“Why is English so confusing?” That is definitely a comment which learners of English make now and then. The strange, occasionally inconsistent rules of English grammar may prove to be too overwhelming for students. Take for example, we know that a singular noun agrees with a singular verb and a plural noun agrees with a plural verb, but we exclude singular pronouns “I” and “You” from this grammar rule. You cannot get away with saying “You is confusing me!” unless you are Yoda. (Confusing, it is.)
I am a strong advocate of practice makes perfect for grammar. However, I am an even stronger advocate of understanding grammar before blindly practising. Today’s blogpost will highlight three common grammar misconceptions as well as clarify them so read on!
1. ‘a’ is used before a consonant and ‘an’ before a vowel
Honestly, this has got to be the biggest misconception. In fact, I still come across adults who are confused by this. For some reason, many students (and adults) I’ve met have told me that they are taught at a young age that they differentiate when to use ‘a’ and ‘an’ based on whether the first letter of the subsequent word is a consonant or vowel.
The rule is that you use ‘a’ before words that start with a consonant sound and ‘an’ before words that start with a vowel sound. Therefore, we say ‘a uniform’ instead of ‘an uniform’ because the word ‘uniform’ actually begins with a consonant sound! (We pronounce ‘uniform’ as ‘you-ni-form’, so it actually starts with a ‘y’ sound)
The ones which boggle most people would be words that start with the letters ‘h’ and ‘u’. For example, we say ‘a horse’ but ‘an hour’ or ‘a unicorn’ but ‘an umbrella’. Again, because of such inconsistencies, do remember to sound out the word each time you’re unsure of whether to use ‘a’ or ‘an’. You shouldn’t have too much of a problem this way! :)
2. If a sentence is in past tense, the rest of the verbs should also always follow the same tense
Well, this isn’t entirely wrong. The exception to is when situation calls for an infinitive to be used. A sentence in past tense can still have verbs that are in its infinitive form, which is the base form of a verb with no -s, -ed or -ing (e.g. see, hear, run, take).
There are six scenarios where the infinitive is used.
(i) After ‘to’
Beatrice wanted to visit her aunt yesterday.
Note: Despite the word ‘wanted’, the word ‘to’ will cause the infinitive rule to take precedence in this sentence. (HOWEVER, there are exceptions to this rule. Find out in Grammar Misconception 3 below.)
(ii) After modal verbs (can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must)
Beatrice would move the furniture for her aunt.
(iii) After ‘do’ , ‘does’ , ‘did’
Beatrice did know that her aunt needed help.
Note: Despite the word ‘needed’, the word ‘did’ will cause the infinitive rule to take precedence in this sentence.
(iv) Command / Instruction
“Hold the chair!” Beatrice’s aunt commanded.
(v) Verb-Noun-Verb pattern
Note: The infinitive rule only applies to V-N-V pattern which cannot be interrupted by another word (such as a preposition).
(vi) After ‘made’ and ‘let’
Aunt made Beatrice wash her head after what happened.
Note: Despite the word ‘made’ being in past tense, we will use the infinitive form after such a verb. This is similar to the V-N-V structure.
As you can see from my examples above, there are a number of scenarios where students cannot generalise the tense in a sentence. Do remember to look out for clues that will necessitate the use of infinitives!
3. “To” is always followed by an infinitive verb
Last but not least, we have this final misconception which students have, especially once they have learnt the ‘to + infinitive’ rule (see above point 2(i))
Consider this sentence: “The kidnappers finally admitted to committing the crime.” Sounds grammatically correct, doesn’t it? However, discerning ones will immediately pick up on the use of ‘committing’ after the word ‘to’.
Didn’t we learn that after ‘to’, we should always use an infinitive? ‘Committing’ isn’t an infinitive so shouldn’t it be ‘commit’? Yet, this sentence, “The kidnappers finally admitted to commit the crime.” doesn’t sit too well with the reader.
I sense many raised eyebrows at this point and what I’m going to say is that ‘to’ is not always followed by an infinitive. It can also be followed by a gerund too! A gerund is a verb ending in —ing (e.g. talking, running, dancing), functioning as a noun.
E.g. Dancing is my favourite activity. (Dancing is the gerund.)
I know that this contradicts what I have said about ‘to + infinitive’, but remember how I said earlier that English has its occasional, inconsistent set of rules? Well, here’s another example of it.
Greg is used to eating cookies before bed.
Greg used to eat cookies before bed.
There is a technical explanation behind when an infinitive or gerund is used after ‘to’, and it involves differentiating if ‘to’ is being used as in infinitive marker or a as a preposition (in that case it will be followed by a gerund). However, to help learners distinguish one from the other in an easier way, I will recommend using the “it” test.
How the ‘it’ test works is to see if you can put the word ‘it’ after the word ‘to’. If you can put the word ‘it’ after ‘to’ and still form a meaningful sentence, then you will use the gerund. If you put the word it’ after ‘to’ and cannot form meaningful sentence, then you will use the infinitive.
Let’s try it out on the above examples:
So there you have it! I hope this has helped you understand a little more about the inconsistencies you have encountered in the language! Feeling confident with the new rules that you have learnt? Now, it is time for you to check if you are grammar ready for PSLE.
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You never wash your toilets, _________ you?
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About the Author: Ms Delia Siow is a dedicated teacher who is committed to providing an environment where a child can grow and thrive. She enjoys developing strategies to help students learn in a fun and meaningful way. Through her lessons, she hopes to help students lay a sound foundation in grammar and gain independence in their work. She strongly believes that good grammar is essential in students to gain proficiency in the language and finds joy in watching the bricks of their strong grammar foundation take form.