Your professional help to improve your written English

Category: grammar

They are making cars. Really?

What’s the difference between He plays football and He is playing golf?

The person we are talking about is obviously a professional footballer, but right now he is active on a golf course.

In English there are two ways of expressing an action in the present tense: the present simple and the present continuous.

Present simple

We use the present simple when we talk about

– a permanent (or nearly permanent) situation:

My uncle lives in Spain.
He works as a tourist guide.

– what we do regularly, habits:

Her brother collects rare books.
I drink black coffee in the morning.

– what is always true:

Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
A Tesla coil produces high-voltage electric pulses.

– what happens in a book or a film:

The two friends plan a robbery.
At the end she marries a millionaire.

Present continuous

We use the present continuous when we talk about

– things that are happening just now:

The water is boiling, so you’d better find the teabags.
Look, it’s raining!

– a temporary situation:

My uncle is staying at a small hotel during his visit to Paris.
He is practising his French.

– temporary or annoying habits:

I’m spending too much time on Facebook these days.
Mum is always complaining about the mess in my room.

– what we see in a photo:

Here we are waiting for the limousine.
The children are waving to grandma from the balcony.

To sum up:

Use the -ing form when you write about what is going on temporarily and the simple form when you write about what happens regularly.

The same applies to the past:

Past simple

My uncle worked in a bookshop.
I ran to school every morning.

Past continuous

They were running to catch the train.
What were you doing at seven o’clock last night? I tried to call you.

A few people are running in an underground station i London. The image illustrates the present continuous They were running to catch the train.
They were running to catch the train.

Often past simple and past continuous are used in the same sentence to say that something happened in the middle of something else going on:

I was having breakfast when the doorbell rang.
When Susan came home, her husband was cooking dinner.

In the last example, her husband had started cooking before Susan came home. If he started cooking after she arrived, we would say 

When Susan came home, her husband cooked dinner.

So, to say They are making cars would suggest that the activity is only temporary. Production in a car factory is a long-term activity, and therefore we must write They make cars.

Can you write ‘I were’ instead of ‘I was’?

Yes, you can and in some cases you should.

Was and were are past forms of the verb be, an irregular verb that is extremely common.

We use was in the first person singular (I) and the third person singular (he, she, it):

I was tired and sat down in my favorite armchair.
She was in the kitchen when there was a knock on the door.
It was the first Tuesday in April.

The other persons take the form were:

Were you happy with the result?
We were together.
They were down by the river.

Was and were are also auxiliary verbs, that is, they are followed by another verb:

I was having a nap when you called.
Was he really doing that?
I thought you were going to help her.

It is possible to use were also with I, he, she and it. We do so in situations that are not real. It can be a hypothetical situation (usually with the word if):

Even if he were my boss, I wouldn’t do it.
If I were you, I would definitely accept the offer.
If this were true, you could stay there for a whole month.

It can be wishful thinking:

I wish I were in Rome again.
How I wish that she were here!

Tourists outside the Colosseum in Rome, Italy
I wish I were in Rome again…

This form of the verb is called the subjunctive mood. The were form with you, we and they is also subjunctive in hypothetical or counterfactual statements, even if it does not differ from the indicative form used in ordinary sentences:

If they were younger, I would offer them a job (subjunctive).
They were already there when I arrived (indicative).

You should avoid writing *I wish that she was here. (For the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text.)

Can they be one person?

When we write about a person, it is sometimes not clear whether we refer to a man or a woman. Words such as somebody or person are neutral and can refer to either gender. That causes a problem for instance when we need to use a pronoun in the singular and still want to be gender-neutral.

One way is to write he or she and his or her or he/she and his/her

Somebody left his or her umbrella on the train.
The preferences a person has about what he/she does should be taken into account.

However, writing he or she, etc., looks a bit clumsy. Using they even if we talk about one person is nowadays generally accepted also by most style guides.

Somebody left their umbrella on the train.
Why would anybody want to end their life?
Each child played with their own toys.
Every teacher used their own method.

An umbrella hanging on a hedge.
Somebody left their umbrella here

In fact, they has been used in the singular (in writing) since the 14th century.

We can use the singular form themself if we refer to one person (and themselves is also correct).

Everybody must look after themself (or themselves).
It’s all about letting someone be themself. (Cambridge Dictionary)

To language purists the singular form themself may seem unnatural. However, it was used in English as early as the 1300s and there are examples from Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald well over a hundred years ago. Even if themself is still seen by a majority as nonstandard, the word is gaining popularity. And it is practical. After all, we write yourself and yourselves.

They is nowadays sometimes used to refer to a person whose gender is nonbinary, that is, who wants to be identified as neither male nor female. This use may still sound strange to many people.

Kim, our new coworker, wants to be referred to as they.
Sam drinks their coffee without sugar.

They was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year 2019.

Traditionallly, he used to refer to a person whose gender was unknown, but that use has come to be seen as sexist. Now some writers seem to want to counteract male dominance by using only the female forms she and her even when the reference may be to a neutral word such as person.

How can a person make sure that her views are taken into consideration?

To sum up, use they (and them, their) when the gender of the person referred to is unknown or irrelevant.

Avoid writing combined forms such as s/he or (s)he.

You can read about the use of gender-neutral titles here.

© 2021 copyeditor.se

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