Monday, August 02, 2010

An ESL Guide, Part 1: Past Tense

Many of the participants in my writing classes were not born into the English language; in other words, they are ESL learners. The term ESL (English as a Second Language) is inaccurate, as many people can communicate in more than one language besides English; however, I will use ESL here because it is commonly used and not meant pejoratively.

I am always amazed at how people like my parents have the courage to come to the United States with limited English proficiency and only basic formal education or professional training. Seeing bleak economic prospects in their native country, they look to America as a chance to make a living and provide greater opportunity for their family. My parents arrived in New York with not as much hope for themselves as with dreams for their children’s future.

But this picture does not accurately portray the vast majority of ESL participants in my writing classes. Most are highly educated, diversely skilled, and multilingual. Many are PhDs, professional engineers, registered architects, certified public accountants, and medical doctors. Yet they might have learned English recently, or they learned it earlier without having to use it professionally. They would be the first to say that English must be their first language in the workplace and that they cannot rise to higher levels in their organization without a strong command of spoken and written English. To these respectful, talented, diligent souls, I dedicate this seven-part series on ESL writing issues, starting with this post on verb tense.

The past tense is a common error that pops up for ESL writers. Errors like the following ones are common:

Incorrect: We were advise by the client.
Correct: We were advised by the client.

The past participle form of the verb is needed when using the passive voice (i.e., the verb to be and a past
participle form to make the verb, as in am recommended, are chosen, is concluded, was spoken, were
, and be known).

Incorrect: She has master her work.
Correct: She has mastered her work.

Helping verbs, or perfect tense verbs, (i.e., have, has, and had) require the accompanying verb to be in the past participle form.

Incorrect: You need a sign contract.
Correct: You need a signed contract.

Adjective forms of verbs need the past participle form, so the employee I choose becomes the chosen employee, the book you recommend becomes the recommended book, and the task she completes
becomes the completed task.

The error is understandable for those who learn English by listening because nearly all native speakers do not enunciate those past tense endings without the extra syllable while they do enunciate past tense endings with the extra syllable. Here’s a test for native speakers. In your normal speaking voice, say these two sentences:

Barbara has noticed your excellent work on the Hill project.
Barbara has recommended you for the Mountain project.

You’ll observe that you hardly pronounce the past tense, noticed, in the first sentence because it lacks an extra syllable, but you do pronounce the past tense, recommended, in the second sentence because it does have an extra syllable. Therefore, those who are learning English are likely working with audio cues when writing these forms. They will get recommended right but noticed wrong, writing notice instead, because they do not hear it when spoken.

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