Saturday, March 22, 2008

What is Grammar?

Before I get into this week's topic, I'd love to respond to the request that Rachel made in her wonderful observations and comments on my last piece, "It's Just a Formality." Rachel mentioned that perhaps I could guide her “… in the right direction about getting doctors to do the right thing” as far as how they address her as their patient. (And, by the way, Rachel, thank you for your terrific comments and observations!)

I’ve been in similar situations, and I’ve only found one tactful way to get my message across about not caring to be addressed by my first name when the person doing so is in a position that I feel could adversely affect my well being in one way or another. I just use that person’s first name, too. So if my doctor were to call me Richard, and I didn’t feel comfortable about him doing so, I’d simply start calling him by his first name, too, and avoid calling him “Doctor.” If my medical practitioner reacted negatively to that, I hope he’d get the message, subtle though it may be. But if he didn’t seem to mind, well, so be it. We’d both just keep addressing each other as if we were old pals. That would be fine with me ― as long as it were mutual.

I once had a principal who always called me “Firsten,” just “Firsten.” It used to drive me nuts. One day, out of total irritation, after he again addressed me as "Firsten," I called him "Leyva" (his last name). He was quite taken aback and actually came right out and said to me, “You mean Mr. Leyva, don’t you?” I retorted, “Then you mean Mr. Firsten, right?” He got the message, although with somebody like him subtlety didn’t work. But from then on, he called me “Mr. Firsten” and I called him “Mr. Leyva.” So that’s my suggestion, Rachel.
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Betty Azar posed a great question in her comments on my last piece. Betty wrote, “I have a question for you. People talk about there being a spoken grammar and a written grammar. When they say that, aren't they really talking about register and style being different? Isn't the underlying grammar the same no matter what the register or speaking/writing style?”

This question couldn’t have come at a better time. One of our wonderful members in the Azar Grammar Exchange, an EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia by the name of Ismael, posed a question to me that I told him would best be answered here on my blog. His question ties in perfectly with Betty’s. Ismael asked, “Is pronunciation a part of grammar?”

I smiled both when I read Ismael’s question and when I found Betty’s waiting for me, and here’s why. To begin, I’d like to quote a linguist’s definition of "grammar" to help answer these questions: The sounds and sound patterns, the basic units of meaning, such as words, and the rules to combine them to form new sentences constitute the grammar of a language. The grammar, then, is what we know; it represents our linguistic competence. To understand the nature of language we must understand the nature of this internalized, unconscious set of rules, which is part of every grammar of every language.*

We can tell immediately from this linguistic definition of grammar that pronunciation is indeed one of the integral parts of all the internalized rules that govern a language, and we certainly have “rules” that tell us which sounds are or are not acceptable in any given language. In fact, that’s what’s meant when we say that somebody has “an accent” in another language. It means that the speaker is imposing certain sounds of his native language onto the sound system of the other language he’s speaking. So, for example, if I use my rounded English /r/ when I speak Spanish, which has a trilled /r/, Spanish speakers will say to each other right away that I have “an accent,” an “English accent,” in their language. So that would be one part of the “grammar” of Spanish that I haven’t mastered. I hope that answers your question, Ismael.

As to what Betty has asked, I think the answer can get quite complicated. First, we probably don’t need to define what we mean by “spoken language,” but perhaps we need to do so for “written language.” I would venture to say that “written language” or “written grammar” refers to the standard, educated language and its rules used in writing and understood by all educated people who use the language in question in one specific country.

With that said, if we use the linguistic definition of a grammar, I imagine that we can say there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar, since the standard ― and I stress “standard” ― written language doesn’t need to take pronunciation, intonation, or dialectal variation into account. Here’s one case in point: In certain parts of New England, it’s perfectly correct for Person B to utter the following response in this mini-dialogue:

A: I like nothing better than watching football on Thanksgiving Day.
B: So don’t I.

