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Usage & Grammar: Selected points


This page originally belonged to a page about the Use of English paper (Paper 3) of the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English. After the revision of the Proficiency examination it is no longer directly relevant to that paper. However, the usage and grammar discussed below are still important for students of English to know, perhaps especially for exam candidates.


The points remain listed in descending order of importance - that is, the degree of importance which the examiners appeared to attach to each of them in the 'old' exam format, to judge from the number of times they asked questions about them. In other words, the most important point comes first.



The -ing form used (mainly) as a noun


Tense problems


Conditional sentence problems




Modal verb tenses


as (various uses)

what as a Relative, Exclamatory or Interrogative word


than - if there is a than, there must be a Comparative


no as an Adjective


Active verbs that need turning into Passive


how as Object or Exclamatory word


Negatives (avoid double!) and any(body/thing), hardly, scarcely, ever


Past Perfect, including Indirect speech


there is/are... or there + other verbs


although type sentences (Concessive)




The -ing form used (mainly) as a noun, including


-ing after a preposition

-ing as subject or object

-ing - other uses


We came very close to missing the train.

It includes what we can call the 'double object' pattern, such as

Do you mind me smoking?

which can also be used with a preposition, as in

Would you object to me smoking? or

I'm tired of the manager always making excuses.


Try to become familiar with all the variations that are possible with the -ing form. One can use:

nouns + preposition + -ing: purpose in asking or

adjectives + preposition + -ing: responsible for arranging

Or the preposition may be alone: without thinking


It is particularly important that you get used to the way -ing is used:

as an auxiliary:

They deny having massacred the villagers.

with a negative:

What's his excuse for not telling us earlier?

as a passive auxiliary:

The letter led to the woman being suspected.

as an auxiliary which is both negative and passive:

In spite of not being invited he insisted on going.

with there:

There is absolutely no chance of finding it. or

What point is there in arguing about it?

And look at a combination of there, preposition, 'double object', negative and passive all in one sentence:

We can't do it if there's any risk of some people not being informed in time.


A situation you may come across in tests which require blanks to be filled in with suitable words is where you are given an -ing form which shows that the missing word must be a preposition:

Success comes ...... keeping a cool head.

The missing word is from.


Examples of -ing as subject or object:

Keeping warm is the problem.

I distinctly remember telling you.

I regret having to say this, but I must.

And notice how the have to of obligation is used quite naturally in its -ing form in that last sentence.


Look out, too, for other ways of using -ing.

It's no use arguing.

This is the new rule being applied.

Never having heard her sing, I can't judge.

Finish eating before you start work.

I would have no hesitation in recommending him. etc. etc.



Tense problems.


You may be faced with tests where you have to change a sentence in some way while keeping the original meaning. For instance:

There is little chance of Nina arriving today. Re-write starting It is...

= It is unlikely Nina will arrive today.

This is a good example of how essential it is to keep the 'real life' situation in mind, rather than calculating in an abstract, formal way how to exchange one word for another. Many tense problems, however, are connected to particular words and usages:

lately requires the Present Perfect, not the Past, but

recently can be used with either;

would rather requires the Past tense

e.g. I'd rather you went tomorrow.

ago normally needs the Past, but

since must normally be used with the Present Perfect

e.g. I haven't seen her since we last met over twenty years ago.

But notice

It is over twenty years since I last saw her. and

It was over twenty years since I had last seen her.

Also notice the difference in meaning between

She had already arrived ten minutes ago. and

She arrived ten minutes ago.

by tends to need the Future Perfect

He will have left by ten.

or the Past Perfect

He had (already) left by ten.

but with be

= He'll be there by ten. or He was there by ten.

Words/phrases like yet, so far, up to now need Present Perfect, not Past:

She's received no payment up to now.

first time needs Present Perfect or Past Perfect, not Present or Past:

This is the first time I have swum with a dolphin. or

It was the first time I had swum with a dolphin.

while last time needs Future:

This is the last time I shall go swimming with you.


And remember, don't be tempted to use a Future where you should use a Present tense in Conditional and Time clauses; and make sure you know when you need to use the Past Perfect. For examples of the Past Perfect see Past Perfect below.



Conditional sentence problems


Very often you may have to fill a blank with the correct tense, and you may have to supply the right verb too. And this missing verb may be something very 'English', as in

We ..................spend the night outside if you hadn't had that brilliant idea.

where the missing phrase is would have had to - in other words, a completely natural sentence, but full of had and have. But you will often have to complete or supply the introductory phrase:

But for his basic stamina he would have died.

= Had it not been for his basic stamina he would have died. Or: If it had not been for....


Note that this type of Conditional phrase is always followed by a noun (or an ing noun) because of the preposition for. The same applies to But for... , and Were it not for... .

The only reason I stay is my neighbour.

= Were it not for my neighbour I would not stay (or: I would leave).

(This last example is yet another illustration of how essential it is always to think about the 'real life' meaning. If you don't, you may miss the negative would not stay, or the alternative of a change to leave.) Another type of Conditional sentence beginning is:

Were he to say that...; Were she asked to pay...; Were it permitted to continue...,

which all have to be followed by a would.


There is also

Had I known..., Had they told me..., followed by would have.


You may come across sentences with blanks to be filled that give you the conditional verb (or part of it) of the main clause, but where you have to supply the beginning of the conditional clause, e.g.

