Grammar curiosities (and some nonsense) 9: the present continuous

It is curious how grammar is sometimes divided up. For example, while most teachers nowadays are quite happy to section off Would you like … as some kind of lexico-grammatical structure that can be taught to beginners, the low-level syllabus still dicatates that Have you been …? cannot be treated in this way (although … ahem … there are a couple of honourable exceptions!). In a similar way, we have split off be going to + verb as a unique structure entirely disconnected from (indeed, usually contrasted with) the present continuous, while the present continous with its future meaning is separated from its use for a ‘present’ meaning . . . and often the ‘present’ meaning is split off between ‘in progress right now’ and ‘happening around now’! What’s more writers and teachers often try to find contexts that clearly fit these ‘different’ uses and in doing so, they avoid natural examples which may actually show these differentiations to be more ambiguous than they’d care to admit. I guess this is seen as being particularly important at lower levels because of the fear of confusing or overloading students.

“But ambiguity gets in the way of my teaching”

This all came into sharp focus during a discussion we had with an editor about the following box:

The present continuous (he/she/it )

We use the present continuous for activities now or at the moment (and not with every day, always, usually, etc.)

Questions

What’s he studying?

Is it raining outside?

Is she coming?

Positive

She’s working at home today.

He’s travelling to Dubai today.

It’s raining.

Negative

Her son’s not feeling well.

It’s not working.

The editor (or maybe the Teachers’ Book writer) commented that they thought Is she coming? had a future meaning.

I personally didn’t think so, but you be the judge. Here is the dialogue which the example comes from.

A: Where is everyone? We said 3 o’clock.

B: They’re coming. Look here’s Lizzie

C: Hi.

A: Hi Lizzie. We’re waiting for everyone.

C: Yeah. they’re coming. Jaime’s getting coffee for everyone and Ulla is talking to someone on the phone.

B: Oh. here’s Jaime. No coffee?

D: The machine’s not working!

B: Oh

A: And Katya? Is she coming?

B: No, she’s working at home.

A: Oh.

Now, there is undoubtedly some ambiguity about this, and perhaps it’s like one of those pictures where you either see a rabbit or a duck: it initially depends on your perception about what you see, but when the alternative is pointed out, you can actually see and accept both realities. It is, I think, quite possible that a fluent speaker simply doesn’t think about whether they are referring to the present or future, but actually just uses Is X coming? as a phrase to refer to a meeting that both people are / will be at!

There are three potential solutions to this example of ambiguity:

1   re-write the dialogue
2  find a new context
3  accept the ambiguity

Rewriting the dialogue

We could change the way the conversation is expressed to avoid the use of a present continuous – assuming you think it’s a worthwhile conversation to have:

A: Where is everyone?

B: They’re here.

A: Femi is in the toilet.

B: Howard is in the kitchen. He wants a coffee.

I have done something like this, for example, with a conversation about the future where we just used the simple present to avoid ‘complications’. So the question there is Do you have any plans? and the answers stick to what the other person wants/needs to do. It works up to a point, but you quickly either sound a bit stupid or you simply can’t go on without needing to use different forms.

Changing the context

We could change the context and what we ask students to do in order to disambiguate the meaning of the form. This is, of course, what many books do. Asking students to describe pictures or provide an example where someone is doing something different to their normal routine – such as the undercover boss in English File, which some of you may know. Note that here too there is an effort to separate out examples between the actually doing now as I watch and the around now / not always activities. The result is that writers and teachers end up going down the rather odd process of describing things like some kind of voyeur: He’s taking off his jacket; She’s playing the piano; They’re dancing or else they just state the bleeding obvious:

A: You’re wearing jeans.

B: You’re absolutely right! I hadn’t noticed.

While describing can of course use the present continuous, it certainly doesn’t have to. Things that are perceived to be complete at the moment of description can be described using the present simple – he shoots, he scores. And then for those of you who use videos to practise descriptions (like I used to in the past before recognising the error of my ways), you might consider how we actually describe a scene in a video in normal conversation. We generally use the simple present all the way through unless one action is interrupted by another (i.e. essentially like narrative tenses). In other words, forcing students to describe what’s happening in real time with the present continuous, you may be actually be practising the wrong use of the tense!

