The simple past in simplified history

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow dog-owner, who happened to be an Indian nationalist [Edit: Apparently the term for people of this persuasion is “Hindu nationalist”, not “Indian nationalist”.  Thanks Adi Rajan], at the dog park.  My interlocutor was recounting some of the wrongs that had been visited on Hindus in India by foreign conquerers, and he described how one named Aurangzeb had a particularly bad habit of tearing down Hindu places of worship and replacing them with mosques.  As it happened I had just finished reading Atrocities again and was sort of on the same page mentally, or at least more prepared than average to hear stories of Mughal emperors sweeping armies across the subcontinent, disrupting agriculture and failing to plan for floods, and generally causing a kind of misery that has political power hundreds of years into the future.  Oh, and don’t ask me how we got on the topic.

You might be wondering why the parasol-bearer is so badly failing at his job.  Actually, what he’s holding aloft is a massive lemon meringue pie, which Mughal emperors would order baked after a successful military campaign as a show of strength.

Anyway, he mentioned one countermeasure that Hindus took during Aurangzeb’s reign to at least be pillaged on their own terms.  As was explained to us, it was (is?) normal in Hinduism to cremate bodies soon after death, so that the soul didn’t have anything in this world to cling to when it has to move on.  In the case of holy men, upon (physical) death the bodies were kept and/or preserved rather than cremated.  This was, of course, because holy men’s souls can move independently of their bodies.  Holy men’s mummified corpses from that era would presumably still be on hand if observant Hindus hadn’t taken it upon themselves to cremate them as well during Aurangzeb’s reign, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Muslim conquerers, in a bit of proactive self-desecration. This was, according to the man at the dog park, characteristic of Hindus, who always sought to keep their faith pure.

I got to thinking about how common this practice (let’s call it proactive saint cremation, or PSC) could really have been, as part of my usual ruminations on how in the creation of a group narrative, “a few people did it” turns into “people did it” and then “we did it collectively displaying the unique characteristics of our people”.

I realized that some semantic properties of the “simple past” (scare quotes for bad naming – it’s no more “simple” than the “simple present”) might enable this transition.  Namely, the blurriness of the simple past with respect to whether it refers to a single event or a stereotyped, repeated event facilitates the transition of historical occurrences from discrete to characteristic of a people, place, or time period.  The fact that the adverbials that serve distinguish the simple past for single occurrences from the simple past for repeated occurrences are easily discarded is of significance as well, as well as other qualifiers on the noun subject which are often grammatically inessential.

For example, let’s say this is a historically justifiable statement:

Ruling Muslims from the upper class ordered Hindu monuments destroyed in 1699.

(I’m not saying that this sentence is true – just using it as an example)

With the adverbial prepositional phrase removed, it is easily interpretable as referring to a repeated action.

Ruling Muslims from the upper class ordered Hindu monuments destroyed.

And with all the grammatically inessential (i.e., non-head) information removed from the subject noun phrase,

Muslims ordered Hindu monuments destroyed.

It would be plausible for someone just joining the conversation at this point to hear a blanket indictment of Muslims rather than a description of a particular historical event.

Now, part of what makes this possible is the particular grammatical feature of English that the same verb form, the badly-named simple past, works both as a past version of the simple present (i.e., it paints the subject with a stereotyped action occurring at no particular time, like “dogs bark”) and as a reference to a single action taking place at a specific time (which the simple present does as well, but less often – see “he shoots, he scores” or “I arrive at 6 PM”).  Of course, if you want to be very specific about the fact that an action was repeated, you could use alternatives like “Hindus used to burn their dead” or “Holy men would be preserved instead”, but the simple past in the absence of qualifying adverbials leaves either interpretation open, and therefore makes extension of historical events from single and limited to common and characteristic very tempting.

Also driving this, of course, is the omnipresent impulse to narrativize one’s national history and define one’s or someone else’s ethnic group with characteristics that are “proven” with reference to stories like the above.  In fact, my inkling is that any ambiguity in descriptions of historical events will always be used to simplify them for inclusion in one country or another’s national story.  In Japanese, it is the lack of plurals for nouns, allowing “a Japanese apologized to comfort women” to become “the Japanese apologized to comfort women” with no change in wording.  I assume other languages have similar ambiguities that can ease the transition from events that happened to national triumphs or tribal enmities.  Grammatical ambiguity as in the simple past may be but one of many forms of catalyst that make historical events into parts of a story about us.

