Friday, December 30, 2011

Grammar and Beyond, a review

Cambridge has a new grammar series called Grammar and Beyond out/in the works. I got a review copy of the level 2 book by Randi Reppen. I first noticed it at the TESL Ontario conference in October and was interested in it because it's the first grammar series for English language learners I've noticed that employs the concept of determiner (please tell me in the comments if you know of others).

Unfortunately, they make a hash of it.

Let's start with the shocking mismatch between the level of grammar and vocabulary knowledge needed to read and understand the text and the level of knowledge that is being conveyed. Anybody who can understand "singular count nouns always have a determiner before them" (p. 82) already knows as much. There is no point in telling them that they should "not use a or an with plural nouns." The people who need to know this won't even be able to read the chapter with its introductory reading which begins, "identity theft is the act of using someone's personal information without permission." I mean, come on! Permission is ranked as lemma #3,254 in Mark Davies' new Word and Phrase Info corpus interface. The indefinite article is #5. For most language learners, that represents a gap of over a year between when they figured out what a means and what permission means. This problem of explaining English grammar in English to people who don't speak much English is a difficult one, but there is no excuse for completely ignoring the issue.

Part 3 is entitled "Nouns, Determiners, and Pronouns", which is really what attracted my attention in the first place. Nobody in English language teaching understands that there is a relevant function in noun phrase structure and a category of words that typically perform this function. I'll call the function specifier and the category determinative. Because they haven't noticed, they use the same term to refer to both, and they confuse themselves. This book is no different. It says "determiners are words like a, an, the, that, this, my, or our," presumably referring to a category of words, but it includes my and our which are pronouns (and are listed as such on page 105), and don't belong to the same category as the others.

Part 3 has 3 units: Unit 7: Count and Noncount Nouns, Unit 8: Articles, and Unit 9: Pronouns; Direct and Indirect Objects. Determiners show up for the first time in Unit 7, where the quote above appears. A little later, it says, "do not use a / an with noncount nouns," another no-brainer (the problem is to remember what nouns are count and noncount!), but it assures us that "you can use other determiners (my, some, this, etc.) with noncount nouns." This is, of course, true of some other determinatives, but etc. suggests each, every, another, both, and many should all be fine. They're not. If you mean "certain determiners," then say so.

Skip to page 86, Section 3, and they do say so: "you can use certain determiners and measurement words with noncount nouns. Can you give me some advice about spyware programs? She told me two interesting pieces of news."  The list of allowed determiners includes: a lot of, some, a little, much, any, not much, not a lot, and not any. Of course, it ignores two of the three options given 4 pages back. Also although I would argue that a lot of is not a determinative, I don't think anybody believes that a lot by itself is.

The inclusion of piece is likely supposed to represent a "measurement word" and not a determiner, and I assume that they are grouped together because of the superficial similarity between partitives like some of the news and the phrases pieces of news. Except that partitives are not dealt with anywhere in the unit.

Then we come to the "Grammar Application" where we find "Exercise 3.1 Determiners and too and enough."  This implies that enough isn't a determinative even though it is.

Overall, then, it's interesting to see the term "determiner" finally showing up in a grammar book. Now we just have to get people to understand what determinatives and specifiers are.


Warsaw Will said...

Maybe not a series, but Longman's Grammar and Vocabulary for Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency has a section on pronouns and determiners. And on checking I notice, with some surprise, that it doesn't include my etc. But then what are they, possessive adjectives? I didn't think anyone called them pronouns these days. Nor can I see how they could be; pronouns stand on their own. I understand that mine, yours etc are pronouns, because they do stand on their own. But we can only use my, your etc before a noun, just like any other (in my opinion) determiner.

And I think, yes, most EFL materials do include my, your etc as determiners, for example, Michael Swan in Practical English Usage. And I think one reason he does so is that they cannot be used together with (other) Group A determiners.

In any case, I do think the needs of linguistics and EFL are somewhat different. We need something that our students can easily understand. They simply want to learn to speak English as quickly and as easily as possible, not to get bogged down in grammatical niceties.

Brett said...

Hi, Will

In the clause the comment is Wilma's, the last word Wilma's is a genitive NP functioning as a complement. It can be replaced by the independent genitive pronoun hers to give the comment is hers.

In the NP Wilma's comment, the first word Wilma's is a genitive NP functioning as a determiner in the larger NP. The category is the same as in the example above, but the function differs. And just as above, it can be replaced by a genitive pronoun. The only difference is that this time it's a dependent genitive her resulting in her comment.

I agree that our students need something easy to understand, but calling pronouns determiners because we don't understand the difference between the category of determinatives and the function determiner is confusing, not easy.

Warsaw Will said...

I'm just a simple EFL teacher. I'm not particularly interested in the theoretical reasons why a word is considered to be in one word class or another. I simply want a set of tools I can use to teach English to foreigners. And for people to stop moving the goalposts.

Take the business of phrasal verbs. This was a concept, with it;s four types we all understood. Then some bright spark thought it would be much better to call them 'multi-word verbs', and divide them into three categories. Then someone else dreamed up 'prepositional verbs', and these are now creeping into course books, even though there seems to be no clear agreement as to what actually constitutes a prepositional verb.

Your post worried me because I've recently blogged exercises on determiners, which include 'my, your' etc, and began to think I had got it wrong. But if I have, so has the whole of the EFL community. Three of the four main British learner's dictionaries include 'my' etc, in their definitions of determiners, and all four list 'my' and 'your' as determiners. So does Swan, often regarded as 'the bible' amongst EFL teachers. And so do all the main EFL and ESL websites: the British Council, BBC Learning English,, English Club etc. as well as university sites such as Towson and University College London. Merriam-Webster, admittedly, is a bit schizophrenic, listing 'my' and 'your' as determiners in its definition of determiner, but calling them adjectives in their respective entries. In any case, I don't think I'll be changing my post anytime soon.

