The CELTA Trainer’s Diary – Why are you so distant?

Looking at verbs and language in terms of the kind of distance it conveys is not exactly a new concept, but is definitely one that not that many teachers know about.


I have always found it extremely useful to discuss this with my learners as it seems to help them ‘feel’ the language, rather than memorise a list of grammar rules that they might find hard to put into practice.


And I’m certainly glad to read that my trainee Güven, like me, has found the concept quite thrilling and helpful (only a grammar geek like me would use the word ‘thrilling’ with grammar!) and from his post, he seems to have really understood what I was trying to get across to the class perfectly well…so well that it makes me proud, and I can only hope to add some value to his post.


But let me try.

Have a look at the following sentences.

Label the verbs used and identify the meaning they convey.


(a)          Can I go with you? (Taylor Swift)

(b)          Could I have this kiss forever? (Enrique Iglesias)

(c)           If I could turn back time (Cher)

(d)          It could happen to you (Diana Krall)

(e)          If I was a rich girl, I’d have all the money in the world (Gwen Stefani)

(f)           She’s leaving on a midnight train to Georgia. (Human Nature)

(g)          I’m winning that race tomorrow! (My imaginary conversation with Usain Bolt)

(h)          Farah claims Gold Number 14 for Team GB (Evening Standard, 4th Aug 2012)

(i)            The Olympics finishes on the 12th August 2012 (Sandy Millin)


Photo by @sandymillin


Have you ever been stumped by students who ask you, “Is ‘could’ the past of ‘can’?”


Indeed, ‘could’ is the past of ‘can’ in sentences like ‘He couldn’t understand why”.


In the request seen in (a) and (b), some say that the use of ‘could’ in (b) makes it more polite or more formal than the use of ‘can’ in (a).


And in (c), ‘could’ signals an imaginary hypothetical situation in which the use of  ‘can’ would indicate that the situation was possible. (‘If I can turn back time’ would make no sense unless the speaker is Harry Potter or Superman)


The use of ‘could’ in (d) suggests that there is a probability of it happening, but not as probable as if ‘can’ was used.


In (e), the use of  the past tense ‘was’ in the first clause and ‘would’ in the second has nothing to do with past time. Instead they make the sentence seem improbable. We often label this the second conditional, which is often defined as indicating hypothetical or impossible situations.


In (f), the tense used is called the present continuous, but it is used to talk about future arrangements.


Yet in (g), the present continuous is used to show determination and certainty about the future.


In (h), the present simple is not used to talk about events that happen regularly, but in a newspaper headline to indicate a past event.


In (i), here the present simple is used again to talk about a future timetabled event.


So to sum up,

the past is sometimes used to be more polite,

but sometimes used to talk about imaginary or improbably situations.

Yet sometimes it’s used to talk about something probably, but not as probable as when we use a present tense.


And when we use the present continuous, we could be talking about the future.

And when we use the present simple, we could be talking about the past.

Or maybe the future.


How confusing was that?


Perhaps it’d help if we first knew this:


Long long ago, when the first English grammar book was first written, English was a language spoken by the poor and uneducated. The upper classes and the Royals spoke French, and the academics spoke Latin.


English grammar was first put down on paper most probably by a French/Latin-speaking academic. He therefore mapped Latin grammar rules onto the English language observed at that time. And the prevalence of Latin as the language of the educated over the years made it the standard by which grammar rules were formulated. Even today, rules like ‘Never split an infinitive’ originating from a strong influence of Latin grammar still exists today. (To boldly go where no one has gone before!)


Evidently, when one maps the grammar of one language onto another, it could never really match. And hence the misnomers we see above.


So let’s forget those labels for a moment.

Let’s forget that ‘teach’ is ‘present’ and ‘taught’ is ‘past’.


Let’s say that ‘teach’ is ‘near’ and ‘taught’ is ‘remote/far’.


(1) Temporal Distance

Photo by Chia Suan Chong


When I say ‘I teach English’, it is something that happens all the time and therefore ‘close’ to me.

When I say ‘I taught Julio in January’, it is a story that I tell, and in order to tell it, I have to transpose my mind to being in January; I have to model myself into the past. That is because the event is far away from my reality.


(2) Social Distance

Photo by @jinotaj


As with the example in (a) and (b), ‘could’, as opposed to ‘can’ is often used to indicate social distance.

This could be due to the fact that ‘could’ be more morphologically inflected than ‘can’.





Lend me £10.

Can you lend me £10?

Could you lend me £10?

Do you mind lending me £10?

Would you mind lending me £10?

I don’t suppose you could lend me £10?

I was wondering if you could possibly lend me £10?

Hmm…I was sure I had £10 in my pocket. Where did it go? I really need it… *hint hint*


It is clear that the more grammar there is and the more lexis is needed, the further the social distance.


So is that the same as saying it’s more polite or more formal?


