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Three common problems: tenses, Articles & V-ing

On this page, three main areas of grammar that international students at university typically find difficult to use are focused on. Obviously, there are many other grammar points that are difficult besides these, but improvement in the three areas below will certainly help you to improve the quality of your written work.

Check them out:
  • Advice on using tenses
  • Advice on using articles
  • Advice on using the v-ing form or the infinitve
  • Tenses and articles in a sample passage of academic English

Using tenses can be very difficult. Why?

Getting the right tense is crucial. Tenses are seen as the building blocks of meaning in English. It is important to use tenses correctly in order to be able to speak accurately about time. However, using tenses can be very difficult, for several reasons. Some of these difficulties are as follows:

  • Some languages (unlike English) do not have a tense system; time in those languages may, for example, be indicated with time markers such as 'yesterday' or 'tomorrow'. If your language does not have a tense system, it will be harder for you to use tenses correctly in English.
  • There is no direct relationship in English between tense and time reference. For example, the present simple tense ('I meet') can be used to talk about both the present and future.
  • It is difficult to get all the different parts in a sentence correct: for example, if you want to use the present perfect continuous tense, you need to correctly use the subject, the 'have been', then the verb plus -ing (I have been living in Coventry for three years). Sometimes mistakes can creep in, with sentences like 'I have been played' or 'I have be playing'.
  • The passive and active voice are often confused by students, leading to sentences such as 'I have been played football', instead of 'I have been playing football'.
  • It is hard to know whether to use the 'simple' or 'continuous' forms of the tenses.


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Advice on using tenses

Despite these difficulties, there are some good 'rules of thumb' in English when you are using tenses :

  • Concentrate on the verb forms and tenses that are used most frequently. In particular, simple verb forms are generally used much more commonly than continuous forms. In fact, some verb count research, such as the Hyderabad verb count, shows that the simple tenses (simple present and simple past) are actually used about 50% of the time. The present continuous tense is often studied very early on in course books, but in fact has very little importance when engaging in academic writing; it is very rarely used. So if in doubt, go for a simple tense rather than a continuous one.
  • When writing up longer research into a thesis, different chapters tend to 'favour' different tenses. For example, the literature review usually describes research in the present tense (unless it is based on historical information, which is usually recounted in the simple past). The methodology section, if it is required, is usually written in the simple past (saying what 'was' done). The discussion chapter, meanwhile, adopts the present tense to talk about the significance of the findings.
  • In the introduction to an assignment, we tend to use the simple future tense ('I shall/will') to indicate the essay plan/structure. In the conclusion, the simple past tense is used to describe what was done in the essay.
  • The present perfect continuous, past perfect simple/continuous and future perfect tenses are very rarely used in academic writing. This does not mean to say that you will not see them at all, or that you will never want to use them, but they do have a low frequency in tense usage at this level.

Below is a summary of the main parts of your assignment, and the tenses that you will probably need for each part (bear in mind that there may be slight variations depending on the subject area that you are writing in):

Part of assignment/dissertation: Introduction

Tense required: You will probably want to start with a general statement, or series of statements, in the present simple tense. In your statement of intent, the simple future tense (I will/shall) is usually used. If you are looking back at a historical moment, the simple past tense will be used.

Part of assignment/dissertation: Use of your reading to support your arguments

Tense required: Your demonstration of arguments through reading is usually in the present tense (e.g. Smith argues that, Davies demonstrates the importance of ...). If the literature was written some time ago, you could use the simple past tense. Try not to flit back and forth between past and present tenses, however, and keep the tense used broadly consistent.

Part of assignment/dissertation: Relating a historical event or series of events

Tense required: If you need to recount historical events, these are usually in the past tense (usually the simple past). Scholarly interpretation of these historical details will also be likely to be in the past tense. (e.g. According to Smith, the second World War was...) Note that English does not have a 'historic present' tense, as in some European languages such as French.

Part of assignment/dissertation: Methodology (where applicable)

Tense required: The methodology part of your assignment, if needed (generally in the social sciences, engineering and sciences) should be recounted in the past tense (A questionnaire was distributed to 50 students to elicit their views on ...). You are saying what happened as if it has already happened, and as if the research has already been carried out, not as if the research is about to happen.

Part of assignment/dissertation: Results (where applicable)

Tense required: Analysis of the results of research uses a combination of past and present tenses. (e.g. From the questionnaire distributed, we can observe that 75% of respondents believed that life was less happy now than twenty years ago.) Make sure that you always talk about the same time frame in the same way. Don't chop and change the tense you use.

Part of assignment/dissertation: Conclusion

Tense required: The conclusion usually begins with a retrospective statement in the past, relating back to your essay. (e.g. in this essay, my aim was/has been to ...In the first part, I the second part, ...was discussed). It is also common in the conclusion to make a statement using the future tense about the relevance of the research: e.g. 'It is hoped that this study will serve as a starting point when considering...'

Why are articles difficult for English language learners?

