Transworld English

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“Used to” and “would”

August 8, 2011 4 comments

English learners may sometimes have problems understanding how to use the grammatical construction of “used to”. “Used to” is used in English to refer to ongoing, regular action in the past (see example 1).

e.g. 1 – “When I lived in China, I used to work for CCTV.”

Note that in this example, the person referred to regularly worked for CCTV in the past. It is not, however, possible to use “used to” if the past action was not regular (see example 2):

e.g. 2 – “When I lived in China, I used to meet Hu Jintao once.” (grammatically incorrect)

This example is not a correct use of “used to” as the word “once” makes clear that the action did not occur regularly.
In addition, there is usually an implication that this action is finished (see example 3).

e.g. 3 – “I used to bring my lunch to work.”

Unless there is information to the contrary, an English speaker who heard such a sentence would assume that this person NO LONGER brings his/her lunch to work. However, it should be noted that this only an implication as it possible to state the following (see example 4):

e.g. 4 – “I used to bring my lunch to work when I worked for ABC Company, and in fact, I still bring my lunch to work for my present company.”

The above sentence should indicate that the core meaning of “used to” is ongoing, regular past action rather than (in addition) action which is finished. Nevertheless, that the action referred to with “used to” no longer occurs is a typical implication of “used to”.

A problematic area for English learners in this regard is when to use “used to” and when to use “would” as both “used to” and “would” can be used to refer to ongoing, past action (see examples 5 and 6).

e.g. 5 – “When I was a boy, I used to play soccer with my friends every week.”
e.g. 6 – “When I was a boy, I would play soccer with my friends every week.”

Both of the above sentence are grammatically possible and they are synonymous. However, there are some verbs that “would” cannot occur with that “used to” can occur with (see examples 7 and 8):

e.g. 7 – “I used to live in Alberta.” (grammatically correct)
e.g. 8 – “I would live in Alberta.” (grammatically incorrect)

As examples 7 and 8 above show, it is possible to use “live” with “used to” but not with “would”. Why not? The reason is that “live” does not indicate a dynamic activity unlike “play soccer”. “Used to” can be used both with verbs indicating dynamic activities as well as those verbs that do not refer to dynamic activities. In contrast, “would” can ONLY refer to verbs indicating dynamic activities. Thus, the following verb phrases are possible with “used to”, but not possible with “would”:

e.g. 9 – “He would be an engineer.” (grammatically incorrect)
e.g. 10 – “He used to be an engineer.” (grammatically correct)

e.g. 11 – “He used to like hockey.” (grammatically correct)
e.g. 12 – “He would like hockey.” (grammatically incorrect)

Now, it’s your turn. Read the following sentences and decide if they are grammatically correct or incorrect.

Practice exercise:
a) Ming used to live in Shanghai.
b) Hong would live in Beijing.
c) I used to be born in 1981.
d) He would play hockey several times a week when he was a boy.
e) She used to play ping pong several times a week when she was in university, and in fact, she still plays ping pong several times a week.

a) correct
b) incorrect
c) incorrect
d) correct
e) correct

Categories: Grammar, Oral English

The use of “must” and related modal verbs

August 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Many English learners have trouble with the use of “must”. One mistake that lower level learners tend to make is that they use “must” when they should actually use “should”. For example, they make sentences such as “If you have a cold, you must drink some hot tea.” “Must” doesn’t really much sense in such situations because the English learner is really merely trying to advise somebody to do something. Therefore, one should really say “If you have a cold, you should drink some tea.” “Must” may be used to indicate necessity while “should” is typically used to give advice and to give opinions.
Nevertheless, although “must” may be used to express necessity, usually (especially in spoken language) one uses other verbs to express this meaning. Although one could say “I must go.” to indicate the necessity of this course of action, this would sound incredibly formal to an English speaker. However, “must” could be used in this context if one wanted to emphasize the necessity of one’s going. This is a feature of the meaning of “must” that most English learners appear not to be aware of. When “must” is used for necessity, it indicates a high degree of necessity. Therefore, it might sound too adamant if one is addressing somebody else. For example, if a security guard in a condominium were asking a visitor to this condominium to sign the guest sign-in log book, it would not be very polite to say “You must sign in.” Rather, the security guard would be well-advised to say this in the form of a polite request such “Do you mind signing in?” or “Could you sign in, please?”. If this security guard did want to be more direct in expressing the necessity of this course of action, he/she would be well-advised to say either sentence (a) or (b) below:

a) “You have to sign in.”
b) “You gotta sign in.” (the /t/ sound is pronounced as a fast /d/ sound)

