Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Grammatically Speaking III: On pronoun agreement

Still with the Dec. 2005 column by Richard Firsten, (see also, here and here), we come to the issue of the following sentence:
  • If someone feels that they’ve been unfairly passed over for a promotion, they should speak to their supervisor.
My old professor, Patrick Rosenkjar, at Temple University Japan, is credited with providing the first correct response; to wit, "strictly speaking, in formal situations the sentence you cite is grammatically incorrect because the plural pronouns (they and their) do not agree with their singular antecedent (someone)."

I'm afraid not.

As Mark Liberman writes, "singular they has routinely been used throughout the history of English, by all the best writers, until certain subcases were artificially turned into 'errors' by self-appointed experts. Successively less discriminating pseudo-authorities then generalized the proscription in successively sillier ways, although they have largely been ignored by the users of the language."

Similarly, Merriam Webster's online dictionary has this to say. "The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts."

Firsten still isn't buying it. He says that "strictly speaking" it's wrong. I take this to be based on the single-sense fallacy that often turns up in grammatical prescriptivism (see here). That is, a word has a single meaning and other meanings are wrong. In particular, because they means "two or more people or things that have already been mentioned or are already known about", it couldn't possibly also mean "a person or people of indefinite gender and number." This same argument would hold as ungrammatical it to refer to a person since it is "used to refer to a thing, animal, situation, idea etc that has already been mentioned or is already known about." Remember that every time you identify yourself on the phone.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Grammatically Speaking; Part II

Continuing on from my last post, in the December 2005 Grammatically Speaking column, Richard Firsten provides a number of questionable answers to language teachers' grammar questions. I'll deal with the first here:
"...During the commercial, the voice-over person says "teeth whitening." Shouldn't it be tooth whitening? I find it hard to believe that whoever writes scripts for commercials would make such a glaring grammatical error, but then again, I'm wondering if they have. What do you say?"
Richard is unequivocal in his response. "You’re right; they're wrong; case closed!"

Well, I asked, is there anything wrong with an antiques show? an admissions committee? A Steelers fan? A singles bar? A publications list? Would you really go for "datum bank", "purple person eater", or "arm race"? What is the plural of manservant?

"No," Richard answered. In fact, he had had a paragraph to account for many exceptions to the rule, probably, he said, due to lower frequency of use than something like toothbrush. Blame the editors.

Well, yes and no. I'm glad to see that Richard accepts exceptions, but frequency has nothing to do with it (and couln't you just argue that teeth whitening is low frequency and be done with it?) No, it's a lot more interesting than that. According to Steven Pinker's Words and Rules.
"A simple explanation, based loosely on Kiparsky (1982), might run as follows. Morphological composition of words takes place in several stages. First there is a lexicon of memorized roots, including, according to the word/rule theory, irregular forms. That lexicon supplies the input to rules of regular derivational morphology, which creates complex words (including compounds)out of simple words and morphemes, outputting a stem. Stems are then inputted to a third component, regular inflection, which modifies the word according to its role in the sentence. In simplified form, the architecture of morphology would look like this:
  1. Memorized Roots (including irregulars) -->
  2. Complex word formation -->
  3. Regular inflection
The word mice, stored as a root in the first component, is available as an input to the compounding process in the second component, where it is joined to infested to yield mice-infested. In contrast, rats is not stored as a memorized root in the first component; it is formed from rat by an inflectional rule in the third component, too late to be inputted to the compounding rule in the second. Hence we get rat-infested but not rats-infested. "
This accounts for the roots with irregular plurals (e.g., purple people eater), but what about the regular plurals (e.g., a red rats eater)? Pinker argues that a phrase can be inserted as the first constituent. That is, you have a [red rats] eater rather than a red [rat] eater. He goes on to argue that the plural in expressions like antiques show, admissions committee, and publications list are one-word phrases, built in the first of the three components above. So, if we have this option, when do we choose to make use of it? When, according to Pinker, we want to emphasise the individuality of the publications, etc. You can read all about it, in the chapter, "of mice and men" in Pinker's book Words and Rules.

In the end, as Margaret Atwood writes, "I felt mice-feet of apprehension," when I read Richard Firsten's prohibition. I hate it when people lay down the law when they've just made it up. Why not allow TV copy writers their "teeth whitening"? Because it's wrong. The wordanistas have spoken.

Heading in the wrong direction

Richard Firsten writes a column called "Grammatically Speaking" in Essential Teacher a quarterly TESOL publication. The premise is that English language teachers write in with their grammar questions and Richard answers them.

Although some of his answers are fine, it's not uncommon that he gets it wrong, sometimes shockingly so.

In his most recent column, the first question is why you can say "how good a student he/she is!" but you can't use the same construction with plurals "*How good students they are!"

Richard answers, basically by saying, 'well it doesn't work with plurals,' (more specifically, it works only with countable singulars) which is fair enough. The actual whys behind many of these questions are opaque even to linguists. But it would be helpful to elucidate, pointing out, as the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language does, that you run into the same issue with so/such.

Not so bad! But then he blows it with the next question: [or not. Update: here]
"In the sentence I'm headed for the beach, what part of speech is 'headed'?"

Richard answers in part,
"Some verbs have given birth, so to speak, to adjectival forms that have distanced themselves from the original meaning of the verbs they come from. For example, when you say She's determined to finish the job on schedule or She's very determined, you’re describing the subject, so you can clearly view determined as an adjective. The use of determined in this context doesn't rely on the verb to determine. Similarly, to head for is obviously a verb, but to be headed for can be viewed as an adjectival phrase in that it will describe a person or thing (If the company doesn't change its fiscal policies, it's headed for bankruptcy)."

In "He is Fred" and "He is running", you're also describing the subject, but that doesn't mean there's anything adjectival about them. The test of an adjective is that it share most of the following properties:
-can be graded
-can be modified by 'very'
-can appear both attributively and predicatively
-can appear in a fused head construction (e.g., the *rich* get richer)

All are true for 'determined'.
they're more determined.
they're very determined.
the determined people / they are determined
the determined are hard to beat

All are false for 'headed'.
*they're more headed
*they're very headed
*the headed people / they are headed (for the lake)
*the headed will arrive sooner

Clearly, 'headed' is a verb.

The second part of the question is, "I think that I'm headed for the beach and I'm heading for the beach mean basically the same thing, which is very strange. I can't think of another sentence where you can use the present participle and the past participle and have the meaning be the same."

Richard brings up rumored for some reason I can't seem to fathom (maybe I'm missing something) but doesn't offer any other verbs that follow this pattern. Anyhow I would say that all of the following are at least as similar as the headed/heading pair:
  • When the Northern hemisphere is pointed/pointing towards the Sun, the days are longer,
  • The hemisphere that is tilted/tilting towards the Sun is warmer because sunlight travels more directly to the Earth’s surface
  • Position the hearing aid so that it is faced/facing towards the. sound chamber speaker.
I think now that classes are finished and I'm headed for the holidays, I'll have some more time to blog so you can look forward to a few more posts on the problems with this column.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

No Brizendine on Quirks and Quarks

At the end of the Dec 2 edition of Quirks and Quarks on the CBC, Bob McDonald tells us that next week we can look forward to an interview with Dr. Louann Brizendine. Now, Mark Liberman on Language Log has been telling us all about the problems with Brizendine's book, so I thought I'd urge the Q&Q folks to read his posts.

Flash forward to this week's edition and there's nary a word about Brizendine, her book, or her ideas. It would have been nice to have Q&Q expose the problems rather than just sweeping them under the carpet, but at least they didn't just provide her with another vehicle for her baseless claims.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Abhor a bore

Responding to my letter to the Orangeville Banner about abhor , Don Hayward writes,

Dear Editor,

The English language is a twisted thing as exposed in Doc Reynolds letter of Sept. 26. (Columnist, and many others, misusing abhor.)

