Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

The problem with modifiers…

October 9, 2012 6 comments

Sometimes, it’s not clear in a sentence which head nouns an adjective is modifying, as in the well-used example of ‘fresh fruit and veg’. Does the word ‘fresh’ modify ‘fruit and veg’ or does it just modify ‘fruit’? Anyway, last week, I was scouring the internet during my morning orange juice when I came across the following tidbit.


Of course, the issue here is whether the sentence should be parsed:

AdjP (100% natural) GP (kids NP (bean bag chair))

In this case, the adjective phrase ‘100% natural’ premodifies the genitive phrase ‘kids bean bag chair’, with an embedded noun phrase ‘bean bag chair’. Reading it in this way, the sentence could be interpreted as ‘a 100% natural bean bag chair for kids’.

Or whether the sentence should be parsed as:

NP (100% natural kids) NP (bean bag chair)

Here, the noun phrase ‘100% natural kids’ (with premodifying adjective ‘natural’) premodifies the following noun phrase ‘bean bag chair’, leading to a far more sinister interpretation of ‘a bean bag chair filled with 100% natural kids’.

Beware ambiguous modifiers!

The Social Linguist

N.B. I’m not a syntactian by any means, so if my analysis is out here, please let me know and I’ll update!

Categories: Random Tags: , ,

Does grammar matter?

September 6, 2011 3 comments

So Michael Gove, Education Secretary and champion of academies, is arguing that the current crop of school exams are too easy and wants us to go back to ‘proper’ education, including a more rigorous focus on grammar. An excerpt from the Conservative Blog perhaps gives some insight into the level of zeal with which his proposals are being greeted among the Conservative faithful, but here’s a quote from the man himself on why school pupils need more grammar instruction:

Thousands of children – including some of our very brightest – leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar, incapable of writing a clear and accurate letter. And it’s not surprising when the last government explicitly removed the requirement to award a set number of marks for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in examinations.

The basic building blocks of English were demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning. Under this Government we will insist that our exams, once more, take proper account of the need to spell, punctuate and write a grammatical sentence.

I have a number of concerns with the proposals, the main one being that grammar instruction is somehow seen as a ‘magic bullet’ to curing poor argumentation, expression, and clarity. The idea is that ‘knowing grammar’ will make a pupil be able to write at a far higher standard than they would be able to without grammar instruction. While I admire the sentiment, I question the rhetoric. Pupils are not all of a sudden going to become the next generation of Shakespeare simply because they’re able to distinguish between proper usage of ‘less than’ and ‘fewer than’, nor are their arguments going to be more persuasive because they don’t split their infinitives. Pupils’ insights won’t necessarily be better since skills of interpretation, analysis and synthesis are (in my opinion) independent of knowing when to use ‘less’ as opposed to ‘fewer’.

The other issue I have with the proposal is that it will continue to blur the lines between ‘non-standard’ grammar and ‘incorrect’ grammar. In such rarified prescriptive circles, no distinction is made between an ‘error’ which is different from the standard form, and an error which impedes mutual communication and meaning. In the world of the prescriptivist, ‘I done it’ is just as wrong/bad/abominable/hang-worthy as ‘I it done’. Such crude lack of distinction will further erode any confidence non-standard speakers of English will have in their respective varieties because they’ll have been brain-washed into thinking their speech is ‘wrong’.

Lastly, what is ‘wrong’ is often simply a matter of opinion (backed up by various political, cultural and economic prestige associated with the ‘right’ way of saying something). To give an example of this, The Times included a grammar quiz in one of their columns today. One of the questions was whether the following sentence was correct or incorrect:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

I said it was correct. I was wrong. My error derived from the fact that this statement is an incorrect rendering of the original “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. Apparently, biblical scripture is immune from alteration. Problem is that grammatically, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE ORIGINAL SENTENCE… What is going to end up happening is that teachers with a bee in their bonnet about their own ‘pet grammar likes/dislikes’ will not be prepared to countenance anything that goes against their views.

As I said, I fully support the intention to make pupils write better, to be more critical about their own usage and be able to talk about language in a sensible and structured way, but we also need to have the appropriate level of ‘grammatical flexibility’ in teaching these ‘standards’.

P.S. I’d love to link to the quiz, but since The Times sits behind a paywall, you’re going to have to either 1) pay for it yourself (£1 for 30 days access) or 2) wait and see if it comes off pay-per-view.

