Phrase of the day: To let down (Part II)

August 30, 2009

to let down


In the last post, I mentioned that the more obvious definition of “to let down” is to bring something down.  

The less obvious meaning is the more abstract meaning of to disappoint.  It is a transitive verb requiring both a subject and object.  The noun form is letdown.

The movie was a letdown. (Equivalent meaning: The movie was a disappointment.) 


To talk about who has been disappointed, the object must be inserted between let down. If the object is a personal pronoun, it will be in the objective case.  

The movie let me down. (Equivalent meaning: The movie disappointed me.)


Besides the progressive form, the verb let down does not inflect for tense or change for subject-verb agreement. 

His son was afraid of letting him down. (Equivalent meaning: His son was afraid of disappointing him.)

The movie let him down.

The two movies let him down.


To talk about a habitual disappointment, just add “has/have/had” in front:

 He has let me down every time. (Equivalent meaning: He has disappointed me every time.)

They have let me down every time. (Equivalent meaning: They have disappointed me every time.)


You could use let down to talk about the future also:

 I hope you could attend the conference with me this Saturday.  You won’t/will not let me down, right? (Equivalent meaning: You will not disappoint me, right?)

 At this point, you might ask why English speakers use to let down instead of to disappoint or letdown instead of disappointment.  Like all phrasal verbs, to let down is used in informal settings.  Learning how to use it properly will make your speech more personable.  Being able to comprehend it will allow you to communicate with native speakers, who use them all the time!  Besides, letdown only has two syllables while disappointment has four!

Phrase of the Day: To let down (Part I)

August 23, 2009



To learn the meaning of a word or phrase means knowing its many uses, especially the more common ones.  Words like run, get, put, and fall have over 200 definitions in the Oxford dictionary!  The word let is also a very common English word and when partnered with different words generate different meanings.   


In fact, when combined with down, the verb form to let down has two meanings.  (Only the first meaning will be discussed here.  Stay tuned for my next entry for the second meaning.)  The more obvious one is to bring something down like curtains like “Please let down the curtains.”  This is not too difficult to understand as the curtains should then be lowered or move downwards by the listener.  Notice that the object (curtains) is placed behind the verb (let down).


There is a famous German fairy tale about a girl named Rapunzel who was trapped in a tower in the middle of the woods but whose songs attracted a prince.  He called out to her, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” And, when she did, he climbed it to ask her to marry him as her hair was long and strong like a rope.  It is a Cinderella-like story where this line has become popular. 


Stay tuned for the second and more abstract meaning of let down!

The Dash

August 14, 2009



Back to talking about punctuation!  As mentioned in my latest post on punctuation, the dash is often confused and used incorrectly.  Or, sometimes, the dash is not used and a comma is used in its place.  Below are two examples which are wrong. 

An unnecessary dash where a comma could do the job:

“Barack broke through last night with voters who were watching — but we need to get the word out to the millions who didn’t tune in.” campaign manager David Plouffe, memo to Obama’s supporters during his run for office.

Comma used in place of the dash:

“Don’t worry about making it pretty, they will do that, just make sure the mathematics is right.” “Get Out Your Pencils,” Newsweek, 4 Apr. 1994.

Possible revision:

Don’t worry about making it pretty—they will do that—just make sure the mathematics is right.


Well, then, how should the dash be used?

First, there are actually two kinds of the dash, called the regular dash or em dash (—) and the en dash (–).


The em dash (—) acts like a “super comma” and used for:

1)      Separating an interjection or remark from the sentence with no space between the dash and the interjection 

The summer English camp program costs her whole paycheck—I can’t believe this!—but is well worth it because she will have a chance to interact with native speakers.

2)      Separating a list of items which contains internal punctuation

The three courses offered—conversation, grammar, and culture—are meant to improve the campers’ English skills.

In the above instances, sometimes people prefer to use the brackets (…) instead of the dash; however, some say the dash seems to be more welcoming than the brackets. 

3)      Indicating a break or the continuation of a sound in written dialogue

“Sean, why don’t you continue reading page—,” said Mrs. Smith.

“Page 31?” Sean interrupted.

“Yes, page 31,” replied Mrs. Smith in agreement. 

“Ah—!” screamed Ann.


There are never more than two em dashes in a sentence.  When an em dash is inserted, it must be finished off with another em dash or an ending punctuation like the period (.).


The en dash (–) is a bit wider than a hyphen (-) but functions differently:

1)      Indicating a range of time or date

The summer camp hours were from 8:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.

2)      Joining compound adjectives when the two adjectives do not modify each other but modifies the same noun

The Fall–Winter camp session will be longer and more comprehensive than the summer one.

The SeattleLos Angeles flight to the summer camp took longer than expected.

The CantoDict Project

August 13, 2009

CantoDict Project





No matter which language you are learning, having a good dictionary is always helpful.  I am not going to endorse any dictionaries on the commercial market here but want to introduce to you a free dictionary that you could use online! 


I am one of the 60+ worldwide volunteer editors of “The CantoDict Project”, a collaborative online Cantonese-Mandarin-English dictionary started in 2003.  Even though the website advertises the project as a resource for students learning Cantonese or Chinese, I think it is also useful for learning English as well!  Here is the link to the dictionary. 


In regards to concerns about accuracy, as editors, we continuously check each other’s work and make modifications when necessary.  We also welcome any feedback, suggestions, and comments in the forum.  In fact, the forum also has many topics which may interest you!  Parents could exchange child-rearing advice, those with technical computer skills could share expertise, cooking aficionados could exchange recipes, and movie buffs could critique the latest movies.  Thus, it is a great platform to practice writing English!   Besides the dictionary and a forum, there is also a parser.   


