Category Archives: Author Features

Tense vs aspect

This article has been written by Damcollins cobuild grammarian Williams, who is an ELT author and teacher trainer.

Consider the following statement:

Present tenses refer to the present and past tenses refer to the past.

How far do you agree with this statement? Can you think of any exceptions? What about the following:


I wish you were more polite.

Earthquake kills 200.

Could you possibly open the window, please?

As you can see, the examples above show that the ‘rule’ given above isn’t very robust, as there are many, perfectly acceptable, exceptions. What we’re using when we say things like the statement above are not really ‘rules’, but ‘hints’. Michael Lewis (1986) makes the following distinction:

Advice and classroom hints are one thing, grammar rules are another. Rules cannot be given which include words like sometimes, in certain circumstances, might mean, etc.

So, what’s going on with the exceptions above? Well, in fact, these are not exceptions but actually part of a wider rule about the use of tenses. In order to gain a fuller understanding of what’s happening here, we first need to look more closely at what tense and aspect actually refer to.

Tense vs aspect

Tense and aspect are often labelled as the same thing. It’s not uncommon to see the present progressive referred to as ‘the present progressive tense’ or will have + past participle referred to as ‘the future perfect tense’, for example. However, tense and aspect are not the same thing.


There are two aspects in English: the progressive aspect (also referred to as continuous), and the perfect aspect.

The progressive aspect is formed with the auxiliary be (reflecting the tense) and the addition of -ing to the main verb. It usually describes an event which is taking place during a limited time, e.g. I’m staying with friends while my house is being redecorated. We also often use it when we’re more concerned with the action rather than the time frame or result, e.g. I’ve been writing reports all day as opposed to I’ve written all four reports.

The perfect aspect links two times together in some way, for example, by showing that an event which started in the past is ongoing (I’ve lived here for twenty years), or by showing a future result of a present action (They’ll have visited all the continents by 2025).


In Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017), tense is defined as ‘… a verb form that indicates a particular point in time or period of time’. And in his study of The English Verb, Lewis, (1986:50), describes tense as involving ‘a morphological change in the base form of the verb. A verb form which is made with an auxiliary is not, in this technical meaning, a “tense”.’

Following this understanding, we can see that there are two tenses in English, the ‘present’ and ‘past’ tense; these are the only verbs forms that do not require an auxiliary. We add further meaning and viewpoints to these basic forms through the use of aspect. Aspect allows the speaker to interpret the events being described and express how they view them.

A closer examination of what tense really refers to can provide us with a deeper understanding of how tenses work in English. Rather than think in terms of present and past, it can be useful in English to think in terms of distance. What we refer to as ‘past’ in English is better thought of as ‘remote’. Likewise, what we consider the ‘present’ is better thought of in terms of ‘close’. With this in mind, our choice of tense in English is influenced by three key factors, time, reality, and register:

In the diagram above, you can see there are three ways in which distance affects our choice of tense: time (close as in ‘my life now’ or remote as in ‘my life in the past’), reality (close to reality or remote from it, i.e. unreal), and register (the ‘closer’ someone is to me socially, the more ‘present’ tenses I use).

There are no exceptions to this rule.

It’s important to remember that so much of our choice of tense and aspect depends not only on how we view the events, but also how we want the events to be viewed. For example, in the newspaper headline given at the top of this post, ‘Earthquake kills 200’, a present tense is used, even though the event occurred the day before. However, if a past tense were used, the event would sound less immediate, and therefore less newsworthy.

Another very common use of the present simple tense is to describe past events in the ‘historic present’, often used when recounting personal anecdotes, e.g. So she just walks in, sits down, and doesn’t even say hello! The use of a present tense here makes the story more personal/informal, and therefore brings the speaker and listener closer.

Why is the distinction between tense and aspect important?

Raising your learners’ awareness of this ‘remote → close’ framework can really help when they start to meet hypothetical language. The regret I wish I hadn’t been so lazy is expressed using the past perfect, for example, as it contains two elements of remoteness – past time and unreality (the speaker was lazy). Conversely, the regret I wish I wasn’t so lazy is expressed using the past simple, as it contains only one element of remoteness – unreality (the speaker is lazy), but is ‘close’ in terms of time (the speaker is referring to now).

Similarly, an awareness of the common uses of aspect across the different tenses can help learners have a more accurate understanding of what’s going on when we use them. An understanding that our choices aren’t only affected by how we view events but by how we want them to be viewed, can help learners gain a fuller, more critical understanding of the language they hear. For example, an employer referring to an employee might say, ‘Harry works at my restaurant’, whereas the employee, Harry, may say, ‘I’m working at a restaurant’, implying that it’s temporary, until he can find a better job.

As teachers, we need to be aware of these concepts, so we can be aware of what’s really going on with the language we teach. The question is: to what extent should we share such theories of language with our students? Thornbury (2010) disparagingly calls the more simplified, traditional grammar descriptions that we come across in coursebooks ‘Grammar McNuggets’, describing them in the following way:

An enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality.

