Grammar nonsense (and some curiosities) 8: short answers and auxiliaries

Following on from the previous post about the way the syllabus in most Beginner-level books is constructed, one of the areas that continues to dominate at this level – and which I find most annoying – is the teaching of auxilliaries in short answers. When coursebooks (and, no doubt, a lot of teachers), present yes/no questions in any new tense, students are taught to mirror this with Yes / No + subject + the same auxiliary (+not).

For example:

A: Do you work here?

B: Yes, I do / No, I don’t.

A: Are you using this?

B: Yes, I am. / No, I’m not.

A: Have you seen him today?

B: Yes, I have. / No, I haven’t.

Obviously, this grammar in itself is not nonsense as we do use auxiliaries in this way – it’s just that I have never understood why this is deemed essential at such low levels. Surely when students have next to no English, we should be providing them with the simplest ways of fulfilling their communicative desires and making the most of the little language they have. What does ‘I do’ or ‘I don’t’ add to the communication here? Nothing. Students can be perfectly correct simply saying Yes or No and if they didn’t have to practise using the auxiliaries, they could focus their attention on language which is more relevant to their immediate needs, such as other questions they could ask or the next part of the conversation, or some new words or … well, I’m sure you can also think of something more useful!

There are additional problems with teaching short answer replies in this way. By teaching them as the default form (why else would we teach them?), the corollary is that NOT using them is either ‘incorrect’ or marked for rudeness or emphasis and, therefore, teachers are encouraged to spend additional time on ‘correcting’ their non-use and re-practising replying with auxiliaries. In doing so, we end up misrepresenting how conversations in English really work. That’s because, firstly, we don’t follow this pattern this with all yes / no questions – particularly modals.

A: Shall I do it for you?

B: Yes, you shall!

Secondly, we frequently don’t reply with the same auxiliary as in the question:

A: Are you going out later?

B: I might.

Having taught the mirroring rule, we may well find ourselves in the absurd position of then having to explain non-use or different uses! The reality is we have got things exactly the wrong way round!

The default way of answering yes / no questions is simply to use yes / no, following Grice’s Maxims! In fact, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (see section 14.3.3.6) states that Yeah is actually the ‘canonical’ or default response, being far more common than Yes. As such, adding an auxiliary and/or using the ‘full form’ of yes will actually mark our replies with emphasis or additional meaning (such as rudeness!) From this point of view, we should probably leave the use of auxiliaries in short answers to acquisition – in other words, exposure to normal usage over time – which we might support through drawing attention to their use at Intermediate levels and above.

Which brings me to a final thought. Paradoxically, we might actually be under-teaching how auxiliaries are used more broadly in discourse. Having taught them in short answers at the lowest levels , they then seem to largely disappear from view. The short answers are essentially examples of ellipsis or substitution of the previous verb phrase in the question in order to avoid repetition. Using auxiliaries for substitution or ellipsis is obviously quite widespread in English and when used in other parts of discourse, it does not necessarily carry any extra emphasis:

A: Have you got Josh’s email?

B: No, but I think Dominic has. Shall I get him to text you it?

A: Could you?

B: Sure. I’ll do it now.

Or

A: Has he finished the application yet?

B: No, but I wish he would. He’s going to miss the deadline if he doesn’t soon.

This use of auxiliaries in ellipsis/substitution is sometimes taught in one big block at higher levels, but really it would make more sense to draw attention to it as part of our general work on tenses throughout our courses. The fact that we don’t may be because typical gap-fill exercises don’t really work for testing this aspect of usage. Take this short dialogue for example:

1 I wish he ………… (finish) that application. He’s going to miss the deadline?

2 A: Have you seen Paula’s given up smoking.

B: Yeah, it’s great. I wish Leo ………….. (?!).

We can’t put a prompt for the substituting would in number 2, for obvious reasons but leaving the space blank doesn’t work either because you are essentially giving away the answer! Note also that publishers/teachers do not like exercises where the task is mixed – in this case just adding would or completing the gap using would + the verb in brackets. For an effective gap-fill, the writer needs to use a gap with no prompts and focus on multiple auxiliaries which I guess is why this area is left to an Advanced level.

