Monday, December 20, 2010

Google reading level

Google advanced search now has a reading-level feature which groups search results in to basic, medium, and advanced reading levels. According to Nudu, a Google employee, 
"The feature is based primarily on statistical models we built with the help of teachers. We paid teachers to classify pages for different reading levels, and then took their classifications to build a statistical model. With this model, we can compare the words on any webpage with the words in the model to classify reading levels. We also use data from Google Scholar, since most of the articles in Scholar are advanced."

It seems unlikely that this will be of much value to English language learners, but it seems worth trying out. Here's this blog's breakdown by level.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Award-winning Whodunit

Hugh and Al Graham-Marr are friends from my Japan days who started up a publishing company called Abax. This year, they published Fiction In Action: Whodunit by Adam Gray and Marcos Benevides, which recently won the Duke of Edinburgh ESU English Language Book Award for 2010. The book is also notable as possibly the first commercial ELT text to also be published and made available for free under a Creative Commons license.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The subjunctive from the mouthes of babes?

My six-year-old daughter told us at dinner the other day that her teacher generally allows her class certain privileges "if we be good." The first thing that struck me is that it sounds like the subjunctive. An example would be If we be faithful to Christ, he will certainly be faithful to us from the New American Standard Bible. This seems extremely unlikely since it's an archaic form, although you can see how it would have come about. Other verbs appear in the plain present tense here, which is identical in shape to the subjunctive; both use the base form; only be has a distinct first-person present-tense form. This is probably, then, a performance error stemming from mistaken analogy.

The second was that if we be good gives be a dynamic sense that if we are good simply wouldn't have. It sounds much better than, for example, if we be hungry. Consider that you can say we're being good where you can't say *we're being hungry (unless this is some kind of dramatization of hunger).

After we adults had discussed the grammatical implications for a few minutes, my daughter said, "Oh, I mean if we are good," which I found somehow both wonderful and regrettable.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's up?

A correspondent writes,
"What's up?" and " Not much?" come from African-American hoods... Teaching such phrases to kids is not appropriate, I believe. They will sound "Black". I am 46 years old. When I came up, we, African-Americans, were the only ones using such phrases.
This is a variation of the recency illusion. In fact, the phrase is well over a hundred years old and can be found all over the English speaking world.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TESL programs

Mariola O'Brien, one of my students from a few years back, was written up in the Toronto Star recently. The article doesn't seem to be online, but here's a PDF. It discusses her enviable work situation in Sweden as well as a variety of TESL certification options here in the GTA.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Good Reads

Carol Goar in yesterday's Toronto Star highlights a series of books for adult literacy learners. The series is published by Grass Roots Press and the books are by the following respected Canadian novelists: Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Rabindranath Maharaj, Louise Penny, Maureen Jennings, and Deborah Ellis, and financial writer Gail Vaz-Oxlade. I haven't had a chance to read any, but I look forward to reviewing them and perhaps getting them into our library. The series is set to be expanded by six new books next year.

On the same publisher's website, I also found series designed along similar concepts from British authors (Quick Reads) and Irish authors (Open Door). No doubt there is more to explore.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

TESOL Position Statement on the Acquisition of Academic Proficiency in English at the Postsecondary Level

The international language teaching association TESOL has adopted a position which basically says, if you're going to fund an English language learner to go to college or university in English, you'd better be prepared to pay for them to work on their English. Indeed, English studies should not be seen as some kind of remediation, but as an "academic subject on par with other academic classes in an institution."

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Saving savings

In the second half of Jan Freeman's most recent "The word", she takes on the question of whether we will be shifting to daylight saving time or daylight savings time. This is a question I took up three years ago here, concluding that both were perfectly grammatical although the singular version is more likely (and is the official choice).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Infinitive of purpose

Lori Habermehl, a colleague here in the English Language Centre at Humber, pointed out to me an exception to the textbook descriptions of the infinitive of purpose. This is the infinitive in "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." Learners of English often seem to grasp for a preposition to express this and end up, quite reasonably, with for. A decent paraphrase of Mark Anthony's famous line might be "I've come for Caesar's funeral, not for his martyrdom." Unfortunately, "I've come for burying Caesar, not for praising him" is unidiomatic at best, and it is this type of construction that many ESL grammar books are trying to help students avoid in sections on the infinitive of purpose.

Lori then asked, what about sentences like The uranium could be used for making nuclear weapons. I had occasionally noticed that for + present participle could be used to indicate purpose, but I'd never thought properly about it and so I told her I didn't know. Quickly, though, we came up with the hypothesis that it has to do with licensing complements, and a few corpus queries later, we were pretty sure that we were right. In fact, the only verb we could find that allowed this type of construction was use. 

