Friday, December 26, 2008

A couple things

To be honest, I hadn't been aware of a couple + plural noun until Warren Clements complained about it. But where he simply said "ick!" and moved on, I got to wondering: how common is this form and what might be influencing it.

First things first: do people really use it? Apparently they do. In the COCA, the frequency distribution looks like this:
Note that there are even some instances in newspapers and academic writing. And the usage seems to be picking up steam. Here's the frequency over the last 18 years.

The OED's earliest citation is from 1925, so it does seem to be an innovation, but based on what?

The pattern that jumps first to mind is a few + plural noun. But it's not exactly the same, and here we have to back up a few steps.

Quantificational nouns such as a lot, a bunch, and a majority are often followed by a prepositional phrase, headed by of, that the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls the oblique. For example, in the noun phrase a bunch of guys, the prepositional phrase of guys is the oblique. The oblique can be partitive or non-partitive. Where the reference is to a part of a larger group (e.g., a bunch of the guys) it is partitive but where the reference is to a whole group (e.g., a bunch of guys), it is non-partitive.

Here's how a few differs from a couple. You can have a few of the things (partitive) but not a few of things (non-partitive). Moreover, a few presents one more pattern: a few things (without of; a few is a dependent of things). This suggests that a few is not a quantificational noun at all, but rather a determinative (cf., many of the things, many things, & *many of things). To summarise:






















Quantificational nounDeterminative
Partitivea bunch of the guys a few of the guys
Non-partitivea bunch of guys *a few of guys
Dependent (no of)*a bunch guys a few guys
Now, for most people (including me and Warren Clements), a couple is clearly a quantificational noun like a bunch. It can work in both partitive and non-partitive constructions, but you can't have a couple guys. For some people, though, we've seen that it can be a dependent of the following noun (i.e., a couple guys). For these people, then, it seems that a couple might be a determinative.

The question is, for those people, is the non-partitive construction also grammatical? It's so common that I imagine it must be, but I have no way of being sure.

Next, are there any other words that act like this? A dozen works very like few, as do numbers like hundred, thousand, million, etc. On the other hand, a myriad is exactly like a couple: for most people it's a quantificational noun, but for a few, it acts like a determinative. The following examples are from the OED.
1845 H. B. HIRST Poems 65 From every rocklet running, flow a myriad murmuring springs.
1886 W. W. STORY Fiammetta 189 The crickets were trilling a myriad infinitesimal bells in the grasses. 1915 St. Nicholas June 709/2 There are a myriad worlds. 1955 L. DE WOHL Spear (1957) III. vi. 220 There was a small thunderstorm..into which the people read a myriad signs and portents. 1981 Harvard Jrnl. Asiatic Stud. 41 355 She would make me miserable a thousand, a myriad times. 1992 N. STEPHENSON Snow Crash iii. 24 He is actually staring at the graphic representations..of a myriad different pieces of software.
Finally, I wonder what modifiers can work for each of these: a loud bunch of the guys, a very few of the words, a comparatively few people, a __ couple things, a __ myriad pieces of software.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The problems with video conferencing

Phil Smith believes that video conferencing will never work. In a letter to the editors of NewScientist magazine, dated 03 December 2008, he gives his reason: "We know that non-verbal communication is the majority of any communication in the flesh." Now Smith may be correct about the need for business partners to meet in the flesh. I really don't know. But he's certainly wrong about the importance of non-verbal communication in most situations.

Smith's misconception is likely based on research published by Albert Mehrabian in the 1950s. He found that messages about attitude are conveyed in the following proportions: Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

On his website, Mehrabian says, "Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another Peevologist

Warren Clements, a member of The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, had nothing better to write about this week, so he decided to whinge about expressions that irk him. How original! How charming!

Well, I'm afraid, Mr. Clements, that your column has problems, not issues.

You write, "The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole." According to Merriam Webester's Online: "Although it has been in use since the late 18th century, sense 3 (the one you disagree with) is still attacked as wrong. Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing rather than belles lettres. Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses. You should be aware, however, that if you use sense 3 you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up."

And that of disappearing from a couple of? Isn't one of your bugbears wordiness? Omit needless words and all that? If we can make do without the of, all the better, wouldn't you say?

Home in on indeed appears to predate hone in on, but only by nine years (the earliest home in on citation in the OED is 1956). Both are newish and both require a metaphorical leap, so it's hard to see how you can be so certain that one is right and one wrong.

Finally, you nominate win big as a bugbear, do you? Just what we need: another petty pet hate. So kind of you to share. Perhaps you might take a lesson from Jan Freeman over at the other Globe. Her columns are replete with research; they educate the reader.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

CEFRL vs. CLBs

I recently coauthored a report for a project (CIITE) funded by Ontario's Ministry of Citizenship & Immigration through CON*NECT. We were assigned to benchmark one of the college's programs against the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB). In other words, we have been visiting classes, looking at textbooks, and talking to students and faculty to determine the level of English required to be successful in the program. The CLB are like a scale, if you will, that we've been using to weigh the language requirements.

The problem is that the scale has never been properly calibrated and that the program we're benchmarking doesn't fit on it anyhow. To quote from the materials that were provided to us by the project office,
"The Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000 was not intended to describe the language used in academic programs; rather it focuses on describing the skills and capabilities of the learner. This was problematic as researchers had to navigate through a document that was not designed for the direct purpose in which it was being used."
But it's not just an issue of focus on the learner versus focus on the language. Last month I attended a presentation by Larry Vandergrift which brought to my attention a report that he had written in 2006 comparing various language frameworks. According to him,
“Since they [the CLB] were created for adult immigrants who are developing language skills for entry into the Canadian workforce, the CLB are not suitable to school contexts without significant adaptation.”
Vandergrift further observes that, “the benchmarks (levels) have not been empirically validated to ensure the fit of each descriptor with its level”. This certainly reflects our experience in trying to interpret the documents.

