Which of the following would you expect to see in a news headline?
- The King dies
- The King has died
- The King is dying
- The King died
- The King will have been dying
(I was being silly with number 5!)
Let’s consider the grammar first of all from the context of natural disasters. We’ll return to the King of Pop later!
Recently I was reviewing tenses with students when I saw this news item and remembered the grammatical quagmire I’m struggling to drag students through. How to explain tenses in news articles?! I’ll have a go, but feel free to correct me (add comments) if I’m wrong.
Deadly magnitude 6.5 earthquake hits Aceh in Indonesia.
News headlines often feature present simple tense. Even after an event is ‘finished’, its effects may be being felt right now. And since news is supposed to be ‘new’, the ‘nowness’ of simple present communicates ‘newness’.
An undersea earthquake off Indonesia’s northern Aceh province has killed at least 52 people.
Verbs in the body of news items are often written in present perfect tense. This is the essential function of present perfect – to highlight a connection between past and present. Events that appear in the news often have immediate repercussions that are felt in the present.
The magnitude 6.5 quake struck just off the north-east coast of Sumatra island where dozens of buildings have collapsed and many people are feared trapped under rubble.
Events leading up to the main news event are often written using past simple tense. They may be coincidental, or they may have contributed directly to the main event. Notice that this sentence also features present perfect and present simple tense, for the reasons described above.
The King of Pop
Returning to Michael Jackson – any idea which headline fits best?
(Answers in comments below!)
Please share news stories that illustrate these uses of these and other tenses. Feel free to add links and post comments in the box below. I will attempt to respond to any questions! As I say, it’s a quagmire!
😦 Full-day school becomes an important issue because it concerns a wide range of people, especially parents.
This is the influence of Bahasa Indonesia. In English ‘become’ is used to describe a change, rather than a constant:
- People become sleepy when they drink a lot of beer.
- Most knives become dull after a while and need to be sharpened.
- When there’s a problem, Clark Kent becomes Superman.
In each of these three cases, a change is implied, from alert to sleepy, from sharp to dull, and from newspaper journalist to superhero. They are all familiar, recurring situations, and so we use present simple tense to describe them.
If we say “Full-day school becomes an important issue,” a change is indeed implied (from non full-day school to full-day school), but since this is a unique, rather than a recurring situation, then we need a time frame.
If the change happened in the past, but we’re not sure exactly when, then we use present perfect tense:
🙂 Full-day school has become an important issue.
If the change is happening right now – continuously – then we can use present continuous tense:
🙂 Full-day school is becoming an important issue.
However, if we are analysing a situation that is true now, constant and without change, as though we are looking at it under a microscope, then we use present simple tense:
🙂 Full-day school is an important issue.
😦 I enjoy using Facebook because I could see photos of my friends there.
Students are often confused about can/could, will/would. Sometimes they have learned at school that could and would are more formal, or more polite than can and will. That may be true when you are requesting something, but in IELTS speaking and writing you’re usually using can and will to communicate possibility or ability rather than to make a request.
How possible is it?
🙂 I enjoy using Facebook because I can see photos of my friends there.
In this case there is a strong possibility (almost 100%) that I will see my friend’s photos on Facebook. In this case I need to use can.
Let’s imagine a similar situation where there is no possibility:
If I had an Internet connection, I could see photos of my friends on Facebook.
Here the writer clearly does not have an Internet connection and so there is no possibility of him seeing his friend’s photos. Notice that in this example could is part of a structure called ‘second conditional’:
If + subj + V2 + ‘,’ + subj + could/would + V1
In the ‘second conditional’ the situation you are describing is unlikely:
“If I found a million dollars in the street I would buy a new house.”
Second conditional – an unlikely situation – is by far the most common context for could and would.
Indonesian students tend to overuse ‘will’ because they want to translate ‘akan’. But ‘will’ is not used in English as much as ‘akan’ is used in Indonesian. Actually there are generally only three situations where will is suitable:
- ‘First conditional’ – a situation that is highly possible:
Look at those clouds. I forgot my umbrella. If it rains I will get wet!
Look at those dark clouds! It will probably rain soon.
- Habits (usually annoying habits)
He drives me crazy. He’ll (he will) trim his nails and then leave the cuttings all over the floor for me to clean up!
How able are you (or were you)?
It’s unusual to talk about past abilities, because once you acquire an ability, for example the ability to swim, you rarely lose that ability. It would be ridiculous, for example, to write:
When I was younger I could swim, but then I forgot how to swim so now I can’t.
We generally only lose this kind of ability when something terrible happens to us:
When I was younger I could swim, but then I lost my arms and legs and so now I can’t swim.
