It can indeed be quite confusing and daunting for the uninitiated. So we thought it would be good to share some of the knowledge and ideas that we have picked up in our years of teaching. We hope you find this useful. Please feel free to give any comment or query.
The One Grammatical Item That Confounds P1 & P2 Pupils
The grammatical item mentioned in the title is the Infinitive.
The Infinitive is the base or root form of the word; i.e. it does not come in the singular or Past Tense forms.
Before we embark on the Infinitive, it would be useful to review the two main rules in English grammar that we need to look out for – agreement and tenses.
Rule 1 : Agreement aka Concord
This basically means that the verb must agree with the subject (the noun that does the action).
Carol likes red roses.
In the example above, Carol is a singular subject, so we have to use the singular verb ‘likes’.
The girls like red roses.
'The girls' however is a plural subject so the plural verb 'like' is used in the sentence.
So far so good.
Rule 2: Tenses
Generally, a sentence could be in the Past Tense, Present Tense or Future Tense and the verbs should comply.
James' jaw dropped when he saw the snake on the dining table.
The above sentence is in the Past Tense. Both verbs, 'dropped' and 'saw' are in the Simple Past Tense.
Lily brushes and flosses her teeth twice a day.
This sentence is in the Present Tense and the verbs ('brushes' and 'flosses') are in the Simple Present Tense.
Then things start to get complicated.
Tricky Exceptions To Look Out For
The problem is that after most children master these rules, they tend to apply them with an iron hand. But there are certain tricky exceptions they have to look out for. Below is a list of questions that many children tend to be tricked by.
1. The To-Infinitive
Julie forgot to _____(wash) the grapes yesterday.
Many children, when confronted with this question, will choose ‘washed’ as the answer because they see the words ‘forgot’ and ‘yesterday’, so they think that the answer should be in the Past Tense.
Correct answer is:
Julie forgot to wash the grapes yesterday.
The rule is that in a sentence, after the word 'to', the Infinitive is generally used
For the younger children, it helps to tell them to circle the word ‘to’ and to remember that if the action is immediately after ‘to’, the action should not end with ‘s’ or ‘ed’ (the Past Tense form).
2. The Special Infinitive
James can come to the party if he wants to.
Peter will remember that he has to bring the Chinese book tomorrow.
It is useful to give the children a list of ‘special words’ (these are actually Special Finites but I call them 'special words' so as not to confuse the P1 and P2 children) and highlight to them that any action that comes immediately after these words should not end with ‘s’ or ‘ed’ (the Past Tense form).
The list consists of the following words:
3. The Question-Infinitive
(a) Did Percy _____(take) the keys on the table?
(b) Does Amy _____(want) to have a slice of apple pie?
The above questions are also traps that many children will tumble into. In (a), they will see ‘Did’ and assume that the answer should also be in the Past Tense (took).
In (b), they see either ‘Does’ or ‘Amy’, thinks that the subject is singular and hit on ‘wants’ as the answer.
In both cases, they are wrong.
The answers are ‘take’ and ‘want’ respectively. Yes, the almighty Infinitive again.
The reasons are that in the above question form, the tense is indicated by 'Did'. Likewise for (b), the tense and agreement are already indicated by 'Does', so the verb we are looking for should be in the Infinitive form.
It not easy to explain the concept of the Infinitive to young children.
It is easier to tell them that when they come across questions that begin with 'Do', 'Does', 'Did' or one of the 'Special Words', then they must remember that the action in the middle of the question should not end with ‘s’ or ‘ed’ (the Past Tense form) again.
These 3 types of questions are some of the trickier ones that the P1 and P2 pupils would come across. However, many P5 and P6 pupil (sometimes secondary school students too) are also stumped by such questions.
Hope this makes it easier for your children to understand.