So it seems that infinitives of purpose are adjuncts, while the for + present participle construction is a licensed complement of use. This can be illustrated by the fact that it's common to move the infinitive to the start of the sentence, but rare for a sentence to start with for + present participle.

  • To make changes, go to the edit menu.
  • Go to the edit menu to make changes.
  • Use the edit menu to make changes.
  • ?For making changes, use the edit menu.
  • Use a non-stick pan to fry the eggs.
  • Use a non-stick pan for frying the eggs.
  • To fry your eggs, use a non-stick pan.
  • ?For frying your eggs, use a non-stick pan.
  • Use a non-stick pan to make clean-up easier.
  • To make clean-up easier, use a non-stick pan.
  • Use a non-stick pan for making clean-up easier.
  • ?For making clean-up easier, use a non-stick pan.

(To be honest, I was expecting those ? sentences to sound worse than they do. Maybe I've just talked myself into believing they sound good.)

 I don't think I've ever seen this point addressed by any grammar book.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reading about academic fraud

The Toronto Star is now including a section of New York Times article in their Sunday edition. That's where I ran into "Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent" by Andrew Jacobs. I don't have much to add except that I'll be using this as a reading in my level 7 EAP classes where I've had to deal with a lot of plagiarism this session. I don't know exactly what effect it will have, but it can't hurt.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Taboo words as audience-awareness enhancement tools

Over the weekend I was sitting at the dining room table with a bunch of tests and essays. Everyone else was either outside or off somewhere else. I had music playing and was comfortably settled in for a long slog of marking. After some time, my mother and aunt came in from their gardening and suddenly the music, which had been such a great companion, was awkwardly loud. I jumped up and turned it down because I simply couldn't enjoy it at that volume because I expected they wouldn't enjoy it at that volume.

This reminded me of something I've noticed with my kids' language. The two of them, one in grade 1 and one in 4, will occasionally and unselfconsciously say things like "oh my god!" or "thank god!" I have no compunction against using these exact phrases myself, and I don't even notice when other adults use them. But with the kids, it rubs me the wrong way. And I will ask them not to use those expressions.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

'Worldwide' as a preposition?

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes worldwide to be both an adverb and an adjective (p. 568). It occurred to me this morning that it's more like a preposition, but the more I thought about it, the less sure I became. At this point, I'm firmly on the fence.

Worldwide is not exactly a typical adjective. Things don't typically become worldwide. In fact, I can only find one example in the COCA:
1997 MAG AmericanCraft "...was originally invented in Japan about 300 years ago, but its use has become worldwide since the late 19th century."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The grammatical status quo

In relation to a discussion on the correct classification of ago and before, a correspondent writes,
"I think when it comes to traditional categories, we should err on the side of inertia (or conservatism) because we would otherwise be asking people (admittedly not a large group these days) to change a trusted way of thinking. It's not like we are looking at alternative proposals in a vacuum. If the arguments are equal, I would vote for the status quo."I agree. But in this case, I don't think the arguments are at all equal. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Future tense dependent on what?

In today's NY Times, Natalie Angier makes the extraordinary claim that the future tense is dependent on science and math education.

Of course, she doesn't mean it. It would be pointless to argue that we have no future tense to begin with let alone to question how science and math education in America could possibly have anything to do with the (in)stability of a basic grammatical system of English. She's simply not making a point about language at all, so any mention of it is off topic.

But she brought it up. The question is why. Why resort to this odd rhetorical move, what Geoff Pullum calls linguification, when it contains no humour, no clever analogy, no orienting metaphor, and no poetic musicality? Why not simply say, "Our nation’s economy, global allure and future tense all depend on the strength of its scientific spine," which is presumably what she means?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Chunking: Another Perspective

After his recent On Language column on chunking, Ben Zimmer at the Visual Thesaurus asked me to explain why I'm skeptical about the value of teaching many chunks and collocations. I put my thinking together in a column that is published at VT today.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

TED talks

This semester I'm teaching a level-eight class in our eight-level EAP program. These folks are less than two months away from entering college and they need practice listening to lectures and taking notes.

There are lots of materials available from ELT publishers, but the canned lectures are boring, contrived, and short, rarely exceeding six minutes. Not only that, but they're mostly available only on CDs, and they're bloody expensive.

