Hypothetical situations and desires

We use the past tenses to talk about hypothetical situations (situations which are not true). When we talk about our wishes or desires, we use the present tense.

1. Hypothetical Situation in the present or the future
- Supposing
- I wish (Note: wish + could = a desired ability)
- What if
- If only (Note: If only is stronger than I wish)
- Would rather (Expresses a preference in the future)

+ past simple

Supposing a cat and a dog fell in love
I wish he used less after-shave / I wish I could swim
What if we went on holiday to Italy this year?
If only we hadn’t eaten so much
He would rather he worked from home
2. Hypothetical Situation in the past
- Supposing
- I wish
- What if
- If only
- Would rather

+ past perfect

Supposing we had won the lottery
I wish I had accepted that job offer
What if your car had been stolen?
If only we had parked nearer to the station
Mary would rather she had chosen a different position
3. Preferences in the present or future
- I would rather
+ verb base (= the infinitive minus “to”)He would rather his employees work less overtime
4. Irritating habits of others
- I wish
+ would + verb baseI wish he would clean up in the kitchen after he’s eaten
5. Something which should have already happened
- It’s about time
- It’s high time
- It’s time

+ past simple

It’s about time we changed to a different phone company
It’s high time we painted the house
It’s time we went to see your grandmother

Note that with …would rather…, the word which is stressed can be used to show what our preference is:

– I’d rather you went. (instead of me)
– I’d rather you went. (instead of staying)
– I’d rather you did the housework. (instead of the cooking)

When do we double the final consonant in a word?

1. Only some letters are doubled: b, d, g, l, m, n, p, r, t.

2. We double the final consonant of a word before we add

-ed,     -er,       -est,      -ing,       -able       and       -y

to show that the vowel has a short sound.

2a. With a one-syllable word:

If the word ends with a Consonant + Vowel + Consonant, double the final consonant.

This called the C-V-C rule.


hat – hatter
big – biggest
mum – mummy
run – running, runny
gut – gutted

2b. With multi-syllable words:

Double the final letter when the final syllable is stressed in speech.


begin – beginning
prefer – preferring, preferred
transfer – transferred

In British English, cancel and travel are exceptions to this rule: (travelled, cancelled, cancelling are correct)

3. If the final syllable is not stressed, we do not double the final letter.


listen – listening, listened
happen – happening, happened

Vowels: a, e, i, o, u
Consonents: all other letters

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are normally used more in spoken English than in formal writing. They consist of a verb and one or two additional words which are adverbs or prepositions. The majority of phrasal verbs consist of the verb and one more word (e.g. “put off”) but some consist of a verb and two words, such as “put up with”.

There are over 3400 phrasal verbs listed on the Use of English website. For a more manageable list of common phrasal verbs, a good website is englishclub.com. If you want to print their list of verbs, click the link “Print Page” at the top left of their page.

The “Writing” part of the Cambridge Exam

In the B- and C-Level exams you have to write a short text as part of the exam. There are different types of text that can be asked for, which I will look at below and give tips on how to do them.

  • Informal Letter or Email
  • Semi-formal letter
  • Report
  • Article
  • Review
  • Essay

So what are the differences between these, and what do you need to think about for each type of document?

Informal Letter or Email

This is a letter or email to a friend or a member of your family. You don’t need to write the “to”, “from”, “date” or “subject” (if you do, don’t count the words you have used for these as part of the total number of words you have written).

Start with an informal greeting, such as “Dear Peter” or “Hi Mary”, and on the next line remember to start a new sentence with a capital letter. Make some comment about what what they wrote to you before answering their questions and giving your own news. Finish with an informal phrase such as “All the best”, “Cheers”, “See you soon”, “Love” or something similar.

Semi-formal letter

A semi-formal letter could be to a company, your local newspaper, or the local government, probably to tell them about a complaint or an opinion you have, or maybe to apply for a job. In the exam, you don’t need to write an address, the date, or the subject. If you want to include these, the number of words in these parts doesn’t count in the number of words you have to write.
In this case, you need to use more formal language, (for example using the passive voice, e.g. “it is said”, “the quality has become worse”, etc.) and will probably start with an expression like “Dear Sir/Madam”, “Dear Mr Jones”, “Dear Sirs” etc. The ending will also be fairly formal, for example: “Yours faithfully”.


