Linguistic And Communicative Rules

Linguistic And Communicative Rules

We learned that native speakers have an implicit knowledge of grammar and that children acquire this without realizing it. I commented, however, that a language teacher needs to be able to describe grammatical rules, and in Unit 2 you noted some grammatical differences between spoken and written English. Unit 3 will introduce further grammar concepts and you will have the chance to assess your own explicit knowledge. Unit 2 also began to explore the area of what language we actually choose to use. This unit will continue the theme by looking at how we choose to speak in different situations and will show that this sort of knowledge is just as important for a language learner as grammatical knowledge.


Linguistic competence


The term ‘linguistic competence’ refers to a person’s knowledge of grammar, lexis and sound patterns. As you now know, a native speaker easily acquires implicit knowledge of these aspects of language in childhood. Learners of a foreign language, on the other hand, struggle hard to acquire them. Choosing suitable grammar, words and sound patterns for the particular situation you are in is just as important and this is what the second half of this unit explores. First, though, we will investigate some grammar rules – that is, patterns of usage – and see how they might be useful to a learner of English.


Why do grammar activities like these?


As you carry out the activities on grammar in this unit, remember that it would be very unlikely for a teacher to tell learners everything at once about a particular grammatical item and expect them to apply it when communicating. What she can do is guide learners towards their own understanding about the limits that grammar sets in English – in other words the rules of English grammar. The activities in this section will give you an insight into how to discover and articulate these limits.


A teacher must be skilled at deducing the rules herself so that she can then foster this skill in her learners, who themselves need to develop the same skill if they are to become effective, independent learners. Without such strategies they’ll be left to rely entirely on the trial and error methods of a child, and few learners have time to do it this way. So let’s now look for some linguistic patterns in English.


Finding patterns: verbs


This section is about looking for boundaries and patterns in verbs. It isn’t a comprehensive guide to verbs in the English language. I could have chosen any of the main word classes to investigate – for example, nouns, pronouns or adjectives. But the variety and complexity of the English verb offers you as good a chance as any to practice teasing out and describing some grammatical rules. Verbs also happen to be very central to everything that goes on in English and the explicit knowledge you gain from this section will be useful to you. We’ll start with defining the word verb.




  1. Your definition should be something like this:


A verb is a word (or words) which is concerned with what people or things do or what happens to them.


  1. Verbs in English often consist of more than one word. Bearing this in mind, there are nine verbs in the passage: am sending, can raise, [can] help, need, can give, costs, doesn’t sound, have raised, (to) pay. A note about to pay: When you have to+verb like this it is often called the infinitive form of the verb, but it is also useful to be able to talk about the base form of the verb, which is: pay, send, raise, help (without to).


Auxiliary verbs


As I have explained, a verb often consists of more than one word, in which case the last word is always the main verb (apart from phrasal and prepositional verbs). Before the main verb come the auxiliary verbs.


In order to sort out in your mind how verbs work in English, try and think of auxiliaries as verbs which help the main verb (in fact, auxiliary comes from the Latin auxilium, meaning help).


Modal auxiliaries


You may have noticed that unlike the other auxiliaries the verbs be, do and have can be either auxiliary or main verbs. For example:


I am not a bumblebee. (am is the main verb)


I am sitting on a bumblebee. (am is an auxiliary verb, helping the main verb sitting)


Auxiliary verbs that can only be used as auxiliaries are called modal verbs or modal auxiliary verbs. The following chart clarifies the distinction.


Read the sentences below and see if you can find differences between the rules for modals and the rules for be, do and have. (For example, do they change at all? Which ones change? In what way? Under what circumstances?) You might find it helpful to note all the auxiliaries first.


  1. a) A vet does not treat people.
  2. b) Vets do not treat people.
  3. c) A vet must not treat people.
  4. d) Vets must not treat people.
  5. e) She can stand on her head for hours.
  6. f) She has stood on her head for hours.


Be, do and have change their form and add an -s in the third person singular (for example he is, it does, she has). The other auxiliaries (the modals) never add -s. Note that modals can’t add -ed or -ing either.


You have now discovered which verbs in English are auxiliaries, and of these, which are modals and which can act as main verbs. You have learned that auxiliaries help the main verb, and that modals do not change their form by adding -s or -ing or -ed. Even basic question-forming in English requires knowledge of these patterns (as in May I use your phone? What did you have for tea? or Can you lend me your bike?). So it is clearly useful to both teacher and learner.


We’ll do a similar sort of discovery activity now, but this time it will focus not only on the form of the language, but also on the meaning.


Time and tense


In this section I want you to think about two related points.


  1. The relationship between tense and time


‘Tense’ refers to grammatical form and ‘time’ to a concept. In English something happening now isn’t always expressed in the present tense and something that happened before isn’t always expressed in the past tense.


  1. Ways of expressing the future


English has no grammatical pattern (for example, a verb ending) for the future. In other words it has no future tense as such. So for things that are going to happen other tenses are always used.




