With one of my groups, we never got past the warmer question that asked us to put a list of six cities into a ranking order of ‘greenness’. The discussion triggered by this task was about why these cities had made the list, who had come up with the ranking and, most importantly, what were the criteria for being considered a green city.
Below you find a list of sentences with mistakes learners of English have made or commonly make. Some are more common than others, but all of them touch upon certain ‘problem’ areas, though not all of them are so wrong that they would lead to misunderstandings in communication.
I regularly add to the list, therefore it has gotten pretty long. I would not recommend going through all sentences at once.
This is a text passage from Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Find the examples for ‘past perfect’ and ‘used to’. Descibe their use. What is the prevalent form most verbs are in in this passage?
The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means – it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye. The only person for whom the house was in any way special was Arthur Dent, and that was only because it happened to be the one he lived in. He had lived in it for about three years, ever since he had moved out of London because it made him nervous and irritable. He was about thirty as well, tall, dark haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio, which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too – most of his friends worked in advertising.
On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent’s house for what was to be that last time. It hadn’t properly registered yet with Arthur that the council wanted to knock it down and build a bypass instead. At eight o’clock on Thursday morning Arthur didn’t feel very good. He woke up blearily, got up, wandered blearily round his room, opened a window, saw a bulldozer, found his slippers, and stomped off to the bathroom to wash. Toothpaste on the brush – so. Scrub. Shaving mirror – pointing at the ceiling. He adjusted it. For a moment it reflected a second bulldozer through the bathroom window. Properly adjusted, it reflected Arthur Dent’s bristles. He shaved them off, washed, dried, and stomped off to the kitchen to find something pleasant to put in his mouth. Kettle, plug, fridge, milk, coffee. Yawn. The word bulldozer wandered through his mind for a moment in search of something to connect with. The bulldozer outside the kitchen window was quite a big one. He stared at it. ‘Yellow,’ he thought and stomped off back to his bedroom to get dressed. Passing the bathroom he stopped to drink a large glass of water, and another. He began to suspect that he was hung over. Why was he hung over? Had he been drinking the night before? He supposed that he must have been. He caught a glint in the shaving mirror. ‘Yellow,’ he thought and stomped on to the bedroom.
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: 42nd Anniversary Edition (S.3-4). Pan Macmillan. Kindle-Version.
During the pandemic, the topics of work-life balance, healthy work environments, satisfying work etc. came even more into focus than they had before. Work environments underwent dramatic changes in various lockdown situations. Whereas in many jobs or professions, employees and workers had no choice as to still go to their respective work places, others, especially office workers, experienced working from home as a new normal.
Towards the end of the pandemic or the emergency situations, discussions intensified about how people wanted to work: which changes induced by the pandemic situation would we like to keep, where would we like to go back to how things were before – if at all, what did we truly miss etc. In short: how do we want to work?
Major mistakes are mistakes that matter. Where what you say (wrongly) can really lead to a misunderstanding (worst case), violates the basic structural regularity of the language, or is simply not the correct form to use or right thing to say because it has a different meaning from the one intended.
Analysing and discussing these mistakes can help understand the semantics of grammatical forms, especially verb structures. In the case of vocabulary, it can help improve your active use of words and phrases (and I find talking about words and their meanings enjoyable, but that might just be me).
This post is the first in a new category: Basic Principles of English. My focus in the beginning will be on verb structures. I will provide examples and exercises (which is why you will also find these posts under the category Lessons and lesson activities). Each post will focus on one point. Sometimes the exercise will consist of only one small task so that the topic need not take up a whole session.
Check the texts below. Tip: Before you start filling in appropriate forms, note what kind of text you are dealing with. Is it a technical text, non-fiction, opinion, part of a novel etc. Certain text types tend to be structured and written in a certain way. In a novel, for instance, a narrator tells a story mostly using a past tense form. Nevertheless, the story-telling feels immediate or present, which is why you would find something like: All was quiet tonight – ‘tonight’ suggesting present time. For this reason, some call the past tense form in stories ‘literary past tense’: though using the past tense, the story still feels as if it is unfolding ‘now’ while you are reading (see also: Tenses in fiction writing).
Below you find an adapted and abbreviated version of an article from the New York Times reported by Andrew Higgins. He describes the situation of many young Russian men who are trying to escape their home country in a desperate attempt to evade being pulled into a war they do not support.
I would like to share a little exerpt from a book that tries to encourage learners of any given language not to be afraid of exposure to original material even in their early stages of learning.
Language is one of the most complex systems our minds manage to master. We should or can trust our brains to acquire a lot of skills in ways we do not always understand or are able to describe. (And that we cannot or need not always control).
In the UK and several other countries, research institutes and companies are trying out different ways of working. One such project is the trial run of a four day week instead of the traditional five. Below you find an adaptation of the text from The Guardian, supplemented with a little gap-filling exercise.
One of the research institutes involved in this project is the thinktank Autonomy. On their website you find a little video titled Change the Week.
A grammar question that comes up quite frequently in English classes with German speakers concerns the semantic differences between the perfect and past tense forms in English and German. Especially the perfect forms cause confusion. Structurally, they look very similar, but their semantics or the way they are used differ.
I have been trying to find out more about the history behind this phenomenon. German uses the perfect form to speak about things past, English uses the simple past for this. Learners of English, especially German native speakers, struggle with this distinction.
Learners of German most likely struggle with the fact that German has two forms to refer to ‘things past’. One is prevalently used in writing, the other in spoken language.
I’ve been going through my collection of material – something I do every once in a while – and came across these little film synopses you find below. In the past, each of my course participants would get one to read out loud and for the others to guess. Simple little exercise, but I’m always relieved that there is at least a little common cultural ground we share, even if only some classic movies we all seem to have seen.
Tolerance for uncertainty does not seem to be one of humanities biggest strengths. We sometimes seem more willing to believe lies when asserted or claimed strongly (and grammatically) as facts (thereby becoming truth) than live with an answer like ‘It depends’.
I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with the phrase work-life balance, as it seems to assume that work is not life. However, maybe that’s the honesty of the phrase, as work often isn’t.
Recently, due to the pandemic, the topic of work quality has gained a lot of attention. Depending on their line of work, people seem to have become less tolerant towards unsatisfactory to bad working conditions, underappreciation, bad pay or all together. The Great Resignation, people quitting their jobs for various reasons in droves in the last two years, stands as witness to this.
Very often, the verb system of English, and maybe also of other languages, is described under the aspect of time. In German, this even finds its expression in the grammar term ‘Zeiten’ for different verb structures. Though not completely incorrect, this creates a focus that places too much emphasis on ‘time’, thereby giving learners of English a distorted perspective on the various aspects and/or meanings of verb structures.
Do you know what a finial is? In one of the Spotlight issues from 2020, Judith Gilbert, writer, editor and translator, wrote a little column titled ‘Words for Nerds’. Here she lists a number of words most people probably never heard of, and which demonstrate that it is impossible to know all the words of any language. They are all nouns denoting special little items of everyday life. See if you can find out what they are with the help of internet images. Do you know the term for the thing in your own native language?