Thursday, April 30, 2009

English as she is spoke

In one of the comments on the previous post, Nick asks about the blog's tag line "Second thoughts on English and how she's taught". It's actually a nod to the classic, English as She Is Spoke by Jose da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino.

But, in particular, Nick is curious about the use of personal pronouns, such as she, for inanimate objects.
"I know in French, one can take an inanimate object and treat it as though it were alive, such as "la maison" is feminine" so the pronoun would be "elle", which is "she", but in English, how is the word English a "she" and not an "it" in that sense? Just some fodder to chew on."
There are some interesting points here. Of course, it is possible for people to anthropomorphize things, as this Clavin & Hobbes strip from May 4, 1995 shows:
But is using a pronoun or determinative (e.g., French la) marked for gender really treating inanimate things as if they were alive? It certainly seems that way when we use the word gender to refer both to grammatical categories of masculine and feminine and to biological categories of male and female. But in Japanese, for example, gender is marked in the verb iru/aru いる/ある meaning roughly exist/be/have. But the gender distinction here is animate-inanimate, not male-female.

Even where the male-female-(neuter) gender is maintained, the grammatical gender doesn't always match up with the biological gender. The German word Mädchen, meaning little girl, is grammatically neutral. And there is the Dyirbal language made famous by the book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, which has the following genders:
  1. animate objects, men
  2. women, water, fire, dangerous things
  3. edible fruit and vegetables
  4. other
In other words, gender is simply a way of classifying nouns. Although it does commonly correspond to biological categories, I don't think it would be wise to conclude that by using a gender-marked pronoun, the speaker is treating something as if it is alive.

The second question, then, is why English speakers might occasionally use personal pronouns that do not match the expected uses. The she in the tag line was produced by a speaker of Portuguese who basically knew no English and was simply (I expect) following the norms of his native language, so it's not really an interesting example.

English speakers do occasionally use it and this (a determinative, not a pronoun) to refer to humans (e.g., Hi, it's Brett. or This is my bother, Michael.) And we use personal pronoun she for a variety of things from boats to rivers to moons, to something being passed between two people (e.g., here she comes.)

My sense is that such use of he is much more limited, though the OED gives,
"2. Of things not sexually distinguished:

{dag}a. Things grammatically masculine. Obs. b. Things personified as masculine, as mountains, rivers, oak-trees, etc.

with the added comment:

"It is not easy to say when grammatical gender ceased to be used, this differing according to dialect. In dialect speech, he is still used for most things of definite shape, without any feeling of personification."

But I have no idea why we do any of this...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

IATEFL conference vids free online

A number of sessions and interviews from the recent IATEFL conference in Cardiff have been put online and made available for everyone, no membership or payment necessary. I'm not sure how they've chosen the links from that main menu, but if you click on each of the days at the top, you find a mixture of new presentations and presentations from the main video page.

One that caught my attention was by Jeff Stranks, whose presentation makes the point that texts given to learners as a source of information are great, but ultimately students are in our classrooms to learn English, not other stuff, so we need to also bring attention to the language in the texts: the vocabulary, the collocations, the grammar, the punctuation, and the style. Stranks presents a number of simple ways of doing this. Unfortunately, he's plagued by the perenial issue of a malfunctioning PowerPoint, but both his slides and his handout are linked to below the video. This is indeed a good idea. Students should be revisiting texts that they're familiar with and focusing on the language.

Another talk that gets it wrong is "What kind of vocabulary do advanced students need to learn?" by Stuart Redman. Granted, he's looking at advanced learners, but bringing students' attention to expressions like having second thoughts or being of two minds, as he suggests in his talk and does in his textbook, is a waste of time. The expression two minds occurs at a rate of about once per two million words. Second thoughts is more common, especially in fiction, but even there it occurs only at a rate of 5.7 times per million words. The top 2,000 words of English occur above a rate of 30 times per million words, and it would take many thousand more words to fill the gap between 30/mw and 5.7/mw. In other words, as I've said before, there's more important stuff to be teaching them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

TESL certification

If you're going to teach English as a second language here in Ontario, you need to be certified and there are a number of potential pitfalls that are rather easy to get caught in.