Consider the following situation:


A husband says to his wife whom he has been married to for 50 years, ‘I was wondering if you could possibly tell whether I should turn left or right at that junction?’


More polite?

Or simply sarcastic?


How did we know it was sarcastic?


Perhaps the fact that they have been married for 50 years suggests that there shouldn’t be much of a social distance between them. The creation of social distance through such use of language is therefore seen as inappropriate and in fact, impolite.


It is therefore important that teachers and coursebook writers do not oversimplify and label what is socially remote as polite, considering the fact that politeness is a construct dependent on multiple factors.


(3) Psychological Distance

Why the long face?


The most interesting of the four, the use of verbs to indicate psychological distance can be seen everywhere around us.


  • In example (h), the ‘near’ tense is used in newspaper headlines to create excitement and to make the reader feel like the breaking story is more eminent in some way or other. However, when one continues to read the story, one is moved into the ‘remote’ tense.


Farah added a 14th gold medal to Team GB’s impressive haul.’

(Evening Standard, 4th Aug 2012)



  • When talking about an ex-boyfriend, I might use the ‘remote’ tense and say ‘He was a very jealous person’ despite the fact that he is still alive.

The use of the ‘near’ tense might indicate that he is still ‘close’ to my heart and that I might still be in love with him… (God forbid)


  • When telling jokes, we often say ‘A horse walks into a pub. The bartender says, “Why the long face?”’ in order to make the joke more exciting.


  • When reporting a conversation, we sometimes use the ‘near’ tense to create a feeling like the story is unfolding before the listener’s eyes.


There was this woman sitting on three seats.

So I say to her, “Can I sit down?”

And she goes, “No”

And I go, “Come on. I paid for a ticket too.”

And she goes, “I’m taking these seats.”

And I go, “Are you serious?”

And she goes, “Of course I am.”

And I go, “Shut up.”


(If this was a conversation in US English, substiture ‘I go’ for ‘I am like’ and ‘She goes’ with ‘She is like’.)


  • A football commentator chooses to create feelings of exhilaration by saying, ‘Rooney scores a goal!!!’ instead of ‘Rooney is scoring a goal right now’ or ‘Rooney just scored a goal.’


(4) Hypothetical Distance


If I were a rich man…Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum. Photo by @mk_elt

A familiar use of the ‘remote tense’, this is seen not only in the so-called 2nd conditional – Example (e)



If only I could keep up with Güven’s blogging everyday.

I wish I didn’t have to do my day job and blog at the same time…


The use of the ‘remote tense’ in the 2nd Conditional and the two sentences above signals a reduced likelihood and a hypothetical situation that is further from reality.


After having read the above, what kind of distance do you think the following is creating?


Give me a 20% discount, I’ll take 500.

If you give me a 20% discount, I’ll take 500.

If you gave me a 20% discount, I’d take 500.

If you were to give me a 20% discount, I might take 500.

Say, let’s just suppose you were to give me a 20% discount, I might consider taking 500.


The instinctive reaction is to identify with the so-called 2nd conditional and say that hypothetical distance is being created…


But is it really so?


Are we not manipulating psychological distance by playing hard-to-get?


Maybe just like everything is life, ‘near’ and ‘far’ aren’t always separate and exclusive, dichotomous constructs, but positions on a continuum…


And maybe the 1st and the 2nd conditional aren’t always that easily distinguishable either…


Or who was it that said that there were actually 32 conditionals in English?


For more about Distance and verbs, see:

R. Batstone, Grammar, OUP, 1994.

M. Lewis, The English Verb : An exploration in structure and meaning, Language Teaching Publications, 1986.

D. Willis, Rules, Patterns and Words : Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching, CUP, 2003.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

24 thoughts on “The CELTA Trainer’s Diary – Why are you so distant?”

  1. While reading, I imagined myself telling these to my students:

    “the past is sometimes used to be more polite,

    but sometimes used to talk about imaginary or improbably situations.

    Yet sometimes it’s used to talk about something probably, but not as probable as when we use a present tense.

    And when we use the present continuous, we could be talking about the future.

    And when we use the present simple, we could be talking about the past.

    Or maybe the future.”

    But after reading both your and Guven’s posts, I got the point, and I will use them in explaining some grammar points in I’m my classes.
    Thanks again 😉

    1. Hi Aysun,
      Just to clarify, the quote you pulled out was me trying to show how confusing those explanations can be…

      “the past is sometimes used to be more polite,

      but sometimes used to talk about imaginary or improbably situations.

      Yet sometimes it’s used to talk about something probably, but not as probable as when we use a present tense.

      And when we use the present continuous, we could be talking about the future.

      And when we use the present simple, we could be talking about the past.

      Or maybe the future.”

      I hope you didn’t interpret it as me recommending you tell your students that…

      But I’m sure you knew that already…
      : )


  2. Michael Lewis “The English Verb” is a good reference for this. Mind you Michael Lewis’s “THe English Verb” is the only tract on Tense and Aspect that makes any sense at all!
    Thanks for reminding me, Chia, I may go and drag Lewis out again for a refresher.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Candy!
      The English Verb is a great book indeed.
      Have a look at the other two books in my bibliography (at the end of the post) that are definitely worth looking at too…but I suspect you must be familiar with them already?


