Welcome to the first blog post of a new series about key elements of English grammar. In the coming months, we’ll be looking at some of the areas of English grammar which tend to cause confusion for native speakers of Portuguese. Today’s post offers an overview of basic English grammatical structures and some explanations for why Portuguese speakers make mistakes in certain areas. Oh, and there’s a short test at the end just to make sure you’re paying attention. Get ready to kiss your Portlish goodbye!
Parts of speech
I remember teaching a class of teenagers several years ago and I mentioned something about a noun. One quiet student interrupted me by putting up her hand and asking “What’s a noun?”. The rest of the class began to laugh at her but I admired her honesty. Teachers often wrongfully assume that basic language terminology is common sense. What indeed is a noun? And what on earth is an adverb? Before anything else, students need to make sure that they have a good grasp of the terminology for the four basic parts of speech. These four elements are the same in English as in Portuguese:
A noun is a word which represents an object (e.g. a chair) or a concept (e.g. happiness)
A verb is a word which represents an action (e.g. to run a marathon) or a state (e.g. to have a car)
An adjective is a word which describes a noun (e.g. a big house)
An adverb is a word which …
- describes a verb (e.g. He drives quickly)
- describes an adjective (e.g. a really big house)
- describes a full sentence or clause (e.g. Fortunately, I remembered to phone my sister)
Once we understand the names of the basic elements of English, we can begin to look at how words are combined. One of the most obvious differences between English and Portuguese word-order is with the use of adjectives. In English, the adjective always comes before the verb. For example:
- um homem alto → a tall man (“tall” = adjective; “man” = noun)
- uma reunião útil → a useful meeting (“useful” = adjective; “meeting” = noun)
Apart from adjectives, English also has quite strict rules about word order when using verbs. Let’s see if you can spot the typical error in the following sentence:
- The rain stopped and appeared the sun.
Did you guess it? Remember that in English, the verb is usually preceded by a subject. The subject is the person or the thing which "performs" the verb. In the first clause of the sentence above, the subject is "the rain" and the verb is "stopped", so this part is correct. However, in the second clause, the subject is "the sun" and the verb is "appeared" so the order should be corrected to "… and the sun appeared". The Portuguese language also commonly uses the word-order of subject + verb (e.g. "Um dos maiores políticos da atualidade morreu hoje"). The problem is that Portuguese seems to be much more flexible with this rule and it is also possible to say "Morreu hoje um dos maiores políticos da atualidade", which can lead to confusion when Portuguese speakers create English sentences.
Click here for more information on word order in English.
While certain aspects of learning English can be complex, its basic conjugation rules for verbs are quite straightforward. As you’ve probably studied many times, most subjects simply use the base form of the verb. The only exception to this is for the subjects he/she/it, which are followed by the base form plus the letter “-s” (or “-es” for certain verbs). So for example, the verb work is conjugated as:
- I work / You work / He works / She works / It works / We work / They work
To form the past simple, most verbs only require the addition of “-ed” to the base form. To continue the example of the verb work, we could say:
- Yesterday … I worked / You worked / He worked / etc.
As you probably also remember from your school days, however, there are many verbs in English which have irregular past forms. For example, the verb “go” is irregular, with the past form “went”. How do you know which verbs are irregular? Unfortunately the most common way is by studying long lists of irregular verb forms, the stuff of nightmares for school pupils around the world!
Click here for more information on verbs in English.
Auxiliaries (and modals)
With such basic rules for verb conjugation, how on earth do English speakers manage to talk in tenses beyond simple present and past? That’s where auxiliaries come in. These are small words which are used in combination with verbs, with the function of modifying the verb in some way. A good example is the auxiliary “will”. When we use this word together with the base form of a verb, it expresses an idea with future meaning. For example:
- (auxiliary) will + (verb) rain → Maybe it will rain tomorrow.
Some auxiliaries (called modals) can be used to modify not just the tense of the verb but also the meaning. For example, we can use the modal “can” together with a base form of a verb to introduce the idea of ability to the sentence:
- (auxiliary) can + (verb) run → Sarah can run ten kilometres.
Similarly, we can use the modal “should” to introduce the idea of recommendation to the sentence:
- (auxiliary) should + (verb) visit → You should visit Berlin in summer. It’s wonderful.
Note that modals do not behave as normal verbs. They cannot be conjugated and only make sense when they are used together with a verb. This can be confusing for Portuguese speakers, as many of the translations for modals (poder, dever, etc.) are verbs in Portuguese.
Click here for more related to auxiliary verbs.
Creating negative sentences
Ok, there’s no denying it: English has simple structures for conjugating verbs but the same cannot be said for its way of expressing negatives. I remember when I started studying Portuguese and realised that any sentence could be negated by simply adding the word “no”. Such wonderful simplicity! English negation relies again on auxiliaries. This isn’t difficult but it does mean that you need to use the auxiliary that corresponds to the particular tense or idea that you want to express. So the negative versions of some of the examples above are:
- (Present Simple) I work → I don’t work; He works → He doesn’t work
- (Past Simple) Yesterday I worked → Yesterday I didn’t work
- (Future Simple) It will rain → It won’t rain
- (Recommendation) You should visit Berlin → You shouldn’t visit Berlin
Again, I feel the need to apologise for my native language when it comes to basic rules for forming questions. Questions in Portuguese are so simple, usually just using the same form as an affirmative sentence but with the intonation of a question. Things are a little more complicated in English, again due to those pesky auxiliaries! To create a question in English, you generally need to insert an auxiliary before the subject. This isn’t difficult but, as before, the auxiliary needs to correspond to the correct tense:
- (Present Simple) Do you work here?
- (Past Simple) Did you work yesterday?
- (Future Simple) Will it rain tomorrow?
- (Recommendation) Should I visit Berlin?
Think you’ve got it? Now try asking a grammatically correct question during a rapid conversation. It’s not always as easy as it seems!
Click here for more information on questions and negatives in English.
Don’t feel too shocked by all those rules. Remember that the main objective of any language is to communicate and that you don’t need to have perfect grammar 100% of the time. But some practice will get you far. Now try our brief test based on information from this blog post.
Test: Each phrase below has one grammatical error. Find it and correct it. Answers (a long way) below.
1. Kate play tennis every Saturday.
2. He can plays the piano.
3. You went to the concert yesterday?
4. I think it don’t rain tomorrow.
5. Yesterday morning, John drinked a cup of tea.
6. It was an experience very interesting.
7. Cars cause some problems but exist many alternatives.
1. Kate plays tennis every Saturday.
2. He can play the piano.
3. Did you go to the concert yesterday?
4. I think it won’t rain tomorrow. / I don’t think it will rain tomorrow.
5. Yesterday morning, John drank a cup of tea.
6. It was a very interesting experience.
7. Cars cause some problems but many alternatives exist.