Especially in spoken language, one uses “have to” and “gotta” much more frequently
than “must” to indicate necessity. “Gotta” is a contraction of “have got to”. In spoken language, one almost never uses “have” or “has” in this grammatical construction although it is obligatory in written usage. Remember that in North American English, one actually says /′go. Də/ rather than /′go. tə/.
Nevertheless, in written language such as government forms and public signs, one does frequently use “must” to indicate necessity. For example, in the condominium where I used to go swimming, there is a public sign which states the following: “All bathers must take a shower before entering the bathing area.” Presumably, such use of “must” on signs is deemed to be more acceptable to English users since signs can indicate the necessity of performing an action without worrying about causing the person reading it to feel that the message is stated too directly with too much emphasis.
Another very important point with the use of “must” is that another very common use of this modal verb is to make a logical inference rather than to express necessity. For example, if one were to see a person yawning early in the morning, one might say “He must be tired.” Such a use of “must” would mean that the person making this statement is assuming that the person yawning is tired given the obvious fact that people who yawn, especially early in the morning, are often tired. Nevertheless, this would of course only be an assumption rather than something that would be known indubitably.

Categories: Grammar, Oral English

“The” and place names

July 27, 2011 1 comment

In my previous article, I discussed the general rules for the use of articles (e.g. – “a/an” and “the”). In this article, I give more specific rules for the use of “the” and have practice exercises for the application of these rules. In English, the definite article, ‘the’, is used before certain types of place names. Plural countries, rivers, oceans, mountain chains (but NOT individual mountains) and seas all take ‘the’. It may be easier to remember this fact if you make a mnemonic name such as ‘PROMS’.

Plural countries; i.e.- the United States, the Philippines, the Netherlands …
Rivers; i.e. – the Nile River, the Amazon River …
Oceans; i.e. – the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean …
Mountain chains; i.e. – the Himalayas, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains …
Seas; i.e. – the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the South China Sea …

In addition, there are some other geographic names that also take ‘the’: straits, deserts, and towers are some (but not all) of the most widely-used other place names that take ‘the’. It may help you to remember another mnemonic name: DeToSt.

Deserts; i.e. – the Sahara Desert, the Mojave Desert …
Towers; i.e. – the CN Tower, the Eiffel Tower …
Straits; i.e. – the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bering Strait…

Pronunciation tip
People normally pronounce ‘the’ with a short vowel, /ə/, not a long vowel, /i:/. Nevertheless, people sometimes, but not usually pronounce the long vowel before vowels; i.e. – the /ði:/
Atlantic Ocean.

Spelling tip
Use capital letters for the first letter of
all words in geographic names, except for ‘the’, because those words are part of the name. Remember all names have the first letter capitalized of their words capitalized.
i.e. – the Red Sea  the Red sea 

Names of other geographic places such as lakes, singular countries, streets, provinces and states of countries, bays … do not take ‘the’.
i.e. – Lake Ontario  the Lake Ontario 
Canada  the Canada 
Yonge Street  the Yonge Street 
Ontario  the Ontario 
California  the California 
Hudson Bay  the Hudson Bay 

It may be easier to remember these facts by only memorizing which places take ‘the’ and remembering that other place names DON’T take ‘the’.

To practice these rules, do the exercises below and then check your answers.

As appropriate, write ‘the’ in the blank below or don’t write anything in the blank:

1. The Nile River flows through Egypt.

2. _______ Cuba is located in _______ Caribbean Sea.