So this semester, I've turned to TED lectures. Now, these are not going to be useful for low-level language learners, but for my students, they're great. Not only are they a good length, sure, not as long as a two-hour class, but certainly long enough to have structure and substance, but they've interesting--these conferences sell out months in advance even though they cost thousands of dollars per seat, and the videos have been viewed more than 319 million times. They've available free online, so my students can listen as many times as they want, that is they can practice (too many listening classes are just tests rather than learning opportunities).

These are all great features for everyone, but the thing that makes these so great for language learning is the subtitles. These allow students to focus, improve processing by matching across modalities, reinforce previous knowledge, and analyze language. They also come in a variety of other languages, depending on what's been contributed, allowing students to confirm guesses and identify misunderstandings.

Also available are interactive transcripts, again in English and various other languages. These are interactive in the sense that clicking on any sentence takes you to that sentence in the video. This allows students to easily replay short sections in which they're having trouble processing the spoken word.

My students have responded very positively to the following two lectures about choice:
Finally, if you want a copy of the transcript, you'll need to extract it from the page source. Select 'view source' from your web browser's menu then search for "Click on any phrase to play the video from that point". The transcript will follow, but it will be full of html markup. Copy it to BBEdit or some other program that allows searching with regular expressions and search for <[^>]*>. Leave the 'replace' box blank and select 'replace all'. That should strip out all the html.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Richard Firsten is back and less than helpful

When TESOL stopped publishing Essential Teacher, I thought we had seen the end of Richard Firsten's "Grammatically speaking" column. But the column lives again in an online version, which will be published every two months. Long-time readers will know that I've often disputed Firsten's grammatical claims. Well, it's that time again.

Monday, August 30, 2010

More on "versus"

I am more convinced that versus is an English coordinator and that, perhaps, it has never been a preposition. For one thing, I can only find three examples of versus X used as a complement. The first two are here:
In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence.... " (n12) BEING VERSUS AMERICA # A profound gulf between Heidegger and Tocqueville becomes obvious as soon as we compare their views on America. (from "Tocqueville's Practical Reason", by Hancock, Ralph. Perspectives on Political Science Fall 98, Vol. 27 Issue 4, p. 212.)
The redox behaviour of 1,2- and 1,3-dithiadiazoles (D), with a wide variety of R substituents has been studied by using cyclic voltammetry (CV) Most of the compounds (D) behave as reversible redox systems. Typical half-wave reduction potentials for 1,2 compounds are versus the standard calomel electrode (SCE) while those for the 1,3-isomers are 0.2V. (from the BNC; not sure about the original source)
The first one is rather hard to parse, and I'm not sure it's relevant. The second strikes me as ungrammatical. I'll get to the third below. I might turn up more examples with more searching, but none of the examples from the OED, or any of the other dictionaries I've checked, show a complement use.

Nor can I find much evidence of it being modified. I did find one example of this is just versus a computer, which is also a complement. And another example modified with just and functioning as an adjunct.
The cloth spider is lossy and this inherent loss results in hysteretic behavior with respect to reaction force versus displacement. Hysteretic refers to changing behavior of the spider, not just versus displacement but also the direction of the displacement (Fig. 1).
In general, then, versus doesn't behave very much like a preposition, and I would speculate that it this is not a new development.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Multiple coordination" with prepositions?

In yesterday's post about slash, Geoff Pullum wrote:
With coordinators you can get what is called multiple coordination, as in red and orange and green and yellow and blue, which doesn't group the color names together in clusters of two, it just connects all of them. With prepositions you don't get that.
Last night this came back to me as I came across the words versus while reading. It's another of these Latin preposition-cum-English something-or-others. "Could you chain these without nesting," I wondered. This morning, I find that indeed you can. Here are some examples:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Slash and cum: coordinators

On p. A15 of today's Toronto Star, we find reported various discoveries: heretofore unidentified sea life and two planets transiting the same star. Another discovery was going on around the same time, but since it's in linguistics, it's almost certain to be entirely ignored by the press. Granted, the discovery has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but that would make no difference. You will simply never see a headline like "New English preposition discovered" (except, perhaps, in The Onion).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Depleting depletion

In today's Toronto Star, there's an op ed piece by John Cartwright pushing for various governments in Canada to roll back a variety of tax cuts for businesses. John Cartwright is not only wrong, but he seems to be rather confused. But since this isn't Economics, Jack, I'll leave the economic arguments up to folks who are far more qualified to make them than me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Another gapless relative

Only a few days ago, I posted about a gapless relative. Now, from a recent NYT article: “We’ve got a method of operating the grid that the next time any sign of drought occurs, we can just,” he snapped his fingers, “build something else or turn something else on, and we’ve got enough water supply.”


