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.

D is for Discourse

9 01 2011

On the bus: Illustration by Quentin Blake for 'Success with English' (Penguin 1968)

In a recent article I describe the term discourse as being “both slippery and baggy: slippery because it eludes neat definition, and baggy because it embraces a wide range of  linguistic and social phenomena” (Thornbury 2010, p. 270). Is there any way of nailing it down?

In An A-Z of ELT I define discourse as “any connected piece of speaking or writing”. Let’s test this definition with an authentic example:

Just arrivd. I’m on the bus.

The text is certainly connected: the travel lexis (arrivd and bus) connects the two clauses topically. The ellipted subject (I) in the first clause is recoverable from the second clause, so that both clauses share a common theme.   Moreover, the clauses are sequenced in such a way that they map on to the script that represents, in schematic form, what happens when people arrive at, say, an airport. The definite article the, in the bus, presupposes shared knowledge as to which bus (possibly the airport bus) is being referred to.

By invoking shared knowledge and a context of use, however, we are going beyond the (linguistic) text itself and hypothesizing, not only a recipient, but a particular relationship between the sender and the recipient, and a particular interpretation of the text that is consistent with the sender’s purpose. In short, we are assuming that the text is coherent, that it has some communicative purpose, and that it is the (partial) trace of a more extended exchange.

Which indeed it was: the message was sent (by me) in response to the following:

Are U there yet? Cheers, Grzegorz.

Grzegorz was hosting me at a conference in Warsaw, and had previously told me how to get from the airport into the center of town.  A different constellation of contextual variables would have produced a different discourse, leaving as its trace a different text. This in fact was the case when I sent the same text message, but with a change of article, to a friend:

Just arrvd. I’m on a bus.

In this case, the absence of any assumption of shared knowledge (a vs the) positions writer and reader in a different relationship. The communicative purpose has also shifted somewhat: whereas the first message is designed to reassure Grzegorz that everything is going to plan, the second implies a sense of novelty, strangeness, possibly adventure.  Here, then, we are concerned with the text less as connected sentences (discourse1, if you like), and more as an instance of language in use (discourse2).

But there is a third sense of ‘discourse’ that can be extracted from these tiny texts. The formula [I’m] on the bus connects to a larger discourse, which is that of text messages in general. The phrase would probably occur with significant frequency in any corpus of  text messages or mobile phone conversations. In this sense, the text makes (implicit) connections with other texts of the same type: it exhibits intertextuality. So much so that it (and its possibly even more frequent variant: I’m on the train) index a social practice that has generated its own ‘meta-discourse’. Here, for example, is how one website humorously glosses the phrase:

I’m on the bus

Said in two different environments:

1. When commuting on the bus and one is engaged in a mobile phone conversation, it is used to avoid talking loudly about embarrassing topics in a crowd of eavesdropping fellow commuters.

2. When person A is tired, or doesn’t see the logic of why person B has called, this can be said to avoid conversation with person B.

A: “Hey what did the doctor say about that lump on your balls?”
B: “I’m on the bus.”
A: “Oh alright.”

(from The Urban Dictionary)

The social and cultural meanings that text messages have accreted, then, constitute a third sense of discourse: discourse as social practice, or discourse3. (Some writers – e.g. Blommaert 2005, and Gee 2005 – would argue that social practice extends beyond mere language use, and that discourse as social practice should include “all forms of meaningful semiotic human activity” [Blommaert, op.cit. p. 3]. But for the purposes of this discussion I’ll take discourse as social practice to mean ‘social practice as encoded in language‘).

As a further example of the way ‘I’m on the bus’ has achieved catchphrase status, and hence indexes a social practice, in 2004 the Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company used it as a slogan for promoting bus travel in the region, emblazoning it across the sides of its buses alongside blown-up portraits of transport workers and local commuters. As the managing director commented, “It really has been a great way of connecting with the community we are pleased to serve and making our buses come alive with the people who travel around on them” (Brighton & Hove Bus & Coach Co website)

In this case, then, ‘I’m on the bus’ instantiates a larger discourse of community values and civic pride, of which the managing director’s upbeat comment contributes yet another strand.

So, discourse can mean connected text, or language in use, or language as a social practice. Which leads me to wonder: which of these meanings has the most relevance to the way learners are taught to interpret and produce texts in class?


Blommaert, J. 2005. Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. 2005. Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method (2nd edn). London: Continuum.

Thornbury, S. 2010. What can a corpus tell us about discourse? In O’Keeffe, A., & McCarthy, M. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics. London: Routledge.

A is for Articles (2)

24 01 2010

In the previous post on articles  – A is for articles (1) – I focused mainly on the indefinite article and attempted to correct the common misconception that the referents of a/an are both indefinite and non-specific. It’s possible, I argued, that something can be indefinite but also specific.

