C is for Conundrum

4 06 2017

down by law01In one of Jim Jarmusch’s earliest movies, Down by Law, there’s a scene in which Roberto Benigni, playing an Italian obsessively learning idiomatic English, shares a prison cell with John Lurie and Tom Waites. To pass the time, he draws a window on the bare wall, and, after contemplating it a while, asks ‘Do you say in English “I look at the window” or “I look out the window”?’ The character played by John Lurie responds laconically, ‘In this case, I think you gotta say “I look at the window”’. (You can see the full scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKH9ZIVUCPU

Language conundrums such as this one are, of course, a staple of language learning and teaching. (The term ‘conundrum’ was used to describe these language puzzles by Michael Swan in a letter to the ELT Journal in 1990, and in a subsequent article in 1991). They are not always as easily answered as Benigni’s question, nor, perhaps, so innocently motivated. Learning to teach is, in good part, the acquisition of strategies to deal with such questions – such as throwing the question back to the questioner: ‘Well, what do you think?’; throwing it open to the class; eliciting more examples and writing them on the board; going online (if you’re in a smart classroom) and checking a corpus or a reference grammar, or simply promising to deliver an answer in the next class.

Having written some books on grammar myself, I am frequently targeted by online conundrum posers. One such, an Iranian who I’ll call F., has been emailing me questions fairly regularly for the last couple of years. He describes himself thus: ‘I’m an English teacher and very much interested in English. I teach at high school, three days a week. I’m 29 years old and a voracious reader of English novels and plays.’ And he asks, ‘Would you please let me stay in touch with you and ask you my grammar questions from time to time? I would be grateful to you if you would kindly accept my request.’

Below is a sample of F.’s questions. Before sharing with you the answers I gave F., you might like to have a crack at them yourselves.

  1. As you know in the sentence “The man WHO lives here is Mr. Johnson” we can remove WHO and write the sentence as “The man livING here is Mr. Johnson.”

However, in the sentence “There was a sudden bang WHICH woke me up” we cannot remove WHICH and write it as “There was a sudden bang WAKING me up.”

Why can we remove WHO in the first sentence and change the verb (live) to verbING (living) but in the second sentence we cannot remove WHICH and change the verb (wake) to verbING (waking).

Both WHICH and WHO are relative pronoun. But in sentence 1, WHO can be deleted but in sentence 2, WHICH cannot be deleted. WHY? Could you please explain your reasons.

  1. To tell you the truth, one of the things in the English grammar which is driving me crazy is the difference between “present perfect” and “present perfect continuous.”

For example, imagine that you see that your friend (called Sarah) is hungry and she has a plate of food in front of her. You go out of the room and when you get back,  you see that Sarah has an empty plate in front of her. Now, which one would you say to her? a) or b)?

  1. a) You have been eating.
  2. b) You have eaten.

Please explain your reasons.

  1. Please look at the following sentence, which I read in the newspaper:

“The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, tried to bring elements of the Taliban to the negotiating table.”

Here is my question: I think the article “the” is needed in front of the word “elements” because the prepositional phrase “of the Taliban” limits the scope of Ø elements, thereby identifying the NP.

So, the sentence should be “The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, tried to bring the elements of the Taliban to the negotiating table.”

I think that an of phrase after a noun is ALWAYS enough to identify the noun.

Do you agree? If not, please explain your reasons.

  1. I have a question:

Please look at the following sentences, both of which have been said by a player in a poker game:

1) If my next card is an ace, I win.
2) If my next card is an ace, I will win.

Well, here is my question: Is there any difference between 1) and 2)? If so, please let me know.

  1. Please look at a) and b):

A) For your examples of injustice, you mention only birth defects. Horrible as they are, they make up only a small percentage of human suffering. What about the misery that is the direct result of human action or inaction?

B) For your examples of injustice, you mention only birth defects. Horrible as they are, they make up only a small percentage of human suffering. What about misery that is the direct result of human action or inaction?

