Thursday, October 22, 2009

Grammatically speaking is wrong again (and again, and again)

The newest "Grammatically Speaking" column from TESOL's Essential Teacher magazine is out and, as usual, it's hit and miss with its answers. For past discussions of Richard Firsten's misanalyses, see these posts. As I've said before, I keep coming back to these because it seems to me that it behooves a grammar pundit like Firsten to make sure he's got the right answers. You don't expect perfection, but I think he's only batting slightly above 500. The other reason is that he gets a lot of interesting questions.

Question 1
Our secondary school textbook has this sentence:
I already knew about the party, even before you told me.
I think the sentence is correct, but I know my students are going to ask why the first verb is past simple and not past perfect (had known). A colleague thinks the reason is that already signals the past and no other marker is needed. I have a vague idea that it is because the verb know refers to a state rather than an action. If the verb were learn, I think the past perfect would be called for:
I had already learned about the party, even before you told me.
Firsten agrees with the colleagues; already is enough. This is wrong for a number of reasons.

  1. Take out already and you still have a perfectly natural sentence that means the same thing, so it's not just substituting for the past perfect.
  2. Use a different verb (like learned, suggested by the teacher with the question) and it sounds less natural (at least in my dialect; i.e.,  I already learned about the party, even before you told me.) In general, already doesn't like past tense verbs.
What Firsten and the colleagues are overlooking is that there's something about the verb know that's different. Is it, as the questioner suggests, that know is stative? Let's get some data from the COCA.

Stative
Dynamic
base
know
want
go
learn
past tense
120,857
115,815
162,826
27,033
past participle
81,730
32,559
115,815
27,457
already + past tense
1,328
12
37
27
already + past participle
302
13
702
107
had already + past participle
14
0
145
55
    It seems that a simple stative/dynamic difference doesn't explain things. Want is stative, but it doesn't like already +past tense any more than dynamic go and learn do. There's something else going on here, but I'm not sure what it is. Any ideas?

    (The second question is dealt with here.)

    8 comments:

    Rick S said...

    I think your COCA results may be coincidentally misleading, because I have no trouble constructing perfectly grammatical parallels using past tense want, e.g. I already wanted a dog, even before you told me you did. Maybe the apparent underrepresentation of want in your analysis has some explanation unrelated to this construction.

    On the other hand, maybe it's that know is overrepresented. Consider that the original statement implies a denial of a causal relationship between you telling me about something and me knowing of it, and that already...even in this construction is pragmatically important to expressing this denial. This causal relationship (in the affirmational aspect) is extremely common--probably more common than direct experience, in fact--so it's only natural that it would be a more frequent topic (especially in refutation) compared with other stative verbs such as want, where causal relationship is not strong or common enough to be considered a default assumption.

    It would be interesting to repeat your COCA analysis with other mental-stative verbs, e.g. believe, feel, think, etc. I find it easy to use any of these in the simple past tense in similar constructions. My guess is that these also have closer causal relationships with being told something than want does.

    I think the stative explanation makes sense because states don't have point-in-time attributes, so temporally relating them to other past events (by pushing past tense into past perfect) isn't possible, or at least isn't essential.

    Brett said...

    There's no question that you can construct them. It just seems as though we rarely do, and you can also construct others that really don't work. I'm not sure I follow everything in the second paragraph, but more analysis I can do. If we look at believe, already believed is only 0.1% of all past tense believed where already knew is over 1%.

    Rick S said...

    I was getting kind of wordy in the second paragraph, yes. What I was saying is that if A tells B about something and B doesn't reply with something like "I already knew", A will assume that it's news to B. That's the default assumption of causality I was talking about. If B doesn't correct that assumption, the continued interaction can become confused (e.g. if B doesn't ask for more information, A might incorrectly conclude B is uninterested in the party). So what makes know special is that it's more important for discourse management than want is. Thus it occurs more frequently than other verbs in the "already...even" construction.

    But looking at it again, know is not unique in this respect. "I already heard about the party, even before you told me" works just as well, with almost exactly the same meaning and, I suspect, similar frequency. (And hear isn't stative, so I guess you're right about the stative/dynamic difference not being the explanation.) What does the COCA say about hear?

    Brett said...

    Of past-tense heard about 1% are already heard.

    charlie said...

    The subordinate conjunction "before" can be used for sequential events in the simple past. It's true that "know" is stative but that doesn't suffice.

    Charlie Stephen

    charlie said...

    The subordinate conjunction "before" can be used for sequential events in the simple past. It's true that "know" is stative but that doesn't suffice.

    Charlie Stephen

    Anonymous said...

    My try, which may amount to another way of talking about the difference between "stative" and "dynamic" verbs.

    If an action was completed before a second action in the past, we use the past perfect. If the action was not completed, then we use the simple past.

    So:
    I already knew about / wanted to go to/ was dressed for ....

    but:
    I had already heard about / had decided to go to/ had bought a dress for ....

    Brett said...

    @Charlie, I think you're missing the fact that different verbs behave differently, even with before, regardless of wether they're stative or dynamic.

    @Anon, even though you put wanted in the simple past tense, the data shows that to be quite rare.