Saturday, March 24, 2012

Constructing Simple Tenses

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Verb Forms
Part 3: Constructing Verb Tenses

The simple tenses are your "go-to" tenses. Unless you have a specific reason to use the complex tenses (progressive and/or perfect) use the simple tense.

I'll go into more detail about when to use which tense in the next post.

Simple Present Tense

I'll cover The simple present tense is used for three primary purposes, in descending order of importance:
  1. To make statements that are generally or universally true: I attend college. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. To make statements about the future that are planned or expected with near certainty: The plane leaves at 3:30 PM tomorrow. My son starts college next Fall.
  3. You can also use the simple future tense for these statements.
  4. To follow "story time" in a present tense narrative: Indiana Jones walks into the cafe. He sees Belloc.
The simple present tense is almost never used to make statements about what is happening right now; the present progressive tense is usually used for that purpose.

To construct the simple present tense:
  • If the subject (who or what is performing the action) is the third person singular (he/she/it), use the second form ('s' form) of the verb.
  • Otherwise, use the first form (root form) of the verb
I write a blog. [note the root form here]
You write a blog.
He writes a blog. [note the second form here]
We write a blog.
They write a blog.

I walk to school.
You walk to school.
He walks to school.
We walk to school.
They walk to school.

"Be" is a special case:

I am a blogger.
You are a blogger.
He is a blogger.
We are bloggers.
They are bloggers.

Memorize "Be".

Simple Past Tense

The simple past tense is used for two primary purposes, in descending order of importance:
  1. To follow "story time" in a past tense narrative: Indiana Jones walked into the cafe. He saw Belloc.
  2. To make statements about events that happened in the past, without emphasizing their duration and completion (see the progressive and perfect tenses later): I attended college last year. I boiled water for my coffee yesterday.
Always use the third form (past form) of the verb to construct the simple past tense, regardless of the person and number of the subject.

I wrote a post [yesterday].
He walked to school.

The simple future tense is used to make statements about what is expected and planned for the future.

The simple future tense (almost) always uses the helper verb "will" and the first form (root form) of the main verb (even "be" is regular here):

I will write a post [tomorrow].
He will walk to school.
They will be lawyers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Verb Forms

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Verb Forms

Except for "to be", verbs have at most five forms. Strong verbs (mostly Anglo-Saxon in origin) have different spellings for all five forms. For example, the strong verb "write" has five different forms:
  1. write: root form. This is the form you'll find as the main entry in the dictionary
  2. writes: present conjugated form: except for "be", this form is constructed by adding 's' or 'es' to the end of the root form, changing a final 'y' to an 'i'.
  3. wrote: simple past tense form
  4. written: passive/"past" participle form (pa. pple.)
  5. writing: "present" participle form (pr. pple.); this form is always constructed by adding 'ing' to the end of the root form, dropping the silent 'e' if present.
There are patterns to the strong verbs, but I think it's easier to just memorize them. Regular verbs (mostly French in origin) usually have the same form for the past tense and past participle. For example:
  1. walk
  2. walks
  3. walked
  4. walked
  5. walking
Remember that tense names don't match all that well with actual time. In fact, I usually refer to the forms by number when I'm teaching English to non-native speakers, including Deaf students. But it's still necessary to know their names, because the dictionary refers to them by name. If you look up the root form of the verb in the dictionary, you'll usually see the past tense, past participle and present participle along with the main entry (the present conjugated form is regular enough that it's often omitted). If you look up one of the derived forms, the dictionary will usually tell you the root form and which particular form you've found. For example, if you look up the forms of "write" in, you'll find:
  1. write: (omitting the archaic forms) "wrote... [3rd form; past]; written... [4th form; pa. part.]; writing [5th form; pr. part.]"
  2. writes: just goes to "write".
  3. wrote: "a simple past tense of write."
  4. written: "a past participle of write."
  5. writing: if you scroll down to look at the verb form, it's just a copy of "write".
Here's a list of irregular verbs.

Memorize "be", "have", and "do". They are often used, and they are used to form complex tenses. "Be" is especially irregular. Unlike every other verb, "be" has three present conjugated forms and two conjugated past tense forms:
  1. be
  2. am/are/is
  3. was/were
  4. been
  5. being
I amWe areI wasWe were
You are-You were-
He/She/It isThey areHe/She/It wasThey were

Seriously: memorize this table cold.

The singular forms for the second person, "you", look more like the other plural forms. English used to have separate singular and plural forms for "you". The singular forms, "art" and "wert", and the singular pronouns, "thou", "thee", and "thy", fell into disuse, and the original plural forms ("are", "were"; "you", "your") took over for both singular and plural.