To start you thinking about the concepts of tense and time, write on a separate paper:


– two sentences in the present tense

– two sentences in the past tense

– two sentences that refer to future time




You’ll probably have observed that there are several different forms within each of the present and past tenses in English. Here are some examples of the sorts of sentence you could have written.


Present tenses


I always dry between my toes.

That car is doing over 100 mph.


Past tenses


He stayed underground for 4 months.

We have painted the bathroom red.

She had planted all her seeds by March.


Sentences about the future


Tomorrow will be sunny and bright.

This time next week I’ll be flying home.


Your sentences about the future may well have been structured differently because of the wide range of ways of expressing future action. Let’s focus on this point in more detail.


Talking about the future


One of the ways we talk about the future in English is by using the present tense. As we saw in the examples above, this tense has two forms. Here are examples of each:


I always dry between my toes.

That car is doing over 100 mph (where the -ing form of the verb follows part of the verb be).


The first form is called the present simple and the second form is called the present continuous. Although these are the only two forms of the present tense they can have many meanings. In particular they can be used for future time, for example:


What time does the concert start?

She’s playing in the finals on Tuesday.


We also refer to future time by using:


– past tense forms

– the auxiliaries ‘will’ and ‘shall’.


In the next activity I want you to separate out tense (the form of the verb) from time (the meaning). You’ll find the sentences range over past, present and future.


Look at the sentences that follow. Decide whether the underlined verbs are in the present or past tense, and what time they refer to: present time, future time or past time. Don’t forget, it’s only the underlined verbs you are thinking about.


  1. I’m visiting her family tomorrow.
  3. If you do that again there’ll be no ice cream.
  4. Why don’t we have a pizza tonight?
  5. It’s time we went, so get your coat, Ian.
  6. I’ll wait till it gets light, then I’ll get up.
  7. I hear you’re getting married.
  8. I hear you’re moving house.
  9. I’m going to write about it.




Here’s what you should have said


2.Present simple tense indicating past time

3.Present simple tense indicating future time

4.Present simple tense indicating future time

5.Past simple tense indicating future time

6.Present simple tense indicating future time

7.Present simple tense indicating past time

8.Present continuous tense indicating future time

9.Present continuous tense indicating future time.


This shows how in perfectly ordinary sentences tense and time do not always coincide. It’s very important for both learners and teachers to appreciate this mismatch so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking, for example, that the present tense must refer to something happening in the present, and so on.


Talking about the past


Before moving on to the second half of this unit I want you to do one more piece of detective work. I have already noted that there are different versions of the past tense. If you consult a grammar book (for example, one of those recommended at the end of Unit 1) you will probably find the different forms are given these, or very similar, labels:


name                        example

Present Perfect       It has been sunny all afternoon

Past Simple             They stayed with me for three weeks

Past Continuous     They were playing happily till that moment

Past Perfect             She had seen snow only once before


Below you will find some further examples of the first two tenses.


Why do you think the present perfect is used in (2) and (4) but the past simple in (1) and (3)?


This is the sort of question a language learner might easily ask. Make a note of your own ideas before continuing.


  1. I sat on the mountain top all morning.
  2. I have lived in this town for six years.
  3. We ran round the whole lake yesterday.
  4. I’ve shaken hands with twelve people today.


If you find this activity difficult, ask yourself:


– Is the action finished?

– Is the time in which it happened finished?


We use the present perfect in English when the action or the time of the action is still going on. There are other uses, but this is a useful first one to grasp. In (2) I’m still living there, so the present perfect is used. In (4) the action is finished, but today is still going on, so again the present perfect is used. In (1) and (3) both the actions and times are over, so the past simple is used. Time now to move from linguistic competence to the wider world of communicative competence.


Communicative competence


In the early 1970s the term communicative competence was coined. This meant the ability to understand and produce language appropriate to the people who are talking and the setting in which they find themselves. Language learning material that uses this new concept focuses on the purpose to which language is put. But of course, there are factors other than purpose that influence the competent communicator’s choice of words and grammar.




Can you think of what further factors you take into account (consciously or unconsciously) when speaking or writing? Make a note of four or five of them in the space below before continuing.


The learner’s task is to determine what language is appropriate once all these factors are taken into account. Learners may have burning questions such as:


How do I talk to a shop assistant?

What style is suitable in a letter to the bank?

How can I make him understand in a three-minute phone call?

How can I sound more enthusiastic in an interview?


Memorizing lists of vocabulary and filling in grammar exercises alone simply will not help here. So now teachers think in terms of what their learners actually want to use language for and tailor their teaching accordingly. This new approach has been welcomed. Learning is more relevant to learners’ needs when it concerns how to do things with language in different contexts rather than simply how to form the present continuous tense in a vacuum. For example, learners can be encouraged to learn to make different sorts of requests, such as asking a friend to hold the door open or asking a landlady to explain to the British police about the theft of their bicycle.


