Eight Idioms You Can Learn In a New York Minute

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, American words used in media, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture, Online English lessons, Tutoring
Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_york_times_square-terabass.jpg

Here are some idioms with the word “minute.”  All of these are fun to learn and used frequently in conversation, on the news, and in the workplace.

I. “Gimme a minute!” 

You walk into a pharmacy. There’s no line for the pharmacist, but she’s the only one behind the counter and she’s busy preparing prescriptions and answering the phone. Finally, you tell her you are there to pick up a prescription your doctor called in.  

Gimme a minute,” she says as she looks it up on her computer. “Okay. It’s going to take about twenty minutes. Can you wait?

In English we “take time.”  How much time will it take? How long will it take? These are common questions we ask when we need to know how long we will need to wait.

“Gimme a minute” is the smashed up way we say “Give me a minute.” Many people will use this pronunciation when speaking informally.

You might hear “Gimme a minute” when you are on the phone and someone needs to quickly take another call or find some information. You might hear it when you are paying for merchandise in a store and the cashier needs to look up a price.  People often say this when they feel someone is forcing them to hurry, as in this example below:

“Are you ready?” Jack asked. “The taxi is waiting. We need to leave for the airport.”

Gimme a minute!” Susan answered. “I need to double-check to make sure I turned off the stove.”

To “double-check” is a commonly used expression. It means to check something again.  Here’s an example:  

 “Did you remember to pack your reading glasses?

“Yes. I think so. Gimme a minute. Let me double-check.”


II. “Wait a minute.

“Wait a minute” is sometimes used in a similar way to “gimme a minute.”  Person A is telling Person B that he or she needs to “wait” a short period of time for something.  However, usually “wait a minute” is used in a different way.  It is often used as an interjection. It can be used to indicate that you are questioning something someone just told you. You are demanding a brief pause or “wait” while you process what you just heard. Often this is something that is upsetting or that doesn’t seem correct.  

Here are some examples:

“Wait a minute. Are you telling me that all the money is gone?”

“Wait a minute.  Are you serious?”

“Wait a minute. Are you telling me that Nancy isn’t inviting me to her wedding?”

“Wait a minute. Are you firing me?”


III. “A New York Minute”

New York has a reputation as a fast-paced city. “A New York Minute” is an expression used to indicate that something will be done very quickly.  

“I’d like a coffee to go.”

“I’ll have it for you in a New York minute.”


IV. “Just a minute.”

Sometimes “just a minute” has the interjectional quality of “wait a minute.” Like “wait a minute” It can be used to tell someone to stop, to explain what they mean, especially when you suspect something isn’t right. 

“Just a minute. I think you forgot to give me my change.”

However, usually it is similar to “gimme a minute,” but it sounds less like a demand and more like a courteous reply. It’s short for “I’ll just be a minute,” indicating that one is trying to get to your request as quickly as possible. In short, while both  “gimme a minute” and “just a minute” are used in the same way, “just a minute” sounds a little more polite, and indicates that the request will be taken care of within a very short period.

Customer (on phone): “Hi. It’s Jenna Smith. I’m returning Ms. Bishop’s call.”

Receptionist: “Just a minute, please. I’ll put you through.”

Customer to sales clerk: Excuse me. Could you help me? I’m looking for something in size 6.”

Sales clerk: Just a minute. I’ll be right there.”


V. “last minute”

Think of the “last minute” as being the minute before an event starts.  Imagine that at that “last minute” you are told that the order of the speakers has changed. That would be what we call “a last minute change.” Usually the phrase is used more figuratively. The time period for the change is usually before the literal last minute, but it is late to be making changes.

We use this quite often in a number of contexts. Here are two examples:

John’s brother was going to act as his “best man” at the wedding, but he tested positive for COVID the day before the wedding, so John’s best friend stepped in at the last minute.

When I found out there was an emergency with my mother, I went to the airport hoping there would be a last-minute cancellation and I’d be able to get a flight home.


VI. “Up to the minute.”

“Up to the minute” is an expression you are likely to hear in a news report or an update. An “up to the minute” report goes “up to” the present moment.  

“In a moment, we’ll be bringing you an up to the minute report on the hurricane’s progress.”

“Here is our latest up to the minute reporting on today’s election.”


