Grammar nonsense and curiosities 10: verb patterns

Welcome back?

It’s been a while, but I’m now back by popular demand – by which I mean Hugh’s demand, if I’m honest! Here for your delight and delectation are some further thoughts on grammar nonsense. So step right up verb patterns! It’s time for your moment in the spotlight.

The word nonsense is perhaps a bit harsh when it comes to verb patterns, because in some ways, the rules about these patterns do simply represent facts about language. We can, for instance, definitively say that these are not normal patterns. 

I need going to the bank

Can you moving? I can’t to see.

I’ve started that I learn Russian.

Terminology confusion

However, things start to go wrong when we try to describe the correct patterns. ‘Need is followed by an infinitive’.  Or should that be ‘an infinitive plus to’? ‘Can is followed by an infinitive’ Or should that be ‘an infinitive without to’. With to, without to, let’s call the whole thing off! 

I have actually always preferred ‘need + to + verb’ and ‘can + verb’ myself, but more than one editor and grammar guru has disagreed with me. The argument is that the form after start or need is not a verb (!) in the sense that we don’t say he needs to goes to the bank. Maybe they are right.

However, you quite often see ‘verb + -ing’ or ‘the -ing form of the verb’. Surely this should be an ‘infinitive + ing’ if we are going to be consistent. Unfortunately, that would then lead to us saying “start can followed by an infinitive or an infinitive (without to) + -ing!”, which is somewhat long-winded. And what would we call the grammar point/exercise: ‘infinitive or infintive + -ing’? ‘Verb or verb-ing’? Oh, to hell with it! Let’s go back to ‘infinitive or -ing’. But then ….

This is something to bear in mind – and something we have seen before in these posts. Some grammar terminology is kind of created for the purpose of creating what Scott Thornbury called a ‘grammar McNugget’ to study. This then means we can create form practice exercises or sorting activities to ensure students compare and contrast different points. It’s also realtively easy to write an activity where we give the patterns and ask students to sort a list of verbs into the boxes of verbs followed by -ing and verbs followed by -inf.

Over-complication again

Then, as we continue up the levels, we’re expected to expand this list of verb patterns. As we saw with progressive forms and relative clauses, there is often pressure to make grammar more complex, to give an impression of progress. And as most other grammar has already been done to death, there is plenty of scope here. Typically, the grammar is connected to ‘reporting verbs’ with a range of patterns such as these:

verb + obj + ing

verb + obj + inf

verb + (that) + clause

verb + if clause

verb + wh- clause

verb + prep + ing

verb + prep + obj + ing 

verb + that + clause with subjunctive


Leaving aside the questions of whether (a) the subjunctive really exists in English and (b) we can actually describe any rules for it if it does, the bigger issue here is whether students can actually extract such ‘rules’ in real time when they are speaking (or even writing) – especially when you consider that many verbs will actually have more than one pattern. Come on, we all know this idea is nonsense! So why do we continue to do it? Mainly because it’s there in our books (mea culpa . . . including Outcomes) and they are there mainly because they are often tested via transformation exercises like in the Cambridge FCE.

What value does cramming have?

So OK, for the purpose of cramming for a test, maybe there’s a point, but do stop and consider how many points a student may actually gain from such cramming. At most, there may be two or three points to be gained out of 200 or more. Added to that is the fact that the most likely way for students to become accurate in the use of these verb pattrens (if indeed they ever will!), is through being exposed to lots of fully grammatical examples of the verbs in action . . . over time . . . as students come across them in different contexts. We might encourage this by adding extra examples when relevant, and by eliciting (and sometimes correcting) examples from students.

The problem can be that as we are all primed to focus on grammar and words, when a student asks, for example, what promise means, we might give the meaning and maybe even an example but then write the pattern:

promise to do something

A variety of patterns

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is better than simply saying ‘promise means X’. However, this doesn’t reflect the range of ways we use promise. Here are some examples from the BNC based on a search for ‘government promised’. I have tidied them up to make them slightly shorter and to avoid specific cultural references:

All last year, the government promised that talks would start soon.

The government promised last year they would leave things as they were.

The government promised to publish a regular review.

In return, the government promised to transform the security-zones into development areas.

Before the last election, the government promised an increase in public spending of £11 billion.

Following international outrage, the government promised that it would change its policy.

Three years ago the government promised all food workers would be trained.

The government promised to consult disabled people before it introduced new regulations.