And yet clearly, a common framework of reference for language is a good thing. Still from Vandergrift,
"A common framework of reference for languages could provide the provinces and territories with a transparent and coherent system for describing language proficiency. In addition to providing a measure for calibrating language proficiency for educational systems across Canada, a common framework of reference for languages could foster a common understanding of what functional proficiency means. It could facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, provide a basis for mutual recognition of language qualifications, and track learner progress over time and in different jurisdictions. Such a framework could be used by each province and territory as a point of reference for language teaching and assessment, without imposing a particular curriculum, teaching methodology or standard for achievement. A common framework could provide a bridge between formal education systems, employers and cultural institutions across Canada and beyond into the international arena. "
So what does he recommend? The Common European Framework of References for language, which is what I've been saying since I first saw the CLB. The heartening part of this is that a number of jurisdictions within Canada have already gone in that direction. Hopefully CIITE will see the wisdom of following suit.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Canadians so dumb we don't even use nouns

Luan Ngo had yesterday's Letter of the Day in the Toronto Star. Ngo berates Canadians for our ignorance of our parliamentary system, and I'm afraid I can't really disagree. But then things get weird:
"Rather than being articulate and passionate debaters, these callers sound like a bunch of bubbling baboons. What is more concerning than the lack of nouns and pronouns in their sentences is how many people believe that our political system mirrors that of the U.S."
Is this an utter lack or just a mild deficiency? Is it a mere application of William Strunk's exhortation to omit needless words, or have we gone beyond this to omitting needful words as well? Or perhaps we've used the nouns, but just not IN sentences, something like this:
The has no trying to usurp (coalition, right, power).
I couldn't turn up any transcripts of recent radio phone in shows, so I went to the Toronto Sun's Letters to the editor, but even there there seemed to be nouns in all the right places.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Complete list of irregular English plurals

Continuing our irregular series of lists, you can find here all the irregular English plurals that occur in the COCA more than 5 times. It's just shy of 1,650 words, but about 20% of them are different kinds of men, women, and children (e.g., madmen, charwomen, foster-children).

Note 1: The list is unedited, but I believe I've set it so that you can edit it if you sign in with a Google account. Please feel free to remove any obvious problems.

Note 2: The list ignores any irregulars such as bass that end with s. Feel free to add.

The top 50 are listed below:
  1. children
  2. women
  3. men
  4. police
  5. feet
  6. teeth
  7. personnel
  8. criteria
  9. gentlemen
  10. cattle
  11. bacteria
  12. sox
  13. grandchildren
  14. fishermen
  15. phenomena
  16. mice
  17. clergy
  18. businessmen
  19. curricula
  20. alumni
  21. policemen
  22. freshmen
  23. stimuli
  24. geese
  25. larvae
  26. algae
  27. tsunami
  28. congressmen
  29. fungi
  30. memorabilia
  31. gunmen
  32. coli
  33. schoolchildren
  34. nuclei
  35. brethren
  36. servicemen
  37. spectra
  38. firemen
  39. sushi
  40. craftsmen
  41. countrymen
  42. linemen
  43. strata
  44. salesmen
  45. nebulae
  46. spokesmen
  47. salespeople
  48. paparazzi
  49. horsemen
  50. sportsmen

Sunday, November 09, 2008

OUP Canadian dictionary loses its entire staff

"Earlier this fall, Oxford University Press laid off the Canadian dictionary's entire staff of four, including 'Canada's Word Lady,' editor-in-chief Katherine Barber, citing decreased demand for print dictionaries by 10 to 15 per cent North America-wide. Canadian branch president David Stover says the availability of free online resources like Dictionary.com was the biggest factor in the layoffs, and that 'the economic assumptions the industry has been built on that have endured really for decades now have changed, and we have to change with them.'" - From the Toronto Star's Nicole Baute.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Presenting at TESL Ontario

If you're in the Toronto area next weekend, come and see me at the TESL Ontario conference. I'll be presenting Friday and again on Saturday. I'd be happy to get together for lunch or a drink. You can e-mail me at brett.reynolds@humber.ca

Monday, November 03, 2008

NACLO & a puzzle

The third annual North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad is currently registering high school students for the 2009 competition.
"This olympiad is a contest in which high-school students solve linguistic puzzles. In solving the problems, students learn about the diversity and consistency of language, while exercising logic skills. No prior knowledge of linguistics or second languages is necessary. Professionals in linguistics, computational linguistics and language technologies use dozens of the world's languages to create engaging problems that represent cutting edge issues in their fields. The competition has attracted top students to study and work in those same fields. This is truly an opportunity for young people to experience a taste of natural-language processing in the 21st century.

The first round is on February 4, 2009. Top performers will be invited to the second round on March 11, 2009."
Here's one of the questions from last year, which I found particularly fun. At first I had no idea where to start, but eventually a few words started to become clear. There was something in the back of my mind, but I couldn't access it. And then, suddenly, it all just fell into place.
An excerpt from a well known text is shown below. It is in two languages (X and Y) that are closely linguistically related to each other and also to English. However the two versions are not perfect translations of one another.

Text in language X
X1. Rödluvan: Men mormor, varför har du så stora ögon?
X2. "Mormor": Det är bara för attjag skall se dig bättre, mitt bam.
X3. Rödluvan: Men mormor, varför har du så stora öron?
X4. "Mormor": Det är bara för attjag skall höra dig bättre, mitt bam.
X5. Rödluvan: Men mormor, varför har du så stora tänder?
X6. "Mormor": Det är bara för attjag skall kunna äta upp dig!

(almost) the same text in language Y
Y1. - Så store ører du har, bestemor, sa Rødhette.
Y2. - Det er fordi jeg skal kunne høre deg bedre, svarte ulven.
Y3. - Så store øyne du har, bestemor, sa Rødhette.
Y 4. - Det er fordi j eg skal kunne se deg bedre, svarte ulven.
Y5. - Så store hender du har, bestemor, sa Rødhette.
Y6. - Det er fordi jeg skal kunne klemme deg bedre, svarte ulven.
Y7. - Så stor munn du har, bestemor, sa Rødhette.
Y8. - Det er fordi jeg skal kunne ete deg bedre, svarte ulven.

Dl (practical). Translate sentences X1 and X2 into grammatical English using your own words and word order.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Spelling Bee

For those wishing to test their spelling chops, The Visual Thesaurus has developed a spelling bee. Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, writes,
"The reason why it’s so addictive is that it’s been designed to be adaptive, so the more words that are spelled correctly, the more difficult the words become. And conversely, if you’re not a great speller, the words will get easier and easier. That way a player will always be quizzed at the appropriate skill level — from the orthographically challenged to the most expert spellers. As more and more players try the Bee, the game has steadily improved based on data collected on how words are spelled. Words are being continuously reanalyzed for difficulty based on how spellers fare. Every five minutes, words are rescored for difficulty taking into account the latest data from the Bee spellers. That means there’s an increasingly better fit to different skill levels. "
I ran into a number of problems: First of all, the sound wouldn't play when I used Firefox 3.0.3 on my Mac, but Safari was fine. Once I had overcome the sound problems, I occasionally found a consonant was unclear; no matter how hard I try, I still hear a /p/ at the beginning of bloviate. Other similar problems were /f/ and /s/ sounding the same. Sometimes I knew a word, but the pronunication threw me. Other times, two words were homophonous (e.g., buckle & buccal) and I went for the wrong one.

My score seemed to plateau at 620.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Going potty

Potty has a number of meanings, but here I'm interested in what the OED lists as sense #2
"colloq. (chiefly N. Amer.; usu. euphem. or in children's language). to go potty: (esp. of children or animals) to urinate or defecate; to use the toilet or potty."
My son was reading aloud from Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Jurassic Jackrabbits from Jupiter, when one of the characters said she had to "go potty". "What," I wondered, "is potty?" If a child has to go pee, pee is a verb, just like see in I have to go see her. But potty certainly isn't a verb. You can't say, "I pottied," or "I'm pottying."

