Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ho Fa Hotel: On the malady of travel

I'm working on a post about editing poetry, but it still needs some work. In the meantime, here's another poem. This is one of my favourites.
Ho Fa Hotel: On the malady of travel

This is the front desk, and behind it is your proprietor’s bed. You will call him, Oldman, or Mr.Blueshirt.

You will give Mr.Blueshirt four days in which to live this life, and in them he will never see rain.

The days are indistinct, like four ripe oranges peeled and sectioned on a white plate. You recollect them oddly: morning, afternoon, evening, night. Compose and recompose them: first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth. The hours and floors do not correspond. They are their own systems of memory.

For example, on the morning of the first floor, Mr.Blueshirt has a book in which you write – what you believe to be – your name. But it’s also morning when Oldman’s key sings into the padlock of door 24 and frees the pierced tongue of the latch. The door yawns.

There’s a moment – standing on the second floor at the shore of this new world – when the room babbles senselessly to you. The moment before the four-legged creature barks chair, or the sharp-winged bird whistles fan. The moment it takes for the far light of the mountains to reach your eyes and mean toilet, and sink. As you move to the bed that is already nothing like a bank of sand, you realise Oldman is gone and it’s nearly dark.

At night, all the hinges lift like moths from the doors of the Ho Fa Hotel and your dreams run amok in the rooms.

On the third floor the rooms are all locked. On the fourth, the doors are boarded over. On each floor but the first, there’s a balcony that looks out over the street, and in the morning the street is busy and Mr.Blueshirt sits in the sun.

There are no other guests at the Ho Fa. Just two strange voices one night behind door 29. In the morning the door is ajar and the wastebasket holds orange peels and stubbed cigarettes.

In the afternoon, beyond the locked door of room 36, there’s a commotion of birds. Through a crack you see flutter of shadows in sunlight.

The fourth day is a final balcony. Sun rising, or setting on the town. You are perched on the rail in the burning light. Two short hops and you burst into flight.

By Michael Eden Reynolds
first published in Grain

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another Poem

Sight is a bird
atop the spine.

Sleep is the twittering
of the closed eye.

There comes a river of fish
caught in dream’s light.

The bird spreads its wings.

Let it be a kingfisher,
to carry this body of dream into memory.

Let it be a tide of swifts in the gathering dusk
to dive like stars into that black cave.
By Michael Eden Reynolds, first published in The Fiddlehead No. 223

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Raising to object

Up until a few days ago, I was under the impression that objects (the grammatical function, rather than the physical entities, though those too I suppose) had to be nouns. Then I ran across an observation in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language which pointed out that PPs can occasionally function as objects as in:
The police considered under the garage a likely hiding place.
It's nice to learn something new, but somehow frustrating at the same time. PPs aren't supposed to do things like that. Now I have to reorganize a bunch of ideas and find other evidence for certain arguments. While my brain was busy doing this, it reasoned that, if PPs can be objects, why not adverbs?
She wanted it done immediately. Looking at the situation, he considered immediately impossible, but said he'd be able to deal with it before lunch.
Adverbs as objects!? I object. But there you are. Apparently this is called raising to object, something I haven't come across before but will now have to find out more about.

The English determinatives

I seem to write about determinatives on this blog more than one might expect. It occurs to me that I've probably never been explicit about what a determinative is. Although the description in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language isn't completely satisfactory, it's the best I've seen and certainly better than what I could come up with.

If all you want is a list, here you are. English has only a small number of standard modern English determinatives. The following is, I believe, a complete list. The items marked with an asterisk also exist as members of other categories. For example, little is usually an adjective, and the numerals are also nouns.
  • a
  • a few
  • a little
  • all*
  • an
  • another
  • any
  • both
  • certain*
  • each
  • either
  • enough
  • every
  • few
  • fewer
  • fewest
  • least*
  • less*
  • little*
  • many
  • more*
  • most*
  • much
  • neither
  • no*
  • none
  • said*
  • several*
  • some
  • such* (Added later in response to Rick S's comment, but see Brett's comment below)
  • sufficient*
  • that
  • the
  • these
  • this
  • those
  • us*
  • we*
  • what*
  • whatever*
  • whatsoever*
  • which
  • whichever
  • you*
  • (all numerals)*
Finally, the combinations every/some/any/no + body/one/thing/where (e.g., everybody) are compound determinatives, not pronouns.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Best posts?