Many teachers feel that the classroom ‘McNuggets’ we teach learners, especially at lower levels, can be useful ‘stabilisers’ in order to help communication and build confidence. However, it’s vital that as teachers we see the ‘hints’ as the simplified half-truths that they really are; we must go beyond a simple coursebook-style ‘compartmentalization’, so as to raise our own awareness of what’s actually going on with the language we teach. We can then gradually introduce our learners to more complex ideas and descriptions as they become more confident, and so able to deal with further subtleties in the language.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar aims to do this by breaking down elements of grammar into useful chunks while also reflecting the true nature of the tense and aspect systems outlined above.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.



Lewis, M. 1986 The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning LTP

Thornbury, S. 2010 G is for Grammar McNuggets  

Further reading

Millin, S. 2014 The English Verb visualised

Bloggingisaresponsibility 2012 The myth of the verb tense 


Prescriptive vs descriptive approaches to grammar

This article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

In our first blogpost about the new Collins COBUILD English Grammar, we saw how a functional grammar is all about language use:

It’s about communicative grammar that learners can use in the typical situations that they find themselves in as they go about their daily lives. Moreover, it’s an approach in which grammar is not seen as a set of rules, but rather as a communicative resource.

Until the later part of the 20th century, most students and teachers would have expected a grammar book to contain rules for good style. For example, a grammarian might have explained that you should ‘never end a sentence with a preposition’ or that starting a sentence with a conjunction like ‘And’ or ‘But’ is a big no-no. This type of reference, which tells you how to speak so-called ‘correct’ English, can be referred to as a prescriptive grammar.

The Collins COBUILD range is the result of a project that began in the 1980s, when Collins Publishers formed a partnership with researchers at the University of Birmingham, headed by John Sinclair (1933-2007), to develop an electronic corpus of written and spoken English. The aim was to provide authentic examples for Collins’ new learner dictionary. When the first Collins COBUILD Dictionary of English was published in 1987, it revolutionized dictionaries for learners, leading to a new generation of corpus-driven reference materials for English language learners. A grammar book like Collins COBUILD English Grammar, which describes the language as it is actually used, can be referred to as a descriptive grammar.

So, to summarize, a prescriptive grammar serves to impose its own vision of ‘correct’ language use, and a descriptive grammar observes how language is used and passes this information on to readers.

In his blog, ‘An A-Z of ELT’, Scott Thornbury (2011) describes how some trainee teachers ‘come to associate all rules with prescriptivism’ because all statements about how language works seem to be telling students how they should speak or write. So what is the difference between a grammar rule such as ‘don’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence’ and one that says ‘always add an -s to the end of a 3rd person singular verb in the present simple’? Thornbury explains this by distinguishing two types of rules: ‘rules-as-regulations’ and ‘rules-as-regularities’. The former describes rules that attempt to regulate our language use, while the latter describes observations about what regularly occurs in the language. There is always going to be some overlap, of course, but COBUILD is more concerned with regularities.

Let’s look at what this means in terms of Collins COBUILD English Grammar itself.


All the examples in Collins COBUILD English Grammar are taken directly from the Collins Corpus (with only minor changes made to cut out any distracting ‘noise’). The corpus is regularly updated with new material taken from everyday speech and writing. This allows us to give clear illustrations of how people really speak and write, rather than telling students how we think they should express themselves. For example, we all know that stative verbs (e.g. want, feel, see, hear, love) are not usually used with progressive forms (apart from in informal I’m lovin’ it-type phrases). However, examples from the Collins Corpus show that in certain cases it is perfectly normal, even in formal situations, to use them with perfect forms:

I’ve been wanting to speak to you about this for some time.
Then she heard it – the sound she’d been hearing in her head for weeks.

Similarly, who hasn’t taught or learnt the rule that the determiner much is used in negatives and question forms, and is not generally found in affirmative statements? While this rule is perfectly legitimate and serviceable, our corpus data shows us certain cases in which much can be used in affirmative statements. This usage is most common with abstract nouns, particularly those relating to discussion, debate, and research.

The subject is generating much debate among political and business analysts.
After much discussion, they decided to take the coin to a jeweller.

Regular analysis of corpus data and a perpetual ear to the ground mean that pedagogical grammarians at COBUILD don’t allow themselves to be complacent. That would be the way for rules to become ‘rules-as-regulations’ (i.e. prescriptive) rather than ‘rules-as-regularities’ (i.e. descriptive).

Pet peeves

Let’s now look at how Collins COBUILD English Grammar deals with some of the ‘old chestnuts’ of English grammar – those prescriptive rules that came about because some people thought English should emulate Latin, or ones that originated as the ‘pet peeve of a self-anointed maven’ (Pinker 2014).

‘Never begin a sentence with a conjunction’
As Allison Vannest (2016) writes in her blogpost on, ‘The prohibition against opening a sentence with a conjunction is one of the most persistent grammar myths of all time.’ She adds that the Chicago Manual of Style estimates (perhaps rather wildly) that ‘as many as 10 percent of the finest sentences ever written began with a conjunction.’

In the section on coordinating conjunctions, Collins COBUILD English Grammar notes:

In writing, you can sometimes begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. You do this to make the sentence seem more dramatic or forceful. Some people think this use is incorrect.

Why do learners need to know that some people think this is incorrect? Well, it’s all about knowing your audience, getting a feel for how conservative they are, and acting accordingly. If learners want to be absolutely sure that they won’t be marked down by an ‘old-school’ teacher or examiner, they might want to avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction. It’s up to them.