His exploration of abhor was enlightening and humbling, but it strikes me that he missed a few points. For instance, abhor is pronounced somewhat like "a bore" once the H has been scared out of it. There is plenty around Dufferin to scare the H out of things, especially in an election year. As well, abhorred should not be confused with similar sounding phrases such as "I have a bored hole in my head." (This to go along with the normal ones already there, I suppose.).

However, lest the condition of my head makes me abhorrent to you, let me quickly change hats. Abhor is the evil twin to adore, something we are all familiar with. For instance, the one who adored us in first year Humber College abhorred us a year later, or vice versa if you ended up married.

Doug, your next assignment is to use the word synergy. That should draw Brett out again. Keep it up guys, my television is broken and these are words worth knowing.

Don Hayward,


It's also a bit like adhere, with a backwards b. Kinda makes you feel unglued.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Quite worthy

My aunt, who I greatly respect and whose company I very much enjoy, and I were hashing out the consequences of Geoff Pullum's latest Language Log post the other night, when somehow we got around to the question of quite.

"Unneeded", my aunt said. "At least in writing. Back when I was editing, I would remove it whenever I encountered it. People asked what we'd put in to replace it, and I would ask them what they put in to replace the cobwebs when they swept them from their corners." (I'm going from memory here.)

I had to disagree.

Brian Garner, in Garner's Modern American Usage elucidates the differences in meaning between British and American uses, but declines to opine on quite's utility despite having no such qualms about other words, such as very, which he describes as
"a weasel word. This intensifier, which functions as both an adjective and an adverb, surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears, its omission would result in at most a negligible loss."
I'm not sure whether Garner actually sees a difference between quite and very, simply hasn't noticed quite, or had reached his word limit for his book. At any rate, to my mind, there is quite a role for quite. As the 405th most common word form in written academic English, clearly it's got something behind it. But maybe that's only the mediocre writers. How about the greats?

Well, Bram Stoker's Dracula has just shy of 100 instances of quite including,
"I begin to get new lights on certain things which have puzzled me. Up to now I never quite knew what Shakespeare meant when he made Hamlet say, "My tablets! Quick, my tablets! 'tis meet that I put it down," etc., For now, feeling as though my own brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end in its undoing, I turn to my diary for repose. The habit of entering accurately must help to soothe me."
Speaking of Shakespeare, the bard thought quite worthy enough to redouble in Hamlet.
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observ’d of all observers,–quite, quite down!
And it is not limited to fiction, Charles Darwin, in laying out the foundations of modern biology, wrote,
"In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species. Nevertheless, such a conclusion, even if well founded, would be unsatisfactory, until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration."
And of course, going through old e-mails from my aunt, I found numerous instances of quite.

So, should it stay or should it go? In my readings, I have certainly found places where quite adds little, but often it conveys something that is lacking without it: degree.

But, if I am wrong, and quite and very are to be ditched, should we not also get rid of all degree qualifiers--altogether, absolutely, completely, entirely, fully, perfectly, thoroughly, totally, utterly and wholly dispose of them? Regardless of how badly we may wish to use them? How bitterly disappointed we might be to see them go? How deeply we would miss them? Or is there a distinction I'm missing? Perhaps this was why Garner just focussed his attack on 'very'; it was bid to weasel his way off the slippery slope.

Many vs. a lot

Over on the ETJ list, Nick M. says that his student was marked wrong for answering "Yes, I have many teachers," to the question, "Do you have many teachers?" Nick wonders if there's some grammar rule that he's missing.

No, grammatically, "I have many teachers" is fine.

Stylistically, however, it is rather stilted, with 'a lot of' being preferred.

Pragmatically, it is both redundant in it's repetition of "(I) have many teachers" and uncooperative in it's failure to provide a shred more information than the surface form of the question requires. A more pragmatically appropriate answer would be something like, "Eight, if you can believe it."

Arnold Zwicky undertakes a quick survey of 'much' vs. 'a lot' over on Language Log. I think the issues around 'many' are quite similar; indeed, Zwicky touches on them in his explorations.

Can you say, "a lot of bunk?"

Over on the ETJ list, a member writes, in part,
I was brought up in a midwest family where "a lot" meant a piece of ground, and not "many". Different generation grammar usage?...

We also learned that "Can I go to the store?" brought the answer "Yes, you can, ...but you may not."
No doubt, the parents thought they were "protecting" the language (or perhaps the children). There is, however, absolutely no grounds for this except the false idea that words have only a single sense. Clearly they don't. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives 31 senses of work and that's just the verb. Lot similarly, if less spectacularly, has a number of common senses; I wonder what the father would have called a parcel of articles offered as one item in an auction? Can, too, has multiple uses, including ability, requests, possibility, and permission.

Merriam Webster's has this to say:
"Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts."
So, is it a generational thing? Only in the sense that younger people rarely think to inflict their linguistic preferences on others. But if the question is whether this has changed, indeed, it has, just not within the lifetime of the father. Lot in the sense of a large number goes back to at least 1812 which is not all that long after it was first attested in the meaning that the father prefers.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Refuting anti-translationist propaganda

Over on the TESL-L mailing list, Mert Bland, Dean of Graduate Studies at CBU (That's Central Buganda University, not Christian Brothers University), is making his same tired claims about vocabulary teaching. One of my responses, which garnered a lot of positive response, is reprised here:

The folks who buy into the anti-memorisationist agenda tend to be the same who hold anti-translationist ideologies. Yet the arguments they marshal in their attempts to rationalise these extreme positions do not bear scrutiny and, to the extent that they are true, can usually be applied equally to learning vocabulary without the L1.

Take, for example, the recent claims by Mert:
"no concept in the the target language is a direct translation of a concept in the native language."

First of all, this is simply false. Admittedly, some words will not overlap well. However, to the extent that any two native speakers of a given language share a common understanding, the meaning of the vast majority of nouns, verbs, and adjectives will be the same in translation. For example, 'book' will have a one-to-one translation in almost every major natural language.

Anti-translationists will say "gotcha! What about book used as a verb, as in 'book him for murder'?"

The *noun* 'book' will have a one-to-one translation.

"Ha!" say the anti-translationists. "My concept of book includes electronic books, while that of pre-industrial hunter-gatherers in the Amazon rainforest does not." To which we calmly reply, "nor does that of my grandfather, though he is a native speaker of English."

Not only is the argument false, but even if one were to imagine it to be true, it is only relevant if we take the position that it is best to fully and accurately specify the meaning of a word when teaching/learning it. Yet, clearly, here, translation does a better job--not the straw-man single-word translation example being bandied about here in the form of English 'leg' to Japanese 'ashi', but the use of the L1 to translate AND explain the word. English synonyms and paraphrases will typically be only as good as, and likely worse than the L1, and are almost sure to be less comprehensible to many learners.

Mert goes on to argue:
We try to bifurcate the languages, completly separate retes. This can't be done if individual vocabulary items are tied together in the two concept clusters.

This takes a very naive view of the brain and attempts to make arguments based on ideas that even neurolinguistic experts are unclear about. It also conveniently ignores the fact that after the teacher spends 10 minutes gesticulating, explaining in English, and searching for props, the students will finally go, "Aha! He means (L1 word)." This activation of the L1 translation is almost certainly automatic and unavoidable in most cases, yet it is just what this teacher was trying to avoid.

Mert also makes the point that "A connection once made is hard to break; these things tend to fossilize."