A report is usually written for your boss, or for a customer. For example, you may be asked to suggest ways of improving how your company treats customers, or you may have to make suggestions to a client about their business. A report needs to start with a title, and to have several sections which each have a different main idea. The sections should each have a heading on a separate line. You will need at least 3 sections, normally you will need more than 3. The first section should be the Introduction, then you will need one or more sections to present your findings, and finally a section (usually called Summary or Conclusion or Recommendations, depending on the style of report you have written).


An article is something written to be published – in a blog, a newspaper, a magazine or something similar. It is written to interest the reader of the publication. Again, the style should be semi-formal, unless you are writing in a discussion forum. An article needs a title, like the report does, but doesn’t need headings for the sections. You’ll need to write an introduction in the first paragraph, and remember to summarise the main point(s) for the reader at the end of the article. The article needs to be structured, with each paragraph having a main idea.


A review is special type of article. It should start with a title for the review and be written in a semi-formal style. It’s written for a blog, newspaper or magazine, but it reports your opinion about something. It could be a review of a restaurant, a fashion show, a film, a book, etc. It’s very similar to an article, but here what counts is your opinion, which you should justify. For example, don’t just say that the service was bad or that the food was terrible, say that the food took over forty minutes to arrive at the table, and it was served luke-warm. Again, the review, like an article, should start with a short introduction and finish by summarising your opinion and the reason for having it.


An essay will usually ask you to discuss something. As in the other types of document that you can be asked to write, it should be structured with a main idea in each paragraph.
An essay doesn’t need a title or section headings, although I think it is a good idea to give a title to the essay. The number of words in the title doesn’t count towards the number of words you have written. It’s important in an essay to include views for and against the point you are being asked to write about. However, you should make your own views clear and give reasons why you think your views are correct. Don’t forget to finish with a conclusion or a summary of your views.

General things to remember in all the above document types

  • Make sure you answer all the points/questions that the exam paper asks for. If you are asked for 3 reasons for something, and only give two, you can not get full marks for your answer. This is the easiest way to collect marks – even if your English isn’t perfect you will get marks for answering all the parts of the question!
  • Remember that if you write too few words, you have probably not answered all the points you were asked to write about in the question; and if you write too much, you give yourself more possibilities of making mistakes, and if you write much to much, the examiner may stop reading altogether, and you may get marked down for an incomplete answer!
  • Remember that in English we don’t usually write “…” at the end of a list to show there are more possibilities which have not been listed. Instead, you can say “etc.” or “and so on”.
  • If you have time at the end of the exam, re-read what you have written, and check you haven’t made typical mistakes such as writing he when you are talking about something a woman did, check that each verb has a subject (which can often be it), check you haven’t written plural forms of adjectives. Adjectives don’t have a plural form in English – there are no blacks cats!

How to find a synonym in the English langauge

Thanks to Peter Mark Roget the English language has a type of dictionary which is not available in many other languages: the thesaurus. A thesaurus doesn’t tell you the meaning of words, it gives you a list of words having a similar meaning to a specific word. It’s useful if you are writing a report or an essay, and wish to avoid repeating the same word several times in a short text.

The best known thesaurus is named after Roget, who published the first thesaurus in 1852. You can find Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus online here.

You have to be a bit careful when using a thesaurus, because some of the alternatives listed may only be useful in specific situations. For example, synonyms of the word “child” include “bairn”, which is only used in the north of England or in Scotland, and “whippersnapper” which is an old-fashioned word used in the 17th century, and means “an unimportant but offensively presumptuous person, especially a young one.”

Resources to practice listening to English

One of the skills you need to practice if you are going to take intermediate or advanced English exams is listening. If you don’t have a “tame” native speaker to talk to, it doesn’t matter. There are lots of possibilities in the internet:

ororo.tvYou can watch up to 60 minutes / day without subscribing to ororo.tv, but your choice is quite limited - you can't view all their content. A subscription for 12 months is only 39 Euro, however, and it gives you access to a huge number of popular TV series, such as Downtown Abbey, plus a lot of top films and videos.
TED TalksTED talks are normally 18 minutes long or less. They are given by experts in their field. There is a huge number of recorded TED talks online.

