Tagged: tenses

You could use ‘can’, or not!

ūüė¶ This could be achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.

This is possible in some languages but not in English. In English if something happens the same way, all the time, predictably, without variation, then there isn’t really any question of probability (‘could’). For regular, predictable phenomena use good old present simple tense without modals:

  • This is achieved¬†using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.

Only use modals for unpredictable or uncertain situations, and then think about the degree of predictability or certainty:

  • This could be achieved¬†using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level, but there are other, better methods. (Gravity perhaps not the best method)
  • In most situations this can be achieved¬†using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level. (Gravity usually the best method)

flag-of-indonesia Notice that could implies a more negative evaluation than can. Indonesians should think carefully about this distinction as they tend to over-use could, having been taught in school that could is more formal than can. Well, yes it is, but only in offers and requests:

  • Can you pass the salt? (informal)
  • Could you pass the salt, please?¬†(formal)
  • Excuse me. Would you mind passing the salt?¬†(very formal)
  • etc.






It’s depend

ūüė¶ Happiness is depend on a person’s view of their life.

Students often mistakenly add to be to V1 to make present simple tense. It could be that they have seen other structures using¬†to be¬†and apply the same ‘rules’ to present simple verb forms.

Let’s take a look at some structures that use to be and think about those that do not.

‘to be’ + adjective

  • Roses are red.
  • I’m tired.
  • Isn’t it hot today? (Positive: It is hot today.)

In these examples, adjectives give information about nouns: ‘red’ tells us about ‘Roses’, ‘tired’ tells us about ‘I’, etc. Notice that the verb to be needs to ‘agree’ with the subject. ‘Are’ agrees with ‘Roses’ (3rd person plural¬†1), ‘Am’ agrees with ‘I’ (1st person singular¬†1), etc.

‘to be’ + noun

  • I’m a doctor.
  • These chairs are office chairs.
  • Indonesia is an Asian country.

In these examples, nouns give information about other nouns. ‘Doctor’ gives information about ‘I’, ‘office chairs’ gives information about ‘these chairs’, etc. Notice again that in each example the verb to be¬†agrees with the subject. ‘Am’ agrees with ‘I’ (1st person singular¬†1), etc.

‘to be’ + preposition phrase

  • He’s in his office.
  • The chairs are on the back of the truck.
  • Indonesia is in south-east Asia.

In these examples preposition phrases give information about nouns: ‘in his office’ tells us about ‘He’, ‘on the back of the truck’ tells us about ‘The chairs’, etc.

‘to be’ + verb

In our opening example, to be is put before the verb depend (V1).

This is incorrect! The only time to be appears before a verb is when the form of the verb is continuous:

  • My brother is preparing to sit the IELTS test.
  • This time next week I will be sitting on a beach sipping martinis.
  • In 2005 they were living in Australia.

Notice the tense may be past, present or future! Again, make sure that subjects ‘agree’ with verbs!



If you are not familiar with the conjugation of verbs (1st person, 2nd person, etc.), see here.

The King dies/(has) died?!

Which of the following would you expect to see in a news headline?

  1. The King dies
  2. The King has died
  3. The King is dying
  4. The King died
  5. 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 Рto 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 Рany 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!


When ‘become’ is not becoming

ūüė¶ Full-day school becomes an important issue because it concerns a wide range of people, especially parents.

flag-of-indonesia¬†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:

ūüôā Full-day school has become¬†an important issue.

If the change is happening right now Рcontinuously Рthen we can use present continuous tense:

ūüôā 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:

ūüôā Full-day school is¬†an important issue.


I would if I could, but I can’t

ūüė¶ 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?

ūüôā 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 Рan unlikely situation Рis by far the most common context for could and would.


flag-of-indonesia¬†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:

  1. ‘First conditional’ – a situation that is highly possible:

Look at those clouds. I forgot my umbrella. If it rains I will get wet!

  1. Predictions

Look at those dark clouds! It will probably rain soon.

  1. 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.

Summing up

Next time you write could or would stop and think. You probably should be writing can or will!



Eyeing the perfect past

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!


Less than perfect past

ūüė¶ 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 Рbank, then post office Рbut I was asked specifically about post office, and so I mentioned post office first.

flag-of-indonesia 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! ūüôā