  3. This manner of looking at the tenses is not one I’m familiar with, thanks for explaining it. As such confusing things need to be explained in different manners, for some students this could be the needed handle. Though certainly not all that info at once, LOL! At first I also felt like your first commenter!
    I don’t know much about other non-latinate languages but for Hebrew and Arabic speakers mastering tenses that simply do not exist in L1 can be quite a challenge.

    Thanks for including photo of @Sandymillin!

    1. Hi Naomi,
      Yes, indeed, we can’t be teaching all the different uses of all the different tenses/aspects all at once!
      : )

      Do have a read of Michael Lewis’s the English Verb. It’s a good read!

      Sandy’s photo is great, isn’t it?


    1. Thanks for commenting, Jonny.
      I hope this helps in some way.
      I know the way we conduct the CELTA at International House London might be quite different from other schools, and your view on things would very much appreciated.


  4. I always liked how Lewis took Leech to task over his ‘degrees of probability’, or whatever it was, for future forms. I remember Anthony Gaughan giving me a prep on using past forms for distance when we were at ETAS in September last year. Definitely gave me a heads up for commencing the DELTA.

    I also really like Batstone’s image of grammar like looking out of the window of a plane, very uniform at 30000 feet but then you get up close and there are all these minor details.

    Fab post =)

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for this. Great analogy by Batstone indeed!
      The concept of distance is something that really helped me when I first started teaching and found the conditionals hard to get my head round…


      PS: Are you looking forward to our coming tweetup?

  5. All that fancy grammar eh? I have to ‘grammar up’ some customer service students who claim to be professional and speak formally but just say ‘ya go over there,turn left and it’s in front’ but then are obsessed by using ‘you must’.

    I find the use of the present/past tense extremely interesting, particularly the US films where people say “so, I’m like YEAH and he”s like AND? and I say SO? and he goes UHU!” Fantastic. Now, in a speaking test what would that combined with “I bought this new thing, a thing, y’know” mean for their ‘lexical and grammatical resources’? Probably nothing good but that’s how many kids speak which made one CPE prep student claim that Cambridge speaking tests force you to put on a show of super grammatical and lexical absurdity just to get marks while before and after it you’d probably be operating with present and past simples.

    Food for thought.

    I’m not old old but I have noticed a serious informality increase since my youth and thus less and less situations for formality. Here in France you still have to be quite formal in shops and literally write a formal request for some bread. Less grammar means less distance according to Thornbury and many other grammarians but is this something we want? I know as a teacher that I’m expected to be a lot closer than when I started out. Not quite as close as the uni graduates I used to see in China who would be ‘cool’ and use nicknames for students and take them for beer. However, the same ones who very rarely constructed a full sentence. Something a DOS friend turned a teacher down for just last week. So, y’know, it’s like, y’know, yeah!

    1. Phil, you are not THAT old…
      If anything, I bet you are younger than me…
      So don’t you dare say the ‘O’ word!

      Love your little dialogue there! Just goes to show how schema and exophoric references are part of what gives meaning to conversations as well, doesn’t it?



      1. Exactly. The longer that I’m married and the less actually words are said to communicate everything. It’s like my parents:

        Mum: Tut!
        Dad: Uh?
        Mum: Shakes head
        Dad: Errrr.
        Dad gets up and puts the bin out.
        Mum: Ahhh

        They also do it with names:

        Mum: Bob!
        Dad: Fiona?
        Mum: Bob!
        Dad puts the bin out.

        From this perspective language is a survival too for communicating with people you don’t know and have much/anything in common with. It’s the equivalent of my adopted Chinese uncle’s wife who after the first time I went round didn’t bother dressing up and just walked round in her thermal longjohns. Making dumplings was then done is silence and when they were ready I just got 吃 and 好吃! What more needs to be said?

        You can also take this ‘less is more’ concept over to the class. I think we overdose our students with language and ‘help’. I mean, how many examples of past perfect do they need to work it out? If we can hone the grammar explanations/deduction then we can move onto production and save a lot of time.

  6. I had forgotten how much of a grammar geek I was (‘was’ = psychological distance from my younger self 😉 ) — thanks for this great post, it served as a reminder.

    It also made me think back on your IATEFL Brighton talk on systemic functional grammar, the talk and this post converge, don’t they? I’d love to know more about this way of teaching grammar, I think I haven’t done it well enough.

    This week I found myself having to clarify ‘passives’ and realized I was probably teaching it the same way I did ten years ago. The majority of students ‘got it’, as far as I could see, but yeh… anyway, I don’t even know what point I’m trying to make; maybe that I don’t enjoy grammar lessons as much as I used to… anyway, see you soon 🙂

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