VII. “It’s been a minute.”

“It’s been a minute” is an expression that has gained popularity in recent years. It’s usually used as an understatement. When we say, “It’s been a minute,” we don’t mean it’s been 60-seconds or even that it’s been a short time. We actually mean it’s been  an unspecified long time. It’s similar to the phrase: “It’s been a while.” We might continue the thought with “since.” Here are some examples:

Tommy:  Mark, is that you?

Mark: Tommy! I’d recognize you anywhere. You haven’t changed!

Tommy: Well, it’s been a minute, but I knew who you were too.

From context, we can see in the above example that it has probably been several years since Mark and Tommy have seen each other.

“How long has it been since you left?”

“I don’t remember exactly, but it’s been a minute. 

I’ve been on this diet for months, but I think I’m going to order dessert. It’s been a minute, and I deserve something sweet!


VIII. “When you get a minute…” 

“When you get a minute” is similar to the phrase “When you get a chance.” Both phrases are used when we want someone to do something, but it doesn’t have to be done immediately.  Here are some examples:

“When you get a minute, I’d like you to look at those resumes for Pete’s old position and tell me what you think.”

“When you get a minute, could you drop my office? We need to talk about something in person.”

Just remember: If someone uses the phrase “When you get a minute…” it does NOT mean that the request is unimportant and can be ignored.  It means that you don’t need to stop what you are doing at the moment. You can wait until you have a minute. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you have questions about English lessons, please go here. I’d love to hear from you. 


Word of the Day: Languishing

Posted on Posted in American English Grammar and Usage, American words used in media, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL Current Events, Online English lessons

Languishing is a word that probably hit its heyday a year ago.  You heard it and saw it on social media, news articles, and in everyday conversation.

Wait a second. Were we actually having conversations a year ago? On Zoom, maybe?

To languish per the Merriam-Webster dictionary (this teacher’s go-to dictionary) means:

to be or become feeble, weak, or enervated: Plants languish in the drought.

to be or live in a state of depression or decreasing vitality: He languished in prison for ten years

to become dispirited

to suffer neglect: The bill languished in the Senate for eight months

Shall we unpack that?

A cadaver (dead body) decays after death. Languishing is a kind of decay that happens while we are still alive.

Remember, in English we use the gerund (ing form) to express the name of the action. Languishing has become the word we use to express the feeling that many of us have during the prolonged pandemic.  It seems to encompass not only the hopelessness — the idea that this might never end, but also the resignation — the thought that though life goes on, it just won’t be as much fun.

Maybe at the beginning of the pandemic, we were more active and disciplined, going to online exercise classes, learning a new language, taking up painting, but over time we’ve become lazy.  We miss family get-togethers, hanging out worry free in a bar or cafe.  Even as the numbers go down, we live in a constant state of anxiety.

While most of us have returned to “normal” life, there are still profound changes. Many older people or people with lower-immunity still need to be cautious. Those of us with those people in our lives need to be cautious as well. Some people are still suffering with long-COVID. And many of us live in places where the number of cases is still high.  Here in New York City, some businesses demanded people return to the office — at least part time, until new cases turned up, and the plans were scrapped. 

All of this up and down — all these changes — have an impact. There are few COVID deaths, less chance that you’ll wind up in the hospital or even seriously ill if you’ve been vaccinated and boosted, but still the uncertainty exists. We can’t escape it. Even on a vacation, you face the stress of taking a test before you can come home.  

I wonder about my students. When the pandemic began, I was already seeing most of them online. Switching to 100% online lessons was easy.  But over time when work and recreation were all remote, More people wanted shorter lessons. We get tired of being in front of screens all day!  I have fewer students these days and more cancellations. Is it the recession?  Is it simply that with the labor shortage, people with jobs are less afraid of losing them so they don’t feel they “must” improve their English to remain competitive? Or is it something else — a feeling that none of this matters, that none of our actions are important, so why not skip the English class, or the Zoom Yoga, or the Peloton session, and just relax on the couch for a while?  

What keeps me going is the students who are still showing up. And I’ll tell you why:  I am blessed to be working with some highly successful people. They don’t have time to languish! Even in the middle of the pandemic, they were giving 100% to their jobs, and families, as well as doing things that were important to them like continuing their English language journey.  It was their discipline, drive, and optimism that helped pull me through. Their resilience was contagious, even though it was remote.

(If you would like to read more about “languishing,” here is a link to a New York Times article about the phenomenon. If you would like more information about English lessons. Please visit the home page to get started.) 



