Tag Archives: English Language teaching

Exploring language change

collins cobuild grammarThis article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar

When a new edition of a grammar is launched, teachers and students may well wonder what can be new about a grammar. We all know about new words, which grab the headlines at every new edition of a big dictionary, but what does an editor do when she is asked to update a pedagogical grammar, taking account of developments that have occurred in the language over the past 20-or-so years?

First, let’s look at why grammar changes and where, in the case of English at least, changes might come from.

Swan (2016) identifies eight reasons why the grammar of a language can change:

  1. Communicative need: despite modern English having only one form of the pronoun you for both singular and plural use, people still feel the need to distinguish between singular and plural. More about this later.
  2. Influence from other varieties: modern British English is constantly being influenced by American English, as well as the dialects of immigrants who settle in the UK, as can be seen in the rise of all-purpose question tags such as right? and innit.
  3. Languages simplify themselves: an example of this is the move away from the use of the past perfect, e.g. When I read over my essay again, I realized I made a mistake.
  4. Small distinctions are confused or disappear, as in those between less and fewer (e.g. There were less people there than last year) and who and whom (e.g. Who do you work for?).
  5. New forms and uses spread, as in what has become known as ‘quotative like’ (I was like, ‘What?’).
  6. ‘Outlawed’ forms become respectable again: people seem to be becoming more tolerant of uses that were, until recently, considered grammatically wrong. Examples of this type of thing are splitting infinitives, starting a sentence with a conjunction, and ending one with a preposition.
  7. ‘Mistakes’ become part of the language: in an earlier blogpost, we examined the grey area between mistakes and nonstandard English. Utterances such as Me and Amy went to the park, which might have been considered as mistakes until only recently, are now being gradually (and often grudgingly) accepted into the spoken language as they are used by increasing numbers of younger people.
  8. Phonetically weak forms disappear: particularly in spoken English, unstressed words and syllables gradually disappear over time, giving utterances like You gonna be long in there? or Gotta go now.

A ninth reason that I would add to Swan’s list is sociocultural change. This can be demonstrated by the fact that for many years, it was perfectly acceptable to refer back to an indefinite pronoun such as someone with a masculine pronoun (he, him) or a possessive determiner (his), as in Everyone should do his best. However, many people are no longer comfortable using a masculine form to refer to people in general – they feel that language should be less male-biased – and this has led to a sharp increase in the use of generic they/their.

As a first step then, when we were planning the latest edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar, we identified several areas of the language where we had observed that things seemed to have changed. A team of researchers then used the Collins Corpus to trace their development over the past 20 years, with some interesting results.

We wanted to choose areas where we felt there had been a recent change, or where traditional explanations didn’t seem to tell the whole story. Here are the topics we selected:

1.   generic pronouns and determiners
2.   stative verbs used with progressive aspect
3.   unmodified much in affirmative statements
4.   be like as a reporting structure
5.   plural forms of you
6.   all-purpose question tags

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 spoken and written English, and we also looked at how English has changed over the period in question. Paragraphs in bold below denote extracts from the latest edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

The results were fascinating:

1. Generic pronouns and determiners: 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.

Generic they is also used in formal language, and it is even sometimes used when the gender is known (‘Ask the young mothers and no one will say they regret having their baby.’)

2. Stative verbs used with progressive aspect: despite the accepted ‘rule’ that stative verbs do not appear in progressive forms, we found lots of examples in the Collins Corpus where they occurred quite frequently and naturally in the progressive, and we’re not just talking about the famous I’m lovin’ it slogan. For example, we found verbs like want (as in I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this for a while) and forgetting (as in Oops, I’m forgetting my manners!), rolling naturally off people’s tongues.

          You can use the present perfect progressive or past perfect progressive with                         some stative verbs in both formal and informal contexts.

          I’ve been wanting to speak to you about this for some time.
          John has been keeping birds for about three years now.
          Then she heard it. The sound she had been hearing in her head for weeks.