A potty is a chamber pot, and by extension a toilet, and that would make it a noun, except that you can't typically just stick a noun after go like that. I mean, as far as I know, we don't have people going school, work, house, way, war, or even bed (though they can go this way or that).

Then I remembered an episode of an ABC Radio program called Lingua Franca, which featured Geoff Pullum. In said episode, Geoff discusses his realisation that a common noun is sometimes a preposition.
"I discovered it on the lower slopes of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane, one glorious day in the Botannical Gardens. The eastern water dragons were out sunning themselves near the rainforest section, a brass band was doing a free concert, and a few scrub turkeys were out, wandering around. I stopped near the bandstand to read a plaque that described the lifestyle of this bird, the scrub turkey, which is rather odd. Female scrub turkeys are fast-lane chicks, promiscuous loners who don't care for raising the young, and they wander through the forest and have sex with any male they meet who seems attractive, and then they lay a few eggs for him and move on. The male does all the child-rearing. He builds a huge compost heap to keeps the eggs warm, he regulates the size of the compost heap to keep the eggs at just the right temperature until the time comes for the chicks to hatch. And what happens then is described on the plaque with the following sentence, which had me whipping out the notebook immediately:

'On hatching, the chicks scramble to the surface and head bush on their own.'

Do you see it? Do you see the new preposition? The clue lies in that verb, 'head'. You see, there are verbs that absolutely have to be used with a preposition. The verb 'put', for example, can only be used with a locative preposition. You can say 'Put the milk in the fridge', but you can't say, 'Put the milk', because without a preposition after 'put' you've got nothing but nonsense.

Well the verb 'head' can only be used with a directional preposition. You can say, 'He headed into town', but you can't say, 'He headed'. Without a phrase like 'into town' or 'towards the wall' or 'away from the house', you can't use that verb sensibly at all. So what follows 'head' simply has to be a preposition.

And there it is! 'They head bush on their own.' 'Bush' is a preposition. Sure, it used to be a noun, just like 'home'. But a long time ago 'home' took on a second job as a directional preposition. That's why you can say 'He headed home'. And in Australian English, it seems, you can say, 'He headed bush', and it means 'He headed for rural Australia.'

Now, I'm not sure if you can head potty or not, but I found the following advice about toilet training:

"Talk about it all the time. Make it fun, something to look forward to. But without pressure. I'd say something as I was heading potty to my girls and leave it at that. If she followed me in, I'd ask if she wanted to sit too."

So, could it be that potty is a preposition here?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Happy quarter millenium Mr. Webster

Noah Webster would have been 250 years old yesterday. Webster is the American lexicographer behind what is now Merriam-Webster's dictionaries. Coincidentally, that company has a new learner's dictionary on the market. I haven't had a chance to have a good look at it, but there's also a free online edition which you can try out yourself.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

If Murphy would have asked Dion a reasonable question

Stéphane Dion’s interview with CTV anchor Steve Murphy has been getting a lot of play here. According to The Star's Tonda MacCharles "Dion struggles to understand the question's conditional subjunctive tense, before attempting to answer, stumbling as he describes his 30-day, five-point plan for post-election consultations." Leaving aside MacCharles's confounding of tense and mood, I think she's wrong. Dion's confusion shows that he grasped the question perfectly. It's Murphy who had no idea what he was asking about. Here's the transcript:
CTV: Mr. Dion, the economy is now the issue on the campaign, and on that issue you've said that today that Harper has done nothing to put Canadians' mind at ease and offers no vision for the country. You have to act now, you say; doing nothing is not an option. If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done.

SD: If I had been prime minister two-and-a-half years ago?

CTV: If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years.

SD: If I am elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, it's what you are suggesting?

CTV: No, I am saying if you were hypothetically prime minister today ...

SD: Today.

CTV: ... What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?


Murphy begins with a counterfactual condition: "If you were Prime Minister..." At this point, the time reference of the question is perfectly ambiguous; because the form of were is used to indicate counterfactuality rather than time reference, but Murphy clears that up with his next word: now. At this point, the hypothetical setting is established and the hypothetical question begins; Murphy asks, "...what would you..." Again, we have a verb would which is a past-tense form, but which is indicating counterfactuality rather than past time. But then Murphy clearly locates the question in the past time by using the present perfect aspect "...have done...".

To recap, Murphy had the following options:

  1. what are you doing (no hypothetical, present time)
  2. what did you do (no hypothetical, past time)
  3. what would you do (hypothetical, present or future time)
  4. what would you have done (hypothetical, past time)
He chose #4. So Dion is hypothethically Prime Minister, and Murphy wants to know the steps that Prime Minister Dion took prior to the day of the interview in this imagined universe.

Of course, in imagination land, anything can happen, but it is reasonable to expect that apart from Dion being PM, other things, such as the dates of elections, have not changed. If Dion is Prime Minister at the time in question, then it is most likely because he was elected two years earlier. This is exactly what Dion takes the question to mean.

But Murphy denies this interpretation. He wants to know, "If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years." In other words, in his fantasy, Dion has suddenly become Prime Minister. But if the query is about Dion's prior actions, his sudden hypothetical PMship becomes irrelevant.

Unfortunately, because of Dion's status as a non-native speaker of English and Murphy's status as a native speaker, Murphy gets a free ride and Dion is said not to understand. Here, however, it is clearly Murphy who needs the English lesson, or at least a lesson in logic.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Metacognition for tiny tots

Margart Wente, in the Globe and Mail on Sept 12, explains that some poor unnamed Ontario teacher has been having lots of success with phonics, "but her approach is no longer acceptable." Instead, Wente claims, teachers must fill the time teaching students metacognition (both the practice and the term). She blames it all on the Ministry of Ed, which is "dominated by progressive educators who regard it as a crime to teach children how to read the traditional way, through scripted phonics programs."

Eh?

As far as I know, students in grade one are still encouraged to solve unknown words using "graphophonic (phonological and graphic) cues (e.g.,blending and segmenting of individual sounds in words; visual features of words such as shape and orientation; sound-letter relationships for initial,final,and medial sounds; onset and rime; common spelling patterns; words within words).” In other words, phonics. The wording is straight from the Ontario Language Curriculum for grade one, section 3: Reading with Fluency.

Reflecting on reading skills and strategies is section 4, and here you'll find metacognition. Teacher prompts are: "What do you do to get ready to read a new text?” “What do you do if your reading doesn’t make sense to you?” “When you come to a word you don’t know, what do you do?” “What strategies help you the most when you are reading?” Notice that the terms 'schema' and 'inference' are not suggested, despite claims to the contrary in Wente's article.

I can't speak for the schools she mentions, but certainly where my kids go to school, phonics is very much taught. And from what I can tell, they're just following the curriculum. Perhaps Ms Wente should have a look at it.

