Look at the intensity! The passion!
As fluent English speakers, we have the reputation of not knowing what the hell we are doing. Sure, we can flawlessly form a sentence simultaneously utilizing the past perfect continuous verb tense* and the third conditional**, but well-over ninety percent of us have no idea what the past perfect continuous tense is, let alone that it is one of only a few options when making a third conditional, yet another spot of advanced grammar that falls out of our mouths without much consideration. In this respect, I admire my students and colleagues for their intricate knowledge of my language. They know why.
By a stroke of fairly charted destiny, I happened to be amongst the small percentage of native speakers that can (unfortunately, has to) identify the technical aspects of the everyday utterance. In some ways, it’s a blessing, being part of such an elite (at least in our minds) club, but how many people really strive to be one of the few sitting around discussing the differing semantics of certain verbs when followed by an infinitive versus a gerund***. In school, when we were being encouraged to express ourselves, I’m fairly certain this conversation wasn’t what our liberal arts teachers had in mind.
However, the big advantage of being a native speaker is that we can perform grammar anomalies without knowing at all why what we’re saying is correct, just that it is. The problem is that the better students become, the more complex the grammar becomes, and the less accepting they are of breaking the rules they’ve been adhering to for years. Recently, while conducting an advanced class, one of my top students wouldn’t accept an answer I had provided. “You can’t use will in an if-clause,” she decreed, which by rule is fairly knowledgeable; on the other hand, via a lifetime of speaking English, I knew it was wrong. Just not why.
Despite creating several sentences in which will was in the if-clause, she simply said the examples were wrong. How do you prove an exception to rule? The student argued so vehemently that, truthfully, I’d begun to doubt myself a little, and we had to break class agreeing to disagree. I was consumed with it. I thought about the if-will conundrum all the way home, talked with Emma about it, and as I was cooking dinner, she google-d around, finding sources to support if-will compatibility. It’s an odd moment rejoicing over a chopped onion because you now have the evidence to prove your student wrong.
Being an English teacher has, at times, made me cocky, maybe even dick-y. On many an occasion, I will find myself watching a sitcom, some humdinger of intellectual wit, say Friends, and I’ll be slighting the writers, performers, director, or producers for allowing horrible blights upon the English language. Then, I’m brought back down to level by some if-will moment, brought on by some second-hand English speaker who hasn’t graduated high school, and I realize either how much I don’t know about my own language or how much I wish I could forget. English, you are a bitch mother!
The Guts Behind the Grammar:
* The past perfect continuous tense is a construction like this: “had been paying” attention. It combines past simple tense “had” with the perfect tense, which requires “have” plus the third form (as in break/broke/broken) of a verb, e.g. “been”, with the continuous tense, calling for a be-verb followed by the present participle (or –ing) form of a verb): “paying”. The past perfect continuous tense is used to express a past event that began before the event in question and continued until that moment or beyond.
I had been paying close attention to the English lesson when my eyes went cross.
Note: (For those grammar nerds who are wondering about just using past continuous here)
· I was paying attention when my eyes went cross: This sentence emphasizes that when my eyes went cross, I was paying attention, at that exact moment.
· I had been paying attention when my eyes went cross: This sentence emphasizes that when my eyes went crossed, I had been paying attention, over a period of time. It is possible that I was still paying attention at that moment or that I had just finished.
** The third conditional is used to reference unreal situations in the past, and the results that would have been produced had the reality of the situation been otherwise. If I had been paying attention to my English lessons at school, of course, means that I hadn’t been paying attention, the “if” both signify that what follows--I had been paying attention to my English lessons at school—isn’t true but that we are imagining if it were true. So, that gets us halfway through the process.
Now we must follow the if-clause--If I had been paying attention to my English lessons at school-- with the presumed result of the imaginary past: If I had been paying attention to my English lessons at school, I wouldn’t have learned this much ridiculous grammar anyway. Now, we the audience to this utterance know that the speaker/writer didn’t pay attention during English lessons and that the result would have been the same as if he/she had done so.
Of course, as native speakers, we thoughtlessly make statements like this all the live, long day.
*** Gerunds and infinitives are two different forms a verbs, the gerund being formed with –ing, as in “Being or not being, that is the question”, the infinitive then formed with to and the base verb, as in the more familiar, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” These two can be the bane of an ESL teacher’s existence because it’s not always so clear which one to use.
First of all, some verbs can be followed by both, “I like walking” and “I like to walk”, while others require one or the other, “I want to stop, yet I can’t” but never “I want stopping, yet I can’t”. There is absolutely no standard to judge how verbs will behave, so you are forced to ask students to memorize lists rather than learn some sort of regular grammar rule.
Then, there are the tricky words like remember and stop. I remember kissing your sister every morning is very different than I remember to kiss your sister every morning, just as I stopped kissing your sister is equally different to I stopped to kiss your sister. So, as you can see, some words can use both, but the meaning completely changes as to which form is used.
So, feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.