Friday, June 21, 2013

Do you understand what I’m saying?

Something from the heady world of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) this time.

As an occasional teacher in our English Language School (Meridian School of English), we often discuss the flexibility of the English Language and how is possible, and very easy, to say the same thing but in a different way. We do this mainly to emphasise certain elements of what we want to say to bring attention to something specific. As native speakers, we do it without even thinking about it. But for students whose native language isn't English, it can be very tricky to understand and grasp the subtleties of how this works.

So here's a quick and dirty example of saying the same thing in 3 different ways (there are many other ways of course) to bring together a past event with a present experience.

In English, there are many ways of saying the same thing but with a slightly different emphasis. Take for example the clause:

Did he understand what you wanted?

There are two quick observations we can make:
  1. It's a question.
  2. It's in the past tense.
The question is simple. You want to know whether someone understood something you asked them to do at some point in the past. So you choose the past simple forms of the verbs 'do' and 'want' ('did' and 'wanted'). The focus is on the past.

But, suppose you want to change the emphasis to focus on the present? You could either mix the tenses or use an 'aspect'. You could say:

Did he understand what you want?

This links the past with the present by combining the past tense of 'do' (did) with the present tense 'want'. What's the focus of the clause now?

You're linking a past action with a present condition. You asked someone to do something but you're still waiting for it to happen. So the focus is now on the present. This is quite subtle but effective and is one of the finer points of English.

There's one more thing you could do. You could change some of the words in the second part of the clause and turn one of the tenses into an aspect, like this:

Did he understand what you were asking for?

Now we've changed the second verb 'want' (wanted) into 'were asking'. This is usually presented grammatically as the past continuous (or the past progressive).

Again, it links the past and the present together by combining, this time, the past tense with the past continuous aspect.

It's important to note that the meaning hasn't changed but the focus or emphasis has.

This is one of the subtleties of English and is typical of what we teach our more advanced students.

So, to recap. Our 3 clauses are:
  1. Did he understand what you wanted?
  2. Did he understand what you want?
  3. Did he understand what you were asking for?
All are different ways of saying the same thing but with a slightly different emphasis.

So, I hope you agree; English is a pretty cool language, and very flexible.

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