I'm considering pitching a column to The Walrus magazine and they ask that the pitch include writing samples. I figured that I might include some posts from here, but I'm not sure what to include. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ouimet Canyon

My brother has given me permission to publish a few of his poems here. This one, entitled "Ouimet Canyon" was published in a chapbook called Migrations (Linnaea Press, 2001).
A question yawns
the forest bedrock.

Poplar buds hover
like warm breath around the branches.

Record of time and temperature:
how many zeros will it hold?

Welcome: a room in a house anyone
may come to, a room that makes you:

the way that rock was split, awed,
mouth filled with rare plants and meltwater.

Best Canadian Poetry

My brother, Michael Eden Reynolds, has just received notification that Tightrope Press would like to include his poem, "A-Frame", in their forthcoming anthology The Best of Canadian Poetry in English 2008. "A-Frame" was first published in Prism International 45:4.

I've mentioned Michael's poetry before. Slant Room has gone through many revisions, but is now with the publisher in its final form. I'm looking forward to seeing it in print next year.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

There were a question, a reply, and a comment to it ...

... which turned out to be a little too long for a comment, so here it goes.

The construction in question (There is an N and an N) is, I believe, one of those places where the grammar appears to be slightly embarrassed because it doesn't quite know which way to go; or rather, the grammar isn't quite sure why it has done what it just did.

One succinct way of putting it appears in Huddleston 1984:69 (Introduction to the grammar of English):

'... the normal rules of subject-verb agreement do not apply to the there construction: person-number inflection in the verb is shared between there (which is 3rd person singular, like it) and the NP following the VP.'

That is, the verb wants to agree with singular there, while at the same time it also wants to agree with the following NP. In the present case, the following NP is of the 'an N and an N' type, where the presence of 'an N' immediately following the verb swiftly pulls it in the singular direction, deciding the fate of this grammatical tug-of-war. By the time the plurality of the whole NP is drawn to the speaker's (sub?)consciousness, it is too late.

It is a bit tiresome to have this kind of number concord game between there and the following NP each time you say 'There ...', so the growing grammatical tendency is for there to win. It is often said that there's (but not quite there is) is becoming like a grammatical marker to introduce an NP, singular or plural (as in 'There's a lot of nasty people out there, you know.').

Jespersen 1924:155 (The philosophy of grammar) gives a wider view on the matter:

'Whether or not a word like there is used to introduce them [i.e. existential sentences], the verb precedes the subject, and the latter is hardly treated grammatically like a real subject.'

(He then cites Danish and Italian (as well as English) examples to illustrate the point, before further expanding on the issue; quite illuminating. Jespersen is joy to read.)

To sum up, in a there-construction, the verb looks in both ways. When the following NP is clearly and powerfully plural, it wins the number concord game. When it is clearly singular, well, there is no need for a number concord game.

When the following NP is 'an N and an N', there wins, with the help of 'an N' - but the speaker, realising the plurality of 'an N and an N', is sometimes left with a funny feeling: um, what did I just say?

And I love that funny feeling.

Friday, August 08, 2008

There were a question and a reply

Over on the ETJ list, Chris Clancy asked about the following sentences:
  1. There were a decline and an increase in the respective populations...
  2. There was a decline and an increase in the respective populations...
In particular, he wanted to know why someone might mark 1 incorrect in favor of 2.

Existential there is an odd beast which seems to inherit its number from its antecedent except in spoken English where it seems to have recently decided to be a singular pronoun like dummy it, taking 's (e.g., there's two guys standing over there.)