3. Unmodified much in affirmative statements: 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 (*We have many biscuits. *We have much time.)

We were interested in much because, to an even 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, so much. Unmodified statements such as *We have much time and *I have much work to do seem incorrect, and we wanted to find out how frequent they are. We found that this usage had indeed fallen out of use over the last 20 years, but we also found that assertive, unmodified much does occur, naturally and abundantly, with certain nouns in a restricted set of semantic fields:

  • 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).

          In more formal English, much can be used in affirmative statements without
          an adverb. This usage is most common with abstract nouns, particularly those 
          relating to discussion, debate and research.

          The subject of company and annual accounts is generating much debate among
          accountants and analysts.
          The team’s findings have caused much excitement among medical experts.
          After much speculation, intelligence agencies now believe that he survived.

4. be like as a reporting verb: we were interested in this fairly new use, as in At first, I was like,no, what are you talking about? Our corpus research showed us 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!

          Another reporting structure that is used in informal spoken English is be like. Be
like can represent either speech or thought. In writing, be like is usually followed
          by a comma. The quote is sometimes in quotation marks, and sometimes not.

          He got a call from Oprah, and he was like, ‘Of course I’ll go on your show.’
          He‘s like, ‘It’s boring! I hate chess!’ And I‘m like, ‘Please teach me!’
          The minute I met him, I was like, he’s perfect. 

          As with other reporting verbs, you can use be like with a noun or a person pronoun:
          for example, you can say She was like, …, The doctor was like, … or Jane was like, …,
          followed by the thing that she/the doctor/Jane said or thought.

          Unlike other reporting verbs, you can also use be like after the pronoun it. This
          structure is often used to present a mixture of speech and thought, or a general
          situation. For example, if you say It was like, Oh wow! it is possible that nobody
          actually said or thought Oh wow! Rather, the sentence gives us an idea of the
          situation and means something like It was amazing/surprising.

          So I get back in the bus, quarter of an hour passes and it’s like, Where’s Graham?
          When that happened it was like, Oh, no, not again.
          Be like always comes before the reported clause.

5. Plural forms of you: as mentioned earlier, you doubles up as both singular and plural second person pronoun in modern English, and mostly, it does quite a good job. However, people do sometimes need to make the distinction, and we were keen to find out more about how they do this. We looked at both lexicalized forms: you guys, you two, you both and you all, and more synthesized forms: yous, youse, youz, ye, yinz, y’all, and found that all types were alive and kicking, particularly on social media sites. The only form that had taken a downturn in UK English was you all, counterbalanced by a steep rise in the use of you guys.

          Some varieties and dialects of English have developed particular forms of
          plural you. In American English, particularly Southern American English, y’all is                     sometimes used, especially in speech.

          What did y’all eat for breakfast?
          I want to thank y’all.

          In some dialects of British and American English, yous and youse are used as plural               forms: I know what some of yous might be thinking. 

6. All-purpose question tags: this is one of the developments we’ve looked at for the latest edition, in particular question tags associated with other varieties of English (US, and increasingly UK, English, … right? and multicultural British English innit). We found a huge rise in the use of innit in British English, and these findings, alongside other emerging forms, have been translated into the new edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

          In informal spoken English, you can use a one-word all-purpose question tag such               as right? or eh?

          You’re American, right?
          He’s a lawyer, right?
          Let’s talk about something else, eh?
          Not good, eh?

          In some varieties of English, particularly those spoken in India, Singapore and                       Malaysia, isn’t it? is used as an all-purpose question tag.

          We’ve seen that film already, isn’t it? 
          They’re arriving tomorrow, isn’t it?

          Informal multicultural British English uses the common all-purpose question tag                 innit (a shortened form of isn’t it), both with and without a rising question mark.

          It makes you think though, innit?
          It’s all just a bit of fun, innit?
          So eventually he gave me the sack, innit.

