Monday, November 30, 2015

English Auxiliaries and Tenses

On Friday we introduced English auxiliary verbs and how they can alter meaning. They do this in a number of fascinating ways, but we'll only be looking at one of these today. There are several verbs that act as auxiliaries in order to alter tense in English, so we're going to take a look at a few of the most commonly used examples: be, have, and will.

Tenses are used to indicate time, just like this
famous clock in London, England.

The verb to be is used to create both the present progressive and past progressive tenses. For example, the sentences "I am doing my homework" and "I was doing my homework" both utilise conjugations of to be in order to indicate progressive tenses. In these examples, to be is used alongside the gerund of to do (doing) to indicate an ongoing action either in the past or the present.


The verb to have is used to indicate actions that are completed. For example, "I have done my homework" in the present perfect or "I had done my homework" in the past perfect. These can then be combined with to be to create perfect progressive tenses such as "I have been doing my homework" in the present perfect progressive or "I had been doing my homework" in the past perfect progressive.


As an auxiliary, will is always used to create future tenses. For example, "I will do my homework". Just like the other examples we saw, it can be combined to create other tenses such as the future perfect, as in "I will have done my homework" and the future continuous "I will be doing my homework".

Friday, November 27, 2015

Introducing English Auxiliaries...

In the English language, there are a number of auxiliary verbs. These so-called "verbs" are often incredibly useful when used in tandem with other verbs. However, they are also often useless without another verb.

Unsurprisingly, most English learners struggle with this strange concept, To make matters worse, linguists also struggle to agree on what auxiliaries are and what they do. Auxiliaries often support other verbs, giving meaning to them without having any real meaning of their own.

Auxiliaries support verbs, just like the
Eiffel Tower's legs support its platforms. 
When verbs are like this, they act as a crutch to other verbs. They coexist. Auxiliaries can rarely be used in isolation, while the verbs they aid would have little or no meaning without their auxiliaries.

So auxiliaries sound really useful, right? You could say that in some cases, but it's difficult to tell some auxiliary verbs apart from their counterparts. Verbs such as be and have are often used as both auxiliaries and verbs in their own right. This means that those learning English can struggle to differentiate their functions.

Auxiliaries can also cause confusion when they're used in contractions. While use of the apostrophe is very common in English, there are other languages which rarely use it. This often leads non-native speakers to confuse certain auxiliaries. For example, take "he's"; it can mean both "he has" and "he is". This is definitely not helpful to people trying to learn the English language.

Auxiliaries can also be used to explain modality. However, it's probably better that we don't start discussing that minefield today...

We'll be back on Monday with more information on auxiliary verbs in English!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Impossible Task of Standardising English

English is a very popular language around the world. Many people speak it natively and many others learn it as a foreign language. However, native speakers can't agree on a single correct way to speak it, so those learning the language are stuck with either choosing which version to learn or being forced to learn one in particular.

There are many variants of English around the world. English is different from continent to continent and from country to country, and there are often different standard versions of English for each. When a language has multiple standard versions like this, it is said to be pluricentric. There are only a few languages in the world that are monocentric, with just one standard version.

If you're learning English, you will probably agree that it would be easier to learn if there weren't so many ways to spell words and say certain things. Is there a way to have a single standard version of English? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Could we use a regulatory body?

English is one of the few languages without a regulatory body that attempts to standardise the language. However, if you have seen the efforts by the Académie française to stop the rise of anglicisms in French, then you know that they often struggle to control languages. I don't think this would bring about a standardisation of the language.

There's nothing wrong with variation!
Could we at least standardise spelling?

English spelling almost became standardised once dictionaries came about. However, this was only on a national level. If you learnt American English spelling, you might have found my use of "standardise" rather than "standardize" quite odd. That said, when people can't be bothered with spelling words correctly, they'll spell them whichever way they like, as long as they can be understood.

The internet and text messaging are fine examples that show why spelling probably won't be standardised. Native speakers rarely write text messages to one another with completely correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Do we even want a standard version of English?

It may be a bit confusing at first for English learners to see that most words can be written in a number of ways, that there isn't ever one correct way to say something, and that native speakers rarely agree about such things, but I also think it's incredibly fun to talk about! I would go so far as to say that we should celebrate the language in all its variety! Even if it is sometimes at the expense of understanding...

Do you have any ideas on how we could create a standard version of English? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

English Prepositions: Right Place, Right Time

If you're learning English prepositions, you might think they're insane... and you'd be right to think so! There's a time and a place for English prepositions, literally.

If you speak English natively, you may have never thought about how we use prepositions such as in, at, or on, but when you're learning English, you need to know how to use them correctly. For native speakers, their use seems obvious, because using the wrong preposition simply sounds wrong.

There are two main groups of English prepositions: prepositions of time, which refer to when something happens, and prepositions of place, which refer to where something happens. One of the most annoying things about English is that a number of these are identical and can be used in both situations.

We're only going to look at three of the prepositions today: atin, and on. These three prepositions can refer to both time and place, making them even more confusing. Rather than looking at them independently, we'll look at how they behave when talking about time and talking about place.

Prepositions of Time

When talking in English about when an event occurs, we like to use at, in, and on. Each preposition has distinct uses. While their exact uses are poorly defined and often vague, there are general rules as to when to use them.

At: The preposition at is always used when we refer to an exact time. For example, at four o'clock.

In: We always use in to talk about time periods such as months and seasons. For example, we would say in July or in summer.

On: We use on for days and dates. Every day from Monday to Sunday will use on. For example, on Tuesday. For dates, the same rules apply, e.g. on November 4 or on the 4th of November.

Prepositions of Place

Prepositions of place can be trickier than prepositions of time. There are a few rules, but like everything in English, there are exceptions.

You could meet "at" any of the buildings "in" this city.
At: When talking about places, at is often used to refer to an exact location or a point. At is often used for buildings and locations in a town such as at the bank, at the cinema, and at home.

In: This preposition is used when talking about enclosed spaces. Generally things that have four walls, a floor, and a ceiling, but not always. However, in can also be used to talk about things like countries, continents, and even planets which are fully contained within a solar system or galaxy.

On: We can use on to talk about surfaces. In English we think of floors a surface, so we would be "on the first floor", for example. We also consider other flat objects, such as paper, to be surfaces. So in English, you can choose a meal which is written "on the menu" as well as look at a picture "on the page".

Prepositions in English can get quite confusing, as there are often exceptions. However, if you follow these general rules, you should get the majority of them right. Like everything else with English, you'll just have to learn all the exceptions - good luck!