Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

August 14, 2015
There are differences between judging others based on their writings, making allowance for the perils of Murphy (Muphry’s Law when one criticises others’ writing) and wishing to be accurate oneself.

The Standard English forms of spelling and grammar were set up partly to facilitate accurate communication, and the standardisation has led us to be able to share the thoughts of people who spoke dialects we would struggle to understand and who lived hundreds of years ago.  We learn our individual forms of written English (as with all languages) through our lifetime’s experiences linking form with meaning.

Accurate (that is, adhering to the Standard form) spelling and grammar are a matter of peacock’s tail (display of energy beyond essentials for survival, thus good genetics) and also a matter of courtesy to the reader (we ought not have to guess what you meant to say.) I do not mind making allowances for those with a learning disorder, but would prefer to rewrite poorly constructed comments with standard spelling and grammar before putting them online. Why? Not mainly for personal display. Not just as courtesy to readers. Largely because online items are, for many students, the main form of reading and writing, and thus the main source of background awareness and practice of spelling and grammar.

Students who have the capacity to learn the more esoteric levels of Standard spelling and grammar are not doing so, and thus are unable to read with ease more complex texts containing very deep concepts and subtle humour. They therefore fail to develop their greater potential depth of understandings and ability to describe complexity as rapidly as was previously possible, when true speed reading (not skimming, but reading well beyond speaking speeds full text perception and comprehension) made access to thought much more rapid than is possible with TED-talk transmission.  They may not develop to their full potential for thinking at all, which is a loss for Humanity.  They also miss out on great ideas and great entertainment – wonderful things which they could translate for the many who have not the potential or the time to read the difficult texts, another loss for us all.
So, as a public service, if you can be correct – do so.

A Newspaper’s exam hints – (sigh.)

March 9, 2014

In “10 writing tips when sitting a written exam”  I read – yes, I read on despite the probable quality  given  the title’s poor construction – :

“Affect / Effect – Effect is a noun.  For example – Cyclone Connor had a great effect on the town.  Affect is a verb(doing word).  For example, – The virus affected Libby so much that she had two days off school.”

(Sunday Times “Chillout” NAPLAN liftout, 09.03.14)

This explanation is, to be polite, sub-optimal.  The explanation given means that the students are not prepared for real world uses of the words. Both words ARE  used as noun and verb.  The REAL difference lies in the prefix.

The root is the Latin facere, “to do or to make” – the same root as “factory”.  The prefixes are ex– (outward or out of) and ad-  (towards or onto)  which assimilate to the “f” of facere to make the words effect and affect.

The noun is the outcome of the verb.  Thus, when you effect a change in something, you have an effect on it – the change goes out from the one who is the centre of our attention.

Affect is the change from the point of view of the one changed: If you affect an accent or a style of dress, you put it on your self; the virus affects you when it has an effect on you.  It is usually used as a verb, but is also a noun.  The noun “affect” means feeling or visible emotional response: “The depressed man showed flat affect.”

This leads to different understandings of other words.  For example, consider “Affection”: feelings making one want to go towards a thing, a different play on the same root and prefix;   “Affectation”: a style or behaviour  affected for effect.

Explaining it this way leads to improved comprehension and spelling, as more words are analysed in terms of their prefixes, suffixes, and roots.  Seeing our words as Lego-like constructions is a powerful literacy approach – and a great tip to help with written exams.

How hard is it to get it right? If newspaper conglomerates can’t afford an academic’s consulting fee, how much does a literate journalist cost?  Remember, the ones most likely to read them are the ones who have few other sources to check.  Do newspapers have a social responsibility here?

When common usage leads to poor transmission of ideas

October 25, 2013

When I was learning English, “Substitute X for Y” meant that Y was the standard and X would be the substitute.   About ten years ago, newspaper cooking columns started to use it to mean the opposite – in a brandy cake you could “substitute brandy for your favourite liqueur.”   They ignored pedantic attempts to get them to change their ways.  (Hey, I teach small children: pedant by definition…)

Now a spokesman says that the National Heart Foundation guidelines recommend that we “substitute saturated for polyunsaturated…”  From context, I am sure that he meant the opposite.  (27.30 on )


Many dictionary-linguists have trained through Anthropology, and use its emphasis on cultural relativism – report what is done, do not make value judgements on others’ ways of being.  They  push for dictionary definitions and grammatical texts to reflect current usage (“…it means just what I choose it to mean,” said Humpty.) 

