Idiom: “Play It By Ear”

A: Do you want to go to a movie later? Maybe around 7 p.m.?
B: I have so many errands to run after work…I would like to go, though. Can we play it by ear?


If you’ve heard the idiom “play it by ear” (sometimes asked as a question or in the imperative: “Can we play it by ear?” or “Let’s play it by ear.”), you might be able to guess its meaning from the context of the conversation…but maybe not!

Either way, do you know what “play it by ear” refers to?

…here’s a hint:

English idiom "play it by ear"
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The literal meaning of “play it by ear” refers to when a musician is able to play a song after hearing it, without needing any sheet music to help them.

In a way, the musician is able to improvise playing the song without the need of exact notes written out in front of them.

This directly relates to the idiom “play it by ear.” When someone asks or suggests that you “play it by ear,” they are saying:

“I don’t want to or I can’t make firm plans right now. I’ll determine closer to the event in question whether or not I am able to do it/attend.”

“Play it by ear” is a great informal way to:

1) Not commit to an event or situation that you want to attend, but are unsure if you are able to attend.

2) Not commit to an event or situation that you do not want to attend, but you don’t want to disappoint or offend the person you are speaking to by declining the invitation immediately.


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6 Tips for Revising Writing

“The best writing is re-writing.” ~E.B. White

I love this quote by E.B. White because it’s so true! As much as we’d like our writing to come out perfectly the first time, very nearly all writing needs to be re-written. Here are some great tips for re-writing in English:

1. Start global and go local

No, we’re not talking about traveling! If you are writing a longer piece, such as an essay for school, start global (meaning go big!) and look at “big picture” things like thesis, organization, and support for your ideas.

Note: When writing essays in English, make sure you organize your paper in the way that English papers are generally written – with the main idea at the beginning of the essay, support in the middle, and a summary conclusion at the end. Other parts of the world teach organization for formal writing differently, and you want to make sure you’re following the correct format.

From there, work down to the “local” level – meaning the smaller details such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar of the essay.

rewriting editing revision
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2. Read it aloud

No matter how short or long your writing is, or what your purpose is for writing, reading your work out loud is crucial for hearing how your words sound together (the rhythm of your writing!), and guaranteed, you’ll find spots where you can smooth things out. In addition, you can often catch many local errors reading aloud, since it forces your brain to slow down to the speed of your speech.

3. Read backwards

Seriously! Read the last sentence, then the second to last, and so on – out loud. This method is great for finding local errors.

4. Reverse outline

This tip is great for making sure your organization and support are in check!

See if you – or better yet, a friend – can determine your structure and supporting ideas by plotting them out in an outline. Need a blank outline? Click here for templates.

5. Grab a buddy

Speaking of friends, having a fresh pair of eyes on your writing in general is great for catching errors both big and small.

6. Take the grammar “bit by bit”

Proofreading your writing in another language can be daunting, but make it easier by taking small steps!

Focus on these areas one at a time as you read through your writing:

  • Subject-Verb Agreement
  • Verb Tense
  • Run-On Sentences
  • Sentence Fragments
  • Word Forms (i.e. “The globalization world is changing all the time.” should be “The globalized world is changing all the time.”)

Learn more about writing in my online course “University Companion.”

Click here for more information, as well as access to the first unit for free!

Idiom: “Time Flies”

“Wow. It’s already midnight? I feel like I just got here! This party is so much fun!”

“Yeah, time flies, right?”

Time flies idiom
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Hearing or reading “time flies” for the first time might be confusing for newer English learners. I used it once in a classroom at the end of a particularly fun class and several students raised their hands at the same time and said, “Teacher! What does that mean?”

To begin with, “time flies” is a shortened version of a longer idiom:
Time flies when you’re having fun.

Knowing the longer version, it is perhaps easier to guess the meaning of this idiom:
Times seems to move quickly when you are enjoying yourself.

(Think about the opposite – doesn’t time seem to move so slowly when you are completing a boring task?)

It’s helpful for English learners to know that in informal conversation, this idiom is often shortened to simply:
Time flies.

Try and use this idiom – the shortened version! – in conversation this week!


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5 Tips for Improving Your Writing in English

Writing can be difficult – even in your native language! And it can be especially challenging when writing in another language.

But practice makes perfect!

Regardless of the situation – writing casual emails or messages in English to friends, communicating for business in English, or completing a school assignment in English – there are simple ways to help improve your writing.

5 tips for improving your writing in English
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1. Read in English

That’s right: Reading in English will help your writing in English!

When written language is modeled, it makes things like structure, grammar, and punctuation easier to “take in” or internalize.

If you’re worried you won’t understand an entire novel or book in English, try starting with simpler books for younger readers, and gradually reading more difficult texts.

2. Write every day

Set a goal for yourself that is challenging but attainable.

Maybe that’s just five sentences, or maybe it’s five paragraphs, or even five pages (you can do it!) – but make sure it’s a goal that isn’t so difficult you’ll feel overwhelmed.

Not sure what to write about? Start with simple sentences explaining what you did during the day. If that’s too simple, write about your feelings or opinions about what you did.

Need more challenge? Write about what you plan on doing tomorrow or next week, or want to do in 10 years.

3. Buy a special notebook

Keep your practice writing all in the same notebook – like a journal or diary.

In addition to being a symbol of how important the writing is to you, as time passes, it will be a great way to see your improvement!

4. Rewrite your past writing

Rewriting your past writing is a great way to not only correct your mistakes, but expand your vocabulary by looking for synonyms for the words you originally used.

Try a strategy such as focusing on finding synonyms for nouns one week, verbs the next, adjectives and adverbs after that, and so on.

5. Buddy up

Find a friend (online or offline) that you can occasionally trade writing with.

Maybe it is someone in your class you can trade assignments with, or a work colleague you can practice exchanging emails with, or an online acquaintance who can give you feedback.

A second pair of eyes on your writing can help you see errors that you missed!


Learn more about academic writing with my online course “University Companion.”

Click here to learn more and get the first unit for free!

Idiom: “Can of Worms”

“My boss asked me if I was happy working at the company and then became upset when I said, “mostly.” We talked about it for more than an hour…it was a real can of worms!”

If you heard someone say the words above, what would you think the idiom “can of worms” means?

Just like with other idioms, it is (sometimes!) helpful to try and think about the phrase in literal terms.

What does an actual can of worms make you think of (besides being super gross!)? What feeling does it give you?

Idiom can of worms
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Is a can of worms nice and pleasant?

No!

Therefore, you might be able to guess that the idiom “a can of worms” is similar: It refers to a situation that is unpleasant or difficult to deal with.

Try and use “can of worms” this week and let me know how it goes!


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