Have you noticed any developments in the grammar of English since you started learning or teaching it? To what extent do you think these new forms should be taught?


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




Swan, M. (2016) Practical English Usage Oxford University Press


collins cobuild grammar


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


Very early on in my teaching career, I remember addressing a class of Russian teenagers with the statement, ‘Will is the future tense in English.’ It was only later as I started developing as a teacher and gaining greater insight into the grammatical system of English that I started to see that there’s much more to will than meets the eye. Consider the following examples:

               A: Where’s Ben?
               B: Oh, it’s 4 p.m., he’ll be in the pub.


               I sent her the documents two weeks ago, so she’ll have received them by last Friday.

In the examples above we can see that will refers to the present (first example), and the past (second example). So what’s going on here? Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017) has this to say on futurity in English:

                It is not possible to talk with as much certainty about the future as it is about the                           present or past. Any reference you make to future events is therefore usually an                             expression of what you think might happen or what you intend to happen.

In fact there is no future tense in English, per se. What we have instead is a myriad of different ways of describing the future, depending on how we view the events. In our earlier post on modality and conditionals, we described all modals as allowing us to add our attitude to what we’re saying. Will is a modal, and when we add it to a sentence, what we’re saying is that from everything we know about the situation, we see the event as inevitable. In this sense, it’s a way of making predictions about inevitable outcomes, and that’s exactly what’s happening in the two examples above. But this doesn’t make it a future tense.

This perception of will as a future tense often gets carried over into what are described as the future progressive and the future perfect ‘tenses’. But as we saw in an earlier post, what we’re really describing here is aspect rather than tense. Consider this example:

               This time next year I’ll be studying for my finals.

Here, we’re using will as a modal to show what we think of as the inevitable outcome of being in our penultimate year of university, coupled with the progressive aspect to show this will be in progress at a particular point in the future.

Now consider this example:

               By the time she’s 40 she’ll have been a teacher for 15 years.

Here, we’re again using the modal will, but this time along with the perfect aspect to show an action that’s true now and will continue up to that point.

There are various other ways of talking about the future in English, such as using the present simple to describe events we have no control over (e.g. I’m 27 next year). We also use be going to to describe plans/intentions (e.g. I’m going to start a band this summer), the present progressive to describe arrangements (e.g. I’m having dinner with an old friend tomorrow), be to for formal arrangements and instructions (e.g. The President is to announce a new tax on property), and be due to and be about to for events we expect to happen soon (e.g. The train’s about to leave).

And those are just the grammatical ways of expressing future time. We can also express future events lexically; certain verbs, for example, have a future meaning (e.g. promise, expect, hope, etc.). These verbs are usually followed by an infinitive. Collins COBUILD English Grammar also gives us ways of making our references to the future more vague (e.g. by adding an adverbial phrase such as one of these days, sometime, sooner or later).

The way in which we talk about the future does not depend only on how we perceive the event, but also on how we want it to be perceived. For example, if I’m at my in-laws and I want to watch the football, I could say, ‘I’m going to watch the football’. However, I don’t want it to be seen as a plan or intention, so I might instead go for something like, ‘I’ll just see what’s on TV … Oh look, it’s the football!’

Consider the following exchanges, too:

A:          Hi Damian, would you like to come to my English grammar party on Saturday night?
B:          Oh, I’m sorry, I’m going to watch a movie that night.

A:          Hi Damian, would you like to come to my English grammar party on Saturday night?
B:          Oh, I’m sorry, I’m watching a movie that night.

Consider which is likely to get a response of Don’t do that. Come to the party instead! and which is likely to elicit Oh, OK then. Have fun!. Most likely, conversation 1 will get the first response and conversation 2 will get the second, as the response in conversation 2 sounds like a firmer arrangement.