This one, I think, simply got away on the speaker when that adjunct the next time any sign of drought occurs slipped in there. Simplified, this is: We've got a method that we can just build something else...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

don't be able

Over at Language Log, Barbara Partee has produced an interesting coordination:
Many Americans don’t even know what the native languages of Belgians are, let alone be able to recognize accents of Belgians speaking English.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

A gapless afternoon

Yesterday we had my brother and his family over. We were sitting on the deck relaxing after lunch when Craig came up with the following: It's a country in Africa which I don't even know if it exists anymore. "A gapless relative clause," though I, going inside and jotting it down so as not to forget the wording.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Newer AWL

In the most recent edition of Reading in a Foreign Language, Tom Cobb observes that the Academic Word List isn't really so academic. It was built upon the General Service List, which was never designed to be simply a high frequency word list. (It has other problems, such as being built on a small corpus of magazines.) West, who constructed the GSL, removed high-frequency items that were largely synonymous with other words in the list and replaced them with lower frequency words that provided broader semantic coverage. In effect, then, the AWL largely fills in the holes the West left behind. Words like area are really just broadly frequent words and not really academic at all.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

You both

Last night, as I was reading myself to sleep, I came across a you both. It was in something like We'll leave you both there. Hang on, I thought, how does that work? Under the analysis taken by the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the underlined word in I'll leave both there is a determinative functioning as a fused determiner head in a noun phrase. The argument, very much oversimplified, is that the answer to both what is retrievable from context. In other words, if you're talking about pencils, you could say, I'll leave both pencils there.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Language is a commons

The other evening, driving home, I heard the first part of an "Ideas" program about plagiarism on the CBC. It referenced a Harper's essay by Jonathan Lethem entitled "The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism". As I was reading through the essay, which I'm quite enjoying, I came across this passage, which brings together and artistic, linguistic, and economic view of language.
"The world of art and culture is a vast commons, one that is salted through with zones of utter commerce yet remains gloriously immune to any overall commodification. The closest resemblance is to the commons of a language: altered by every contributor, expanded by even the most passive user. That a language is a commons doesn't mean that the community owns it; rather it belongs between people, possessed by no one, not even by society as a whole."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Think again

Going back to my post of a few days ago about think and its allowed complements, I was reminded of this post from 2007 about the complementation of rethink. It's interesting to note that, where think doesn't allow open interrogative content clauses, rethink does.

  • I thought about what I should do.
  • *I rethought about what I should do.
  • *I thought what I should do.
  • I rethought what I should do.
Why are complements so arbitrary?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Words as species

The most recent edition of Reading in a Foreign Language is a festschrift for Paul Nation. Paul was one of my professors at TUJ and apart from being a very practical and productive researcher, he's also one of the friendliest and most personable folks you'd want to meet.

There's much worth reading there, but one that caught my attention was the Meara and Olmos Alcoy paper.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Corpus from Mark Davies

Brigham Young's Mark Davies has just made available, in alpha, a new Corpus of Historical American English. If you don't know about Mark's free corpora, you should check them all out.

And hence metaphor awareness is important in language education

Or not.

An article in the most recent issue of TESOL Quarterly examines the efficacy of teaching Japanese university students the metaphors behind some phrasal verbs in comparison to simply explaining the verbs though Japanese. The treatment group (n=59), was given something like the following for each of the focussed prepositions (up, down, into, out, off):

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Two answers about time

The other day, I posted an interesting pair of questions about time:
  • Do you know what time it is? right
  • Do you think what time it is? wrong 
  • What time do you think it is? right
  • What time do you know it is? wrong

The posing of the two questions together is a little confusing because the issues are distinct, but here's what I think:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Two questions about time

The following query appeared on the ETJ mailing list: Why is one item in each of the following pairs wrong?

  • Do you know what time it is?    right
  • Do you think what time it is?   wrong 
  • What time do you think it is?   right
  • What time do you know it is?    wrong
I'll post my reply after you've had some time to think about it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What's that

Not just any that but the that in sentences like:
We try to provide the scientific information so that the people who are in a position of decision-making can make the best decisions possible.
I was actually looking at so when it occurred to me that this that is the same subordinator as the that that introduces declarative content clauses. In other words, it's exactly the same as
I know that the people who are in a position of decision-making can make the best decisions possible.
Notice in particular that in both cases that is omissible.

