Communication fail :)

Conversation overheard in a lift:

English businessman – So, what does your company do?
Polish businessman – Boring.
E – Excuse me?
P – Boring.
E – [blank stare]
P – It is mine company.
E – Oh, I see – your own company! Ha ha! You find it boring?
P – Yes. We find much boring.
E – Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe it’s time you did something else.
P – No… There is much boring in Poland.
E – Oh come on! It’s not that bad!

“Boring” is a term used in mining and mechanical engineering which means drilling or making holes. The Polish man works for a successful mining company. The Englishman doesn’t understand any of that!


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Order of adjectives

Remember the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?

I didn’t see it either. But it doesn’t matter. The point I’m going to discuss here is why we can’t say “My Greek Fat Big Wedding”.

In English there are rules about the order we place adjectives before a noun. Very generally, the rule is that the more important the adjective, the nearer it is to the noun. This usually results in this order:

observation, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose

So – “big” is a reference to size, “fat” is a reference to shape, and “Greek” is a reference to origin.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown:


General opinion adjectives can describe almost any noun.

E.g.: good, bad, strange, unusual, amazing, brilliant, excellent, wonderful, nice, nasty, awful 

Specific opinion adjectives describe particular nouns.

food: spicy, delicious
clothes: fashionable, casual
furniture: antique, comfortable
people: clever, intelligent, generous, friendly

A qualifier is an attributive noun or gerund (-ing form) that acts like an adjective and comes before the noun. You can have more than one of them (but normally not more than three). Examples are underlined below:

office building
running shoes
life insurance
district labour office
car parking space
share purchase agreement
employee share option scheme

Here are some examples of mistakes I’ve seen related to adjective order:

a Dutch leading manufacturer

a leading Dutch manufacturer => observation, origin

arbitration potential claims

potential arbitration claims => observation, qualifier

the economic recent instability

the recent economic instability => age, type

a Polish temporary residence permit

a temporary Polish residence permit => observation, origin, qualifier

The Purchaser has the right to make emergency two copies of the Software.

The Purchaser has the right to make two emergency copies of the Software. => determiner, qualifier

a separate, template, new employment agreement

a separate, new template employment agreement => observation, age, qualifier, qualifier



As with any rule, there are exceptions. The main exception can be illustrated by this example:

Australian red wine => origin, colour

According to the table above, we should say red Australian wine, but we don’t. This is because the adjective “red” classifies the type of wine – so it should be placed in the material/type column in the table above.

Australian red wine => origin, type

In this example “red” is the more important adjective; Australian the less important.

At home we have some posh soap. It describes itself as “Scottish fine soap”, but, according to the rules, you would expect it to be “fine Scottish soap”. It’s “Scottish fine soap” for similar reasons to “Australian red wine” – where “fine” is used to classify the type of soap rather than just express an opinion about it. So this soap is definitively fine. That’s why I know it’s posh. The same structure is used with all sorts of products: “fine wine”, “fine leather goods”, “fine food” etc. etc.

Another exception derives from the rule of ablaut reduplication. Although it has a rather complicated-sounding name, this rule is best explained by reference to childhood songs and stories.

In the story of Little Red Riding Hood there is the Big Bad Wolf. According to the adjective order rules, it should be the Bad Big Wolf – “bad” being a general opinion.

But the rule of ablaut reduplication trumps the adjective order rule. We say “zig zag”, “tic tac”, “mish mash”, “riff raff”, “chit chat”, “pitter patter”, “ding dong”, “ping pong”, “flip flop”, “hip hop” etc. etc. So we must also say “big bad”.

If you know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, you’ll know the phrase “fee fi fo fum”. Similarly, we say “reading and writing” and never “writing and reading”.

The rule of ablaut reduplication is so powerful because it goes beyond any individual language. Think of the French children’s song Frère Jacques ­ ­– “din dan don” – and the Polish version, Panie Janie – “bim bam bom”. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Jacob Grimm was among the first to describe this rule.



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How to use “all”, “whole” and “entire”

The words “all”, “whole” and “entire” are quantifiers. This means they indicate aspects of quantity.

Their usage depends on the type of noun they describe, i.e. singular or plural, countable or uncountable.


“All (of the)” can generally be used with all types of noun, e.g.:

Singular countable nouns

The lessor has leased all of the building.

I waited all morning for a call from London.

Plural countable nouns

They have plans to sell all or a significant portion of the assets.

Have they paid all the invoices from 2015 yet?