Dangling participles, rescued?

I was doing some staving-off-the-decline-of-my-brain reading when I came across this striking sentence:

Inching closer to the classroom, ideas are needed as to how explicit and implicit learning can best be harnessed and brought to bear on the acquisition task in a fashion that allows efficient progress and does not entail attempts to combine explicit and implicit teaching as separate endeavors with conflicting theoretical underpinnings, as has sometimes been proposed (see, e.g., R. Ellis 1993; Fotos & Ellis 1991; Willis 1993). (pp. 52-53)

Do you see what I saw?  I don’t know why my radar was up in this regard, but that sentence contains a dangling participle.  That is, the implied subject of the phrase “inching closer to the classroom” does not appear in the nearest independent clause ideally in the subject position adjacent to the participial phrase, or anywhere else for that matter.

(side note:  I also mean someday to investigate usages of “but” meaning “please regard the previous clause as a hedge”, as in the first line above.)

The quote comes from none other than Mike Long’s Second Language Acquisition and Task-based Language Teaching.  I wanted to see if my participle radar was mistuned, so I copy-pasted the relevant part of that quote on Twitter and asked whether my followers (that sounds pretentious) wires were tripped in the same way that mine were.  I got into an interesting discussion, mostly with Tyson Seburn and Rob Sheppard, of the issues involved, and realized there was more to what made a dangling participle seem odd than a missing subject.

I had some hypotheses about the results.

Hypothesis #1: Dangling participles are less likely to trigger alarms when they are part of a well-worn and familiar phrase like “having said that”, regardless of the contents of the main clause.  Rephrasings of those idiomatic expressions will be judged as less acceptable even when their literal meanings are similar.  This is for well-known principles of idiomaticity, the same reasons we don’t demand normal grammaticality of phrases like “be that as it may”.

Hypothesis #2: Dangling participles seem less abrupt when their implied subjects are either the speaker OR the discourse/conversation/train of thought itself, even when these are nowhere to be found in the main clause.  This came from a bit of reflection that A) the speaker and the discourse are always potential, ambient topics – discursive stowaways if you will – and B) I know many transitional phrases and discourse markers in Japanese work like this (although of course nobody considers this ungrammatical because not only participial phrases but all kinds of phrases in Japanese often lack subjects).

Perhaps also lending support to hypothesis #2, many familiar, idiomatic participial phrases (hypothesis #1) have the speaker or the discourse as their implied subject.

Hypothesis #3: Barring either of those scenarios, people will scan a sentence for a possible subject and try to make the dangling participle make sense.  The danger in these cases comes when two plausible interpretations exist, as in “Running the light, Joe was hit by a drunk driver”, and not so much in Anguished English fodder like “Drooling on his shoes, Joe was greeted by his Great Dane”.

I base this hypothesis on the fact that we don’t make the demand of close proximity on all potentially ambiguous modifiers in English.  Take prepositional phrases, for example – we don’t require that “I painted a picture of her in the late afternoon” mean I painted a picture depicting the afternoon (whenever I put brush to canvas), while “I painted a picture in the late afternoon of her” means I had my brushes out between 4 and 7 PM.  We are usually capable of drawing out likely the most meanings through context, and I presume that when push comes to shove we’ll do the same for dangling participles.

Hypothesis #4: When the dangling participle is separated from its subject by an empty pronoun like “it” or “there”, people will disregard the empty pronoun and treat the next noun as the subject.  This is because people will regard the empty pronoun as simply a placeholder and skip over it in their search for a referent for the participial phrase.

Hypothesis #5: When the implied subject is also the implied agent in a main clause in the passive voice (e.g. Spraying water, the fire was extinguished), the dangling participle will seem less jarring.

As we shall see, not all of these were correct.  Or maybe they are, but I’d need a sample of more than 25 to say so.

I made a quick Google doc with a Likert-style 5-point scale of acceptability for 8 different sentences, all with dangling participles (still viewable here), tweeted the link around, and after a few days, compiled the results.  The survey started with these instructions:

This survey presents participial phrases that would traditionally be considered “dangling”; that is, the participial phrases do not refer to the nearest noun. Please indicate how correct or incorrect you would regard these utterances in *written contexts*. Note that this is not only a grammaticality test; all of the utterances contain something that is traditionally considered an error. In your assessments, you may include or exclude considerations of grammaticality, comprehensibility, conventionality, or other factors at your discretion.