Articles are every student's worst nightmare. Everyone starts to learn English (and indeed, other languages, where applicable) with articles. Thus, they seem at first sight to be a very easy aspect of the language. However, they are probably the hardest of all aspects of English grammar to use proficiently.

Typically, when a tutor at university reads an essay where there are lots of mistakes with articles, this can cause a great deal of irritation and annoyance. Article mistakes are, of course, small mistakes in themselves, and you will certainly not fail an assignment for making a few of them. However, if you make a lot of them, they can create a negative impression and place unnecessary strain on the reader.

The reasons for articles in English being difficult to use are various. Some of them are as follows:

  • Some languages do not have the same concept of 'countable' and 'uncountable' nouns as in English. If your own language does not differentiate between countable and uncountable nouns, it will be harder for you to grasp the English article system.
  • Words that are countable in some languages are (unfortunately) uncountable in English, and vice versa. For example, in French 'luggage' and 'information' are countable, and can be preceded by the indefinite article. In English, this is not the case.
  • There is often a tendency to add articles in English where they are not required. For instance, 'the' is often used wrongly when the noun has a general reference. If you are talking about something in general (rather than something particular) you usually do not need an article. This is called the 'zero' article.
  • Some people regard the rules of article use as virtually 'unteachable'; using articles is such a subtle process that only native speakers can fully grasp how articles operate. This means that even expert writers will still make mistakes with articles.

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    Advice on using articles?

    You might like to use this simple checking system for your work. It has been tried and tested in many different settings and works very well. Get used to using it every time that you do a piece of writing in English, until your use of articles starts to become more proficient.

    The principle of the checking system is this: one of the biggest problems when people check for article use is that they start with the article. However, we have found that it is usually best to start with the NOUN. The noun holds the key as to whether you use an article or not.

    Step 1: Start with the nouns in your writing. For a definition of 'noun', see the table above. Underline every NOUN in your piece of writing. This may seem very boring and tedious but it is necessary the first few times, to get used to applying the rules of article use.

    Step 2: Ask yourself each time you have used a noun, whether it is countable or uncountable. If you don't know, you must check in a dictionary. Do not leave this part to chance.

    Step 3: Now try to apply the rules of grammar to the nouns you have underlined, and make any changes you may deem necessary.

    • RULE 1: if the noun is uncountable, you cannot use 'a/an' (the indefinite article) in front of it under any circumstances. You can use 'the' (definite article) - but only if it refers to something particular or specific. (e.g. We say 'I like music' (music has a general reference), but 'I liked the music I heard in the shop yesterday' (here music has a specific reference).
    • RULE 2: if the noun is a singular, countable noun, it must have an article. If it is the first time you have mentioned the noun, the article is usually 'indefinite' (a/an). If the noun has been mentioned before, and everyone knows what it is, the article is usually 'definite' (the).
    • RULE 3: If the noun is a plural, countable noun, the article is only used where the reference is specific. (e.g. we say 'I prefer pencils to pens' but 'I like the pens you bought me for Christmas').
    • RULE 4: Remember that set expressions/prepositional phrases will often omit the article (e.g. on time, in bed, to school, in prison). Articles are omitted in these cases even if the noun is a singular, countable one. If the article is added to these words after the preposition, the meaning changes completely. For example, saying 'I was in the bed' suggests that the bed was not your own; 'I was in the prison' suggests that your position there is temporary ( you are not an inmate).

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      How can I use the V+ -ing form or the infinitive correctly?

      In English, it is very important to use the V+ -ing form or the V + infinitive correctly after certain verbs. If you do not do so, your writing (or speech) becomes confusing to the reader and your syntax is difficult to follow. There are a number of problems associated with this aspect of grammar which are useful to check on while you are writing and after you have written your assignment.

      • Note how verbs behave. Do not necessarily assume that they all behave in the same way. Particular verbs behave in different ways; if in doubt, check in your dictionary. The dictionary will usually provide a symbol such as v + -ing or v + inf to help you in this area.
      • Even if you know that a verb can be followed by an infinitive, it can be tricky to find out whether to use the infinitive with 'to' or with the 'bare' infinitive (that is, the infinitive without 'to'). Look at examples in the dictionary or grammar book. For example, we say 'Jim considers him to be the best researcher' but 'John noticed him cheat in the examination'.
      • When verbs are followed by the ¡Ving form, remember that some verbs can be followed by the object (e.g. I remember him doing it yesterday) and some can't (e.g. Surprisingly, I enjoy writing my assignments).
      • Be careful with verbs that can take either the infinitive or the V+ ing form. Again, check these in a good grammar book. Verbs that take both forms, with a change in meaning, include these common ones : 'to go on doing/ to go on to do'; 'to remember doing/ to remember to do'; 'to try doing/ to try to do'; 'to regret doing/ to regret to do'; 'to mean doing/ to mean to do'; 'to stop doing/ to stop to do'; 'to come doing/ to come to do'.

      Here is an example list of verbs that generally take the gerund or infinitive.

      Here is a page of exercises on this grammar point.

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