Some believe that better grammar means better spoken English.
Once you know basic grammar such as tenses, prepositions, different forms of verbs, and subject-verb agreement, additional dose of grammar won’t shine your spoken English further. What you need, instead, is more speaking practice. More inputs – listening and reading.
This post is for beginners who are struggling with even basic grammar and don’t know which part of the grammar to start from to make their spoken English better at least from the perspective of not making silly grammatically errors such as:
Such mistakes aren’t uncommon.
Based on a sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges in India, National Spoken English Skills Report by Aspiring Minds paints quite a poor picture:
…a dismal 25% candidates understand usage of basic grammar constructs, like right use of articles and tenses.
According to the report, lack of grammar skills is the third biggest problem in spoken English after fluency and pronunciation. Only 18.7% candidates have reasonably good grammar skills.
Grammar plays a far more important role in writing than in speaking, but you must know at least the most commonly used rules in speaking. Here are some:
There are four tenses – simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous. Each of them has present, past, and future forms, resulting in 12 variations in all.
However, in conversations you rarely use more than a handful of these 12. Therefore, to keep it simple and not bog you down with too many variations, I’ll cover only those which are used the most (probably to the extent of 95+ percent).
1.1 Simple tense
Simple present tense is used to describe a habit or a general truth.
Simple past tense is used to describe an event that started and finished in the past.
The action of walking started in the past (say at 6 PM, Sunday) and finished too in the past (say 6:30 PM, Sunday).
The red line above depicts the event in the past. The key here is the finish (red dot), which happened in the past.
Simple future tense describes an action you’ll do in future.
The action of walking will start in future (say at 6 PM, tomorrow) and, obviously, finish too in future (say 6:30 PM, tomorrow).
The red line above depicts the event in future. The key here is the starting point (red dot), which will happen in future.
1.2 Continuous tense
Present continuous tense is used to describe an event that is happening at the moment.
The action of walking is happening right now. In the moment. Not in future. Not in past.
The red dot represents the event happening in the present.
Past continuous tense is used to describe an action that was going on in the past when another event happened. This tense is not used to describe a single action or event.
In this example, past continuous tense describes the action of walking that was going on in the past when someone stole the bike (another event).
The red line above represents the action (walking) that was going on in the past when another event (bike stolen) – represented by lightening in red – happened.
1.3 Perfect tense
Present perfect tense describes an action that started in the past, continued in the present, and now finished.
The red line above represents action starting in the past and finishing in the present. The key here is the finish point (red dot), which happens in the present. If the finish point was in the past, the correct tense to describe the situation would have been simple past tense (see the schematic representation of simple past tense above.)
Past perfect tense describes an action you completed in the past before another event took place.
Here, the action of walking finished before rain, another event, arrived. That’s why the action of walking has been described by past perfect tense and the event (rain) by simple past tense.
The red line represents the action of walking which happened before the rain arrived (represented by lightening).
1.4 Perfect continuous tense
Present perfect continuous tense describes an action that started in the past and is continuing in the present.
Here, the action of walking started in the past (30 minutes back) and is still continuing (haven’t stopped walking).
2. Regular and irregular verbs
If you noticed, we used three different forms of the verb ‘walk’ in the section on tenses.
Other verbs too have three forms, which may follow a pattern different from that of ‘walk’, confusing beginners. If you don’t know the three forms for at least the common verbs, you can’t make sentences in tenses such as simple past (where you use past form) and all the perfect tenses (where you use past participle form).
Depending on how past and past participle forms are formed from the present form, a verb can be classified as regular or irregular.
2.1 Regular verbs
The past and part participle forms of a regular verb are formed by adding -ed to the verb.
2.2 Irregular verbs
The past and past participle forms of irregular verbs are formed in a way different from the one mentioned above. Irregular verbs can be broadly classified into three:
A. Verbs whose all three forms are same
B. Verbs whose two forms are same
C. Verbs whose all three forms are different
D. Some verbs, however, can be used both ways – regular and irregular
How to remember them?
Just memorize them. Good part is that there aren’t too many commonly used verbs.
3. Subject-Verb agreement
This is a common mistake among beginners.
Subject and verb in a sentence should be in agreement with each other. Before we come to the two key rules of subject-verb agreement, let’s briefly look at what subject is (we know what verb is).
Subject in a sentence is the person or thing that performs the action of the verb. It may be noun, pronoun, or a combination of words.
In case of doubt, ask the question ‘who did this’ or ‘what did this’. The answer will be the subject.
Here is the most important subject-verb agreement rule:
When the subject is singular, the verb must be singular. And when the subject is plural, the verb must be plural. However, use plural verb when the subject is ‘I’ or ‘you’.
So, don’t make mistakes like these when speaking:
Although there are other rules on subject-verb agreement, the above rule will serve your purpose for most cases while speaking.