As the comments indicated, not everyone read this part.  Anyway, I wanted to make clear that I was after more than just grammaticality.  That part at least seemed clear to respondents.

Here are the sentences I wrote:

Rolling down the street, I saw a car.  This is pretty close to a canonical dangling participle.  The subject of “rolling down the street” should be “car”, not the nearest noun “I”.  Still, the subject of the participial phrase is clearly present in the main clause, which may help its acceptability.

Standing at the podium, the students prepared for the teacher’s lecture.  Unlike the previous sentence, the subject of the participial phrase is only present in the main clause as a possessive, i.e. not as the head of a noun phrase.  If my hypothesis #3 is correct, the reduced salience of the subject sentence should be less acceptable than the last, although they are equally incorrect from a strictly grammatical point of view.

Pouring concrete, there is a construction crew in the street.  The subject is separated from the participial phrase by a dummy pronoun (or adverb, I suppose).  If my hypothesis #4 is correct, this sentence will be judged more acceptable than ones whose subjects are simply missing.

Moving on, the next topic is sales quotas.  This combines my hypotheses #1 and #2 in that “moving on” is a well-used phrase and has the speaker or the discourse as its subject.

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 22.21.51.png
From COCA.  Mostly spoken, but clearly common.

Knowing Bob, it’s his family that is distracting him from work.  Same as the last sentence, “knowing (person)” is a well-worn phrase that has the speaker as its subject.  Maybe this item was redundant.  If so, the scores for one this and the last one should be about the same.

Looking everywhere, the key was finally found.  The subject is the implied agent of a main clause in the passive voice, as in hypothesis #5.  This should make it less objectionable to readers than a sentence where the subject is missing entirely.

Gradually culminating in true agriculture, plants were gathered from smaller and more prescribed areas around human settlements.
This one is tricky.  The subject is the process described in the main clause, although that process is never nominalized.  Further, it is wordy, which may work for or against it: for it in that people may forget exactly how the participial phrase was worded by the end of the sentence and settle for getting the gist, and against it in that it has no chance of ringing familiar like “having said that” or “moving on”.

Switching rapidly between topics, grammar was discussed in turn with semantics and pedagogy.  This is a wordy phrase and a wordy sentence, giving it low familiarity, but the implied subject is either the speaker or the discourse itself, which should work in its favor.

You know what I realized now that I didn’t include at all?  A sentence where the subject is not even hinted at as an agent or buried in a subordinate clause!  Something like “Swinging with great force, the ball flew into the outfield”.  Next time!

…Also, none of these participial phrases are past participles.  I wanted to keep it simple this time.


ss all.png

This is for all surveyees.  5 is “Totally acceptable”, and 1 is “Totally unacceptable”.  As you can see, there are two early leaders.

I asked surveyees for their relevant grammar experience and education level, but none of these produced significant changes in responses, so we can forget about them.  For no reason at all though, I’ll just say that my Twitter feed appears to be highly educated.

On the other hand, there was a small difference in responses for people who said “comprehension” was a criterion for judgment.  These were 18 of the 25 total repondents.

ss comp.png

As opposed to clarity, 9 of the 25 respondents (some people gave multiple concerns).ss clar.png

I never gave or asked for operationalized definitions of “comprehensibility” or “clarity”.  I assume comprehensibility meant that at least one plausible interpretation was possible, and that clarity meant that one interpretation was “clearly” more attractive than others.  When respondents gave a longer explanation that seemed to coalesce around one of these definitions, I treated them simply as either “comprehensibility” or “clarity”.  For example, “When it is understandable”, was reduced to “comprehensibility”.  As you can see, the “clarity” respondents rated all the sentences lower overall.  Since all the sentences were written specifically to buck the rules of clear writing, this is not surprising.

Only two respondents included grammaticality as criteria, so I haven’t bothered to compute averages for them.

So, the clear winner in producing acceptable dangling participles is idiomaticity or familiarity, particularly among people who valued comprehensibility.   Let me go through the sentences for detailed results.

Rolling down the street, I saw a car. 1.92 acceptability with all respondents (1.94 just for comprehensibility and 1.78 for clarity).  This was the second-lowest score.  Its acceptability correlated with the next sentence’s acceptability with a score of 0.71, meaning that people who accepted one usually accepted the other and people who rejected one tended to reject the other too.