On the other hand ability can sometimes be a matter of degree. for example we can talk about partial ability, and about changes in our level of ability:
When I was younger I could swim 20km, but now that I’m old I can only swim 20 metres!
Most of the time when we talk about ability we use can – present tense – because, most of the time, we’re making a claim that is true now.
Next time you write could or would stop and think. You probably should be writing can or will!
In this post we’re looking closely at, or eyeing, past perfect tense. In a previous post I showed that past perfect tense is probably not very useful in IELTS writing and speaking. It belongs more to the narrative genre, and in IELTS we don’t write stories!
When I explain this to students and they look at me as though they don’t really believe me, and so we go ahead and look at a story to see how past perfect works.
The following video contains a story, and I have devised a listening activity to help you to focus on the use of past perfect in the story. If you’re not sure how past perfect works, please see my earlier post for an explanation and examples before continuing with the listening.
- Watch / Listen to the story and write down (on a piece of paper) all of the verbs that relate to events in the story, one after the other, as you hear them. Pause the video occasionally to give yourself time to write. Do that now. The next instruction follows the video.
- After you have watched the video / listened to the story, look at your list of verbs (events) and number the events as they actually happened in time (chronologically): First thing that happened ‘1’, second event ‘2’, third event ‘3’, etc.
- Next, compare the sequence of events that you have written down with your numbered chronological sequence. You will find that not all of the events in the video are mentioned chronologically beginning with the earliest and ending with the final event.
- Identify the events in the video that are mentioned outside of the chronological sequence and write these events in the comments box below this post. What tense is used to introduce these ‘out of sequence’ events in the video?
As usual, I look forward to reading your comments!
😦 Through television broadcasting many people had known about the president’s vision and mission.
Even without looking at the surrounding text, it’s extremely unlikely that past perfect tense was the right choice here.
Actually there are very few situations in IELTS writing where past perfect is appropriate. The only time you will need it in the writing test is in Task 1. I have written a post about past perfect in Task 1 writing.
Past perfect is used mostly in narrative when the writer wants to introduce events in non-chronological order, for example when certain events are for some reason more important than other events.
Most of the time past simple tense is all I need to recount a series of events in the past:
This morning I went to the bank and then I went to the post office.
On the other hand, if someone asked me “When did you go to the post office?” then I might reply:
This morning I went to the post office after I had been to the bank.
The chronology is the same – bank, then post office – but I was asked specifically about post office, and so I mentioned post office first.
Again, this re-ordering of events is almost never necessary in IELTS writing, and seldom used in speaking. Indonesian students over-use past perfect tense and rarely use it appropriately. My advice would be to stop using it altogether, at least in the IELTS test!
For my next post I’m planning a listening activity to focus on the sequencing of events in narratives. Stay tuned! 🙂
|Teacher:||“Have you all done your homework?”|
If you are Indonesian then you’re probably trying to construct present perfect tense. For Indonesians your options are generally already and not yet. However, you should think about using more present perfect in your English, especially if you’re preparing for IELTS. Using present perfect accurately and appropriately will increase your score for grammar in IELTS speaking and writing:
|Teacher:||“Have you all done your homework?”|
|Students:||🙂 “Yes, we have!“|
😦 Today, with the introduction of information technology, life becomes more complex.
Here you use a time expression – today – in order to provide your reader with time context, or a time frame. Unfortunately your verb and your time expression do not match.
Today can mean literally ‘today’, so if today is Thursday then today means Thursday. But today can also mean other things. In academic papers today often refers more generally to time around now.
Time around now began at some point in the past and is likely to continue until some point in the future. Exactly how far into the past and how far into the future does time around now extend? Well that depends on the topic. Since ‘information technology’ implies quite recent innovations, then we’re probably thinking – in this example – of a roughly twenty year period with ‘now’ somewhere in the middle.
Time around now can also refer to a recently new, more permanent condition, that may not be likely to change, at least not for a long time.
Depending on which verb tense we choose, we can communicate either new, permanent condition OR continuous action.
Since information technology is changing continuously – i.e. becoming more complex all the time – then we need present continuous tense.
🙂 Today, with the introduction of information technology, life is becoming more complex.
‘Become’ always implies a change, unlike the Indonesian ‘menjadi’, which can communicate a permanent state: “Siti bilang bahwa rumahtangganya tidak bahagia, karena suami tak pernah memberikan nafkah batin yang menjadi haknya.”
If we want to describe a more permanent state in English, then present simple tense is used:
🙂 Today, with the introduction of information technology, people communicate more easily than they used to.