‘Never split an infinitive’
This rule dates back to an era when Latin was seen as the model to follow. Many people still try to avoid splitting infinitives because prescriptive grammar books and well-meaning teachers prescribed this as a rigid rule that should never be broken. However, as Collins COBUILD English Grammar observes:

Sometimes, if you avoid putting the adverb between the to and the infinitive, you change the emphasis of the sentence, or it can sound clumsy. In such cases, splitting the infinitive, as it is called, is now generally considered acceptable.
I want you to really enjoy yourself.

Note the caveat that a small number of people may not tolerate a split infinitive. Again, this is important advice for students who are taking exams or who know that their audience subscribes to a more traditional approach to English usage.

As we can see, then, through careful monitoring of corpus data, old rules-as-regulations start to become anachronisms and new rules-as-regularities are established. Keeping up to date by reading and listening, always with a critical ear, is vital for teachers and learners.

And, of course, for expert help in doing so, always be sure to have access to a good descriptive grammar.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

Pinker, S. (2014) 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes):
Thornbury, S. (2011) P is for prescriptive:
Vannest, A. (2016) Remember when? 6 grammar rules from the past:

Grammar or vocabulary? A blurry line

This article has been written by Julie Moore, who is an ELT materials developer and lexicographer.

Most language learning coursebooks include grammar activities and vocabulary activities. As teachers, we talk about ‘teaching grammar’ and ‘teaching vocabulary’. Grammar and vocabulary are two of the key strands of language learning, yet are they really as separate as we tend to view them? In this post, I’ll look at three ways in which the line between grammar and vocabulary can get blurred and consider whether we should actually be thinking of them more as two ends of a continuum with large areas of overlap in the middle.

Word grammar

If you look in a dictionary, the archetypal vocabulary resource, you’ll find plenty of information about grammar, usually in the form of labels; N-UNCOUNT, V n, usu ADJ n, etc. That’s because individual lexical items – words, phrases, phrasal verbs – typically behave in particular ways; they have grammatical features associated with them. Teaching about these lexico-grammatical features straddles the line between grammar and vocabulary.

So in many coursebooks, you’ll find the topic of countable and uncountable nouns labelled as ‘grammar’, but it’s almost always taught alongside a vocabulary set, often food (bread, pasta, apples, carrots, etc.) That’s because the two can’t be separated; you can’t easily talk about the concept of countable and uncountable nouns, especially at low levels, without looking at specific instances.  So, for example, in the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, an uncountable noun is described as a noun which refers to “general things such as qualities, substances, processes, and topics rather than to individual items or events”, but that explanation only really makes sense because it’s followed by example sentences and a list of common uncountable nouns.

Similarly, you can only understand the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs with reference to specific examples – you always achieve something or provide something, but you just arrive or hesitate. Or when we teach about stative verbs, verbs which describe a state, such as exist, know, belong, we have to explain both which verbs they are – a set of vocabulary – and also how they behave grammatically, i.e. that they aren’t generally used in progressive forms.

Grammar patterns

Why is it that you delay doing something, but you wait to do something? It’s a matter of verb form and sentence structure; when two main verbs occur together, there’s a choice to be made about the form of the second verb. So is this a question of grammar? Well, it feels a bit like grammar, but when it comes down to explaining these types of patterns, you find that actually it’s more about the individual verbs: the vocabulary.

Many of the choices we make about form and structure are actually determined by our choice of vocabulary: particular words are typically used together with particular patterns and structures. This isn’t only true of two verbs that occur together, but also of noun + verb combinations in noun phrases:

his decision to postpone the meeting
an urgent need to recruit more staff
long delays in processing applications

And these patterns aren’t just about verb forms. When words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) are followed by a prepositional phrase, then the choice of preposition is often determined by the individual word it follows:

access to the internet
allergic to cats
increased demand for consumer goods
capable of winning
restrictions on travel
fraught with danger
suspected links with criminal groups
lacking in detail

Clearly, none of these patterns can be taught as a one-off set of ‘rules’; instead they need to be seen as part of ongoing vocabulary development. They need to be highlighted – either individually or in small sets – as part of the process of deepening students’ understanding of vocabulary; going beyond surface meaning and thinking about how words behave in sentences.


The final area where grammar and vocabulary overlap is when we think about what we want to do with language; functions. If I want to express uncertainty about my plans for the weekend, I could say:

I might go to the cinema on Saturday.
Maybe I’ll go to the cinema on Saturday.
I was thinking of going to the cinema on Saturday.

In each example, I’ve used a different linguistic feature to express roughly the same idea – a modal verb (might), an adverb (maybe), and an expression (be thinking of doing something). And, of course, if I want to ramp up my level of uncertainty further, I can combine them:

I was thinking, I might possibly go to the cinema on Saturday, if there’s nothing else going on.

Which of these features would typically be taught as part of a grammar syllabus and which as vocabulary? When we speak (or write), we use whatever linguistic resources seem to fit best at the time. Sometimes these are grammatical choices, sometimes they’re more down to vocabulary.

This isn’t just the case with modality, although it’s an interesting area which we’ll return to in a future post. All kinds of functions can be fulfilled by either grammatical or lexical choices. If I want to say that two things are similar, I can say:

London is roughly as warm as Beijing in summer.
London is a bit like Beijing in terms of summer temperatures.
The weather in London and Beijing in summer is much the same.

