Spoken by more than a billion people, English is the most learned foreign language in the world. And yet English grammar, as beautiful and mysterious as it may be, gives learners a run for their money in terms of pure frustration.
As a matter of fact, the Chinese users of our online English course Gymglish are no exception to the rule.
Gymglish has carefully selected the 10 most common English grammar mistakes our Chinese-speaking users have made over the past year. We’re not here to point fingers.*
1) The present perfect
Construction of the present perfect is as follows: auxiliary verb have + past participle.
I have lost my keys.
Bruno has decided to take a break.
We use the present perfect when:
• The action occurs in an unfinished time period.
I haven’t seen him lately. I haven’t seen him recently.
Everything has been alright so far. Everything has been alright up to now.
Sometimes the present perfect is used in the progressive form.
How long have you been living in San Francisco? – I have been living here for 10 years (or since 1999). Since when have you lived in San Francisco? I’ve lived here for 10 years (or since 1999).
• The action is finished and we want to emphasize this fact, or it is still relevant to the present moment.
He’s (or He has) done his work. He has finished or completed his work.
Note : When there is an adverb (such as never, always, etc.), this is always placed between the auxiliary verb and the past participle.
I have never been to San Francisco
Susie has always dreamed of working in PR.
Going further on the present perfect here.
2) The simple past tense (preterit)
This grammar rule is tricky for both native and non-native speakers. The simple past (the main past tense) expresses completed actions.
It is formed by adding -ed to the end of the verb, if the verb is regular.
I washed the floor yesterday.
He talked to Horatio two hours ago.
If the verb is irregular, you need to learn the forms of the simple past and the past participle!
Some frequently-used irregular verbs:
Yesterday I found money on the floor. (to find)
Susie went to England last week. (to go)
We got up at 6 this morning. (to get)
Bruno came earlier. (to come)
Where did you buy this book? – I bought it on the internet. (to buy)
More on the simple past tense here.
3) The auxiliary verb would
One of the trickiest rules in the book. The auxiliary verb would, used as a conditional, expresses a notion of willingness, acceptance or preference.
I would buy a car if I could. If I were able to buy a car, I would buy one!
I would make an omelette if I had some eggs.
(had forms the past subjunctive)
What would you do in my position? If you were me, how would you act?
I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we started dinner without them.
(started is in the past subjunctive here)
Would is used when we want to be polite.
I would like some change please. (“would like” is a polite way to say “want”)
Would you like something to drink? Do you want something to drink?
It also allows us to express the future in a past sentence (would is the past of will).
Bruno says he will come to the meeting. (he says it in the present)
Bruno said he would come to the meeting. (he said it in the past)
More on would here.
4) The present progressive
The present progressive (auxiliary verb be + verb ending in -ing) is used to express a current action, an action in progress or an unfinished action.
The children are sleeping right now.
It is often used for descriptions.
Polly is wearing nice shoes today.
The jaguar is lying on a tree branch.
The present progressive also allows us to express a future action or an intention, mainly with the expression to be going to.
We are going to count the votes this afternoon. We will count the votes this afternoon.
Are you going to accept the proposal? Will you accept the proposal? Do you plan to accept the proposal?
It can also be used with modal auxiliary verbs.
They should be sleeping by now.
The use of the present progressive is the opposite of that of the present simple, which is used:
• for permanent truths (Christmas falls on December 25th.)
• to express habits (Kevin plays golf every Saturday.)
• for announcements (The President announces a tax increase.)
More on the present progressive here.
5) The interrogative form
The construction of the interrogative form is different if the verb is an auxiliary verb (be, have, will, can, etc.), or a ‘normal’ verb.
• If the verb is an auxiliary verb, the interrogative is formed without the auxiliary do/does/did.
Is Bruno in his office?
Can I talk to you?
Have you read this book?
• If the verb is ‘normal’, the interrogative is formed with the auxiliary do/does/did. As always after an auxiliary verb, the verb is added in the infinitive without to.
Do you like that album?
Did she see the movie?
Does Kevin drink alcohol?
In both cases, the sentence is formed by inverting the first auxiliary verb.
She’s dreaming. -> Is she dreaming?
You would tell me. -> Would you tell me?
Note: The ‘normal’ verb to do is also conjugated with the auxiliary do/does/did.
Did you do it?
Does he do his homework on time?
• In the case of interrogatives introduced by pronouns (Who, What)
If the interrogative pronoun is a subject, there is no inversion:
Who told you this?
Who is here?
If the interrogative pronoun is an object, there is inversion.
Who(m) are you talking to?
What did he say?
What are you thinking about?
More on the interrogative form here.
6) The subjunctive preterit
The past subjunctive is used in the following type of constructions:
If I were you, I would talk to the manager.
It allows us to express a supposition, a wish, a desire (etc.), and is conjugated like the past simple, except for the verb to be:
|I||were||(and not was)|
|He||were||(and not was)|
Common constructions which use the past subjunctive:
• after if:
If I were a rich man!
If I had more time, I would show you my office. (= If I’d more time, I’d show you my office.)
(would expresses the conditional)
If she were my girlfriend, I would buy her roses every day.
