I would if I could, but I can’t

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.

Possibility

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’, which is used to describe an unreal or imaginary situation in the present:

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.

This kind of imaginary situation is by far the most common context for could and would.

Will

Indonesian flag 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 in the present 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!

Ability

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 in an accident 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 or always.

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. Continue reading

Less than perfect past

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 might need it in the writing test is in Task 1. I deal with this in another post: 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.

Indonesian flag 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!

Have you done your homework?

Teacher: Have you all done your homework?
Students: Already!

Indonesian flag 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 shit happens/is happening!

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.

Indonesian flag ‘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.

Remember that state verbs are never used in continuous form:

Today, with the introduction of information technology, people prefer to send emails rather than write letters.

There’s a time and a place for everything

In the last 10 years there is an increase in aquaculture.

Context is important. Context is generally about time and place. If you want to contextualise time then you need to communicate meanings such as:

  • time around now
  • time up to and including now
  • past and finished time
  • past unfinished time
  • future time related to the present
  • etc.

Time context is achieved using carefully chosen verb tenses and time expressions. In the sentence above, “in the last 10 years” is a time expression that carries the meaning time up to and including now. In this case the correct tense is present perfect:

  • In the last 10 years there has been an increase in aquaculture.

Create time context using verb tenses and time expressions. Make sure your verb tenses and time expressions match!

Chomsky (2014) argued (or argues?)

Chomsky (2014) argued that grammar monopoly is an effective way to highlight first language interference.

I know, I know. 2014 is past and finished, so you want to use past simple tense. However, in this case the currency of the idea – is it recent and/or valid? – is more important than when it was written.

The currency of an idea can occasionally be difficult to determine, but in most cases it is obvious. If we assume that Chomsky is still alive (as he is at the time of this writing) and that his idea is still current then we use present simple tense, even if the idea was written in the finished past:

  • Chomsky (2014) argues that Grammar Monopoly is an effective way to highlight first language interference.

In most postgraduate writing we are dealing with current ideas, from recent sources, and so most of the time you will need present tense for your reporting verbs.