If my analysis is correct, it makes nonsense of any claims that so that should be used instead of so in clauses of cause, or in causes of result or in both or neither, all of which claims seem to be out there.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Most looked-up words at the NYTs

This is not new, but it's new to me. You're likely aware that if you double click on a word on the online version of the New York Times, the definition pops up. Well, it seem that the NYT keeps track of which words folks pop up most and the list, as of last June is available here. The top 10 lookups per use are:

saturnine
solipsistic
bonobo
phlogiston
epistemological
shibboleths
adenoidal
sumptuary
appurtenances
sui generis

The only ones I knew were bonobo, shibboleth, and adenoidal. I've looked up epistemological many time, but I still can't say I really know what it means. Do you fare any better than me?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

CBC Literary Awards

Today the CBC announced the winners of the 2009 CBC literary awards. My brother, Michael Eden Reynolds, was shortlisted for his poem Outage, but was not one of the winners. Congratulations to those who did win!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Negating must and have to

In most ESL grammars, you find claims that must and have to result in different meanings when negated even though their affirmative meanings are essentially the same. That is, negate must and you end up with a prohibition. Negate have to, on the other hand, and you get a lack of obligation.

It just occurred to me that this has less to do with must and have to and more to do with the scope of negation. I'm not claiming this as a new discovery. I've probably read or heard it before and simply forgotten, but it just struck me now and I don't think I'll forget again.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The shifting ground of backshifting

Recently, a correspondent asked about fall in Aristotle said that heavy things fall quicker than lighter things. Should fall be fell, he wondered.


I responded that the simple present tense is fine here, even preferred. I went on to say that backshifting is rarely obligatory and that, generally speaking, backshifting seems to be more common when talking about discrete events than general facts or states.


But then another participant in the discussion brought up the sentence People thought the earth was flat. In this sentence, the present tense of be just doesn't work. So what's the difference?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Owning the podium (or not)

For any hard-up Canadian headline writers thinking the unthinkable about the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team, I offer the following:

Pwned! The odium!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The power of you and me

The Canadian Press is responsible for publishing the following foolishness:
"'For some reason, polite Canadians do not seem to think that "me" is acceptable,' says Joanne Buckley, a professor at the Centre for Student Development at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and one of the country's pre-eminent grammarians.
"'Of course, we grammarians know that the words should be "believe in the power of you and me" since "of" is a preposition and takes an object.'"
For some reason, Joanne Buckley seems to be an incurious, self-agrandizing pedant who has memorized some rules of thumb about grammar but has not had the wherewithal to consider what lies behind those rules and how they play out in the real world.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

OK doing

A few years ago, I wrote about allowed doing. The other day, I heard for the first time (I think), "It's OK playing Wii." This was not an evaluative comment on the relative enjoyment of playing Wii but rather a claim that they were permitted to play Wii. My corpus searches have turned up almost no relevant examples, and as I've said, I don't think I've heard it before, but I'll keep my ears tuned.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Having the audacity to play with audio speed

I have a student in my current class who told me that she simply couldn't understand the audio recordings we're using in class. That's not so unusual, but after working with her for a bit in my office, I came to believe she has an unusual disjunction between her reading ability and listening ability. So I whipped out Audacity and started playing around with the files.

There is an option to change the tempo (i.e., make it slower without changing the pitch), but it introduces an odd distortion to the voice. Instead, I found it better change the speed and then boost the pitch back up. To do this, you begin by opening your file (after you've downloaded and installed Audacity). Step 2 is to select the portion of the file you'd like to slow down. In most cases this will be the whole recording. Step 3 is to click on Effect from the menu bar, and choose change speed, perhaps by 33%. Once this completed, you need to once more click on Effect and then choose change pitch. I found the pitch needed to be boosted slightly more than the amount of the speed reduction (if you can compare those two things). So, a speed change of -33% would require a pitch boost of roughly 43%.

Here's are some samples:
-basic recording
-change tempo
-change speed
-fix pitch

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wonky content clauses

For quite some time I've been noticing clauses of the type exemplified in this sentence: "Mr. McCain was asked what would Republicans do in response." (from the NY Times here). Traditional grammatical description often calls the bolded clause a noun clause, but following the CGEL, and for good reason, I'll call it a content clause.


The thing that's wonky about it, if you haven't noticed, is that interrogative content clauses don't typically undergo subject-auxiliary inversion. That is, you would expect Mr. McCain was asked what Republicans would do in response, with would following the subject instead of preceding it. I hear these on the radio all the time, but they're ephemeral, and I'm rarely positive that what I've heard is reported speech as opposed to a quotation or pseudo-quotation along the lines of Mr. McCain was asked, "what will Republicans do in response."