3. _______ Eiffel Tower is a famous tourist attraction in _________ Paris.

4. ______ Tagalog is the official language of _________ Philippines.

5. _______ Alps are located in _________ Switzerland.

6. ________ Black Sea borders ________ Russia, _______ Turkey, __________ Bulgaria,

________ Romania and __________ Ukraine.

7. __________ Dutch is the official language of _________ Netherlands.

8. ___________ Amazon River is located in ____________ South America, in the country of

_______ Brazil.

9. Mt. Everest is located in ____________ Himalayas, which border ___________ China and ________ India.

10. ________ Canada is bordered by three oceans – _________ Arctic, ___________ Atlantic

and __________ Pacific.

11. _________ CN Tower, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, is located in _________ Toronto.

12. ___________ Sahara is the world’s largest desert.

13. Because it’s located on ________ Lake Ontario, summers in _________ Toronto are often somewhat humid.

14. _____Jasper and _______ Banff are popular Alberta tourist towns in __________ Rockies.

15. ________ English is the official language of _________ Bahamas.

16. ________ Spanish is the most widely spoken 2nd language in _________ United States.

17. ________ Strait of Gibraltar is located at the entrance to _________ Mediterranean Sea

between _________ Morocco and _________ Spain.

18. _________ Broadway is a famous street in _________ New York City.

19. _________ Yangtze River is the longest river in ___________ China.

20. ___________ Rhine River flows through ___________ Germany.

2. ____ , the
3. The, ____
4. ____ , the
5. The, ____
6. The, ____, ____, ____, ____, ____
7. ____, the
8. The, ____, ____
9. the, ____, ____
10. ____, the, the, the
11. The, ____
12. The
13. ____, ____
14. ____, ____, the
15. ____, the
16. ____, the
17. The, the, ____, ____
18. ____, ____
19. The, ____
20. The, ____

How to use “the” and “a” in English

July 21, 2011 1 comment

While studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Toronto, I remember reading that the most difficult part of English grammar for most ESL students to learn is articles (i.e. – “the” and “a/an”). My experience as an ESL teacher informs me that using articles correctly is indeed a big challenge for English learners, including Chinese ESL students. The reason for this difficulty is probably related to the fact that the rules for the use of articles are both somewhat abstract and somewhat complex. This difficulty is probably enhanced for Chinese learners by the fact that Chinese does not have articles. Personally, although I think that I can almost always figure out what an ESL learner probably means when he/she makes an article error, I do need to sometimes think briefly about the learner’s intended meaning if he/she has made an article error. In addition, mistakes with the use of “the” are, in fact, quite noticeable because “the” is the most common word in English.
First of all, I should explain the rules for the use of the articles. “The” is used before noun phrases which are definite to both the speaker as well as the listener (and definite to the writer and the reader). One would use “the” in the following example if both the speaker and the listener could see the same unique referent (i.e. – a cute dog), the identity of which would be definite to both.

e.g. 1 – “Look at the cute dog!”

Which particular dog was intended by the speaker would be clear to the person he/she was talking to, so “the” would be necessary. Because of the above use of “the”, this article is sometimes referred to as the “definite article”.
On the other hand, if the referent referred to by a noun phrase was indefinite to the listener (as well as possibly the speaker), then one would need to use “a” (see example 2 below).

e.g. 2 – “I want to get a dog.”

In the above example, the listener definitely does not know which dog the speaker wants to get and, in fact, neither does the speaker. The only thing that is clear is that the speaker wants to get one dog, but which dog is indefinite. Because of this meaning, “a” is sometimes referred to as an “indefinite article”.
English actually has two indefinite articles. The other indefinite article is “an”. “A” is used before consonant sounds while “an” is used before vowel sounds. This rule is usually crystal clear to students when the letter and the pronunciation are the same (e.g. – an apple, an orange, an umbrella, a cat, a dog, a tiger etc.). However, students typically have problems when the first letter written in a noun phrase is not the first sound pronounced. In such cases, it is only the sound that’s relevant. For example, one would say “a university” because “university” actually begins with a /y/ sound (and /y/ is a consonant). Similarly, one would say “an hour” because the letter is actually silent and this noun begins with a vowel.
Finally, one uses no article if one is referring to a generic class of items (see example 3 below):
e.g. 3 – “Dogs are cute.”

