english grammar



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The present simple is used to talk about actions we see as long term or permanent. It is very common and very important.
In these examples, we are talking about regular actions or events.
• I drive to work every day.
• She doesn't come very often.
• The games usually start at 8.00 in the evening.
• What do you usually have for breakfast?
In these examples, we are talking about facts.
• Water freezes at 0° C or 32° F.
• I have three children.
• What does this word mean?
• I don't have any of my original teeth left.
In these examples, we are talking about future facts, usually found in a timetable or a chart.
• The plane leaves at 5.00 tomorrow morning.
• Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year.
• Ramadan doesn't begin for another 2 weeks.
• Does the class begin this week or next?
In these examples, we are talking about our thoughts and feelings at the time of speaking. Notice that, although these feelings can be short-term, we use the present simple and not the present continuous.
• I think you are wrong.
• She doesn't want to do it.
• They don't agree with us.
• Do you understand what I am trying to say?
The present continuous is used to talk about present situations which we see as short-term or temporary . We use the present simple to talk about present situations which we see as long-term or permanent.
In these examples, the action is taking place at the time of speaking.
• It's raining.
• Who is Kate talking to on the phone?
• Look, somebody is trying to steal that man's wallet.
• I'm not looking. My eyes are closed tightly.
In these examples, the action is true at the present time but we don't think it will be true in the long term.
• I'm looking for a new apartment.
• He's thinking about leaving his job.
• They're considering making an appeal against the judgment.
• Are you getting enough sleep?
In these examples, the action is at a definite point in the future and it has already been arranged.
• I'm meeting her at 6.30.
• They aren't arriving until Tuesday.
• We are having a special dinner at a top restaurant for all the senior managers.
• Isn't he coming to the dinner?
We use the Present Simple
• for regular actions or events
I watch TV most evenings.
• facts
The sun rises in the east
• facts know about the future
The plane leaves at 5.00 in the morning.
• thoughts and feelings about the time of speaking
I don't understand.
We use the Present Continuous
• at the time of speaking ('now')
I'm watching a movie on TV.
• things which are true at the moment but not always
I'm looking for a new job.
• present plans for the future
I'm taking my husband to New York for his birthday.
Look at these sentences :
I usually don't drink coffee but I'm having one this morning because there is nothing else.
I often drive to work but I'm taking the train this morning because my car is in for repair.
I'm thinking about dying my hair blonde but I don't think my wife will be very happy about it.
My parents live in New York but I'm just visiting.
Notice how in all these examples we use the present continuous to talk about events which are temporary/limited in time and the present simple to talk about events which are habits/permanent.
We use the past simple to talk about actions and states which we see as completed in the past.
We can use it to talk about a specific point in time.
• She came back last Friday.
• I saw her in the street.
• They didn't agree to the deal.
It can also be used to talk about a period of time.
• She lived in Tokyo for seven years.
• They were in London from Monday to Thursday of last week.
• When I was living in New York, I went to all the art exhibitions I could.
You will often find the past simple used with time expressions such as these:
• Yesterday
• three weeks ago
• last year
• in 2002
• from March to June
• for a long time
• for 6 weeks
• in the 1980s
• in the last century
• in the past
We use the past continuous to talk about past events which went on for a period of time.
We use it when we want to emphasize the continuing process of an activity or the period of that activity. (If we just want to talk about the past event as a simple fact, we use the past simple.)
• While I was driving home, Peter was trying desperately to contact me.
• Were you expecting any visitors?
• Sorry, were you sleeping?
• I was just making some coffee.
• I was thinking about him last night.
• In the 1990s few people were using mobile phones.
We often use it to describe a "background action" when something else happened.
• I was walking in the street when I suddenly fell over.
• She was talking to me on the phone and it suddenly went dead.
• They were still waiting for the plane when I spoke to them.
• The company was declining rapidly before he took charge.
• We were just talking about it before you arrived.
• I was making a presentation in front of 500 people when the microphone stopped working.
Both the past simple and the past continuous refer to completed actions in the past.
Most of the time when we are talking about such actions, we use the past simple. This is by far the most common way about talking about the past.
• I lived there for 6 years.
• I only found out a few moments ago.
• I asked her but she didn't know anything.
• The company made 100 people redundant last year.
Only use the past continuous when you want to emphasize the continuity of the action.
• Everybody was talking about it all evening.
• They were really trying hard but couldn't do it.
• I was thinking about you the other day.
• Were you expecting that to happen?
When we use these two forms in the same sentence, we use the past continuous to talk about the "background action" and the past simple to talk about the shorter completed action.
• It was raining hard when we left the building.