We teach literacy with concern for the transmission and reception of ideas.  How do we balance the push to Humpty with the need to transmit thought clearly across age groups, nations, and centuries?

Just in case

May 5, 2013

A student starting to learn another language felt ves  lack of knowledge of grammatical terms was making it harder to learn the patterns.  Ve was also trying to write creatively (going mediaeval), while uncertain about when to say “John and me”, and when to say “John and I.”

For a person in (Piagetian) formal operations,  why not learn formal grammar?  But ve has a busy life, so I thought I’d start with a cheat-sheet for understanding the multiple verb-endings for languages where the verb agrees with the subject.    I didn’t find any I liked, so I made this – but I don’t quite like it either.  I am not entirely confident in my sources, so any suggested corrections will be considered

You are using Case even if you don’t know its name:  Table of forms

Subject(nominative case) object(objective)(accusative case) possessive determiner (genitive case)(It is ___ car) Object of verb of “giving” or Indirect Object(dative case) Possessive pronoun(genitive case)(It is ____) Nominative case, with abbreviated “to be”
who *whom whose whom whose who’s
I me my me mine I’m
thou thee thy thee thine thou’rt
he him his him his he’s
*it it its it it it’s
she her her her hers she’s
you you your you yours you’re
we our our us ours we’re
one one *one’s one one’s
they them their them theirs they’re
*ye you your you yourn ye’re (rare)-

* whom: except that in common speech people often use “who” – “I don’t know who he called.”

*it : people are uncomfortable with “it” for humans of unspecified gender, and may use his/her or use the third person plural instead.  Some want to invent a sentient neuter pronoun – e.g. ve. ver , ves for he/she, him/her, his/her.  Sweden has had calls to use “hen” for living neuter.

* one’s: “one” is an indefinite (generic) pronoun, does not have the personal pronoun apostrophe exemption

* ye: special patterns of use:  Old English second person plural nominative(you);  this later became second person singular to equal or superior – prerhaps because of the “Royal We”.

Technical terms you may find in grammar discussions of case – especially of non-English languages (e.g. Latin)

Term What it does
Case change to the form of a noun or pronoun which indicates its grammatical function while keeping its identity
Nominative Case  subject of a verb
Accusative Case  direct object of a verb
Dative Case  indirect object of a verb or  direct object of a verb of “giving to”
Genitive Case  possessive
Vocative Case Used in asking someone directly (Not used in English : “Paul, go over there, Anne, go there.”)
Ablative Case (in English, use prepositions  or adverbs describing variants on “away from
LocativeCase (in English, use prepositions in, on, at, by)
Subject “I” in “I bought a prize for the quiz.WARNING: Not always the “doing” person: “The dog” in “I was bitten by the dog” is the do-er :  “by” here tells us the sentence is twisted around, and that in the simple form “I” would be :”me” in “The dog bit me.”.
Direct Object “a prize”  in “I bought a prize for the quiz”
Indirect Object “the box”  in “I bought a prize for the quiz
Preposition indicates relationships between parts of a sentence (e.g. under, until, because of).  Mark place, time, and (rarely) causality.WARNING: this gets tricky : because is an adverb; because of is one preposition in two words
Person 1st person – speaker;  2nd person – listener  3rd person – them (not us )Many languages have different forms to show singular/plural, gender, and social relationships

and so, finally,  the third part of ver problem:

If it is given to to us, it is given to him and me: accusative case;  if we have won, he and I have won: nominative case.


When is it time to introduce the colon, semicolon, ellipsis and dash?

June 21, 2011

Many  teachers are happy to see bright students reading authors like Paul Jennings.  I am not entirely comfortable with it, and here will explain why.  Then I get really prescriptive …

Most humans learn from example – this is so basic that I won’t bother to reference it.    Once a child has understood if not mastered the real basics – { . , ? !} – it is time for them to practice reading them, to reinforce the learning from example, and also to practice using them.  Again, I expect this is unexceptionable.

This is my contentious proposition:  If teachers are going to assess  writing using a marking format which includes complexity of sentences and punctuation, they hve a duty to make available the tools the child needs to produce the desired complexity.  If they have students who are capable of complex thought, they have a duty to equip them for self-expression as early as possible… regardless of age.  If the child reads only simple texts, where is the learning by example?