If this is true, then it is a good reason to make sure the connection is the correct one by using the L1 and not a mistaken guess about what a given pantomime means. If it is false, then there is no reason to think that the gradual changes and refinements of a meaning that accrete with exposure to the word in multiple contexts will be any more difficult if one starts with an L1 connection than if one could somehow begin with a pure, non-linguistic concept.

(Please note that I'm not arguing that teachers should be experts in the L1s of all of their learners, just that they should allow the L1 its place when possible.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Real gone difference

I was somewhat taken aback recently when a disucssion on the ETJ mailing list brought to light the different interpretations of the 's in "Where's my car? It's gone." It turns out that most North American speakers of English interpret this as "My car is gone?" while British speakers tend to parse it as "My car has gone."

In the NA interpretation (and my own), gone is an adjective meaning "to be no longer in a particular place". Furthermore, in NA English, the present perfect construction favoured by the Brits is interpreted to mean that the car itself left, but that's discounted as the car can't leave of its own accord. Strictly speaking, this use of go is not limited to animate agents; yet the agent must at least appear to move on its own. Consider:
  • The mist is gone. (The mist seems to move of its own volition; the wind and sun are unseen.)
  • The pain is gone. (We view pain as an entity which comes and goes.)
  • The bus is gone. (The bus driver is an integral part of the bus and can be expected to be inside.)
The British interpretation takes the verb go to mean disappear, which is indeed the sense that the NAs have of the adjective, but don't accept for the verb.

I wonder how many other contractions are masking interpretations that have gone their separate ways.

Monday, October 16, 2006

No Ojibwe owns a skunk

The linguist Bill Bright, has passed away. While I was reading through some of his talks, I came across the following story about Edward Sapir.
"Examples presented in the grammar should be based as much as possible on naturally occurring utterances, not on strings of morphemes or words which the linguist creates himself, or obtains by direct elicitation from speakers. To whatever extent examples fail to represent natural utterances, they fail to represent the cultural context of the language. Sapir is said to have asked an Ojibwe to say “my skunk, your skunk” etc., in order to test a morphophonemic hypothesis; but the Indian rightly refused , saying “No Ojibwe owns a skunk.” The fact that no Ojibwe owns a skunk is a cultural fact which should not be falsified."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Search terms

I will admit to regularly and vainly checking my blog hit count. Part of the report tells me how you got here. Many users find their way over from Language Log, but it's amazing to me how many of you arrive because you've searched for wake woke woken waked awakened or some combination of the above (which I discussed here). In fact, of the past 25 viewers, fully 1/5 of you came because something has awoken in you a curiosity about these verbs. And this has been going on consistently since mid September when I brought it up.

Who knew woke was such a burning issue?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Asking why

The Toronto Star has been running a series of promotions with the tag line, "ask why". Unfortunately, their misuse of numbers might lead many to ask why they are promoting their inability to explain research results and numbers.

On Saturday, they wrote that "A comparison of seven Ontario municipalities has shown that Torontonians are by far the most diligent recyclers in the province." This could only be true if it had already been established that those seven were the top seven in the province.

Today, the "ask why" promo makes the suspiciously exact yet meaningless assertion that "242 new immigrants call Toronto home." No time period is mentioned.

[They now have corrected the second ad to read "242 new immigrants call Toronto home every day." (my emphasis)]

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

They live in what?

One of my students submitted a rough draft recently with the sentence, "While coffee makers take large profits, coffee farmers must live in extreme puberty."

Probably the Cupertino effect.

(Please, note, my intention here is not to disparage my students, who are writing in a foreign language.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Popular graded readers

And speaking of extensive reading, our department has recently been given a bit of money to expand our catalogue of graded readers, so I asked the library to get me the circulation data on our existing books. Although we have a variety of titles, the top 20 were almost all from the Oxford Bookworms series, and most of them were classics. Here are the top 10 (from most popular to least)
Oliver Twist Dickens, Charles
Sense and sensibility Austen, Jane
Tess of the D'ubervilles Hardy, Thomas
Far from the Madding crowd Hardy, Thomas
Great expectations Dickens, Charles
Wuthering heights Bronte, Emily
Ring, The Smith, Bernard
David Copperfield Dickens, Charles
Little women Alcott, Louisa
Three men in a boat Jerome, Jerome
Of these, only The Ring is not from OUP (it's a Penguin title). The other two in the top 20 that are not OUP are The Client, also Penguin, and Help! from Cambridge.

Anybody care to share their students (or their own) favorites?

Extensive Reading for the budget conscious country

On the Extensive Reading mailing list, Dave Kees floated the idea today that China (or likely any developing country) could use extensive reading exclusively. (Extensive reading (ER) involves reading tens of thousands of words per week in the target language. This is made possible by keeping the difficulty of the material largely within the comprehension level of the reader, usually by controlling the vocabulary of the text.)

Dave suggests that, even if ER weren't quite as effective as using a variety of teaching methods,
"China should think about what the impact would be and the cost savings be (sic) if they gave Comprehensible Input a wholehearted tryout, especially considering the difficulty of many high-maintenance foreign teachers and the trouble, heat and friction of the age-old academic battles between grammar-translationalists and communicative approachers."
If I had all the freedom in the world to set up my ideal program, I don't think I'd go for 100% ER, or even 100% ER with accompanying audio, as Dave is suggesting. Still, if you look at the cost/benefit ratio of French classes in English-speaking Canada or of English classes in Japan, it would be hard to do worse.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Early verbing

In browsing through the journals of the Royal Society, dating from 1665 and now available to all and sundry for FREE online, I came across an article entitled, "An Accompt of D. Paulus Biornonius, Residing in Iceland, Given to Some Philosophical Inquiries Concerning That Country, Formerly Recommended to Him from Hence: The Narrative being in Latine, 'tis Thus English'd by the Publisher"

So there you have it, English as a verb, and from 1674, nonetheless.

And the classic Calvin and Hobbes strip is here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Synesis synchronicity

In a happy coincidence, I randomly opened Garner's usage (which I borrowed from the library to follow up on the existential question of woken up) and found myself looking at the entry for handful (which came up in discussing "treeful of starling"). Garner explains why a handful of (plural noun) commonly takes plural verb agreement even though the subject, handful, is singular, and refers the reader to synesis.

This was a new word for me, but it was a concept that came up back in August, when we looked at there's vs. there are.

So there you go, three posts linked with one word.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

New grammar column in the Globe and Mail

Last Thursday, novelist, fashion writer, and host of CBC Radio's summer language show, "And Sometimes Y", Russell Smith began a new column in the Globe and Mail called On Grammar. In the first week, he takes a pragmatic view on comma usage.
"Fewer commas are being used in contemporary writing. (In technical terms, there has long been a schism between "open punctuation," which uses punctuation only as necessary to prevent misinterpretation, and the more traditional "closed punctuation," which is meticulous in matching every grammatical situation with its appropriate markings. Most magazines use open punctuation now.) This, again, is just a question of modern tastes -- once again, it comes down to aesthetics."
(Thanks to Joe Aversa for pointing this out to me.)

[added Jan 12, 2007: The column has turned out to be rather poor. See here.]

Friday, September 22, 2006

Waked up again

In my gobsmacked amazement at the inaccuracy of the claim that "there is no woken up", it seems that I have misconstrued June Casagrande's intention. She wrote to tell me that the article was not in earnest and that her own feeling about the past participle of wake up is the same as mine. The fault, it seems, lies with Garner's Modern American Usage. Garner writes,
"The following are the preferred declensions:
wake > woke > waked (or woken)
awake > awoke > awaked (or awoken)
awaken > awakened > awakened
wake up > woke up > waked up
...For the past participle, AmE prefers waked; BrE prefers woken."
In his list of irregular verbs, however, he has the order reversed with "wake woke woken (or waked)".