Uncountable nouns

Please send us all the documentation you have on the matter.

They have not sent us all the information we asked for.


“Whole (of the)” can be used with singular countable nouns, e.g.:

The lessor has leased the whole building.

We’ve rented the whole of the 5th floor as we’re planning to take on more staff.

“Whole” cannot be used with plural countable nouns or uncountable nouns, e.g.:

Plural countable nouns

They have plans to sell the whole or a significant portion of the assets.

Have they paid the whole of the invoices from 2015 yet?

In the Contractor’s opinion the whole snags were rectified before handover of the building. => all the snags

Uncountable nouns

Please send us the whole documentation you have on the matter.

They have not sent us the whole information we asked for.

The Operator does not guarantee the off-take of the whole electric energy generated at the wind farm. => all the electric energy


“Entire” and “whole (of the)” are synonyms and usually interchangeable. “Entire” is more formal.

“Entire” can be used with singular countable nouns, e.g.:

The lessor has leased the entire building.

We’ve rented the entire 5th floor as we’re planning to take on more staff.

Like “whole”, “entire” cannot be used with plural countable nouns or with most uncountable nouns.

Entire of” is wrong, but “the entirety of (the)” is correct, although it’s wordy and over formal, so I don’t recommend it.

If you need to use “of” or “of the”, you cannot use “entire”, e.g.:


The unemployment rate for entire Poland was 18%.


The unemployment rate for the whole of Poland was 18%.

The unemployment rate for all of Poland was 18%.


You do not have to pay them a bonus for entire 2015.


You do not have to pay them a bonus for the whole of 2015.

You do not have to pay them a bonus for all of 2015.

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Phrasal verbs for business: Z

to zero in

to focus attention: We need to zero in on the client’s exact expectations for this software. Don’t bother with any additional functionality at this stage.

to zip up 

to keep something quiet: Keep this matter zipped up will you? It’s still highly confidential.

to zoom in

to magnify an image: Can you zoom in on that part of the picture? I want to read what the poster says.

to focus attention: Let’s now zoom in on the company’s debt problem.

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Phrasal verbs for business: U, V and W

to use (something) up

to finish or consume all of something: The training budget for this year has been used up, so the company cannot pay for your attendance at the conference.

to usher (something) in

to begin something significant: This merger is a major decision which ushers in big changes for the company and its employees.

to vouch for

to guarantee: I can vouch for him. George is reliable and hard working – he’ll be an asset to your team.

to wade in / into

to get involved in something without much thought: I’m really worried Jack is going to wade in and try to take over the project.

to wade through

to get to the end of something with a lot of difficulty: The new trainee is a hard worker – he waded through all the documentation on the Briggs case in just two days.

to want out

to want to leave an arrangement: As a result of the changes to the law on fracking, BigOilCo wants out. They’re not going to invest in the country after all.

to water (something) down

to make something weaker, less effective: I understand your point of view, but if you don’t water down your proposal a bit, we’re going to get nothing at all.

to weed (something) out

to remove: This organisation is never going to increase efficiency if we don’t weed out some of the older, more expensive employees.

to weigh (something) up

to evaluate: We need to properly weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the expansion plans before we take them any further.

to wind (something) down

to slowly close a business or organisation: The board plans to start winding the company down from January next year.

to wind (something) up

to bring something to an end: That all I wanted to say. Let’s wind up the meeting now and get back to work.

to put things in order: She wound up all her business affairs and moved to an island in the Caribbean.

to arrive in a place or situation as a result of a certain course of action: He borrowed a huge amount of money to establish the business, but it totally failed and he’s wound up with enormous debts that’ll he never be able to pay off.

to write down

to record a reduced asset value: We have been forced to write down the shares after they lost value on Friday’s downturn.

to write (something) off

to record as a loss or expense: As our total fees for the project are over budget we will have to write off all translation costs.

to disregard as unimportant: I couldn’t believe he would just write off my idea without giving it any consideration!


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Phrasal verbs for business: T

to take (something) down

to write / make a note of: This is important – make sure you take it down.

to take in

to hear and understand information: You remember what he said about our marketing strategy? It took me a while to take it in. But when I did, I realised it is brilliant!

to deceive: Do you really believe what the politician said? You shouldn’t allow yourself to be taken in!

to take (somebody / something) on

to employ: The accounting department is going to take on two new employees this month.

to assume responsibility: Do you think you can really take on a mentoring role, on top of your current training commitments?

to take off

to make great progress: Business has really taken off this year, despite the wider economic slowdown.

to take over

to assume control of an organisation: Have you heard that BigCo is planning to take over SmallCo?