Now the standard way of responding to that comment would be to say, “So do I,” and I daresay that in the written language, that would be the only acceptable sentence. But "So do I" certainly isn’t the only acceptable sentence in the spoken grammar in that part of the US. So can we say unequivocally that Person B’s response is ungrammatical? I don’t think so, not in the spoken grammar.

So I don’t think those who claim there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar are just talking about register and style. There seem to be some real differences that we can find if we look closely enough without even accounting for the areas of spoken grammar that don’t need to be dealt with in the written grammar. At least that’s my take on this topic.

I’d love to hear what others think about this issue. Have an opinion? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment. What you have to say is always most welcome!


*Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 4th ed. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1988

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Friday, March 14, 2008

It's Just a Formality

I greatly appreciate the comments sent in by Sam Simian in response to my last piece, “Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy.” Sam has given me some really meaty food for thought.

He mentioned that Nina Weinstein, who has written extensively in the field of ELT, claims her research shows that when we use reduced forms like gunnuh, it’s not because of how relaxed we feel in informal situations, but because of the speed of our speech. I really don’t agree with that. Yes, of course we tend to use reductions like wanna, hafta, and wudduyuh when speaking quickly, but I don’t think that’s the only condition under which we’ll hear native speakers use such reductions:

(mother tenderly talking to her agitated eight-year-old son)
A: Don’tcha think it’s time you made up with your brother, Bobby?
B: No way, Mom! I hate ’im! I hate ’im!
A: Oh, c’mon, Bobby. You know you don’ hate ’im.
B: Yeah, I do! I do! He’s mean!
A: Look. You’re older than him. Shouldn’tcha show ’im it’s not right for brothers to fight?
B: But Mom, he lost my favorite ball. And I never told ’im he could play with it!
A: Tell ya what. If you shake hands with Jimmy and make up, I’ll buy you a new ball ― an' that bat you wanted, the one you saw at Z-Mart. An’ you don’ hafta take out the garbage for a whole week. So? C’mon, wudduyuh say?
B: Awright, Mom. But he better not take my stuff anymore!

Now that conversation just wouldn’t be rushed through. I hope you’ll agree that Bobby’s mom probably spoke quietly and gently to her son to calm him down and persuade him to do the right thing, not that her bribes didn’t help! This is why I don’t think reduced pronunciations are necessarily a result of speaking quickly. I think such reductions can say something about a relationship or the mood set between two or more people in a conversation. The “relaxed” sound of these reductions reflects the relaxed mood Bobby’s mother wanted to create. That’s my take on this. What’s yours?

I found it very interesting that Sam says, “If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka came into my class and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Simian. Wussup?’ I don’t think that the problem would be the reduced form; I think that the problem would be the expression that’s being reduced: What’s up? What’s up? is an informal greeting. I’m a fairly informal person, so I wouldn’t take offense at that being directed at me. However, I would probably explain that Wussup? is a very informal greeting. I would also take that opportunity to explain that most people see the classroom as a formal environment, so Wussup? would usually be considered inappropriate — especially when a student is addressing a teacher.”

I couldn’t agree with Sam more. That choice of greeting does seem inappropriate . . . or does it? I keep wondering what’s happening to how we deal with formality in American culture and how our language reflects this. I think there’s a definite shift going on in formality or in a lack of it, and I think the lines between what many consider a formal situation and an informal one are becoming blurred. I’m a child of the 1950s when I do believe there were quite clear lines separating formal from informal situations and the appropriate use of formal language from its informal counterpart. That doesn’t seem to be the case so much these days.

As I said, I’m a product of the decade I grew up in ― I can’t escape it. That’s why it bothers me every time a salesperson or other such person decides on his or her own to call me by my first name without asking for my permission first. (I think they’re told when they receive training for their jobs that if they start calling the customer by his or her first name, they’ll create a more friendly atmosphere and relationship, which will make a sale go more easily.) But being the kind of outspoken person I am, I’ll pipe up right away and say, “Excuse me. My name is Mr. Firsten, thank you.” The perpetrator of the infraction always looks quite shocked at being rebuked, but I guess that’s because most people just let things like that go by without saying a word. Not this customer!