So there it is: it's Garner who gets it wrong, athough not nearly as emphatically as all that.

June also pointed out that I was lax in my own homework. She hasn't started writing a column; the column is established. It is the book that is new. Mea culpa.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

She hasn't waked up

June Casagrande, is author of, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, has started writing and a column in the Burbank Leader. In the most recent, she makes the bizarre claim that the past participle of wake up is waked up and that woken up is wrong. [See clarification here.]
"Yes, you heard me right. Today I wake up. Yesterday I woke up. In the past I have waked up. There is no "woken up." There's a "woken," but it doesn't take an up...What's more, "woken" is really more of a British thing. "Woken," in British English, is the past participle not of "wake up" but of just plain old "wake." But American English prefers "waked.""
Of course, she doesn't explain what she bases this wild claim on (though she implies it's Garner's Modern American Usage), but we can easily check it out. It will be difficult to distinguish between past tense and past participle uses, but since there's "no woken up" at all, that shouldn't matter much. In fact, in the first stop on our data-gathering ex-po-tition, we find that the British National Corpus has 141 instances of woken up and only 1 of waked up. Moving on, the LCD American English Spoken Lexicon (you can get a guest account) has 1 woken up and 0 waked up. That's not a lot of data, but... Finally we come to Google, which is unequivocal: 2,930,000 for woken up versus a mere 170,000 for waked up. Yes, Virginia, there is a woken up after all. Surprise, surprise!

Finally, from The American Heritage Dictionary,
"Regional American dialects vary in the way that certain verbs form their principal parts. Northern dialects seem to favor forms that change the internal vowel in the verb—hence dove for the past tense of dive, and woke for wake: They woke up with a start. Southern dialects, on the other hand, tend to prefer forms that add an –ed to form the past tense and the past participle of these same verbs: The children dived into the swimming hole. The baby waked up early."
In other words, this is just one more mendacious claim by another grammar snob who hasn't done her homework. How predictable!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Word classily

Jan Freeman has a good article explaining that adverbs (e.g. "Think different") aren't turning into adjectives as a result of losing their -ly suffix; many aren't even really losing their -ly endings. They're simply reverting to (or continuing) their prior -lyless life as "flat" (or uninflected) adverbs.

In explaining that adverbs come in many guises, Freeman gives a few examples: soon, indubitably, almost, down, Sunday. It's only here where I would disagree. As the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains, there are good reasons for saying that two of these words are not like the others; two of these words just don't belong. Instead down should be in the preposition camp, while Sunday should go with its fellow nouns.

The CGEL sets out a framework in which words generally belong to a given word class but may have a variety of functions in phrase and clause structure (an approach that is widely used in linguistics). Under such a framework, nouns do not become adjectives simply because they are modifying other nouns (e.g., world war, interest rates, subject area), nor do they become adverbs simply by virtue of the fact that they tell us when something happened (e.g., We have a soccer game Sunday at 2:00 [a common usage in North American English]). In the first case, we have a noun functioning as a modifier. In the second, it is functioning as a temporal adjunct. In other words, Sunday is never an adverb, even in the above example.

The argument for down as a preposition, never an adverb, is somewhat different. In English, words in most classes come in flavours that require a complement and those that don't. Transitive verbs take an object (internal complement), intransitives don't. Adjectives may license prepositional complements (e.g., He's interested in...), or not (e.g., He's tall). Among all the word classes, prepositions alone have traditionally been bumped into another class simply based on the complements that they allow. That is, prepositions licensing noun phrase complements (e.g., She stood before the door) are held to be the one true race of prepositions, while those licensing clausal complements (e.g., She stood before she walked) sublimate into "conjunctions" and the poor buggers with no complement at all (e.g., She had stood before) get assigned to the adverb ghetto.

This is quite unfair and there's no real justification for it; the definition of preposition that has it always followed by a noun is simply begging the question. Far from being the monogamists they've been protrayed as, prepositions are more like grammatical sluts, going out with everything from other prepositions (e.g., out from under...) and adjectives (e.g., on high, for free), to adverbs (e.g., until recently) and interrogative clauses (e.g., we can't agree on whether to have children or not).

In the end, regardless of how classily it conducts itself or who it's hanging with, down is a preposition is a preposition is a preposition.

Talk Like a Pirate Day

This year, along with their traditional posting of the ergonomic keyboard for pirates, Language Log is celebrating Talk Like a Pirate Day with an instructional video from YouTube about how to speak Pirate

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Misunderstanding Tulving

Endel Tulving is featured in an article by Barbara Turnbull in today's Toronto Star. He's a memory reasercher whose studies have had quite an impact on how language teachers teach vocabulary. One of his early findings was that people are more successful at recalling a previously-learned list of words if they could organise them in some way. This has led many language teachers (and materials writers) to conclude that vocabulary should be taught in organised groups of words. That is, rather than learn the words: sector • available • financial • process • specific • principle • estimate at one time, they believe that it is more fruitful to learn, say: research • study • examine • theory • proof • results • conclusion.

The problem with this idea is that it confuses learning a list of known words with learning new words. When you are learning a list, the organisation helps you eliminate many unrelated possibilites and the words can cue each other. Vocabulary learning in a foreign language, however, isn't about learning lists. The purpose is not to recall the set of words that were studied on Tuesday (as opposed to Wednesday's set), but to be able recall an individual word when the situation requires it.

The thing that makes this misunderstanding particularly problematic is that when you bring together ideas that have some kind of categorical connection and try to learn new words for them, the semantic connections can cause the individual concepts to lose distinctness, leading the learner to confuse which word stood for which concept.

Of course, none of this can be blamed on Tulving, who has done much to advance our understanding of memory. Turnbull does overplay things a little. She writes, "little was known about how memory functions when Tulving's first breakthrough came in 1956, with the publication of his paper explaining why repetition helps memory." In fact, Hermann Ebbinghaus published a classic paper on this topic back in 1885. (Actually, I can't find a 1956 paper by Tulving. Can anybody point me to it?)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Plagiarism: where to draw the line

Both teachers and students run into problems identifying plagiarism. When citing someone else, you must either use quotation marks or significantly alter the phrasing of the idea. The problem is with that word, significantly. What does that mean?

Here's an original paragraph followed by a number of hypothetical uses by students extracted from the middle of an essay. The extremes are quite easy to identify, but where do you draw the line between legitimate use and copying?

"There is a good deal of evidence that job opportunities in the United States are polarizing, and that, as a result, the country's future as a middle-class society is in jeopardy. What the decline of the middle class would mean to the country can only be guessed at, but it presumably would be unwelcome to the millions of parents who hope that their children can move up the economic ladder; to American business, which needs a middle class to consume its products; and to everyone who is concerned about fairness and social harmony."
by Bob Kuttner, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1983

Sample A (limited lexical substitution)
Kuttner (1983) argues that there is a lot of evidence that job chances in the United States are polarizing, so the country's future as a middle-class society may be hurt. What the decrease of the middle class would mean to the country is unclear, but it probably would be unwelcome to the millions of adults who hope that their children can move up economically; to American business, which needs a middle class to buy its products; and to everyone who is worried about fairness and social harmony.
Sample B (increasing lexical substitution; limited deletion)
Kuttner (1983) argues that there is a lot of support for the idea that jobs in the United States are splitting into high-paying and low-paying jobs, so its future as a middle-class country may be hurt. What the decrease of the middle class would mean is unclear, but it probably would not be welcome to American adults who want their children to have a good job; to companies, which need a middle class to buy what they make; and to people who want justice and no social problems.
Sample C (extensive lexical substitution; limited deletion; limited structural change)
Kuttner (1983) argues that jobs in the United States are splitting into high-paying and low-paying jobs. Consequently, the country may lose its middle-class. The result of this is unclear, but most American adults who want their children to have a good job would be unhappy about it, as would companies, who would lose customers, and people who want justice and no social problems.
Sample D (extensive lexical and structural changes, limited quotation)
Claiming that there is good reason to believe that the difference between high- and low-paying U.S. jobs is increasing, Kuttner (1983) argues, “the country's future as a middle-class society is in jeopardy.” We can only imagine what effect this will have, but concerned groups would likely include parents, worried about their children’s future careers, businesses, worried about loss of customers, and others worried about loss of social equity.
Sample E (extensive deletion and lexical substitution; some structural change)
Kuttner (1983) argues that America is losing its middle class and claims that although we don’t know what the effect of this will be, it seems likely to be negative for everyone from business to low-income parents.