Fun with Phrasal Verbs: Phrasal Verbs with Hold

Posted on Posted in American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture, Online English lessons, Phrasal Verbs, Tutoring

The verb “hold” in English is a commonly used irregular verb. If you are unsure of the meaning, you can check out the definitions here. Below is a chart showing how the conjugation:

Present tense: I/They/You/We hold  He/She/It holds

Past tense: held

Past participle: held

Here are a few examples of “hold” in sentences:

The happy couple walked down the street holding hands.

Before the accident, he was driving carelessly, with one hand holding the steering wheel, while the other held his phone.

The cat likes to be petted, but he doesn’t like to be held. (passive voice example)

When you hold the baby, make sure to support his head.

We also use “hold” in another less literal sense where it is similar to “keep.”  In traditional wedding vows, the bride and groom each repeat the phrases: “to have and to hold from this day forward.”

Hold is often used when speaking on the phone.  We put people “on hold” while we talk to someone else on a different phone line. Example:  “I have another call coming in. I have to take it. Can I put you on hold for a minute?”

Sometimes if you are expecting a call from someone important, an assistant will call you first and ask if you can “hold” for the person. The assistant is asking you to wait patiently for the person to come to the phone. 

There are several phrasal verbs used with hold.  Today we’ll examine: hold on, hold up, hold off, hold out, hold back, hold in and hold overFor the native speaker, there are clear distinctions, but it might be hard to grasp the differences for non-native speakers.

(Quick review:  A phrasal verb is a verb with an added element — usually a preposition or adverb — which changes or modifies the meaning of that verb.)

Click to see more. (more…)

The Most Confusing Phrasal Verb in English!

Posted on Posted in American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Online English lessons, Phrasal Verbs, Tutoring

English has tons of idioms and phrasal verbs which are difficult for non-native speakers to master. Phrasal verbs are especially tough because they often have more than one meeting, or the meaning is idiomatic and difficult to explain. I love to teach the difficult ones! One of my favorites is “set off.” “Set off” seems to mean the opposite of what we think it should mean. 

Take a look at the examples below. Can you guess the meaning from the context clues provided?

My house guests forgot to turn off the burglar alarm, and accidentally set it off when they entered through the back door. The sound was very loud and woke the neighbors, who called the police.

Adding the new chemical to the formula set off a chain reaction that led to an explosion. Fortunately, no one in the lab was injured.

The terrorist tried to set off a bomb in his vest by pulling on a cord. Many people would have been killed or injured, but fortunately the bomb’s fuse didn’t ignite, and no one was hurt.

Something must have set Bill off.  When he came in this morning he seemed normal, but later that day he suddenly became upset and yelled at his assistant. Then he announced he left the office abruptly. Did he get some bad news or something?

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t set off fireworks in their backyard. Fireworks are loud and dangerous, not to mention illegal. 

Try this: If you think you understand the meaning of “set off” in the above examples,  substitute another word or phrase for set off:

My house guests accidentally ________________________  the burglar alarm.

Adding the new chemical to the formula ________________ a chain reaction that led to an explosion.

The terrorist tried to ________________ a bomb in his vest by pulling on a cord. 

Something must have ____________  Bill.  

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t  ____________fireworks in their backyard. 

Okay, now that you’ve tried it, I’ll give you an explanation with some possible substitutions

My house guests forgot to turn off the burglar alarm, and accidentally set it off when they entered through the back door.

The burglar alarm STARTED when they entered..

Adding the new chemical set off a chain reaction that led to an explosion.

The new chemical STARTED or CAUSED  a chain reaction.

The terrorist tried to set off a bomb 

The terrorist tried to START the process to make the bomb explode. He tried to IGNITE the bomb.

Something must have set Bill off. 

Something must have CAUSED  Bill TO BECOME ANGRY or upset. Something must have STARTED or IGNITED his anger.

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t set off fireworks in their backyard. 

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t IGNITE fireworks. I wish my neighbors wouldn’t CAUSE fireworks TO EXPLODE.

In all of the above examples to “set off” means to “start” something in the sense of  “ignite” or “spark.”

This can seem counterintuitive because we think of the word “off” as stopping a reaction, not starting one. For example: We turn off the light. We shut off the oven. We complete a journey and get off the bus. However, “off” is a word that can be used in many ways and with different meanings. Context is everything in English.