Whether you are learning English, Cantonese, or Mandarin, hopefully you’ll find some aspect of this online dictionary useful! 

The Colon

August 12, 2009



The colon is needed to complete an unfinished statement or thought.  The colon may be preceded by an independent clause (independent clause goes before the colon) and used in several situations.  Notice that in certain situations, what follows the colon begins with a capital letter.

1)      With a list of items

She checked her luggage again to make sure she had all the items she needed for the conference: two suits, two blouses, and two pairs of shoes. 

BUT, if what precedes the list of items cannot stand alone, meaning that it is not an independent clause, do not use a colon.

Her luggage included two suits, two blouses, and two pairs of shoes.


2)      Linkage of an independent clause with a independent, dependent clause, or phrase which may have one of several relationships: introduction to main idea, cause to effect, general statement to a specific example (only capitalize the first letter after the colon if what follows is a series of two or more sentences)

There is only one thing left for her to do: remembering where she placed the airplane ticket!

Before leaving her house, Sarah did not forget to do three things:  Check that the stove is turned off. Turn off all electronics. Close all windows. 


3)      To introduce a quote (notice the capitalization).

Not only is Shakespeare a famous playwright of romantic plays, he also coined a famous saying about love that is still popular today: “Love is blind.”



A colon may also be used in certain forms of writing.

1)      In an announcement (notice the capitalization)

Attention: Never leave your luggage unattended


2)      In a business letter

Dear Mr. Smith:


3)      In a play, skit, or court testimony

Ted: I have a phone conference with Mr. Cameron this afternoon.

Sarah: Oh, really?! I thought it was cancelled.

Ted: No, it will still take place. 


4)      In the title of a book or movie to set off the main title from the subtitle

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


5)      In time

9:30 pm or 21:30

Idioms bring laughter to a courtroom

August 11, 2009



Many people learning a new language feel compelled to sound like a native speaker. Besides trying to pronounce and sound like a native speaker, the use of informal language during speech is also very important. Informal language includes the use of idioms, sayings which have a figurative meaning and cannot be understood by knowing the literal meaning of the individual words. Learning idioms requires a great deal of exposure to the language.

This entry stems from an incident in a Hong Kong courtroom where a witness used several common Chinese idioms during his testimony. This caused a great deal of confusion, for those who do not speak Chinese, and bursts of laughter, for those who do.

The case concerns probably one of the biggest and most discussed probate cases ever in Hong Kong, as it involves at least $4.2 billion US dollars. Before her passing in 2007, Nina Wang was one of the richest women in the world. Her family members are fighting in court with her feng shui consultant, Tony Chan, on the legitimacy of the will that he presented in court trying to claim that she changed her will and named him the sole beneficiary of her estate.

This past week, a witness and former client of Chan used Chinese idioms to describe the fortune teller which went over the heads of many in the courtroom, including the interpreter who was in a fix and troubled by how to translate them to the English-speaking audience. Supposedly, he had once paid through the nose for Chan’s service, coughing up $50,000HKD every month to hire him. Apparently, Chan has a way with words as his clients include the rich and famous and whose own fortune is estimated to be in the millions. One thing is for sure, as this case has attracted worldwide attention, those involved will be living in a fishbowl for awhile with no privacy.

The Apostrophe

August 10, 2009


A misconception about the apostrophe is that it is used only in contractions (e.g. cannot -> can’t).  Thus, many times, it is not used or used incorrectly in other situations.  Besides the comma (,) and period (.), the apostrophe is also a very important and commonly-used punctuation mark.  Therefore, we need to have a good grasp of it.  Here are some of its usages:

1)                  Contractions should not be used in formal academic writing as many teachers still frown upon them.  Instead, they should be reserved for speech and informal settings.  In fact, native speakers use contractions all the time in speech. 

I am = I’m

you are = you’re

let us = let’s

do not = don’t

it is = it’s

2)                  It is used in possessives.  With singular nouns, the apostrophe goes after the noun, followed by a “s”.  With plural nouns, the apostrophe goes after the “s”. 

The boy’s hats are in his room. (one boy)

The boys’ hats are in their rooms. (more than one boy)

What do we do with plural nouns which do not end with “s” but are irregular in spelling (e.g. children, women, men, teeth)?  Here, the apostrophe comes before the “s”. 

The children’s hats are in their rooms.  (more than one child)

The woman’s hats are in her closet. (one female)

The women’s hats are in their closets.  (more than one female)

There is an apostrophe in the contraction “it’s”, which stands for “it is” or “it has”, but it is not in the possessive form “its” (e.g. The dog lost its collar.) 

3)                  It is used to indicate the omission of figures in dates or letters in words. The omission of figures in dates is still quite commonly seen (e.g. 2009 -> ’09).  On the other hand, omission of letters in words is less prevalent now than in old English, such as Shakespearean English, but still seen in modern poems or to imitate non-standard English forms. 

The prologue of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet portrays old English and also contains examples of the apostrophes used in possessive forms:

    A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
    Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
    Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
    The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
    And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
    Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
    Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
    The which if you with patient ears attend,
    What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

4)                  It may be used to indicate the plurals of letters or words.  This is especially important to clearly differentiate the plural from, perhaps, another word (e.g. A’s versus As).  Nowadays, we do not add an apostrophe to make plural a year or an abbreviation, where there are no periods.  

I got all A’s on my report card.

What are the do’s and don’t’s in the American home?

BUT:    The Civil Rights Movement in the United States started in the 1950s.

            One of my colleagues has multiple PhDs.