Friday, September 05, 2008

"Grammatically speaking" wrong again

Richard Firsten writes a column for TESOL's Essential Teacher magazine. In the past, he has provided much grist for my blogging mill. His September column is no different.

Dear Richard,

I find the following passive sentences rather strange:

1. We were explained this theorem by our new math teacher.

2. He was conferred an honorary degree by MIT.

3. He was administered the oath yesterday.

Do you find them well formed or natural?

Best regards,

Narsu K. Nihalani

Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India

Dear Narsu,

Your first sentence is not ungrammatical, but it's a perfect example of forcing the use of the passive voice when it shouldn't be used. Of the three potential subjects that the sentence contains (we, this theorem, our new math teacher), the subject of least importance is we. To my way of thinking, that's why the sentence comes off as so unnatural and almost silly. The whole point of the passive voice in such an instance is for the speaker or writer to show which person or thing is the focus. If it’s the theorem, the sentence should be in the passive voice:

This theorem was explained to us by our new math teacher.

And if it's the math teacher, the sentence should be in the active voice:

The new math teacher explained this theorem to us.

I can argue a case for saying We were explained this theorem by our new math teacher if the speaker or writer needs to focus on himself and his fellow students, but it certainly is an awkward way to express this idea.

As to the other two sentences, because the agent—the doer—is not mentioned, those sentences look and sound perfectly fine.
Firsten's grammaticality judgements may be fine, depending on your dialect, but his explanation is way off. He explains that foregrounding we is odd because it's the potential subject of least importance. This is nonsense plain and simple. The sentence can easily be rephrased as
  1. We listened to our math teacher's explanation of the theorem.
The importance of a potential subject depends entirely on what you want to say. The potential problem with these sentences has to do with whether the verbs allow indirect objects or whether they require a prepositional complement. In other words, do you find the following acceptable

1A. Our new math teacher explained us this theorem.

2A. MIT conferred him an honorary degree.

3A. They administered him the oath yesterday.

4A. They gave him the medal of honour.


or do you only accept

1B. Our new math teacher explained this theorem to us.

2B. MIT conferred an honorary degree (up)on him.

3B. They administered the oath to him yesterday.

4B. They gave the medal of honour to him.


For some people, all sentences are grammatical, for others only the last five are. Personally, I'm in between. I find 2A and 3A marginally acceptable, but 1A is out of the question for me. If you find any of the A sentences acceptable (4A is beyond reproach), you'll find the corresponding passive acceptable as well. But if you accept only the B sentences, then in the passive, the direct object has to be fronted, not the object of the preposition. Thus, you would get:

1. This theorem was explained to us by our new math teacher.

2. An honorary degree was conferred (up)on him by MIT.

3. The oath was administered to him yesterday.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Why study grammar

My mother has been asking me to explain why anyone would study grammar and my rhetorical questions (why do you bother to learn the names of all the plants in your garden) weren't cutting it anymore. I've put off writing this because I'm afraid that it will get out of hand, but here goes:

Emancipatory purposes
Grammar has an elitist tinge to it. Having "correct grammar" is generally seen as a good, if perhaps snobby, thing. As a result, people who use dialects or languages that don't obviously conform to grammatical norms are often looked down on, their language disparaged or even banned. Instances can be as trivial as radio hosts getting complaint letters about their perceived errors or as grave as deaf children being forbidden to use sign language. Scientific studies of grammar can help us put the lie to the prejudicial beliefs behind such practices. By describing the complicated grammar behind sign languages for the deaf, by showing that expressions such as he be workin' and he workin' are not sloppy variants of he is working but rather two standard (within the dialect) forms that convey distinct meanings, and by demonstrating that singular they has an impeccable pedigree, the study of grammar can open people's eyes to the real problems of racism, elitism and ignorance that are masked by false justifications based on grammar.

Language learning
Linked to the above is the need to help people learn a second language. This works two ways: immigrants need to learn the dominant language of their new land and the rest of us are bettered by studying other languages. Either way, there is a great deal of evidence showing that, on average, in otherwise comparable situations, learners who study the grammar of a second language acheive higher levels of proficiency than those who don't. Obviously learners need teachers or textbook writers who have a good understanding of grammar.

Law
The law can turn on the placement of a comma or the meaning of a word. Careful study of grammar can help us adjudicate such questions. It can assist us in identifying forged documents and separating real confessions from other more benign utterances.

Artificial intelligence, machine translation, and information retrieval
The cost of translating documents can be stupifying. If we could develop high-quality translation software, the savings would be imense. Natural language search is a problem that has obvious application to everyone who can't find what they're looking for on the internet. Humans want to be able to communicate with machines through natural language rather than buttons switches and typed commands.

In general, most AI is moving away from hand coded rules towards probabilistic heuristics based on massive corpora, but I would say that there is still a need for people working on such systems to have a deep understanding of grammar.

Understanding ourselves
Some people who suffer a brain injury discover that the grammaticality of their speech is affected, and different injuries have different effects. An understanding of grammar can help us to understand the brain.

Challenge
The grammar of any natural language is a terribly complicated thing. People who like puzzles will often be intrigued by its nuances and will yearn after the chance to discover something that had previously escaped notice. In other words, many people study grammar for fun.

The above is overly simplified and there are many other reasons besides, but hopefully this will be enough to prod my mother and others into considering what they might be.

Monday, September 01, 2008

2008 Language Learner Literature Awards

The Extensive Reading Foundation today announced the winners and finalists for the 2008 Language Learner Literature awards.

The awards:

Young Learners
Winner

Dorothy by Paola Traverso
  • Illustrated by Alida Massari
  • Earlyreads Level 1
  • Black Cat Publishing
  • ISBN 978-88-530-0709-4
  • Judges' comment: Reading this captivating fantasy is like having a beautiful dream.

Finalists
Escape from the Fire by Richard Brown
  • Illustrated by Mike Spoor
  • Macmillan English Explorers 3
  • Series Editor: Louis Fidge
  • Macmillan Education
  • ISBN 978 14050 6018 9
  • Judges' comment: There is breathtaking suspense and excitement in this journey through time.

The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen
  • Retold by Sue Arengo
  • Illustrated by Andy Catling
  • Classic Tales Beginner 1
  • Series Editor: Hannah Fish
  • Oxford University Press
  • ISBN 978-0-19-422552-6
  • Judges' comment: Children will love this humorous, delightful, and beautifully illustrated fairy tale.