The first is the difference between TESL Canada and TESL Ontario. You would think that the national body would have more stringent certification requirements than the provincial body. You'd be wrong. While both organisations require an undergraduate degree, TESL Canada level 1 certification (which is the only national level available for pre-service teachers without a Master's degree in TESOL or applied linguistics) requires only 100 hours of theory and methodology study in a "recognized TESL training program or equivalent" and a supervised practicum of at least 20 hours (10 hours of observation and 10 hours of teaching). Applicants must also show evidence of English language proficiency (roughly TOEFL iBT 80).

In contrast, TESL Ontario requires 250 hours of TESL course work from an institution recognized by TESL Ontario and a supervised practicum of at least 50 hours (30 hours of observation and 20 hours of teaching). Applicants must also show evidence of English language proficiency (roughly TOEFL iBT 103).

In other words, TESL Canada level 1 certification is basically useless in Ontario.

The next problem is programs offered by non-accredited institutions. According to TESL Ontario's own application documents, the only certified institutions are Brock, Carleton, U of T, York, and U Sask; Algonquin, Centennial, Conestoga, George Brown, and Humber colleges; Thames Valley, Toronto, and York Catholic school boards; and among private institutions, the Canadian College of Educators and the Canadian Centre for Language & Cultural Studies. The teach abroad courses offered by, for example, Oxford Seminars do NOT meet TESL Ontario certification standards.

Of course, I teach in the Humber program, which far exceeds TESL Ontario requirements, and consequently produces many of the most sought-after graduates in Ontario. The program is unique in having 500 hours of coursework, and 80 hours of graduated practicum which is entirely arranged by the school (many courses leave it up to students to arrange their own practicum hours, which is becoming more and more difficult in the saturated GTA). Humber is a two-semester daytime program, but come September, it looks like we'll probably be delivering it three days a week. If you or anyone you know is interested, please get in touch.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The categorization of 'so'

The other day I got an e-mail from a colleague who asked about complements to linking verbs. As I was thinking about the various possible complements, the clause it seems so came to mind. "What in the world is so," I wondered. Not really expecting to find any help, I checked a number of dictionaries. The OED has entries for so as an adverb/conjunction and predictably other dictionaries follow suit. But that can't be right.

The word seem can take a variety of complements apart from so. These include:
  1. Noun phrases (NPs) and adjective phrases (AdjPs), typically grouped as predicate complements (aka subjective complements).
    He seems happy. (AdjP)
    She seems a good sort. (NP) more common in British English
  2. Content clauses (aka noun clauses): bare, with subordinator that, and with relative pronoun what
    It seems (that) they have arrived early.
    That did not seem what they intended to convey.
  3. to infinitives
    It seems to be the right one.
  4. Preposition phrases (PPs)
    It seems
    like a good solution.
    They seem out of place
  5. And, of course, the word so. [My aunt reminds me that not can also work here.]
They do not include:
  1. Determinative phrases (DPs)
    *It seems any
    *It seems
    *It seems
  2. Adverb phrases (AdvPs)
    *It seems
    *It seems
    *It seems
    *It seems too.
  3. Content clauses introduced by when, why, how
    *It seems how they did it.
    *It seems why they did it.
    *It seems how they did it.
  4. Bare infinitives
    *It seems be OK.

So, if adverbs are illegal as complements [but note the possibility of not], why call so an adverb? I suppose the reasoning is: if something doesn't fit another category, it must be an adverb, but that's pretty silly.

And what do I think so is? I haven't figured that one out yet. I'll try to get back to you on it.

[Added May 25, 2009: otherwise also seems to have similar properties.]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A primmer primer

This morning on CBC, Andy Barrie said that later they would have a /prɪmɚ/ on something or other (i.e., basic information about a topic). "You mean /praɪmɚ/," I thought. But he went on to say that he used to say /praɪmɚ/ but he had been told by a listener that, in fact, the correct pronunciation was /prɪmɚ/. "That's right," chimed in Jill Dempsey. "Nonsense," I thought, never having heard anybody pronounce it that way in my life. So when I got to work, I grabbed all the dictionaries I could find.

