Aug 30, 2018

Present Simple or Hard Present ?

'The sun rises in the east' -
a commonly used example of the Present Simple
Photo by @CliveSir via ELTpics on Flickr
In a recent discussion in one of the Facebook groups (this is what seems to prompt my occasional posts these days), the Present Simple was referred to as 'one of the hardest tenses for students to get'. This made me wonder whether the Present Simple, contrary to what its name suggests, is indeed not so simple, or it is just another one of those teacher-induced neuroses. Let's see why there's so much ado about the most common, unmarked English tense.




Form and Function

Structurally, the Present Simple is indeed simple: Subject + Verb. Granted, there is that annoying little 3rd person singular -s ending that complicates the matters, but research has convincingly shown that it's acquired invariably late - both in L1 and L2 speakers (see Goldschneider & DeKeyser, 2001 for meta-analysis).

As far as the function is concerned, things are less straightforward. Pedagogical grammars list the  following cases when the Present Simple is used:
  • for habits
  • for repeated actions
  • for present states
  • for instructions / directions
  • for fixed arrangements
Two uses that often come up in grammar books are particularly dubious:
  • with time clauses (which is not even a use, but rather a grammatical pattern or colligation)
  • with Stative verbs (this was discussed in my earlier post)
"Puppies are cute"
another common example of the Present Simple
Photo by Daria Breus-Samolada via ELTpics on Flickr

Grammar books that offer more in-depth analyses (those for advanced levels) or the ones written for teachers break it down even further. For example, Martin Parrot's Grammar for Language Teachers suggests the following additional uses:
  • with Perception verbs
  • running commentary (e.g. football matches)
  • past narratives (aka Historic Present)
  • with Declarative verbs


He does acknowledge, however, that the main uses are for repeated events and general / timeless facts. In contrast to this 'itemised' approach, Michael Lewis in The English Verb claims that there is no need to posit separate uses or functions of the Present Simple: it has essentially one defining characteristic.

In search of primary characteristics

Lewis's The English Verb (1986) is based on the contention that all verb forms in English have clearly identifiable semantic features, i.e. they have a meaning. The book sets out to establish a unifying meaning for each verb form which covers all uses. Lewis treats the Present Simple as a pure tense in which a speaker is not interested in the temporal quality of the event: "Not only is the present simple not about Present Time, but it is not about time at all." (p. 66). The action or event in the Present Simple is conceptualized as a simple, objective fact or universal truth.

He admits that it is not easy to find one word to describe or capture the primary semantic characteristics of the Present Simple and suggests the following descriptions "single undivided entity",  "a simple whole", "totality".

As esoteric as this explanation may sound, it is helpful because it shows why in English we wouldn't normally say *How long do you know him? It's not a pure fact; it encodes temporal reference. Or, to take Lewis's own example (p. 67), it is not possible to say *If she marries him I eat my hat. The second part of the statement is the conclusion or consequence, and not a statement of objective fact. A pure tense form is therefore not possible.

A matter of fact

Lewis's all-encompassing explanation also subsumes Present Simple for timetabled events - a use that is often presented as a separate entry. For example, in Murphy's classic English Grammar in Use, after being dealt with in the first  section (Past and Present), Present Simple makes a reappearance in the Future section where it is dealt with as follows:

"We use the present simple when we talk about timetables, programmes etc" (p. 38) as well as for people if their plans are "fixed like a timetable" (ibid.).

The flight leaves at 7 pm and lands in Paris at 8 am local time.
He retires at the end of the year. 
What time do you get off work tomorrow? 

Explaining this use, Leech and Svartvik in A Communicative Grammar of English (2013) state that these events are seen as absolutely certain and unalterable so that the speaker "puts aside the doubt one naturally feels about the future" (p. 79). Compare, for example:

What time do we land? (e.g. according to the timetable - objective)
What time will we land? (e.g. now that they've announced a delay - what's your subjective opinion/prediction?)

In other words, we see the first instance as a matter of fact. Lewis's explanation suffices, and no special provision for a separate future use is necessary.

Misleading label 

So why is there so much fuss about Present Simple that it has to make an appearance in Unit 1 of every coursebook at any level? One the one hand, it's the simplest in terms of structure (S + V) and it's the most commonly used, 'default' tense in English. On the other hand, the label 'Present Simple' might be a bit of a misnomer because the 'true' present tense is, in fact, the Present Progressive/Continuous. I'm writing this blog. You're reading it now. Should the Present Simple be relabelled as 'Hard Present' then, but not because it's supposedly hard for learners but because it refers to hard, solid and timeless facts?


