Number one for English language teachers

Grammar: reporting verb patterns

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material, Teaching notes

A discussion and teaching suggestions for reporting verb patterns.

I would be grateful if you could suggest a good way of teaching all those other reporting verbs apart from 'say' and 'tell' which have a variety of structures (verb + obj + that, verb + ing, etc) e.g. promise, advise, deny, etc. Giving the students a long list of verbs with structures is only confusing and also very boring! Can you suggest any activities which would be more enjoyable and help them to learn these verbs?
Rosie Huberti

Introduction and explanation

Rosie, I don’t have any magic answers to this question, but it’s such an important one that it deserves at least an attempt at an answer.

Why important? Because knowing which patterns are associated with different verbs (and not just reporting verbs) is one of the biggest single grammar challenges facing learners. As Dave Willis puts it, in his latest, highly recommended book (Rules, Patterns and Words: Grammar and Lexis in ELT, published in 2003 by CUP):

“The main learning problem with clause structure is to do with verb patterns. Learners need to sort out the patterns which follow verbs, and to assign verbs to those patterns.” (p. 71)

Failure to assign patterns correctly leads to errors of this type:

  1. I would like that you could stay here.
  2. I want that your agency return me the money.
  3. My friend suggested me if I would like to go to Madrid for a weekend.
  4. Last Saturday we celebrated that Tom had bought a car.
  5. The agency said me it wasn't their problem.
  6. I want to explain you something about the tour.

The problem is compounded because some verbs take several different patterns. Thus you can:

admit to doing something (V + to + n/-ing)
admit that you did something (V + that-clause)

which are patterns that are shared by the verb confess.

And you can:

report something happening (V + n + -ing)
report that something happened (V + that-clause)

which are patterns shared by such verbs as remember, recall, forget, resent, and mention.

(Notice, by the way, that the verbs that share the same patterns are also similar in meaning – a tendency that has implications for teaching. See below).

Often the choice of pattern is restricted. So:

Jane admitted that she had eaten the cookies.

is more or less the same as:

Jane admitted to eating the cookies.


Jane admitted that George had eaten the cookies.

cannot be replaced by:

*Jane admitted to George eating the cookies.

Of course, the fact that a verb shares a pattern with another verb of similar meaning is no guarantee that it will share all its patterns. Thus, you can

tell something to someone (V + n + to + n)

and you can

explain something to someone (V + n + to + n)

You can also

tell someone something (V + n + n)

BUT you can’t

*explain someone something  

OK, so much for the problems. What about the solutions? Willis has a number of suggestions, which he subdivides into:

  1. recognition activities
  2. system-building activities
  3. and improvisation and consolidation

1) Recognition activities

This involves drawing students’ attention to patterns, e.g. by focusing on instances of a pattern (such as V + n + n) when they occur in a text. I would add that, because (as we have seen) certain meanings tend to 'attract' certain patterns, then texts which encode these meanings are likely to have a number of verbs that share the same pattern. For example, a lot of reporting verbs are followed by that-clauses. It follows that a text in which information is conveyed second-hand is likely to have a lot of these kinds of verbs. To test this theory I found a 'reporting' text more or less at random on the internet. It begins:

Bushfire expert Professor David Bowman, speaking at a national bushfire conference in Adelaide, says Aborigines learnt how to tame fire…

The text includes the following reporting verbs:

Professor Bowman says that one of the problems of modern thinking is viewing fire as a disaster
Professor Bowman claimed that trying to battle fire is like trying to “take on evolution”
Professor Bowman also claimed that by taming fire, more ‘feral fires’ would be done away with

He also claimed that some attitudes within the fire-fighting industry might need to change

It also includes two instances of believe that:

He believes that the wider Australia community can learn from Indigenous experience
He believes that we can tame fire with controlled burning

(Apart from the (predictable) prevalence of that-clause verbs, what strikes me as noteworthy here is that the verbs say and believe are in the present, while claim is in the past – is this the writer distancing him/herself from the Professor’s theory?)

2) System-building activities

(according to Willis) are those where learners are asked to make decisions about the language items they have recognised, e.g. to categorise verbs in a text, and draw conclusions about the categories. For example, the following verbs + to-infinitive also occur in the Professor Bowman text. What have they got in common?
We have to accommodate and learn to live with it We have to understand that
we’re able to wage war against fire
attitudes within the fire-fighting industry might need to change

Answer: they are all semi-modals

Willis recommends training learners to organize their vocabulary books in ways which will help them to take account of patterns. Devoting a section in the book to reporting verbs might not be a bad idea. As they come across examples in their reading, they simply add them, highlighting the pattern by, for example, underlining it or, even better, labelling it (e.g. v + that-clause).

More active investigation could take the form of looking for examples on the Internet. To find those examples of claim, I used WebCorp ( which simply searches the web for whatever you ask it to look for. By way of contrast, I asked it to search for claimed to, and it came up with these examples:

Elecia Battle has also falsely claimed to be married to the man she lives with
But although they claimed to have set off from France, it is believed they had not been in the water for long
Dubai-based al-Arabiya television broadcast what it claimed to be a new audiotape message from Saddam
In 1999, fishermen claimed to have spotted a great white off Padstow, Cornwall, but it was never confirmed.

I can then visit the web pages from which the examples came, to see them in their context, and perhaps look for associated verbs and similar patterns. For example, the text from which the first of these citations (the one about Elecia Battle) came, also produced the following verbs:

The woman who claimed she lost a winning £90million lottery ticket
Jemison told lottery chiefs she had bought the winning ticket
Both women say they bought the ticket at the Quick Shop Food Mart
Battle - real name Elecia Dickson - said her ticket must have blown away
she told police that her husband "turns 49 this year".
No one can tell me what I did and did not play.

There are, interestingly, three different patterns of claim represented in the same text:

Jemison stepped forward to claim the prize (v + n)
The woman who claimed she lost (v + that-clause)
Battle has also falsely claimed to be married (v + to-infinitive)

3) Improvisation and consolidation activities

are activities that require the learners to use the patterns in contexts of their own creation. A task, for example, in which words like claim, believe, allege, etc, might occur would be to write a news report about some outrageous claim, such as:
World is really flat, says Oxford prof.
Pigs CAN fly, claims Nobel winner.
Janet Jackson confesses: My brother is an alien.

Only through attempting to write their own texts will learners really have to engage with the problems associated with this tricky area.

(For further information about verb patterns, see Collins COBUILD Grammar Patterns 1: Verbs (1996)).

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