Does it matter how we label language?

So does it really matter whether we label the language and linguistic features we teach as grammar or vocabulary? Well, for the most part, it probably doesn’t – if we teach language in a clear and engaging way, then the heading at the top of the page isn’t massively significant. We tend to label activities as ‘grammar’ or ‘vocabulary’ as a convenient way of categorizing what we do in class. It makes it easier to match lessons up to a syllabus and to keep track of what we’ve covered when it comes to assessment. However, sticking with this traditional grammar-vocabulary split does have some risks. We risk some key features of language being undertaught and falling through the gaps simply because they don’t fit neatly within either the grammar or the vocabulary syllabus. And we don’t want to limit our students’ language choices by labelling a topic or function as either grammar or vocabulary. They need to be able to make linguistic choices based on what they want to express, not on the part of the syllabus we’re teaching. In short, we perhaps need to be a bit more flexible with our linguistic boxes.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.


Collins COBUILD English Grammar: a functional grammar


This article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar.


Most people who study and use a language are interested in how they can do things with the language – how they can express their feelings and wishes, get attention, influence people, and learn about the world. They are interested in the grammatical structure of the language as a way of getting things done.


What is a functional grammar?

A grammar that puts together the patterns of the language and the things you can do with them is called a functional grammar; that is, it is based on the relation between the structure of a language and the various functions that the language performs.

If you’ve done any reading around different ways of describing the grammar of a language, you will, no doubt, have come across Halliday’s An Introduction to Functional Grammar, now in its fourth edition, but originally published in 1985. (He’s still going strong, by the way, aged 91.)

In many ways, Halliday’s functional grammar seems to be very well suited to language teaching and learning. Functional grammar is all about language use. It’s about communicative grammar that learners can use in the typical situations that they find themselves in as they go about their daily lives. Moreover, it’s an approach in which grammar is not seen as a set of rules, but rather as a communicative resource.

As Halliday himself says, ‘A functional grammar is essentially a “natural” grammar, in the sense that everything in it can be explained, ultimately, by reference to how language is used.’ (Halliday, 1994, p. xiii).

Anyone who has read Halliday’s seminal work will know that his ‘systemic functional grammar’ is a broad and very rich description of the systems and uses of English grammar – to the point that it is considered by some as being rather too broad and too rich for teaching and learning.


Where does COBUILD come in?

This is where Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017) takes up the reins. It has taken the essence of Halliday’s theories and repackaged them so that teachers and learners can get the most benefit from the functional approach. In Collins COBUILD English Grammar, sections are built around functions of language, such as ‘describing people and things’, ‘expressing time’, and ‘reporting what people say and think’. Each of these functions is regularly expressed in English by a particular structure. For example, to describe people and things, we usually use adjectives. Similarly, reporting what people say or think typically involves a reporting verb such as say, followed by a clause beginning with that or a clause with quotation marks around it.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar follows up each major statement (often called a ‘rule’ in other grammars) with a detailed description of the uses surrounding it. The scope of the original function may then be extended. For example, the basic, central function of reporting verbs (Chapter 7) is to state what someone has said, for example:

  • He said he would be back soon.

This can easily be extended to include what someone has written, as in:

  • His mother wrote that he had finally arrived home.

Then it can be widened to include thoughts and feelings:

  • The boys thought he was dead.

From this, we can see that the reporting clause is simply a way of introducing another clause.

Similarly, instead of opting for a traditional treatment of tenses, Collins COBUILD English Grammar concerns itself with ‘expressing time’. This allows for a far more intuitive description of the various functions of different verb forms than any traditional grammar is able to provide. For example, under ‘Expressing future time’, there are sections entitled ‘indicating certainty’, ‘indicating duration’, and ‘planned events’. Structures with will are demonstrated according to function alongside more lexical realizations of future concepts such as be due to, be about to, and be going to:


Don’t worry; Nancy will arrange it.


By the end of this week, I will have been working here for exactly a year.


Thanks for the offer but Ian is going to take me.

Planned event:

The work is due to start this summer.

Happening soon:

About 385 people are about to lose their jobs.


The grammar of social and cultural contexts

A functional grammar is also concerned with how language is used in a range of social and cultural contexts. Collins COBUILD English Grammar adheres to this approach in a variety of ways. For example, the section on plural forms of you explains that you guys and you lot are more frequent in informal English. Similarly, in the section on using generic they and their to refer back to indefinite pronouns (e.g. Someone’s forgotten their coat), readers learn that:

In more formal English, some people prefer to use he, him, his, or himself to refer back to an indefinite pronoun, but many people dislike this use because it suggests that the person being referred to is male:

Everyone has his dream.

And in the section relating to determiners:

In informal spoken English, people sometimes use this and these in front of nouns, even when they are mentioning someone or something for the first time:

At school we had to wear these awful white hats.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar further embraces the concept that grammar is closely related to the situation in which it occurs by focusing on two main contexts in which English is used as a lingua franca throughout the world – business and academic English. Two supplementary sections identify the principal areas of grammar that learners need to master if they wish to communicate effectively in business and academic contexts.

