C is for Conundrum

4 06 2017

down by law01In one of Jim Jarmusch’s earliest movies, Down by Law, there’s a scene in which Roberto Benigni, playing an Italian obsessively learning idiomatic English, shares a prison cell with John Lurie and Tom Waites. To pass the time, he draws a window on the bare wall, and, after contemplating it a while, asks ‘Do you say in English “I look at the window” or “I look out the window”?’ The character played by John Lurie responds laconically, ‘In this case, I think you gotta say “I look at the window”’. (You can see the full scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKH9ZIVUCPU

Language conundrums such as this one are, of course, a staple of language learning and teaching. (The term ‘conundrum’ was used to describe these language puzzles by Michael Swan in a letter to the ELT Journal in 1990, and in a subsequent article in 1991). They are not always as easily answered as Benigni’s question, nor, perhaps, so innocently motivated. Learning to teach is, in good part, the acquisition of strategies to deal with such questions – such as throwing the question back to the questioner: ‘Well, what do you think?’; throwing it open to the class; eliciting more examples and writing them on the board; going online (if you’re in a smart classroom) and checking a corpus or a reference grammar, or simply promising to deliver an answer in the next class.

Having written some books on grammar myself, I am frequently targeted by online conundrum posers. One such, an Iranian who I’ll call F., has been emailing me questions fairly regularly for the last couple of years. He describes himself thus: ‘I’m an English teacher and very much interested in English. I teach at high school, three days a week. I’m 29 years old and a voracious reader of English novels and plays.’ And he asks, ‘Would you please let me stay in touch with you and ask you my grammar questions from time to time? I would be grateful to you if you would kindly accept my request.’

Below is a sample of F.’s questions. Before sharing with you the answers I gave F., you might like to have a crack at them yourselves.

  1. As you know in the sentence “The man WHO lives here is Mr. Johnson” we can remove WHO and write the sentence as “The man livING here is Mr. Johnson.”

However, in the sentence “There was a sudden bang WHICH woke me up” we cannot remove WHICH and write it as “There was a sudden bang WAKING me up.”

Why can we remove WHO in the first sentence and change the verb (live) to verbING (living) but in the second sentence we cannot remove WHICH and change the verb (wake) to verbING (waking).

Both WHICH and WHO are relative pronoun. But in sentence 1, WHO can be deleted but in sentence 2, WHICH cannot be deleted. WHY? Could you please explain your reasons.

  1. To tell you the truth, one of the things in the English grammar which is driving me crazy is the difference between “present perfect” and “present perfect continuous.”

For example, imagine that you see that your friend (called Sarah) is hungry and she has a plate of food in front of her. You go out of the room and when you get back,  you see that Sarah has an empty plate in front of her. Now, which one would you say to her? a) or b)?

  1. a) You have been eating.
  2. b) You have eaten.

Please explain your reasons.

  1. Please look at the following sentence, which I read in the newspaper:

“The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, tried to bring elements of the Taliban to the negotiating table.”

Here is my question: I think the article “the” is needed in front of the word “elements” because the prepositional phrase “of the Taliban” limits the scope of Ø elements, thereby identifying the NP.

So, the sentence should be “The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, tried to bring the elements of the Taliban to the negotiating table.”

I think that an of phrase after a noun is ALWAYS enough to identify the noun.

Do you agree? If not, please explain your reasons.

  1. I have a question:

Please look at the following sentences, both of which have been said by a player in a poker game:

1) If my next card is an ace, I win.
2) If my next card is an ace, I will win.

Well, here is my question: Is there any difference between 1) and 2)? If so, please let me know.

  1. Please look at a) and b):

A) For your examples of injustice, you mention only birth defects. Horrible as they are, they make up only a small percentage of human suffering. What about the misery that is the direct result of human action or inaction?

B) For your examples of injustice, you mention only birth defects. Horrible as they are, they make up only a small percentage of human suffering. What about misery that is the direct result of human action or inaction?

Well, I have been talking with some friends about this question. Some of us say that both A) and B) are correct. But I personally think A) (THE misery) is correct as we are talking about a SPECIFIC kind of misery. We are NOT talking about ANY misery. We are talking about one that is the direct result of human action or inaction.

How about you? Do you agree with me or think that both are correct? If you think both are correct, then please shed some light on it.



Swan, M. (1990) ‘Language conundrums: a cry for help.’ ELT Journal, 44/3 (Correspondence).

Swan, M. (1991) ‘Language conundrums: some responses to my cry for help.’ ELT Journal, 45/4.

G is for Grammar lesson

7 04 2013

I recently received a request for an article for a teachers’ journal in Denmark. The editor wrote:

The teaching of grammar in Danish secondary schools seems to be moving back towards a rather traditional view on grammar (for example,  an A-level examination in English testing whether students can correct wrong sentences and explain the rules of grammar).  I was hoping that an article by you may offer a new perspective on the teaching of grammar and authentic language.

I haven’t written the article, but I did write this piece of doggerel:woman teacher 1950

The Grammar Lesson

The teacher enters briskly, taps the board:
‘Now pay attention, class, and not a word.’
Her steely gaze subdues the general clamour.
‘I’m going to teach the rules of English grammar.’

‘I’ll start by explicating all the tenses,
Their forms, a few examples, and their senses.
We’ll finish, as is usual with a test.
A prize for which of you can answer best.’

He always takes the bus (she writes). ‘The present.
(Though present, as we speak, it clearly isn’t).
We call this timeless present “present simple”.
My tailor’s very rich is an example.’

‘Now look at me,’ she orders, as she paces
Between the rows of startled little faces.
‘I’m walking to the door. Now I am turning.
I’m teaching you the grammar. You are learning.’