• I was reading the report when you rang.
• He was going out to lunch when I saw him.
• The company was doing well when I last visited it.
Present Perfect
British English and American English have different rules for the use of the present perfect. The comments being made here and the exercises state the correct grammar for British English. However, in American English, it is often considered acceptable to use the past simple in some of these examples.)
We use the present perfect when we want to look back from the present to the past.
We can use it to look back on the recent past.
• I've broken my watch.
• She's taken my copy.
• They have cancelled the meeting.
• The company has doubled its turnover.
Often when we look back on the recent past we use the words 'just' 'already' or the word 'yet' (in negatives and questions only).
• I've just finished.
• She's just arrived.
• We've already spoken about that.
• They've already met.
• I haven't finished yet.
• They don't know yet.
• Have you spoken to him yet?
• Has he got back to you yet?
We can also use it to look back on the more distant past.
• I've been to Singapore a lot over the years.
• He's done this type of project several times before.
• They've talked about it in the past.
• We've spoken to them on several occasions over the years.
Often when we look back on the more distant past we use the words 'ever' (in questions) and 'never'.
• Have you ever been to Indonesia?
• Has he ever spoken to you about the problem?
• I've never met him.
• We've never considered investing in Canada.
Present Perfect Continuous
We use the present perfect continuous to talk about an action or actions that started in the past and continued until recently or continues into the future.
Sometimes it refers to an action that has finished but where you can still see evidence.
• You look tired. Have you been sleeping properly?
• I can smell smoke. Has somebody been smoking?
• I've got a headache and a stiff neck. I've been working too long on computer.
Sometimes it refers to an action that has not finished.
• I've been waiting for him for 30 minutes and he still hasn't arrived.
• I've been learning English for 20 years and I still don't know very much.
• He's been asking me about it for days. I wish he would stop.
Sometimes it refers to a series of actions.
• He's been phoning me all week for an answer.
• I've been writing to her regularly for a couple of years.
• The company has been sending students here for over twenty years.
Typical time expression that are used with the present perfect continuous include 'since', 'for', 'all week', 'for days', 'lately', 'recently', 'over the last few months'.
• He's been working here since 2001.
• I've been wanting to do that for ten years.
• They haven't been answering all week.
• She hasn't been talking to me for days.
• I've been working hard lately.
• We've been looking at other options recently.
• You haven't been performing well over the last few months.
Present Perfect Simple or Continuous
There is often very little difference between the present perfect simple and the present perfect continuous. In many cases, both are equally acceptable.
• I've lived here for 10 years and she has been living here for 12 years.
• They've been working here for a long time and Andy has worked here for even longer.
When we want to emphasize the action, we use the continuous form.
• I've been working really hard lately.
• She's been having a hard time.
When we want to emphasize the result of the action, we use the simple form.
• I've phoned 32 people today.
• She's written a 64 page report.
Look at these examples to see the contrast.
• I've been driving for 5 hours and I've driven 500 miles.
• She's been speaking on the phone for 20 minutes and she's not managed to convince him yet.
• We've been talking about this for month and we still haven't found a solution.
If an action is finished and you can see the results, use the continuous form.
• Your eyes are red. You've been crying.
• You're out of breath. Have you been running?
If you use the words 'ever' or 'never', use the simple form.
I've never met her.
Have you ever heard anything so strange in your life?
Present Perfect or Past Simple
We use the past simple to talk about actions in the past that have finished. It talks about 'then' and definitely excludes 'now'.
We use the present perfect simple to look back on actions in the past from the present. It always includes 'now'.
These sentences are in the past with no connection to the present.
• I first met him 10 years ago.
• I started work here in 1987.
• I ate too much at lunchtime.
Now look at these same situations seen from the present.
• I've known him for 10 years.
• I've worked here since 1987.
• My stomach hurts. I've eaten too much.
Typical time phrases that we use with the past simple are 'yesterday', 'ago', 'last year', 'in 1999'.
• I spoke to him yesterday.
• She came in a few moments ago.
• We made our last purchase over a year ago.
• He joined the company in 1999.
Typical time phrases that we use with the present perfect are 'ever', 'never', 'since'.
• I've never seen so many people.
• Have you ever been more shocked?
• I've done a lot since we last spoke.
Typical time phrases always used with the present perfect in British English but often used with the past simple in American English are 'already', 'just', 'yet'.
• I haven't done it yet. (UK)
• I didn't do it yet. (US)
• I've just done it. (UK)
• I just did it. (US)
• I've already done it. (UK)
• I already did it. (US)
The time phrase 'for' can be used with both forms, but with different meanings.