Do the above basic introduction, to be sure.   As soon as possible after this, I bellieve that any child who uses complex sentences should be introduced to the ways of punctuating them.   Any text with frequent short sentences (including newspaper articles and classroom books) should be looked at as a literary piece: are there examples ambiguities that could be resolved, repetitions that could be avoided, or relationships that could be made more clear by the use of “advanced” punctuation?  These can be used to demonstrate editing.  By year / grade 5 the class as a whole should be used to the idea of asking “Why has the simple form been used here?”   

Aside: I get the feeling that many writers underestimate (even patronise) their readers, assuming they cannot hold three related concepts in one sentence.

I have seen a (slightly above average) 10-year-old, two weeks after an  introduction to complex structures (and reading, with support, several examples of complex writing) start to talk about how one of these “simple sentence” stories could be made better by combining sentences and weeding out  a few words.

There is, of course, a downside:  an 11-year-old taught this way got into H.P. Lovecraft (try The music of Erich Zann , if you’ve not read any of his work), while ves agemates were into “Goosebumps”.

Choosing the texts

So, what sort of texts do I recommend?  For younger readers, mostly books from before the 1980s –  I give an exerpt from an  Andrew Davies Marmalade Atkins book below,  to give a feel for the level students age 8 – 11 have enjoyed.  His  books are playful yet challenging, so I use them,  but there are many other fine authors for this age whose works an older librarian could recommend.   For older readers, there is a multitude of works over the past 200 years from which to choose.   If you want some history / S&E, try comparing a translation of  the original Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” with the Disney book.  I like Cherryh at the moment, with examples below,  but there are other excellent authors.

 Do, however, check their pattern of punctuation.  Tom Holt is an entertaining writier (see Alexander at the World’s End) , but uses semicolons where The Penguin Guide to Punctuation would recommend a colon.  Indeed, such a style is preferred by some publishers now, to the extent that some teachers consider the older form incorrect.   Therefore, when an opportunity arises, I like to point out the existence of the two schools of thought, and allow the students to choose – and use only – the approach they prefer.   I also (as here) remind teachers of the existence of the two approaches.   (But I give out mainly examples of my preferred style, naturally.)

Examples of texts

In the first piece,  I begin with an Introductory Reference : The Colon and the Semicolon Compared, by Larry Trask .  We then see what CJ Cherryh does with them, and debate her choices.  I do not assert that her choices are always ideal,  but they are worth discussing.  (If students want to see a wider range of her style, I suggest the Russalka series.)

For older students,  small groups try to write their interpretations given those rules (they are expected to look up any words they don’t know, and figure out which words name an ethnic group/ nation / region names);   for younger students a more structured explanation sets the scene, the words are part of word study,  and it is a supervised small group or full class discussion.

CJ Cherryh  Fortress in the Eye of Time

p 246 .  [Heryn,  Lord of Amafel, has been found to have been careless to the point of being criminal concerning Prince Cefwyn’s safety.   Cefwyn, soon to be king of Ylesuin (by Heryn’s treachery), cannot prove the carelessness was deliberate action, or that Heryn has been taxing his people heavily and passing little on to the King.    Cefwyn sits in judgement – in Heryn’s castle.]

“I must bear that, then,” Heryn said, and where sarcasm might have prevailed, perhaps, there was no apparent edge to his voice, only anguish.

Something must be done with him; the whole hall waited, anxious, sceptical of Heryn alike, perhaps embarrassed in Heryn’s fall from dignity, perhaps thinking of their own weapons:  Cefwyn knew the volatility of the region all too well; but he considered rejecting Heryn and his offer, and his tax records, a moment of two longer than he might ordinarily contemplate a move to fracture the peace.

But after such a delay, enough to make Heryn’s face go to pallor, he beckoned the man to rise, and, still frowning, gave him the formal embrace courtesy and custom demanded after such an accepted capitulation.

p 382. [ Idrys is Cefwyn’s spy master, and often goes into danger for him;  Emuin is Cefwyn’s wisest advisor.  The Marhanen are the ruling family, Cefwyn’s family.  Cefwyn has become King, and has made choices that go against his land’s and his family’s traditions]

He cast a frowning look at Idrys, and knew that there was yet another danger that Emuin did not reckon of:  Idrys’ loyalty, and Idrys’ perception.  Idrys had taken an oath of homage to him.  Of fealty to him.  But in the challenge to the Marhanen that those oaths had never anticipated, he found himself without sure knowledge what Idrys’ attachment was: to him, as king; to the realm; to whatever man Idrys served – or to his own unexpressed sense of honor.  Idrys measured things by some scheme that had never yet diverged from his personal welfare.