And a final word on corpora. Where words come in corpora of native speaker usage has little bearing on the difficulties they might pose for foreign learners. I teach in Poland where the L1 has no articles, and they are a nightmare for learners at all levels, even certified translators get them wrong. And 'permission' is Latin based, which means many foreign learners will recognise it a lot quicker than many, to us more familiar, Anglo-saxon-based words. It's the short words my students find difficult, not the long ones.

Brett said...

Hi, Will. I know what you mean about moving goalposts. But they just look like they're moving. In fact, they weren't really where we thought they were in the first place. And they probably aren't even where we think they are now.

But clearly you know that already. You've obviously spent a good deal of time reading and thinking about English and English teaching. Your post does a great job of bringing together relevant ideas. Everything you call a determiner is a determinative. You even recognize words like something and anyone, which is spot on. They're determinatives too.

Now, when you call some of them pronouns, I'll disagree with you. They're still determinatives; it's just that their function has changed. With your own definition of pronouns in mind, go through your Exercise 1 and see where you can put a noun in the box. For #1, it's not a noun, but an NP 'some tomatoes'. But for #2, you just can't do it. There's no noun or NP that could possibly be replaced by 'any' there. And no personal pronoun would fit there either. These are NOT pronouns.

This is why we need to really think about this stuff: so that we don't define something one way and then immediately present an exercise that makes nonsense of the definition.

Yes, nobody in EFL understands determiners. I think I made that exact point in my post. And it comes down to the failure to understand the difference between categories and functions. If you really don't care about it, that's fine, but you obviously care a lot.

And note that I didn't say people who can read the book never make mistakes with determinatives. What I said was that they know a goes with singular countable nouns. If you asked them about it, they could tell you.

By the way, the Teaching and Language Corpora Conference will take place in Warsaw, Poland on 12th 14th July 2012. I'm trying to line things up such that I can go. If things work out, I'll drop by your blog and try to arrange a hook up. Or send me an e-mail.

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks for taking the time to look at my blog, and for answering in such detail. I guess that we will just have to agree to disagree. As an individual I might find your theory interesting, and sit down and try and figure out what you're talking about (I'm no linguist).

But as a teacher my main concern is that everyone: course books, dictionaries, grammar exercise books and teachers, should be singing from the same hymn sheet, otherwise the students simply end up confused. And so by the way, do the teachers. We're not grammar nerds; we just want to help people learn English as painlessly as possible.

ASG said...

Like Will, I don't really understand the criticism in your third paragraph. I teach ESL and I can tell you from experience that plenty of my students have very strong vocabularies and would easily be able to define "identity theft" for you... but those same students are often unsure when to use a/the/null. The issue is not whether they know what the word "a" means vs. what the word "identity" means. They know perfectly well what both words mean. Their struggle is with placing the words correctly in a way that sounds natural to a native speaker. Doing that with "identity" is (arguably) not very hard since it's a noun that behaves in a pretty predictable way. Doing it with "a" is very hard indeed, because the rules are so subtle and depend on several factors.

Brett said...

ASG, you're exactly right. Telling them is pointless because they know that countable nouns (typically) need a determiner. The problem is knowing which nouns are countable, and which determiner should go in each situation. It's those subtle rules you mention, and they aren't really addressed.

Even if they were, there's not much evidence that more explanation about determiners, or even more isolated practiced with choosing determiners will make much difference, but that's another issue.

Warsaw Will said...

It might help if the experts could agree on what the difference
between a determiner and a determinative is. As I understand it from this and other posts you have written, you see determinative as a lexical category, and determiner as the function it performs, presumably in line with the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

But, as I understand it, the earlier Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language took exactly the opposite position, seeing determiner as a word class, and determinative as the function.

All five of the learner's dictionaries I consult, and every TEFL book I know of, takes their position, using determiner as a word class. Determinatives are never even mentioned.

To be honest, I'd never heard of determinatives till I read this post, and I don't suppose many other EFL teachers have either. (And neither has my spell check!). It's simply not a term that's used in EFL. Which is why I could make neither head nor tail of your argument, until I did a bit of research.

Brett said...

The difference between Quirk et al and Huddleston & Pullum is mainly a terminological one. It's not so important what it's called (although it is nice when everybody uses the same vocabulary), but the main point is that there's a function and a category and they need to be kept separate.

Warsaw Will said...

Hi Brett,

Sorry to be a bit argumentative, but I think if you're going to introduce somewhat exotic technical terms like determinative (I haven't seen it any grammar glossary), it is rather important what we call things, and so apparently do you - "Everything you call a determiner is a determinative", from a previous comment of yours. If I don't know the difference, how am I meant to understand that?

After all, it was your objection to Randi Reppen calling 'my, your' etc determiners (as does nearly every British TEFL publication) that started this whole correspondence. So you obviously do think these things are important. Incidentally, I notice the British National Corpus also tags them as possessive determiners.

Every other reference to determinative I've been able to find on the web appears to take the Quirk et al view - determiner is a lexical category and determinative is the function. Even those that refer to another Huddleston book, Introduction to the Grammar of English.

After I posted my previous comment, it dawned on me that EFL publications tend to use determiner for both lexical category and function. Maybe to avoid this very confusion.

Brett said...

Your point is well taken, but I'm not objecting to her terminology. She could call it a pink marshmallow for all I care.

The problem is when determiner is specifically put forward as a part of speech (or lexical category) and then members of other parts of speech (e.g., genitive pronouns) included.

Yes, the books do implicitly use the same term as a lexical category and a function, but they explicitly say it's a category. This is the root of the problem.