Well, I have been talking with some friends about this question. Some of us say that both A) and B) are correct. But I personally think A) (THE misery) is correct as we are talking about a SPECIFIC kind of misery. We are NOT talking about ANY misery. We are talking about one that is the direct result of human action or inaction.

How about you? Do you agree with me or think that both are correct? If you think both are correct, then please shed some light on it.



Swan, M. (1990) ‘Language conundrums: a cry for help.’ ELT Journal, 44/3 (Correspondence).

Swan, M. (1991) ‘Language conundrums: some responses to my cry for help.’ ELT Journal, 45/4.



29 responses

4 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

Regarding the first one, we must include the relative pronoun (who, which) in a non-defining relative clause.

5 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

That’s how I originally responded to F., but now I’m less sure. Yes, ‘the man who lives here…’ is a noun phrase consisting of the head noun (‘man’) and a post-modifying relative clause that defines which man (hence it is, as you say, a defining relative clause). But in the second sentence, the clause ‘which woke me up’ does not attach to ‘sudden bang’, but to the whole clause – ‘there was a sudden bang’.

Conrad & Biber (Real Grammar Pearson, 2009) describe this as a ‘sentence relative’, i.e. an adjective clause [aka relative clause] that modifies a sentence rather than modifying a single noun. This is what they say:

‘Some adjective clauses do not modify a noun. Instead they comment on the whole idea in the preceding clause. They are called “sentence relatives.” They always use ‘which’. When spoken, they have intonation that sets off the adjective clause. When written, commas are used to set off the adjective clause:

Well, I don’t have time to do it for this project, which means it’ll probably have to get put off until next year.’

So, in the sentence ‘There was a sudden bang, which woke me up’, the ‘which’ refers back to the whole preceding clause ‘There was a sudden bang’, not just ‘sudden bang’ on its own. Compare: ‘The sudden bang which woke me up was a gun going off’.

Note that sentence relatives ALWAYS use ‘which’, i.e. they can’t easily be conflated into a non-finite -ing clause:

The soup was cold, which annoyed me./*?The soup was cold, annoying me.
The soup, which was cold, annoyed me./ The soup, being cold, annoyed me.

4 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

In number 2, both forms are normally for actions that started in the past and continue up to the present. However, We don’t normally use state verbs like know, be, etc with the present perfect progressive. The present perfect progressive is often used to emphasize the activity.

5 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

I just wanted to add that the present perfect simple might also be used to express a past action which has a present result as in ‘the empty plate’ or a full stomach. That may be relevant.

6 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

I think the difference is clearer when we phrase these as questions:

1. Have you eaten?
2. Have you been eating?

1. is more likely in the context of an invitation – e.g. the preparatory move before, ‘Well, why don’t we go out and grab a bite?’
2. is more plausible at someone’s sick bed: ‘Is your appetite coming back? Have you been eating? …’

That is to say, 1. focuses on the event as a whole (as non-progressive forms generally do) while 2. focuses on the verb as a process.

But it depends on the kind of verb. Verbs that have a built in end-state (so-called telic verbs), the continuous implies incompletion:

3. Have you written your assignment?
4. Have you been writing your assignment?

4 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

Regarding 3, we use the definite article ‘the’ when everyone knows which one we are referring to and in “elements”, we don’t know exactly which elements they are referring to, so we us the ‘zero’ article.

4 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

Question 4, in (1) there is no condition. It is a fact. When this happens then this other things happens like a chain reaction. In (2) there is a chance (maybe 1 in a 1,000,000) of not winning, which if you’ve ever played high stakes poker can happen and it’s devastating.

4 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

Question 5, both are correct, but have slightly different meaning. ‘Misery’ is talking about misery in general and ‘the misery’ is referring to a specific type of misery. I think that’s it.

4 06 2017

I agree both are correct, A, uses the to identify a specific misery, but later in the sentence the misery is defined so rendering the the superfluous maybe.