Standing at the podium, the students prepared for the teacher’s lecture. 2.12 acceptability (2.22/1.67).  I wish I could say that this score and the last score support one of my hypotheses but since I neglected to include a “pure” dangling participle, it’s hard to tell whether including the subject in the main clause, but not adjacent to the participial phrase, caused these sentences to be evaluated more positively.  What we can probably say that including the subject in the main clause somewhere other than adjacent to the participial phrase doesn’t help its acceptability by much.

Pouring concrete, there is a construction crew in the street. 1.88 acceptability (1.61/1.11).  This surprised me.  The subject of “pouring concrete” is only separated from the participial phrase by a dummy pronoun/adverb, yet this sentence was evaluated the least favorably of all.  Perhaps the simplicity of the sentence overall invited readers to mentally compare it to an easily generated improved version (“Pouring concrete, a construction crew is in the street”), and therefore reject it due to its clear inferiority to this salient alternative?  Or is it too jarring to try to imagine a “there” pouring concrete?

Mysteriously, this sentence’s score was correlated with the score for the “gradually culminated” sentence at 0.51.  I have no idea what could be behind this.

Moving on, the next topic is sales quotas. 4.00 acceptability (4.22/3.88).  Yes, the popular idiom which refers to the speaker got high marks. 

Knowing Bob, it’s his family that is distracting him from work. 4.04 acceptability (4.22/3.78)  And the other one did too.  They were also correlated with each other at 0.59.

Looking everywhere, the key was finally found. 2.16 acceptability (2.22/1.89). Much like having its subject located elsewhere in the sentence as opposed to completely missing (see the first two items), having its subject implied as the agent of a passive construction doesn’t appear to help dangling participles become much less objectionable.

Gradually culminating in true agriculture, plants were gathered from smaller and more prescribed areas around human settlements. 2.88 acceptability (2.83/2.78).  I wonder how the scores would have been for this one if I hadn’t told respondents in advance that it contained a dangling participle.  Having considered that possibility, it’s also potentially true that the acceptability of dangling participles increases the longer the sentence overall gets, and the reader can no longer be bothered to look for grammar mistakes for a participial phrase that occurred 30 words ago – like in this sentence.

Thinking about this sentence has led me to hypothesize about a third discursive stowaway in addition to the speaker and the discourse itself, which is the content of another clause.  This is also what is referred to by “which” in sentences like “It rained all summer, which helped the grass even if it killed my tomatoes”.

Switching rapidly between topics, grammar was discussed in turn with semantics and pedagogy. 3.00 acceptability (3.22/2.89)  So a candidate for a 2nd-place-finisher after idiomaticity or familiarity is reference to the discourse itself as a potential saving grace of a dangling participle.  Regrettably, I don’t have a survey item that tests reference to the speaker without using a common phrase, so I haven’t really tested hypothesis #2 properly. 

To recap, here are my 5 hypotheses on how dangling participles can be made acceptable and how they fared:

1) Familiarity/Idiomaticity.  This one seems to have the strongest support.

2) Reference to discursive stowaways (where the implied subject is the speaker, the discourse itself, or *update* the content of another clause).  Possibly.  Needs more research.

3) Presence of the subject somewhere else besides adjacent to the participial phrase.  Probably not, or not by much.

4) Dummy pronoun/adverb.  Probably not.  Needs more research (see below).

5) Implied as the agent of a passive construction. Maybe a little bit.

From Netflix.

Conclusions and next steps

So if there were a tl;dr version of this post, it would be “dangling participles are only barely acceptable when they refer to a few consistently available referents, such as the speaker, the discourse, or the contents of the next clause.  They are much more acceptable when they are common idioms or set phrases used consistently the same way.  Otherwise, avoid them.”

I drew up this survey and compiled its results in less than a week, and some issues slipped through the cracks.  Here are some things I would do if I were to try this again:

  • Test for acceptability of dummy “it” defined later in the sentence (cataphoric reference) – e.g. “Panting, it was the dog who seemed to dislike the heat the most”.
  • Test for missing subjects who are not even an implied part of the main clause, e.g. “Moving in, the truck was full of furniture”.  If all of my hypotheses are at least a bit correct, this should have the lowest score.
  • Test more for the missing subjects being the content of the main clause, as in “Making a clear statement of its priorities, there was no comment from the White House on the ongoing crisis”.  This was my third discursive stowaway.
  • Test past participles, a la “Decimated, the Wu army’s families anxiously awaited their return home”.

