Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Complex determinatives

[Somewhat edited after Ran's comment]
A colleague asked if the structure of the following phrases was the same:
  1. a group of the students
  2. the groups of students
  3. one of the students
I told her, much to her relief, that I thought [1] and [2] were basically the same, but that [3] was different. She had been discussing this with some PhDs in linguistics who had been arguing that all three were partitive constructions and that what preceded student(s) was a (complex) determiner.

This brought to mind a section from a paper I've been working on, which is reproduced below. Here, I'm discussing the category of determinatives as presented in The Grammar Book 2nd edition by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman.


Questions are treated in chapter 13, which implies at least the following additions: whose, which, what (p. 249)Quantifiers are covered in chapter 17. "Quantifiers can be determiners or when the referent is clear, pronouns" (p. 330). The following list is given: Positivesome, a few, several, a couple of, a little, quite a few, quite a little, (a greatmany, a (good) number of, a lot of, a great deal of, a good deal of, almost all, most, and allNegativenone, no, not any, few, hardly any, scarcely any, little, just a few, only a few, just a little, only a little, not many, not much, not all, many… not, and most… not. Other quantifiers are listed in TGB on pages 277, and 334-335.
Clearly, this list represents a significant expansion on what is considered a determiner by the dictionaries. The inclusion of adverbs such as hardly, just, and not suggest those expressions including them are determiner phrases rather than determiners per se, but it is harder to account for the complex items such as a good deal of and a lot of. [7] Far from being determiners, these items are not even constituents. Rather they are sequences of the form (adj) N of, differing from other combinations like a box of, or a carload of chiefly in that they do not typically dictate subject verb agreement in cases like A lot of students understand the value of a university degree (not *A lot of students understands).
The main reason to believe that they are not constituents is that unlike the core members such as many, every, and this, you cannot remove the following noun and have them stand on their own. Compare:
I ate too much sushi.      à        I ate too much.
I ate a lot of sushi          à        *I ate a lot of.
Moreover, in relative constructions, the of is placed at the front, before the relative pronoun:
a lot of the damage remains unseen      à
the damage, of which a lot remains unseen
It is clear that of is part of the preposition phrase of which, in which case it cannot be part of a complex determiner a lot of. Add to this the fact that these exist in both singular and plural versions (e.g., a lot/lots of), and that they may be internally modified (e.g., very great deal of), and it becomes clear the constructions with couple, number, lot, and deal are simply the structure a (adj) N of.
            Beckner and Bybee (2009) argue that these kinds of chunks often become constituents over time. One could hardly question this claim, given such words as everyone, breakfast, and nonetheless. They further claim that changes are gradual rather than abrupt, which also seems undeniable if we're dealing with language across populations. But the simple observation that some strings become constituents is not evidence for any particular string having done so. In building their case, they take the example of in spite of, which bears some similarity to a lot of, and argue that it has become a compound preposition. In particular, they point out how commonly spite appears in this string: in spite is followed by of in 99.50% of its occurrences in the Corpus of Current American English (Davies, 2008-). It is possible that strings like a lot of, are on their way to lexicalization, but currently a lot is followed by of only 72.12% of the time (Davies, 2008-). They further argue that the meaning of in spite of is far from the original meaning of spite. The same cannot be said of a lot of and lot, in particular the meaning of the plural lots. So, while these are certainly collocations worth bringing students' attention to, they are not yet constituents, and thus, not determiners. In this respect, the dictionaries had it right.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lesson Plan Competition

The TESL Toronto blog has just posted a link to the IATEFL BESIG & Cambridge University Press Lesson plan competition. If you've never commercially published teaching materials and you teach business English, this might be an interesting opportunity to get some recognition.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Different of the people

A number of years ago, when I was still struggling to understand, even at a fairly basic level, what a determinative was, I suspected that different might be one. Not always of course.  Clearly different is usually an adjective. But I had a feeling that it also had a secret life as a determinative. Try as I might, though, I couldn't find any evidence that it was. Until now.

At dinner tonight, my mother was telling an anecdote, and she said "different of the people commented that Marg could be unpleasant." I'm not surprised about Marg--most of us can be unpleasant at times--but I was elated to hear different used that way, and from my own mother nonetheless.

You see, adjectives just can't do that. You can't say happy of the people or good of the shirts. You can't even say brown of the crayons or interesting of the movies. But you can say different of the people. Or, at least, my mom can.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Even you surrender

New Grammarology 2.0 post up at the TESL Toronto site. This time I look at the common misuse of even by English language learners and some interesting properties of focussing adverbs.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The evening/that evening

We just finished reading Salman Rushdie's Luka and the Fire of Life, and the kids and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But just as we were wrapping up, I stumbled in my reading, and that cool evening came out as the cool evening. Those of you who have read the book will know that a small stumble can take you out of one world and into another. In this case, it briefly took me into the world of syntax.

You see, even though, decontextualized, most of us don't see much difference between the evening and that evening, my slip actually made the entire sentence ungrammatical. I'll let you think about what context that might be true in and then explain after the jump.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Feedback on English Accent Coach

A few days ago, I posted about a site called English Accent Coach. I've had a bit of feedback, which I passed on to Ron Thomson. He's given me permission to post it here.

This is very useful info for me. Thanks so much. It will help me build an FAQ page for the site. It also confirms that the best way to make this effective is to really train teachers or better help them to understand the science behind the site as some of these comments reflect common misconceptions about how pronunciation develops – and I wouldn’t expect any teacher to know this. I’ll try answering some of these in turn if it might be of help to teachers/learners.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Kids have trouble with language too

A recent research paper from StatsCan by Miles Corak shines an interesting light on the general assumption that, although immigrant adults from a non-English/French background will struggle with language when the arrive in Canada, their children will just soak it up like sponges. The abstract says,
"The education outcomes of a cohort of immigrants who arrived in Canada as children were examined using the 2006 Census, and it was found that there may be a distinct pattern in the risk of immigrant children graduating from high school according to age at arrival. The risks of not completing high school do not vary according to age at arrival up to about the age of 9, with children arriving after that age appearing to face a distinct and growing increase in the risk that they will not graduate. Children who migrate may face different challenges in attaining high school credentials, according to their age at immigration, as a result of sensitive periods in the acquisition of a second language or the structure of the education system."

Friday, November 04, 2011

English Accent Coach


Ron Thomson at Brock U has put together a  website to help students learn to distinguish between English vowels and consonants. It's currently in Beta, and will be changing a bit in the next few weeks, but it looks quite useful. It's also likely good for TESL students learning about phonology and pronunciation.

It's a game-like interface that plays syllables or words containing target phonemes that have to then be identified. The sound quality is high and the the pronunciations are varied but natural. I would strongly recommend using earphones rather than speakers.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

"Third-person singular voice"

My students have an assignment to summarize a chapter from an introductory textbook in their field, and I recommend that they vet the chapter with me before proceeding. One student brought me Civil Law and Litigation for Paralegals by Neal R. Bevans (McGraw-Hill, 2008), which had the following blurb in the front matter:
"The author has adopted the convention of employing 'he or she' whenever the text demands the use of the third-person singular voice." (p. ix) 

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Love among the participles

Geoff Pullum now blogs at the Chronicle of Higher Education. One of his recent postings brings morphology and romance together. Usually, I endeavour to make English, Jack a value added blog, but I'll let this piece speak for itself.
"I have a true story for you, about a rare participle that brought two hearts together and sparked a romance. You may find a tear welling up as you read this, despite the material about inflectional morphology that you have to wade through first." (Read more)