Adolescents & Adults Beginners
Winner

Horror Trip on the Pecos River by Paul Davenport
  • Illustrations: Niels Roland
  • Teen Readers Level 2
  • Series Editors: Ulla Malmmose and Charlotte Bistrup
  • Aschehoug/Alinea
  • ISBN 978 0 8504 8400 7
  • Judges' comment: This teen thriller keeps you guessing. Engaging and fun.
Finalists
Grizzly by Sue Murray
  • Illustrated by Sarah Davis
  • Developed by International Language Teaching Services.
  • Hueber Lektüren Level 1
  • Series Editor: James Bean
  • Hueber Verlag
  • ISBN 978 3 1900 2971 6 (Package) 01.2971 (Book)
Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas by Daphne Skinner
  • Retold by Coleen Degnan-Veness
  • Artwork by Mikel Santos 'Belatz' and Javier Gomez
  • Penguin Active Reading Level 2
  • Series Editors: Jocelyn Potter and Andy Hopkins
  • Pearson Longman
  • ISBN 978 1 4058 5210 4
Adolescents & Adults Intermediate
Winner

Billy Elliot by Melvin Burgess
  • Retold by Karen Holmes
  • Penguin Readers Level 3
  • Series Editors: Jocelyn Potter and Andy Hopkins
  • Pearson Longman
  • ISBN 978 1 4058 5000 1
  • Judges' comment: This story has strong adult themes told from the viewpoints of several of the characters.
Finalists
River of Dreams by Philip Voysey
  • Illustrated by Elizabeth Botté
  • Developed by International Language Teaching Services.
  • Hueber Lektüren Level 5
  • Series Editor: James Bean
  • Hueber Verlag
  • ISBN 978 3 1912 2971 9 (Package) 13.2971 (Book)
  • Judges' comment: A well-written, interesting and exciting story with an unpredictable plot.
Bookworms Club Gold; Stories for Reading Circles
  • Editor: Mark Furr and Jennifer Bassett
  • Oxford University Press
  • ISBN 978 0 1947 2002 1
  • Judges' comment: A very well edited collection of stories carefully adapted from some old favourites.
Adolescents & Adults Advanced
Winner

Body on the Rocks by Denise Kirby
  • Illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall
  • Developed by International Language Teaching Services.
  • Hueber Lektüren Level 6
  • Series Editor: James Bean
  • Hueber Verlag
  • ISBN 978 3 1920 2971 4 (Package) 21.2971 (Book)
  • Judges' comment: An exotic locale and varied characters spice this page-turner.
Finalists
How's the Weather? Contributing writers: Colleen Sheils, John Chapman
  • Production and Design Services: Studio Montage
  • Footprint Reading Library Upper Intermediate
  • Series Editor: Rob Waring
  • Cengage
  • ISBN 978 1 4240 1121 6
  • Judges' comment: Non-fiction that models good principles in writing for language learners.
Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith
  • Retold by Kathy Burke
  • Penguin Readers Level 5
  • Series Editors: Jocelyn Potter and Andy Hopkins
  • Pearson Longman
  • ISBN 978 1 4058 5002 5
  • Judges' comment: Ripley's Game is fast-paced and full of surprises.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ho Fa Hotel: On the malady of travel

I'm working on a post about editing poetry, but it still needs some work. In the meantime, here's another poem. This is one of my favourites.
Ho Fa Hotel: On the malady of travel

This is the front desk, and behind it is your proprietor’s bed. You will call him, Oldman, or Mr.Blueshirt.

You will give Mr.Blueshirt four days in which to live this life, and in them he will never see rain.

The days are indistinct, like four ripe oranges peeled and sectioned on a white plate. You recollect them oddly: morning, afternoon, evening, night. Compose and recompose them: first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth. The hours and floors do not correspond. They are their own systems of memory.

For example, on the morning of the first floor, Mr.Blueshirt has a book in which you write – what you believe to be – your name. But it’s also morning when Oldman’s key sings into the padlock of door 24 and frees the pierced tongue of the latch. The door yawns.

There’s a moment – standing on the second floor at the shore of this new world – when the room babbles senselessly to you. The moment before the four-legged creature barks chair, or the sharp-winged bird whistles fan. The moment it takes for the far light of the mountains to reach your eyes and mean toilet, and sink. As you move to the bed that is already nothing like a bank of sand, you realise Oldman is gone and it’s nearly dark.

At night, all the hinges lift like moths from the doors of the Ho Fa Hotel and your dreams run amok in the rooms.

On the third floor the rooms are all locked. On the fourth, the doors are boarded over. On each floor but the first, there’s a balcony that looks out over the street, and in the morning the street is busy and Mr.Blueshirt sits in the sun.

There are no other guests at the Ho Fa. Just two strange voices one night behind door 29. In the morning the door is ajar and the wastebasket holds orange peels and stubbed cigarettes.

In the afternoon, beyond the locked door of room 36, there’s a commotion of birds. Through a crack you see flutter of shadows in sunlight.

The fourth day is a final balcony. Sun rising, or setting on the town. You are perched on the rail in the burning light. Two short hops and you burst into flight.

By Michael Eden Reynolds
first published in Grain

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another Poem

Glimpse
Sight is a bird
atop the spine.

Sleep is the twittering
of the closed eye.

There comes a river of fish
caught in dream’s light.

The bird spreads its wings.

Let it be a kingfisher,
to carry this body of dream into memory.

Let it be a tide of swifts in the gathering dusk
to dive like stars into that black cave.
By Michael Eden Reynolds, first published in The Fiddlehead No. 223

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Raising to object

Up until a few days ago, I was under the impression that objects (the grammatical function, rather than the physical entities, though those too I suppose) had to be nouns. Then I ran across an observation in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language which pointed out that PPs can occasionally function as objects as in:
The police considered under the garage a likely hiding place.
It's nice to learn something new, but somehow frustrating at the same time. PPs aren't supposed to do things like that. Now I have to reorganize a bunch of ideas and find other evidence for certain arguments. While my brain was busy doing this, it reasoned that, if PPs can be objects, why not adverbs?
She wanted it done immediately. Looking at the situation, he considered immediately impossible, but said he'd be able to deal with it before lunch.
Adverbs as objects!? I object. But there you are. Apparently this is called raising to object, something I haven't come across before but will now have to find out more about.

The English determinatives

I seem to write about determinatives on this blog more than one might expect. It occurs to me that I've probably never been explicit about what a determinative is. Although the description in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language isn't completely satisfactory, it's the best I've seen and certainly better than what I could come up with.

If all you want is a list, here you are. English has only a small number of standard modern English determinatives. The following is, I believe, a complete list. The items marked with an asterisk also exist as members of other categories. For example, little is usually an adjective, and the numerals are also nouns.
  • a
  • a few
  • a little
  • all*
  • an
  • another
  • any
  • both
  • certain*
  • each
  • either
  • enough
  • every
  • few
  • fewer
  • fewest
  • least*
  • less*
  • little*
  • many
  • more*
  • most*
  • much
  • neither
  • no*
  • none
  • said*
  • several*
  • some
  • such* (Added later in response to Rick S's comment, but see Brett's comment below)
  • sufficient*
  • that
  • the
  • these
  • this
  • those
  • us*
  • we*
  • what*
  • whatever*
  • whatsoever*
  • which
  • whichever
  • you*
  • (all numerals)*
Finally, the combinations every/some/any/no + body/one/thing/where (e.g., everybody) are compound determinatives, not pronouns.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Best posts?