Something similar which happens quite often in my part of the US (South Florida) is that a salesperson or repairperson will address me as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. Now, I’m quite aware of the fact that there are certain relatively small areas of the US where the culture allows this to happen, that is, to use a title like Mr. along with a first name, but that’s really not the case where I live. I think people do it here because they don’t want to bother asking you how you pronounce your last name if they feel it’s too hard to pronounce. Well, I honestly don’t think that Firsten is that hard to pronounce, and it would behoove those people to learn how to pronounce other people’s last names as a sign of courtesy, if nothing else.

Sam says it doesn’t bother him that Michael Mukasey said gunnuh instead of going to during those formal Senate hearings he had to attend, but it bothers me. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur; that’s possible. Yes, I know that Americans prefer informality over formality in many kinds of situations, which means their language will reflect how formal or informal they elect to be, but I do think we should still have sociolinguistic lines that are clearly defined. I’m interested to know how you feel about such things, so don’t hesitate to post your comments. They’ll be well received.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Eliza Doolittle's Legacy

A very interesting thing took place a few nights ago. I was having a wonderful time at a dinner party I’d been invited to. The guests happened to make up a very nice cross section of Americans, including Northeasterners, Midwesterners, Southerners, and even somebody from Guam.

I can’t recall how this came into the conversation around the dinner table, but an animated debate got under way concerning what is or isn’t right in spoken English. A gentleman from upper New York State started decrying what he termed the “downgrading” of English, both in vocabulary and pronunciation. He was especially appalled by pronunciations such as “gunnuh” for going to, the future expression. I tried to explain to him that there’s nothing wrong with that pronunciation, depending on whether or not it’s the appropriate register for the setting and the speakers involved. I explained that going to would be appropriate in a more formal situation, but that “gunnuh” would be fine in an informal setting such as among friends. The basic idea I was trying to impart was that it’s not so easy to say what is “right” or what is “wrong” in areas of language such as pronunciation; that it all depends on the setting and choosing the proper register.

A couple of days later that pronouncement kind of imploded. Once again I was ambushed! I was having lunch, listening to various American senators questioning Michael Mukasey, who President Bush had nominated for the job of U.S. Attorney General. The setting couldn’t have been more formal: Mukasey sitting at a table with hands clasped and a microphone in front of him; a panel of senators asking him difficult questions; reporters and photographers all around ― pretty formal, wouldn’t you say? And then suddenly, while munching on my tuna sandwich, I heard Mukasey say, “Yes, Senator, I’m gunnuh look into that.” “What? What did he say?” I gasped. “‘I’m gunnuh’? He said ‘I’m gunnuh’? Mr. Mukasey! You’re supposed to say ‘I’m going to’! Don’t you know that?” I shouted at the pale, bureaucratic-looking face on my TV screen. “What’s next? Are you gunnuh start saying ‘I shoulduh’ instead of ‘I should have’? And what about when you want to know what your staff is talking about? Do you usually ask them, ‘Wussup’?” I was beside myself. I couldn’t even take the last bite of my tuna sandwich.

Was that concerned English speaker from New York state right? Is English pronunciation being “downgraded”? I’ve been wondering about how much attention we give or don’t give to the way people pronounce. Are there perhaps unwritten rules on what is and isn’t appropriate pronunciation of a given word or phrase in a certain situation? Do people cringe if they hear somebody like Michael Mukasey say gunnuh? And what about shoulduh or coulduh? Why should gunnuh be okay but not shoulduh or coulduh? It seems okay when people say should’ve and could’ve, doesn’t it? Hey! Wait a minute! There’s been a commercial on American TV for years for a vegetable drink in which the character says, “I coulduh had a V-8!” I know he doesn’t say, “I could’ve had a V-8!” and there’s no way on earth that he says, “I could have had a V-8!” No, he definitely says coulduh. Is there a reason for that? Why did the script writer opt for coulduh instead of the other two pronunciations? And why did the director let it get by, not to mention the company that pays for that marketing campaign? Is there something going on here that ELT instructors should be thinking about?