Learners looking for a quick and easy-to-learn ‘future tense’ in English may initially be disappointed. But once they have an understanding of the ways the language can be manipulated, they will have at their disposal a wealth of ways to express themselves. Being in possession of all the available options also gives them access to a much more expressive and malleable area of language than they would get with a hard-and-fast tense with strict rules. After all, why have water when you can have fresh juice?

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

Nonstandard usage or error: where should we draw the line?

collins cobuild grammar





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

If we’re going to talk about nonstandard English, it’s a good idea to start by asking what Standard English (SE) is.

As David Crystal (1994) states in his article ‘What is Standard English?’:

          [It is] the variety of English which carries most prestige.

He goes on to quote US linguist James Sledd as observing that SE is:

          the English used by the powerful.

But where did this variety of English come from? Well, as with many of these things, it happened through pure accident, thanks to a victory by King Alfred over forces in the north of England in 878 AD. Because of this, the government became established in London, and so the type of English spoken in southern England became the British English standard, and has remained so throughout the centuries, even though it has changed dramatically over that time.

Standard English is only one of the many varieties of English used in the UK and the world today. What distinguishes it from other varieties is the fact that it is not locally based. Indeed, British SE can be spoken in a wide variety of accents including Scottish and Welsh, as well as the prestigious ‘Received Pronunciation’ of the influential classes (also controversially known as ‘Oxford English’, ‘the Queen’s English’, or ‘BBC English’).

Many people are surprised to find out that British SE is actually a minority variety, that is, it is spoken by very few people. Since these are generally people who are in a position of power and usually highly educated, SE is the desirable form that is often aspired to.

There are plenty of good reasons for establishing a standard form of a language; for example, it enables the media to reach as many people as possible, and children can be taught homogeneously so that they are not at a disadvantage if they move to another part of the country. The downside is that the existence of a standard leads many people to regard local varieties as ‘substandard’ or as an indication of ignorance.

Let us now turn to nonstandard English. As will have become clear from the discussion above, nonstandard English is any variety (or dialect) that does not conform to the nominated norm. While nonstandard grammar may be regarded by some as ‘incorrect’, it is actually just the grammar of a particular variety. What people really mean is that certain forms are not appropriate in more formal situations. Most people would avoid using their local dialect in a job application, for example.

A nonstandard variety might be geographically based, or it might be typical of a certain group in society, such as the young or people of certain ethnic backgrounds. Here are some examples:

Geographically based varieties:

The car needs washed. (instead of … needs to be washed: Scottish)

Your man’s after buying another drink. (instead of … has just bought …: Irish)

I were right proud of you, son. (instead of I was …: Yorkshire)

Are yous all coming to the party? (instead of Are you all …: Scottish, Geordie, Northern Irish)

Varieties used by particular groups in society:

I got fired, innit. (instead of ... didn’t I? British multicultural English)

She was like, ‘What are you on about?’ (instead of She said …: mainly young people)

I’m liking the new lipstick. (instead of I like …: social media users, journalists, advertisers)

While many of us get a lot of pleasure from the various regionalisms we hear as we travel around the country, there are plenty more who rail against the use of nonstandard grammar, particularly when it comes from their children or their students.

A 2014 worksheet provided by BBC Voices (a series of lesson plans for use when teaching pupils about accent and dialect) tries to put things into perspective. The teacher’s notes exhort educators to help students to ‘recognise how the grammar of their native dialect differs from that of Standard English’. The sub-text here seems to be that young people should not be pilloried for speaking a dialect; instead, they should simply be made aware of which variety to use when.

While many educators are coming to understand this need to respect local varieties, and starting to simply point out the differences between these and Standard English, there are many more who are far less willing to accept varieties such as those listed in the second section above – varieties that are used by particular groups in society. These are often forms that have made their way into the language more recently, leading those who prefer the status quo to berate younger people for their ‘slovenly’ ways.

