Friday, April 25, 2008

Tense about Tense

Whenever I open an ESOL grammar book and look at the table of contents, I wince a little. I see things like "present continuous tense," "present perfect tense," "past perfect tense," and this terminology makes me tense. Although many people don't realize it, linguistically speaking, there are only two tenses in English, the present and the past. What I'm really talking about are the simple present and the simple past. That's it; two tenses. How can that be? Well, linguists explain that tense is only tense when it's created by just using the basic form of a verb, adding a prefix, infix, or suffix to a verb, or when there is an internal change to a verb. So when I say I work, she works, that shows tense, and when I say she worked, I've added another suffix to the verb, -ed, so that's tense. And, of course, with a verb like speak, if I want the past, I make an internal change and get spoke, which once again shows tense. So English only has two tenses according to linguists, unlike Latin. Now there's a language with oodles of tenses! Ego laboro (I work/am working), laborabam (I was working/used to work), laboravi (worked), laboraveram (had worked), laborabo (will work), laboravero, (will have worked). Latin's got all kinds of suffixes and all kinds of tenses.

So what are all those other forms of a verb in English if they're not tenses? Linguistically, they're called aspects, aspects of the verb. The present progressive is an aspect of the verb, and so is the present perfect and the present perfect progressive, and the past perfect, and the future with be going to or will -- and I could go on. Now, in a practical sense, is there really any benefit to thinking of these as aspects of a verb rather than as tenses? I think so. I think there really is a practical benefit. When I say I feel great or I'm feeling great, I'm not changing the tense (the time) of the verb feel; I'm simply applying a different aspect to that verb. And when I say He finished the job or He's finished the job, I'm once again applying a different aspect to the action of finishing something rather than a different time. I think that matters. I think that might help some students understand why we have forms like the present perfect and the role those forms play in English grammar.

The only other thing that makes me wince when I look at those tables of contents is some of the names I see given to those tenses and aspects. My reaction isn't based on the aesthetics of the names, but on the fact that they can be very misleading and end up confusing our students. I’ve already written a piece about the so-called “simple” present (“A Present for You”), but that’s the first one that comes to mind. Then there are the so-called “present continuous” and the “past continuous.” “Continuous”? What does that mean, continuous? Doesn’t continuous mean the action never ends? Is it like the earth is on a continuous orbit around the sun? If I were a student and saw that name, that's exactly what I might imagine. Kudos to the person who started calling this aspect “the present progressive.” Now that I can understand. It deals with an action that's in progress at that moment. Teachers can get that ― and so can their students. And we’ve got the so-called present “perfect.” What’s so “perfect” about it? Come to think of it, most teachers I know wish the present perfect didn’t exist at all because it’s so tough to teach and get students to internalize. Some perfection that is!

I think it would be nice to go back to using such terms as the “preterit” instead of the simple past, don’t you? It’s a nice, neutral name that carries no opinions about it. Let me judge for myself if it’s “simple” or not. If you’ve got any names for the tenses or aspects that you think would work better than the ones we’ve got now, let’s hear them. Who knows . . . We may just start a small ESOL grammar revolution! So let me hear from you, fellow rebels!

Friday, April 18, 2008

We’re All Entitled

I’ve always found our most common titles in English quite amazing. Have you ever really thought about Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms.? (Come to think of it, does anybody use Miss anymore?)

I’ve wondered why we write those odd abbreviations for the first two I listed, but when we say them out loud, something that doesn’t quite seem related pops out of our mouths. Mr. is “Mister,” but what’s a mister? I’m familiar with a garden gadget that keeps plants moist; that’s a mister. But a man? Is a mister a man who mists plants? Naw, that couldn’t be the derivation. And Mrs. is pronounced “missez,” right? Well, what happened to the r? Maybe we’re really supposed to say “mirsez.”

I don’t like feeling ignorant, so I dug into where these titles came from. Mister is a funny pronunciation for master. So that means I’m really Master Firsten. Oh, but wait a minute. I recall that when I was a kid, some adults put the title master in front of a boy’s first name to distinguish a kid from a grown-up. In fact, I do remember grown-ups sometimes calling me "Master Richard." So somehow, master got changed to mister and mister got to be used for grown-up men. At least that seems to be what happened.

Moving right along, it turns out that missez comes from “mistress.” Mistress? Wait a minute! So my mother could have been called "Mistress Firsten"? Or maybe "Mistress Tess." Wow! I think my feisty mother would have liked that. It conjures up all sorts of interesting images!

The thing that rankles is how these nice titles can go from being formal and polite to downright common and even almost vulgar. How, you ask? Use them along with a surname when you address people and you’re nice and polite: “One moment, Mr. Pearson.” “Hold on, Mrs. Longman.” But drop the surnames (maybe because you don’t know these people) and suddenly you’re crude and boorish: “One moment, mister.” “Hold on, missez.” Ah, but you know how to get around that problem, don't you? You’ve got to substitute those two titles with two other titles if you want to stay polite, so you say sir and madam or ma’am: “One moment, sir.” Ooh, that sounds nice, and so polite! “Hold on, madam.” Uh . . . I’m not so sure about this one. Hmm . . . “Hold on, ma’am”? Yes! That sounds better. So what’s wrong with madam? I think we tend to use madam only when we’re annoyed or angry. To me it sounds exaggerated or overly polite, even sarcastic ― well, that is, unless you’re a butler: “Dinner is served, madam.”

But what if you’re addressing more than one man or woman? Then what? “One moment, sirs.” Nope, that won’t cut it ― unless maybe if you’re in the military. “Hold on, ma’ams.” I don’t even think ma’ams is a word! Now what do you do? Of course! You have to use two more different titles if you’re addressing more than one person: “One moment, gentlemen.” “Hold on, ladies.” (Is your head beginning to spin? Mine is!) Yes, ladies sounds nice as a plural title to use when the singular ma’am won’t do. Oh, no! I just thought of something. What about the singular, lady? "Hold on, lady." Oh, my goodness! We're back to crude and boorish ― almost vulgar ― and it can sound angry, too. So that means if you use ladies, it sounds refined, but if you use lady, you get the opposite result. (Are you shaking your head? I’m shaking my head.)

I think we need to recap: Mister comes from “master,” but that doesn’t mean he’s your master, and Master can be used with a boy’s first name if you want to be super-formal, although this title seems to be dying out. Now then, Missez comes from “mistress,” but that doesn’t mean she’s somebody’s mistress; it means she’s married! In addition, if we want to stay polite, we can’t address somebody as mister or missez without a surname, so we switch to sir or ma’am if we’re talking to one man or woman, and we switch again to gentlemen or ladies if we're talking to two or more men or women. And we’ve got to remember that we can use ladies, but we shouldn't use lady unless we're upset and want to sound low-class. Have you got all that? And to think, our students have to deal with this daunting stuff, too!

Oh! And speaking of a married woman or “the missez” as some low-class speakers might say, what about Ms., which we pronounce "miz"? Most people don’t know that it goes back to the 1700s as a sort of slurred way of quickly saying missez. Besides that, it’s always been a common way of pronouncing Mrs. in parts of the American South: “Mornin’, Mizz Davis.” Sheila Michaels, an American involved in the beginnings of the feminist movement, said there should be a title for women that didn’t divulge their marital status, just as the title Mr. doesn’t divulge that about a man. These days Ms. is heard much more often than Miss or Mrs. Does that mean those two titles may be on the way out?

So I was thinking and thinking about these common titles, especially the female ones, and it suddenly dawned on me: When addressing a top politician like a president or prime minister, we say "Mr. President" or "Mr. Prime Minister," but since we’re so au courant nowadays, if Hillary Clinton becomes the first female American president, how will she want to be addressed? "Mrs. President"? "Ms. President"? "Madam President"? Hmm . . . My money’s on "Madam President." It strikes me as a cut above the other two options. What do you think? And have your students mastered the use of Mr., Miss, Mrs., and Ms.? I’d love to hear any war stories you’ve got.

By the way, mistresses and masters . . . er, . . . ladies and gentlemen, please stay tuned, because I’ve got lots more to say about titles, but that’ll have to wait for another time.




Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why Do We Say That?

I thought I’d take a slight break from things strictly grammatical this week and talk tongue-in-cheek about a topic that’s always fascinated me, the etymology of words and names. Having been a history buff all my life, especially ancient history, I’ve found it interesting to discover where names come from or how idiomatic expressions got their starts. I mean, haven’t you ever wondered why we say It’s raining cats and dogs? That’s one of the early-on idioms many of us teach our students, but when a student once asked me why English speakers say that, I just gave him a blank stare and then quickly said something devilishly clever like, “Because that’s English.” See how quickly I can think on my feet? Hmm . . .

Well, okay, why do we say It’s raining cats and dogs? Here’s one of the most popular explanations, which may very well be what is commonly referred to these days as an "urban legend." In England during the Middle Ages, most commoners’ houses had thatched roofs. That was the place where animals could keep warm in the colder months, so the pets, like dogs and cats, and other small animals lived on or in those thatched roofs. When it rained, the roofs became slippery, and sometimes the animals slid and fell off the roofs. That may be where we get the idiomatic expression It's raining cats and dogs. Is it true? Well, maybe not, but it's certainly an interesting story!

I remember many years ago wondering about the origin of my own first name. I used to joke that Richard must mean “a rich man,” and that’s what my folks had wished me to become when I grew up. Well, I was wrong. It turns out that the name is made up of two Germanic words, ric and hard, and they mean “brave power.” Other male names ending in (h)ard are also Germanic in origin. Howard means “brave heart” and Leonard means “brave lion.” I think that’s neat!

My students have always been fascinated by the stories I can now tell them surrounding the possible origins of idiomatic expressions, and I get a big kick out of being able to tell them those stories instead of cleverly saying, “Because that’s English.” Those stories open up windows into what life was like hundreds of years ago. They’re like small archaeological dig sites, only made up of words instead of artifacts you can hold in your hand. That story about the origin of It’s raining cats and dogs is a perfect example.

Here’s one more creative explanation that you might find interesting. What’s wonderful about this story is that it explains two idiomatic expressions at the same time: Because land in England was at such a premium even in the Middle Ages, people started running out of places to bury their dead. So they would dig up coffins and reuse the graves ― a practice that's now illegal. Sometimes when reopening coffins, they’d find scratch marks inside. People quickly realized they had been burying some of their loved ones alive. To stop that horror from happening, they tied a string around the dead person's wrist, brought the string through the coffin and up to the surface of the ground, and tied the string to a bell that was mounted on a stand next to the grave. Someone would be given the charming task of sitting next to the grave all night to listen for the bell. If the bell started ringing, he’d run to get help to dig up the “dead person” before he or she really was dead! That’s why on the graveyard shift, they knew someone might be saved by the bell. Interesting, right?


When I tell one of these stories to my students, I feel like a camp counselor gathered with my kids around a roaring campfire. I find these tales, whether true or not, to be a great tool to increase my students' attentiveness, listening comprehension, and retention of the idiomatic expressions under discussion. Anything that works is fine by me!

As a change of pace, I’m going to list a few of my favorite idiomatic expressions. Let’s see if you can tell us how they came to be. Are you ready? Okay, let’s go!

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.
3. Good night. Sleep tight.
4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

There you go. Five commonly used idiomatic expressions with really interesting stories behind them. Let’s see if you can become part-time etymologists and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised by what you may find out, and I can't wait to read your comments on these great idioms!