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Research Tags: , ,

Fulbright interview, munros and lots of driving…

August 30, 2011 3 comments

Last week’s radio silence was down to a number of factors. The first was that I was annual leave and had headed up to Scotland for a bit of hillwalking with my Dad and brother (clocking up nearly 800 hundred miles in the process…). The second was that I had an interview for a Fulbright scholarship last Tuesday in Edinburgh. Thankfully, the two events coincided with one another which meant I could kill two birds with one stone, saving on fuel, accommodation and general expenditure, and as a ‘tight Scot’, you can imagine that this was greeted with some enthusiasm.

I’ll leave the prosaic matter of hillclimbing (wherein I bagged my first two munros) for a later post, and keep this one focused on my interview and some general linguistic observations I made while in Edinburgh.

Way back in March or April, I spotted an interesting post on Facebook by one of my colleagues advertising a Fulbright Scholarship on Scottish Studies and after some quite intense deliberation on my part, I decided to apply for it. My proposal was to carry out further research on my PhD data and write it up as a book, plus do some teaching on Scottish sociolinguistics (I’m editing an EUP volume on this topic, so it fits quite nicely). The project would take place at the University of Pittsburgh alongside Scott Kiesling, a major figure in the field of language and masculinity. The proposal offered quite a lot and I was really pleased with the final product, even though the application process was pretty arduous and took a lot of time to do, something made more difficult by the fact that the deadline was in the middle of the marking period. Nevertheless, I managed to put something quite respectable together, helped along the way by my friend Mel and my girlfriend Rebecca (thanks!).

I was lucky enough to get short-listed (huzzah!) and I had my interview last week in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, however, my interview didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped, mainly because I think I over-prepared and over-thought the questions. For example, the first question was ‘How would you describe your research to a lay person?’. “Ok” I thought, “I’ve got this”. And out popped this rambling, far-too-technical ‘answer’ which started off with the immortal line “My research is an ethnographically informed account of  sociolinguistic variation among urban adolescent males”… Mmmm, not as ‘non-technical’ as I might have wanted. I also managed to add something like “I’m interested in the vowel sounds of words like cat“. Now, how exciting does that sound?? What I should have said would have been something along the lines of “I’m interested in the relationship between language and violence among adolescent males in Glasgow”, but no, my brain went on academic auto-pilot. Bah.

Occasionally, I hit upon some good answers, but generally I felt too waffly, woolly and not really hitting the target, and I wasn’t convinced that my plans for the future lit up the interviewing panel’s expectations too much. Of course, I could probably be being far too negative about this, but I suppose when you know you could have done better, you know your future is in your own hands, and then you feel like you’ve messed that opportunity up, negative thoughts are kind of par for the course.

I don’t find out for sure until next week whether I’m successful or not, but from my own perspective, I’m not counting on it. For a later blog entry, I’ll post up some hints and tips which might help future applicants through the process.

After my interview, I did some wandering around Edinburgh, grabbed a bit of lunch and tried to put the interview down to experience. While on my wanderings, I couldn’t help but notice some interesting signs….

The first one was a sign at the train station highlighting the role that the SPT is playing in promoting effective sexual health…

In case you can’t see the middle bit, here’s a closer view:

Now, quite what an STDS manager (or should that be STDs?) does is anyone’s guess, but I found it quite amusing nonetheless…

The second sign I noticed had me (more or less) frothing at the mouth in abject rage, primarily because of the number of people this error would have had to have gotten past…

This mistake makes me go 'arrrrghghghghghhghgh!!!!!'

No prizes for noticing the glaringly obvious error (possessive your instead of contracted verbal form you are), but it is almost unforgivable that this should have made it past the first stage of the signwriting process. I’m not sure what kind of quality assurance checks these things go through, but presumably a spell-checker (or someone with an ounce of intelligence about them) would have spotted this. It’s also not as though the intention was to have something ‘Your getting here has made us all happier’, where the possessive is marking an event of some sort, since there is no subordinate clause after the main clause. Something has gone drastically wrong here, and the fact that I see these kinds of errors all over the place makes me worry about the standards of written English in the public domain. Or maybe it was just cause I was so annoyed about my interview that I was looking for something I could vent at…

– The Social Linguist