(13).....the infection allowed to spread, it would quickly (14) death.

where the missing words are Were and lead.





In past Proficiency exams you were always bound to be tested at least once on inversion. There are several different types of context in which inversion of subject and verb takes place. But apart from Conditional sentences (see above), the examiners were normally concerned only with the type where a sentence begins with a

Negative, a quasi-Negative (only (rarely), hardly (ever), scarcely (ever), seldom, rarely, little etc.),or such, so. E.g.:

Never have I heard such nonsense.

Little did they realize they would never meet again.

So tired was she that she could not get up.


(Of course, when a Negative etc. is part of the subject, there is no inversion, e.g.:

Only those over 2 metres tall need apply.)

Inversion sentences take two forms.


(1) where the inversion is in the same clause as the Negative etc.:

Seldom did she miss one of his concerts.

(2) where the inversion is in the following clause:

Not until he returned home would she go to bed.

(In (2) the whole of the first clause is the Negative; it is an equivalent of Only then.) Another expression you may come across is

No sooner (had she got through the door) than (the telephone rang.


Watch out for tests where the inversion is already 'given' and tells you what the missing word must be The inversion already given in the next sentence makes only one sort of word possible.

Workers are no longer getting shorter hours. .........are trade unions able to protect their members as they were in the past.

The answer is Nor



Modal verb tenses


In many cases it is the Present Perfect that you will need, e.g.:

should have told, could not have kept, could have done, can't have been, might as well have gone, would have had to, should have had, must have left.


In tests sometimes the Modal will be given, and you will have (Future Modal!) to modify tense as well as verb:

Had our neighbours not been so kind we could never have got to the station in time. Re-write starting It was only thanks to...

= It was only thanks to our neighbours' kindness that we were able to get to the station in time.



as (various uses)


One might almost describe as as the most 'English' word in English. It is used in many different ways.

not so much a Y as an X

come as a surprise

as a result of

As the temperature rises, so does the sea level.

As a citizen I need more information.

regarded as

as well as

as long as

struck her as...

...just as the Greeks did later

twice as large as

I know nobody as well-read as she is. was common in the past

I went to bed, as I was very tired. (Causal as.)

As I entered the house I heard a bang. (Time as.)



what (sometimes whatever) as a Relative or Exclamatory or Interrogative word


It has often been used as the missing word in cloze tests (texts with blanks to be filled in).

It can be as subject:

What attracts most people is the free beer.

as object:

It can be kinder not to say what you really think.

They'll tell you what to do.

as exclamatory word:

They try to convince us what poor people they are.

as interrogative word:

His behaviour was so uncharacteristic that I didn't know what to think.



than - if there is a than there must be a Comparative


But sometimes in tests there will be a Comparative given, and you have to supply than,

e.g.: In order to survive, the paper needs at least 100,000 readers. Re-write starting Not less...

= Not less than 100,000 readers are needed for the paper to survive.

You may even have to supply both Comparative and than,

e.g.: The temperature has not kept as low as they forecast. Re-write using rise

= There has been a bigger rise in temperature than they forecast.

(Have you spotted the other point tested here? rise in)


Watch out for

no sooner...than

No sooner had they started their meal than there was a knock on the door.



no as an adjective


It's absolutely certain he won't agree. Re-write using chance

= There's no chance of him agreeing.



Active verbs that need turning into Passive


For a less sweet mixture, simply add less sugar.

= A less sweet mixture obtained simply by adding less sugar.


Notice that the passive verb may not be the same as the active verb.


You may also need to use a passive with an infinitive:

The investigators believe the accident occurred without warning.

= The believed by the investigators to have occurred without warning.

This usage is common with verbs such as believe, know, report, say and think. Notice, too, in the last example, the use of a Perfect Infinitive.



how as Object or Exclamatory word


They are discussing how to present the report.

It's amazing how quickly these plants grow.



Negatives (avoid double!) and any(body/thing), hardly, scarcely, ever


Make sure you never use a double negative, and remember that words like hardly and scarcely count as negatives.

You should never take your eyes off the road, whatever the circumstances. Re-write starting Under...

= Under no circumstances should you ever take your eyes off the road."

The two parties are almost exactly the same these days. Re-write using hardly

= There is hardly any difference between the two parties these days."

Governments very seldom enforce anti-pollution regulations. Re-write starting Hardly...

= Hardly ever do governments enforce anti-pollution regulations.

Similarly: scarcely anything, better than anyone, comes as no surprise to anybody etc.



Past Perfect, including Indirect Speech


He refused to pay the company until after completion of the contract. Start Only when...

= Only when the contract had been completed would he pay the company.

Have you noticed how many important points are being tested here? Apart from the Past Perfect, there is Inversion, a noun turned into a verb, which is a Passive, and a would of 'willingness'.



there is/are... - or there + other verbs


Look out particularly for the use of there with other verbs - and tenses!: there seems to be, there has been, there can't have been etc. etc.



although type sentences (Concessive)


Study sentences with words or phrases such as although, but, despite, in spite of, much as, though, including sentences replacing but with although or vice-versa, and those of the type Brilliant though he is..., Easy though it looks..., Quickly as she worked..., Try as he might...,

e.g.: He was exhausted, but worked on till he had finished. Re-write starting Exhausted...

= Exhausted as he was, he worked on till he had finished.



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