Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Present for You

Have you ever been frustrated by some of the names that are given to grammatical forms? I know I have. Take for example the simple present. Is it the present? Hmm... That all depends. And is it simple? Hah! Not by a long shot!

Okay, we know that the simple present really does mean the present for a limited number of verbs, the ones we usually refer to as stative verbs like hear, forgive, fit, need, and wish. I can talk about “right now” and use verbs like these in the simple present:

  • I hear somebody at the front door.
  • I forgive you. Now let’s put it behind us.
  • I wish I were someplace else.
  • That blouse fits perfectly.
  • We need some bread. Can you go to the store, please?


But that’s not the case for the vast majority of English verbs, is it? When I want to put them in the present, I’ll make use of the present progressive. I’m typing these words right now. I’m thinking of ways to be clever right now. So why don’t we just call the present progressive “the present” since it’s definitely used more to mean the present than the simple present? Whoever thought up the term simple present could have come up with something less misleading for that relatively small group of verbs we call stative. This frustrates me. And it frustrates and confuses most of my students. I mean, after all, they see the label “simple present” and rightfully assume it means the present − for each and every verb. Now we’ve got the daunting job of trying to undo that misconception. Do we really need this extra work?

I hope you never find yourself in the position I found myself in one day. I went to a baseball game with some of my students. They’d never seen a live game and were very excited about attending one, and I knew I’d get a big kick out of giving them this experience. But I wasn’t counting on one thing that happened during the game. One of my students was watching the action and also listening to a live simulcast of the game on his radio. This is what he sees, but this is what he hears:

What He Sees -------------------------------> What He Hears

The pitcher is throwing a curve ball. ---> "And Johnson throws a curve ball!"
The ball is soaring out of the stadium.--> "The ball soars out of the stadium!"
It’s a home run. -----------------------------> "It’s a home run!"
Gomez is taking a victory lap. -----------> "
Gomez takes a victory lap!"

Do I need to tell you what this astute learner of English asked me? Do I need to tell you how I cringed when he hit me with the question? “Mr. Firsten, I’m confused. Why did the announcer say, ‘He throws the ball’ and ‘He takes a lap’? This is not all the time. This is now. Why didn’t he say He’s throwing the ball and He’s taking a lap?”

Ah, but it doesn’t end there:

A: Wasn’t it Cliff Richardson who discovered America and not Columbus?
B: Uh, I think you’re thinking of Leif Erikson, not Cliff Richardson.

Just run what Person B says past your students and watch their eyes get as big as saucers and their jaws drop! Yes, Virginia, there is sadism in TESOL! So now it’s not enough that we have to deal with trying to end student confusion caused by an erroneous tense name, and it’s not enough that we have to explain the narrative use of the simple present when it means “now” with non-stative verbs, but we also have to explain how changing the form of some verbs from the simple present to the present progressive can change their meaning − not their time, their meaning. Ee-gads! Yep, this is really “simple.”

Anybody have stories to match mine? Do you ever wish English grammar were more like French or Russian, where one present tense fits all? Just imagine how much easier your working life could be? How I envy those French and Russian teachers! Give the students that one verb form, let them conjugate it for I, you, he, she, etc., throw them a few exercises to fill in the blanks, and sit back with your feet up on your desk and think pleasant thoughts. Ah, now that’s the life for a language teacher!

I’ll have more to say on the subject of tenses and their names later, so stay tuned.

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