Archive for Tag: usage

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What’s an ESOL Teacher to Do?

Richard FirstenRichard Firsten is a retired ESOL teacher, teacher-trainer and columnist

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired. During those years I was a classroom teacher, associate director of a university English language institute, and author of a number of textbooks both for students and teachers. I’m mentioning this because I want you to know how relieved I am that I’m now retired and not forced to deal with what I see going on in English these days.

Being retired, I have the luxury of time to observe how everyday native speakers are using the language in a variety of settings and contexts, and I have noticed some remarkable things going on that have taken hold where 20 years ago they never would have. The thing is, how does an ESOL teacher deal with what’s going on in grammar? Does the teacher stick strictly to what the textbooks say is standard English grammar in her/his lesson plans, or does the teacher incorporate into lesson plans the grammar changes that have taken hold even though those changes are contrary to what textbooks say? Mind you, I’m not talking about stylistic matters, only grammar.

Here’s a case in point, something that really did happen to me. I’d taught my class a lesson straight from their textbook about how certain foods are uncountable nouns, e.g., ‘bread’, ‘water’, ‘coffee’, ‘lettuce’, etc. I explained that in order to count these things, we must say ‘a loaf of bread’, ‘two glasses of water’, ‘three cups of coffee’, ‘a head of lettuce’. And then the next day two students who were in that class raise their hands in class and say, “Mr. Firsten, we ate dinner in a restaurant last night. We heard the waitress say, ‘So you want two coffees, right?’ Did she use bad grammar?” Yes, my face turned slightly red. Yes, I was at a loss for words momentarily. But then I realized I’d heard phrases like that a thousand times. So why was I teaching that my students must say ‘two cups of coffee’ and only ‘two cups of coffee’? Why wasn’t I giving them an alternative that the textbook failed to mention?

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 4

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

Welcome back once more! In Part 3 we took a look at sentences, most of which show subtle but important differences or changes in meaning. In the first section below, I asked you to explain the differences in meaning between pairs of sentences. In the second section, I asked you to make any corrections you felt necessary and then, most importantly, think about how you would explain the corrections to your students in a clear, simple fashion. So here are my explanations and changes. Let’s see once again how similar our work is.

Section 1. What’s the difference between . . .

a. Mr. Spock is a character on Star Trek.

    Mr. Spock is a character in Star Trek.

Explanation: We say on Star Trek if we’re talking about the television series, but we say in Star Trek if we’re talking about the movies. It’s on a TV show, but in a movie.

b. Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

    A Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

Explanation: In the first sentence, the speaker knows the person who’s on the phone. But when the speaker doesn’t know the person on the phone, he/she communicates this to somebody else by placing the indefinite article before the title or the title and name. That’s what we see in the second sentence.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 3

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Well, I’m back. Your inquisitor is at it again! I hope you enjoyed Parts 1 and 2  of my mini-crusade to help you, the English teacher, avoid “discomfort” when a student asks a question about grammar or usage and the answer doesn’t fall trippingly off your tongue. I also hope you learned a little something from the answers supplied in Part 2.

Now it’s time for Part 3. This time we’ll deal with sentences in which just one little word can change meaning tremendously, albeit subtly. So, without further ado, I’ll leave you to it. Please remember not to go running to a dictionary for help and not to google anything. If you can’t figure something out, that’s fine for now. Just have fun with these 16 items. The answers, of course, will appear in Part 4.

1. What’s the difference between . . .

a. Mr. Spock is a character on Star Trek.

    Mr. Spock is a character in Star Trek.

      b. Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

    A Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

      c. She’s going to have the baby.

    She’s going to have a baby.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

 

Welcome back! In Part 1 we took a look at some lexical problems. I asked you to correct them and then, most importantly, think about how you would explain these corrections to your students in a clear, simple fashion. So here are my changes and explanations. Let’s see how similar our work is.

1.   (at a park)

A:  See Look at that bird! She’s feeding her chicks.

B: Where? I don’t look at see her.

Explanation: We use look at when we pay visual attention to something and we’re not focusing on any movement or action, but rather just the object of our attention. This is a voluntary action. We use see simply to mean what the eyes do when the eyelids open. This is an involuntary action. Person A wants Person B to pay visual attention to the bird; that’s why she should say “Look at that bird!” Person B uses see because his eyes simply can’t find that image.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Explain THIS. Part 1

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Picture this: A teacher is standing in front of the class. A student asks a question. It suddenly dawns on the teacher that he/she doesn’t know the answer. It also goes through the teacher’s mind that it would be so much nicer if that student hadn’t shown up for class! So now what? All eyes are on the teacher, whose heart starts beating a tad faster and whose forehead is suddenly feeling quite moist. What to do? What to say?

I bet you’re grinning right now. You can relate to that scenario, can’t you? I know I certainly can! But it’s an unavoidable occurrence in our profession; an occupational hazard, as they say. We just can’t know everything about everything! So I’m going to start a mini-crusade of sorts. I’m going to dedicate a number of my pieces on “Teacher Talk” to help teachers avoid some of those uncomfortable moments like the one I’ve just portrayed.

I think the best way to approach this crusade of mine is to offer you some mini-dialogues and sentences to think about and ask you to come up with interpretations you’d give to your students. First, we’ll check out some individual words in the lexicon; later, we’ll deal with phrases, clauses, or sentences in which just one little word or one change in stress can change meaning tremendously, albeit subtly.

Each of these mini-dialogues or individual sentences will have errors. Find the errors, correct them as you see fit, and figure out how you would explain your corrections to your students. That’s the most important part: how to explain the differences in meaning and/or usage.

So let’s get started. Please have fun with these while you think about them – and DON’T use a dictionary. There isn’t going to be any fun in that!

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sneaked vs. Snuck: What Ngram Tells Us

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I have just discovered an online tool that I think will be fun and useful for all of us who are fascinated by English language usage. It is Google Labs Ngram Viewer, released by Google in December, 2010.

The Ngram Viewer graphs usage frequency from 1800 to 2000, based on the corpus of millions of books that Google has thus far scanned.

The first word I looked up was snuck. Through my years of writing textbooks, I debated whether to include snuck in an advanced-level reference chart of irregular

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