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary gives both pronunciations, with
/praɪmɚ/ listed first. I teach English as a second language, so most of the dictionaries I have on my desk are for learners of English; The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary lists only /praɪmɚ/, as does the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and the Collins COBUILD English Dictionary, all of which are British. Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary, along with their Learner's Dictionary, gives the American pronunciation as /prɪmɚ/, but also lists /praɪmɚ/noting "chiefly British". The American Heritage Dictionary is the only one I can find that does not list the // pronunciation.

So, dispite the prim listener's protestations about this point, it appears that Metro Morning's host and listening audience have had another incorrection foisted upon them.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Editing poetry

My brother, Michael Eden Reynolds, has won both first and second place in Prism's inaugural poetry contest.

I am not a poet. I rarely read poetry, nor do I write it. It is neither a regret nor a point of pride, merely a reality. But I do try to take an interest in the things that people close to me are doing, so when Michael started getting his poetry published, I was curious. Unfortunately, I must admit finding much of what he sent to me opaque. There were lines I liked, and occasionally a whole poem that would grab me, but often I really didn't know where to start.

When he told me that he was having part of his manuscript edited, I became even more curious. Perhaps the editor's comments would help me understand Michael's poetry. What kind of changes would an editor make anyhow?

When Michael forwarded me the marked up manuscript, I was somewhat disappointed. There was no obvious egress from my comprehensional umbra, but strangely enough, I suddenly understood how you might go about editing something as flexible and creative as poetry, even when you don't understand the whole poem. It would be much the same as when one edits prose, only more stringent.

Now, in general, I think Strunk's injunction to omit needless words is often rather useless advice, but in poems there is more of an imperative to pack the utmost meaning into the fewest mental gestures possible. The editor Michael had engaged seemed to have it in for "gerunds and abstractions and... extra pesky small words, particularly articles." I don't believe in this kind of categorical discrimination, but suddenly I did begin to see lines that would benefit from pruning, and I offered Michael my own editing services.

I began by editing his editor, telling Michael where I agreed and where I didn't. I think he found this a bit of a relief as he had perhaps been a bit intimidated by a lot of the advice he'd received.

During this process, there were times when a more precise or apt word would occur to me. At other times, I found preachy lines where the images had already communicated what needed to be said. With this shift of attention to the technical details of the poems, more meanings began to present themselves and I was able to enter a few more poems, but I also felt that I now had permission to simply say, "I can't make any sense of this at all."

Sometimes, when Michael and I discussed these, it would turn out that he was just stretching the language too far. For example, in the following , I queried arrested... from...
Maze of one, speck of time, arrested
in my pocket from the wide and cloudless
night that apprehends me.
Michael wanted to convey that the speck time had been taken by force, but in the end, we agreed that from is not a legal complement to arrest and that the intended reading simply wasn't available to most readers.

Many times I suggested orthodox punctuation where Michael's was heterodox, often with no obvious benefit either prosodic or semantic. And occasionally, the syntax was simply muddled:
On the boat there’s a slow coil
of water heaps the prow.
A slow coil of water
heaps the prow.
There were also questionable metaphors. Consider the following lines:
"It’s the night before garbage day,
the wind’s as warm as a breath
of frogsong, "
I commented that although frogsong may have associations with the warmth of spring, or that it may warm the soul, "a breath of frogsong" itself doesn't strike me as warm at all.The line became:
It’s the night before garbage day,
warm wind stirring the frogs
into song,
There was also some overly-familiar rhyme and the occasional cliche: "rain against the windowpane", "heaves a sigh."

And of course, I got to make positive comments on lovely descriptions like this one of writing in a foreign script
"characters with sloping
shoulders, cats and lizards, coiled shrubs."
I will admit that much of the editing advice I provided Michael was rather mechanical, surface-level stuff: copy editing mostly. To go beyond that, I'd need to learn a lot more about poetry, something I'm afraid I probably won't do soon. But what I have learned was interesting, and it was a privilege to be able to work with Michael on this project.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Clauses vs. phrases

Our final Firsten disection for this quarter begins with the question: "Are non-finite clauses the same thing as what we used to call 'phrases'?"