Drawing attention to how auxiliaries in substitution / ellipsis on an ongoing basis therefore requires different kinds of tasks. For example, perhaps you could do it through single-word gaps in a conversation or text. The gaps would be a bit like one of those FCE cloze tests that look at a variety of bits of vocabulary and grammar. Another possibility might be that we ask students to record a speaking task and then afterwards listen to themselves and consider where they could avoid repetition using an auxiliary only. Or perhaps we could sometimes listen out for this as the sole focus for our post-speaking feedback, using the board to show students what they said and how it could be shortened with auxiliaries. Or maybe we should leave it entirely to fate and not focus on it at all!

Something to ponder … and other thoughts or suggestions are always welcome.

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6 Responses

  1. Monika says:

    Hello, I really like this blog post, and I agree with you, short answers are not necessary for beginners.
    I do use of them along with my high intermediate students, only to check their listening skills. I always tell them that of course they don’t have to answer with the axillary verb in a normal conversation but for class, in order to practice auxiliary verbs, their command, and their own listening skills (related to the question), it’s useful.

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for your comment Monika. I think the point about listening skills is good. And in fact, I wouldn’t have a problem that the short answer with auxiliary appears in listening material at beginner Elementary. if natural. I might even – in an Elementary listening lesson – maybe even draw attention to it with regards to what Cauldwell calls the stream of speech, but still not practice it productively.

  2. Olena Chambers says:

    I had to re-read the last 2 paragraphs few times even though I have been teaching ESOL for 30 years. Start with simple structures: Yes/No + auxiliaries for all 12 tense forms. With fun games it’s quick. Wishes, requests, indirect questions, hypotheticals etc with “might”, “Could”, “would” can only be successfully acquired after the basics are understood. How can a student confidently reply “I might” or “I wish I could” if he/she does not know “Yes, I can/No I can’t”.

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Hi Olena,
      Thanks for taking the trouble for posting. I think there is something to be said for making students aware of the different forms that exist from a low level, but without knowing exactly what you do and how it fits with the words and phrases you teach alongside this grammar and the conversations students engage in, I would hestitate to say I agree with you. On one level, you are of course right that students can’t acquire the ability to consistently produce say third conditionals or structures after wish before they have acquired past simple / past perfect forms to some degree, because the conditional structures rely on knowledge and some degree of control of past forms! However, that’s different to saying you can’t see or hear and understand a hypothetical sentence before you have mastered it. This is definitely NOT what is suggested in the post. Having said that, it is clearly not the case that, for example you need to have mastered past forms before you can teach (and students can learn) the questions Can I help you? or Can you help me? (Or could you help me if you prefer?). Neither of these would have a reply with a Yes/No + auxiliary in normal conversation. If you think you shouldn’t teach such questions at a low level and we must teach the auxiliary replies with them, well I will have to politely disagree with you. Oh and by the way, in response to your comment elsewhere, I taught in classrooms mainly in the UK every weekday for 24 years until I was made redundant in 2014. My reflections come as much from that experience as from courses and things I have read. Your experience has led you to different conclusions. Fair enough.

  3. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for this post. I get pretty frustrated observing lessons where corrections are being made to include auxiliaries when they’re not really necessary.
    I’d never really thought about how auxiliaries are used in other ways, so thanks for that prompt.
    One activity which might work for the final part of your post is matching full sentences to conversations/prompts, PET (?) style. Although it’s not productive, it could help students to see the kind of patterns which might work.
    Sandy

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for the comment Sandy. I’m not absolutely sure of PET tasks, but some kind of matching could certainly work as an awareness raising. As with many bits of grammar that don’t get taught much, I suspect it is partly because they are difficult to practise productively. It may be that a knock-on of the PPP paradigm (or at least the requirement of production) is it encourages a focus on a narrower set of grammar that can be easily practised.


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