So what is definiteness, then? What makes a noun definite, and therefore eligible for a the in front of it? The most succinct explanation, for me, comes from M.A.K. Halliday:

The means ‘the [noun] in question is identifiable; but this will not tell you how to identify it – the information is somewhere around, where you can recover it.’ So whereas this train means ‘you know which train: – the one near me’, and my train means ‘you know which train: – the one I own’, the train means simply ‘you know which train’

(An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 1985, p. 161).

“The information is somewhere around where you can identify it”. What does Halliday mean by “somewhere around”?  There are two places that information can be “somewhere around”: in the shared world of the speakers (or reader and writer), i.e. the context; or in the shared world of the immediate text , i.e. the co-text. It is the interdependence of definite-ness and context that means that the definite article can only be taught, explained and practised in contexts that are normally larger than a sentence. It is less a grammatical item than a feature of discourse – and also of pragmatics. That is to say, its use can only really be explained by reference to the shared knowledge of speaker and listener (or reader and writer).

On the MA program I teach, I use this text (a translation of a 17th century Japanese poem) to present article usage.

I expected to see only pink blossoms

          but a gentle spring snow has fallen

and the cherry trees are wearing a white coat.


I ask these three questions:

1. Why is there no article (i.e. zero article) with pink blossoms?

2. Why a gentle spring snow and not gentle spring snow?

3. Why the cherry trees and not cherry trees?

Everything you need to know about the English article system is implicated in the answers to those three questions!

A is for Articles (1)

12 12 2009

It’s somewhat ironic that two of the most common words in the language – the and a – are also the hardest to explain. It’s not that we lack data – maybe there’s too much data and it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees. At any rate, the definite and indefinite article must win the prize for having the most nonsense written about them in coursebooks and student grammars.

Here’s how one upper intermediate coursebook (name withheld out of courtesy) explains the indefinite article:

“We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way or when we introduce it for the first time: There was a car outside the bank.”


This explanation conflates and confuses a number of facts. Starting with the second rule first, this is easily disproved in sentences like: “We decided to eat at a restaurant. The waiter showed us to a table….” The waiter is first mention, yet takes the definite article. And, while we’re at it, what about second mention? According to the coursebook rules, the second mention of a noun is definite, and takes the. Well, what about this: “The waiter showed us to a table. It was a small table, so we asked for another…”  Second mention but indefinite article! 

But more on the discourse function of articles in another post.

Let’s go back to the first rule: “We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way…”

Wrong.  The indefinite article can be used for general AND specific reference:

A tiger will bite if provoked = any tiger (generic reference, and indefinite)

A tiger bit me when I provoked it = specific tiger, although indefinite.


Compare also:

Is there a doctor on board? = any doctor, one of the class of doctors (generic, indefinite)

I sat next to a doctor on board. = a specific doctor (specific, indefinite)


(The ambiguity inherent in the indefinite article is exploited in jokes like: In (such-and-such-a-city) a person gets mugged every ten minutes. And he’s getting mighty sick of it!)

The definite article – the – can also be used for both generic and specific reference, but in either case, there is an assumption of shared knowledge:

The tiger hunts by night and sleeps by day = generic, definite

The tiger bit me! = specific, definite.


In other words, for both a and the, there are two parameters that intersect: specificity, and definiteness. And they are not the same thing.

Nouns in the plural can also have generic or specific reference, but only when indefinite – i.e. with zero article:

Tigers hunt by night and sleep by day = generic, indefinite

Tigers bit me = specific, indefinite


The tigers bit me  = specific (NEVER generic), definite


In other words, you can’t say the tigers to mean the class of tigers – a common learner error: *I like the cats. *The bananas are good for you, etc.

Now, why am I telling you all this?  Because I stupidly didn’t mention this in the A-Z. I completely omitted to point out that the generic-specific dimension operates across the definite-indefinite one. 

Next time round, I’ll include the following chart (where the examples with asterisks are non standard, where the sign Ø stands for the zero article, and where I’ve included non-count nouns as well):

  generic specific
definite She plays the violin.         

The whale is a mammal.

(*The whales are mammals.)

(*I like most types of the music.)

She played the violin I gave her.

Can you see the whale over there?

The violins are too loud.

I didn’t like the music in the film. 

indefinite Let’s give her a violin.

A whale cannot breathe underwater.

Ø Whales cannot breathe underwater.

I like most types of Ø music.

I saw a nice violin in town yesterday.

Captain Ahab was killed by a whale.

There are Ø whales in the Mediterranean.

Listen: I can hear Ø music!


Does that make any sense?