What do you think English teachers should do about all of this? If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka comes into your classroom one fine day and says, “Good morning, Mr./Ms. X. Wussup?” how should you respond? If you have a negative reaction to that greeting, what are you going to tell the student? How would you explain why you cringed when he or she said that? I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say on this subject ― so tell me!

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Present for You

Have you ever been frustrated by some of the names that are given to grammatical forms? I know I have. Take for example the simple present. Is it the present? Hmm... That all depends. And is it simple? Hah! Not by a long shot!

Okay, we know that the simple present really does mean the present for a limited number of verbs, the ones we usually refer to as stative verbs like hear, forgive, fit, need, and wish. I can talk about “right now” and use verbs like these in the simple present:

  • I hear somebody at the front door.
  • I forgive you. Now let’s put it behind us.
  • I wish I were someplace else.
  • That blouse fits perfectly.
  • We need some bread. Can you go to the store, please?


But that’s not the case for the vast majority of English verbs, is it? When I want to put them in the present, I’ll make use of the present progressive. I’m typing these words right now. I’m thinking of ways to be clever right now. So why don’t we just call the present progressive “the present” since it’s definitely used more to mean the present than the simple present? Whoever thought up the term simple present could have come up with something less misleading for that relatively small group of verbs we call stative. This frustrates me. And it frustrates and confuses most of my students. I mean, after all, they see the label “simple present” and rightfully assume it means the present − for each and every verb. Now we’ve got the daunting job of trying to undo that misconception. Do we really need this extra work?

I hope you never find yourself in the position I found myself in one day. I went to a baseball game with some of my students. They’d never seen a live game and were very excited about attending one, and I knew I’d get a big kick out of giving them this experience. But I wasn’t counting on one thing that happened during the game. One of my students was watching the action and also listening to a live simulcast of the game on his radio. This is what he sees, but this is what he hears:

What He Sees -------------------------------> What He Hears

The pitcher is throwing a curve ball. ---> "And Johnson throws a curve ball!"
The ball is soaring out of the stadium.--> "The ball soars out of the stadium!"
It’s a home run. -----------------------------> "It’s a home run!"
Gomez is taking a victory lap. -----------> "
Gomez takes a victory lap!"

Do I need to tell you what this astute learner of English asked me? Do I need to tell you how I cringed when he hit me with the question? “Mr. Firsten, I’m confused. Why did the announcer say, ‘He throws the ball’ and ‘He takes a lap’? This is not all the time. This is now. Why didn’t he say He’s throwing the ball and He’s taking a lap?”

Ah, but it doesn’t end there:

A: Wasn’t it Cliff Richardson who discovered America and not Columbus?
B: Uh, I think you’re thinking of Leif Erikson, not Cliff Richardson.

Just run what Person B says past your students and watch their eyes get as big as saucers and their jaws drop! Yes, Virginia, there is sadism in TESOL! So now it’s not enough that we have to deal with trying to end student confusion caused by an erroneous tense name, and it’s not enough that we have to explain the narrative use of the simple present when it means “now” with non-stative verbs, but we also have to explain how changing the form of some verbs from the simple present to the present progressive can change their meaning − not their time, their meaning. Ee-gads! Yep, this is really “simple.”

Anybody have stories to match mine? Do you ever wish English grammar were more like French or Russian, where one present tense fits all? Just imagine how much easier your working life could be? How I envy those French and Russian teachers! Give the students that one verb form, let them conjugate it for I, you, he, she, etc., throw them a few exercises to fill in the blanks, and sit back with your feet up on your desk and think pleasant thoughts. Ah, now that’s the life for a language teacher!

I’ll have more to say on the subject of tenses and their names later, so stay tuned.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Welcome to My Blog!