References

Goldschneider, J. M. & DeKeyser, R. (2001). Explaining the ‘‘natural order of L2 morpheme acquisition’’ in English: A meta-analysis of multiple determinants. Language Learning 51(1): 1–50

Leech, G., & Svartvik, J. (2013). A communicative grammar of English. London: Routledge.

Lewis, M. (1986). The English verb: An exploration of structure and meaning. Hove: Language teaching publications.

Murphy, R. (2003). English grammar in use: A self-study reference and practice book for intermediate students (with answers). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

10 comments:

  1. Supposedly the present simple is covered first because it's more frequent than other tenses (or tenses/aspects if you prefer). But many older coursebooks used a different order: first, 'be' in present simple; then present continuous (easy if you've already learnt 'be'); then 'have got'; then finally, present simple. This way, learners had a decent amount of language to use and manipulate relatively easily (negation with 'not', questions with simple SV inversion) before getting on to the complexities of the not-so-simple present simple, including the use of auxilary 'do' in questions/negatives, and the 3rd person singular -s.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for the comment, Graham.

      It makes sense to teach it first because it's so frequent. And to quote - or rather paraphrase - Lewis again, out of all verb forms in English we use present simple 70% of the time, so teach students present simple and they'll be correct 70% of the time.

      The question is though what it is teachers should teach about it: form or function. If it's the former (the form :), it would be rather foolhardy to expect beginners or elementary learners to produce questions with inversion correctly, such as 'Does he know..?' Don't you think? Even intermediate learners struggle with this.

      Delete
  2. Yes, absolutely, and in fact even advanced students still make mistakes with present simple. Many people (including oral examiners) would label a missing a 3rd person -s, or an incorrectly formed present simple question as 'basic' mistakes, but I wonder if that perception probably only exists because present simple appears early on in multi-level grammar syllabuses. What do you think a non-ELT specialist interlocutor would think of a missing 3rd person -s? More or less serious than, say, incorrect word stress? (I suspect they'd consider it far less serious.)

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    Replies
    1. First, thanks Leo for the post. Really interesting indeed.
      Second, regarding a missing 3rd person -s, from my experience teaching in Spain I find we tend to consider it to be quite a serious mistake because allegedly it has been taught at a very early stage and people at B1 and above should know. I'm not saying that I agree (actually reading you and Graham comments have been elightening), but the general trend seems to be that we, as teachers, take those mistakes as too serious and I see now that that shouldn't be really the case.
      Thanks again. Enjoyed your post.

      Delete

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  6. I teach 6th grades, EFL learners (Israel). My pupils know that I name this tense "SIMPLE PRESENT- IT'S SO SIMPLE...IS IT"? As you mentioned above, I stopped teaching it in the linear order that textbooks and grammar workbooks suggest. I always make sure first, that parts of speech are well established which goes along with the Hebrew and Hebrew syntax teaching program in grade 6 (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). The I establish basic notions such as nouns, singular plural. It's going to be of service once I get to the Hard Simple stuff involving 3rd person singular (ies, es) and later on, when I teach adjectives and comparisons (crazy- crazier than- the craziest), Aldo if I get to adverbs then again- lucky- luckily). So they see that there's a connecting line, a systematic structure and spelling rules, and it is across the language. and so on with the past simple (cry- cried). SO I lay the foundation of syntax and grammar which is later going to seem natural, familiar and clear and will allow for our smooth travel in time... I make a clear distinction between "action sentences" / "descriptive sentences". So if there's no sentence without a verb in English (unlike Hebrew and Arabic that allow it), then I'll lay these foundations of knowing how to recognize these structures: "I am happy" is a sentence unit that contains a verb in it (to be), but it's not an action verb (happy is an adj.)- and they know it from their MT as משפט שמני . It has a non-action verb only because, as we said earlier, English doesn't allow for sentences to lack a verb). "I am dancing", "I danced" & "I will dance" on the other hand, are action sentences (here a few pupils would ask "So why is there "to be" in it"? And it'll lead for critical thinking about the language (metalinguistic awareness), which is the most important because they make generalizations, therefore they own them forever. So, with them asking these wonderful questions, I will get my teaching opportunities, coming from them. And soon replies would follow. It's all going to be put together to meaningful concepts as the year goes by. They will be metalinguistically aware learners and thinkers... they'll have a critical view of the language, it'll benefit their linguistic concepts in their L1 as in English as a FL (foreign language). They'll have their critical skills sharpened and they will become alert. They will go through constant comparison and contrast of languages, and as I get to know who in my classes speaks other languages, such as French, Russian, Spanish etc. I would ask them to tell how it is in their language. And 6th graders can already grasp these concepts and it will be of great service to them later on. All this cannot cannot be achieved teaching grammar technically, or "by the order of units in the book".

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