past tense, travel, verb phrases, negative polarity questions

There are some mistakes which I can understand, and others which I can’t. In class one day this week, the topic was travel, and there were two readings on ‘My worst holiday’. The grammar focus arising from the reading was past simple, because most travel stories are recounted largely that way. The past simple forms appeared in the stories, but the grammar focus activity gave the plain present forms, which the students had to change to the past simple forms, then check them from the story.

One student gave the past simple form of ‘go’ as ‘goesed’, which I don’t/can’t understand how he produced. He has never encountered that form, and there is no rule in English grammar which allows the addition of two different verb inflections, especially when one of them is a present tense form and the other is a past tense form.* Just possibly, he was thinking that she/he/it needs ‘-es’ always, then added ‘-ed’ to make the past tense form, except that the story was told in first person. Just possibly, we would understand the answer ‘I goesed home’ to the question ‘What did you do after class yesterday?’, but would be at least momentarily flummoxed by it.

Another student wrote ‘gone’ as the past simple form. I can understand that. go-went-gone is probably the second hardest verb paradigm for students to remember (behind ‘be’).  ‘gone’ is visually and aurally more similar to ‘go’; indeed, ‘went’ began as a completely different word.  Certainly, we would understand the answer ‘I gone home’.**

Later in the lesson, I wanted to emphasise adding direct objects or prepositional phrases after verbs. I asked them where we could travel. One student said Paris.*** I asked what we could do there and a Korean student said ‘Eiffel 탑’ (tap). If it had been any other student saying any other language’s word for ‘tower’, I might have guessed, given ‘Paris’ and ‘Eiffel’, but I do know the Korean word. Another student provided ‘tower’, which the Korean student did know but had temporarily forgotten. I asked, ‘What can you do at the Eiffel Tower?’. The students provided ‘see’, ‘look at’, ‘visit’, ‘take photos of’ and climb’. (Some of those needed some tidying up; maybe a student said ‘take photo of’.)

I then asked ‘What can you do in Sydney?’. One student said ‘Opera House’. I pointed at the verbs we’d listed for the Eiffel Tower and asked ‘Can you see the Opera House? (Yes) Can you look at it? (Yes) Visit it? (Yes) Take photos of it? (Yes) Climb it? (No)’.

I then played a tourist video of Sydney, which of course includes the Opera House. One view quite clearly showed the catwalk along the ‘spine’ of the famous sail-like roofs. ‘I said, “Surprise! You can climb the Opera House – it is possible. But you can’t climb the Opera House – it’s illegal.”’ (There’s a lot more about the different uses of modal verbs, but I left it there in the lesson and I’ll leave it there now.)

By coincidence, I’d spent an hour the previous day photo-touristing around another Sydney site, Hyde Park. I took several photos of the Archibald Fountain, even though I’ve taken quite a few over the years. A Canadian Facebook friend who visited Sydney briefly about five years ago asked ‘Have I not been there?’.

Negative polarity questions are fully part of English, but that doesn’t mean I like them. As far as I can see, there is no short answer to that – ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes, you haven’t been there’ and ‘No’ means ‘No, you haven’t been there’. Maybe I can say ‘Yes!’, meaning ‘Yes, you have been there’. (There’s a lot more about negative polarity questions, but I’ll leave it there now, too.)

* I can just possibly imagine a student producing ‘doing-ed’ for ‘was doing’.

**Several years ago, another class was reading and talking about the New Seven Wonders of the World. One student from Rio de Janeiro was unimpressed that Cristo Redentor was on the list. ‘Oh Xristo,’ he said, ‘We all been there’.

*** Earlier in the lesson, another student said something which might have been ‘Paris’ (pronounced quasi French), but turned out to be ‘Bali’.


2 thoughts on “past tense, travel, verb phrases, negative polarity questions

  1. Regarding Sydney Opera House: surely the correct answer would have been “Yes, you CAN climb Sydney Opera House, but you MAY not (because it is illegal)” ?


  2. I’m not surprise go/went was a difficulty. Just spend some time hanging out will little kids and you’ll be surprised at the things they come up with for past tense verbs.

    “Have I not…?” is a very Gaelic (probably Celtic, although I don’t know a Brittonic language well enough to say) construction – Canada had a lot more Scottish and Gaelic influence to the language than Australia, so it’s not surprising that your Canadian friend used the construction.

    In Gaelic, it’s quite straightforward: verbs don’t conjugated, but have four forms. For ‘to be’, it’s “Tha” (is/are), “A bheil?” (is/are?), “Chan eil” (isn’t/aren’t), and “Nach eil?” (isn’t/aren’t?). A question like “Nach eil mi anns a’ Chanada?” (“Am I not in Canada?” or “Aren’t I in Canada?”) could be answered “Tha” (Yes, you are) or “Chan eil” (No, you’re not).

    German uses “doch” to reply in the affirmative to a negative question. “Hast du nicht Geld?” (Don’t you have any money?) could be answered “Doch” (Yes, I have money) or “Nein” (No, I don’t have money). “Ja” is only used for “yes” for positive questions, when there can be no confusion.

    So there are two suggestions – either we can invent a new word for “doch”, or we can just answer using the verb of the sentence, like in Gaelic: “Have I not been there?” “You have.” or “You haven’t.”

    I suspect the negative polarity questions in English are so common due to Celtic-language influence right back when, anyway.


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