An article on the BBC website back in September 2010 reported on how Emma Thompson, the much-loved British actor of Nanny McPhee and Love Actually, fumes at the sound of those ‘sloppy’ teenage words such as the filler like and the all-purpose question tag innit. Interviewed by the journalist, the then editor of the Collins English Dictionary explained that like is simply a filler, just like um. He went on to note that:

          When words break out of a specific use and become commonly used in a different way,                         people come down on them. […] Using um may seem more correct to Emma Thompson                         because using like as a filler is not a feature of the language she uses. The more                                     disassociated you are from the group that uses the word in a different way, the more that                     use stands out. It will be invisible to teenagers.

As a descriptive grammar, Collins COBUILD English Grammar records a wide variety of examples of this type. Careful analysis of the Collins Corpus has enabled us to identify typical contexts for such new forms as the all-purpose question tag innit, quotative like, and the use of stative verbs with progressive aspect, always with a usage note explaining that these forms are nonstandard, or appropriate only in spoken, informal situations.

Other examples of language change that are gradually coming to be accepted as standard rather than errors are:

Me and Amy went to the park. (instead of Amy and I …)

If I was better at cooking, I’d have a dinner party. (instead of If I were …)

Who did you want to speak to? (instead of Whom did you want …)

There were less than 20 people in the audience. (instead of … fewer than 20 people …)

So, if all of these various nonstandard examples are not errors, what does count as an error?

Michael Swan (2016) identifies four types of ‘true’ error:

  1.  slips of the tongue
  2.  using a word wrongly because you are confusing it with another word, or you are not sure of its meaning
  3.  errors of spelling or punctuation
  4.  foreign learner mistakes

Language teachers need to be aware of the latter in particular, but even then, things are not cut and dried. Since English is used globally as a lingua franca, often between non-native speakers, it can be heavily influenced by speakers’ first languages. Linguists have identified certain common features of ‘ELF’ (English as a lingua franca), questioning whether these should be regarded as errors at all in global communications, particularly since they do not impede communication. Examples of ‘ELF’ grammar include dropping the 3rd person s in the present simple, leaving out articles, and using all-purpose questions tags such as isn’t it. The ELF discussion raises a whole new set of questions for both learners and teachers, but as Scott Thornbury concludes in his 2011 ‘E is for ELF’ article:

          It is the learner, in the end, who must decide what code best serves his or her needs, and what             is achievable in the available time and with the available resources.

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



Crystal, D. (1994) ‘What is Standard English?’ Concorde, English-Speaking Union, 24–26

Swan, M. (2016) Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press

Thornbury, S. (2011) https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/e-is-for-elf/

BBC news website (2010) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11426737

BBC Voices (2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/schools/worksheets/pdf/weather_teachers.pdf

Understanding academic grammar


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

For students new to dealing with academic texts in English, they can seem daunting; full of long words and long complex sentences. Are academics just trying to show off how clever they are and confuse their poor readers? Well, maybe just a little bit sometimes, but most of the time, there are good reasons for the grammatical choices made by academic writers. Understanding the reasons for those choices can help students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) make more informed choices in their own writing.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar has a supplement dedicated to the grammar of academic English, explaining some of the features typical of an academic register. In this post, we’ll look at three key features of academic writing and the reasons behind them.


In everyday conversation, we use roughly equal numbers of nouns and verbs (Biber et al., 1999). Because we’re coming up with ideas on the spot, our linguistic processing power generally only allows us to construct quite simple structures, often consisting of subject + verb (+ object) clauses:

I bought a new bag yesterday. (pronoun + verb + noun)
Your phone’s ringing. (noun + verb)

In speech, if we want to give more details, we tend to string together a sequence of simple clauses. An academic writer, on the other hand, often needs to convey a lot of detailed information in a concise way. To do this, they tend to use long noun phrases and relatively fewer verbs (roughly three or four nouns for every verb; Biber et al., 1999). Look at the following examples, in which the noun phrases have been underlined, and consider how long and awkward the ideas would be if you tried to express them as a string of simple noun + verb (+ noun) clauses:

The maintenance of blood pressure is achieved less rapidly as we age.
Parliament is a national governing body with the highest level of legislative power.