They cover just about anything you can think of. Even such esoteric topics as "dog poetry"! So you should be able to find something to interest you.

TED talks take place all over the world, if you keep an eye on TEDx Events, you can see when the next one near you is (for Valencia in Spain, there was a TEDx event in February 2016, for example).
The English we speak (BBC)The BBC has a lot of information about the English language (grammar, for example) and also many podcasts (usually a couple of minutes long) and short programs (4-5 minutes) on its website. The link on the left takes you to podcasts / broadcasts that help you learn English.

The BCC also offers podcasts to its listeners (not just learners of English) about general topics. These are also well worth listening to.
The BBC World Service RadioThis is a selection of news and current affairs reports which are broadcast on the BBC World Service.
YouTube Upper Intermediate EnglishThere are a number of good language schools and freelance teachers on YouTube, who offer free classes on a the use of English. I like the videos from Anglo-Link, Benjamin's English Classes, EngVid, Let's Talk and English Lessons with Adam, but there are many other good producers of English videos on YouTube. (You can look for any level, not just upper intermediate, of course!)
YouTube DocumentariesThere's a lot of documentaries (e.g. from the BBC, National Geographic, The History Channel, and many more) to choose from. You can narrow them down to the most recent ones by searching for "documentaries 2015", for example.

In the same way you can search for films and TV programs. Not just British video, by the way. You can search out Indian or American material, or whatever takes your fancy.

Recommended reading material for intermediate students

Choosing reading matter to help you learn English is difficult. The most important thing is that you read something which interests you. For one person that might mean reading romantic novels, for someone else maybe reading photography magazines is a better idea. I wouldn’t recommend starting by reading books aimed at young children; the language may be simpler, but that advantage is offset be the fact that the vocabulary won’t be as useful (unless you really want to learn childish expressions or about fairies, evil witches and so on!).

Books for young adults are often a good place to start – the language is still a little easier to understand, and the variety of literature available is similar to adult literature. Don’t try to start reading a 500-page book for your first attempt, better to choose books which are 100 – 250 pages long, so that you’re not stuck reading the same book for too long. If you think you might like reading a book, check its page on amazon.com, and you can see a description of the book, the number of pages, sometimes even read a few pages of it, and read what other people think about it.

If you are lucky enough to own a Kindle with a touch-screen (not a Kindle Fire, as they don’t support using the dictionary in the same way) you can read books a slightly higher level than you would otherwise, because you can use the built-in dictionary to translate words between your language and English. It’s much more convenient than using a paper dictionary and your English will improve more rapidly as a result.

Below are some ideas, in no particular order, to help you find texts to improve your reading skills:

linguapress.comBeginner / Intermediate / AdvancedInteresting short texts accompanied by exercises based on the the text, grouped according to the student's level of English.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl IntermediateAlthough this is a children's book, it is such fun that I have to recommend it. I read it at least three times in Spanish to improve my Spanish.

Anything else by Roald Dahl is also worth a try.
City College of San Francisco: Novels for Intermediate Level ESL StudentsIntermediateWhat's really good about this list is that it covers a variety of topics, so most students can find something interesting at their level.
Go ask Alice

Available from Amazon Spain here.
IntermediateA 1971 novel about the life of a troubled teenage girl, written in the form of the diary of an anonymous teenage girl who becomes addicted to drugs.

The novel's title was taken from a line in the 1967 Grace Slick-penned Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" ("go ask Alice/when she's ten feet tall").
Listopia Best Young Adult BooksIntermediateReading books for young adults can be interesting for adults too.

This list includes books and series of books which I have enjoyed a lot as an adult and which have been turned into Hollywood films, such as the Hunger Games series, the Harry Potter series, The Maze Runner, The Book Thief, The Hobbit and many more.
ESL: Reading English at the Intermediate LevelIntermediateLucy Tse has some recommendations in her blog entry. She recommends books from the winner's list of the Newbury Medal awards. These are books especially chosen for children, but many are quite sophisticated and will appeal to adults too.