The government promised local residents there would be strict environmental protections.

Teaching lexically means exposure to more grammar than focusing on rules + words does

I don’t suggest you’d actually want to give all of these examples, but the point is that they can guide us towards giving more complete and natural examples that reflect the use and patterning of verbs. Apart from seeing here that promised may be followed by to + verb (or infinitive if you prefer), students may see that it can be followed by (that) + clause or by a noun phrase. Note that verb + clause is a very common pattern (at least in the case of government promises), and when seeing or hearing these kinds of examples, there are also other things students could potentially notice, such as: 

  • the clause after promised typically contains would
  • the phrase with promise is often preceded by some kind of past time reference.
  • various vocabulary collocations which students may be in the process of learning such as start soon / leave things as they were (or are) / a regular review / publish a review / change its policy, etc. 

Obviously, if we give one or two examples at the moment of teaching, this is not going to result in these patterns and collocations being acquired. It will take a number of encounters over time, but we should note that by reducing the verb pattern to a ‘rule’ such as  promise + infintive / promise + clause, we are actually reducing students’ exposure to language!

This is the point about teaching lexically. By looking to constantly teach words with the grammar they’re often used with, through examples, we increase the number of repeated encounters students have with ‘old’ words and grammar compared to what we would do if we focused more on just the grammar rule or form.

Making use of tasks and noticing patterns

Apart from giving fuller examples when we teach vocabulary, we can help students to notice verb patterns on an ongoing basis in two other ways:

  • through meaningful conversation / writing tasks
  • through reading / listening and tasks that encourage noticing

The tasks might be based on these words as vocabulary or something unconnected to a specific word or form. For example, students could tell (true) stories about an experience when someone, for example, promised them something or accused them of something  or a time they refused to do something or persuaded someone that something was a good idea, etc.

The story may or may not include these actual verb patterns, but we can imagine others may occur, along with lots of other grammar such as narrative tenses / reported speech. If there are errors, we can draw attention to these as we see fit either on a one-to one basis as we go round listening and/or as part of a whole-class feedback session. 

Using texts and noticing patterns

Another way we can draw attention to patterns and word grammar in texts is by doing what I call ‘reverse gap-fills’ after students have understood and talked about a text. The traditional way we focus on vocabulary after a text is either by matching words in the text to meanings or by providing a sentence to complete with a key word. In the ‘reverse gap fill’, we give the key word and have multiple gaps that focus on the grammar surrounding the word. So say we took the examples above, we might have gaps such as these which students complete from memory and then check by re-reading the text.:

All last year, the government promised …… ……. …… start soon.

The government promised l …… …… …… …… leave things as they were.

The government promised …… ………  a regular review.

……   ………., … …………. promised to transform the security-zones into development areas.

…….. ……..  ………. …….., the government promised …… …….. ……. public spending of £11 billion.

Again, let’s be clear: this is just an example based on the sentences above. With a real text, we might focus on patterns around various verbs and the co-text that’s found around them.

That’s verb patterns covered then – apart from those activities where – apparently – the meaning changes when the pattern does, which I see as a case of creating yet more unnecessary confusion. We’ll save that delight for another day, though!

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4 Responses

  1. Chris Watts says:

    This refers to the section on cramming.
    In the UK, to assess a student’s abilities and promotion, do you do formative or summative testing?
    We implemented PBLA – Portfolio Based Language Assessment.
    Over a term, we collect work abstracts and assignments and evaluate based on the totality of their work.
    For native speakers, as well as me at times, test anxiety is crucial to passing or failing.
    Just curious!

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      It really depends on the context. In the field of EFL, exams like IELTS and the Cambridge FCE are still held up as the gold standard, and they’re very much direct test-based assessments.

  2. Allan says:

    Great article.
    I’m reminded of the maxim, ‘you teach what you know’. We memorise handy rules of thumb for common verb patterns, or if we follow our intuition. Then before we know it it’s on the board as fact.
    Love the ‘reverse gap-fill’ as well. Gapping the grammar rather than the key word acknowledges that the real difficulty with lexis has always been using it appropriately and not remembering the definition.

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for the comment and glad you like the exercise. When I have proposed this exercise often readers have come back with the comment that it’s too difficult! Students won’t remember everything. I don’t know if this reaction is actually a suggestion that it’s bad exercise, but unfortunately, it has been a reason not to publish it! Maybe we can change that with support like this. Thanks.

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