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.

P is for Pedagogic grammar

24 02 2013

Palmer happy etcHow do you write a pedagogic grammar?  Or, more realistically, how do you judge the worth of one that has already been written?

This is a task I regularly set my MA TESOL students, i.e. to put a teacher’s or learner’s grammar of their choice to the test, and to come up with a set of criteria for evaluating pedagogic grammars in general.

The criteria that result almost always involve issues of accessibility. How easy is it to find what you want? How clearly is it organized and signposted? How clear are the explanations? and so on.

Accessibility is a real issue. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the students who have little or no ELT background find performing even simple research tasks incredibly difficult. Asked to rule on the grammaticality of I’m lovin’ it, for example, one student failed to locate the distinction between stative and dynamic verbs in Parrott (2000), even though these are listed in the index (which, admittedly, is at the front of the book, not the back). Others, using Swan (2005) found what they were looking for but only if they knew what they were looking for: if they didn’t know the relevant grammatical labels they got endlessly sidetracked.Palmer grammar

Even knowing the labels is not necessarily any guarantee of success: in reviewing a recent grammar (Carter et al, 2011), I was directed by the index entry for phrasal verbs to the article on prepositional phrases, only to be told that phrasal verbs are filed under Verbs: multi-word verbs – the equivalent of two clicks on a website. More frustrating still, to answer the question ‘Is I’m loving it grammatical?’, I drew blanks at each of these search words: dynamic, stative, progressive, continuous, aspect, love, like. I finally ran the answer to ground in the entry Present simple or present continuous? (Why, I wonder, is this aspect distinction referenced only for present tenses?)

Palmer participlesApart from being accessible, a pedagogic grammar has to be reliable. That is to say, we need to be able to trust its explanations. This doesn’t mean to say that we have to be told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s a pedagogic grammar, not a linguist’s grammar, after all. But we needn’t have to accept half-truths. Nor untruths.

The accuracy of the grammars that my students choose to evaluate  (including some very dodgy websites) they tend to take on trust. But should they?

For a start, it’s important to know just how prescriptive the grammar is. Many pedagogic grammars are cagey about this, claiming to be purely descriptive. Leech (1989: ix), for example, says, of his own grammar, ‘Where a form is considered right by some native speakers and wrong by others, we point this out without being prescriptive’. However, this ‘pointing out’ often takes the form of a warning, e.g. ‘Be careful about using like instead of as…’

The Cambridge grammar that I reviewed makes its stance very clear: ‘Learners of English should use the standard forms of the language in most situations’ (Carter et al. 2011: 3). This is only to be expected, since this is a pedagogic grammar – one that models the target language for the learner, rather than one that describes its infinite variety for the specialist. Modeling implies some consensus as to what is being modeled, consensus implies norms, and norms imply a degree of prescriptivism, although of the norm-describing, rather than the norm-enforcing, kind, one would hope.palmer connectives

The distinction between norm-describing and norm-enforcing gets dangerously elided, however, when rules are prefaced by ‘we always…’ or ‘we never…’ For instance, in Carter et al. we find (with reference to the aforementioned multi-word verbs): ‘If the object is a personal pronoun (me, you, him, us, etc.), we always put the pronoun before the particle’ (p. 547). Or, ‘We don’t use the continuous form with verbs of mental processes’ (p. 417).  Apart from causing us to wonder who this imperious ‘we’ is, both statements can be refuted by a quick search in a corpus. A little hedging (generally, seldom, etc) would have been both less incriminating and more accurate.

The problem is not so much that these statements are inaccurate (and, admittedly, the counter-examples are few and far between): it’s that they are not explanatory. There is a reason that the pronoun is rarely given end-weight in phrasal verb constructions, and that is because it seldom encodes new information. And the reason that continuous forms are less often used with mental process verbs is that states of knowledge tend not to be dynamic or evolving (a core meaning of progressive aspect) — you either love something or you don’t.  What would it have cost to include explanations like these? Offering an insight into the reasons underlying the rules might better prepare users to deal with ‘exceptions’ (e.g. I’m lovin’ it!), as well as equipping them with the means to fine-tune their meanings in speaking and writing.Palmer prepositions01

But it’s only a pedagogic grammar, you protest.  Language learners don’t want choices; they want rules.  Maybe.  But to my mind ‘pedagogic’ implies something more than simply stating rules (that would be a pedantic grammar, perhaps). Pedagogic implies that the grammar is somehow learning-oriented: a pedagogic grammar is one that the user not only consults, but can learn something from. As Larsen-Freeman (2003, p. 50) puts it, ‘To my way of thinking, it is important  for learners not only to know the rules, but also to know why they exist … what I call the “reasons” underlying the rules’.

As an instance of an explanatory approach, observe how Leech (1989: 394, emphasis added) both mitigates the force of a rule, and takes the time to add a reason:

Verbs not normally taking the Progressive.

Be careful with verbs of the kinds outlined in 3a-3f below. They usually do not have a Progressive form, because they describe a state.

So, my criteria for a pedagogic grammar: accessibility, reliability, and ‘explainability’. What are yours?


Palmer auxiliariesCarter, R., McCarthy, M., Mark, G., & O’Keeffe, A. (2011) English Grammar Today: An A-Z of spoken and written grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston: Heinle.

Leech, G. (1989) An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage. London: Edward Arnold.

Parrott, M. (2000) Grammar for English Language Teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage (3rd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Palmer, H.E. (1938) The New Method Grammar, London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Parts of this blog post first appeared in a review of Carter, et al. (2011), in the ELT Journal, 66/2, April 2012.

A is for Aspect (2)

19 06 2011

In this second short video on the English tense and aspect system, I take  a look at perfect aspect.

A is for Aspect

20 03 2011

Following on from the discussion on backshift, in which I argued that the past tense had less to do with time and more to do with distance, I want to now turn my attention to aspect – or, at least, to the progressive aspect, initially.