I have no good explanation for what Chris observed, but I have more observations. In a search of Mark Davies's Corpus of Current American English (COCA), the string there were a/an seems to occur almost exclusively in two situations: with irrealis were (e.g., If there were a change...), and followed by quantificational nouns (e.g., there were a couple/dozen/bunch/hundred/awful lot/whole bunch/series etc.). I find but a single obvious instance of coordinated singular nouns following there were a/an: There were a couch and an armchair in what had been the living room, a formulation that strikes me as very odd.

So in answer to Chris's question, I think I would mark the first wrong because English doesn't work that way even though I would expect it to.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Oil-mice and headless nouns

I've been rereading lots of stuff to prepare for the pedagogical grammar course that I'll be teaching for the first time in Sept. It's an introductory course in grammar for Humber's graduate certificate in TESL.

One of the books is Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and one of the topics he examines is irregular plurals and why, in certain situations, they become regular; why, for example, do we say the Toronto Maples Leafs instead of leaves, why low-lifes instead of low-lives, and why Walkmans instead of Walkmen (this was in 1994, long before the iPod, when Walkman's still ruled the portable personal music market).

One of the reasons that he rejects on p. 142 is that "the books are closed on irregular words;" no more will be countenanced. He counters this with the example of oil-mice (a group Chinese peasants who scavenge oil from unprotected wells and a term that doesn't seem to have caught on.)

Having dispensed with this idea, Pinker posits another reason: headlessness.
"A headless word is an exceptional item that, for one reason or another, differs in some property from its rightmost element, the one that it would be based on if it were like ordinary words. A simple example of a headless word is a low-life--not a kind of life at all but a kind of person."
Now, as I said, this was about 14 years ago, so this has probably been pointed out already, but Pinker supplies the example that contravenes his own analysis and doesn't even seem to realise it: oil-mice, a kind of person, not a kind of mouse. In Pinker's theory, oil-mouse is a headless noun and should be pluralised as oil-mouses.

This isn't the first time one of Pinker's examples has come back to bite him. His cute assertion that "no mere mortal has even flown out to center field" was examined on Language Log where Mark Liberman concluded that "
when an actual sportswriter-type human being is writing prose about baseball, at least in the texts indexed by the Google News Archive, more human beings 'flew out to center field' than 'flied out to center field'."

Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Input-output gap

In July we went to France for sightseeing and a wedding. We had a wonderful week and met many kind and interesting people, but the whole time I was rather humbled by my inability to speak French. I suppose it shouldn't really have been much of a surprise, but I must have lulled myself into a false sense of security.

As a child, I attended a full French immersion school from K-5. From grades six to 11 I continued to study French as a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum. So though I have a pretty solid base, it's been about 25 years since I studied French.

With the trip coming up, though, I bought a French grammar and spent some time reading and listening to learning materials. I admit to spending very little time with the grammar, but the reading and listening was remarkably easy, so I assumed that speaking wouldn't be such a big deal.

When we got to Paris, my confidence was boosted when I could understand what I needed to in getting through the airport and to our hotel. But then I tried to speak and everything fell apart. The words that were so easy to understand simply wouldn't come when called upon. And in their place a babble of Japanese vocabulary was fighting to be deployed. Half my attention was taken up simply suppressing my third language.

Even then I wasn't always successful. It took me about four days to begin saying pardon instead of gomennasai to strangers in public.

All in all, this has given me new insight into those students who seem perennially tongue tied and yet manage to pass the reading tests. It is amazing how large the input-output gap in one individual can be. I would guess that my comprehension is about a B2 on the CEFRL, where my output must be at A1.

I suppose the other side of this is my surprise at how many of the French spoke English and how well they spoke it. Before the trip, everyone I spoke to mentioned the French distaste for speaking English, but nowhere was it in evidence during out trip. So there's another gap to be aware of: the stereotype-reality gap.