In all of the examples above “set off” has a similar “explosive” meaning. However, sometimes we use “set off” in a less explosive way. We can use it simply in the sense of starting a journey or trip. Here are some examples:

We set off early in the morning because we wanted to arrive with enough time to enjoy the day.

I’m setting off for Mexico later in the week. The ship sails on Thursday.

When I set off  for work that day, I had no idea that everything in my life was about to change. 

In the examples above, the phrasal verb “head off” could be substituted, as that also means to start a journey.  However, we cannot use “head off” in the previous examples where “set off” means to start in the sense of ignite or spark. “Head off” also has a second meaning. We use “head off” to mean to avoid something by going in a different direction. Let’s look at an example of both of these phrases in the same paragraph:

Bob and John seemed to set each other off. Their personalities were just very different and they didn’t get along with each other or work well together. In order to head off problems, their supervisor placed them on different teams so they never worked directly with each other.

In the above example “set off” is used in the negative sense of igniting some kind of friction. The men didn’t get along. Therefore, the supervisor wanted to “head off” or “avoid” problems, and kept the men separated. The words cannot be used interchangeably. 

There is also a third common use of “set off.” We use “set off” to describe the way one element brings attention to or shows a contrast with another element. We use it in descriptions of people, decorations, designs, etc. Here are two examples:

Jenna looks great in that blue shirt. The light blue color sets off the deep blue of her eyes. It’s a fantastic color for her. You really notice her eyes when she wears it!

There are several lamps in the painting. The light from the lamps is set off against the otherwise bleak scene of war and destruction.The light symbolizes hope and contrasts with the chaos surrounding it.

You are likely to encounter “set off” in everyday speech, as well as in books, movies, and television shows.

I hope you found this lesson on “set off” useful. Feel free to leave comments or questions. If you are interested in taking English lessons with me, please get in touch!


Getting Around – What Foreigners Get Wrong About The NY Subway System

Posted on Posted in American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture, Online English lessons

(This article is for intermediate and advanced English language students. The words in boldface have definitions attached  or added in parenthesis.  Please pay attention to the use of “get”  and “run” throughout the post.)

Most of my students live in the New York metropolitan area. Many of them have to take the subway to get around. My students are a sophisticated bunch. Most speak several languages, and have lived in big cities with subway systems before.  However, they find New York’s system particularly mysterious and difficult to maneuver. They will ask for directions in a way that may seem perfectly logical given their experience with other subway systems, but will leave New Yorkers completely flummoxed, confused, befuddled, and bewildered!

Our subway system is one of the world’s oldest, and one of the largest. It grew from several private companies, and remnants of that history still exist. We have our own vocabulary for understanding our system and our own way of asking others for help. In this post, I’ll help you learn how to ask a New Yorker for directions on the subway, and how we think about and navigate the system.

But first, if you are looking for a good “how to” guide to the system, here’s a link to a good overview put together by one helpful rider.

My tips are less comprehensive, and based more on the feedback, questions, and occasional arguments,  I’ve had with students. These tips are meant to help people who aren’t from New York, and whose first language isn’t English. These tips are helpful whether you are here for a short stay (as a tourist) or for the long haul (more…)

The Old Bait and Switch

Posted on Posted in Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Online English lessons, Tutoring

Let’s try something different. I’ve created an audio file, so you can listen to this lesson as you follow the transcript below. Words in boldface are explained in a short glossary beneath the text.

“Bait and switch” is a commonly used expression. It comes up in conversation, and it’s mentioned sometimes in newspaper and magazine articles. In fact, if you google it, you’ll find plenty of references!


Welcome to New York! Now learn English and find a job!

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Tutoring

(Quick Disclaimer: I am NOT a lawyer and this blog post does not constitute legal advice. If you have questions about your visa or ability to work in the United States, consult an immigration attorney!)

Congratulations! Your spouse works for a multinational company or organization and just got a job transfer to New York or maybe Los Angeles, or another major American city. You are excited about the prospect of spending a year or maybe more in a foreign country.

However, there’s one little problem….
While this is a great career opportunity for your better-half, it might not be so great for your career. Maybe, if you are very lucky, your company will allow you to stay on and work remotely, but with the time difference between the US and Europe, that might not work out so well. Chances are you are going to have to take a long leave or quit your job.

But there’s some good news: You can work legally in the United States!