The section on the grammar of business English looks at typical structures used in such contexts as sharing information, negotiating, and giving presentations. The academic English section covers such areas as explaining results, reviewing research, and reporting findings. Extensive cross-referencing allows the user to refer back to the main text, where structures are discussed in greater detail.


The grammar of discourse

Finally, functional grammar is concerned with how the various items of language in a text work together as part of a larger system. Collins COBUILD English Grammar goes beyond a focus on ‘well-formed sentences’ to help students use language effectively in a range of discourse contexts. Chapter 10, entitled ‘Making a text hold together’, describes how ‘referring back’ and ‘referring forward’ can create cohesion in a text, and how sentences and different parts of a conversation are linked together. What is not said is considered to be just as important as what is said, and so the section on ‘Leaving words out’ (or ‘ellipsis’) explains how speakers omit words rather than repeat them – another way of creating cohesion within a text.


Conventional terminology

Collins COBUILD English Grammar does not, however, throw common sense out with the bathwater. A learner who looks up ‘personal pronouns’ or ‘subordinate clauses’, for example, will find them both in the index and referred to by name in the main text. Students and teachers can still find references to such conventional concepts as tenses, different types of noun (countable, uncountable, compound, abstract, etc.), comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, and the subjunctive.

What is notable about Collins COBUILD English Grammar is (1) the way it organizes the information and (2) its pragmatic approach. It describes how language can be used to write and speak more appropriately and effectively, and provides us with tools for describing how language is used in a wide range of real-life contexts. As a functional grammar, it offers students a way of seeing how meaning and form are related, focusing on language as a resource rather than a set of rules.


Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

Halliday, M. (1994). An Introduction to Functional Grammar (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press

‘Flipping’ the classroom: easier than we think?


In the last couple of years, I’ve occasionally come across articles and conference presentations on the topic of ‘the flipped classroom’. It’s a concept that’s not new, but when I brought it up in conversations with a number of colleagues (I was talking about an upcoming presentation for IATEFL), I realised that few of us EFL and EAP practitioners seemed to have really engaged with it. So that’s why I decided to write this blog: both to find out why we’re not all ‘flipping’ (I couldn’t resist) and to share a bit more information about what it means.

In many eras and locations, the teacher has been seen as the focus in the classroom and the source of most of the information. The flipped classroom approach is more learner-centered. It acknowledges that it is increasingly easy for students to access content online before coming to class,  which means that the lesson time can be used to share that knowledge and implement it in more practical, personalised and exciting ways.

One reason why English teachers might not know too much about this strategy it is that it is easily dismissed as something we are doing anyway: isn’t it generally good classroom practice to get students to come prepared and to maximise the resource that students are by getting them to interact rather than to fill in exercises? To that I’d say that yes, EFL teachers are definitely doing it already, but by naming and examining it we can reflect on ways to do it more efficiently and systematically.

Another reason for the lack of engagement is that it is a blended learning method and therefore involves technology, and not all teachers and students are in a position to rely on this: it very much depends on their location in the world. Where online access is available, teachers may be reluctant to use technology to the extent that they believe is required. It is certainly true that a lot of teachers who use the flipped classroom approach have done this in a rather enthusiastic way, e.g. they have done a complete swap from their conventional teaching to this approach and have dedicated their time to making their own instructional videos using the latest clever software.

Well, you can probably tell I am not one of those people… I applaud them but I am never going to be like them. I lack the know-how and the time to do something about it. I do believe though that it is worth seeking out new materials that use this approach or to look for existing online open source videos while adapting our course books and ways of working so that we maximise classroom time.

So why am I so passionate about giving the flipped classroom a go? It’s simple: it is better for our students. Here are just a few of the reasons:

  • it makes them more autonomous learners (lessons won’t ‘work’ unless students come prepared)
  • with ‘content’ being accessed elsewhere, classroom time can be dedicated to checking understanding and building on it in through group interaction
  • it energizes them during lessons and brings the unknown into the classroom (they rely on each other for dissemination and to put theory into practice)
  • it builds on their interest in technology and allows them to learn in the same way that they access much other information (i.e. online)
  • weaker students can access and repeat the information they need as often as they like in the privacy of their homes. This levels the playing field in the classroom and stops them having to catch up later, which does wonders for their confidence.

It clearly is an approach that is definitely worth taking, both for its modernity and efficiency. And the good news is that publishers and authors agree with this and are making our lives easier by incorporating it into their materials, which takes out the hard work for the teachers – here’s one we made earlier. So, there really is no excuse left not to flip.

by Els Van Geyte

Els Van Geyte works at the Birmingham International Academy at the University of Birmingham and is the author of IELTS exam skills and Academic English text books.

Life after IELTS – helping students to meet academic (writing) expectations

How to best help students to make the transition from IELTS essays to academic writing? How can we help students when they realise that writing styles and levels of formality that may have worked fine in an IELTS essay are suddenly regarded as inappropriate at university?

Els van Geyte, author of the Writing title in the ELTons award-winning Collins Academic Skills Series, answered these questions (and many more!) in a webinar she ran for the British Council.

More information about the webinar ‘Life after IELTS – helping students to meet academic (writing) expectations

Watch a recording of the webinar ‘Life after IELTS – helping students to meet academic (writing) expectations

Els van Geyte is the author of ELTons award winning title Collins Academic Skills Series: Writing, Collins Get Ready for IELTS: Reading and Collins Reading for IELTS.







