Good words: Hole in the wall

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A hole in the wall, in current American English at least, usually refers to a small restaurant that may be dark, not well decorated, and otherwise not fancy. Most people use it in an affectionate way to refer to a place that is small and may not look nice, but has tasty food.

When I search for the phrase “hole in the wall” on, a reviewing website, I get restaurant reviews like “a great hole-in-the-wall kind of place” and “a hole-in-the-wall gem.” As you can see, most people use it positively. At Chowhound, a very popular international food discussion website, there are countless posts looking for good “holes in the wall” all over the world. This is probably because many people think of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant as being authentic, not very crowded, and inexpensive.

If you want to take your friend to your favorite restaurant but you’re afraid it’s a little too old and small, you can say something like “The food is good, but the place is really a hole in the wall. Is that okay?” If your friend loves food, he or she should be happy to go. (But it might not be a good choice for a first date…)

In addition, it’s not a good phrase to use when you talk to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant’s owner. After all, no restaurant owner likes to think of his or her place as small or shabby, even if you mean it as a compliment.

What’s your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant? Mine might be the Chinese deli near my apartment. My husband likes the bittermelon, and I like the sesame balls.

Halloween/Image Test

I’ve recently connected my flickr photo account with this blog account. I’m going to see if posting a photo this way works correctly. If it does, then I can more easily take pictures of daily life topics such as my apartment, cooking, holidays, etc., and share them with you.

You might be thinking “Wait, isn’t this a Halloween picture?” Yes, it is. It’s from last Halloween. Since it’s already late August, though, I’m thinking about this year’s Halloween. We usually have a party, and I’m looking forward to it. I love Halloween, so you’ll hear more from me about that!

If you have additional topics you’d like me to write about, please leave a comment. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to help individual readers on Skype or IM, but I can try to write a blog post on your topic.

Free games from Cambridge

Recently I started using a new textbook with someone I’m tutoring. When I looked up the book’s website, I found out that the publisher (Cambridge) has put lots of free games online. You can practice with these games even if you don’t have the book, or to decide if you’d like to buy the book (naturally, the books are not free!). Although Cambridge is a British publisher, they publish both British English and North American English books. They’ve created a huge database of real North American English language in use, and many of their newer books are based on this source. The language in these books is more authentic and more useful because it’s based on the way people actually talk and write.

  • This is the Level 1 book in the series I’m using with my student now:
    Interchange Student's Book 1 with Audio CD (Interchange Third Edition)

    To play the games, go to the Interchange Arcade. Choose your level from the left. Then click on Unit or Sort by Activity, and choose what you want to practice. The games are simple, but have good graphics and sound. You can practice grammar, listening comprehension, and more.

  • Touchstone is another series from Cambridge:
    Touchstone: Student's Book with Audio CD/CD-ROM, Level 1

    You can try out the Touchstone Arcade. Again, pick your level of difficulty (1-4), and then try the activities. They even have some good listening/pronunciation activities, such as choosing which vowel in a word is silent. There’s a “Report” button that lets you see your progress.

  • I haven’t used the Connect series with any students, because it’s for kids. But if you know a younger learner of English, maybe he or she would enjoy the Connect Arcade.
  • Another book I use is Business Vocabulary in Use. It includes both American and British English, and is meant for self-study (so you can use it on your own). If you use English in your career, I really recommend these books. There are three levels. There’s no game site, which is too bad, because I think businesspeople like to play games, too! Oh, well. The activities in the books are creative and interesting, so give the series a try. Right now, I’m using the Intermediate book:
    Business Vocabulary in Use

If you have a recent English textbook or dictionary from a major publisher, try looking up the title on the publisher’s website. You might find free downloadable worksheets, games, etc. These games are a nice change of pace from using a book all the time!

Academics: Success with Research Papers/Contacting Professors

Today I found a good article about how to do research for university-level papers. Most undergraduates and nearly all graduate students in American universities will write several long “research papers” before they graduate. These papers are big projects, with two important parts: the research and the writing.

Most students are so worried about the writing part that they don’t think about the research part very much. The research is not original research–you don’t do any experiments, dig up any bones, or run any tests. This is “library research.” Many students don’t do well on this part of the paper, because they don’t know where to start, choose sources that are not high-level, or get lost and spend too much time trying to find sources.

Dustin Wax, at, has written a good article on “10 Steps Toward Better Research.” He mentions that it’s important to talk to your professor and to librarians to help you with your topic. I would add that it’s really important to talk to your professor at the beginning, when you’re trying to figure out your topic. Discussions by either e-mail or in person are fine, depending on your and your professor’s preferences.

Another article that I read recently said that American students at American universities and international students and American universities talk to their professors differently. American students tended to e-mail their professors specific questions, such as “Do you think the question of (blah blah blah) would be a good paper topic? Or would it be better for me to focus more on (blah blah blah)?” On the other hand, international students asked more general questions such as “What kind of topic should I pick?”

Although the international students probably thought of their questions as more polite, very general questions are difficult for professors to answer over e-mail. The result was that the American students received their answers quickly, but it took a long time for the international students and the professors to finish their e-mail conversations. Because of this, the American students had more time to work on their papers.

The more general question would be fine for an in-person talk with the professor. However, the international students in the article also had problems setting up a time by e-mail to visit their professor in person. The American students checked the office hours on the syllabus, and then e-mailed the professor to say things like “I can’t come during your office hours, but do you have any free time Tuesday or Thursday afternoons? I could come in any time between 2 PM and 4 PM.” This lets the professor respond with a specific time, such as “How about Thursday at 3 PM?” or suggest an alternate such as “I’m busy then, but we could meet 15 minutes before class on Wednesday.”

The international students again were more general, asking questions such as “When can I go to your office?” Again, this probably seemed more polite to the students than giving a suggestion. The result, though, was that it took many e-mails and more time for the professor and the international student to arrange their meeting.

This is not to say that it’s always better to be more direct. Also, the local way of doing things (American, in this case) is not always the best way to do something. Still, it’s a good idea to be aware of how things like this are done wherever you are, whether it’s the US, Canada, Australia, etc. Even if you feel a little uncomfortable using the local style, it might be able to help you succeed in school.