favour in more liberal circles and among professional and younger women. Mrs, many say, defines a woman in relation to her husband. It has the connotation of someone with less control over their life who is happy to play second fiddle to their husband. Mrs Karen Pence, the wife of the US Vice-President Mike Pence, might embrace the title. My daughter would vehemently oppose it. Ironically, the title Mrs was once used to describe an independent, successful woman who may have been married, single or even divorced.

Miss – means unmarried. It has been used historically for both girls and older unmarried women (also known as spinsters). It is now considered old-fashioned and sexist by many as it defines women by their (lack of) marital status or relationship with men. It is used in formal situations to describe girls, but less and less for younger and older women. The term Miss is moving out of official use just as Mademoiselle is disappearing from French.

Both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton

opted to be Mrs, probably because they

didn’t want to alienate

older and more conservative voters.

And then there’s Ms (pronounced Mizz) – a neutral term for a woman, just like Mr is to men. Ms doesn’t indicate if a woman is married or not. Ms only began to assert itself in the 1990s. Ms is now the default title for women.

So, you would say:

I’d like to present the new member of our team, Ms Catherine Du Pont. Ms Du Pont joins us after three years in a French investment company. Ms Du Pont will take over the client advisory role and…

Or if you could simply say:

I’d like to present the new member of our team, Catherine Du Pont. Catherine joins us after working for…

And you would write:

Dear Ms Guardiola

Thank for you interest in our products. I have enclosed …

Dear Ms Williams

Unfortunately, we have no vacancies available at the moment.

You can also indicate your preference by signing off with your preferred title:

Yours sincerely

(Ms) Géraldine Noix

So, as a general rule:

In a professional environment you should not address a woman as Mrs, unless she specifically asks to be called Mrs. As stated above, the default title for a woman today is Ms.

At the same time it should be noted that both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton opted to be Mrs, probably because they didn’t want to alienate older and more conservative voters.

The Washington Post editorial board calls her Ms Clinton but has also run several stories that call her Mrs Clinton.

The New York Times automatically refers to women as Ms until they express a preference. The Times believes Ms is more “progressive”.

The term Ms can be traced back to the 17th century. It was originally an abbreviation of mistress which then meant “the lady of the house”.

In the early 1900s, The Republican newspaper in Springfield in Massachusetts USA wrote:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Everyone has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts… Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms have in common. The abbreviation “Ms” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.

The term didn’t stick. It was re-floated in the 1950s but only took off in the 1970s. Feminist advocate Sheila Michaels began advocating for Ms in the early 1960s.

Ms is here to stay. So, if you wish to speak English

correctly, both linguistically and politically,

Ms (once again, that’s pronounced Mizz),

is a term to learn and use.

Marvel Comics introduced Ms Marvel a female version of Captain Marvel in 1968.  But the title leap-frogged into the vernacular when Gloria Steinem, US activist and feminist organiser, heard Ms Michaels singing the praises of Ms during a radio interview. Steinem decided the term Ms would be perfect for a new magazine for women she was in the process of co-founding.

 Ms. magazine (see photo above) was launched as a one-off insert in New York Magazine in December 1971. It sold 300,000 copies nationwide in eight days. It generated 26,000 subscription orders and over 20,000 reader letters within weeks.

Two titles were born and still exist today.

Ms has taken some time to achieve its ascendancy. In the 1980s journalists (at least in Australia) were expected to ask women if they preferred to be called Ms, Mrs or Miss. By the 90s, Ms was the default title. The Oxford Dictionary has this definition:

a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status (a neutral alternative to Mrs or Miss): Ms Sarah Brown.

If you are not sure, then simply ask

the woman in question

which identity she prefers. 

Ms is here to stay. So, if you wish to speak English correctly, both linguistically and politically, Ms (once again, that’s pronounced Mizz), is a term to learn and use.

I suggest you master Ms (pun intended) as quickly as possible. There’s a whole other level of titles knocking loudly at the mainstream door.

HSBC Bank now allows clients to choose from 13 titles when opening their bank account..

As well as Mr, Mrs, Ms, customers can choose from 10 non-gender specific titles (see below).

Mx – pronounced “Mix” or “Mux”

Ind – an abbreviation of individual

M – an abbreviation used in France

Misc – an abbreviation of miscellaneous

Mre – for “mystery”

Msr – a combination of Miss and Sir

Myr – used in other parts of the world

Pr – an abbreviation of person, pronounced “per”

Sai – pronounced “sigh”, used in Asia

Ser – pronounced “sair” used in Latin America



Foreigners, strangers, aliens and Dr Spock

The words foreigner, stranger and alien can be very confusing for French native speakers. Depending on your world view, the words can also invoke different meanings and reactions.

A foreigner is a person who comes from another country. In French, a foreigner is un/e étranger/e.

You might say:

No, he’s not Swiss. He’s a foreigner. I think he’s Egyptian.

It is difficult to work in Switzerland if you are a foreigner.

Bernard Kouchner was the Minister for Foreign Affairs in France.

Tina Turner recorded the song Foreign Affair about a romantic relationship with a Spanish matador.

The tone associated with the term foreigner is increasingly negative. We read about foreign invaders, foreign-backed dissidents, foreign terrorists and foreign fighters. There are growing movements across the world to close borders to foreigners.

There are degrees of being a foreigner. Is your French colleague sitting in the desk opposite really a foreigner? Or is she just French?

You can also say:

Doctors said the foreign object found in the childs stomach was a rusty nail (an object that has entered something by accident and should not be there).

Remember: Un/e étranger/e is a foreigner in English, NOT a stranger.


A stranger is someone that you do not know. In French a stranger is un/e inconnu/e.

You might say:

I sat down in the bus next to a stranger.

There was a complete stranger sitting at my desk.

They got on well together although they were total strangers.

We’ve told our daughter not to speak to strangers.

Franks Sinatra describes two strangers falling in love and lust in his song, Strangers in the Night.

Clint Eastwood developed a genre of westerns as the ‘tall dark stranger’ who rides into a small town and shots all the baddies.

The popular meaning of stranger has also become darker in recent years. Strangers today are viewed by many as a threat and a danger.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats said 100 years ago: There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet.

Hospitality towards strangers was not only an obligation, but also a sacred part of many cultures in the ancient world: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares – Book of Hebrews 13:2

Expression (happy sarcasm): Well hello stranger! is an expression used when you see someone you are close to after a long absence, just like in this song by Barbara Lewis, first released in 1962.


Remember: Un/e inconnu/e is a stranger in English


Alien has two general meanings. It refers to a person who is not a citizen of the country in which they live or work (similar in meaning to a foreigner)  and is often used in legal and political circles.  In the USA the expression, illegal aliens, is widely used.

Singer Sting describes himself as a legal alien in New York in the song Englishman In New York.

You can say:

In 1795, the US Congress passed four laws, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

US border police arrested 25 illegal aliens.

You can also say.

For most Anglo-Saxons, kissing a woman (or man) three times on introduction is an alien (or foreign) concept.

Of course, the Hollywood alien is a creature from another world or planet, such as our friend ET or if you prefer, Sigourney Weaver’s nemesis in the Alien films. My favourite alien is Dr Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human of the science fiction series Star Trek.


Photo Unsplash: two aliens in car. 

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared on the Bilan magazine website.