Grammatically Speaking, October 2009

Dear Richard,

Our secondary school textbook has this sentence:

I already knew about the party, even before you told me.

I think the sentence is correct, but I know my students are going to ask why the first verb is past simple and not past perfect (had known). A colleague thinks the reason is thatalready signals the past and no other marker is needed. I have a vague idea that it is because the verb know refers to a state rather than an action. If the verb were learn, I think the past perfect would be called for:

I had already learned about the party, even before you told me.

Can you help us understand this better? Thanks.

A. M.

(location withheld)


Dear A. M.,

Thank you very much for sending in your grammar question.

I have to agree with your colleague. The only reason for the past perfect in the indicative mood is to show chronological order so that there's no confusion about what happened before something else in the past. With the use of already, that problem is taken care of¨Dfor informal or conversational style. In formal writing (or the TOEFL, for that matter), even with the use of markers like already, we still prefer to use the past perfect, too.

Thanks again for the question.


Dear Richard,

One of my students has asked me which one of these sentences is grammatically correct:

(A) If I were you, I wouldn't pay him until he fixes it.

(B) If I were you, I wouldn't pay him until he fixed it.

Grammatically speaking, which one is better? Are both of them correct? If so, are there any differences in meaning? As an ESOL teacher, which one should I introduce in class if only one of them is correct? I would like to hear your opinion. Thank you.

Takashi Ebira

Salt Lake City, Utah  USA


Dear Takashi,

The truth of the matter is that both sentences are fine, and here's the reason. Both sentences begin with If I were you, I wouldn't pay him, which is a correct rendering of what many refer to as the "second conditional." This is the same, obviously, in both sentences. It¡¯s the clause beginning with until that¡¯s different and changes things quite a bit.

. . . until he fixes it shows that the speaker is dealing with a real situation. We know this because the speaker is using the verb fix in the simple present in the indicative mood. There really is something broken, and from what we can gather, the repairman has asked for payment in advance. What we have here is the advice that the speaker is giving to the person who needs the repair work done.

. . . until he fixed it shows that the speaker is talking about an unreal situation, a hypothetical case. We know this because the speaker is using fix in the simple present subjunctive mood. Nothing is broken at this time, but the two people are discussing "what-if's," that is, what one or the other would do if such a situation were to develop.

I hope this explanation clears up the difference, Takashi. Thanks for a great question.


Dear Richard,

After giving my students a lesson on why we use negative questions, I had the class practice making their own (e.g., Don't you know the answer? / Isn't he coming to the meeting?).

One of the students created the following question: Should not they have permission before they do that? I quickly corrected him, telling him that he needed to use the contraction and say, Shouldn't they have permission . . . ? When he asked me if it was possible to make this negative question without the contraction, I thought about it and realized we can also say Should they not have permission . . . ? But I wasn¡¯t very comfortable with that.

Can you please explain what's going on here? I don't think saying Should not they have permission . . . ? is right, but . . . . Thanks for any help you can offer.

No¨¦mi Devereux

Montrouge, France


Dear No¨¦mi,

Actually, there is nothing ungrammatical with the question Should not they have permission . . . ?, but it's certainly very uncommon and probably never heard or even written anymore. A very long time ago this construction was sometimes used.

Going back to the original point, as we know, it's completely natural sounding and common for the auxiliary to be contracted with the negative particle in negative questions. The alternative you came up with (Should they not have permission . . . ?), which places the negative particle after the subject, is another way to express this negative question that can still be heard and read. Most native speakers would consider it quite formal; others would say it seems stodgy and perhaps sarcastic. It definitely carries with it an extra, perhaps undesirable, feeling that the more common negative question employing the contracted form doesn¡¯t carry.

So tell your students that the contracted forms with auxiliaries like the modals (Can¡¯' I leave a little early today?), periphrastic do (Doesn't she drive to work?), and also the verb be(Aren't we late?) are the common way we form such negative questions. But, if they choose to do so, they don't have to use the contracted form if they place not after the subject (Can I not leave a little early today? / Does she not drive to work? / Are we not late?), even though it carries a feeling that they may not actually be looking for. The most important thing to impress on your students is that the uncontracted construction is quite uncommon these days.

I hope that answers your question to your satisfaction, No¨¦mi. Thank you for a question not commonly asked by students¨Dor even EFL teachers, for that matter!

Now let's get to the Brain Teaser from my last column. The question was: Some people say try to . . . while others say try and . . . . Is one right and the other wrong? Are they both right? And if they're both right, is there a difference in how they¡¯re used?

In an untraditional move, I¡¯m going to show you replies I got from two readers because each one offers interesting information: one directly pertinent to the question at hand, the other on a closely related topic. The first response was sent in by "Nancy from Virginia."

Try and seems colloquial to me, while try to balances the grammatical elements according to their functions. One can hear I'm going to try and find my key. However, structurally, this sentence makes try and find compound verbs functioning as separate objects of be going to.

On the other hand, in I¡¯m going to try to find my key, the infinitive to find is clearly the object (and objective) of to try or going to try.

Yet in certain sentences we probably never hear try and. Take this one, for example: The teenager tried to get his date home on time. Can we conclude that sentences in the past tense do not appear with try and?

You've touched on some major points, Nancy, which I'll get back to momentarily. Now here's something interesting that Ellen Rosenfield of Berkeley, California, had to add:

I've often run into this question with the verbs go and come (Let's go and buy some ice cream. = Let's go to buy some ice cream. / I'll come and visit you. = I'll come to visit you.) With go and come, speakers can also say Let's go buy some ice cream. / I'll come visit you without and or to.

Wow! That¡¯s a great point, Ellen!

Try to and try and mean the same thing, but try to is considered more standard and more widely acceptable¨Dand for good reason, which I'll get to in a moment. Try and is considered a conversational alternative. Grammatically speaking, it doesn't really work (Try? Try what?), which makes it actually sound illogical, but because it's so commonly heard in everyday conversation, it's become an acceptable variation. I, for one, never use try and, but lots of people certainly do. I don¡¯t think, however, that it would be considered okay in formal writing.

One interesting point raised by Nancy is the fact that only try to can be used in any tense or aspect: They're going to try to / They'll try to / They try to / They're trying to / They tried to / They were trying to / They've tried to / They had tried to help out as much as possible.

But try and can only be used in the future (I'll try and / I'm going to try and reach her on her cell phone) and in the simple present (I try and call her at least once a week). It won't work in the present progressive (I'm trying and calling her right now), in the past (I tried and called her last night), or the perfect aspects (I have tried and called her a few times). The only other way to use try and is with modal auxiliaries (e.g., I should try and call her at least once a week).

The same basic uses and restrictions apply to come to/come and and go to/go and.

That was a very nice answer, Nancy, and I really appreciate the extra information you've given us, Ellen. Thank you, ladies!

And now for a new Brain Teaser: You'll hear people use the phrase if you will to end certain statements. For example, It's like a revolution within a revolution, if you will. So what exactly does if you will mean? What's will doing there? And what's the linguistic origin of this seemingly odd phrase?

Please e-mail your responses to GrammSpeaking@aol.com.

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