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Futurity

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.

Or:

               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:

1
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.

2
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.

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.

Nominalization

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.

Passives

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.

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References:

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

Grammar and register

collins-cobuild-pack-shot

 

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

 

Our last post focused on the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive approach to grammar. A descriptive grammar, such as the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, describes the language which people actually use, and draws from that a set of norms for usage. These norms, in turn, are used to help learners use English in a way that will, hopefully, come across as normal and natural.

While it doesn’t make judgments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ grammar, a descriptive grammar does, however, still need to draw distinctions about what is typical in different contexts and what is therefore generally considered appropriate. Language which is perfectly normal in everyday conversation or in social media chat, for example, may be inappropriate or even unacceptable in an academic essay or a business report.  The idea that different types of language are typically used in different contexts is known as register.

Spoken vs written language:

Perhaps the most obvious distinction to make is between spoken and written language. As corpus linguists have begun to study the grammar of not just written texts but of spoken, conversational English as well, a number of important differences have become apparent in the way we use language when we speak and when we write. Carter and McCarthy (2015) highlight two broad differences:

  1. They explain that some of the established grammatical features found in writing need to be rethought when it comes to speaking. For example, whereas written language has clear sentences, spoken language tends to be instead structured around turns, where each turn may or may not consist of what we’d conventionally think of as a complete sentence.
  2. They point out the existence of small words or phrases in spoken language which stand on their own and function independently of grammatical structures, for example, well, anyway, fine, and great.

Consider the following dialogue between two students in a university library. What do you notice about the structure of the turns? Could any of them be considered fully-formed sentences?

A: You finished yet?shutterstock_521796607
B: Nearly.
A: Want to go and grab a coffee?
B: When I get to the end of this bit, maybe.
A: Okay, fine.
B: You go. I’ll be there in a bit.

Only the final turn here contains what we’d conventionally recognise as a fully-formed sentence. So why is this ‘looser’ approach to grammar acceptable in speech but not necessarily in writing? A lot comes down to shared understanding and context. When you’re talking to someone face-to-face, you rely a lot on the shared context (i.e. you and your listener are in the same place, at the same time, looking at the same surroundings) and your shared understanding – about each other and why you’re there. This means that there’s a lot that can remain unsaid, and this is what Carter and McCarthy (2015) term ‘situational ellipsis’. In writing, we generally have to be more explicit because we don’t share the same immediate context as our reader. That means we have to fill the ‘information gap’ between us, especially if our potential audience is unknown. We have to spell things out clearly to make sure our reader understands our message; we can’t judge by their expression whether they’ve understood or whether they look a bit puzzled, and they can’t signal understanding or ask for clarification.

Audience and purpose:

The register you choose, whether in speech or writing, also depends very much on your audience and purpose. Imagine, for example, that you witness a minor car accident in the street and you react in the following three ways.

  1. You take a picture and post it on social media with a comment.
  2. You tell your family about what happened when you get home.
  3. One of the drivers takes your contact details and some time later you receive a letter from her insurance company asking you to write a report of what you saw.

shutterstock_20978257

In each of the three situations, how might your language differ in terms of …
– the amount of detail you include?
– vocabulary?
– grammar?

Which of the following examples do you think might be used in each context? Which grammatical features give you a clue?

At 8.30 on the morning of 25 January 2017, I was walking along Clifton Road.
Nasty smash on Clifton Rd … no one hurt, but road blocked & loads of traffic backing up.
The guy was going way too fast, he was never going to stop.
The black vehicle may have been travelling above the speed limit.

The very careful, formalized order of the time adverbials in the first example signals a (semi)legal register. This is how police reports typically describe the time of events and it’s a form that lay people who find themselves in a legal context, such as writing a statement to an insurance company, tend to adopt. As well as it just being ‘the norm’, we use this type of language because we understand the need to be clear and accurate, and to provide as much detail as possible in this particular context; we recognize the purpose of the communication as well as the audience.

In the second and third examples, we see instances of slightly more informal grammatical forms – loads of … and way too + qualitative adjective – which are typical of speech or informal writing, such as on social media. Whereas in the final example, the use of may have to express possibility is a slightly more formal choice than might have or could have. Collins COBUILD English Grammar includes many more examples of grammatical features typically used more in formal or informal registers.

Specialized registers:

As well as the broad register categories of spoken and written or formal and informal, certain features are typical of a more specialized register. We’ve already seen an example of a legal register; some other features most usually found in specialized contexts include:

  • Literary: Her pale face grew paler yet. (yet after a comparative adjective)
  • Old-fashioned or very formal: It is my decision, is it not? (an uncontracted negative tag)
  • Technical: non-ferrous metals such as copper, lead and aluminium (a normally uncountable (mass) noun being used in the plural form to refer to different types of a substance)
  • Academic: a clear demonstration of the brain mechanisms at work (a long noun phrase) 

What happens if you break the rules?

Throughout this post, I’ve been using lots of hedging language – typically, usually, tend to – because I’ve been describing tendencies rather than hard-and-fast rules. Of course, speakers break them all time. But what happens when we get a mismatch in register? The text below is from a television advert (for totaljobs.com). It’s delivered by a primary school teacher addressing a group of five-year-olds:

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

The effect here is humorous because the use of typically legal language sticks out as marked in the context. This is fine if you’re aiming for humour, but less good if you’re a learner who inadvertently uses linguistic features that don’t match the communicative context. In the classroom, we tend to mention register in relation to vocabulary (children vs. kids, thank you vs. cheers), but if we’re going to help our students avoid embarrassing faux pas, then it’s something to bring up in relation to grammar too.

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


References:
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (2015) ‘Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?’ Applied Linguistics