Similarly, it turns out that the context of the undercover English File boss doesn’t really work to provide unambiguous examples either. In the text, these are the examples designed to present the idea of now, but not always / often, etc.

In episode one, David Clarke, the boss of a hotel chain, is working undercover for a week in one of his hotels. He usually works in an office, but today he’s working in a hotel …

Wednesday

Today, he’s working in the restaurant. He’s serving breakfast. He’s wearing a uniform … the waiters always work very hard …

(from English File Beginner Students Book, p54-5. Oxford University Press)

There is, in fact, already some ambiguity in this written context. Are we reporting someone’s experience (which would usually mean using the past tense) or are we reporting what happens in the epsode of a TV programme, in which case we probably wouldn’t use the word ‘Today’ or the present continuous for some of these examples. On Wednesday, David works in the restaurant and serves … .

But even if we accept that the context provides clear examples of the present continuous rule, what about the use of the present simple in these examples, which end the article:

After the programme, David changes some things. He gives the good workers more money.

Surely, changing things and giving a pay rise is ‘now and not always / often, etc’ – unless they are very lucky employees! Here, by saying it, you’re showing you see the changing and giving as basically completed actions (though now I think about it, if I were in the moment of speaking, I would probably say “I’m going to change / I’m changing a few things” or “I’m giving you all a pay rise”!) Wow, when you get into it, the meanings of the English tenses do start to seem pretty darned complicated.

Accepting ambiguity

Complicated? Or just fuzzy? Isn’t much of the complication here actually the result of conceiving of the present continuous as having a number of entirely separate and disconnected meanings? What if we just stuck to a single meaning that encompasses all uses – how about connected to the present (or around now) and unfinished? Admittedly, it’s a bit vague, but that is the nature of the meaning of tenses!

Which brings us to the third option: that we stick with our context and examples of waiting around for people (or whatever other natural conversation you choose). In doing so, we accept that there is potentially ambiguity in the underlying meaning of the grammar, but where we have a true natural context, these ambiguities may not even be noticed. No student – especially at this level – is ever going to question whether everyone is talking about the meeting that is about to happen or about some other future one! In the same way, if someone asks What are you reading at the moment? the fact that I don’t have a book in my hand is a pretty clear indication that I’m asking about some other reading around now.

It follows on from this that there is a real question about whether there is actually anything else to learn about the present continuous other than more examples of real usage. This might imply a somewhat different approach – for example, saying what all the examples have in common in terms of meaning or how they all relate to the core meaning. Alternatively, we might go along with Danny Norrington-Davies’s idea that you simply ask students to suggest why the present continuous form is used in the particular context – and work from reasons to rules.

Of course, both of these previous ideas are a bit difficult if you are teaching low levels in English only, as students probably won’t have the language to articulate either reasons or rules. That may also be the problem with a definition of ‘connected to now and incomplete/unfinished’. Will students understand ‘unfinished’? Maybe not . . . but then perhaps that might be a reason to make use of L1 (albeit briefly).

Want to get better at teaching grammar? Take our TEACHING LEXICALLY course this summer.



10 Responses

  1. Roman says:

    Great write-up!

    Hugh, I’d like to ask you for a thing that we readers could hugely benefit from. Could you please give a brief review of the most popular ESL textbooks in one post? Like, advantages and disadvantages. Your perspective in much needed here.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      As coursebook writers ourselves, we obviously feel OUTCOMES is the best book out there, and I’m not sure it’s really ehtical for us to comment in general on other books on the market, but if you have any particularly specific questions, we’d be happy to try and discuss them.

  2. Lothar says:

    Hello Hugh! I’m really fond of your blog and feeling exicited about the upcoming entries. I’m also sorry for asking about off-topical things, but… what’s your opinion on writing down the new words?

    I’ve found myself making this technique core in my teaching. Simultaneously, my anxiety about using this homebrew method to such a large (that is, time-consuming) extent while not having consulted with more experienced people started growing.