4 06 2017
Heidi Karow

1. Somehow I feel that I’ve heard something like “There was a bang waking me up.” Maybe that’s how my teens talk… or some character recounting a crime on a TV program. (I’m in Canada… and our TV shows are overwhelmingly from the USA.) Or maybe I’ve said something similar! If my recollection is correct, it relates to spoken English only.

2. I would say “you have been eating”… to convey in a nuanced way that it’s just now a fait accompli.

3. My problem is I don’t like the word “elements” at all, in this context. However, are there not different components or factions of the Taliban? One might want to acknowledge this possibility. Therefore, the omission of a “the” is deliberate then. Maybe?

I wonder what professional proofreaders would argue… possibly a lot.

4. The first option is more “ballsy”… which these days is apparently not a sexist word choice.

5. I didn’t read beyond the examples initially. I had a strong impression that the first was preferable.

To think why…. I’d also say you need to distinguish misery that is manmade and hence the use of “the”. It’s not a situation of choosing between two options. I see the second sentence as incorrect in a subtle way.

Now I’m going to read the other comments. I apologize in advance for any repetition. I wanted to react alone.

4 06 2017

No. 2. I would say you have eaten, because her plate is empty. So it’s an action that’s very recently finished so PPS. Honestly if there were still food on her plate I might still say you have eaten, because it’s shorter than PPC, and I was surprised.

7 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Abbie – see above comment to Justin re this one, and how this ‘reading’ works only with certain types of verbs. For example, in the pair I have slept badly/I have been sleeping badly, it’s clear that both actions are finished, or how could you say them!

4 06 2017

No.3 this depends on the context. The elements suggests he got all the parts of the Taliban to the table, that seems unlikely so leaving out the suggests it was just some parts of the Taliban. I don’t know why ‘of the Tabliban’ has to limit the scope? I could say ‘he tried to get departments of the university around the table’ which is vague but ok. Also don’t forget if this is newspaper copy there maybe a word limit, in which case the gets cut, along with who, that and which.

4 06 2017

1. It’s not about the pronoun, it’s about a semantic difference between living and waking. Living is a relatively permanent ongoing state. Waking just happens the once in this context. You could say: “sudden bangs kept/were waking me up”, but F is only specifying one causal event.

2. You could say either depending on what you want to emphasise and we don’t have further pragmatic clues. But a) appears to be indicating the eating is more unexpected, or even taboo.

3. We don’t know which ‘elements’, only that there are some, unspecified.

4. The 2nd sentence is less certain and indicates the final outcome, and possibly the game itself, is more down to chance or fortune. Compare with ‘I shall win’ or with other modals: ‘I should win’, ‘I ought to win’, ‘I must win’, etc., They are predictive, whereas the 1st is a fact and implies nothing more.

5. They both mean the same thing but inserting the article makes it more specific and more empathic rhetorically.

6 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Luan: Re #1 – see my comment to Patrick about ‘sentence relatives’ – but perhaps your point still holds, i.e. that post modification using an -ing clause only works with dynamic verbs. (That last sentence included one!) – see Tony’s comment below. I’ll need to check the grammar references to see what the constraints are on converting relative clauses to non-finite (e.g. -ing) clauses.

6 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Further to the above, I retract the comment about state vs dynamic verbs, since the former can clearly post-modify a noun in their -ing form: ‘The bag containing the manuscript was lost’. ‘Anyone believing this is a fool’. etc. Which is what you meant, Luan, with your ‘permanent ongoing state’. But does it have to be a state? Can’t it be a series of actions, or one action prolonged over time: ‘The dog barking all night kept me away’; ‘The train arriving on platform 4 is the 10.36 from Brighton…’

5 06 2017
Patrick Huwyler

Thank you, Scott. I really enjoy reading your blog.

I’ll give my answer for number 2…

continuous (ing) = temporary, incomplete
perfect (simple) = 100% complete

Sarah has an empty plate in front of her. So the best answer is ‘You have eaten’. The action is 100% complete (there is no food on her plate).

