Thursday, 29 October 2009


The days are getting shorter and the nights are drawing in; the leaves on the trees are turning yellow, red and brown; and nearly everyone has gone back to work or to school: it’s autumn. In the first of a series of articles English teacher Robert Dennis looks at some of the customs and festivals associated with the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.

Click here to see the vocabulary notes for this article. There are also some comprehension questions on this page at the end of the article (and you can see the answers here).

Autumn or fall?
In British English we call this season autumn; in the United States it’s generally known as fall. If you’re a keen “fashionista” (and here in Milan that covers most people) you will notice that some brands have an autumn/ winter collection, while others opt for a fall/winter one. (The collections, of course, have been presented long before autumn - or fall - arrives). Luckily, spring and summer have the same names on both sides of the Atlantic.

When does autumn actually begin?
There are, in fact, “official” dates for when the seasons start: technically, autumn starts at around the time of the autumnal equinox (21st September). However, most people will probably trust their own senses rather than a bureaucratic calendar to tell them when the seasons change.

The end of summer always seems to come quite quickly. As Shakespeare noted in Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) "summer’s lease hath all too short a date”. Perhaps because it signals the end of the holidays and the return to normality, we all psychologically will the summer to continue; but it never does. For me, seeing shop windows full of new school uniforms, pencil cases and geometry sets is the sign that summer is about to end and the autumn set to begin.

Even though it is closer to the end of the calendar year, autumn marks the beginning of the academic year for schools and universities. It is also the period when politicians return to Westminster after the party conference season for the pageantry of the State Opening of Parliament (when the Queen rides in a gold coach drawn by six white horses and reads a speech written for her by the Prime Minister). This is also when the Jewish New Year begins, the Hindu festival of Diwali is celebrated and the month-long fast of Ramadan occurs.

But maybe the most dramatic change that really marks the end of summer and the start of autumn proper is the end of British Summer Time (BST) when the clocks go back one hour, returning to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT): the sudden, premature curtailing of the day earlier in the evening has the psychological effect of a curfew or blackout being imposed; in effect, the long summer nights have been cut in half and there is little attraction in braving the low temperatures and gloom of the night simply for the benefit of being outside. (Although if you’re in the centre of Milan at this time of year you can sit under a canopy outside one of the swanky bars in Corso Vittorio Emmanule II (a pedestrianised shopping street near the Duomo) and roast in the crimson glow of a patio heater while you sip your coffee – and breathe in other people's cigarette smoke, which (thankfully) is unnecessary if you are inside the bar itself.)

Read the vocabulary notes for this article.

Comprehension questions for Autumn:
How much of this article did you understand? See if you can answer these questions and then look at the answers:
  • What does it mean if you say the nights are drawing in?
  • What are customs?
  • What’s the difference between autumn and fall?
  • When does autumn officially begin?
  • Why (according to the article) does the summer seem to end too quickly?
  • Which events traditionally take place (happen) in the autumn? (Some of these are covered in other areas of the Milan English blog).
Click here now to see the answers to these comprehension questions.

Check out the vocabulary for this article or read the next article in the series: Autumn: Harvest Festival and Thanksgiving

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