I'm considering pitching a column to The Walrus magazine and they ask that the pitch include writing samples. I figured that I might include some posts from here, but I'm not sure what to include. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ouimet Canyon

My brother has given me permission to publish a few of his poems here. This one, entitled "Ouimet Canyon" was published in a chapbook called Migrations (Linnaea Press, 2001).
A question yawns
the forest bedrock.

Poplar buds hover
like warm breath around the branches.

Record of time and temperature:
how many zeros will it hold?

Welcome: a room in a house anyone
may come to, a room that makes you:

the way that rock was split, awed,
mouth filled with rare plants and meltwater.

Best Canadian Poetry

My brother, Michael Eden Reynolds, has just received notification that Tightrope Press would like to include his poem, "A-Frame", in their forthcoming anthology The Best of Canadian Poetry in English 2008. "A-Frame" was first published in Prism International 45:4.

I've mentioned Michael's poetry before. Slant Room has gone through many revisions, but is now with the publisher in its final form. I'm looking forward to seeing it in print next year.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

There were a question, a reply, and a comment to it ...

... which turned out to be a little too long for a comment, so here it goes.

The construction in question (There is an N and an N) is, I believe, one of those places where the grammar appears to be slightly embarrassed because it doesn't quite know which way to go; or rather, the grammar isn't quite sure why it has done what it just did.

One succinct way of putting it appears in Huddleston 1984:69 (Introduction to the grammar of English):

'... the normal rules of subject-verb agreement do not apply to the there construction: person-number inflection in the verb is shared between there (which is 3rd person singular, like it) and the NP following the VP.'

That is, the verb wants to agree with singular there, while at the same time it also wants to agree with the following NP. In the present case, the following NP is of the 'an N and an N' type, where the presence of 'an N' immediately following the verb swiftly pulls it in the singular direction, deciding the fate of this grammatical tug-of-war. By the time the plurality of the whole NP is drawn to the speaker's (sub?)consciousness, it is too late.

It is a bit tiresome to have this kind of number concord game between there and the following NP each time you say 'There ...', so the growing grammatical tendency is for there to win. It is often said that there's (but not quite there is) is becoming like a grammatical marker to introduce an NP, singular or plural (as in 'There's a lot of nasty people out there, you know.').

Jespersen 1924:155 (The philosophy of grammar) gives a wider view on the matter:

'Whether or not a word like there is used to introduce them [i.e. existential sentences], the verb precedes the subject, and the latter is hardly treated grammatically like a real subject.'

(He then cites Danish and Italian (as well as English) examples to illustrate the point, before further expanding on the issue; quite illuminating. Jespersen is joy to read.)

To sum up, in a there-construction, the verb looks in both ways. When the following NP is clearly and powerfully plural, it wins the number concord game. When it is clearly singular, well, there is no need for a number concord game.

When the following NP is 'an N and an N', there wins, with the help of 'an N' - but the speaker, realising the plurality of 'an N and an N', is sometimes left with a funny feeling: um, what did I just say?

And I love that funny feeling.

Friday, August 08, 2008

There were a question and a reply

Over on the ETJ list, Chris Clancy asked about the following sentences:
  1. There were a decline and an increase in the respective populations...
  2. There was a decline and an increase in the respective populations...
In particular, he wanted to know why someone might mark 1 incorrect in favor of 2.

Existential there is an odd beast which seems to inherit its number from its antecedent except in spoken English where it seems to have recently decided to be a singular pronoun like dummy it, taking 's (e.g., there's two guys standing over there.)

I have no good explanation for what Chris observed, but I have more observations. In a search of Mark Davies's Corpus of Current American English (COCA), the string there were a/an seems to occur almost exclusively in two situations: with irrealis were (e.g., If there were a change...), and followed by quantificational nouns (e.g., there were a couple/dozen/bunch/hundred/awful lot/whole bunch/series etc.). I find but a single obvious instance of coordinated singular nouns following there were a/an: There were a couch and an armchair in what had been the living room, a formulation that strikes me as very odd.

So in answer to Chris's question, I think I would mark the first wrong because English doesn't work that way even though I would expect it to.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Oil-mice and headless nouns

I've been rereading lots of stuff to prepare for the pedagogical grammar course that I'll be teaching for the first time in Sept. It's an introductory course in grammar for Humber's graduate certificate in TESL.

One of the books is Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and one of the topics he examines is irregular plurals and why, in certain situations, they become regular; why, for example, do we say the Toronto Maples Leafs instead of leaves, why low-lifes instead of low-lives, and why Walkmans instead of Walkmen (this was in 1994, long before the iPod, when Walkman's still ruled the portable personal music market).

One of the reasons that he rejects on p. 142 is that "the books are closed on irregular words;" no more will be countenanced. He counters this with the example of oil-mice (a group Chinese peasants who scavenge oil from unprotected wells and a term that doesn't seem to have caught on.)

Having dispensed with this idea, Pinker posits another reason: headlessness.
"A headless word is an exceptional item that, for one reason or another, differs in some property from its rightmost element, the one that it would be based on if it were like ordinary words. A simple example of a headless word is a low-life--not a kind of life at all but a kind of person."
Now, as I said, this was about 14 years ago, so this has probably been pointed out already, but Pinker supplies the example that contravenes his own analysis and doesn't even seem to realise it: oil-mice, a kind of person, not a kind of mouse. In Pinker's theory, oil-mouse is a headless noun and should be pluralised as oil-mouses.

This isn't the first time one of Pinker's examples has come back to bite him. His cute assertion that "no mere mortal has even flown out to center field" was examined on Language Log where Mark Liberman concluded that "
when an actual sportswriter-type human being is writing prose about baseball, at least in the texts indexed by the Google News Archive, more human beings 'flew out to center field' than 'flied out to center field'."

Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Input-output gap

In July we went to France for sightseeing and a wedding. We had a wonderful week and met many kind and interesting people, but the whole time I was rather humbled by my inability to speak French. I suppose it shouldn't really have been much of a surprise, but I must have lulled myself into a false sense of security.

As a child, I attended a full French immersion school from K-5. From grades six to 11 I continued to study French as a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum. So though I have a pretty solid base, it's been about 25 years since I studied French.

With the trip coming up, though, I bought a French grammar and spent some time reading and listening to learning materials. I admit to spending very little time with the grammar, but the reading and listening was remarkably easy, so I assumed that speaking wouldn't be such a big deal.

When we got to Paris, my confidence was boosted when I could understand what I needed to in getting through the airport and to our hotel. But then I tried to speak and everything fell apart. The words that were so easy to understand simply wouldn't come when called upon. And in their place a babble of Japanese vocabulary was fighting to be deployed. Half my attention was taken up simply suppressing my third language.

