Saturday, January 15, 2011

Grammatically speaking, the zombie edition

Grammatically speaking is dead. If only...

Back in September, it was announced that Richard Firsten would stop publishing his monthly column for TESOL. After years pointing out his mistakes, I thought this might be good news. When he let on that the column would not die, but that it would be incarnated by T. Leo Schmitt instead, I was cautiously optimistic. It turns out, though, that Schmitt is little better than Firsten.

In his first real foray, Schmitt takes on the conditional in English. And mangles it. Not that he perpetrates any new lies; he just perpetuates the old ones. Here's the question:
How can I explain better the conditions in class? I have a little problem when I explain third conditionals and then mixed conditionals. I was wondering if you'd mind helping me with this topic.
Here's a wonderful chance to point out that the idea of first, second, and third conditionals is about as useful as a chocolate teapot, as Christian Jones and Daniel Waller did last April in an article in ELT Journal. Instead, Schmitt simply rehearses the party line.

It's much more useful to look at English conditionals as being primarily open or remote:

  1. If you wait, you'll get to see it.
  2. If he wants to, he can go.
  3. If you’re a manager, it’s OK.
  4. If you don’t make a fuss, they won’t notice.
  5. If you can’t go, you should let me know.
  1. Even if you waited, you wouldn’t get to see it. 
  2. If he wanted to, he could go. 
  3. If you were a manager, it would be OK. 
  4. If you hadn’t made a fuss, they wouldn’t have noticed. 
  5. If you couldn’t go, you should have let me know.
Then, you can look at the time reference, but keep in mind that all combinations are used. For example, you can have a future time reference in the protasis, and present time in the apodosis.
  1. If they refuse, this is all for nothing. (open)
  2. If they refused, this would be all for nothing. (remote)
The following table shows the frequency of various tense/modal combinations. (At the moment, I can't recall where I got these figures from, but I'll try and identify the source.)

Notice that the table only lists about 55% of the conditionals. There are lots of other possibilities. This is the kind of data teachers need so that they can focus on the most common constructions instead of worrying about some arbitrary three-type system.

In close, Schmitt writes,
"Note also that there seems to be a trend in spoken English toward this, eliminating the use of the past perfect in the third conditional. Thus we could easily hear 'What would have happened if the Chinese had colonized the Americas before the Europeans?'" 
I'd like to know where the evidence for this trend is, because I certainly can't find any the the Corpus of Historical American English.

All in all, this seems to be an unconditional failure.


Ran said...

I suppose this isn't specifically evidence for a trend toward the past subjunctive as opposed to the pluperfect subjunctive in protases of third conditional constructions, but if you Google something like "if you told me yesterday", you'll find plenty of recent examples.

And Schmitt explicitly writes of "a trend in spoken English", so it's kind of cheating to say that a corpus of written English doesn't provide evidence for it!

Brett said...

Fair point about the COHA being written. I was thinking more of the composition of the COCA.

I have no problem with the idea that the simple past is used in this situation, but I'm skeptical of its recentness.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I have a hard time with his "second": If he went to Akron, their football program would have been top ten.

For me, that needs to be "went ... would be" or "had gone ... would have been".

Brett said...

Nice catch Ridger. I must have just glossed over it. Indeed, this is not an example of the second conditional, which traditionally has a present or future time reference.