With ‘You have been eating’ there would still be food on her plate. The continuous aspect implies that the action is incomplete.

Here is another example to demonstrate:

1) I’ve painted the walls (all the walls are complete with new paint).
2) I’ve been painting the walls (not all the walls are complete with new paint)

6 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Patrick. The complete/incomplete distinction is the one that is commonly argued in pedagogical grammars and coursebooks, but it works only for certain types of verbs, e.g accomplishment verbs, such as ‘paint [the walls]’ in your example, which have a built in end-state. With ‘atelic’ activity verbs, such as ‘eat’, ‘sleep’, ‘work’, ‘run’ etc, the assumption of completion/incompletion is unclear.

1. Have you slept?
2. Have you been sleeping?

3. I have worked here since I graduated.
4. I have been working here since I graduated.

and, note the difference with or without an object:

5. I have eaten. = complete? yes
6. I have eaten the chicken. = complete? yes
7. I have been eating. = incomplete? not sure – more context needed.
8. I have been eating the chicken. = incomplete? yes

Pedagogical grammars tend to choose the verbs that support their ‘rules’, and consistently ignore the effect of ‘lexical aspect’ on verb meaning.

6 06 2017
Patrick Huwyler

Thanks, Scott. I had a feeling that it couldn’t have been as simple as that!
And as you rightfully point out in About Language (1997, p. xv), ‘… it is felt that language divorced from its co-text (not to mention its context of use) has little value for the purpose of analysis.’

6 06 2017
tony stock (@tonystock)

Thanks for the blog, Scott. It is always thought provoking. Starting with No. 1:

1. I think the concept of ‘sentence relative’ is an important one to grapple with, but I agree with Luan’s comment, it is the semantic element (of the verb) that dictates the form, rather than the ‘sentence relative’ .
Take for example: ‘The sudden noise which woke me up was a bomb blast’ would not be expressed as ‘The sudden noise waking me up was a bomb blast’.
Or with a ‘who’ clause, if you prefer, we can compare:
‘The boy who stole my wallet was a deft pickpocket’ cannot be expressed as ‘The boy stealing my wallet was a deft pickpocket’. The two sentences are not interchangeable, unlike F’s example of Mr Johnson.

6 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Tony. Yes, you’re right. As I said to Luan, I need to research this. See comment above to Patrick, too, about sentence relatives.

8 06 2017
Will G

“Now, which one would you say to her? a) or b)?
a) You have been eating.
b) You have eaten.”

The answer is surely that you would say neither of these things. You are certainly much more likely to say, for instance: ‘did you enjoy your meal?’.

And I don’t mean this as pure pedantry either. You can’t even begin to decide which form is correct until you know what meaning is intended to be conveyed. And this is desperately unclear. What is your purpose in stating that between time t1 and t2 the consumption of food has taken place? What is the context?

I think that these type of questions take on a conundrum-like quality at least in part precisely because the context has been stripped away. That is to say, it probably wouldn’t be difficult to tell a couple of little stories in which one or other of the options was clearly more appropriate, and no-one would think to call it a ‘conundrum’.

8 06 2017
Will G

For the sake of completeness:

(1) Your friend told you that she has an hour to go until her very important essay deadline, and she has to work really hard to get it finished and emailed in time. Everything else will have to wait, she tells you. You walk back in the room and say: …?

(2) Your friend has been complaining of a stomach pain, and told you that despite her hunger, the very idea of eating repulses her. You are worried, and go off to call a doctor. You walk back in the room and say: …?

8 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Will, and you are absolutely right – in the absence of context, including the speaker’s intended meaning, it’s virtually impossible to rule on grammaticality, apart from the case of clearly non-standard forms (‘you be eating?’) and, even then…

To his credit, F. often provides a context, or sufficient co-text, to make his queries reasonable.

10 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

For what it’s worth, here is how I answered F.’s conundrums:

1. This is because there are two types of relative clause: defining and non-defining. ‘who lives here’ is a defining rel. cl. because it defines which man. ‘…which woke me up’ is non-defining, because it doesn’t tell us which ‘sudden bang’ but rather adds extra information. You can replace a defining rel. cl. with a non-finite clause, but you can’t replace a NON-def. rel. cl. with a non-finite clause.

[As I mentioned earlier, I think this answer is incorrect, as it fails to distinguish between relative clauses that postmodifiy nouns (‘the man who lives here’), and relative clauses that qualify whole clauses (‘sentential relatives’), as in the second of F.’s two examples.].

2. In the case of your scenario (with Sarah and the empty plate) the second response is probably more likely, implying as it does completion. If Sarah had bits of food all over her face, on the other hand, you might say ‘You have been eating!’ because here the focus is on the process rather than on the event seen as a whole.

3. Good question. But it’s not the case that an ‘of’ phrase restricts (i.e. defines) the noun it modifies. For example:

I bought a box of tomatoes.
There are pieces of glass on the floor.

“ Ø elements of the Taliban’ implies an indefinite quantity – not all.
Compare: I know members of the government (= some) vs. I know the members of the government (= all)

4. There is always a difference – however subtle – when we add modality (‘will’), which effectively turns a bald statement of fact (I win) into a prediction (I will win).
The effect on listeners (i.e. the pragmatic effect) is minimally different, perhaps negligible.

5. Both sentences are grammatically correct – as usual there is a subtle difference in meaning, with ‘the misery’ drawing attention to its about-to-be-defined status, and ‘[zero] misery’ setting up no such expectations.

Compare: Not all energy causes pollution. What about energy that is generated by tides?/What about the energy that is generated by tides?

Again, when talking generally like this both options seem plausible.
But if the post-modifying relative clause has specific reference then ‘the’ is obligatory, it seems to me.

There’s no milk. ‘What about the milk I bought yesterday?’

Here ‘What about milk I bought yesterday?’ would not work.
Hope that helps

28 07 2017

Hi Scott and everyone, fantastic subject and discussion!

What I’m going to ask you (Scott et al) is not off-topic, but it is in a way, and it’s a ‘Conundrum’ I have been posing to myself for some time now.
It’s a very simple question: As an English teacher, how do you study/have studied/think it’s the best way to learn more grammar? Do you just sit back with a Grammar for Teachers book and read page after page no matter how topics are organized? I know most grammar in order to teach it better is acquired when needed, when in doubt (like in this exact case about F.), etc., and this type of books, we use them more for consultation, but how do you -if you do- go about learning more grammar in general, more in depth, in order to have it more widely available and present in your mind in your every-day teaching activity?

I love grammar with a passion, but as time and my teaching go by, I feel the need to dive in it, deeply. And I just don’t know how to do it without forgetting all the (new, to me) rules 5 minutes after having read them.

Thank you in advance for any input.

28 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Hi Mariana – thanks for your comment. It’s a very good question (i.e. how do/can teachers maintain and improve their language analysis skills?). One way they are often compelled to do this is through formal in-servcie training, i.e. taking a Diploma or masters course, for example, or through taking on specialized classes – e.g. exam classes, that require a detailed knowledge of grammar. But how they ‘upgrade’ more informally is less clear. This relates to the suggestion above that maybe what is needed are specialized materials/websites that target this area of teachers’ professional development.

30 07 2017

Thank you Scott.

You have unleashed the unthinkable. I think I’m enrolling in a Masters in Applied Linguistics. Your words were like a much needed boost to a thought I’ve been entertaining for too long now.
This, which you have done without having the faintest idea, reinforces my own idea, as a teacher and as a Psychologist: you never, *ever* know for certain when, exactly, you are performing a complete act of teaching or a therapeutic act.
Thank you!

PS: Thanks to F., also. Indirectly, it’s HIS fault 🙂

31 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Hi Mariana – I’m delighted if I’ve played some small part in your continuing professional development!

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