Similarly, the compound noun “takeover” refers to the procedure of taking control of an organization.

to start a new job previously occupied by someone else: He takes over as CFO in December, when Harry is planning to retire.

to talk (something) up

to exaggerate: We’ll have to talk up our role in the GenCo merger negotiations, if we’re to have a chance of being instructed by XCo on its merger plans.

to talk (something) over

to discuss: We can talk over your idea later this afternoon when I’m not so busy.

to talk (someone) through

to explain something to someone: As Fiona was away last week, I need someone to talk her through the project.

to team up

to come together as a team: Jack, can you team up with Sandra and Chris and do some research on this idea?

to think (something) over

to consider something carefully: Give me a day or two to think it over. I’ll get back to you on Thursday.

to thrash (something) out

to discuss for a long time until reaching an agreement: They trashed out the negotiations all night and finally came to an agreement at six in the morning.

to throw (something) together

to make or arrange very quickly: Here’s the sales brochure we threw together last night.

to tide (someone) over

to make something last if used carefully: The research grant isn’t a lot of money, but it should be enough to tide us over for a couple of months.

to tip off

to secretly inform the authorities: There’s a rumour that Benny tipped off the tax authorities about BentCo’s offshore accounts.

Similarly, the compound noun “tip-off” refers to information.

to tone (something) down

to make something seem less extreme, more moderate: Can you tone down what Simon said about “skyrocketing sales” in your article? Simon does tend to exaggerate.

to touch upon

to mention: We touched upon that issue in the meeting, but didn’t come to any final decision.

to track (something) down

to find after a long search: Have you tracked down that lease agreement yet? I remember you were looking for it last week.

to trigger (something) off

to cause something to happen: There’s a risk that the course of action you suggest would trigger off all sorts of tax-related problems.

to turn (something) down

to reject: We were really expecting to win the tender, but they turned us down.

to turn up

to make an appearance: It was a total waste of time going to court today. The defendant didn’t even turn up.


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Phrasal verbs for business: S

to saddle (somebody) with

to give some a difficult task or responsibility: It’s going to a nightmare sorting out all that documentation. Apparently Jack’s been saddled with it.

to sail through

to find something very easy: Don’t worry about the final exam. You’ll sail through it.

to save (something) up

to collect or store something (usually money) for future use: Henry’s not going skiing this year. He’s saving up to buy a motor boat.

to scale (something) down

to make smaller than originally planned: Due to the recession, we’re scaling down our operations in Indonesia.

to scale (something) up

to make larger than originally planned: Due to the favourable exchange rate we’re scaling up our operations in Singapore.

to sell (something) off

to sell something, often cheaply because you need the money: Due to falling profits the company is forced to sell off its holdings in Italy.

to sell out

to run out of something because it has all been bought: The snack bar has sold out of cookies.

to give up artistic/creative integrity in return for commercial success: Small companies are often accused of selling out when they’re bought by big firms.

to sell up

to sell a house and move somewhere else or sell a business and do something else: Dave has apparently decided it’s time to sell up and move on.

to shake up

to upset or shock: The news about Deutsche Bank has really shaken up the market.

Similarly the compound noun “shake-up” means a shock.

to shape up

to improve: The market has shaped up a lot in the past year, and we’ve seen corresponding growth in profits.

to shell out

to spend a lot of money on something: I don’t understand why the boss thinks it’s OK to shell out so much money on renovating the conference room.

to shop around

to look for a good deal: If you want to find value-for-money office space you’ll need to spend a lot of time shopping around.

to shut (something) down

to close a business: BigCo was shut down two years ago after a hostile takeover.

to sign up

to subscribe: Ten people have signed up for the weekend training.

to be snowed under

to have a lot of work: We’ve been snowed under all week working on the Geronimo project.

to sort (something) out

to resolve a problem: HR have finally sorted out the problem with Sharon’s work permit. She can start work on Monday.

to spark (something) off

to cause something (usually unpleasant) to happen: The case has sparked off nationwide industrial action.

to stand in for somebody

to act as a replacement: While Douglas is away on sabbatical Andrea will stand in for him.

Similarly, the compound noun “stand-in” means a replacement.

to step down

to resign: Douglas won’t be coming back from his sabbatical. He’s decided to step down.

to step (something) up

to increase: Next year we aim to step up activity in the Middle East.


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