Having posted this with mistakes, it has now been edited for clarity.

Native speaker errors and the origins of which they come from of

I’ve seen more writing by native speaker (or non-non-native speaker) students than non-native speakers recently, for the first time in maybe 12 years.  I have to say, native speaker errors are to non-native speaker errors what economic depressions are to lost wallets.  The roots of the issues stretch downward through Bloom’s taxonomy until you’re unsure whether you should start your critique with “this subject and this verb don’t match” or “things that are not can’t be“.

Here are some examples, paraphrased and otherwise altered for the students’ sakes of course.

“The numbers are frightening how many guns there are.”

Okay, so some of the legitimate uses of it’s to start a sentence imply that it’s okay not to have a clear referent for every pronoun (there’s another example).  Some students take the common injunction not to let pronouns slide by without definition as an injunction to replace every pronoun with a noun phrase, as in the above sentence.  The problem is, it’s frightening how many guns there are is a passable use of… dang, I forgot the technical term for this, but it’s when you cataphorically define the pronoun subject it later in the same sentence, like it’s fun to travel.  I’m not really sure why this usage of it is is kosher in formal writing, but clearly many students think it isn’t and are willing to sacrifice logic to avoid using it.

“When I make friends it helps me to expand my circle of friends.”

For some reason people seem to feel like an adverbial is a more elegant way of introducing a subject than simply naming it.   I see a lot of sentences that start with a subordinate clause, and then have it as the subject of the main clause where it means “the content of the subordinate clause”.  Many of these also feature circularity as in the above example.  The problem for me is how to explain that the adverbial really should just be the subject (“making friends helps…”) without sounding pedantic or condescending.

Lists composed of nouns, have unlike parts, and last contained another unlike part.

Of all the errors I see in native speaker writing, this is the most familiar to me.  My Japanese students were similarly confused about the usual symmetry required when splitting a syntactic tree with a conjunction like and.  The thing is, I think it takes a brain unusually attuned to structure to be able to understand an explanation of this in explicit terms – most people probably get it just from reading a lot.  I’ve had limited success diagramming sentences like “I bought him a coat and umbrella” or “I bought him a coat and her a scarf” to show why “I bought him a coat and a hat for myself” is ungrammatical (or at least a confusing garden path).


If I could choose a single lexical item that portends a badly written essay, it’d be effective, as in “the author effectively establishes mood throughout the story”.  Many students interpret the word how in their teachers’ “describe how author X does Y in story Z” like an Olympic skating judge and simply rate it on a scale of “badly” to “very effectively”.  How does Charles Dickens use dialect to illustrate his characters’ social class?  Effectively!  A gold star for you, Dickens!  This relates to the problem of meta-theses outlined below in that it actually says nothing but announces that something will be said.  I’ve tried to avoid using “effective” in my criticism as a result of noticing this, as well as its polar opposite, awkward, the go-to criticism for proofreaders unable to describe grammar except to other people as smart as they are.

Dangling modifiers

I would have been extremely happy if my students in Japan had used any adverbials at all besides “when S V”.  To the contrary, native-speaking American kids are so loosey-goosey with modifiers that often the interval between periods seems to have nothing but modifiers treading water, having given up on the dream of firmament.  This being a problem, since grammar to be corrected.

Comma splices are everywhere, I don’t always even bother to correct them.

I’ve even started noticing myself making them sometimes, they have started slipping under the radar.


I think I did this back in junior high – used the space normally reserved for a thesis to announce that I had a thesis.  This can take several forms:

  1. “The thesis of this paper is…” Not terrible if what follows is still a thesis.
  2. “This paper will cover these topics…” The supporting topics are left standing like Greek ruins consisting of columns with no pediment.
  3. “How does Dickens use dialect to show social class?” Good question, when your teacher asked you to write about it.
  4. “Dickens uses dialect to show social class very effectively.”


Machine translation requires human-like AI

Some of you alive in the 90s might remember an episode of Star Trek: TNG that is held as an example of the philosophy of language showing up in popular culture.  In this episode, the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise arrive on a planet where the inhabitants speak a highly allegorical language, using phrases about mythic or historical figures a la”Shaka, when the walls fell” to convey messages such as “oops” or “I see your point”.  As a result of these literal translations, the Enterprise’s crew members are forced to decipher what the dense metaphors mean contextually rather than in their normal English idiom as the universal translators usually supply.  Universal translators, as you can probably guess, are supposed to work with any language on the first encounter with that language or even with the species using it, and as far as I know this is the only episode where this particulary difficulty arises.


