Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Guest post from Leo Schmitt

The following is a guest post from Leo Schmitt, the new Grammatically Speaking columnist whose column I complained about here.


It is nice to know I can count on one regular reader, even if you are only looking for fodder with which to excoriate me. As I have already received some considerable flack from the more 'traditionalist' side, it is a relief to know that I can also count on criticism from supporters of alternative approaches to analyzing grammatical structures.

I must confess I am doubtless a bigger fan of your work than you are of mine. I think some of your analyses are excellent and you make some very good points. I agree that the open/remote view of tense, as championed by, for example, Scott Thornbury (and soon available at the TESOL resource center), offers many benefits over the more traditional approaches, including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd conditionals that I laid out in my column. However, I did specifically note that conditionals can get “very complex” (a point you also note), and said that “many grammarians divide” them into three sections.

This may not be the most elegant approach, but it is one that conforms to the the traditional Discourse (capital D following JP Gee) of grammar. You clearly have some serious disagreements with many aspects of this Discourse, and quite frankly, so do I. Nevertheless, it is within this Discourse that most teachers are socialized in their schools and teacher training programs and it is to this Discourse that most ESL textbooks that I have seen, especially those covering 'grammar', address themselves. I do try to address perspectives outside of the 'party line' and to introduce aspects that I hope will encourage my readers to consider how language is actually used. Nevertheless, it is a goal of column to express grammatical concepts in a way that can be understood by teachers, and many of these are schooled in this same Discourse of grammar. As I mentioned, I have already run afoul of supporters of a more dogmatic approach for not toeing the party line as tightly as they might like. I do not consider the 1st, 2nd and 3rd conditionals as “lies”, but neither do I consider them as sacrosanct truths. They are forms of analyses. They are certainly imperfect, but the frame is familiar and responds to the frame in the question. Perhaps you are right that I should consider more vigorously proposing alternative frameworks. It is something I shall ruminate on.

As for noting what I believe is a trend in spoken English toward using the 'simple past' in such cases, I stand behind that prognostication, even if I lack the corpus data to support it. As Ran pointed out, the corpus chosen makes a significant difference. I have been fortunate enough to live in a number of English-speaking communities and have perceived a number of trends in language (while staying aware of the pitfalls of such perceptions). Not surprisingly, many changes in language tend to originate in what Diane Larsen-Freeman calls, referencing her excellent work on complex dynamic systems in language, the 'edge of chaos'. I do not have data on when the change from 'whom' to 'who' or 'it is I' to 'it is me', or even ‘whither’ to ‘where’ took over a certain dialect or neighborhood, but I feel pretty confident that those changes have progressed throughout English as a world language. Similarly, with the past perfect to the simple past, I do not have data, but if you have data that would detail these changes (or indeed refute that they are actually happening/have actually happened), I would love to hear about them.

I do not believe that radical changes in the way that we analyze grammar will filter through the English-speaking world as quickly as we might like, but I try to incorporate a dialogic approach not only to my teaching, but to most aspects of my life. I honestly appreciate your criticisms, caustic as they are, just as I appreciate the criticisms from the other side that I am entering dangerous waters by suggesting that people do in fact regularly use ‘improper grammar’.

I look forward to reading your criticisms of the other two points I addressed in the column, even if you feel it necessary to lambaste me and my views.

From the land of the living dead,

Leo ‘Brains, brains, brains’ Schmitt

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