The distinction between clauses and phrases is indeed a muddy one. I've shown before how it confused the Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Apparently, its authors are not alone in their confusion.

The reality of the situation is that the words are used differently by different people, or even sometimes by the same person. And that's fine. Just as long as we can figure out who's using which word what way.

Traditionally, then, a phrase is merely any contiguous group of words that has some connection in expressing a concept, but which is not in itself a clause. A clause, on the other hand, is a whole simple sentence or one part of a complex or compound sentence that contains a subject and a predicate.

These two concepts are generally distinct enough that the distinction is maintained, but things can get messy. What does it mean to contain a subject? Imperatives are thought to be clauses and are said to include implied subjects: you. But then a predicate adjunct such as speaking slowly in Speaking slowly, he explained why he disagreed also has an implied subject: he. Traditionalists, though, would not consider speaking slowly a clause.

Firsten tries to explain this traditional idea of clauses vs. phrases and how it overlaps with the idea of being finite or non-finite.
"Non-finite clauses are the same thing as "phrases." In addition, finite clauses are the same thing as "clauses." The terminology underwent a change some years ago, and now most grammarians use the terms finite and non-finite clauses... A finite clause must have a subject and a verb that carries tense."
This rule of thumb isn't very useful as it ignores the possibility of phrases that contain no verbs at all, while mostly just switching one label for the other without adding any clarity.

So what does it mean for something to be finite? The idea of finite verb has been with us since at least the late 18th century when Lindley Murray wrote, "Finite verbs are those to which number and person appertain." This explains the reason for the label: if something is finite, it has certain limitations. A verb like runs cannot go together with just any old subject; I goes will not do. The verb go in to go, on the other hand, is not limited in this way. That is to say, it is non-finite.

Firsten's explanation is at odds with Murray's use. Murray applies the concept to verbs, where Firsten applies it to entire clauses. But given that English subject-verb agreement occurs only with present-tense verbs and with past-tense be, it seems that they agree that it applies when the verb carries the tense. Firsten doesn't stop there though. He says,
"Come with me to the next TESOL convention is also a finite clause even though the subject you is hidden and the verb is in the imperative form."
Yet, there is no tensed verb here and subject-verb agreement does not apply.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes a position rather closer to Firsten's than Murray's, albeit one which is much clearer while at the same time admittedly unorthodox. Like Firsten, the CGEL applies the concept to clauses, not verbs. But it is silent about a subject. Rather it includes the following as finite clauses:
  1. clauses headed by tensed verbs (i.e., present tense or past tense; there is no future tense)
  2. clauses headed by plain-form verbs in the imperative or the subjunctive.
This has already gone on far too long, so I'll get back to why this is a useful classification in another post.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Backshift and remote relationships

In Richard Firsten's most recent Grammatically Speaking column, he claims that was in the sentence "Was there something you needed to see me about?" is an example of backshifting.

The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Applied Linguistics: A Handbook for Language Teaching doesn't even mention backshifting. Nor does the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Even the OED fails to mention backshift. The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, Third Edition has no entry for backshifting, but under back-shift it instructs us to see direct speech. Unfortunately, this reference resolves to an entry that is entirely unhelpful on the matter. Apparently, this term is not widely used.

But do not despair. The Oxford English
Grammar steps up to the plate. George Yule also talks about backshift in Explaining English Grammar, as does the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. But these books are unanimous in defining and discussing backshift in relation to reported speech, and Firsten's topic has nothing to do with reported speech. Even Wikipedia concurs. Yule, for example, says:
"The change of forms, such as present tense (e.g., 'I am ill') to past tense (e.g., 'He said he was ill') in indirect speech."
Terminology aside, the explanation offered strikes me as generally correct. But for those of us who are obsessed with categorizing grammar, it cries out for a label. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language obs
erves, "three uses of the preterite (past tense): past time, backshift, and modal remoteness." This last term, modal remoteness, is what we're looking at here. The question Is there something you want to see me about? is very immediate. It tramples social distance. This can make things more or less comfortable, depending on what each party gains or loses from recognizing social distance.