Microsoft to patent verb conjugation

John Sowa, on the Corpora mailing list writes, "If anybody has been deriving the infinitive of a verb from a finite form, you may be violating a recent patent application by Microsoft. (However, I suspect that there may be prior art.)"

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Exercise type and L2 vocabulary retention

Keith Folse has published a tidy study in the most recent TESOL Quarterly. Here's the abstract:
The present study used a within-subjects design to examine the effect of the type of written exercise on L2 vocabulary retention. Using input for the meaning and usage of the new words from a specially prepared minidictionary, university intensive English program students (n = 154) practiced target vocabulary in three types of written exercises conditions: one fill-in-the-blank exercise, three fill-in-the-blank exercises, and one original-sentence-writing exercise. An unannounced posttest using a modified version of the vocabulary knowledge scale tested the meaning of the word (L1 translation or L2 synonym) and usage of the word in a student-written sentence. A repeated measures ANOVA revealed that mean scores for the three exercise types were significantly different from each other, with words practiced under the three fill-in-the-blank exercises condition retained much better than those practiced under either of the other two exercise conditions. The findings suggest the important feature of a given L2 vocabulary exercise is not depth of word processing but number of word retrievals required. This result has implications for language teachers, curriculum designers, and, in particular, materials writers of traditional workbooks and CALL materials.
He's done a few things particularly nicely.
  1. He was very rigorous in the selection of target words. All were verbs; initial letters and syllable count were held constant across groups; cognates and known words were eliminated through pretesting; frequency was considered; and morphological affixes that might hint at meaning were avoided.
  2. He's been very clear in his procedure such that replication should be quite easy.
  3. He's controlled for time on task.
  4. He's gathered data on any out-of-class learning that might have happened beween the pre- and post-tests.
One minor quibble is the use of ANOVA with a non-linear scoring system. He used a system where students got 1 point for an accurate synonym, definition, or L1 translation, and two points if they could also use it correctly in a meaningful sentence. Under such a system, a student who could do the first part for two words is deemed to be equivalent to a student who can do the second part, but only for one word. However, the results are almost the same if you use a 0 or 1 scoring system.

More target words would have been nice; only 15 were used.

The major problem I see with the study is the lack of a delayed post-test. I would be surprised to see the effectiveness of sentence writing and blank filling flip flop a month down the road, but the differences seem likely to be smaller.

Despite that, given the relative ease of creating and checking blank-fill activities, this is a study I'll keep in mind, especially if I get to work on any computer-based vocabulary study software.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

treeful of starling

Hawksley Workman's new album title "Treeful of Starling" is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is the anarthrous use of treeful. Compare A Treeful of Pigs by Arnold Lobel.

The second is treeful itself. It's a lovely unit of measurement, quite vague but at the same time strangely intuitive, especially when applied to birds (as opposed to pigs). The -ful suffix is prolific in making adjectives, but rather unproductive when it comes to noun creation. We have handful, mouthful, spoonful, fistful, and armful. But then plateful, hatful, skinful, and houseful (all attested in the BNC) are stretching it a bit for me. Indeed, "handful of" is almost 70 times as common as "hand full of", while "houseful of" gets only 1/5th the hits that "house full of" gets.

Here, I think I expected "tree full of" rather than "treeful of", (compare, "a house empty of people" or "a sky void of stars"). But by selecting the unit of measurement, treeful, Workman has shifted attention to the next noun, starling. Appropriately, starling is treated here as an uncountable sense of the noun. Many nouns can be recruited into this role. Even for something as intuitively countable as pencil we can say, "with all this sharpening, I'm running out of pencil." This is especially common for food. It's appropriate here because when you measure the volume of something, it tends to be amorphous stuff rather than individual units. In other words, the tree is full of an undifferentiated mass of birdsong, fluttering wings, and dark metallic sheen rather than a bunch of individual starlings.

I did wonder if there could be a common uninflected plural of starling in the way that there is for fish, sheep or moose. Not according to any of the dictionaries I checked. The BNC also turns up only one instance of starling used this way. Notice, however, the plural s on the first instance, suggesting this is likely just a typo.
"bad spells are, every day, likely to be shorter. Blackbirds and starlings Where (sic) until two years ago, the scattering of currants near the door was eagerly awaited by a clamouring mix of blackbirds, starling, robins and a songthrush or two, lately there has been almost an indifference to the largesse. The birds are still around, but remain largely aloof in the bushes."
-The Alton Herald. Farnham, Surrey: Farnham Castle Newspapers Ltd, 1992,

Finally, *ful of x seems to be a fairly common frame for titles. We've already had Lobel's A Treeful of Pigs. There's also:
  • Hatful of Hollow, an album by the Smiths
  • Fistful of Dollars, a movie staring Clint Eastwood
  • A Treeful of Owls, a short story by Henry Beach Needham
  • A Saucerful of Secrets, an album by Pink Floyd
(The first two also with the anarthrous *ful.)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Giving however its due

In her book, Teaching Academic ESL Writing, Eli Hinkel arguest that teachers of English for academic purposes (EAP) often overemphasise the use of connectives, such as however in writing classes.

In fact, I think many writing teachers do spend some time talking about "linking words and expressions". This is a problem, according to Hinkel, because such expressions are actually relatively unusual in academic writing. On p. 293 she gets specific and, citing the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, claims that however occurs at a rate of only 0.10% per million words (i.e., 1 per 100 million words) in academic text. This would be rather upsetting to many writing teachers if it were true.

Fortunately, Hinkel is simply wrong. In LGSWE on p. 887, there is a figure entitled, "most common linking adverbials in conversation and academic prose; occurrences per million words" which has however at a rate of over 1,100 times per million words in academic text. When I pointed this out to her, Hinkel refered me to a figure on p. 562, but this also contradicts her claims. According to a note on p. 561, it includes only those adverbs occurring at least 200 times per million words, and the legend shows that the mark beside however means "occurring over 1,000 times per million words". In fact, a quick check of the BNC academic sub-corpus (using VIEW) has however at 1,216.62 occurrences per million words, making it the 68th most common token in that section of the corpus. This is many orders of magnitude larger than Hinkel's claim of 0.10% per million words and stands in striking contrast to her assertion that "sentence transitions are actually not common at all."

When I pointed this out to her, her response was merely, "Biber's table could be more specific."

VIEWing lemmas (soon?)

In a recent e-mail, Mark Davies says that he might soon have time to implement search-by-lemma in his wonderful VIEW interface for the British National Corpus. (He's already implemented it for O CORPUS DO PORTUGUÊS). I asked him if he knew about Paul Nation's concept of "word families" and he said that he had actually done a fair bit of work with them and promised to add search-by-word-family to the wish list, too.