• I went to Munich for the weekend but I came back on Sunday evening.
• I've been in Munich for the weekend and I've brought you back some German sausages.
Past Perfect
We use the past perfect simple to talk about what happened before a point in the past. It looks back from a point in the past to further in the past.
• I hadn't known the bad news when I spoke to him.
• I checked with the supplier and they still hadn't received the contract.
• She had already told him before I got a chance to give him my version.
• The company has started the year well but was badly hit by the postal strike.
The past perfect simple is often used when we report what people had said/thought/believed.
• He told me they had already paid the bill.
• He said he believed that John had moved to Italy.
• I thought we had already decided on a name for this product.
We use the past perfect continuous to look back at a situation in progress.
• It looked like a good time to invest. Inflation had been falling for several months.
• Before I changed jobs, I had been working on a plan to reduce production costs.
• We had been thinking about doing that but then decided against it.
Some people have been taught that 'will' is 'the future' in English. This is not correct. Sometimes when we talk about the future we cannot use 'will'. Sometimes when we use 'will' we are not talking about the future.
We can use 'will' to talk about future events we believe to be certain.
• The sun will rise over there tomorrow morning.
• Next year, I'll be 50.
• That plane will be late. It always is.
• There won't be any snow. I'm certain. It's too warm.
Often we add 'perhaps', 'maybe', 'probably', 'possibly' to make the belief less certain.
• I'll probably come back later.
• He'll possibly find out when he sees Jenny.
• Maybe it will be OK.
• Perhaps we'll meet again some day.
We often use 'will' with 'I think' or 'I hope'.
• I think I'll go to bed now.
• I think she'll do well in the job.
• I hope you'll enjoy your stay.
• I hope you won't make too much noise.
We use 'will' at the moment we make a new decision or plan. The thought has just come into our head.
• Bye. I'll phone you when I get there.
• I'll answer that.
• I'll go.
• I won't tell him. I promise.
We use 'can' to talk about 'possibility'.
• Can you do that?
• I can't manage to do that.
• You can leave your car in that parking space.
• You cannot smoke in here.
Notice that there are two negative forms: 'can't' and 'cannot'. These mean exactly the same thing. When we are speaking, we usually say 'can't'.
We use 'can' to talk about 'ability'.
• I can speak French.
• I can't drive.
We use 'can' to ask for and give permission. (We also use 'may' for this but is more formal and much less common.)
• Can I speak to you or are you too busy?
• You can use my phone.
• You can't come in.
We use 'can' in offers, requests and instructions.
• Can I help?
• Can you give me a hand?
• When you finish that, you can take out the garbage.
We use 'can' with 'see' 'hear' 'feel' 'smell' 'taste' to talk about something which is happening now . (Where you would use the present continuous with most other verbs.)
• I can smell something burning.
• Can you hear that noise?
• I can't see anything.
We can use 'can't' for deduction. The opposite of 'can't' in this context is 'must'..
• He was in London one hour ago when I spoke to him. He can't be here yet.
• You can't be hungry. You've just eaten.
• You must be hungry. You haven't eaten anything all day.
'Could' can be used to talk about the past, the present or the future.
'Could' is a past form of 'can'
• When I was living in Boston, I could walk to work.
• He phoned to say he couldn't come.
• I could see him clearly but I couldn't hear him and then the videoconference line went dead.
'Could' is used to make polite requests. We can also use 'can' for these but 'could' is more polite.
• Could you help me, please?
• Could you lend me some money?
• Could I have a lift?
• Could I bother you for a moment?
If we use 'could' in reply to these requests, it suggests that we do not really want to do it. If you agree to the request, it is better to say 'can'
• Of course I can.
• I could help you if it's really necessary but I'm really busy right now.
• I could lend you some money but I'd need it back tomorrow without fail.
• I could give you a lift as far as Birmingham.
'Could' is used to talk about theoretical possibility and is similar in meaning to 'might'.
• It could rain later. Take an umbrella.
• He could be there by now.
• Could he be any happier?
• It could be Sarah's.
'Shall' is fairly rare in modern English, particularly in American English.
We can use it to make offers and suggestions and to ask for advice..
• Shall I open the window?
• Shall we start the meeting?
• What time shall we start?
• What dress shall I wear?
That is really all you need to know about 'shall' in modern English. Only read the rest of this if you want to know more about how some older speakers still use 'shall'.
In older grammar, 'shall' was used as an alternative to 'will' with 'I' and 'we'. Today, 'will' is normally used. When we do use 'shall', it has an idea of a more personal, subjective future.
• I shall go to see the boss and I shall ask him to explain this decision.
