Revisiting ELT Mantras #4: Exceptions to the rule


Solo by Thomas Leth-Olsen CC BY-SA 2.0

Complete the following sentences:

1 Some is for positive sentences, and any is for negatives and questions. Except …

2 Present tenses refer to the present, and past tenses refer to the past. Except …

How many exceptions to to the above ‘rules’ could you think of in, say, one minute? I imagine the answer is quite high. Yet how many times in our teaching careers have we taught these ‘rules’, only to come across ‘exceptions’? I know that in the past I’ve done so lots of times, only to have mumbled something about ‘tendencies/we’ll cover that later’ before moving on to the next part of the lesson.

So if there are so many exceptions, why do we teach these ‘rules’? Well, the answer lies in how we look at them. What we’re teaching when we say things like the above are not ‘rules’, but ‘hints’.  Michael Lewis (1986) makes the following distinction:

Advice and classroom hints are one thing, grammar rules are another. Rules cannot be given which include words like sometimes, in certain circumstances, might mean, etc. 

So what are the actual ‘rules’ for the language points above? Well, let’s look at each one in turn.

1 Some is for positive sentences, and any is for negatives and questions. 

How many of the following sentences are ‘correct’ English?

I like some English food.

I like any English food.

I don’t like some English food.

I don’t like any English food. 


Elaborate bacon by Christopher CC BY 2.0
This is neither elaborate nor English.

The answer is, of course, all of them. What we can infer from the above is that some = a small part of all the possibilities, and any = all of the available possibilities. So, for example, if your friend comes round to visit and you’ve made a cake, you’d most likely ask ‘Would you like something to go with your tea?’ (thinking specifically of the cake). Whereas a homeless person you pass on the street is more likely to ask ‘Have you got any spare change?’ (i.e. any amount you can spare).

2 Present tenses refer to the present, and past tenses refer to the past.

It’s worth remembering that time and tense are very different things in English (as well as many other languages). In English, the choice of tense (of which there are two in English) is dictated by distance, not (always) time. this happens in three ways:

time and tense

In the diagram above, you can see there are three ways in which distance affect our choice of tense: Time (close as in ‘my life now’ or remote as in ‘my life the past’), reality (real or unreal) and register (the ‘closer’ someone is to me socially, the more ‘present’ tenses I use).

There are no exceptions to this rule.

It’s how English tenses actually work. Raising you learners’ awareness of this pattern can really help when they start to meet hypothetical language. The regret I wish I hadn’t split up with her is followed by the past perfect, for example, as it contains two elements of remoteness – time and reality.

It’s important to be aware of the actual rules like this which exist in English, so we can be aware of what’s really going on with the language we teach. Thornbury (2010) goes as far as to call the grammar that we come across in coursebooks ‘Grammar McNuggets’, describing them in the following way:

An enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality.

Personally, I think that some of the classroom ‘McNuggets’ we teach learners, especially at lower levels, can be useful ‘stabilisers’ in order to help communication and build confidence. However,  it’s vital that as teachers we see the ‘hints’ for what they really are, go beyond a simple coursebook-style ‘compartmentalization’ ourselves, so as to raise our own awareness of what’s actually going on with the language we teach, and gradually introduce this to learners as they become more confident and so able to deal with further complexity in the language.


Lewis, M. 1986 The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning LTP

Thornbury, S. 2010 G is for Grammar McNuggets (Last accessed 12/05/14)

Further reading

Sandy Millin wrote a blog post back in February on visualising The English Verb.

This blog post from blogginisareresponsibility deals with ‘The Myth of the Verb Tense’.

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Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

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