Here's "have":
  1. have
  2. has
  3. had
  4. had
  5. having
and "do":
  1. do
  2. does
  3. did
  4. done
  5. doing

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Time and Tense: Introduction

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Verb Forms

Verb tenses are probably the most difficult parts of English Grammar, especially for non-native English speakers and writers. There are two reasons for this difficulty. First, English has a lot of tenses, which express a lot of subtle information and emphasis about the location of events in time. Second, the labels applied to the rules for constructing verbs of the correct tense are profoundly misleading.

If you are a native speaker of English, you're probably using tenses very close to correctly, and if you make a mistake (especially in writing), the correction will almost always sound more correct than the mistake. Still, learning the actual rules is challenging. For non-native speakers, there are only two ways of learning verb tenses. The first is brute force: read a thousand books in English, and (if you're a hearing person) listen to professional productions (especially the news) on television and radio. (If you're Deaf, don't rely on Close Captioning for learning English grammar by brute force; the captioners make too many mistakes.) When you read and listen, pay very close attention to how the writers and speakers form their sentences. A thousand books is a lot of books, however, so the second way is to learn the rules. The rules are fairly complicated, and there are some irregularities, but there are fewer than a thousand books worth.

Some linguists and grammarians use "tense" in the narrowest sense, to mean only changes in the main verb to indicate time. In this sense, English has only two "true" tenses (present and future); the rest of the tenses in English all use auxiliary verbs, i.e. extra words that add time information. In this series, however, I use tense in the broader sense, to indicate all the forms of the complete verb, which includes the main verb plus all auxiliary verbs.

One of the ways that the labeling of verb tenses in English is that tenses have explicit time names (past tense, present tense, future tense, present perfect tense), and the serve to locate the verb in time, but these time names do not necessarily refer to actions in the stated time. For example, we can use the present tense to refer to actions in future time (the plane leaves tomorrow), and we always use the present participle to form the past progressive tenses (I was going to school yesterday) for actions progressing in past time. When you are studying the grammar of verbs, you must "free your mind" of the association between tense names and location in time. The names are totally arbitrary. In this series, I will always explicit add the word "time" or "tense" (or "participle") to be completely clear.

Tense is only one aspect of verbs. There is also voice (passive and active) and mood (indicative, imperative, and interrogative) for main verbs. Additionally verbs can be used in place of nouns and as complements to other main verbs (notably the gerund and the infinitive). I will cover these other aspects of verbs in a different series.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Don't Panic!

The first rule of writing is Don't Panic!

When a writer gets stuck on something, she can sometimes panic, and obsess over what she's stuck on. Although it's sometimes not easy to apply, there's an simple remedy for getting stuck: work on something else. If you're stuck on the hook or introduction, work on the thesis statement. If you're stuck on the thesis statement, work on summarizing your research. If you're stuck on the argument, just write what you think. Remember, you do not have to compose an essay in the same order that it will be read. You can start anywhere and jump around as you please.

There are a few elements of an essay that don't absolutely have to be terrific, notably the hook and the conclusion. You might lose a couple of points, but I don't think anyone ever got a B on what would otherwise be an A paper just because the hook was weak or the conclusion stereotypical. If these elements are bothering you, you can leave them until near the end of the writing process; if you run out of time, you can just phone them in.

You need to end up with a thesis statement, and it eventually needs to be good, but you don't need to start with a good thesis statement. The thesis statement is a one- or two-sentence declaration of your position. If you're having trouble with your thesis statement, you can try starting with something vague: "I agree with Ralph Nader." "I disagree with George W. Bush." "Global warming is bad." "The gold standard is good." You can even go with something equivocal: "I'm not sure whether we should or should not teach New Math to elementary school students." You'll want to revise your thesis statement later, but some focus is better than no focus at all.

If you're really stuck, there's a lot you can do without any sort of thesis statement at all. You should have at least a topic, so you can start by just writing down what you think about that topic. Don't worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation. Don't worry about structure, organization, or coherence. If you can do nothing else, getting words down on paper that are even vaguely related to your topic is better than a blank page.

Writing is thinking: the act of translating your mental state to written words on paper or on the computer actually changes what you think of the subject matter. If you find yourself not writing, write something. Anything!

Friday, January 27, 2012

The five-paragraph essay

A lot of English teachers absolutely loathe the five-paragraph essay. The form is unoriginal, stifling, and most of all boring. And they are, of course, correct. The five-paragraph essay — an introductory paragraph with a hook, background, and thesis statement plus essay map; three body paragraphs with a topic sentence, supporting details and concluding sentence; and a concluding paragraph that restates the thesis and argument — gives the writer no opportunity to surprise or delight the discerning reader with her mastery of form. Just as there are few if any enduring works of classical music that slavishly follow the sonata form, an essay that strictly follows the five-paragraph form cannot rise above mediocrity. But because it offers students a starting point, makes explicit the elements required for a successful expository essay, and provides a structure that can be usefully employed when brilliance is impractical or unnecessary, the five-paragraph form, if used judiciously, can be a valuable tool for the instruction of English composition.

