Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nominated for top 100 language blogs

English, Jack has been nominated in the category of Language Professionals for the Top 100 Language Blogs 2009. Of course, there are many excellent language blogs, so you need to get reading if you're going to vote. Voting will start on July 8 and close on July 27, and the winners will be announced on July 30.

For more information on the 2009 competition and what it is all about visit lexiophiles.com.

Choosing useful collocations

I'm not very keen on making collocations a focus of my teaching, but I do like authentic example sentences, and slipping in common collocates strikes me as a useful thing to do.

I've been collecting useful examples for years over on the Simple English Wiktionary, and you are free to go there and take what you will. Unfortunately, there are also quite a few rather unnatural examples mixed in, so if you don't find what you're looking for, hie yourself over to the COCA and do a search like this one for help.

Generally speaking, an MI score of 3.0 or more is generally considered to show a genuine relationship between two words. The thing is, this score changes depending on how you search. For example, a search for words occurring within 4 words either side of help in the COCA returns an MI of 6.91 for defray, but if you search for 3 words either side, defray's MI is only 6.75. And if you only search for one word to the right, that goes up to 8.75. And then there's the question of whether you search for the form help, the verb help, the noun help, the lemmas help, etc.
Next, you need to consider not just the strength of the connection, but also its frequency. Back to our help example, contextualize has an MI of 3.29, but the collocation occurs only 10 times in that position, whereas the collocation with cope (MI=3.25) occurs over 340 times.
Along with frequency, you need to consider the range, in other words, the number of documents in which it is found. One document might use a particular collocation so often that it skews the results. Similarly, the context of various documents might be the same. Still with our help example, context has a very high MI score (MI=4.3) and a high frequency (over 1600), and occurs in a wide range of documents, but most of these documents have been taken from various web sites, all of which include the sentence, "Find Documents with Similar Topics Help Below are concepts discussed in this document."
Finally, transparency should be considered. The for sit, chair has an MI of 3.52, but it should be obvious to anyone who lives in the real world that sit is used with chair and may not be worthy of mention, whereas the relationship between help and cope is more opaque and may bear having attention drawn to it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Dropping 'to'

Continuing on with our critique of this quarter's "Grammatically Speaking", the second query says, in part,
"One way that I focused on was the use of to alone without its verb and accompanying clause in a sentence like He can leave work early today if he has to..."
But as they so often do, a student came up with a counter example.
"They don't need to be here precisely at nine o'clock. They can come a little later if they like."
Firsten basically throws up his hands. "It's because of that old problem we have in English concerning exceptions to some rules." We'll ignore the special status he implies for English, but generally this is not a very helpful answer. It is true that there is quite a bit of variability here, and that things are messy, but I think we can explain a bit more.

To be fair, Firsten does note that, where some verbs such as want, wish, choose, and prefer accept both the to and non-to complements, like rejects to. He doesn't, however, explain this: it seems to me that if you like is idiomatic such that without if, but still in the sense of would rather do something, we need would. Compare:
  • They like to come late. -> They can come whenever they like to.
  • They would like to come late. -> They can come whenever they (would) like.
There are other interesting things to note here, however:
  • The phenomenon is most common where the to infinitive is functioning as a complement rather than, say, as a subject. Compare: Can we ask for a postponement?
    Yeah, I plan to.
    *To (ask for a postponement) would be awkward.
  • It's not just after verbs such as want etc. that this happens. It's also common with adjectives that take to infinitive complements:
    I don't think I'll be able (to).
  • Where the elided VP is headed by be or auxiliary have, we usually include them:
    the print quality is not what it used to be (cf. it doesn't look like it used to)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Firsten's fictions

This time, in his "Grammatically Speaking" column in TESOL's Essential Teacher magazine, Richard Firsten, who has a track record for mis-explaining grammar, appears to have taken to just making stuff up. His correspondent asks,
"My friend said, "I'm going to get a sundae," and then she asked me, "How about you?" After telling her what I wanted, it suddenly dawned on me that it wouldn't sound right if my friend had said, "What about you?" Now I'm confused. Are both questions still interchangeable or not?"
Instead of simply saying, "you're deluded" or something kinder like, "either would be fine," Firsten agrees, saying,
"There are many situations in which the two questions What about . . . ? and How about . . . ? are interchangeable... But when asking about what another person wants, it's more common to use How about . . . ?"
Of course, no evidence is proffered to support this strange claim, nor is any explanation given. So it appears to be up to us, the readers, to go out and find some data.

Total "what about you"

asking about want to144

asking about want something43
Total "how about you"

asking about want to100

asking about want something60

In other words, in direct contradiction to Firsten's confident assertion, what about you is actually more common, even when asking about what somebody wants.

I think I'd like some more scholarship and integrity from this guy. What about you?