Yesterday, now – grammar in pop songs

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away

Yesterday is a good word to prompt for past simple tense: Every day I ____ pizza, Yesterday I ____ pizza, Every day this week I ____ ____ pizza.

Most past simple verbs are regular and made by adding -ed to the base form (seem, seemed), but about 100 of the most frequently used and important are irregular and change in other ways (eat, ate, eaten) or not at all (put, put, put).

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay

Now is not a good time to demonstrate present simple. For action verbs, now usually uses present simple: Now I am eating pizza, not *Now I eat pizza. Compare now meaning ‘nowadays’: When I was young I didn’t eat pizza and Now I eat pizza. But looks here is a state verb, which rarely uses present simple: Now it looks as though they’re here to stay v ?Now it is looking as though they’re here to stay. Compare something which is more changeable: An hour ago the sky was clear. Now it looks/it’s looking as though it is going to rain/like it will rain/like rain. (A better prompt for present simple is ‘every day’.)

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going to work

Australia has done a generally good job of containing the spread of coronavirus. I am lucky enough to have a full-time job I can do at home, so I worked at home from the end of March to the end of September (almost as long as I’d worked in the office before then). Then we started on one day per week in the office, then two (most of us Tuesday and Thursday), with the expectation of three from the beginning of next year. It looks like working at home part of the time is here to stay. 

Last week there was a small (by world standards) outbreak of coronavirus in another part of my city, and on Sunday we got a text message to work from home for the four days before Christmas Day and until further notice (most of us have next week off anyway). On Monday evening, my wife asked me “Are you going to work tomorrow?”. I said “No, umm yes, umm I’m going to work-at-home tomorrow”. 

Go can be a main verb and going to is one way to talk about the future, and work can be a noun or verb. Maybe she’d meant “Are you going (main verb) to (the place where you work (noun)) tomorrow?” (no) or “Are you going to (auxiliary verb) (perform the action of working (verb)) tomorrow?”.

Of all the possibilities, “Are you going to go to work tomorrow?” is possibly the clearest, but most people find going to go a bit of a mouthful. “Are you going to go the/your office tomorrow?” has the same problem, so “Are you going to the/your office tomorrow is probably the best choice all round.

For once, the problem wasn’t my wife’s second-language English, but something intrinsic to the language. On Wednesday evening, she asked me “Are you working at home tomorrow?”.

Relatedly, I would naturally say work at home, but work from home is more widespread.

“I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started”

Practicing past perfect tense, a student wrote:

I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started.

This felt (and still feels) strange to me, but I can’t figure out why. It is perfectly clear and follows the general rule of tense sequences. I would naturally say I arrived at the cinema before the movie started, because the sequence of events is clearly indicated by before.

The only reason I can think of for the strangeness is that we rarely use past perfect in the main clause of a sentence. But does that mean we never do? 

I have less problem with more context:

My friends always teased me for being late for everything, but here I was. I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started. 

I also have less problem with reversing the halves of the sentence:

Before the movie started, I had arrived at the cinema.

or the equivalent:

The movie started after I had arrived at the cinema.

(Though in each case, I would probably omit had.)

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Let’s do breakfast!

Sometimes, in order to cut a long story short, I have to tell my students something I know isn’t true. 

A textbook activity had the standard format of a box with base-form verbs at the top, then sentences with a gap in each, with the instruction to choose the right verb and change it to the right verb tense. One sentence included breakfast, and one student chose the verb do. I said “We don’t do breakfast. What do we do?” (Hmmm, there are two dos in that question … There’s another blog post there.) He said “Eat”. I said “But eat isn’t in the box. What else do we do?” He looked and said “Have”. I said “Right. Now change the verb tense.”

Other things we can do to breakfast include get, make, cook, prepare, buy, enjoy … and do. Some people “do breakfast”, or “do lunch”, or “do dinner”. Mostly “do lunch” and mostly in the form “Let’s do lunch (sometime)!”. 

This is a modern usage. Google Ngrams shows that do lunch has rocketed in usage since the mid-1980s, with do dinner and do breakfast also increasing, but less dramatically. 

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incorrectly interesting

Observation 1: The big parts of language are easy; the small parts are hard.
Observation 2: Mistakes are often more interesting than correct answers.

