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.
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’.
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.
Many are familiar with the semi-modal ‘used to’ for exressing habits someone used to have in the past, but stopped doing at some point in time.
Classic example: He used to smoke, (but quit some years ago).
However, used to is not the only possible choice for expressing past habits.
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?
Some learners of English struggle with the two participles used as adjectives. In the continuous and perfect verb structures, the main verb occurs in one of the never-changing forms called participles. To give some examples:
(One sentence has no mistakes, some several)
- I have another meeting; I don’t come today.
- Their army is surrounding the countries havens.
- She borrowed her friend some money.
- The Office of Technical Services will continue to overlook technical support and logistics operations in the mission area (example adapted from Glosbe.com)
- Only 25% of the population are boostered.
- I cannot so good English.
- I was very lucky about your present.
- She said her to please be quiet.
- He is a very sympathic person.
- They were not happy to did all this overtime.
- I spoke to a friend of us.
- I haven’t eaten so much lately.
- I haven’t eaten much the whole last week.
- I haven’t eaten anything this week, I’m fasting.
- Colleagues of me say me I should ignore the problem. I do.
- They explain the people the problem.
- People switch off their cameras, because they don’t want to see oneself.
- I’m looking for my keys. I don’t find them.
- The most challenge is to find the best solution for everyone.
- They didn’t lost hope.
- They need help of the colleagues.
- We expect people comes once a week to the company.
- A) How do you feel when people don’t switch on their cameras? B) I don’t care; (or I don’t mind?)
The difference between the two sentences or expressions
I don’t care
I don’t mind
can cause confusion. In this case, a translation into German might help (Germans) understand the differences, but native speakers also sometimes seem confused as this little video demonstrates.
Posted on February 1, 2022
This topic came up rather spontaneously in one of my advanced classes and definitely relates to a more advanced language issue. I wanted to post the topic anyhow. But since we haven’t yet finished with our language exploration, I will divide the post up in two parts. The second part will reveal the grammar point in question and elaborate a little.
In the text from The Case of a Tennis Player you find the sentence:
Judge Anthony Kelly’s ruling that Novak Djokovic be freed to contest the Australian Open overruled the government’s insistence that he should be barred for failing to prove he is exempt from being inoculated against Covid-19.
It was the BE in be freed that was unfamiliar, and the questions asked were: Why not is freed or should be freed?
Let’s do some language exploration to see if we can find out what kind of structure this is, and if we can find some similar patterns. Glosbe.com is a great web site for that.
If you check my concept of The Verb Structure Circle, you will find that it does not deal with modality; it focusses on the four basic forms of the English verb and the various combinations possible among them. An additional page deals with modality.
This post relates to a lesson on modality we recently had in one of my groups and is meant to summarize what we discussed there with some additional elaborations.
I always tell my students to be careful whenever they resort to their native language to understand a new word they have encountered. One big disadvantage of online classes is that you cannot really stop people from ‘googling’ a word they don’t know or are not sure about by checking a translation site (hoping to get a ‘quick fix’ I guess).
Brief summary: the VERB + ing form can cause a lot of confusion when analysed. First of all we are familiar with this form as part of the verb structure commonly know as continuous or progressive like in
We are talking about the continuous form in class at the moment.
Here, structurally, the VERB + ing is combined with a form of the auxiliary verb BE. Whereas the auxiliary BE takes on all the grammatical ‘work’, the VERB + ing never changes. In traditional grammar terminology it is called a participle, the ing participle or ‘present’ participle. Confusion sometimes arises, I believe, from the various semantical functions this participle – the form VERB + ing – can take.
(Revised March, 2020)
In February, I read an article with my classes about business ethics. You can find it on onestopenglish.com, Business Spotlight Worksheet: Money or Morals.
In the introductory paragraphs, the author (Vicky Sussens) describes a group of children playing hide and seek:
It is a beautiful autumn day. The sun shines golden on a small group of children who excitedly agree to play hide and seek. “Whoopee!” calls Sarah, racing off to a tree to hide her eyes. “Count to ten!” shouts Johnny, “That’s the rule.”
Rules are so much part of human interaction that even children can stick to them – especially in a game where there are winners and losers. (p 2)
This passage led to a discussion on the nature of rules, laws, regulations etc. and someone remarked that especially – not even – children insist on following the rules of a game. We all remembered such incidences. Without everybody sticking to the rules, many games would simply be unplayable. Rules are the defining features of a game.
In larger groups, like societies, rules become laws to ensure, in the best of cases, a cooperative and peaceful life among all members of the community. In any case, there are significant reasons for rules and they are always made by humans (‘humanmade’ so to speak).
Do languages have rules too?
If the answer were yes, what would be their nature? What would they be for? And who made them up or developed them?
One of my main issues over the last years of teaching has been with traditional grammar terminology, especially with ‘present’ and ‘past’. To a certain extent I believe in linguistic relativity i.e. that the language we use to describe something has an influence on how we perceive this something. It is not such a surprising insight, if you think about it. When someone refers to an object as table, I will not think of a chair. Well, I actually might think of a chair in association with the table, but that is a different point.
So when a form is called ‘past’ tense, most people – if not all – will believe that the term refers to the meaning of the form. However … Continue reading
This year I have given several of my classes an overview of the English verb system using my concept of the Verb Circle. It seems to be helpful and clarifying. Being a different way of conceptualizing the system, the different perspective is not always immediately accessible.It takes a little time, but, as I have learned through dancing and guitar practice: there is only one way of becoming better at a skill – repeat, repeat, repeat.
So go to the page above and let me know what you think.
Tense and aspect
What are tenses? And why is the answer not: all verb structures? How many tenses does English really have? And does it matter? What is the semantic relationship between verb form and time? What is time? What do we mean when we talk about time? How do we talk about time? And why should this be important?
In my introduction to the concept of the Verb Structure Circle I mentioned the technical definition of ‘tense’. Tense and aspect are two terms crucial to explaining, and in my opinion, understanding, the English verb structure system. I also noted that in many if not most course books of English ALL verb structures are referred to as tenses and, as far as I can tell, ‘aspect’ is rarely used. Perfect and continuous forms are commonly related to as ‘tenses’ though they are actually referred to as ‘aspects’ in linguistic literature.
Note (2016): Some publishers of English course books like MacMillan make the distinction, as I have found in the meantime.
The reason I believe this issue to be important is because I believe understanding the difference between ‘tense’ and ‘aspect’ could help understanding English verb structures’ meaning and function better. Continue reading