Even then I wasn't always successful. It took me about four days to begin saying pardon instead of gomennasai to strangers in public.

All in all, this has given me new insight into those students who seem perennially tongue tied and yet manage to pass the reading tests. It is amazing how large the input-output gap in one individual can be. I would guess that my comprehension is about a B2 on the CEFRL, where my output must be at A1.

I suppose the other side of this is my surprise at how many of the French spoke English and how well they spoke it. Before the trip, everyone I spoke to mentioned the French distaste for speaking English, but nowhere was it in evidence during out trip. So there's another gap to be aware of: the stereotype-reality gap.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Clarification on obligatory adjectives

The following guest post is from Rodney Huddleston.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to comment on your `More on obligatory adjectives' of July 08. I wouldn't put it this way. It's not the adjective which demotes the NP to a nominal but rather the determiner `a', although `a' is only possible if followed by a modifier. I think it's misleading to say `if we add the adjective before the determiner': you're adding it before the determinative, but also adding a determiner. (In CGEL we distinguish between `determiner', a *function*, and `determinative', a *category*. In `the book', say, `the' is a determinative functioning as determiner, but there isn't a one-to-one relation between these. The determiner function is not always filled by a determinative: it can also be filled by an NP, usually genitive, as in `Kim's book'. And determinatives don't always function as determiner, as in `these fifty students' or `a surprising fifty students', where the determinative `fifty' is modifier -- or `this big', where the demonstrative determinative is modifier in an AdjP.)

I don't think it's helpful to work in stages, as you do. Your second tree can't form an NP by itself, so it's not comparable to the first tree. I'd skip the second tree and contrast the first and third.

The reason the numeral plays no part in marking the definiteness is precisely that it is functioning as modifier, not determiner: the indefinite property is marked by the determiner `a'. Note that in some cases you can have a definite determiner: compare

`an additional two months'
`the additional two months'

The contrast in definiteness is marked by `a' vs `the': `two' has no bearing on it.

I would say that semantically `a' leads to an interpretation where the plural is interpreted as a quantity or the like: "a further period of two months". In the second example the number of students that failed is surprising. Note here that while you have `surprising' at the beginning, you change to `exuberant' at the end, but it seems to me that `an exuberant 50 students failed' (or `passed') is much less natural than your `surprising' example.

The question is not so much why the adjective requires a determiner as why the determiner requires an adjective -- it doesn't in the construction shown in [71] on the next page of CGEL (p354), e.g. `[That ten days we spent in Florida] was fantastic'.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

More on more obligatory adjectives

[After reading this post, please see the response by Rodney Huddleston]

About a month ago, I brought up structures like
  • a further two months passed
  • a surprising 50 students failed
  • a mere two books were lost
The reason these seemed odd to me is that if you remove the adjective, you end up with something ungrammatical.
  • *a two months ago
  • *a 50 students
  • *a two books
This structure came up again a few days ago on Language Log.

In the meantime, I had asked Rodney Huddleston about it. If I follow his explanation, the gist of his argument is that the adjective somehow demotes the noun phrase (NP) to an undetermined nominal by changing the numeral from a determiner to a modifier. (Huddleston doesn't say it this way, and I may be misrepresenting which constituent selects which.)

So, if we start with the example 50 students failed, we get the following tree for 50 students:

This means that we have 50, a determinative functioning as a determiner in a noun phrase (NP). The head of the NP is always a nominal. The CGEL has nominals as the head noun, plus any dependents except the determiner. Here, the nominal consists of only the head noun, since there are no other dependents.

Now, if we add the adjective before the determiner, we get the following structure:
Notice that 50 students is no longer an NP (determiner + nominal). Instead, it is a nominal (modifier + head noun). This nominal is nested in another nominal and modified by the adjective surprising. Huddleston says that the numeral "plays no part in marking the definiteness in these cases." To get a full NP, we need a determiner:

On p. 353, the CGEL addresses such constructions. It says:
"(c) Dependents (or sequences) that select a singular or quantified plural head

[69] another | an additional | a further | a good

[70] i [Another body/*bodies] had been discovered.
ii [Another three bodies] have been discovered.
iii [a further few/*many volunteers] were needed.
iv He ate [a good three hefty steaks] before leaving the table.

A plural head is permitted only if it is quantified by a numeral or by few."
I now feel that I have a better understanding of the constituent structure, but I still don't know why the nominal requires a determiner. Plural nominals don't, typically, you know. We can say exuberant readers rejoiced over the explanation. But we can't say *exuberant 50 readers...

I must admit, I have trouble understanding why the numeral plays no part in marking the definiteness.

[After reading this post, please see the response by Rodney Huddleston]

Monday, July 07, 2008

HVPT

Language Log is almost always interesting, but rarely do they discuss much that bears directly on English Language Teaching. Yesterday, though, Mark Liberman wrote about High Variability Phonetic Training (VHPT), a method that, it appears, few teachers have heard of. I'm one of those who hadn't. Anyhow, it's well worth a read, as are some of the comments.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Still waiting for that millionth word

Over the years, the good folks at Language Log have ridiculed the claims of Paul JJ Payack and his Global Language Monitor. Mostly, they've pointed out how counting the words in English is simply not a viable enterprise. Payack, though, doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he doesn't even really seem to be trying. Rather he just keeps putting out essentially the same claim with later and later dates.
  1. In 2006, the Times of London had Payack predicting that "the one millionth word is likely to be formed this summer."

  2. Later, he said the date "should fall between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, 2006" (CBS News)

  3. Yesterday, we learned that the magic date has been postponed by about 2.5 years. "Author Paul JJ Payack, founding president of the Global Language Monitor, estimates English will hit the vocabulary milestone on April 29, 2009."

Meanwhile, language blog English, Jack predicts that Payack will continue to mine this publicity seam for at least two to three years to come. The question is: will fewer and fewer editors and reporters buy his line, or will they just keep on dutifully putting his name in print?

July first and the fourth of July

Each year in Canada we celebrate our national day on July 1 and then a few days later, our neighbours to the south celebrate their own day. There are different ways to talk about dates, but in the American case, the holiday is almost always "the fourth of July". It could, however, be known as "July the fourth" or just "July fourth".

In the BYU Corpus of American English, the [MONTH ORD] to [the ORD of MONTH] ratio is about 7.3 to 1 for January (the [MONTH the ORD] is quite rare). We do, however, find [the ORD of MONTH] pattern for most days, with Jan 1 and Jan 15 being the most common of these.

In July, the ratio is closer to 1.2 to 1, still in favour of the [MONTH ORD] wording. Most of the difference is accounted for by the fourth of July with the first of July also scoring highly.

Now looking at the British National Corpus, the July ratio, 1.4 to 1, still favors [MONTH ORD], but here July 4 is only slightly ahead of July 12 & July 1. In January, the same ratio is 3.4 to 1, much less lopsided than the American ratio.