My students have just finished the textbook and today was a revision day before the test tomorrow. One revision question was something like “My father (watch/watches/watching) television every day”. Several students chose watch. This is, of course, incorrect standard English, but only by a twist of history. There’s no particular reason why third-person singular verb forms have –s/es. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding. Many languages exist quite happily with the equivalent of “My father watch television every day”. Indeed, some non-standard varieties of English exist quite happily with exactly that. Nothing would be lost and quite a bit would be gained by omitting 3sg –s/-es, but standard English includes it, so that’s what I’ve got to teach and that’s what’s my students have to learn. (Several hundred years ago, standard English lost 2sg –est, and no-one missed it.)

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Past perfect

The textbook’s treatment of past simple v past perfect was very limited, and the students obviously didn’t get it, so I had to look for supplementary material. On one website for ESL teachers I found a worksheet submitted by a teacher, which was reasonable but not perfect. One activity gave ten sentences in past simple, which students had to pair up, then change one half to past perfect, then join them appropriately. 

The first interesting issue was that the sentences could be paired up in different ways. Four sentences were:

Jack decided to have a rest. Peter asked for a cup of coffee. He finished eating. He painted the hall and the kitchen.

The usual/natural/expected pairings are:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He finished eating. 

But several students chose, and there is nothing impossible about:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He finished eating. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. 

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Misled by the egregious treachery of memory

Right at the end of my previous post, I said that I’d love to see someone deliver commentary on current events in the sesquipedalian style of JEL Seneker. In particular, I was imagining insulting public figures by stealth by using very long words.

That reminded me of an exchange in an episode of the British tv series Yes, Minister, in which Sir Humphrey Appleby (a career civil servant) convinces Jim Hacker (an occasionally well-meaning but usually self-serving politician) that egregious is a compliment. I remembered the exchange as:

Jim (reading a newspaper): “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What does “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: It means “outstanding”, Minister.
Jim: Oh, that’s nice of them to say so.
Sir Humphrey: I’m glad you think so, Minister.

Searching online just now, it seems that my memory is faulty. Various websites record the exchange as:

Jim: “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What’s “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: I think it means “outstanding”.
Jim: Oh…?
Sir Humphrey: In one way or another.

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“I’m going to work”

You wake up and complete your morning routine. You say to your partner:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting in your car/bus/train. Your phone rings. Someone asks you where you are. You say:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting at your desk at 9.02 reading a non-work-related website. Your boss passes by and reminds you of the time. You say:

I’m going to work!

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“And then he kissed me”

The textbook illustrates indirect quotation with the song “And then he kissed me”, written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and originally and most famously sung by The Crystals. Direct and indirect quotation can be seen in the pair of lines:

So I whispered “I love you”
And he said that he loved me too

“I love you” are her actual words and are indicated by quotation marks. (Or they should be – they are in the textbook, but not on the website I copied the lyrics from rather than typing them from scratch.) Indirect quotations are typically introduced by the subordinator that, and (hardest for ESL learners) changes of person (usually pronouns) and verb tense. He actually said “I love you, too”. Because she is reporting his words, his I becomes her he and his you becomes her me. The verb tense typically moves back one “time” (sometimes referred to as backshift), in this case from present simple love to past simple loved. But this optional. If she is reporting his words soon after (for example to a friend the next day), she might keep present simple and say “And he said that he loves me too”. If she is reporting his words a long time later (for example to their grandchildren after his death), she would certainly backshift and say loved.

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“I’m travel go home”

For the past two weekends I have been filling in for my colleague who teaches the beginner class, and it is very frustrating. Almost all of the students come from two closely related countries which speak more-or-less the same language, and spend more time speaking that language than they do English. Today, one student said he was travelling to his country for a holiday tomorrow, and I said “Safe trip” as a throwaway comment. We immediately got bogged down on the difference between travel and trip. It would be nice if one was purely a verb and the other purely a noun, but both are both, and while travel has basically the same meaning as a verb or noun, trip is entirely different as a verb. When the student used his translator, I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t getting the stumble meaning. (Also, travel as a noun is uncountable, while trip is countable.)

He then flicked back a few pages in his notebook and said “Can I say I’m travel go home?”. I had no idea where to start with that one. The short answer is no. The only thing I could salvage from it is that I understand what he means – almost.

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