One is referring to dogs in general, rather than a specific dog or one, indefinite dog, so one cannot use any article at all.
Let’s practice, look at the following sentence and use the correct article (or no article):

1. My neighbour has ________ fat cat.
2. I think that _______ fat cats are cute.
3. Where did _______ cat go? (a definite cat)

1. a
2. no article
3. the

Categories: Grammar

The contraction of auxiliary verbs

July 17, 2011 Leave a comment

The use of the past progressive in English

July 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Mandarin and English are similar in some ways. It may sometimes be helpful to become aware of these similarities in learning English. Both Mandarin and English have a progressive grammatical aspect. This is expressed with “-ing” in English and with “zai” and “zhe” in Mandarin. For example, one could translate the sentence
“I’m speaking.” with “wo zai shuo.” in Mandarin. Both languages express the fact that the action of speaking is ongoing through a grammatical marker.
Nevertheless, there are some obvious differences between the languages as well. For instance, in English one indicates the tense of the action on the first verb within the verb phrase. In the above example, the fact that the sentence is true at the present time is expressed by the fact that the first verb, “be”, is inflected into the simple present tense. There is no grammatical tense in Mandarin, so there is no explicit indication of the fact that the action is ongoing at the present time.
To use the past progressive in English, one must inflect the first verb into a past tense form of “be” – either “was” or “were” depending on the subject. ESL students often have no trouble using the correct form of the past progressive. However, they have problems using this verb tense in their writing and speaking. There are few things that students of English should know with respect to its use.
First of all, as you probably know, it is used for action which occurred in the past.
Secondly, as you also probably know, it’s used for ongoing action – thus, the use of the progressive “-ing” marker. Thirdly, and this is the fact that many students of English do not know, a typical use of this form is to indicate background action at a specific point in time. This is important. It is normally used to give background information for another more important event which is in the foreground.
Let’s look at example # 1:

e.g. 1 – “While I was driving to work, I got into an accident.”

In example # 1, “was driving” is used to give the background to the more important event of getting into an accident. The event of driving to work is only really relevant to help explain to the reader/listener the situation which the person was in when he/she got into an accident.
Let’s look at an incorrect use of the past progressive, if for example, somebody were to say/write, “It was raining hard last night.”, an English speaker would probably think “So what?” or “Then what happened?” because such a sentence would usually be used to explain the background to an event. Another problem with the use of the past progressive in the above sentence is the length of time for the action. “Last night” would last for many hours. The past progressive is typically used to indicate the background for a shorter period of time than this. If one wanted to use the above example, one would need to construct a longer stretch of discourse to give the background to a more significant event.
For instance, one might give the background to an accident in this manner:
“I was driving home last night and it was raining really hard. I couldn’t see clearly because of the rain. Suddenly, a pedestrian ran in front of my car and unfortunately I hit him because I didn’t see him.” As this longer example shows, the past progressive is used to give the background to the much more significant event of when the speaker hit the pedestrian. In addition, it also illustrates the fact that in order to understand the use of the past progressive, one must sometimes understand the function of various verb phrases within the longer stretch of discourse.
Now it’s your turn. Read the following stretch of discourse and edit the verbs as required. Some of the verbs are used correctly, but you may need to change some of the verbs to either past progressive or the simple past (the edited answer is written upside-down at the bottom).

“My family came back from Florida in my dad’s new car and we drove through Kentucky. The roads in Kentucky were a bit icy. My dad had reached the top of a hill, when he accelerated too much into a turn. The car was spinning out of control and hit the guard rails of the bridge. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. However, the car was very badly damaged.”

“came” should be “was coming”; “drove” should be “were driving”; and “was spinning” should be “spun”.

Categories: Oral English