[Note: from context, I suspect that the “his personal welfare” there is the king’s, and that she would have written “his own” had it been Idrys’ welfare. ]

p 399.  [People from a neighbouring kingdom are invading across Amefel – and the Lord of Amafel and some nobles have recently been executed for treason.  Cefwyn considers what his warlike and successful grandfather had taught him.]

It meant, of course, that the Elwynim disrupted their own harvest by taking men away from the farms, but if in years previous they had had the foresight to hold reserves of their grain, they could bring it from Elwynor, managing the extended supply that Grandfather had declared was the most important item to have secured: Never rely on the farmers for food, was another of Grandfather’s  rules; it makes the farmers mad, gives your enemy willing reports, and it never amounts to what you think it will once you most need it.

Grandfather was silent on the problems of feeding the farmers of Amafel while the armies of five provinces and all the enemy camped on their fields and their sheep-meadows – when the Amefin were farmers and shepherds of the chanciest loyalty in all Ylesuin.  As well the King did stand on their pastures;  holding Amefel otherwise would not be possible.

The next piece is good to read aloud, stopping if necessary to write up and define any unknown words.   There is then the opportunity to hand out an unpunctuated copy, for small groups or pairs of students to choose their own punctuation before seeing how Davies has done it.  This allows discussion of ways of punctuation, and thought about choices, before discussing how the piece was actually punctuated – and then discussing  how he gets away with breaking so many of the formal writing rules  (Lessons:  A  sentence can be very long and yet easy to read, if you punctuate clauses carefully.  A sentence fragment can be a paragraph – if you are writing in an informal style, and if you set up the situation correctly in your readers’ minds .)

Andrew Davies   Marmalade Atkins’ Dreadful Deeds

pp 18 – 19

Torchy was a fat white pony who went round with a secret smile on his face.  He was a very nice pony to ride if you didn’t mind stopping every few yards for him to have a snack.  The other thing he liked to do was roll on his back kicking his legs in the air, and most people found it best to dismount while he was doing this.

And then there was Rufus.  Rufus had come with the farm and nobody knew how old he was.  He wore an old straw hat that didn’t suit him but nobody had ever dared take it off, because although Rufus usually looked half asleep, there was a certain look about his half-shut eyes that warned you not to take liberties with Rufus or his hat.

After his hat, the next thing you noticed about Rufus was his coat, which was rough and thick, and several kinds of red in colour.  There were sandy tufts, and gingery tufts, and carroty whorls, and pinkish stubble.  His coat was of several different lengths, and grew in several different directions, and he looked as if he had just paid a visit to a drunken barber’s.  Despite all this, he seemed a nice old thing, and people who didn’t know him  would cry out: “Oh, what a sweet little donkey!  Isn’t he a love!” and people who did know him would clear their throats and change the subject, and Rufus himself would throw back his head and let out a sarcastic “Hee-haw!” in his very loud and vulgar voice, and if you looked into his sleepy old eyes you could see his crafty old brain ticking over, working out something bad to do.

Because Rufus was a pretty diabolical donkey.

Rufus liked to give people surprises.  One way of doing this was to come up behind them and give them a very gentle nudge with his nose.  Usually they would stroke his muzzle saying “What a sweet old thing!”  Then he would give then another nudge, a bit harder, then a very hard nudge indeed.  After about three nudges, most people fell down, and Rufus would stand on them.  Donkeys look small, but they weigh at least twice as much as your fattest auntie, and it is no joke being stood on by a donkey like Rufus.

Marmalade’s mother would try to smooth the situation over by whacking him with a twig and saying “Don’t be a bore, Rufus!” or “It’s only his way of showing he likes you!” but people who were stood on by Rufus wished he could show his affection in some other way; and those who looked up into his wickedly gleaming eyes thought, but didn’t like to say, that Marmalade’s mother was quite wrong and that Rufus did not in fact like them at all.

And in this they were usually right.

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Alexander at the World's End

Alexander at the World’s End