If you're at a university that has a linguistics department, you likely have local access to the BNC anyhow, but for college teachers and everyone else in the world, VIEW is by far the best tool I've found for BNC queries.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Limits of Language

Geoffrey Pullum recommended Limits of Language by Mikael Parkvall a few months ago and I'm passing on the recommendation. My own copy arrived safely directly from the publisher in Sri Lanka. It's a lot of fun, and, as the South Hanoi Evening Post might have said, "Â phâking gũđ rìđ."

It's "almost everything you didn't know you didn't know about language and languages." If you are ever in the position to teach a class on language or linguistics, this book will give you all the quirky facts you need to hook even the least interested student (well, maybe). Even if you're never in such a position, you can't help but be charmed by observations such as:
  • Languages with a small vowel inventory tend to be spoken more loudly than those with more vowels.
  • The Kipeá language of South America has a noun class that "is used for words denoting hills, dishes, stools and foreheads."
  • "The Peruvian language Capanahua uses multiple negators in an unusual way with demonstratives. While haa means 'he', haama, logically enough, means 'not he'. But Capanahua takes this even further, and so, haamama is 'not not he', that is, 'he indeed'. Finally, haamamama, or 'not not not he' referes to 'someone else'.
And, finally, since this is English, Jack, I'll point out the entry entitled "¿Habla usted Phrase-bookish?", which gives, as "the world's worst phrasebook" English as she is spoke (which, by the way, provides the inspiration for our tagline, Jack). This Portugese-English phrasebook instructs the naïve Brazilian on when to say:
  • Let us prick.
  • That which fell one's snotly blow blow one's nose.
  • I have mind to vomit.
Who could travel without it?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Extensive Reading Foundation Awards

The Extensive Reading Foundation announced the winners of the 2006 Language Learner Literature Award a couple of days ago. Read more here.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

What's OK?

Exactly a month ago, J. Wilder asked the following on the ETJ mailing list:
"Looking for a succinct, all-encompassing answer to the question what's the difference between 'That's okay' and 'It's okay'?"
In most of the instances that I could find, they seem interchangeable. There are just a few where it doesn't seem to work. For one thing, if I have done something that you think is wrong or something has happened to me, and I'm trying to reassure you that nothing is wrong, "that's OK" doesn't work. On the other hand, "it's OK" doesn't work in the following situations:
  1. Could you zip through my letter and see if it's OK?
  2. It's just one of those things. It's OK.
(Note, replacing that with this doesn't fix the problems.) My first thought was that it would be a difference between endophora and exophora, but I don't think this is true since both seem to work when there is an antecedent and both when the referent is external to the words of the conversation.

In fact, I don't think I could consistently explain why it or that is prefered in a variety of situations.

Anybody able to help out?

the long and short

A particluarly lengthy letter to the editor in today's paper reminded me of the letters in the Bangkok Post. In the early 90s, when I was in Thailand, it was my paper of choice (the only English-language alternative being the Hairy Trib, which was far too expensive for my backpacking budget). Commonly, the letters to the editor would run longer than feature articles. I determined to send them a pithy post on the subject, but was stuck between two options: "Shorter letters please." and "Shorter letters, please." While the first was the shorter of the two, there were simply no short letters to please anyone, so I opted for the second, which the Post printed the following week and then reprised at the end of the year.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Abhorrent big words

Doug Harkness, writing his "On Politics" column in the local paper produced the following:
"When I began helping out with a local hockey team for athletes with developmental challenges a few years back I must admit that I had no prior experience in dealing with people with autism. Rather than fearing the unknown I made it my business to find out all that I could. I will admit that while I am still a long way from being an expert on autism I know enough to have been abhorred when I read a story in the cross town paper about some residents who didn't really want a group home for autistic adults in their neighbourhood."
Indeed, if you know enough stuff, you're quite likely to be abhorred by someone. But apparently, Doug doesn't know the meaning of abhor. Then again, neither does Ken Epp, and he's a Member of Parliament. The Hansard for 2002 has Ken saying,
"Mr. Speaker, we in Canada have a rich and wealthy heritage in our youth. It is incumbent on governments at all levels, but particularly at the federal level, of ensuring that education is available to students of all financial ability. I am abhorred by the fact that some students have a lot of mental ability and the motivation but lack the money and are deprived of a necessary education."
Ignoring for the moment "incumbent... of ensuring", here again we have abhorred used to mean dismayed, upset or angered. But wait; there's more! The obligatory google search turns up over 5,000 hits for "abhorred by the fact", which indicates that Doug and Ken are far from alone in being objects of loathing for facts, ideas, and all sorts of inanimate nouns.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

CAJLE conference

If you're in Toronto this weekend, and the first two things on your agenda don't pan out, and if you speak Japanese, you might stop by the conference of the Canadian Association for Japanese Language Education at the Japan Foundation.

I'll be presenting rather briefly at 11:45 on Saturday, along with Teruko Harada and Mihoko Yamagata about the Japanese Graded Readers Project, a project to develop leveled book-length literature in Japanese for leaners of Japanese.

(I appear to be the only presenter in the program whose name had to be in katakana, and my formal Japanese is a bit rusty, so I'm sweating a little.)

The Solid Form of Language

Back from the cottage again. My brother gave me a copy of The Solid Form of Language, a very handsome book by Robert Bringhurst, “poet, linguist, and typographer. His manual The Elements of Typographic Style has become one of the most influential contemporary texts on typographic design.” It’s a lovely Smyth-sewn paperback with a handsome cover of handmade paper.

The book is short (which makes it good for reading when I’m in charge of the two kids) and touches very briefly on a host of scripts and the variety of languages that employ them, occasionally going into some depth, but more often just exemplifying. Those parts that I found most interesting and that related to English were a discussion of the use of italics in Latin scripts and a taxonomy of script capabilities.
"Only a few systems of writing – Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian – have developed bicameral form, but every script that is heavily used develops multiple styles… This has happened with the brittle and fluid forms of the Latin lower case, which are known as roman and italic. Latin script is unusual, however, in the intimate way it has come to exploit the differences between the two."
Apparently this began in the 16th century with mathematical notation and then expanded to indicate the names of ships, books, and foreign languages.

(Japanese is one of the few scripts that does something similar, except that it does it the other way round, with the cursive ひらがな (hiragana) script being the standard and the angular カタカナ (katakana) script being used for foreign words, among other things.)

Bringhurst introduces his 4-way taxonomy of script capabilities late in the book. Where DeFrancis and others tend to classify scripts as logographic, syllabic or alphabetic, Bringhurst has semographic, syllabic, alphabetic, and prosodic. Standard staff-music notation would be an example of prosodic script, as would most English punctuation. Bringhurst wisely allows for a given language to employ a script or scripts that fall into more than one category. For example, English recruits the semographic Arabic numerals, prosodic punctuation, and alphabetic Latin scripts. In fact, he points out that Latin script can be syllabic, as in FBI, or semographic, as in MMVI (which, BTW, doesn’t seem nearly as grand as MCMLXXXIV or other late 20th century dates).

Sunday, August 20, 2006

there's two

Eric Bakovic is looking at semantic and syntactic number with minority and majority. One of the example sentences he brings up begins with there's. The problem with this example is that it's throwing an extra twist into the mix. There's (only the contracted form) agrees with plural nouns more commonly than there are does, at least in spoken British English (I don't have North America data).

Verb agreement is one of the first things that ESL students are usually taught and teachers are regularly exasperated when they don't get it right. In fact, most teachers (myself included) don't really understand the whole system themselves.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Frequency and collocations

I'd love to say that my post about word frequency generated a great deal of discussion, but with only about 9 people viewing the blog each day so far--that's OK, it's still in its infancy--I'm happy when I do get the rare comment. At any rate, last summer, there was quite a bit of debate on the TESL-L mailing list about collocations and frequency.