Of course, it takes time for students to learn how to unpack these long noun phrases. Breaking them down and looking at the processes involved can help. In the examples above, we can see three of the key building blocks of noun phrases:
– nominalization of processes: maintain becomes maintenance
– premodification: adding details before the main noun; a national governing body
– postmodification: adding more information after the main noun. In the second example, a relative clause (which has the highest level …) has been reduced to a prepositional phrase (with the highest level …) to make it neater.


Students new to EAP will often say that passives are more common in academic writing, but they only have the haziest understanding about why this might be the case. In fact, passives are slightly more frequent in academic writing than in other registers, but they still only account for around 25% of verb forms (Biber et al., 1999). Consider these two versions of a short text and the effect of the verb form in the second sentence in each case.

  1. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic drug. Doctors around the world now use antibiotics to treat infections and save lives.
  2. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic drug. Antibiotics are now used around the world to treat infections and save lives.

In A, the subject of the second sentence, doctors, is not especially important to the message and in fact, I found it quite hard to choose an appropriate noun; doctors, medical staff, healthcare professionals, hospitals? The focus of the sentence is the drug itself, antibiotics, so it makes sense to make this the subject. To achieve this, we need to use a passive form of the verb (are used). This is often the case in academic writing where the product of an action is more significant than the person performing it: 40% of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil (we’re less interested in the farmers who grow the coffee, so we omit the performer of the action and focus on the product).

What’s more, in B, the text has a more cohesive feel because the second sentence conforms to the typical ‘known information’ > ‘new information’ structure. So the writer mentions antibiotics first to link back to the previous sentence (the reader already knows the text is about antibiotics), and then goes on to add the new information (used around the world …). This ‘known’ > ‘new’ structure is one technique that can be used to guide a reader through a text and make it more readable. Choosing an active or a passive verb form is one grammatical feature we can manipulate as writers to allow us to move information around in a sentence to best achieve this flow. It isn’t that a passive verb form is always more ‘correct’ or more ‘academic’, it’s just one option that can help us to organize information in the most effective way.

Tentative language

So we’ve seen how we can use grammar to organize lots of academic detail into a concise and easy-to-follow form. Good academic writers don’t only need to describe ‘facts’, however; they also need to think about how they want to communicate their message. Concepts such as voice and stance are essential to becoming an effective academic writer. Student writers need to learn to emphasize what’s most important, to express evaluation, and comment critically on ideas. They also need to develop their use of tentative language, sometimes known as hedging, to express their degree of certainty – or uncertainty – in their message. Tentative language can include adverbs (partly, approximately, apparently), modal verbs (could, may, might, can), semi-auxiliary verbs (seem, appear), and prepositional phrases (in most cases, in general). Consider the effect of the underlined words in the following examples. How does the message change if they are removed?

Increased risk of infection is predominantly linked to poor sanitation.
As will be seen later, current models are inadequate in some respects
Electric cars appear to offer a pollution-free alternative to conventional vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

It can seem counterintuitive to new student writers to include language that’s intentionally vague or cautious. Surely they want to confidently demonstrate what they know, don’t they? Overconfidence and overgeneralization though can leave the writer open to criticism. Poor sanitation may not be the only reason for increased infection. Current models may not be completely inadequate, they may have some good points. And there may be some reasons we haven’t yet thought of why electric cars aren’t completely pollution free. By acknowledging possible limitations and uncertainties, the writer is pre-empting potential criticisms and thus, actually making their claims more difficult to argue against.

All of these features of academic writing, when properly understood, enable the writer to make choices about the most effective way to express their ideas and the most appropriate way to get their argument across to their reader. They can, of course, be overused and misused as well, making writing muddled and difficult to read. The key for new academic writers is to understand their options and to always be asking themselves why they’re making particular grammatical choices.

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



Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English Longman: Harlow

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 


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