As an example of this new approach to learning, in the next activity I’ll take the function of greeting and ask you to explore the range of options that English offers.


Who might use the following greetings, when and to who?


How do you do?

Good day.


Hello Kate, Tim here.




Here are some possible responses:


Someone being introduced for the first time – quite formal, and some might say old-fashioned now.

An Australian might say this – formal or informal.

Friends who know each other. Informal in Britain. Americans tend to use it on less informal occasions.

To someone on the telephone (Note that on the phone we don’t say ‘Hello, I’m Tim’, but we can say ‘This is Tim’.)


Language functions


Earlier in this unit you came across the sentence ‘If you do that again, there’ll be no ice-cream.’ There are two ways of looking at this sentence and therefore a choice of emphasis for the teacher. The function of the sentence is to threaten the listener but structurally it is a conditional sentence. If a teacher wants to highlight the structure she can present this sentence to learners alongside similarly structured ones like:


If the pollen count is high, his hay fever will get worse.




If you win the match, I’ll buy you dinner.


However, they have different functions: the first is a prediction and the second a promise. So the other possibility is to look at different structures with the same function, like the different greetings in the last activity. Whether to take structure or function as your starting point is the sort of difficult choice teachers and learners constantly face.


In the next activity we will see how the function of an utterance is not always readily apparent, even perhaps to native/competent speakers.


What do you think the speaker meant in the following utterances – that is, what language functions are involved?


(To answer this question you may need to imagine a context. For example, if when thanking a friend for offering to give you a lift, you got the reply: ‘It’s the least I could do,’ the function might be expressing a desire to help rather than expressing the desire to do the minimum possible – as the grammar would suggest.)


  1. My suitcase is very heavy!
  2. Are you busy?
  3. I think I like your other coat better.
  4. What are you drinking?

(In an English pub)




Depending on the context, possible functions for these utterances are:


  1. asking someone to carry her case
  2. asking someone to do something
  3. criticizing someone’s coat
  4. offering to buy someone a drink.


These examples emphasize that in order to grasp what a speaker really intends it is not enough to be proficient in grammar and vocabulary. We also need to have a knowledge of how language functions. And for utterances like (4) we also need to have some specific cultural awareness. A fluent English speaker who has never been in an English pub, might well not realize that ‘What are you drinking?’ is more likely to land him with an unexpected round rather than information concerning the contents of someone’s glass. The next section examines more examples of the need for cultural awareness in language.


  1. Here are some more utterances which require cultural awareness. Try and identify as many as possible of the first four communicative factors listed above. You will need to make a note of:


who is talking to who

what about,

for what purpose (function)

where the speakers might be.


Single or return, Madam?

I’m a stranger here myself.

Thank you, Officer.

Have a nice day!

Mind how you go!


If possible, ask someone else if they agree with your ideas.


  1. Listen to a native English speaker that you know, or one on the radio or television, or find a dialogue in a novel. Make a note of four different language functions (e.g. offering, accepting, denying, thanking) with the actual language they use to express them.


  1. What’s wrong with the following utterances? What could you tell a learner to say instead?


I’m going now. (after a meal in someone else’s house)

Good appetite! (before a meal)

Do you want any food? (host to guest at party)

Thank you, Sir. (customer to shop assistant)




  1. Possible contexts for these utterances are:


  1. a) a ticket clerk to female passenger who is buying a train ticket
  2. b) a reply to question in the street from someone asking directions
  3. c) a member of the public thanking a police officer
  4. d) a customer in a British pub ordering a pint of beer
  5. e) someone working in the United States saying goodbye to a customer, for example, in a restaurant, petrol station or shop
  6. f) someone in Britain saying goodbye. The speakers probably know each other.


  1. If you found this quite easy then you have probably understood the concept of language function. If not, you might want to re-visit the first part of this section.


  1. There is no grammatical error in any of these. The problem is that they are just not appropriate to the situation. More appropriate would be something like:


  1. a) It’s time I was going.
  2. b) Nothing – English speakers have no real equivalent, except perhaps the host saying: ‘Do start’ or ‘Don’t wait’. Some English speakers use the French ‘bon appetit’.
  3. c) Would you like something to eat? (‘Would you like?’ is more polite and ‘something’ anticipates the answer ‘Yes’, whereas ‘anything’ suggests that the answer ought to be ‘No’. The use of ‘food’ is rather utilitarian here, whereas ‘to eat’ suggests something tasty.)
  4. d) Thank you. (In British English, the assistant might say ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, but the customer wouldn’t.)


When you have completed this unit you will be able to:


– distinguish between linguistic competence and communicative competence

– identify auxiliary verbs when they are used in sentences/utterances

– recognize some basic grammatical patterns in English

– explain whether a verb tense (for example, the past or present tense) matches the meaning (i.e. past, present or future time)

– describe utterances in terms of their communicative purpose, i.e. their language function

– distinguish between grammatical errors and communicative ones


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *