What is a (grammar) rule?

(Updated November, 2017)

In February, I read an article with my classes about business ethics (or the seeming lack thereof in parts of the corperate world). You can find it on onestopenglish.com, Business Spotlight Worksheet: Money or Morals. Highly recommendable lesson by the way.

In the introductory paragraphs, the author (Vicky Sussens) describes a group of children playing hide and seek:

It is a beautiful autumn day. The sun shines golden on a small group of children who excitedly agree to play hide and seek. “Whoopee!” calls Sarah, racing off to a tree to hide her eyes. “Count to ten!” shouts Johnny, “That’s the rule.”

Rules are so much part of human interaction that even children can stick to them – especially in a game where there are winners and losers. (p 2)

This passage led to a discussion on the nature of rules, laws, regulations etc. and someone remarked that especially – not even – children insist on following the rules of a game. We all remembered such incidences. Without everybody sticking to the rules, many games would simply be unplayable. Rules are the defining features of a game.

In larger groups, like societies, rules become laws to ensure, in the best of cases, a cooperate and peaceful life among all members of the community. In any case, there are significant reasons for rules and they are always made by humans (‘manmade’ so to speak).

Do languages have rules too?

If the answer were yes, what would be their nature? What would they be for? And who made them up or developed them?

Continue reading

When the ‘past’ tense does not refer to past time or: Confusion by Misnomers

One of my main issues over the last years of teaching has been with traditional grammar terminology, especially with ‘present’ and ‘past’. To a certain extent I believe in linguistic relativity i.e. that the language we use to describe something has an influence on how we perceive this something. It is not such a surprising insight, if you think about it. When someone refers to an object as table, I will not think of a chair. Well, I actually might think of a chair in association with the table, but that is a different point.

So when a form is called ‘past’ tense, most people – if not all – will believe that the term refers to the meaning of the form. However … Continue reading

Verb Structure Circle

This year I have given several of my classes an overview of the English verb system using my concept of the Verb Circle. It seems to be helpful and clarifying.  Being a different way of conceptualizing the system, the different perspective is not always immediately accessible.It takes a little time, but, as I  have learned through dancing and guitar practice: there is only one way of becoming better at a skill – repeat, repeat, repeat.

So go to the page above and let me know what you think.

 

Why linguistic terminology can be useful and misnomers problematic

Tense and aspect

What are tenses? And why is the answer not: all verb structures? How many tenses does English really have? And does it matter? What is the semantic relationship between verb form and time? What is time? What do we mean when we talk about time? How do we talk about time? And why should this be important?

In my introduction to the concept of the Verb Structure Circle I mentioned the technical definition of ‘tense’. Tense and aspect are two terms crucial to explaining, and in my opinion, understanding, the English verb structure system. I also noted that in many if not most course books of English ALL verb structures are referred to as tenses and, as far as I can tell, ‘aspect’ is rarely used. Perfect and continuous forms are commonly related to as ‘tenses’ though they are actually referred to as ‘aspects’ in linguistic literature.

Note (2016): Some publishers of English course books like MacMillan make the distinction, as I have found in the meantime.

The reason I believe this issue to be important is because I believe understanding the difference between ‘tense’ and ‘aspect’ could help understanding English verb structures’ meaning and function better. Continue reading

The Third Person Singular -s or: let’s talk about priorities

Recently I was shocked – if not really surprised – to hear that not much seems to have changed in some English classes of (German) schools. I learned about a fifth grader who was not doing very well in English. I asked what his problem seems to be and was told that he had made a lot of mistakes in his last test. Naturally, my next question was: well, what kind of mistakes, and was totally astonished as to the prime nature of his failure. Continue reading

Is it I or is it me?

Harry Potter fans might answer this clearly as all characters in J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter series say ‘It is I’ – something my linguistic mind always stumbles over for a brief second when reading it.  A student in one of my classes also recently asked about this.

Modern English does not have a case system, like e.g. German. The functions of subject and object in a sentence are determined by word order. Thus in the sentence – The cat is chasing the dog – who chases who(m) is clearly determined by the position of the two noun phrases ‘the cat’ and ‘the dog’. If I change the position of the noun phrases and say – The dog is chasing the cat – the situation changes dramatically from the perspective of the cat.

In German, e.g., which has a case system, we could have something like Den Hund jagte die Katze. The subject would be the cat even though Continue reading

Modality (1)

On the page The Verb Structure Circle, I discussed the four basic building blocks of the English verb: the simple forms 1 (so-called ‘simple present’) and 2 (so-called ‘simple past’) and the aspects continuous and perfect.

What this basic approach to English verb structures does not cover is modality. What is modality? Continue reading

The Verb Structure Circle

All parts summarizing the basic forms and combinations of the English verb structure system have been put together under the page The Verb Structure Circle, the single posts have been deleted (as I suspect them to be the reason for the page not showing correctly when using Internet Explorer 9; I read that word press blogs don’t show there when bits and pieces have been copied and pasted into posts from Office Word, which I have done with the slides.)

Some Remarks on ‘Correctness’

This morning we discussed my verb structure circle system (see under pages) in one of my classes. It was, again, as I found, a very interesting discussion. There seems to be one point of misunderstanding, though, when I question the validity of right or wrong claims: my position is not ‘anything goes’ and ‘rules don’t matter’. Continue reading

An Overview of the English Verb Structure System: Introduction

What is grammar?

Whenever you ask this question, e.g. in a first year Introduction to Linguistics course or to learners of English, the first reaction is often one of bafflement. Isn’t the answer rather obvious? Tenses, prepositions, if-clauses: all the stuff you were supposed to learn in school.

When I ask adult learners of English, which area of grammar they feel they have the most problems with or feel they need more practice in, they most often answer: tenses – closely followed by prepositions. The first year linguistic student as well as most learners of English equate ‘grammar’ with verb structures or ‘the tenses’. Especially in a German context there seems to be a certain obsession with ‘tenses.’ And many learners of English worry about getting the ‘tenses’ right, even students I consider quite advanced. Although, when asked, most agree that vocabulary is much more important than correct ‘grammar’, there seems to be a certain unease or insecurity when it comes to using the ‘tenses’. Continue reading

Grammar as Fact or Grammar as Choice

The above distinction was originally made by Richard A. Close in ‘A Teacher’s Grammar’ (1992). He had already formulated his ideas 30 years before, but published a revised version in the early 90ies. I believe the distinction to be quite valuable, even if not always clear-cut.

Grammar as fact concerns such aspects of the language that are non-negotiable if I want to be able to communicate with the majority of speakers of the language. Facts of grammar describe the essential regularities or rules of a language that define it and organize its meaning. Continue reading