More information on the Collins Academic Skills Series


Dictionary evolution: Exploiting modern referencing tools to the max

Julie Moore & Lisa Sutherland held a session on ‘Dictionary evolution: Exploiting modern referencing tools to the max‘ at IATEFL in Manchester. Their presentation slides are now available, and they include plenty of practical teaching tips and information about future plans for the Collins Corpus.

 Download Slides: Dictionary evolution: Exploiting modern referencing tools to the max

About Julie Moore:

Julie Moore is a freelance ELT teacher, writer and lexicographer based in Bristol in the UK. She first became interested in lexicography and corpus research doing her MA at the University of Birmingham and over the past 15 years, she has worked on learner’s dictionaries for all the major ELT publishers. She now combines teaching, teacher training, lexicography and other ELT writing and never ceases to be amazed that she can earn a living from playing with words!

Julie worked on many of our COBUILD titles. Why not have a look at the latest COBUILD dictionaries – the COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the COBUILD IELTS Dictionary?

Julie Moore photo

COBUILD English Grammar: rethinking the rules

By Penny Hands, senior editor of Collins Grammar in Action

When the new edition of COBUILD English Grammar hit the proverbial and virtual shelves, teachers and students may have been wondering what could be new about a grammar. We all know about new words, which are wheeled out and bandied around at every new edition of a big dictionary, but what does an editor do when she is asked to update a pedagogical grammar?

Firstly, I should tell you a bit about the general approach of the book.

COBUILD English Grammar is a functional grammar. This means that, rather than present learners with a book of rules, completely disassociated from communication, it explains how language works within the context of what people do with language.

So, for example, headings indicate to users that they are going to read about ‘Reporting statements and thoughts’, ‘Expressing future time’, or ‘Linking parts of a conversation together’.

This doesn’t mean that traditional grammatical terminology is dismissed altogether; there are still sections on familiar subjects like ‘Pronouns’, ‘The Passive’, ‘Modals’, and ‘The Present Perfect’. What we have tried to do throughout, though, is to keep in mind that learning grammar is not an end in itself, that it has a function – and that function is to aid communication.

As Nick Ellis puts it in his 2007 article: ‘The wood and the trees’:

‘Language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes.’

(Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.)

The integration of functional aims with traditional grammatical terminology means that whether you want to find out about the form of the past perfect, or to learn more about the function of talking about past experiences or describing people and things, you will be able to retrieve the information you need.

Another feature of COBUILD English Grammar is the use of authentic examples, which have been taken from the Collins Corpus – a 4.5-billion-word database of current English. We have tried to select examples that are vibrant and real, while remaining straightforward enough for learners to process.

The following examples can be found at the section relating to the variety of informal ways in which people express plural ‘you’ in English:

What did y’all eat for breakfast?

‘Listen, you guys,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you everything you want.’

Come on, you two. Let’s go home.

Bye, y’all!

COBUILD English Grammar also identifies and highlights features of English grammar that are typical of spoken communication. Some of these phenomena have been around for a while, and others have been identified in our research as having emerged more recently, as we will see below.

So, to return to the question of how one updates a grammar: as mentioned before, it’s common knowledge that words change their meaning, but it is not always so obvious that grammatical structures change too, if not quite as quickly.

Well, we carried out corpus research on several areas of grammar where we had a hunch that things might have changed, and found some interesting results including the following areas:

–      generic pronouns and determiners

–      stative verbs

–      ‘much’

–      ‘be like’ as a reporting structure

We wanted to choose areas where we felt there’s been a recent change, or where traditional explanations don’t seem to tell the whole story.

For each area of grammar that we selected, we searched for examples of that grammar point in the Collins Corpus. We compared UK and US English, and in some cases spoken and written English, and we also looked at how English has changed over the period in question.

Each to his/her/their own: generic pronouns and determiners

First, let’s consider pronouns and determiners. Look at the following two sets of sentences:


I saw John yesterday. He was with his new girlfriend.

My mum is from New Zealand. She moved to Britain when she was 15.

If you see Mark and Linda, tell them I’ll call later.

Residents are allowed to bring their own furniture.


A person cannot ignore the past but he can choose his future.

Every child needs to feel that she is loved.

If a person eats too much fat, they are more likely to have a heart attack.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

In set A, the pronouns and determiners refer to a particular person or group of people: ‘he’ refers to ‘John’, ‘She’ refers to ‘my mum’, ‘them’ refers to ‘Mark and Linda’, ‘their’ refers to ‘residents’. In set B, on the other hand, the pronouns and determiners refer to a single person whose gender we don’t know: ‘a person’, ‘every child’, ‘a person’, and ‘everyone’. (Note that ‘everyone’ is interesting because it is grammatically singular, although we tend to think of it as referring to a group.)

We wanted to find out which generic pronouns people are more likely to use these days.

Which would you prefer, of the following?

  1. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept them first.’
  2. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept him first.’
  3. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept her first.’
  4. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept him or her first.’

…or anything else? (e.g. ‘her or him’?)

We searched the corpus for cases where the following pronouns and determiners:

  • he, him, his, himself
  • she, her, hers, herself
  • they, them, their, theirs, themselves
  • he or she, his or her, s/he, etc.

