Confusing metalanguage 1

In my previous blogpost, I explored the different reasons why a teacher or a teacher trainer might choose to use metalanguage with their students.

Ultimately, we want metalanguage to help students – to increase their awareness of the way language works and to enable them to better use the tools they have at hand to make the words work for them.

But there is some metalanguage that could serve to confuse and create the wrong perceptions and false expectations of how the English language actually works. 

Here are some of those that annoy me most:

 1. The future simple ‘will’ 

There is this common perception that there should be three tenses in the English language – present, past and future. That’s the way it is in all the Romance languages and the Germanic languages, etc. and so it should be the way in English. 

But the very nature of a tense seems to require some kind of verb inflection eg. go-went; see – have seen; arrive – is arriving; drink – had been drinking, etc.

Confusing metalanguage 2In the case of ‘will’, the verb is not inflected and stays in its the infinitive form because ‘will’, as we all know, is a modal auxiliary verb. And just like ‘would’, ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘can’, and other modals, ‘will’ brings its own modal meaning when used together with an infinitive verb. And one of the meanings that ‘will’ has is to talk about the future in specific ways.

But as we know, ‘will’ is not the only way to talk about the future. A sentences expressing the concept of raining tomorrow can range from ‘It is going to rain’, ‘It might rain’ to ‘It is likely to rain’, ‘It would have rained by 5pm tomorrow’. 

So perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the future is expressed through the use of certain lexical sets, rather than presenting it as a grammatical tense.

2. The past participle 

Students often go around memorizing verb tables, chanting ‘eat, ate, eaten; go, went, gone; do, did, done; bring, brought, brought; put, put, put; etc.’, knowing fully well that the first verb is the present simple, the second verb is the past simple, and the third verb…uh…the third verb…it’s the past participle…which is the same as the present perfect… Yes? 

No! This is the thing that has always puzzled me. The first verb is the present simple, and the second verb is the past simple. They are both verbs that form complete tenses in their own right. But the past participle is merely a part of something bigger (thus the term ‘PARTiciple’), and needs the verb ‘have’ to make it the present perfect, the verb ‘had’ to make it the past perfect, the verb ‘to be’ to make it the passive voice (which isn’t even a tense). 

So what is the past participle doing in the trinity of verbs???

The result of this confusing inclusion is countless of students going around saying ‘I done this yesterday’, or thinking that ‘Hamburgers are eaten daily’ is about the past. And can we blame them? It IS called the ‘past participle’!

Confusing metalanguage 3

3. The present participle a.k.a the gerund 

Just like the ‘past participle’, the ‘present participle’ is part of something bigger. And just as there is nothing ‘past’ about the ‘past participle’, there is nothing really ‘present’ about the ‘present participle’ either. 

One can use the past participle in the present eg. ‘The post is collected every morning.’ And the present participle in the past eg. ‘I was collecting the post yesterday.’

And the term ‘gerund’? It might be less misleading than ‘present participle’ but if the student does not speak a Romance language, might this terminology be more intimidating than it needs to be?

4. The present continuous

While I rant about the tenses, I might as well address the present continuous. At a beginner level, we explain to students that the present continuous ‘I am reading; He is having breakfast; She is talking on the phone’ is used when a continuous action is happening in the present. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It is after all the present continuous.

But when our students gets to an intermediate level, we tell them that actually, the present continuous can be used for future arrangements e.g. ‘I am watching a movie tomorrow.’

We also tell them that the present continuous can be used to express annoying habits, even if they are not happening ‘continuously’ at the present moment, e.g. ‘He is always forgetting his keys!’

We then tell them that the present continuous can also be used to narrate a story about the past, e.g. ‘So I walk into the class and it is raining, right?’ or when telling a joke, e.g. ‘The chicken crosses the road and notices that the other chickens are sitting there looking at him.’

Why do we call it the present continuous again?

Confusing metalanguage 4

5. Countable and uncountable nouns 

To be fair, many coursebook writers are now moving away from calling them ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’ nouns and some are re-labelling them ‘count’ and ‘uncount’ nouns.

Why? ‘Because ‘uncountable’ means we are unable to count it…and money is not uncountable… no matter how many times you try to explain it to your students!

6. The 0/1st/2nd/3rd Conditional 

These four categories are so convenient for English language teachers. They create a sense of order in what would otherwise be a world of chaos. They allow us to believe that when two clauses come together to create a conditional world, they can only come together in these four very neat ways (okay there’s the mixed conditional, which is a little less neat).

But the truth of the matter is real language use has a lot more than these 4 types of conditionals. In fact, some say that if you want to categorise the different types of conditionals, you might end up with more than 30 conditionals. 

Finding that hard to believe? Well, just listen to real authentic conversations and see if you can always neatly categorise conditional sentences.

And if you are still in doubt, consider the following: 
‘Should you see the English teacher, can you tell him to stop confusing me.’ 
‘If you happen to buy a grammar book, have a look at the number of conditionals they present you with.’ 
‘If it hadn’t been for this confusing terminology, I would have understood the English language much sooner.’ 
‘If you wouldn’t have told me, I wouldn’t have known.’ 
Which of the four conditionals are they? 

Confusing metalanguage 5

These are the six misnomers that come to mind when I think of reasons not to subscribe to the prevalent ELT terminology.

But, as I said in my last blogpost, the use of metalanguage can be illuminating and provide the user a chance to engage in the discourse of a community of practice that they are trying to be part of. To completely discard the use of all metalanguage would not only be foolish, but also damaging to the learners’ understanding of the English language.

It is therefore important for teachers and teacher trainers to really examine the metalanguage they choose to use and the reasons for using them. And if the convenience that they provide would only serve to confuse them further in the future, perhaps there needs to be a re-think as to whether the terminology used is truly useful and/or necessary. 

After all, the last thing we should do is to simply go on doing something because that’s the way it’s always been done.

Confusing metalanguage 6

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 


Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.

She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite