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Nov 26, 2020
Hugh Dellar

Five more things I’ve learned from running the ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED group

Two years ago now, I set up a Facebook group called ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED. In a sense, it was a purely selfish move as I wanted to be able to shepherd into one place all the questions about language that I regularly got asked across a wide range of platforms. Looking around at the many Facebook groups offering up a steady diet of bizarre gap-fill exercises and unlikely sentences for you to transform into the passive, I had also come to feel that there was a gap in the market for a space where anyone at any level could ask questions about how English was used, whether something was correct or not, why things work the way they do in English, and so on. The group soon started to grow and, mercifully, attracted a small but dedicated hardcore of language nerds who are always keen to help out with questions, share expertise and learn from each other. This has taken some of the weight of expectation off my shoulders, though, perhaps predictably, I still enjoy chipping in whenever I can, and I’ve certainly learned a lot myself since the group’s inception. Recognising the limits of one’s language knowledge and language awareness is one of the enduring lessons the group teaches.

Last November, to mark the first anniversary of the site, I wrote a post outlining five things that had become apparent to me during the first year of the page’s existence. Since then, we’ve added over 5000 more members, banned around 250 more (for everything from posting phishing scams to bizarre religious material, from assuming we were there to complete homework tasks to appalling rudeness to fellow members) and dealt with literally thousands of queries. Here, I’m going to try to unpick five more recurrent themes that have cropped up time and time again. Here goes . . . .

(1) A lot of ELT material really doesn’t make life easy for students.

Many years ago, I taught a Mongolian student called Sayana. One day, during a tutorial, she confessed to me that she was finding the language hard. When I probed a bit more and asked what particular aspects of it were causing her most concern, she pulled a well-worn Mongolian-English grammar book out of her book and offered it by way of an answer. I thumbed through it and was struck by one sentence that my eyes fell upon – The child whose eyes are blue and whose hair is blonde is mine.

What most hit me was not just the sheer unlikeliness of the sentence as a general example of how English is used, but the utter ridiculousness of it appearing in a book for students whose children would almost certainly possess neither blonde hair nor blue eyes. When I asked Sayana if she’d ever say this sentence in her own first language, she looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “Of course no!”. I then asked why she was worrying about things like this in her second language, at which point she suddenly looked incredibly deflated and said “Becuase grammar!”

Sadly, ‘because grammar’ seems to be one of the main reasons that students and teachers alike continue to find English way harder than it ought to be. If you’re going to stress over a sentence in a language, it makes sense that it’s a sentence that’s actually been said – and that may well be said again, maybe even by you, at some point. However, questions such as “Which option is correct? The baby (who /which) was crying woke me up” and “Help me choose: The train (by which / on which) my friend travelled to England arrived too late” are still disturbingly common, and often come from folk who’re having to deal with these questions in official coursebooks or in published grammar books.

My answers are generally things like “Neither. We’d just say I GOT WOKEN UP BY THE BABY CRYING and MY FRIEND’S TRAIN WAS LATE”, which I realise aren’t the responses required, but life is short – far too short to spend time worrying about clumsy, convoluted sentences that have been deliberately written to exemplify bits of grammar, yet which bear little if any resemblance to anything anyone will ever actually want to do with said grammar!

(2) Collocation doesn’t work logically – and meanings of words don’t always help.

In corpus linguistics, a collocation is defined as a series of words that co-occur (or co-locate) more often than would be expected by chance. There are verbs and adjectives that regularly go with nouns, adverbs that collocate with verbs, and so on. Knowing how words work with other words is an integral element of linguistic development, and as you get better in a language, you start to realise that words collocate differently in the second language to the way they do in L1, that different meanings of a word collocate differently, and that even very close synonyms which are often interchangeable sometimes form different collocations.

Part of the problem for the learner is that understanding the meaning of an item doesn’t always help you when it comes to trying to use it in a broader context. So for example, if you hear the sentence We’re working flat-out at the moment, you might be tempted to reach for the dictionary, which would tell you that flat-out means ‘completely’ and is ‘used for emphasis’. Armed with this knowledge, you experiment. “Can I say I flat-out agree? What about The whole area has flat-out changed? Or He was standing flat-out still?” Um . . . no, no and no.

I was reminded of this recently when a question popped up asking about effect as a verb. Again, a quick glance at a reputable dictionary will help you glean the meaning, given in the Macmillan dictionary as ‘to make something happen’, but that gives you almost sense of the incredibly limited way in which the verb collocates. You can effect change, effect a complete transformation (which is basically effecting change on a grand scale), effect a beneficial outcome, effect a reconciliation . . . and not much else. In short, meaning alone is a poor guide to what words are used to do, and how words generally interact with each other.

(3) Many things are possible, very few are probable.

I think the first place that I encountered the idea of probable language trumping the merely possible was in Pawley and Syder’s seminal 1983 article, Two puzzles for linguistic theory, nativelike selection and nativelike fluency, which you can read in its entirety here. The idea that there was no logical – or grammatical – reason that explained why we say, for instance, It’s twenty to four rather than It’s four less twenty or It exceeds three by forty was revelatory for me. These choices were simply made because some sentences are recognised and accepted by fluent users as ordinary idiomatic usages, and others aren’t – or, at the very least, are much less likely to be. In everyday classroom terms, this falls into the “Well, it’s not wrong to say it like that, but most people would say it like this” category of instruction.

Many of the questions that members bring to the group – and, by extension, I suspect many questions that students bring to classrooms – fall under the ‘possible, but not probable’ umbrella. “Which option is better? How long does a coffee plant produce cherries? Or For how long does a coffee plant produce cherries?” Neither. We’d normally say it as How long does a coffee plant produce cherries for? The preposition usually goes at the end. Why? Because the preposition usually goes at the end! “I know I can say It’s very demanding if I’m talking about my job. Can I also say it’s very responsible?” You can, but usually we’d put it before the noun, so we’d say It’s a very responsible job or She’s got a very responsible job.

(4) A lot of words don’t get learned as others do their job for them

Whatever language/s we grow up speaking, we all end up with a passive vocabulary that’s much larger than our active vocabulary. In other words, the number of words and chunks and phrases that we recognise when we hear and, more particularly, see them written down is far greater than the number we actively use in our own speech and writing. Academic estimates of the size of active and passive varies, and I’ve seen claims of everything from an active vocabulary of around 5000 and a passive of more like 20,000 right up to active vocabularies of around 20,000 and passive vocabularies twice that size. The basic point remains clear, though: we all know a hell of a lot of more words than we use.

This isn’t an argument for forcing yourself to start using every single item in your passive vocabulary actively. Whilst it’s obviously sensible to try to work out which of the new items you’ve encountered you may be able to weave in what you already have, there are nevertheless good reasons why much vocabulary doesn’t make this transition into everyday use: much of it is specific to certain types of written genres such as journalism or literature or academic writing, or else it exists mostly in the realms of high-level business meetings, political negotiations, and so on.

In addition, there are countless words that will forever remain on the periphery of our vocabularies simply because other far more common words do essentially the same job as they do. I was reminded of this recently when one member wrote about a sentence she’d come across – The doctor places the swab up your nose – and asked if it’d be OK to use put here instead of place. Obviously, it’d be fine here, and so place is likely to remain unactivated. My own answer here was “Using place adds the idea of putting something somewhere in a careful and deliberate way. For example: Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl, and gradually add water.// He placed the letter in front of me, etc.” What I didn’t say, though, was that unless you’re going to be writing cookery books or short stories, you may well not really need to try and use it.

(5) Context is all

Perhaps the thing I ask most frequently in response to questions in the group is “What’s the context?” Far too many queries are about stand-alone sentences that exist in a weird context-free zone. I suspect that this results from the study of isolated sentences illustrating particular grammar structures that’s still depressingly prevalent around the globe.

We don’t use language in decontextualised vacuums. Language is, by definition, something that is contextually dependent. So when someone asks a question like this – “A student of mine wrote I DID MY JOB / I DID WRITE THIS LETTER. Is this normal?” – it’s hard to really know how to respond. I managed the following:

As always, it depends on context. We can use DO / DOES / DID in positive sentences in certain contexts. For example:

A: You performed very poorly and let us all down by not doing your job properly.

B: That’s simply not true. I DID do my job!

If it’s not in this kind of context – and I’m guessing it probably isn’t – then it’s just wrong and should be I DID MY JOB and I WROTE THIS LETTER. This is a common mistake native-speaker kids make, btw, as they’re getting to grips with how we talk about the past.

It seems to me that a context-free approach to looking at grammar makes life far harder than it ought to be. What, for instance, are teacher and students supposed to do with sentences like this, which are presented to them in a terrifying void? They (meet) when they (live) in Italy. Without any clearer sense of who is talking to who, when, why, and about what, it’s impossible to know whether the expected answer is They met when they lived in Italy, They’d met when they were living in Italy, They’re bound to meet when they’re living in Italy, or any number of other possible permutations. And we wonder why students struggle to get to grips with grammar!

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