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 Dutch 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 Dutch-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 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
4) 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
5) Modal auxiliaries and the perfect tenses
The Modal Auxiliary + Have + Past Participle type construction (Modal Auxiliary + Perfect) allows us to speak retrospectively about a completed action in the past:
It must have been hot last summer. I imagine that it was probably hot last summer.
He could not have murdered her, since he was in Chicago. It’s impossible that he murdered her, because he was in Chicago.
They may have crossed the border by now. They might have already crossed the border by now.
You might have missed a very good opportunity. It’s possible that you have missed a very good opportunity.
She needn’t have cleaned the entire house. It wasn’t necessary for her to have cleaned the entire house.
Going further on Modal auxiliaries and the perfect tenses here
6) The past perfect (or 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.Until 1990, the president had been working in the dairy industry.
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.
More on the past perfect (or pluperfect) tense here
7) 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
8) Agreement of tenses in reported speech
Tense agreement in indirect speech works like this:
I think (that) I am going to leave (in half an hour). (present progressive)
I thought (that) I was going to leave (but in the end, I decided to stay). (past progressive)
I think (that) he will come (to my party tomorrow). (future)
I thought he would come (but in fact he didn’t). (future in the past)
I think he has lost his keys. (present perfect simple)
I thought he had lost his keys. (past perfect simple)
I think he has been working here for 3 years. (present perfect progressive)
I thought he had been working here for 3 years. (past perfect progressive)
Indirect speech is usually used to repeat what someone has said:
Bob said he would clean up his desk. Bob’s actual words were ‘I will clean up my desk’.
Bruno told me he was going to take a vacation soon. Bruno’s actual words were ‘I am going to take a vacation soon’.
Going further on agreement of tenses in reported speech here
9) Using ‘Had better’
I had better (‘it would be a good idea if I’, ‘it would be better for me to’) is used as a modal auxiliary verb:
I had (or I’d) better sleep now. It would be a good idea for me to sleep now.
You’d better discuss this issue with Bruno. You should discuss this issue with Bruno.
We’d better leave before the police come. Let’s leave before the police come.
He’d better not come. It would be a bad idea for him to come.
Had better is always followed by a verb in the infinitive without ‘to’:
You had better BE on time. You must or should be on time.
Had better is ALWAYS formed from the auxiliary verb ‘have’ in the past simple (‘has better’ or ‘will have better’ do not exist!).
She had better be ready for next week’s meeting. She really must be ready for next week’s meeting.
In informal English, we sometimes say I had best, used with the same meaning:
I’d best go home. It would be good for me to go home.
You’d best listen to what he has to say. It would be a good idea for you to listen to what he has to say.
More on had better here
10) 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
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.
*Anonymous data collected from our users regarding our English course Gymglish since 2004.
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