Intending that her actions be the stimulus,
She demonstrates the present tense (continuous).
‘For acts that are in progress, it’s expressive,
And so it’s sometimes classified “progressive”.’

‘Now, who is this?’ She shows a pic of Caesar.
‘An ancient Roman?’ someone says, to please her.
She draws a Roman galley, oars and mast.
He came, he saw, he conquered: simple past’.

‘And when he came, the weather – it was pouring’,
She adds this detail to her simple drawing,
And with a gesture eloquently sinuous
She illustrates what means the past continuous.

I’ve been to China. In my life. Just once.
Time not important. Use the perfect tense.
He lost the race since he had started last:
Had started represents the perfect past.’

‘Although it seems a little bit excessive,
We also use the perfect with progressive.
Have you been playing badminton? is how
We ask if something’s happening to now.’

‘The future forms we’ll save until … the future.
I think by now you have the general picture.
So pen and paper out – yes, you have guessed it:
I’ve taught you stuff and now it’s time to test it.’

And this is how, as any learner knows,
The English language grammar lesson goes.
And this is why (the moral of my verse)
The English language learner can’t converse.in class 1950

Illustrations from Jan, J.M. & Ollúa, R. (1950) El Inglés Práctico; Comercio, Exámenes y Viajes, Buenos Aires: Academias Pitman.

A is for Aspect (2)

19 06 2011

In this second short video on the English tense and aspect system, I take  a look at perfect aspect.

A is for Aspect

20 03 2011

Following on from the discussion on backshift, in which I argued that the past tense had less to do with time and more to do with distance, I want to now turn my attention to aspect – or, at least, to the progressive aspect, initially.

B is for Backshift

6 03 2011

Last week the BBC website broadcast the following news item:

28 February 2011 Last updated at 18:08 GMT

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has told the BBC he was loved by all his people and refused to acknowledge there had been any protests in Tripoli.

Col Gaddafi said that his people would die to protect him.

Oddly, the printable version of the same story was subtly different:

28 February 2011 Last updated at 18:08 GMT

Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi has told the BBC he is loved by all his people and has denied there have been any protests in Tripoli.

Col Gaddafi said that his people would die to protect him.

Me and the Colonel

Notice the difference? In the webpage version the writer uses backshift (“…he was loved…”) whereas in the printable version he/she does not: “…he is loved…”

In fact, it was the “he was loved” that first attracted my attention, because of its (deliberate?) ambiguity. He was loved, but no longer? When I went to print the story out, I noticed that the text had been (deliberately?) disambiguated: He is loved.

And, in the same week, I received an email in which the writer wrote:

I picked up the phone and had the pleasure of surprising XXXX … it was soon enough established that he had not forgotten who I was – or should that be ‘am’? –

All of which reminded me of a promise I made to a reader of this blog, some time ago, to answer the following question:

There is this pattern in English that (go back one tense) of using a remote tense

a) if we want to be polite (from present to past)

b) if we want to move from reality and be imaginative (conditional one to conditional two)

c) in reported statements.

So, I was thinking how many different patterns (or grammatical structures), there are in English where one has to move back?

Let’s start with the last first, i.e. the use of backshift in reported speech. Here is how the rule is stated in one pedagogical grammar:

In indirect speech we do not usually repeat the speaker’s exact words.  Reporting usually takes place in the past, so the reporting verb is often in the past. As a result, the tenses of the reporting clause are usually ‘moved back’.  This ‘moving back’ of tenses is called backshift.  A useful general rule is ‘present becomes past and past becomes past perfect'” (Alexander, 1988, p.290).

This is one of those ‘rules’, though, that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, especially in spoken language, where there is a preference anyway for direct speech:

So he says, my people love me. They will die to protect me.

And even when indirect speech is used, there is often a tendency to ignore backshift:

He said that his people love him. And that they will die to protect him.

Tower Junction, Nagercoil: the deictic centre?

In written English, too, the backshift rule operates only if there is temporal distance. Take the sentence that begins a journal entry by Paul Bowles (‘Notes mailed at Nagercoil’  in Their Heads Are Green, 1963):

I have been here in this hotel now for a week.

How would we report that? If you were sitting a grammar test, you’d be wise to transpose it to:

He said he’d been in that hotel then for a week.

But what if the person doing the reporting is not only in the same hotel, but reporting the speaker’s utterance more or less at the time that it is uttered?

He said he’s been in this hotel now for a week.

In other words, reporting has to obey – not the grammar book rules –  but the rules that the context imposes. Even Alexander (1988) acknowledges the fact that “a speaker can choose to report a statement or a question using the tenses that match his viewpoint, based on the facts of the situation as he sees them at the time of speaking” (p.293). That is to say, if there is distance, mark it. If not, don’t.

Which, after all, is why we use the past tense to talk about the past, not so much because the past tense flags pastness, but because it flags distance.

His people love him (now).

His people loved him (then).

This is distance in time. But (as my correspondent noted) the –ed form is also used to flag distance in reality:

He wishes his people still loved him.

If only his people loved him now.

And, finally, the past form is occasionally used to establish social distance, i.e.  as a way of marking politeness:

I’m sorry, what was your name?

I was wondering if you have this in a smaller size?

All of which suggests that we might be better off following the example of a number of linguists (e.g. Lewis, 1986;Yule 1998, ) by referring to the –ed form, not as the past tense, but as the remote form.

And it also suggests that, when teaching reported speech, we should heed the advice of Mike McCarthy:

“Teaching speech reporting should not be over-obsessed with backshift and sequence of tenses with indirect speech at the expense of the rich variety of tense and aspect forms that real data throw up” (McCarthy 1998, p.172).


Alexander, L. (1988) Longman English Grammar. London: Longman.

Lewis, M. (1986) The English Verb. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

McCarthy, M.  (1998). Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yule, G. (1998). Explaining English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.