The point that tenses have uses beyond the signification of time is one that is not made often enough. Certainly, backshift, being one of those uses, is related to the topic at hand, but only remotely. There may actually be grammar references out there that use backshifting in the way Firsten does, but I've never come across them and some fairly anally retentive searching on my part has failed to turn up any.

[On an almost completely unrelated note, did you hear about the cosmologist who went to the costume party dressed all in red? He would move away from people and then ask them what he was. Answer: redshift]

Monday, April 06, 2009

A whole nother issue

A few days ago, I promised to get back to fixing up Richard Firsten's problematic answers to grammar questions. Although, I said I'd look at backshift, this morning, I was more in the mind to address his second letter, which poses the perennial question: why do we say a whole nother? Richard's reply:
"because it either sounds cute or humorous. And what's really interesting is that you can now find nother in some dictionaries!"
Both of these strike me as true. But one word stuck in my craw: now. A careful reader would be left with the impression that nother is a recent form, perhaps coming out of the seventies when Luke Skywalker famously whined at his uncle, "but that's a whole nother year..." You certainly wouldn't get the impression that it has been in use fairly consistently since at least the 14th century:
  • "c1330 Otuel 83 Ich am comen her..To speke wi{th} charles..& wi{th} a kni{ygh}t {th}at heet Roulond & a no{th}er hatte oliuer."
  • "c1390 MS Vernon Homilies in Archiv f. das Studium der Neueren Sprachen (1877) 57 280 He wolde him say his onswere on a no{th}er day. "
  • "1559 J. AYLMER Harborowe sig. E4, Of Paul I shal speak of at a nother time."
  • "1850 ‘M. TENSAS Odd Leaves from Louisiana Swamp Doctor 152 Lizey Johnson's middle darter, Prinsanna,..left her husband in the state of Georgy, and kum to Luzaanny an' got marred to a nother man."
  • "1963 Word Study Feb. 7, I have to grade a whole nother set of themes."
So why do we have both other and nother? The OED explains:
"From the beginning of the Middle English period, the coexistence of two forms of the indefinite article (an before vowels and a before consonants) often led to metanalysis (the same phenomenon occurs in other languages where the indefinite article ends in -n, e.g. French, Italian, etc.). Variants arising by metanalysis sometimes alliterate with words with initial n- in alliterative verse, and in some cases have become established as the regular modern forms (so that e.g. Middle English a nadder became an adder; compare also apron, auger, etc.), while conversely some vowel-initial forms have gained n- (so that e.g. Middle English an ewt became a newt; compare also nickname). The following examples show the latter process in cases where the variants arising by metanalysis did not become established as the regular modern form."

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Another thought about post-

A while ago, I mused about post- being a preposition-forming prefix. It now occurs to me that I fell into the trap of confounding the function and the category. I wrote, "Clearly though, the word post-Walkerton as used above is neither adjective, verb, nor noun." This is mistaken.

The context was How is the water post-Walkerton? Of course, post-Walkerton can be replaced with a prepositional phrase such as after Walkerton. It can also be replaced with an adverb such as recently. But what I overlooked was that it can also be replaced with a noun phrase such as these days or (with a slight adjustment to the verb tense) last year, or Monday. Given that, I think that post-Walkerton would make most sense as a noun, and that post- is not, in fact, a preposition-forming prefix.

So, it appears, sadly, that there is no productive way of creating new prepositions, though -wards is weakly productive (again, of intransitive prepositions, which many people wrongly call adverbs).

Incidentally, Geoff Pullum recently credited me with discovering post as a new preposition. This is true for certain senses of discover, but not for the sense that I was the first human to realise the situation. As commenters on Language Log have mentioned, the OED lists it. But the OED seems to miss a distinction between post and after, which commenter Mike Keesey explains nicely when he says, "'After' is neutral. 'Post' implies that the event/period in question has fundamentally changed the state of things."