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My students often complain about the past tense in English. There’s a good system - to form the past tense, you simply add ‘-ed’ to the end of a verb. Simple!
But then we have to ruin it by making (so it seems) half of all English verbs ‘irregular’.
Now, they don’t end in ‘-ed’ anymore. They could end in anything (ate, slept, bought)! They might even retain the same form in past tense (like split, cut, bet or let)!
Why oh why does English grammar have to be so confusing!
Yes, there IS a reason why English grammar is so confusing!
English is a mix of several different languages. A lot of English comes from Old French and Latin. A lot of it comes from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. These were peoples who settled in Britain more than 1000 years ago - before it was ‘Britain’ and before there was even an England.
Some grammar rules originate from one language. Some originate from others. For some reason, the rules were never completely standardised.
This is the same reason that English spelling is so confusing. It was also never fully standardised.
By the way, if you'd like to learn more about this we have a podcast on the illogicality of the English language.
Can’t you just learn English without learning grammar rules?
Well… yes and no.
Native speakers learn English without learning grammar rules, at least until they go to school.
But kids learn differently from adults.
While it is not good to “learn English by learning grammar rules”, grammar is a tool that can help you to speak more accurately and spot your mistakes.
I recommend including at least some grammar practice in your learning routine (and don't just rely on Grammarly correcting you!). The tips in this article are perfect examples of bite-sized grammar learning points that can help you improve.
So without further ado, let’s get to it.
1 Its and It’s
Do you want to have better grammar than many native speakers? Here’s one area where you can, because many native speakers get this point wrong.
‘Its’ without an apostrophe is the possessive form. We see it in sentences like this:
The cat licked its tail.
The phone fits into its docking station, like this.
The tail belongs to the cat. The docking station belongs to the phone. That’s why we call it possessive.
‘It’s’ with an apostrophe is the abbreviation for it is:
It’s raining. (It is raining.)
It’s nice to see you. (It is nice to see you.)
Occasionally, we use ‘it’s’ as an abbreviation for it has:
It’s been raining. (It has been raining.)
2 Whom and who
My students told me that their teachers tortured them at school with exercises on who and whom. But out in the real world, they never hear people using whom. Why is that?
And yet, according to the grammar rule, we must use whom and not who following a preposition, such as to or for.
So what do native speakers do? They simply avoid this sentence construction.
For example, instead of asking, when answering the phone, “To whom do you wish to speak?”, we simply modify it to, “Who would you like to speak to?”.
My suggestion is simple: avoid using whom.
3 I were?
Conditional sentences are sentences that state a possible condition, usually with the word IF.
Conditional sentences in English are unnecessarily complex. We have the first conditional, the second conditional, the third conditional and even something called the zero conditional!
And many ‘if’ sentences in real life don’t fit neatly into any of these categories!
But perhaps the most confusing is the second conditional, which describes an ‘unreal or imaginary situation’. Let’s see an example:
If I were a superhero, I would call myself Wonderdude.
We use IF plus the past tense form of the verb, plus a clause with WOULD.
But did you notice the first part: “I WERE”? What’s up with that?
It’s called the subjunctive mood and it’s very confusing… but I have a tip for you.
My tip is this: forget the subjunctive and just say the sentence like this:
If I was a superhero, I would call myself Wonderdude.
It’s “technically” incorrect, but many native speakers just say it this way (about 50% when I researched it on Google).
So why make it difficult on yourself? Anyway, the “wrong” way sounds better and it’s the way I say it myself.
4 An -ED ending does not always signify the past tense
I was surprised at how many of my students were confused by this point.
Yes, -ED can signify the past tense, but it has other uses too. Many past participles end in -ED, and we use these with perfect tenses and passive voice:
I will have delivered it by Friday. (Future perfect, NOT past tense)
It will be delivered on Friday. (Passive, NOT past tense)
These cars are manufactured in Japan. (Passive, NOT past tense)
We also spell some adjectives with -ed, especially adjectives describing feelings:
I am confused. (Present tense)
She’s excited about the party. (Present tense)
5 IS or ARE for teams and groups
I often tell my students to think about whether a subject is equivalent to IT or THEY.
The cat is hungry.
The cats are hungry.
We use IS in the first example, because “the cat” is equivalent to IT (it is…). We use ARE in the second example because “the cats” is equivalent to THEY (they are…).
But what about this sentence?
The team is/are happy with the result.
Well…my students are always happy when I tell them this. Both are correct.
You see, we can think of a team as “it” (a single entity) and say “the team is…” or we can think of a team as “they” (the individual parts) and we can say “the team are…”. It depends how you want to express it.
Other words that function in the same way are committee, panel, group, council and many other words describing a group of people or objects.
6 FEW vs A FEW
Here is an example where, if you get the grammar wrong, you may end up saying the opposite of what you mean!
“A few” means “some”. “Few” means “not many”.
You might still think the two meanings are pretty much the same, but look closer. One is positive and the other is negative. Let’s see an example:
A few people signed up for the course. (Some people signed up for it.)
Few people signed up for the course. (Not many people signed up for it.)
The first sentence is positive. It’s a good thing that some people signed up. The second sentence is negative. Not many people signed up and that’s a bad thing.
Little and a little work the same way with uncountable nouns:
We gained a little information from the spy. (Some information)
We gained little information from the spy. (Not much information)
7 Adjective order
Yes, English is such a crazy language that we even have rules for the order of adjectives.
They go like this:
3 physical quality
So, it is wrong to say, “a round, big, pink, Turkish table” because size should come before shape. It should be “a big, round, pink, Turkish table”!
English coursebooks love to include a chapter on this topic, usually with a nice chart. But, obviously, you can’t stop and pull out a chart whenever describing something in order to get the order of adjectives correct.
My suggestion is to ignore this rule and simply say what sounds correct to you.
Speaking of ignoring rules, let’s end with the strangest rule of all.
8 There are no grammar rules in English
Wait… what? We’ve just been looking at confusing grammar rules and now you say “there are no grammar rules in English”.
Hear me out.
For French, there is an organisation called the Académie Française. This organisation sets the rules for the French language. Its role is to make sure that people speak French correctly… the way the Académie wants them to speak it.
But what is the equivalent of the Académie Française for English?
There isn’t one. The Oxford English Dictionary? No, it’s a dictionary. It’s not concerned with grammar.
English works by “conventional usage” - however everybody says it is the right way to say it.
A few is different from few simply because that’s how the majority of English speakers use it.
We perceive the language to have rules, but, technically speaking, without a governing body to set these rules, they don’t really exist. It’s just how we interpret usage.
Of course, I always regret telling my students this fact. After they know that ‘English has no rules’, they never let me correct their grammar again!
On a serious note, grammar rules in English are often flexible (the team is/the team are). There are some that we can ignore altogether (whom). Others can actually help us to express ourselves better (few/a few).
By staying curious and exploring and analysing the language you encounter, you can separate the useful grammar from the not-so-useful grammar!