How Are You? How Ya Doin’? How Does One Understand Verb Tense Consistency?

Posted September 2, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

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A student sent a series of questions to me regarding verb tense consistency. She had heard an exchange in a TV series where one character apologized for his strange behavior recently. The listener responded by saying, “I didn’t notice.” In similar situations, this attentive language learner had heard other verb forms used. Wouldn’t it also be possible to say, “I haven’t noticed” or even “I hadn’t noticed”? Indeed, sometimes more than one answer is possible because it depends on the speaker’s perspective:

  • I didn’t notice. = Nothing strange caught my attention in your past behavior.
  • I haven’t noticed. = Up to this point, there has been nothing strange about your behavior.
  • I hadn’t noticed. = I hadn’t even thought about this until you mentioned it.

We teach general rules of thumb about verb tense consistency. One is to respond with the same verb form used in a question. For example, the short answers to Did you notice? are Yes, I did and No, I didn’t. But there are exceptions, especially once we go beyond yes-no questions. Just how many responses can you think of to How are you? That question itself can become How are you doing? In either case, one can say I’m fine or I’m doing just fine.

16666579868_76a5b2cb26_mIf you’d like to have a productive discussion about verb tense consistency and give your upper level students practice using different verb forms in the same situation, please consider my Verb Tense Consistency_handout. Hopefully, the topic of fairy tales will amuse your learners. Enjoy!

Photo credit:

Cinderella’s Castle by Luis Brizzante. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

If Walls Could Talk: What to Hang Up in the Classroom

Posted August 26, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Classroom Tips

Tags: , , , , ,

Inside My ClassroomA new school year is just around the corner. Whether you work online or in a traditional classroom, you likely have some food for thought up on your walls. Personally, I keep my own Teacher’s Pledge near my desk. It’s not in view of my webcam, but I can turn my head and see it there every day to remind me of what’s most important in my teaching. I also have a Learner’s Pledge that I offer to any student visiting my website.

Here’s something else you might share with your students. Check out my A to Z_handout. It’s a list of what’s needed in order to have a successful language learning experience. You may like it as is, or you may simply be inspired to write your own. In fact, why not create a list with your students and then post it for all to remember throughout the school year?

Happy teaching!

Photo credit:

“Inside My Classroom” by Marie. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

On the Road: More Posts to Come!

Posted August 21, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Announcements

Dear readers!

I’m traveling at the moment. I’ll return soon with new thoughts and activities to share. Happy teaching to all!


Pondering the Placement of Prepositions

Posted August 12, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , ,

In my discussion of prepositions on YouTube, I’ve given a lot of attention to the choice of prepositions. Very often learners question whether we are surprised by something or at something. They ask if we can be happy about or with something.

Another point of confusion is the placement of a preposition or a prepositional phrase within a sentence. Students may not be familiar with the term stranded preposition, but they probably have asked questions like Who are you talking about? or voiced complaints such as I have no one to talk with. It might be helpful to tell them these structures are completely acceptable in everyday English and follow up with practice.

Please consider my Placement of Prepositions_handout. It invites upper level students to examine the position of prepositions and consider when it’s okay to separate a preposition from its object. There’s the extra challenge of identifying these small function words in context and deciding where a whole prepositional phrase is best placed.

Source on stranded prepositions:

Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.

A Different Approach to Teaching Culture

Posted August 5, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Conversation, Methodology

Tags: , , , , ,

I don’t often write about culture and how to teach it, but if you’ve read some of my older posts, then you know my basic belief. There’s always a cultural context in language instruction. Our examples, our choice of topics, our resources, and our teaching styles are all connected to culture.

A well-timed lesson on a host culture can be very beneficial. For instance, at the start of a school year, international students are experiencing new situations daily, and time for reflection may help them make sense of all their impressions. Even in an EFL setting, students have online access to films, jokes, articles, and discussion boards, so having the chance to discuss cultural similarities and differences can give them some perspective. Students could write anonymous observations on index cards, and the teacher could read them aloud for discussion: Someone wrote that strangers sometimes smile at each other and say good morning. Okay. Does anyone else find that unusual? Where do you see this happen?

How else can we initiate discussion? It may be a student’s comment or a question that serves as a jumping off point. For instance, their confusion over how to address you on the first day can become a very teachable moment. You could recommend an online resource that explains forms of address, like a dictionary or a video tutorial, and then discuss various titles the next day.

