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 intended as the first in a series on the 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.
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.
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?
I always like going through the Oscar nomination ballot sheet that lists all categories and films. It offers great general vocabulary practice, not just specifically film related. Going through the titles, finding out if anyone has already watched some of the nominated films, looking at trailers and synopsies of the films – all this I always find quite enjoyable even if – in most cases – we haven’t seen so many of the films.
One of my favorite TED talks is Dan Buettner’s How to Live to be 100. In this talk, he introduces us to places where a relatively high number of people live to be a hundred years old and more. He and his team, in cooperation with National Geographic, went to find out why these areas they called Blue Zones had more centennarians than others.
Below you find the link to a text that discusses changes in companies’ or employers’ attitudes towards the working conditions they offer their employees. How voluntary or not these changes are is a question worth discussing.
During the last two years, a phenomenon called the Great Resignation has been spreading. I believe it started in the US, but also seems to be affecting companies in other countries. It assumedly started during the pandemic and seems to have been triggered by the radically enforced changes in peoples’ lives. Their is a wikipedia entry devoted to the phenomenon Great Resignation that could be read in connection with the text below.
Some of the questions worth discussing in connection with the Great Resignation:
The article below offers a guide to digital tools and platforms the author considers safe to be used. It is free to be shared, which is why I have copied it onto my blog. The link leads you to the original on the internet.
Update March, 2
I learned, in the meantime, the function of this little book-shaped icon some browsers have ;-). So there was not need to copy the article. All you need to do is click on the little book, and – voila – all ads are gone. (I really didn’t know that and was obviously not curious enough to try it out. The button next to the book – the star+ – I use all the time.)