Q is for Quote marks

21 07 2010

Enjoying the relative cool of Central Park last week, I discovered that the bench that I was sitting on bore a message:

Wishing no disrespect to the deceased, I was intrigued, nevertheless, by the quote marks around abruptly. How was I meant to interpret them? What extra nuance of meaning did the author of this tribute intend? What, in short, is the pragmatic force of “abruptly” as opposed to abruptly?

Quote marks, after all, are not innocent bystanders in the processes of text creation and interpretation. Traditionally, of course, they separated quoted matter from the writer’s own words. Hence, they’re called (variously) quote marks, quotation marks, speech marks and so on. But they’ve come to fulful a number of other functions too. Look at these examples of headlines, all taken from the BBC News website on a single day, along with the first line of the accompanying report:

Pakistan’s ISI ‘supports’ Taliban

Pakistan’s intelligence service has direct links with the Taliban in Afghanistan, a report claims, but Pakistan denies it.

Slovak opposition ‘wins’ election

A centre-right coalition wins a majority in Slovakia, but the prime minister says he will still try to form a new government.

‘Israeli spy’ arrested in Poland

Polish authorities have arrested a suspected Israeli agent in connection with the murder of a Hamas operative in Dubai in January.

Japan PM warns of debt ‘collapse’

Japan is at “risk of collapse” under its huge debt mountain, the country’s new prime minister has said.

‘Threat’ to porn site visitors

Visitors to porn sites are at serious risk of being exploited by cyber criminals, a study has suggested.

Adobe fixes ‘critical’ Flash flaw

Adobe has fixed a “critical” security flaw that had the potential to allow hackers to take control of affected computer systems.

‘Bullying’ link to child suicides

As many as 44% of suicides among 10-14 year olds between 2000-2008 may be bullying-related, a charity suggests.

Only one of these seems to flag  direct speech quotes – the one about the Japanese debt collapse. It seems that the others serve to distance the writer (and website sponsor) from some kind of assertion: they act as a form of hedging or mitigation. Note how often they collocate with verbs like claim, deny, suggest, suspect, as well as with modals like may. The doubt implied by quote marks is why they are popularly known as  ‘scare quotes’. In some cases they even suggest that the claim is so disputed as to be false, as in the example: Slovak opposition ‘wins’ election. Note also how many of the hedged items have negative connoations: spy, collapse, threat, bullying, etc. It’s as if the BBC doesn’t want to be too closely associated with reporting bad news.

But just as interesting as the cases where quote marks are used, are the cases where they are not – and I wonder if there isn’t a covert political agenda in operation here. For example (from the same webpage on the same day):

Burma denies nuclear programme

The Burmese government has denied recent reports that it is developing a nuclear weapons programme.

Cuba frees paraplegic dissident

The Cuban government has freed a jailed dissident and moved six others to jails closer to their homes.

Clash reports on Iran anniversary

Sporadic demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities have been reported on the anniversary of the disputed presidential election.

What would the effect have been, had nuclear programme, dissident, and clash been in quotes?  Given their absence, can we  infer that the BBC feels less need to hedge when reporting on some countries than on others? Is not using quote marks a veiled form of criticism? To me, all this suggests that the way quote marks are used (or not used) might be a useful focus for raising awareness about the ideological sub-text of texts – does anyone know of material that does this?

But none of this solves the mystery of the ‘true New York lady’ – neither her life nor her manner of leaving it!

P is for Passive

18 07 2010

Obama: male or female?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker adduces evidence from President Obama’s speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil-well blow-out to suggest that his speaking style is more female than male. Apparently Obama’s speech “featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century.” The use of the passive voice is, supposedly, a characteristic of female speech – the sort of gender myth that drives Deborah Cameron crazy (see my previous post G is for Gender).

In refuting Parker’s cod-linguistics, the Atlantic Wire quotes University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman, who “finds that Obama’s speech was only 11.1 percent passive, and that Bush used more passive voice anyway. Liberman finds that Bush’s Katrina speech was 17.6 percent passive”.

In any case, he adds, “there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are ‘feminine’… The ‘passive is girly’ prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive.”

Newspaper columnists are not alone in misrepresenting the significance of the passive. Student grammars are also at fault. A trainee of mine recently brought to my attention the following explanation of the use of the passive in a reputable grammar reference text:

Active and passive sentences often have similar meanings, but a different focus.

Active sentences focus on the agent (the person or thing doing the action). Millions of people read the magazine. (The focus is on the people.)

Passive sentences focus on the object (the person or thing receiving the action).

The magazine is read by millions of people. (The focus is on the magazine.)

Assuming that by ‘focus’ is meant ‘the important information’, this is so wrong as to be the exact opposite of the case, and is a good example of what happens when you try to fabricate rules out of de-contextualised examples. So, let’s create a plausible context:

The National Geographic is an American institution. The magazine is read by millions of people.

In the second sentence, the magazine refers back to a previously mentioned topic (The National Geographic). In other words, it is “given information” (the definite article indicates as much, even in the absence of the context). The new information is everything that follows (is read by millions of people), and conforms to the convention in English (and in many other languages) that new information is placed towards the end of the sentence – what is called “the end-weight principle”.  The rule given in the grammar book – that “active sentences focus on the agent” and “passive sentences focus on the object” – wrongly implies that the so-called focus of a sentence is its subject. The focus (if by focus we mean ‘the important information’) is in fact everything that is not the subject, i.e. everything that follows the main verb. Thus, the passive is one of several devices available to move new information to the end of the sentence, even when that new information is the agent of the verb. Compare the following two ‘mini-texts’:

  1. Ludwig von Beethoven was a German composer. He composed the Pastoral Symphony.
  2. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. It was composed by Ludwig von Beethoven.

    Beethoven: active or passive?

In the second sentence of Text 2, a passive structure is enlisted simply to push the new information to the end of the sentence in order to ‘focus’ on it. (The end-weighted matter, incidentally, also receives the most stress when spoken – a further indication of its ‘focal’ value). Compare Text 2 above with the less convincing – albeit grammatically well-formed – alternative:

2a. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. Ludwig von Beethoven composed it.

Curiously, the same point came up in a teaching practice class this week. In her reflections on a lesson, a teacher recounted the following:

On the board I wrote:

In the 1880’s, the telephone was invented.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

I asked students, “What is the focus of each sentence?” They did fine on the first two, but answered, “by Alexander Graham Bell,” for the third.   At this point, I said well actually the focus is on the telephone.   The meaning of the structure is to place emphasis on the noun (subject) that fronts the sentence.  The students not knowing this, couldn’t make sense of the concept check question.

In fact, as I pointed out to the teacher, the students were right!

P is for Push

11 07 2010

On my MA Methods course I’ve been pushing the notion of ‘push’. ‘Being pushed’ (I argue) is a precondition for effective learning. In order to progress, learners need to be challenged to go beyond their immediate comfort zone; they need to be coerced into extending their present level of competence.  Otherwise, there is a danger that they will simply mark time as language learners, or even – to use a now fairly discredited term – fossilize.

Merrill Swain (left) along with other plenary speakers at last year's JALT Conference

The term ‘push’ is borrowed from a comment that Merrill Swain made as long ago as 1985, in proposing what became known (in contradistinction to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis) as the Output Hypothesis. If you remember, Krashen had argued that comprehensible input alone is a sufficient condition for second language acquisition to occur, with the proviso that the input should be pitched a little above the learner’s present state of competence – what Krashen dubbed “input + 1”.

Swain, on the other hand, argued that, while input is necessary, it is insufficient. Instead (or as well),  the learner needs to produce language, and not only produce,  but be “pushed towards the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed, but that is conveyed precisely, coherently and appropriately”.  She adds that “being ‘pushed’ in output … is a concept that is parallel to that of the i + 1 of comprehensible input”.

One reason for this is – as I point out in An A-Z – “being pushed to produce language puts learners in a better position to notice the ‘gaps’ in their language knowledge”, encouraging them to ‘upgrade’ their existing interlanguage system. And, as they are pushed to produce language in real time and thereby forced to automate low-level operations by incorporating them into higher-level routines, it may also contribute to the development of fluency.

So, what can teachers do to provide this extra ‘push’? Here are a few ideas:

1. Rather than accepting one- or two-word replies to questions, insist on more elaborated utterances, in the spirit of: “Ok, that was good. Now give me a full sentence.” Or, “Ok, say that again, but include two facts, not just one”.

2. Repeat tasks: research suggests that performance generally improves when learners repeat a speaking task. The second or third time round, ‘raise the bar’, e.g. ‘This time, do it from memory, without your notes’. Or, ‘This time do it in half the time’. If doing the same task seems like a chore, add variety by changing the partner for each ‘take’.

3. Public performance: Whereas pair and group work is great for task rehearsal, it’s also easy for learners to under-perform in this setting, especially when out of ear-shot of the teacher. Performing the task to the whole class, or publicly reporting on the outcome of the task, adds an element of formality that often encourages greater attention to accuracy. And knowing that they may be called upon to report or perform has a useful washback effect on the level of engagement during the groupwork itself.

4. Encourage learners to go beyond their present competence by incorporating novel language items into their performance. For example, if a role play involves making requests, establish the request forms that the learners are already comfortable with, then top up by teaching some new ones. Ask individuals to choose at least one new form, and to write it on a piece of paper, which they hold during the role play, and which they relinquish once it’s been used.   Alternatively, a cuisenaire rod can represent the targeted form – it helps if it is something physical that serves to jog their memory when the time is right.

5. Increase memory load. For example, write targeted words, expressions or structures on the board, in preparation for a speaking task, such as a class survey. As the learners perform the task, selectively erase the material from the board, placing greater demands on their memory in an incremental fashion.

6. Change the mode: for example, learners summarise a groupwork discussion in written form. Or they perform a dialogue that they have first scripted.  Or a rehearsed dialogue is then filmed. Or a Powerpoint presentation is then performed. And so on.


Swain, M. (1985) ‘Communicative competence:some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development’. In Gass, S.and Madden, C. (Eds.) Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House

F is for First Lessons

4 07 2010

Students doing pair work in the first lesson of the beginners group

The Methods course that I am teaching this summer has just embarked on a short round of teaching practice classes. To help the teachers plan their first lesson, I pulled a few old favourites out of the drawer. They are roughly divided into those that have a mainly interpersonal function (such as forging a collaborative group dynamic) and those that are primarily diagnostic (identifying strengths, weaknesses, interests, and styles). Feel free to post variants, additions – or attributions (apart from the few I dreamed up myself, such as the star warmer, I have no idea who invented the rest).

1.         Interpersonal

•          My name is… and I like… A memory game. Go round the class: the first person completes the formula “My name is …and I like ….” (Or “…and I’ve always wanted to…” or whatever seems appropriate for the level).  The  next person reports this (“Her name is …and she likes….”) and then adds their own name and something they like, and so on, each person reporting on what everyone else has said, before adding something new.

•          Five-pointed star: Learners each draw a five pointed star. On the first point they write a person’s name that is important to them; on the second a place name; on the third a number; on the fourth a date; and on the fifth a sign, symbol or logo.  They then get into pairs or small groups, show each other their stars, and ask and answer questions about them.

•          Find someone who…: Students circulate, with prepared questions, and then report to class. A useful variation is where everyone (anonymously) supplies an interesting fact about themselves on a slip of paper: these are then collected and one student dictates them to the class (“This person has been to Hawaii…” etc). The dictated sentences are then used as the basis for the Q & A milling activity.

•          Teacher interview: In open class, question a selection of students individually re jobs, English learning experience, mainly, about 5 minutes each, very conversational. Ask them to do same to you, but first to prepare questions in pairs (writing). Check questions; write erroneous ones on to board. Class check. They then ask you questions. In pairs/groups they write up a summary about you. Monitor writing and share any interesting errors. (If there are several teachers – as in the case of a shared teaching practice class – each can be interviewed in rotation by different groups, and then summaries compared).

2.         Diagnostic

•          Topic ranking: students in groups brainstorm topics they are interested in and would like to talk about in class. Feedback on to board in the form of a list.  Re-group students, and each group has to choose a short-list of, say, three. Feedback on to board. Then have an open class vote (show of hands) for the final three.

•          Questionnaire/survey: Prepare a questionnaire/survey about students preferred learning styles and activities. E.g. Do you prefer to work a) individually; b) in pairs; c) in groups; d) as a whole class; e) doesn’t matter?  Students complete individually, then discuss either in groups or open class. (Students could also prepare the questions themselves, working in pairs or small groups).

•          Activity smorgasbord: Prepare a sequence of short activities of different types, e.g. game, pair discussion, group paragraph writing, listening task (eg. describe and draw) etc. Each activity should last no longer than 5 minutes. Then hand out questionnaire listing the activity types and ask learners to rate them (e.g. like, didn’t like, neutral). Then compare findings in small groups and report.

•          Free discussion: generate an open class chat about a theme of common interest to all (e.g. the best/worst things about this town). Using your best dinner party host skills draw students out, and keep the focus off heavy correction. If/Once the discussion gets going let it run. Then put sts into pairs/threes to write a summary of what was said  e.g. as if for an absent class member. Monitor and correct. Note any interesting language stuff that emerges.

•          Discussion cards: Prepare some discussion topics on cards. For the first day, these could focus on language learning experiences and preferences.  Number the back of the cards. Place these face down on the floor at the front of the room. Students form groups: a representative from each group takes a card, returns to the group; the group discusses the topic until it’s exhausted; then they take another card. Groups report on their discussions at the end.