TESOL Convention 2015: ‘A commonly overlooked aspect of teaching verb tenses’ by Cynthia Zocca De Roma and Jelena Runić


In this report from the TESOL 2015 Convention that took place two weeks ago, I’ll summarise the presentation given by Cynthia Zocca De Roma and Jelena Runić. For more reports from the TESOL 2015 convention, click on this link.

The aims of Cynthia’s and Jelena’s presentation were to show the participants that:

  1. we’re more familiar with the lexical aspect then you think
  2. lexical aspect is only mentioned in grammar books in passing, but should be talked about more explicitly in class

The speaker also pointed out what this workshop wasn’t. First, it wasn’t about Lexical Approach, which is different from lexical aspect (read my post on Lexical Approach here). It also wasn’t aimed to be a rant on textbooks.

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Finally, in the talk the presenter focused mainly on [present perfect simple (PPS) and present perfect continuous (PPC).

First, we were shown 9 example sentences which used either PPS and PPC. * means that the sentence is grammatically incorrect.

  1. I’ve eaten a sandwich
  2. I’ve been eating a sandwich
  3. I’ve worked here for 10 years
  4. I’ve been working here for 10 years
  5. *I’ve met John since 2002
  6. I’ve been friends with John since 2002
  7. I met John in 2002
  8. I was friends with John in 2002
  9. I’ve met a lot of people since I arrived in Toronto.

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In view of the above definition, we have two options to explain the difference between sentences 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, as well as 9. Option 1 is to do this on a case by case basis. However, many exceptions weaken the predictive power. Option 2 – expand the rules, which more often than not can cause more confusion.

Fortunately, there’s an easier way out, because the differences between the examples above, as well as the mistake in example 5, don’t come from a misunderstanding of tense, i.e. the grammatical aspect; but from misunderstanding the implicit meaning of each of the verbs, i.e. the lexical aspect.

First, though, what is tense and what is aspect?

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The grammatical aspect helps us locate events in time relative to a moment of reference. On the other hand, the lexical aspect:

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I agree with the presenter that while the classification of predicates might be clear for teachers and linguists, it is definitely too detailed and complicated for English language learners. As a result, a simpler division was proposed by the speaker:

  1. Stative – e.g. love, like, hate
  2. Habitual – performed habitually, e.g. live, study, teach
  3. EPISODIC – performed at specific moments, e.g. graduate, eat, start, move

Bearing the above classification in mind, we can now come back to our 9 examples to see how it can help us explain them in perhaps a simpler way than standard grammar explanations.

Using episodic verbs with PPC or PPS yields different interpretations, e.g. examples 1 and 2:

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On the other hand, using the habitual aspect with PPC and PPS doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence (examples 3 and 4).

As we saw above, explanations in grammar books of PPS and PPC can be a bit conflicting. For example, when learners encounter PPS, they’re told it’s used for actions that started in the past and continue until present. Then, when they learn PPC, they’re told exactly the same thing, which can be confusing to say the least.

On the other hand, we could try to make the lexical aspect slightly more explicit to show the learners why examples 1 and 2 are very different, whereas 3 and 4 essentially the same. Similarly, the lexical aspect helps us understand why sentence 5 is wrong, but 7 correct, i.e. because ‘to meet’ is an episodic verb, incompatible with the PPS or PPC.

Interestingly, the aspects can be different in different languages, something which wasn’t pointed out in the workshop and which I didn’t get a chance to mention in the Q&As. For example, in Spanish, French and Portuguese the verb ‘to know’ (conocer, connaitre and conhecer, respectively) can be both episodic and state verbs. This leads to students producing sentences such as:

  • *I knew John two years ago (to mean – I MET John two years ago).

Knowing this and pointing it out to students, can potentially help them improve their command of grammar. Yet another reason to learn another language, colleagues! 🙂

So taking all this into account, how can we help students notice the lexical aspect?

  1. explicitly mention lexical aspect with grammatical aspect
  2. practise classifying verbs stative vs habitual vs episodic
  3. point out the role of the verb tense and the context in constructing meaning – simplifies the description of each tense

Finally, the presenter concluded that the awareness of the links between grammatical and lexical aspect can be beneficial for students.

What do you think? Would you also use lexical aspect to explain the differences between the 9 example sentences? Or would you do this differently?

Would love to hear your comments.

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