Glad you’ve come to visit my blog! I’d like to consider this my cyber-living room, so to speak, where we can have good chats to exchange ideas about any and all aspects of the English language: where it's been, where it is now, and where it's headed.

This is our chance to discuss troublesome parts of the language, vent frustrations in trying to teach or learn it, talk about pet peeves concerning how the language is used, and offer amusing, insightful observations on this means of communication we call English. You’ll be able to send me your comments, and that should prove very interesting, too, for me and for other guests. I’ll do my best to give you a stimulating, innovative, anything-but-ordinary experience at The Grammar Guy.

I’ve been wondering what I wanted to start off my blog with, and it suddenly dawned on me: vocabulary! Why vocabulary? Well, I’ve been teaching English for almost 35 years, and one area that never ceases to ambush me is vocabulary. What a daunting feature of the language this is for teachers and students! Just when I think I know what I’m talking about, I’ll either find myself wondering about a word, or somebody will ask me a tricky vocabulary question that makes me cringe. So yes, vocabulary seems to be a good way to get the blog ball rolling.


May I Have a Word?

In his book Crazy English*, author Richard Lederer goes into some of the odder oddities of English. He pointed out something that has always stuck with me: “Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?” Yep, it’s funny, so we chuckle at the cleverness of his question and maybe grin sheepishly, but at the same time, I, for one, feel uncomfortable because I know I can’t answer the question right then and there. We’ll probably find the answer if we dig into the etymology of both words, but to come up with an answer on the spot? Yipes! Anyway, the point is that English vocabulary is always ambushing us like this. Hasn’t it done that to you?

That author’s queries got me thinking about all sorts of curious questions on English vocabulary that can make my job – and yours – much tougher. I figure it’ll be fun to list some of those musings, both Lederer's and my own, for you to think about. I mean, why shouldn't I let you go as nuts over words as Richard Lederer and I do? So here are a few of those choicer musings. Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

  • Discounting sibling and spouse, why is it that the only term for a family member that’s genderless is cousin? I mean, when we say father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, etc., we know we’re talking about a male or female. But that’s not the case with cousin. I find that very curious.

What made me think about this is when an EFL teacher from Malaysia happened to mention something about his “cousin-sister” in a thread on the Azar Grammar Exchange. “Cousin-sister”? Huh?? My first reaction, of course, was to correct him and say there’s no such thing as a “cousin-sister.” Ah, but I know better now. I don’t make such broad pronouncements any more, not after all the times I’ve been ambushed. And guess what. In certain areas of Asia, the terms cousin-brother and cousin-sister have evolved to deal with the problem of cousin being genderless. Aha! How creative! It might take a little getting used to, but it works, doesn’t it? Now I wonder if it’ll ever catch on elsewhere. But I digress . . .

Here are some more gems that have preyed upon my poor, addled brain and made me reach repeatedly for a bottle of aspirin. Please think about them, will you?

  • Have you ever tried to explain the difference between electric and electrical?
  • If you can rear children and rear animals, can you rear fish?
  • Can we really rush around during rush hour? Hah! And why is it only an hour?
  • Aren’t wise man and wise guy synonyms?

And then there are words that contradict themselves:

  • Fast can mean either “move or do quickly,” or it can mean “not move,” as in holding fast.
  • Trim can mean “add decoration to” as in trim a Christmas tree, but it can also mean “remove from,” as in trim the shrubs.
  • Why is there no egg in eggplant, or apple or pine in pineapple?
  • Aren’t boxing rings square?
  • How can a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?
  • For that matter, how can flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?!

Have you reached for your bottle of aspirin yet? Aren’t you glad you haven’t been hit with these questions – or have you been? It’s enough to make you want to take up accounting as a career! But since I’m not any good with numbers, I’ve stuck with teaching English. And I’m glad I have. After all, it does keep me hopping – and wondering, and hopping, and wondering.

So let me know if you’ve been ambushed by vocabulary too. I’d love to hear your war stories. I’m glad you dropped by, and I hope you are, too.

*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc). 1998

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