So, I think we can say that both formula are used on both sides of the Atlantic for all dates, that [MONTH ORD] is more common in both cases, that special dates are more likely to be highlighted using the less common wording, and that there is a stronger preference in the US for the [MONTH ORD] order.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Defense against sheds

We're currently looking at putting a new garden shed in the yard. The old aluminum one was on its last legs before a great avalanche of snow from the garage roof completely smashed it. As I was strolling through the hardware shop, I walked past some paint rollers on which was the bold claim "SHED RESISTANT". It took me a moment to figure out that it was depilation, and not storage cabins, that the brush would resist.

The word: The blog

Jan Freeman is one of the few professional language columnists who's much more interested in finding out about something than in bemoaning it. (Acutally, Russel Smith seems to have improved. He's still focusing more on style than language these days, but when he does take up a linguistic topic, at least he doesn't make an ass of himself like he used to.)

Freeman writes a weekly Boston Globe column called The Word, always worth a read. Now she's got a new blog.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dion's pathological speech problems

The Toronto Star recently called for Stéphane Dion to get "speech therapy" from a speech language pathologist because of his French accent when he speaks English. Apparently, Dion thinks this is a good idea.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Er... I see

Over at Language Log, Heidi Harley has pointed out once again how that British terminal r can result in all sorts of mix ups for us rhotic speakers of English. Wiktionary has rhotic as

Of an English accent, pronouncing the letter r wherever it appears, as in bar (IPA: /bɑːr/) and bard or barred (IPA: /bɑːrd/); this trait is common in most of the United States; many parts of the north of England; Scotland; and India.

Of course, much of British Enlgish is non-rhotic, leading them to pronounce pairs such as farther and father as homophones.

The insight bomb that Harley dropped on LL readers (myself included) was that when you see er in transcribed speech, it is the transcription of a non-rhotic speaker of English, equivalent to what we might write as uh or ah. Similarly erm is um. The British National Corpus has 89,850 instances of er. Here's a sample (unfortunately, Blogger is cutting off the concordance, but a click on the numbers will get you much of the text):

92 G4H S_speech_unscripted bank accounts, building society, National Savings ordinary account, investment account, er National Savings, which isn't bad if you want small amounts of money invested
93 G4U S_speech_unscripted this waste is tipped, it's land tipping. Mhm. Er and er obviously that does affect the ground water. Well it shouldn't do. Well
94 HDT S_speech_scripted fashion, and we go out of our way er, to be fair in respect of er certain er areas. I would simply conclude that while we're always open to
95 HLU S_speech_scripted wanted to raise the issue of er the public service section in respect to er this because there's something prob perhaps not actually tackled in the resolution but equally
96 F7T S_unclassified Erm it comes back to the point which has just been made about the er , about the erm why have this system of election by thirds and almost backfired
97 FMA S_unclassified That man's recorded everything that was said in this room. Excuse me er It's alright it's anon anonymous. Right now listen folks. sh sh
98 JJ8 S_unclassified while I have a look, and you can hear annual negotiation, and er , and the golden rule for negotiating was er looking at your list up there
99 JTE S_unclassified had to replace as you saw outside, virtually all the timber. The er original timber here which is the dias beam and it points up something very o
100 HWX W_pop_lore the hot pumping title track. produced to a glittery crunch by Beau "Er, Ratt?" Hill, these tunes leap out from a radio like recent

Harley's observation has led various commenters to point out that:

  • what Christopher Robin was actually saying when he said "His name is Winnie-THER-Pooh" was Winnie THE Pooh.
  • what the characters in Great Expectations were saying when they said "what I meantersay" was what I mean tuh say.
And, of course, by now we all know that the rs in Burma and Myanmar were never intended to be pronounced.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

TGE: other miscellaneous problems

The errors, contradictions, and lack of clarity in Ron Cowan's The Teacher's Grammar of English have filled three posts already (here, here, & here) and could probably go on for quite a few yet. I suspect, though, that people are growing tired of this, and I myself am finding it rather wearisome, so I expect this will be the last entry unless Cowan wishes to reply to anything. Here, then, are a few more miscellaneous problems in no particular order.
  1. In the glossary, Cowan defines a phrase as: a head and any modifiers (no gloss is supplied for head or modifier.) Consider a simple verb phrase such as (this grammar) bites the wax tadpole. On p. 20, we find that VPs consist of "a main verb, which is the head of the phrase... and any following NPs, PPs, AdjPs, or AdvPs that may be present." In our sentence, this leaves the wax tadpole as a modifier of bites, a particularly heterodox analysis. Auxiliary verbs are then not part of the VP (unless they head their own VPs, a point which doesn't seem to be addressed, but which would result in the bizarre notion that the main verb is a modifier of the auxiliary).

  2. On pp. 18-19, TGE provides the following (apparently exhaustive) list of functions of NPs: subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, objects of a preposition, predicate nominals, and appositives. Presumably, then, NP itself is not considered a function, but rather a phrase. Yet on p. 16, gerunds are said to "function as NPs". Still later, on p. 472, they are said to be part (the head, I suppose) of gerund clauses, which, in turn, are said to function as subject clauses, and which are specifically contrasted with NPs on p. 471. So are they the same or are they not?

  3. The list of NP functions is incomplete. In the sentence I started two days ago, the NP two days ago functions as an adjunct. Nouns can also function as determiners (e.g., Kawabata's short stories and modifiers (e.g., the faculty office).

  4. On p. 22, it says that do expresses distinctions of tense and aspect. TGE recognises two aspects in which auxiliary verbs participate: perfect and progressive; do is not used for either.

  5. In the chapter on imperative sentences, it states that the only inflected verb form allowed in an imperative after be is "in the progressive form". This ignores passives such as (e.g., be warned, be finished, be gone, don't be fooled by... etc.)

  6. Page 113 has a section on "Idiomatic I need you Imperatives" (e.g., I need you to get ready quickly.) Such sentences are certainly hortative, but imperative is a grammatical term, not a rhetorical one. On p. 110, the main verb in an imperative is described as being "always in its bare infinitive form", yet I need you to..., clearly doesn't meet this requirement for inclusion. (Also note that imperatives do not have truth values, whereas this construction could be subject to the rejoinder, "no you don't.")

There are likely some very good things in the book that I have overlooked, but frankly, there's so junk to be sifted out that I really can't be bothered looking for those few finds. Where I've run across them, I've tried to note any positives. To be fair, I haven't even had a look at the sections at the end of most chapters on "problems that ESL/EFL students have with..." and "suggestions for teaching..."

Overall, Cowan has simply not taken enough care to build a coherent grammatical system. It's not that I don't agree with his theories; it's that he doesn't agree with his own theories. Over and over again he contradicts himself or makes claims that are factually wrong.

I think the folks at Cambridge ESL need to get their editorial house in order too. This is the second grammar book they've published in the last few years that fails to meet the minimal standards for accuracy and consistency.

What a waste!