Notice that the negative of 'shall' can be 'shall not' or 'shan't' – though the second one is now very rare in American English.
• I don't like these people and I shall not go to their party.
• I shan't object if you go without me.
We use 'should' for giving advice.
• You should speak to him about it.
• You should see a doctor.
• You should ask a lawyer.
We use 'should' to give an opinion or a recommendation.
• We should invest more in China.
• They should do something about this terrible train service.
• He should resign.
'Should' expresses a personal opinion and is much weaker and more personal than 'must' or 'have to'. It is often introduced by ' I think'.
• I think they should replace him.
• I don't think they should keep the contract.
• Do you think I should tell her?
When we want to talk about things that are always or generally true, we can use
If/When/Unless plus a present form PLUS present simple or imperative
• If you press this button, you get black coffee.
• When you fly budget airline, you don't expect to get anything to eat.
• Unless you need a lot of leg-room, don't pay the extra for first class.
Notice that we are talking about something which is generally true, not a specific event.
In the condition clause, there can be a variety of present forms. In the result clause, there can only be the present simple or imperative.
• If you visit Barcelona, look out for the spectacular architecture.
• If unemployment is rising, people tend to stay in their present jobs.
• If you've finished everything, go home.
• When you go to Barbados, take plenty of sun cream.
• When I'm working, please be quiet.
• When I've written a new article, I run it through my spell-checker.
Notice that 'unless' means the same as 'if not'.
• Unless he asks you to continue, stop all work on the project.
• Unless interest rates are rising, it's not a good investment.
• Unless you've been to Tokyo yourself, you don't really understand how fantastic it is.
We use the First Conditional to talk about future events that are likely to happen.
• If we take John, he'll be really pleased.
• If you give me some money, I'll pay you back tomorrow.
• If they tell us they want it, we'll have to give it to them.
• If Mary comes, she'll want to drive.
The 'if' clause can be used with different present forms.
• If I go to New York again, I'll buy you a souvenir from the Empire State Building.
• If he's feeling better, he'll come.
• If she hasn't heard the bad news yet, I'll tell her.
The "future clause" can contain 'going to' or the future perfect as well as 'will'.
• If I see him, I'm going to tell him exactly how angry I am.
• If we don't get the contract, we'll have wasted a lot of time and money.
The "future clause" can also contain other modal verbs such as 'can' and 'must'.
• If you go to New York, you must have the cheesecake in Lindy's.
• If he comes, you can get a lift home with him.
We can use the Second Conditional to talk about 'impossible' situations.
• If I had one million dollars, I'd give a lot to charity.
• If there were no more hungry people in this world, it would be a much better place.
• If we were in New York today, we would be able to go to the free Elton John concert in Central Park.
Notice that after I / he/ she /it we often use the subjunctive form 'were' and not 'was'. (Some people think that 'were' is the only 'correct' form but other people think 'was' is equally 'correct' .)
• If I were in Tokyo, I'd have sushi every day.
• If she were really happy in her job, she'd be working much harder.
• If IBM were to enter our market, we would have big problems.
Notice the form 'If I were you' which is often used to give advice.
• If I were you, I'd change my job.
• If I were you, I'd sign up for Pearson's fantastic English lessons.
We can also use the Second Conditional to talk about 'unlikely' situations.
• If I won the lottery, I'd buy my parents a big house.
• If I went to the moon, I'd bring back some moon rock.
• If you met him, you'd really like him.
Notice that the choice between the first and the second conditional is often a question of the speaker's attitude rather than of facts. For example, consider two people Peter Pessimist and Otto Optimist.
• Otto – If I win the lottery, I'll buy a big house.
• Peter – If I won the lottery, I'd buy a big house.
• Otto – If I get promoted, I'll throw a big party.
• Peter – If I got promoted, I'd throw a big party.
• Otto – If my team win the Cup, I'll buy champagne for everybody.
• Peter – If my team won the Cup, I'd buy champagne for everybody.
Notice that the 'If clause' can contain the past simple or the past continuous.
• If I was still living in Brighton, I would commute by train.
• If they were thinking of coming, they would let us know.
• If she were coming, she would be here by now.
Notice that the main clause can contain 'would' 'could' or 'might.
• If I met him again, I wouldn't recognize him.
• If we met up for lunch one day, I could take you to that new restaurant.
• If I spoke to him directly, we might be able to reach an agreement.
Also notice that sometimes the 'if clause' is implied rather than spoken.
• What would I do without you? ("if you stopped working here")
• Where would I get one at this time of night? ("if I went looking for one")
• He wouldn't agree. ("if we asked him")