There is a time in each student's life when she first begins to organize her thoughts in a coherent manner. Not knowing how to do a task "right" commonly causes anxiety in any endeavor, including English composition. The five-paragraph form allows a student to focus on her thoughts about a subject without worrying about how to present those thoughts. We can assure the student that (at least for now) the five-paragraph form is one "right" way to present her thoughts. Once she has become proficient in thinking coherently, she can move on to presenting her thoughts with greater subtlety of style.

However presented, almost every expository essay must contain specific elements. A writer must engage the reader, provide context and background, inform the reader of what her opinion is, argue her opinion, and explain and support her argument with facts and details. The five-paragraph essay gives an explicit spot for each of these elements. The introductory paragraph engages the reader, provides context, and states the writer's opinion. The body paragraphs argue the thesis in the topic sentences, provide supporting facts and details, and tie the topic sentences back to the thesis. Finally, the concluding paragraph summarizes the thesis and argument; a reader will view as important only those elements the writer emphasizes with repetition. The five-paragraph essay gives a student a way to become proficient in identifying and expressing these elements.

Every writer must sometimes sacrifice style to expediency. The five-paragraph form is perfectly suited, for example, to an in-class essay that must be composed in only an hour. For most writers, excellence of style requires revision, and no one can usefully revise an essay in an hour. Anyone, however, can learn to write a five-paragraph essay in an hour, confident that all the necessary ingredients of exposition will be present. Furthermore, good enough is often good enough. The five-paragraph essay will rarely be excellent, but it will almost always be, at least stylistically, good enough. If a student learns nothing but how to compose a five-paragraph essay in her sleep, she can be successful at many college disciplines.

We must achieve mediocrity before we can aspire to excellence. The mediocrity of the five-paragraph form is its strength, not its weakness. Instructors would not, of course, do justice to English composition by teaching the five-paragraph form as the acme of style and organization, but it gives the inexperienced and anxious student a starting point, and it makes clear and direct the necessary elements of exposition. Students "destined" for brilliance in composition will quickly grow bored with the limitations of the five-paragraph form, and students who prefer to direct their aspirations elsewhere will have a skill that will serve them through not only academia but their professional careers. As a step, the five-paragraph form serves every student well.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's the student's paper, not tutor's

Rule #1: It's the student's paper, not the tutor's.

This is the most important rule of all. It's perhaps easiest to see and follow when the student argues a position I completely disagree with. My job is not at all to make sure the student has the right opinions; my job, rather, is to help each student express herself clearly, accurately, and thoroughly, regardless of what opinion she is expressing. (Of course, I have some subtle tricks, chief among them the exhortation to research, cite, quote, and rebut contrary opinions. I won't even suggest a student has the wrong opinion, but I can always help her become better-informed. Also, if I think a student has made an factual error, I will suggest that they carefully research and substantiate the statement.)

This rule is harder to follow, I think, when it comes to matters of rhetorical and expressive style. When the student's meaning is clear, but I think he is expressing himself awkwardly, I proceed with extreme caution. There are a few guidelines that are pretty solid — especially that the end of each sentence has the most impact — but a lot of cases are considerably uncertain. I will often just mark a sentence and ask the student what he thinks about it. If he seems uncertain or hesitant, I'll offer a suggestion, but if he pushes back, if he says he really likes the wording, I'll let it stand.

There are many cases, however, where it seems obvious to me that the student's writing should not be challenged. I remember one student who offered an interesting, if unusual, reason why she enjoyed a work of literature. She had seen another tutor, and the tutor had convinced her to change the reason to something more traditional. I persuaded her to change the reason back to the original. The student is offering her own reasons, not the tutor's. As a tutor, I will point out obvious fallacies, but beyond that, it is up to the instructor, not the tutor, to judge the quality of the reasons.

I exhort both tutors and students. To tutors, remember, it is your job to help the students write what they want, and it's a big enough job to help them write what they want with clarity. And to students, don't let any "expert", be it a tutor or Microsoft Word's grammar checker, tell you what you want to write. It's your name on the top of the paper, no one else's. No matter what the suggested change, make the expert justify the change, and if you are not convinced, keep it the way you want it. Even if it ends up being "wrong", it's better to be wrong on your own merits than right on another's.