Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Grammar Questions and Answers in Plain Language

Grammar questions from a tutor sent me running to find answers. Here is our exchange:
I am working with G—. She is definitely advanced with her English and has a great vocabulary. One of her goals is to develop a better understanding of the past tense....I am hoping you could direct me to some resources. 

Here are some examples of what I am looking for:

  • If I ask a question such as "Did you eat last night," why is it in the past for yes (Yes, I ate last night) and in the present for no (No, I did not eat last night.) I understand that it is because 'didn't' is in the sentence but what is the rule for that?
  • What is the rule for when you add 'ing'. For example if I asked 'Did he let you stay at his house?' the answer could be 'Yes he let us stay.' But if you wanted to thank him for the house you could say 'Thank you for letting us stay.' Is there a rule to help understand when you add 'ing?'
  •   What is the rule for when you add 'a?'  If asked 'Did you have fun' you could answer 'Yes I had a good time.'

Why does the tense not change for a negative past tense? When we form a question in English or make a negative statement, we often use the helping verb to do. “Did you eat?” is a properly formed question. The past tense is in the helping verb do, which became did when you made a question. The main verb, eat, does not change. Notice that we say “Did you eat,” and not ”Did you ate?” The last question sounds horrible to a native English speaker. The same thing happens when you make a negative statement or command. “I did not eat.” The tense is in that helping verb. When you make a positive statement, e.g. “I ate sardines,” there’s no helping verb. However, notice what happens when you add a helping verb for the purpose of making a sentence more emphatic. For instance, when my wife asks me, “Didn’t you remember to buy kale for my green smoothies?” My answer comes out, “I did remember! I did buy kale. The grocery guy just forgot to put it in my bag.”

You can tell your learner this way: “Rule #1: Whenever a verb follows do, did, or does, that verb is in simple form.” The vocabulary of grammar is confusing and specialized. That simplest form of the verb is the infinitive (without the word to in front of it). Infinitives don’t change. Why are they called infinitive? What about them is infinite? It beats the tar out of me. It doesn’t make the matter clearer for language learners to use the term. 

What is the rule for when you add –ing? The –ing suffix is what we use for a gerund, which is the noun form of a verb. Here again we find some more of the abstruse grammar vocabulary that many find off-putting. Put in simple vocabulary for a second language learner, "If it has an –ing is a thing. I like to ski = I like skiing. Skiing is a noun, a thing. Writing is a noun form of the verb to write. So, “Writing reports is not my favorite thing to do at work. Helping tutors with grammar questions, though, is. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens are also among my favorite things.”

What is the rule for adding ‘a,’ as in “Did you have a good time?” versus “Yes, I had fun.” If the noun is something that can be counted, e.g. good times, bananas, conniptions, lobsters, bottles, haircuts, etc., you may add the article a. If it is something that you can’t count—things like fun, beer, time, blood, dust, love, water, sand you cannot use the article a, since it is like  saying a number—one. You don't say "I have a dust." If you’re looking in a grammar resource for this, the term to search is count vs. non-count nouns.

If you want to find exercises to teach and reinforce the first two items, the subjects to look for are question formation and gerunds. Knowing the grammar terms is helpful for you, the tutor, in this case. Daves ESL Café is a nice place to search for answers and activities. I also found a list of questions designed to start conversations: You can pick a topic, such as books or sports, and you’ll see dozens of questions that you could borrow for practice.

For grammar questions in general, you can look in

Those are just a few thoughts to leave you with. Did this message help you? Writing it helped me. I’m going to put it in a blog post.

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