When the rules don't always work

Grammar quirks

Are we there yet?

We all have 'rules' that we trot out in class to make life easy for our learners. Things like 'only use 'yet' with negatives and questions' . These 'rules' mostly work but what about when they don't? Watch the video to find out.


I had a great question recently from someone who wanted to know about a grammar rule that didn't quite seem to be working. I thought I'd make a video about it. And here it is. It's called 'Are we there yet?' I'm Jo Gakonga from ELT training.com. And if you like this video, please say so on my YouTube channel and subscribe because it really helps with the algorithm to promote my stuff. Thank you.

When you first start learning a language, looking at grammar is a little bit like being in a plane at high altitude. Everything seems quite clearly demarcated. And as you come a bit closer to the ground, as you learn a bit more about the language, you realize that there are exceptions and oddities. And it doesn't all quite look as clear as you thought at first. The question that I was asked was this. I always thought that 'already' is only used in affirmative sentences and 'yet' only in questions and negative sentences. But I've recently come across 'already' in the question.

So here we are with one of those rules that we trot out all the time in the classroom. And we tell learners that we use 'yet' with questions and negatives, and 'already' with positive statements, affirmative statements. At lower levels, this makes things easier for learners, it's more straightforward and I don't think there's anything terrible with rules like this. But perhaps we should be using words like 'usually' rather than 'always' to cover our backs. It's worth though thinking about the actual meaning of these words.

The Cambridge online dictionary says this:

We use 'already' to refer to something which has happened or may have happened before the moment of speaking. 'Already' can sometimes suggests surprise on the part of the speaker, that something is unexpected. 'Is it seven o'clock already?' Clearly, I didn't expect it to be quite so late.

We use 'yet' most commonly in questions and negatives to talk about things which are expected, but which have not happened. 'Where will you be staying? I haven't decided yet. But somewhere in the city center'.

So the issue isn't about positive or negative statements. It's about whether the thing has already happened or not. Has it happened? Do I think it's happened? If the answer is yes, we use 'already'. If the answer's no, we use yet'.

'Have you finished your dinner already?' I can see that you have. Maybe I'm surprised about it. But I know it's happened.

'Have you finished your dinner yet?' I'm on the phone. I can't see. I don't know whether you have or not.

So maybe this helps to make things clearer. There are always going to be tricky exceptions though. How about these two questions? 'Have you had your dinner yet?' 'Have you already had your dinner?' I think that where these function as an invitation, which I think they probably do, I'd say they're synonymous. I don't think there's any difference between the two of them. If you think differently, then please tell me, I'll be really interested to know.

And then there are places where 'yet' is used within an embedded question. So it looks like an affirmative statement, but actually it is a question. 'I wonder if his son's come home yet?'

And then we've got 'yet' as a conjunction. 'They predicted sun, yet still it rains'.

So I guess the moral of this story is that we just have to be a bit careful about these rules that we trot out. They can be helpful at high altitude. But when you get down to ground level, often the picture is a lot more complicated.

Thanks for watching. And if you have any grammar quirks that you're interested in, that you'd like me to make a video about, then do contact me. I'm always interested to hear them. Thanks very much. Bye bye.

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