The problem is, if a universal translator can’t work with the very (infeasibly, as the article above points out) allegorical language spoken in that episode, it shouldn’t work with any language.  Even very closely related human languages use vastly different grammar and vocabulary to express greetings, thanks, obligation, and anything else under the Sol System’s sun.  To know that the verb phrase “thank you” is a show of gratitute in English (not a command, as verb phrases in isolation generally are), while an adverbial like “doumo” serves that purpose in Japanese, a universal translator would need to be a mind-reader before it was a translator, as there is no way to ferret out the fact that “doumo” and “thank you serve the same purpose from first principles or even from the grammar of that language (which universal translators don’t always have access to; they work on every language even on the first try). Moreover, it would need to do this mind-reading on species whose physiology it has never encountered before, meaning it would need to determine where the locus of that species’ cognition is, make intelligent predictions about how the patterns of (presumably) chemical synapse firings correlate to intentions, and map those intentions onto speech acts as they occur in real time.  The prerequisite technology for a universal translator is much larger than mere substitution and reordering of words, and approaches impossible, even by sci-fi standards.

In our world, people often discuss non-sci-fi machine translation like Google Translate as if it also were a scaling problem of existing technology, as if adding more of the same gears and cogs we already have would result in perfect language-to-language recoding.  In essence, people think the incremental improvement of current machine translation technology can save us from the years-long process of mastering new languages ourselves.  This post, with its oddly long prologue, is meant to argue that perfect machine translation would require a project of enormously grander scale than the visible inputs and outputs of textual language, and like the universal translators in Star Trek, would have a project of imposing complexity as a prerequisite, one whose implications would go far beyond mere translation.  In the case of machine translation that prerequisitive is a complete human-like artificial intelligence.

Read More »

Eikaiwa, terrorists, and George W. Bush (and more Engrish)

I remember before the 2003 Iraq war started, George W. Bush appeared on the news telling Saddam Hussein to “disarm”.  He also spoke directly to the Iraqi public in formal speeches like this one.

I’m not sure how true the part about Iraqis being able to listen to him is, but it is certainly telling how everything he chooses to say to the Iraqis is something the Americans public would have wanted to hear, and that his comments to Iraqis were bookended by parts specifically toward Americans. As for the “disarm” comment which I don’t have video for, I don’t know if an Iraqi news agency reporter was present or whether or not Saddam had CNN.  I guess he would have, but of course if the message was really intended for him W. didn’t need to give it in front of the American public.  Presumably heads of state have means to reach each other without simultaneously reaching hundreds of millions of normal folks.

In guiding his ostensible message to Saddam toward the ears of the American public, W. was putting himself in company of both terrorists and children’s English teachers.  That sounds provocative but also confusing.  I have good, parsimonious and mostly apolitical reasons for saying this which I’ll explain below.

Read More »

Guidelines for educationally responsible grammar-translation

Grammar-translation in the ELT community is a bit like Republicanism in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It’s practiced widely outside our community by what we imagine are people who generally don’t know any better or whose priorities are twisted against the interests of their socio-economic group, but espousing its values among we who (think we) are more enlightened is like opening up a bag of Doritos at the ballet.

For those in need of explanation of what exactly I’m condescending about,

Yakudoku [grammar-translation in Japan] is defined as a technique or a mental process for reading a foreign language in which the target language sentence is first translated word-by-word, and the resulting translation reordered to match Japanese word order as part of the process of reading comprehension.

(The article that this quote comes from is a good one to read if you wonder why people keep saying Japanese students are good at reading in spite of the entire culture seeming to regard printed English like a dog regards catnip.)

Grammar-translation, back and forth into and from the TL, seems to be the default method in state schooling worldwide.  It is unpopular among trained ELT professionals for a few good reasons. As a top-to-bottom lesson plan or curriculum, grammar-translation clearly fails, and there is no justifying its nonetheless overwhelmingly widespread practice (claims of its necessity for standardized tests, even when true, just increase the scale of the problem).  It surrenders all responsibility for language learning to the most mentally taxing tasks – memorizing connections between abstract tokens, applying rules of transformation in ways that place a heavy burden on short-term memory rather than automatization, knowing long lists of exceptions that invalidate most of the rules you just learned.  I have a hunch that part of the reason for its continued practice in public schools worldwide is precisely because it turns language learning from an activity that most of humanity has engaged in successfully for most of the history of our species into a bell-curve producing all-purpose test of general intelligence and dedication to the ritualized study process.  What it doesn’t do is produce functional language users, hence its unpopularity among ELT specialists and incredulity that it could be so common.

