Learn English Free

English Questions


Ask Ellie FAQs

Ellie has been spammed more than once so she sometimes sulks, just be patient.

Got a question about the use of English? Ask Ellie and she'll try to answer you, but first please make sure the answer to your question isn't already on the network (use the search box above) and then check that no one has already asked the same question:-

Check the FAQs Pages

!Note - Things Ellie won't do:-

She won't do your homework for you.
She won't proofread your dissertation.
She won't dissect sentences (it's cruel), or analyse sentence construction (it's boring).
She won't tell you the meaning of a word that you could simply look up in a dictionary.
She won't reply to anything that isn't actually a question. (This might sound obvious, but you'd be surprised.

A Few Previous Questions

I was wondering what esq means when it is attached along with a name at the end of an email. I also would like to know if there are similar abbreviations.


When you see esq. after someone's name it means esquire. Originally it was a title of respect for a member of the English gentry who did not possess any other title. However, today the term is used instead of Mr. on official documents, etc. It's quite old fashioned nowadays and there aren't really any other abbreviations used in this way.

My question concerns the use of the articles "a" and "an". Should they agree with the adjective associated with a noun that it describes or the noun itself?


It's fairly simple. You use "a" when the next word begins with a consonant. You use "an" when the next word begins with a vowel.

For example: a car / an egg

So for adjectives the same applies:

For example: a good teacher / an inadequate teacher


At a time when the latest Gallup poll shows that some 55 percent of Americans now disapprove of the President's handling of the situation in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal puts a cloud over Rumsfeld's career.

Q:Could I use 'at the time' instead of 'at a time'? What is the difference between 'at the time' and 'at a time'?


'At a time' means now.

'At the time' means a time in the past.

So you could rewrite the paragraph thus:-

Now that the latest Gallup poll shows some 55 percent of Americans now disapprove of the President's handling of the situation in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal puts a cloud over Rumsfeld's career.

In the future though somebody might say:-

At the time the latest Gallup poll showed that some 55 percent of Americans disapproved of the President's handling of the situation in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal put a cloud over Rumsfeld's career.

I'm from Germany and would like to know why sometimes biology, history, geography (school subjects) these words are capitalised and not. I was taught to capitalise them, but yesterday I found a text and they are used in small letters. Is there any rule?


An interesting question. I like questions that make me think! After some research this is what I found out:-

Academic subjects are not capitalised unless they refer to an ethnic or national origin or are the names of specific courses:
For example:
The Economics 101 course. The Biology course that Mr Hand takes. The Earth Sciences course next term.

However you would say:-
"I'm taking courses in biology and earth science this summer."
"I studied economics last term."
"David enjoyed science at school."
Because they are non-specific subjects.

Whereas you would say "I have enrolled in Economics 101."
Because Economics 101 is a specific course and that makes it a proper noun.

Then you also have to say:-
Malcolm intends to major in English.
My sister enrolled in French History.
Because nationalities and regions, languages, religions and ethnic groups are always capitalised.

So you would say:-
"You must take the following courses: history, geometry, and French."

A proper noun is a noun belonging to the class of words used as names for unique individuals, events, or places.

What is the correct answer to below:
I (be)___________ here since last September. Before that I (study) _____________English at another school.


"I have been here since last September. Before that I studied English at another school."

Explanation: The first part uses the present perfect to show that you are still there. The second part uses past simple because that part is finished.

Thank you very much for your help. I still have a question in the second part. Can I say: Before that I had studied english at another school?


I know that the past perfect can be confusing, but in real life you can avoid using it a lot of the time! Unfortunately not in exams or English classes though.

Anyway in answer to your question:-

I (be)___________ here since last September. Before that I (study) _____________English at another school.

This is complicated. Grammatically you aren't wrong, but as you are still talking about finished time and writing sequentially (i.e. one event after another) it would be better to use the past simple to say:- "Before that I studied English at another school."

The past perfect is used when there are two past events and you want to stress the event that happened first.

To rewrite your sentence using the past perfect it would be better to say:-

"Before I came here last September I had already studied English at another school."

I would use already to stress the fact that you knew some English before starting your new school.

Don't forget that English is a proper noun and must always be CAPITALISED.

I always misuse 'rather than' and 'other than' in certain circumstances. Could you give me several examples about how to use these two phrases?


'Rather than' means on the contrary - For example: "Rather than disappoint the children, he did two quick tricks before he left."

'Other than' means being distinct from that or those first considered - For example "All parts of the house other than the windows were in good condition." - "He apparently took no clothes other than those he was wearing."

I would like suggestions on how best one can approach verbs and syntax. I would appreciate it very much if you could give me examples (teaching aids)


My personal recommendation to all my students is to learn in context. Learning phrases or sentences that make sense helps your understanding of the syntax naturally. I try to keep to a pragmatic/semantic approach - i.e. what words mean and how these meanings - combine in sentences to form sentence meanings and how sentences are used in different situations and how use affects the interpretation of the sentence.

Making judgments purely based on grammar is not a goal in natural language understanding. My students always tell me that they get a better feeling for the language with my approach. If however you wish to take a more linguistic approach then you have to start analysing the formation of sentences. And that is a very different kettle of fish, you have to take on important concepts such as constituency, category and function. Here tree diagrams can be useful in order to help you visualise the hierarchical structure of sentences.

If you are having to study this area of the English language then we recommend the BBC AS level guide.

Do you need more help?

Check our English FAQs page

Still douldn't find what you were looking for?

Then check out some recommended Books.

Learn More English