…referred back to individual people whose gender we don’t know, such as:

  • someone, anyone, everyone, each, every, a person, etc.

In other words, we were looking for these pronouns and determiners used generically.

We went through every example and manually checked them to see if they were examples of generic pronouns and determiners. That wasn’t always easy, though. For example, would you say that the underlined text here is an example of a generic determiner?

There is one rule that debars anyone who has played first-class cricket as a home player in his native land in the previous 12 months.

And is this an example of a deliberately generic use of ‘she’?

I mean steal a baby to give it away don’t be crazy why did they whoever left it on our doorstep maybe she‘ll come back for it like Carmella did…

We felt that the answer to these questions was ‘no’. In the end, we decided to discard such examples, because we felt that they weren’t really examples of generic ‘he’ or ‘she’ – rather, they were cases where the speaker/writer was thinking about a person of a particular gender – because most cricketers are men, and most people who leave babies on doorsteps are women.

As you can see from the chart below, we found that generic they (or them, their, themselves) is much more frequent than either the masculine form he (or him, his, himself), or a gender-neutral alternative such as he or she. Generic they is becoming more frequent, and is found in both spoken and written English. We haven’t included generic she on the graph, because it hardly occurs at all in the Collins Corpus.

generic he, he/she they

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Generic they is used in fairly informal language:

‘When somebody feels good, they’re healthy, they work harder and they’re more focused.’

But it’s also used in formal language:

‘The retention piece allows an individual to transfer a portion of their benefit or all of their benefit at different points in their career….’

Also, it’s even used even when the gender is known, for example:

  • ‘I talked to somebody else in line, and they said it would be many, many hours.’

(Even though we don’t know the gender of ‘somebody’, the speaker presumably does.)

And, even more strikingly:

  • ‘Ask the young mothers and no one will say they regret having their baby.’
  • ‘And if someone has an abnormal mammography, it does not mean they have breast cancer’

These kinds of examples show the extent to which generic they has spread, so that it’s used even when it isn’t necessary to be gender-neutral.

We make it clear in the grammar that, when you want to refer to an indefinite pronoun like anyone or someone, or a noun phrase like each child or a person, the most natural way to do that, even in formal English, is with generic ‘they’.

We’re lovin’ it: stative verbs

Now, let’s turn to the work we did on stative verbs. Firstly, what is a stative verb?

Simply put, a stative verb is a verb that describes a state, that you can use in simple forms, but not in progressive forms.

Verbs that are typically listed as stative verbs include those relating to lasting emotions (e.g. love, like, hate, want), mental states (know, think, imagine, remember, forget), senses (see, hear, smell) and permanent states (belong, own, possess, fit, keep)].

Yet we found lots of examples in the corpus like the following:

  • But hang on a tick, I’m forgetting my manners.
  • Nobody is imagining that the Conservatives can win.
  • I‘m wanting the film to be deliberately old-fashioned.
  • I‘m loving midnight blue eye shadow.

Forget, imagine, prefer, want, love are all traditionally ‘stative verbs’ in these senses, yet here we find them – quite frequently, and naturally – in the progressive. So we searched the corpus to find out how frequent these uses are, and whether they’ve become more frequent. We examined about 30 so-called ‘stative verbs’, but here we’ll just look at two of the most frequent ones: love and want.

As you can see in this graph, progressive love has become a lot more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in UK English:

Progressive 'love'

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A lot of the examples are of the sense ‘enjoy’, which is fairly uncontroversial and has been in use for a while:

I’m loving my football so much at the moment I can’t wait for the next game to come along. (UK 90–94)

Now Jessica is four months old and Gillian is loving every minute of motherhood. (UK 90–94)

More recently, though, we find examples of the sense ‘like very much’, especially in articles about fashion and popular culture:

  • Kids 2 and 3 years old are loving our album. (US 05–09)
  • …a model and artist who looked particularly cool in colourful striped socks and a pair of Converse – a look we’re loving. (UK 05–09)

Another interesting verb is want. Do the following examples seem acceptable to you?

We’ve been wanting to come for three years. It was worth the wait. (UK 05–09)

Everyone knew that Bob Rubin had been wanting to resign for months. (UK 95–99)

You want to get married, you want kids, next thing you’ll be wanting Tupperware. (US 95–99)

What about this?

My sponsors have invested a lot of money in it, and I think they’re wanting to capitalize on it. (US 05–09)

We were wanting a price of $35 million and didn’t get it.

What’s the difference between the first set and the second? It seems that want is quite acceptable in the examples shown in the first set. They show want in the present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive and the future progressive. It is the present and past progressive forms, shown in the second set, that are marked.

So we examined these in more detail. We found that these forms have become more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in US English.

Progressive 'want'

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It soon became apparent that the situation with stative verbs is not as straightforward as it might seem.

We wanted to capture this in the grammar, while not being excessively complex, so while we do give the general rule about certain verbs not being used in the progressive, and list these in the reference section, we also show that with some verbs (forget, guess, imagine, lack, like, love, remember and want) – you actually can use them in the progressive form, especially in informal language.

We also show that with some verbs – such as want and hear – you can use them in perfect and future progressive forms, even in formal texts.  

What’s so special about much?

