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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

Modality and conditionals

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

Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?

Sun Tzu

 The quote above, attributed to an ancient Chinese military strategist, is often used in leadership training to encourage people to act on their ideas and see them through to completion. But we’re interested in it for another reason: the language it contains, namely modals and a conditional sentence. In this blogpost we’re going to discuss each of these areas of language in turn.


Consider the following statements:

1  Mr Wilkins is the oldest person in the village.

2  Mr Wilkins must be the oldest person in the village.

How many people are referred to (either explicitly or implicitly) in each statement? The correct answer is one person in statement 1, and two people in statement 2. If we rephrase statement 2, it reads something like:

From everything I know about the people in the village, I’m certain Mr Wilkins is the oldest person in the village.

Or even just:

I’m certain Mr Wilkins is the oldest person in the village.

As you can see, there are now two people explicitly referred to in the statement: ‘I’ and ‘Mr Wilkins’. This example is taken from Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017), which states that:

Modals are mainly used when you want to show your attitude towards what you
are saying, or when you are concerned about the effect of what you are saying on                       the person to whom you are speaking or writing.

This is what all modals share – the fact that they allow us to express our attitude to the facts. Each modal does this in a different way, but in effect every time we use a modal it’s the same as saying I think it’s that … . For example:

It might rain later. = I think it’s possible that it will rain later.

You should eat fewer carbs. = I think it’s a good idea that you eat fewer carbs.

England will win the World Cup. = I think it’s inevitable that England is going to win.

This allows us to understand why some modals and ‘semi-modals’ behave the way they do. For example, must is a modal, i.e. it allows us to say I think it’s obligatory that … . Have to, on the other hand, is not a modal. If we use this to talk about an obligation, it’s seen as more of a fact. Compare these examples:

Helmets must be worn at all times.

You have to eat or you die.

The first statement describes an obligation created and enforced by people – if you don’t, then they will punish you. The second statement describes an obligation created and enforced by nobody, it’s just a fact of life.

In their positive forms, they have fairly similar meanings. But when we look at the negatives, the difference becomes clearer.

You mustn’t use your mobile in the library.

You don’t have to wear smart clothes if you don’t want to.

In the first statement, there is a negative obligation, created by people. In the second statement, there is no obligation. This is why have to is not a modal – its negative form subtracts its meaning rather than negating it.

Another ‘semi modal’ is need, which works both as a modal and as a verb. We can see the difference in the same way when we look at its negative form:

There’s nobody here – we needn’t have arrived so early!

We didn’t need to arrive early so we got there at 9.

In the first statement, need is acting like a modal: we’re saying that we only realized the lack of necessity when we said this sentence (or From everything I now know about the situation, I think it’s unnecessary…). In the second statement, need acts like an ordinary verb, and so, as was the case with don’t have to, the negative form subtracts its meaning rather than negating it.

Another important aspect of modals is how they refer to time, which we discussed in our previous post: tense and aspect. According to Lewis (1986:52):

… modality allows the speaker to introduce a personal interpretation of the non-factual and non-temporal elements of the event.

In other words, modals allow us to express our attitude at the time of speaking. This is important as it helps us understand why modals don’t have past forms. Of course could and would are often used as the ‘past’ forms of can and should, but in fact these behave more like remote forms (see our previous post).

When we use modals to refer to past events, we use the perfect aspect to show that we are expressing our opinion now, referring to a past event. The perfect aspect allows us to link these times:

You could have told me you weren’t coming! = I think (now) it was possible for you to have told me in the past (and it’s annoying me now!)

We should’ve brought more money. = I think now that it would have been a good idea to bring more money.

Another area in which time plays an important role is exemplified by the original quote from Sun Tzu: conditional clauses.


Conditionals are often taught as one of four forms:

Zero conditional: present condition, present result; the situation is certain.

If you heat ice, it melts.

First conditional: present/future condition, future result; the situation is likely.

If she gets here on time, we’ll start as planned.

Second conditional: present/future condition, present/future result; the situation is hypothetical.

If Jack did more exercise, he’d lose weight.

Third conditional: past condition, past result; the situation is hypothetical.

If my parents hadn’t met, I wouldn’t have been born.

With this in mind, consider which type of conditionals these are:

If Sally would make more of an effort, she’d have more friends.

If he’s arrived, I’ll speak to him.

If you were going to speak to me like that, I’d tell you to stop.

If Tony hadn’t asked for a place, he wasn’t going to get one at all.

While they don’t fit the ‘rules’ above very nicely, these are all perfectly acceptable sentences. Perhaps more useful is to look at the function of conditional clauses in general terms. Collins COBUILD English Grammar states:

When you want to talk about a possible situation and its consequences, you use a conditional clause.

It then goes on to make the distinction between situations that sometimes exist or existed, situations that you know do not exist and situations that may exist in the future.

This is a useful distinction to make in terms of how we teach conditional clauses – those which talk about real possibilities and those which discuss hypothetical reasons. This then allows us to open up even more language, such as:

A:         I wish it was Saturday.

B:         Why?

A:         Because if it was Saturday, I’d be lying on the beach right now.

The forms I wish + past tense and If + past tense are often taught separately, but in real life they often co-occur in this way, with the latter clause providing further details, and extending the discourse.

Of course, if we have also introduced the idea of remote forms to our students (see our previous post), then we are already halfway there in understanding how these hypothetical clauses are used.

Both modals and conditionals are rather grey areas which can be difficult to fully understand. However, by keeping in mind that all modals have a common function, and by not getting too dragged down with questions of form when we look at conditionals, we can begin to shed more light on these areas of language.


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




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


Further reading:

Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., Quirk, R. and Svartvik, J. 1985 A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language Longman

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 grammarly.com, ‘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): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/15/steven-pinker-10-grammar-rules-break
Thornbury, S. (2011) P is for prescriptive: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/p-is-for-prescriptive/
Vannest, A. (2016) Remember when? 6 grammar rules from the past: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/remember-when-6-grammar-rules-from-the-past/