According to Wikipedia, "collocation is defined as a sequence of words or terms which co-occur more often than would be expected by chance." For example, heavy smoker is a collocation (notice, we could say *strong smoker or *great smoker, but we generally don't.)

Back in 1993, Michael Lewis published The Lexical Approach, a book that has been rather influential in TESL circles, in which he pushes a view that has teachers designing and using activities to bring students attention to specific collocations. It has students recording, working with and studying these collocations. In the TESL-L discussion, I argued that this view was both unworkable and unprofitable, mainly because of the low frequency of collocations.

While language learners can build knowledge of collocations through extensive reading and listening, this is not something that we can do effectively by design in the classroom.

A few years ago, I looked at vocabulary in a reading textbook series that our program uses, Interactions. I ignored the most common 1,000 word families (from the GSL) because most of our students know these when they enter the program, but looked at the second thousand most common words and the 560 words of Averil Coxhead's Academic Word List (AWL) (using Tom Cobb's Compleat Lexical Tutor site). I found that, in Interactions 1 Reading and Interactions 2 Reading combined, 60% of these word families appeared less than four time, with singletons being the largest group. Only 24% of word families were repeated more than 7 times. Given this low repetition for individual word families in textbooks, it's clear that there are VERY few collocations that will turn up more than once. And that's over two successive 16-week courses. If they don't recur, students are very unlikely to pick them up.

So what if you deal with them out of context? The problem is that there are simply too many. If you teach strong wind as one poster to TESL-L suggested, then shouldn't you also teach wind's more common collocates: rain, blow, cold, speed, gone, and through (according to Collins COBUILD Corpus Concordance Sampler). That's seven. So, if we're looking at the top 2,000 words in English, and we estimate that there are an average of 3 collocates each that are as strong as strong wind, that's 6,000 collocates (minus whatever mutual collocates there are). There's simply no way you could spend class time on more than a fraction.

Even if you did focus entirely on collocation, the payback would be minimal. If we can take the British National Corpus (BNC) as being representative of English as a whole, then the strong wind collocation occurs a mere 3.06 times per million words (strong within 4 words either side of wind(s)). In contrast, a "difficult" word like compromise (which is not even in the top 2,000 words of English) occurs singly 10 times more often. So, is it more worthwhile to enrich students' understanding of wind by looking at collocates, or to have students study a basic meaning for compromise? Wouldn't "big wind" or "heavy wind" get them by just fine?

Here are a few things for teachers to keep in mind when they consider teaching collocations:
  • many collocations are obvious and require no teaching (e.g., look out the window; read/write/publish a book).
  • many collocations are too specialised to bother teaching to moststudents (e.g., insolvency act)
  • most collocations are too infrequent to bother teaching (e.g., rancid butter; a glimmer of hope)
  • individual words are often far more frequent than even a strong collocation, so keep things in perspective
For the times, however, when you do want to know about specific collocations (and there are good reasons for teachers to pay attention to these, even if they don't "teach" them in class, the most user-friendly way to find collocations that I know of is Just The Word.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

What's the frequency, Jack?

Frequency information can be a great boon to language learners. If I were going to learn Spanish, for example, I'd want to know the most common, say, 500 words, at least for starters. But this information isn't always easy for language learners to access. In fact, it's often pretty difficult for linguists to compile.

To begin with, there's the question of what consititutes a word. Are jump, jumps, and jumped one word or three? Is jump (the action of propelling yourself up into the air) the same word as the barrier that you hurl yourself over or the ramp that you ski off? What about jumper (a person who jumps) or jumper (a sweater or a pinafore, depending on if you're GBish or USian). How many words do we have now?

Next is the problem of deciding what a representative corpus of the language would look like. Do we look at only spoken language, only written or both (if both, in what ratio)? Do we include only language produced after a certain time: perhaps, 1980? Do we inlcude only certain flavours of English (Australian or Canadian)? What genres do we include? If it's spoken, can it be scripted or must it be spontaneous? And how big must our corpus be? Clearly a corpus of a mere hundred words would be of almost no help at all, but is a million words enough? What about 500 million?

Another large problem is simply going about actually counting all this stuff. What we need is a machine like the one in Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book with balls that drop and a chap who counts them. Unfortunately, what we have is humans and computers. Humans are smart and, given the right instructions, can usually do a fairly reliable job of dealing with the question of what a word is. Unfortunately, we have short attention spans and are much slower than computers.

Some early frequency counts in English were done by humans, for example Michael West's A General Service List of English Words (Longman, Harlow, Essex, 1953). But most recent counts are done by computers, they being great at this kind of tedious taks. Unfortunately, they have serious problems deciding what a word is (see, jump, above). They also don't deal with spelling mistakes, or spoken language very well (though they're getting better at that).

This becomes even more difficult where you're dealing with a language, such as Japanese, which doesn't have spaces between the words, and for which it's legal (though often non-standard) to write words in a variety of ways. For example, the following are all the same word (hikkoshi = move house): 引っ越し, 引越し, 引越, 引っ越, ひっこし, and each of them has at least 300,000 google hits. This was a huge problem for me when I was compiling a corpus for a series of Japanese graded readers, about which I'm presenting later next week at the CAJLE conference in Toronto, but that's another posting for another time.

Many people have attacked these problems from different angles. For English, some of most useful results are:
  1. Word Frequencies in Written and Spoken English by Geoffrey Leech, Paul Rayson, Andrew Wilson
  2. The Academic Word List by Averil Coxhead
  3. The BNC word family lists by Paul Nation
I should also mention Tom Cobb's wonderful Compleat Lexical Tutor, which provides tools based on frequency counts for English and French.

For other languages, Routledge has recently begun releasing frequency dictionaries. Those currently available include a Spanish one by Mark Davies (Series editor, along with Paul Rayson, and designer of VIEW).

Saturday, August 12, 2006

No future tense? Nonsense!

That's the typical reaction I get when I try to explain that English has no future tense. Perhaps the reasoning is similar to that which lead Ann-Marie MacDonald to write that "the present tense will reign"; People tend to conflate tense and time.

But it's not just this misunderstanding. A future tense seems to be some kind of mark of pride. Being told that your language doesn't have one often brings out Chauvinistic zeal in everyone from English teachers to students from Japan, Korea, Turkey, Finland, or Arab-speaking countries. "Of course we have a future tense," they say. In fact, the only group of students I've come across who have no problem with the idea seems to be Chinese students, who actually tend to be rather proud that Chinese has no tenses at all. (Of course, many languages, such as Spanish, do have a future tense.)

But getting back to English, ESL teachers and our materials are almost unanimous in their agreement that will and (be) going to are (is?) the future tense, despite decades of linguistic analysis telling them otherwise. Yet, it makes far more sense to teach will as one of the nine modals rather than teaching modals and then treating will separately as a tense. Similarly, there's nothing special about the going to idiom, which acts almost exactly the same as planning to, hoping to, intending to, etc. From there, it's a short hop, skip, and a jump to the idea that the present tense is often used to talk about future events, and that the past tense has meanings other than past time.

Perhaps someday there will be a pedagogic ESL grammar series with no future-tense nonsense.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Getting all tense about tense

We just came back from four days up at the cottage. Between putting worms on hooks, preparing meals, swimming, and drying off children, I managed to do some reading. I had just started The Way the Crow Flies when I came across the following passage.
"...everything about an air force station is new. And it will stay that way for its entire operational life...The families in the PMQs will always seem like the first families to move in, they will always have young children of about the same age. Only the trees will change, grow. Like reruns on television, an air force station never grows old. It remains in the present. Until the last flypast. Then it is demobilized, decommissioned, deconsecrated. It is sold off and all the aging, the buildup of time that was never apparent, will suddenly be upon it. It will fade like the face of an old child. Weeds, peeling paint, decaying big-eyed bungalows...
But until that happens, the present tense will reign."
Leaving aside the issues of "coordinating conjunctions" and "comma splices", neither of which bothered me, the use of the word tense in the last sentence stuck in my craw. Why tense?