Next, we looked at much. What’s so special about much? Well, the usual rule given in pedagogical grammars is that you use much with uncountable nouns and many with countable nouns. Some grammars also point out that they are not usually used in positive sentences.

Let’s look at some examples. Do the following all seem acceptable?

MANY                                                                        MUCH

How many biscuits do we have?                             How much time do we have?                         Take as many biscuits as you want.                       Take as much time as you want.                   We don’t have many biscuits.                                 We don’t have much time.

We have many biscuits.                                          We have much time.

Native speakers may feel that both ‘We have many biscuits’ and ‘We have much time’ are unnatural, or they may feel that ‘We have many biscuits’ is OK, but ‘We have much time’ is not, or that it depends on register.

We were interested in much because, to a greater extent than many, it seems to be restricted mainly to questions and negatives, and to cases where it is modified by an adverb, e.g. too much, as much, so much. Unmodified statements such as ‘We have much time’, ‘I have much work to do’ seem incorrect, and we wanted to find out how frequent they are. As you can see from this graph, they have indeed become much less frequent over the past 20 years.

Positive unmodified 'much'

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We also found that assertive unmodified much tends to be used with nouns in a restricted set of semantic fields, especially:

  • discussion (much talk/discussion/debate/argument)
  • thought (much speculation/deliberation/doubt)
  • study (much research/study)
  • attention (much attention/interest)
  • excitement (much excitement/laughter/fun/fanfare).

Examples include:

After much speculation that he was killed, intelligence agencies now believe that Saddam survived.

The Israeli team’s findings have caused much excitement among medical experts.

So, the new edition of COBUILD English Grammar makes it clear that much is usually used in questions and negatives or with a modifier, but that you can, in more formal English, use it in positive statements, especially with the set of nouns listed above.

And we were like, ‘What?’: reporting speech and thoughts

Finally, we were interested in the fairly new use of be like as a reporting verb. Here are some examples with be like used to report speech and thought. Is there anything about be like that’s different from other reporting structures like say and ask?

  • We saw that and we were like ‘Oh my god!’
  • At first, I was like, no, what are you talking about?
  • They look at you like you’re mental and it’s like, “Chill out, what’s your problem?”

Here are our thoughts on the matter:

1. It is less formal than conventional ways of reporting speech.

2. You can’t use it with an adverb (‘We were like angrily ‘Oh my God!’)I

3. It has to go before the quote (‘Oh my God!’, we were like’)

4. You can use it with ‘it’.

As you can see from the graph below, we found that be like has become a lot more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in American English. The most common usage is in the first person (I was like or We were like), but we also found that the second most frequent usage is with it. ‘It was like…’ or ‘It’s like…’ is often used to sum up a general feeling or situation, for example:

When I was a teenager, that song came on the radio and it was like, Oh, my God! (UK 05–09)

So I get back in the bus, quarter of an hour passes and it’s like, Where’s Graham? (UK 90–94)

This was an interesting finding, as it applies only to be like, and not to other reporting verbs (You couldn’t say, for example ‘It said, Where’s Graham?’ or ‘It went, Where’s Graham?’)

'be like' as reporting structure

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Academic and Business English supplements

In the course of our preparation for this new edition, teachers and learners told us that a useful extension of our functional approach would be to focus on two main contexts in which English is used as a lingua franca throughout the world: Academic and Business English.

As a result, two new supplementary sections have been added. These identify the principal areas of grammar that learners need to master if they wish to communicate effectively in business and academic contexts.

The Academic English section covers such areas as the grammar involved in reporting findings, ordering and connecting your message, and expressing degrees of certainty.

Reporting illustration

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The section on the grammar of Business English looks at typical structures used in such contexts as sharing information, negotiating and giving presentations.

Presenting illustration

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Extensive cross-referencing allows the user to refer back to the main text, where structures are discussed in greater detail.

If you’re looking for an up-to-date pedagogical grammar that is not only based on meticulous research into real English as it is spoken now, but that also shows you how English grammar functions to create meaning in authentic everyday situations, I would recommend this user-friendly and often entertaining reference book.


About Penny Hands:

Penny Hands is a freelance ELT writer and editor with 20 years’ experience in publishing. She began her career teaching general and business English in Europe and in the UK and, after gaining a Masters degree in Applied Linguistics from Edinburgh University, began working as an ELT dictionary editor and lexicographer. Since becoming freelance, she has maintained a keen interest in lexis and grammar. Corpus linguistics plays a large part in her work, contributing to a wide range of language reference titles including dictionaries, grammars and usage guides. More recently, she was Senior Editor for Collins Grammar in Action – a grammar course for young learners – and Collins Exploring English – a literature-based English course for primary schools in India.

What has a corpus ever done for you?

Celebrating the launch of the new and 8th Edition of the COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, our Corpus lexicographer Julie Moore has written an excellent article about the impact of corpora on English language teaching, which was published in the October issue of the Modern English Teacher. We hope you’ll enjoy reading it!

What has a corpus ever done for you?


Julie Moore is a freelance ELT teacher, writer and lexicographer based in Bristol in the UK. She first became interested in lexicography and corpus research doing her MA at the University of Birmingham and over the past 15 years, she has worked on learner’s dictionaries for all the major ELT publishers. She now combines teaching, teacher training, lexicography and other ELT writing and never ceases to be amazed that she can earn a living from playing with words!