• after the verb to wish, expressing a wish or regret:
I wish you were here. I regret the fact that you are not here.
Do you surf? – (No but) I wish I could. Do you surf? – (No but) I would love to surf.
• after would rather, expressing a preference:
I’d rather you came another time. I would prefer you to come another time.
Horatio would rather people didn’t know about his test monkeys. Horatio would prefer people not to know about his test monkeys.
• after it’s time:
It’s about time Willy retired. It’s time for Willy to retire.
It’s high time that you and I had a chat about it.
More on subjunctive preterit here.
7) Subordinate conjunctions and agreement in the future tense
In a sentence where the main clause is in the future, the subordinate sentence introduced by a time conjunction (when, while, by the time…) must remain in the present tense:
I will call you when I get to the office. I will call you when I have arrived at the office.
By the time we reach the age of 40, we’ll have a house in the Hamptons. When we are 40, we will already have a house in the Hamptons. (region of Long Island, New York State)
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I‘m 64? Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I am 64 years old? (Beatles song)
Be careful not to confuse these constructions with interrogative sentences, or with sentences in the present tense which have a subordinate sentence in the future:
Do you know when Susie will come back from England?
I wonder when Susie will come back from England.
More on subordinate conjunctions and agreement in the future tense here.
8) Negative construction
The negative construction is formed differently depending on whether the verb is an auxiliary verb (be, have, will, can, etc.) or an ordinary verb.
• If the verb is an auxiliary verb, the negation is constructed with not (or with the contraction -n’t) and without the auxiliary verb ‘do/does/did’.
She cannot know the truth. It’s impossible that she knows the truth. (Note that the words ‘can’ and ‘not’ form only one word in the negative; ‘cannot’!)
I am not ready yet. I am still not ready. It is too early for me to be ready.
They won’t come. They will not come.
• If the verb is an ordinary verb, the auxiliary verb do/does/did is used to introduce negation.
He does not (or doesn’t) play rugby. Rugby is not a game which he plays.
They didn’t go to the theater yesterday.
The contractions -n’t (isn’t, aren’t, doesn’t, don’t, won’t, can’t…) are frequently used in spoken English. Using not separated from the word often allows us to emphasize the negative idea in the sentence.
Is Bruno home? No, he is NOT (at home). Is Bruno home? No, he is definitely not.
The ordinary verb to do also conjugates with the auxiliary verb do/does/did.
He doesn’t do his work properly. He does not complete his work correctly.
You didn’t do my laundry. You failed to wash my clothes.
Negation can also be introduced by the adverb never, which in itself carries a negative meaning.
I have never seen the Eiffel Tower. I have not ever seen the Eiffel Tower.
More on forming negative constructions here.
9) The past perfect tense
Also known as the pluperfect tense, the past perfect is formed with had (past of have) + the past participle. It allows us to express an action which occurred before another action, both actions having occurred in the past. It is used to differentiate the order in which past actions occurred.
When he had finished his trip around the world, Bruno started the San Francisco-based Delavigne Corporation. →Bruno started the San Francisco-based Delavigne Corporation after his world trip (both actions happened in the past).
I had finished my work before my parents went to bed. →First I finished my work, then my parents went to bed.
The past perfect can also be used in its progressive form (had been doing sthg) to express an unfinished action at a specific moment of time in the past.
Before his car accident, Bruno had been working hard on creating new perfumes.
I had been studying surgery for ten years when I decided to become a clown.
Note: We often see the past perfect in its progressive form used with FOR:
When Bruno got back to the States, he had been traveling for 7 years.
Click here to know more about the past perfect.
10) The common tenses
The most common tense is the simple present, followed by the simple past and the perfect present. These times can be used in both passive and active voice.
How to express the main tenses in English:
• The present:
– The present simple, for permanent truths, and habits:
Winter begins December 21st. This happens on the same date every year.
Icarus works from 8 to 6 every day. Icarus always works from 8 to 6.
– The present progressive (be + verb ending in -ing), if the action is in the process of being carried out:
The children are playing in the garden. They are playing in the garden at this moment.
What are you doing? What are you doing right now?
• The past:
– The past simple (verb + –ed ending, for regular verbs) expresses a completed action:
I finished my homework five minutes ago. I don’t have any more homework to do.
We went to France last summer. We went to France last summer, and then we came back home.
– In the past continuous, the action was in the process of being carried out:
When the boss arrived, I was sleeping on my desk. I was sleeping on my desk at the very moment my boss arrived.
• The future:
– The future simple, with the auxiliary verb WILL:
Tomorrow I will go and buy stamps.
The train won’t arrive on time.
– The future progressive expresses an ongoing action in the future:
At this time tomorrow, we will be surfing the waves of the Indian ocean.
– The near future, using the expression be going to, expresses an intention, or a conviction:
I am going to call him, I can’t wait anymore. Pass me the telephone!
More on the common tenses here.
We’ve established that understanding grammar is key to understanding any foreign language. But thanks to our online English lessons Gymglish, English grammar tips are easy to learn and retain. Don’t believe us? Find out for yourself.
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