Indeed, tense is related to time, but tense is purely a grammatical issue and I don't think Ann-Marie MacDonald intended to say anything about grammar, did she? Is this an instance of linguification? Is MacDonald claiming that the majority of the finite verbs used on the station will be in the present tense1, but that that will change once it's decommissioned?

I expect, having used, "It remains in the present" a few lines ealier, MacDonald was merely looking for some stylistic variation, but I wish she hadn't gone for tense.

But perhaps I'm being overly pedantic. It seems that, for most English speakers, tense just means something like, "verb form". When The New York Times thinks there is a conditional tense and The Economist thinks there's a passive one, perhaps that's what tense actually means. When ESL teachers sit around in a meeting discussing how many tenses to cover in a semester (English only has two or three), perhaps we need to accept that using tense to mean a grammatical form that is primarily used to locate a verb in time is technical jargon. And if MacDonald wants to use it to mean time in a novel, why not?

[1] Likely true; the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English tells us that, "conversation and academic prose alike show a strong preference for present tense forms.")

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

More myths and confusion

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman, commenting on my FANBOYS posting, writes,
Brett Reynolds' post on FANBOYS observes that lists and hierarchies of this kind are "myths" that "[give] the faithful a comfortingly simple handhold in a confusing world". I'm sure that this is true -- but such myths can be confusing and even disturbing, not comforting, for those who think about them too seriously.
Indeed, I found myself very confused when I first started college teaching, and it's not just lists and hierarchies. Many staples of the curriculum simply made no sense to me: "extended paragraphs", mandatory topic sentences, concluding sentences for every paragraph, a grading system that deducted points for every error (as if you could count them), etc. It took me over two years, a lot of conversations, and good deal of reading to feel confident enough to assert that the curriculum is the problem, rather than my understanding of English, writing, and students' needs.

Monday, July 31, 2006

S&M Cafe

In Kayama, Odawara, Japan, where my inlaws live, you can find a coffee shop with a large outdoor sign that reads, "Coffee, Cakes, and Pain." Ouch!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Part: Noun.

Well, it seems that my fancy about part being a determinative was just that. In an e-mail, John Payne pointed me to the discussion of half in the CGEL, where he and Rodney Huddleston argue that half and other fractions are nouns. As evidence, they remind us that they can be plural and can take a determiner, two key properties of nouns. Indeed, the same thing is true of part.

1. It's part table and part desk.
1b. He's one part father and two parts geek.
2. Part of the money is gone.
2b. This part of the picture is missing.

Geoffrey Pullum, in another mail writes,
(Part) participates in a number of idiomatic constructions with anarthrous nominals: compare "part man, part animal" with "step by step" or "bog Irish" or "cap in hand" or "hand on heart" or "foot in mouth" or "weather permitting" (etc. etc.): there are hundreds of special phrases in which nouns that normally need an article don't have them.
Finally, Rodney Huddleston takes it further, arguing that, despite what some dictionaries (e.g., the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English) say, part is still a noun, even when it modifies an adjective or verb as in:

3. The object was part hidden by the grass.
Note that NPs can function as adjunct in clause structure, as in "I saw her THIS MORNING", and we argue that this holds for single word NPs too, as in "I saw her YESTERDAY". There's no more reason for assigning yesterday to different CATEGORIES in this and "Yesterday was completely wasted" than there is for assigning this morning to different categories in the corresponding examples where it replaces yesterday.
So, it looks like part is just a noun, albeit one that can appear in quite a range of functions, except, I suppose, when it's a verb. Too bad so many dictionaries have only got it part right.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Part determinative?

I was adding entries to the Simple English Wiktionary (good practice for English teachers and students alike), and part was the next word on my list. As I put in example sentences, it occurred to me that part was acting very much like a determinative[1]. Consider these examples:

1. It's part table and part desk.
2. Part of the money is gone.
3. I gave them $10 in part payment.

However, it doesn’t work in:
4. *Part money is missing.
5. *Part the money is missing.

which is the normal place for a determinative to work. So what do you think? Obviously, part is a noun, but is it also a determinative?

[1] The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language uses determinative for a word class, and determiner for the role in phrase structure.

The myth of FANBOYS

Two recent threads on Language Log, word classes and style guides, brought to mind one thing that baffled me when I began college teaching: FANBOYS. The first time I walked into our writing centre, I noticed that FANBOYS was pasted in large letters across one wall. While many readers may be familiar with FANBOYS, I'd never heard of them, but according to many freshman writing textbooks, FANBOYS is a mnemonic for the co-ordinating conjunctions in English (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, & so). Many style guides go so far as to state that when one of the FANBOYS is used to join two independent clauses, it must be preceded by a comma.

Of course, FANBOYS, as articulated above, is a myth. It is a myth in the sense that it is a fiction created to deal with a uncertain world in a simple way. It’s a myth in the sense that it is a belief that is shared by members of a certain community and, to a certain extent, identifies that community, the community being college composition teachers and their students (insomuch as each individual buys into the myth.) It’s a myth in the sense that it has taken on great import among the community of believers. And finally, it’s a myth in the sense it can serve a gate-keeping function, preserving power for those who know or “understand” it and denying it to those who don’t.

As the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains, only and, but, and or are prototypical coordinators, while nor is very close. So and yet share more properties with conjunctive adverbs (e.g., however), and "for...lack(s) most of the properties distinguishing prototypical coordinators from prepositions with clausal complements" (p. 1321). Furthermore, there are other ways to coordinate independent clauses in English.

So, where did this myth come from? Perhaps some influential author, reflecting their own personal preference, wrote something like: Where a clause is followed by a coordinator and a clause that could be either dependent or independent, a comma before the coordinator signals that the second clause is independent[1]. This very limited observation could then have been over generalised. Yet, how one arrives at FANBOYS as a list of coordinators is difficult to imagine.

Whatever its origin, the myth, once established, seems to have become part of teacher lore and been propagated through other usage and writing books, their authors copying slavishly from those that came before[2]. The reason for its staying power is clear: like any good myth, it gives the faithful a comfortingly simple handhold in a confusing world—in this case, that of composition. To paraphrase Knoblauch and Brannon in Rhetorical Traditions and the Teaching of Writing, it is extremely hard to teach students to be good writers; it is much easier to teach them the myth of FANBOYS.

In talking to many writing teachers, I have found that the majority of them, despite many years of post-secondary education, often leading to post-graduate degrees, were unaware of the myth of FANBOYS until they began teaching college composition. In a number of cases, they have told me that this led to a certain amount of anxiety. They wondered how they could have missed this rule. However, as they became acculturated into the college composition teaching culture, they internalized the myth and now many believe it to be both true and important for their students to learn. And so it goes...

[Update: March 2, 2012. An expanded version of this post is now available through the TESL Canada Journal.]

[1] Consider the change in meaning caused by the insertion of a comma before and in Karla Homolka’s post-prison statement in a Radio Canada interview, “I don’t want people to think I am dangerous and I’m going to do something to their children.” (July 5, 2005)

[2] In one example of such unthinking writing, Wong (2002) states, “each of the following coordinating conjunctions can link words, phrases, and clauses in parallel structures… and but for nor or so yet” (p. 365). So what individual words (that are not clauses) can be coordinated by so or for?