Friday, March 20, 2009

Grammatically Speaking incoherent

Richard Firsten continues to provide questionable answers to grammar question in his "Grammatically speaking" column for TESOL . I must say, I'm disheartened that nobody in the editorial department there seems to have cottoned on to it yet. This time around there are enough problems that we're going to have to break things out into multiple posts.

We'll begin with the following question: is the -ing word in this sentence a present participle or a gerund?
He was famous for consistently picking stocks that gave high returns.
Firsten answers,
"What gives this away as a present participle and not a gerund is the word consistently. A gerund is like the noun form of a verb, so if it's preceded by nothing at all or by an adjective, we can see that it's a gerund, working as a noun."
Amid the confusion here, there are two useful hints. Adjectives do not modify verbs and adverbs do not modify nouns. So if your choice is between a word being a noun and a verb, and it's being modified by an adjective, you can bet the house it's not a verb. Equally, if it's being modified by an adverb, it's not a noun.

The rest of this is nonsense. "A gerund is like the noun form of a verb." And this is "a gerund, working as a noun." So, putting those together, we get: picking described as being like the noun form of a verb, working as a noun. So, is it a noun or a verb? Firsten doesn't seem to know, or if he knows, he's not telling. Maybe he's been reading Cowan's Teacher's Grammar of English.

Anyhow, let's look at another sentence: He was famous for his tan. It would be very unhelpful to say the NP his tan is "working as a noun." Rather, we would say it's functioning as the object of the preposition for. So, being the consistent folk we are, we'd say the clause consistently picking stocks that gave high returns is functioning as the object of for in the sentence in question.

What about picking itself? It's a verb. It's modified by an adverb, as Firsten points out. So, despite some confusion, he gets us to the right answer. But rather than stopping there, he bumbles on:
"If we tweak the sentence and have He was famous for picking stocks that gave high returns, we have a gerund."
No! No! No! This is to suggests that picking is a gerund by default, and that it is only by adding the adverb consistently that we turn it into a verb. That's backwards. Rather, it is because picking is a verb that it becomes possible to modify it by an adverb. But whether there is indeed an adverb there or not is irrelevant.

Then he gets the next part right:
"We also see that picking has a direct object, stocks, so that's another way we know that in this case, picking is a present participle"
Of course, this directly contradicts what he said earlier about it being a gerund, but don't let that bother you. It doesn't seem to bother the editors at TESOL.

Next time, what is backshift?

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