Verbs… Some musings on grammar
This post is slightly different from my usual posts. What if we were to think of grammar for a while? More specifically, I’d like to write about verbs in English and how to teach them. Now, if you’re not into grammar, I hope I’ll see you around for my next posts. If you’re curious about one of the things I may ponder grammar-wise, I hope you find this enjoyable and worthy of your time.
There are only two verb tenses in English
Now this is an issue that you may have a different opinion on. As a matter of fact, a quick look at two different books might give you a different perspective on the matter. Huddleston and Pullum (1) will tell you that you have two primary tenses – present and preterite – and two secondary tenses – perfect and non-perfect (p. 116). However, if we look at Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (2), they are very objective in saying that there are only two tenses in English – present and past (p. 109). In order to clear things up, a look at a third book. Biber (3) agrees that, “from a structural point of view, English verbs are inflected for only two tenses: present and past” (p. 453). Once I started to look at language teaching as a career, I’ve taken a keen interest on learning about the subtleties of the language, which I believe to be important for teachers. Mind you, I don’t think it’s necessary for students to learn grammar – or as much grammar – as teachers, but teachers should not simply choose to over-simplify something believing such over-simplification will end up helping students. I’ve found out that making what a tense is clear might be helpful, but only if we deal with the second point, which is…
The tense and aspect system
If students are exposed to this concept, in particular older students who are able to grasp abstract concepts more easily, it is my experience that things end up being a lot clearer. This opinion is also stated in Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (2) when they assert that:
Over the years, the important distinction between tense and aspect has become blurred. Instead, English has been said to have “12 tenses”. […] We feel that if the natural division between tense, which relates to time, and aspect, which has to do with the internal structure of the action occurring at any time, are dealt with separately at first, the system that results from their subsequent combination is much easier to see and, therefore, easier to learn. (p. 110)
The point is that we spend years and years talking to students about the form of the verbs in English, and we may even contrast them at times, but we don’t really get to the point with them. What I’ve learnt is that we don’t have to dumb things down for students and simply assume they won’t be able to do the math on their own. What if we tried to find ways to teach them about the core meaning of each one of the different aspects of English verb? Once they understand the meaning of each one of the aspects, it’s quite easy for them to understand the use of the verb forms when they match tense and aspect on their own.
Putting it all together
This kind of teaching, in my view, should be done from as early as possible. Not only will you be treating your students fairly by not dumbing things down, but you’ll be giving them a chance to realize that they are able to understand, for instance, the continuous forms – present, past and future – pretty much at the same time. When we don’t do this, I’m under the impression that they struggle a lot trying to understand each one of the forms in isolation as they feel they are learning something from scratch. This is exactly where the problem lies. By being introduced to the core meaning of each one of the aspects, and being aware of the idea of time (I honestly can’t see people having problems with this), students may find it quite easy to put the sentences together on their own.
One nagging point
This might be an issue for me only, but I really dislike seeing exercises where students are asked to “fill in the blanks with the present perfect tense”, or “fill in the gaps with the appropriate verb tense”, but what students actually have to do is use a combination of tense and aspect, i.e., a verb form. The question that I ask myself is whether the teacher who’s created such exercise: a) doesn’t share the view of the whole tense x aspect explanation above; b) doesn’t know that there is such a thing; or c) knows about it, agrees with it, but doesn’t believe that students are capable of understanding the matter.
If the answer to my question above is a), I’m actually fine with it. I mean, if you just don’t agree with this or that, and as long as you are able to demonstrate that you’re right, then I’m fine with it. What you shouldn’t do is, on the grounds of “my students don’t need to know this”, justify your lack of knowledge.
Why bother, anyway?
“But why exactly would anyone spend his days thinking about such matters when all that matters is communication?” some might be asking right now. I believe that grammar is a point to be taught in any language teaching environment. This doesn’t mean
that grammar should be the goal of teaching, nor that a focus on form alone is sufficient. The goal of the communicative movement – communicative competence – embraces more than just grammar, and implies a focus on meaning as well. It may be that communicative competence is best achieved through communicating, through making meanings, and that grammar is a way of tidying these meanings up. If so, the teacher’s energies should be directed mainly at providing opportunities for authentic language use, employing grammar as a resource rather than an end in itself. As Leibniz is supposed to have said: ‘A language is acquired through practice; it is merely perfected through grammar.’ (Thornbury, S. How to teach Grammar, Longman, 1999 – p. 25)
If we care about meaning, why do we resist teaching our students about the meaning of the one things they seem to struggle so much with in learning English? We do we find it so hard to look at grammar not as a multitude of rules, but as something that will end up fostering communication and not hindering it? The key is knowing how to address it, I suppose. So, what is your view on the matter?
1. Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CUP, 2002.
2. Celce-Murcia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D., The Grammar Book, Second Edition, Heinle & Heinle, 1999,
3. Biber, D. et al, Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Pearson Longman, 1999.
4. Thornbury, S., How to teach grammar, Longman, 1999.