Ideally, discussion about culture should go beyond supplying interesting details. Guided reflection can arm learners with skills they can use in their social interaction. We want their cultural awareness heightened so that they can consider the appropriateness of a response, be it verbal or nonverbal. With this in mind, please consider my Culture Quiz_handout. It’s a safe way of putting oneself in a situation and figuring out the best thing to do or say.

Couldn’t Be Better: Understanding the Modal Verb ‘Could’

Posted July 28, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , ,

After exploring the forms and uses of could in my previous post, I feel it’s a good time to offer an activity for upper level students who need to strengthen their mastery of this particular modal verb. Please consider my Couldn’t Be Better_handout. The activity tests students’ ability to understand the different meanings of could. Students are not only exposed to this modal verb in meaningful contexts, but they are prompted to respond in a variety of ways to demonstrate their comprehension. Enjoy.

Student Stumper 42: Could do vs. Could have done

Posted July 23, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Student Stumpers

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QUESTION: Which question is correct? “How could I have missed that?” or “How could I miss that?”

ANSWER: If only I could easily and confidently answer that! Could we first look at other uses of this modal verb? We could look at a few examples together if you’d like.

That wasn’t actually my initial reply to the question, but the three previous sentences reveal the first source of confusion over the modal verb could: its different uses. We use it for ability, possibility, requests, suggestions, and offers — and the meaning isn’t always clear, at least immediately. For instance, the words “I could help you” don’t indicate a clear intention without more context. The speaker may be stating a possibility or making an offer. The sentence stress would likely differ, too, depending on the meaning: I could help you. / I could help you.

Even with more context, there can be a gray area between ability and possibility. Imagine a business person speaking to her colleagues: “We could build something special together.” Is she referring to their collective ability or the possibility of building something special?

The forms of could also pose a challenge. We use could with a base verb to refer to the past, present, or future. The perfect form could have (done) is more limited; it helps us speculate about the past or express a missed opportunity, which means someone didn’t use their ability or a possibility wasn’t explored:

  • How does Ken know so much about that period of history? I suppose he could have read books or watched documentaries. [speculation about the past, a past possibility]
  • I could have done better if I had had more time. [a hypothetical reference to past ability]
  • I could have enrolled in the evening course if I had known about it. [a hypothetical reference to past possibility]


  • I could stay up late and get by on little sleep when I was in college. [real past ability]
  • Our university offered us a lot of choices. We could take classes at some of the neighboring colleges. [real past possibility]

To return to the original question, “How could I miss that?” may be used to refer to a past situation in which the speaker acted, but failed to achieve a successful outcome. This isn’t hypothetical. Maybe the speaker failed to attend a party or failed to notice a mistake. We may be in the gray area between ability and possibility, but the situation is clearly a real past event. “How could I miss that?” is very much like, “How could I do such a thing?” I’m asking myself why I did something I shouldn’t have done, not why I didn’t do something I should have. Does that make sense?

A real-life example appears on a PGA golfer’s blog. Darren Golsby wrote a post “How Could I Miss That Putt?” Even professional golfers are not perfect, as he points out. They may putt to the best of their ability, but there’s always the possibility that their ball will miss the hole. The question, “How could I miss that putt?” is a common one, according to Golsby. He equates it with, “I shouldn’t have missed that putt!” Note how should is different. To make a past reference, we need the perfect form shouldn’t have missed.

So when would we use “could(n’t) have missed”? Consider these next examples:

  • I knew I couldn’t have missed the exit.  [a past impossibility with “couldn’t have missed” being placed before “knew” on a timeline]
  • I was surprised to see my high score on the test. I thought I had made some mistakes, but the teacher could have missed them when she was grading it. [a past possibility with “could have missed” being placed before “was surprised” on a timeline]

Questions with the perfect form seem more suitable for speculation. “Could we have missed something?” asks a police detective while reviewing the evidence of an unsolved case. In contrast, any kind of “How could you?” question is likely asked out of surprise at someone’s actions. “How could you do that to me?” asks a friend who was betrayed. “How could I be so stupid?” we ask when we wonder at an unwise choice. In short, the key is to match up forms, uses, and time frames.

Did I miss anything in this explanation? Please fill in any gaps if I did. I’ll follow up with a handout for those who’d like to clarify these points with their upper level students.


Biber D. et al. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Golsby, Darren. (2015). How could I miss that putt? Darren Golsby PGA Professional. Retrieved from


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