    Every time we study a new text, I tell the students to open their mini-dictionary at the end of the exercise books, and we fixate some new lexis “L2 word – L1 traslation”. Initially the intent was to run dictations in the format of me saying full sentences in L1 (with one to three relevant lexis neatly cramped into each) and them translating. I would give it as a home task in order to save time too. But then I realised that it wasn’t possible – not everyone had the same list of words due to absences and other reasons.

    Now I’m questioning myself if this practice is worth it at all, because even the proponents of the lexical approach don’t seem to use it much. On the other hand, this doesn’t alleviate my worries about the fact that the textbooks I have to use (NEF) don’t provide enough lexical training. I’m not experienced yet so I might be wrong, but I can’t imagine how a language is learned when you never really FOCUS the student’s attention on the very building blocks of our speech, rather just go through the material discussing it’s general meaning and hope the student will acquire some of the new vocabulary from that. Although I know it’s possible to learn vocab without any direct training (futhermore, I can personally attest to myself having learned quite a bit of my ACTIVE vocab this way), I feel much more drawn to the principle of consciousness in ELT and feel like it’s a dead-end job to not deal with the matter as it is.

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Hi Lothar – it’s actually me who has been writing this series – I should start putting my name under the title. Anyway, thanks for the comment and don’t worry about being off-topic. I think you are right that many books don’t provide enough focus on lexis and ‘lexical training’. There is a fair bit of evidence that incidental vocab learning as opposed to conscious study is considerably less effective – although I think we need the caveat that reading a lot and for pleasure may have a different role. In the case of your particular task, it’s a bit difficult to comment without seeing it in action, but maybe you might consider some of these options:
      – write a list of key words from the text/lesson and turn them into two or three-word collocations.
      – write these on the board (or give them as homework) for Ss to translate
      – if you want to speed this up you could readout a quick translation yourself first and then get students to check in groups or you could get students to have a team game and see who can translate the list first
      – you could get students to do something productive with these words such as predict the content of the text or create a story or say how each relates to their own life
      – you could get students to record themselves trying to say the list as fast as possible (who has the fastest time)
      – you could do the reading as in the book
      – you could get students to re=tell the reading using the words
      – you could ask them what they think of the text and why or direct them more with particular questions (perhaps including some of the key words)
      – for homework they could think of / find other collocates or write example sentences based on the collocations

      There are many possibilities. Bear in mind that students come to class to practice speaking for the most part so you might want to prioritise those tasks especially speaking about themselves. Where students say something they want to communicate, pay attention and help them! If you want further ideas you may want to look at Teaching Lexically or join us on one of our summer courses!;-)

  3. Irina says:

    Thank you so much for your Grammar Nonsense articles! They are very thought-provoking and reassuring at the same time.
    They are not only food for thought for non-native efl teachers, but they are also a source of real-life collocations.
    For example, in this article I noticed 2 collocations to talk about something that is crystal clear:
    1) smth is a pretty clear indication that
    2) state the bleeding obvious

  4. Radislav Millrood says:

    Talking about the three potential solutions to this example of ambiguity:
    1 re-write the dialogue
    2 find a new context
    3 accept the ambiguity…
    I would say that re-writing the dialogue would mean that in real life you could transform any speech exchange to your liking which you wouldn’t be able to do.
    Finding a new context does not seem practical to me because again. in real life we do not adjust the context but rather get adjusted if we want to stay in touch.
    ACCEPT THE AMBIGUITY is fine with me because that’s what we are doing in real-world discourse trying to work down the language to some meaningful message. A native-speaking editor once asked me why the dialogues in my coursebook for adult beginners “looked so funny”. He meant that they seemed strange to him, not amusing of course. My simple answer was that if you snatch a stretch of conversation from your own interaction it will always be funny unless you know a bigger picture. Anyway, the ideas about grammar curiosities are interesting indeed. Thanks for sharing.

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’d be curious to see some of your dialogues! And just as a plug, if you are interested in materials writing we have an excellent one-week course in the summer!;-)

  5. Nataly Agam says:

    I love this definition of Present Continuous – connected to the present and unfinished.
    When I explain Pr Cont to my students next year I will just give examples of usage as it is advised in the article I liked so much
    If they want more, I have L1 to be more precise

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks. Glad you liked it. My personal feeling is to resist giving more explanation but probably best in L1 as you say if it doesn’t take up time.


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