Grammar-translation also has a role in the ongoing cartelization of skills of native speaker and non-native speaker teachers in Japan.  Demanding as it does fluency in Japanese as well as long familiarity with the conventions that constitute “correct” translations, grammar-translation is seen as the exclusive domain of Japanese (NNS) teachers.  Whether NS teachers can ever become competent practitioners of it is beside the point; they are never asked to.

There is reason though to believe that grammar-translation can still have a place in a responsible and modern curriculum.  Since the 1990s, grammatical teaching, i.e. teaching the rules explicitly, has made something of a comeback among the ELT elite, albeit usually reactively and among lots of input and interaction.  Approaches seen as forward-thinking in recent years, including Task-based Language Teaching and Dogme, recommend explicit negative feedback and focus on form, i.e. some time to look at the abstract rules that govern grammaticality and what is correct or incorrect according to them.  The latest incarnation of the need for explicit as well as implicit knowledge and teaching seems to be the volume reviewed here, which I hope to read when the price drops. Grammar-translation can be a very helpful type of reactive grammar-focused activity and has strengths that other such activities don’t.  In this post I plan to introduce a few rules of thumb for grammar-translation as part of a modern language class.

First step: Throw away this textbook.

Read More »

Translation of noun phrases with premodifying verbs from Japanese to English

When I was studying Japanese in college (emphasis on studying rather than acquiring), I honestly couldn’t believe it when I first heard of the ridiculous flexibility with which verbs modify nouns in Japanese.  I was honestly annoyed that 分からない人 wakaranai hito could mean either “someone who doesn’t understand” or “someone I don’t understand/know”.  As I would find out, most Japanese English learners are similarly confounded by the vagueness of this structure when it comes time to translate it into English.

And translate they will.  This post is about issues surrounding translation of noun phrases with verbs premodifying the noun as in the above example.  It is not a lament of the commonness of translation or the lazy pedagogy that allows translation and translatability to stand as substitutes for intelligibility or correctness.  It is not a recommendation or criticism of translation as a classroom practice.  It is not an examination of other issues surrounding translation of verbs from Japanese, such as the fact that many of the ideas expressed by verbs in Japanese are done so by adjectives in English.  It is just an attempt to explain the errors that J-E translation of these types of phrases often produces.

Verbs in Japanese can premodify nouns (i.e. come before nouns in a noun phrase) in a variety of ways that each may require distinct grammatical structures, most often not premodifying a noun, in English.  Many of these are made possible by the rather flexible relationships verbs in Japanese have to their subjects, objects and indirect objects or complements (functional grammar: agents, themes, patients, etc.), in both their range of meanings and the lack of necessity for many of them appearing in the surface structure of an utterance that includes them conceptually, and would require them in surface structure in English.

Read More »

A million

What does “a million” mean?

The obvious answer is that it’s “1,ooo,ooo”, however that quantity is expressed in your language of choice.

To many language learners, the answer to a question like “what does this word mean?” can only ever be a word in their first language.  In Japanese English education, the “meaning” of a word is synonymous with its translation.  The only correct answer in this view is 百万 hyakuman or “100,0000”.  I mean to point out here that this is only one aspect of that word, or any word, and in many cases more salient characteristics of a word are its role in discourse (playful exaggeration) and just how easy it is to say.  Learning to speak a language the way native speakers do entails prioritizing these characteristics in somewhat the same way they do, and not fixating on an atomistic view of words in which their only definitions are precise and mathematical and shorn of the vagaries of context and collocation.

Read More »

Passivization of victimhood in Japanese

The canonical grammatical roles we all learned in JHS and high school don’t capture all the relationships that people can have to events.  “The blob ate Jim” has a clear subject and object with an obvious relationship, but “Jim died on me” is a bit muddier.  “On” in this case marks me as somehow a victim of Jim’s dying, and represents a usage of “on” that is rather opaque to learners in that it has no clear metaphorical relationship to the usual meanings of “on” and also depends on a lot of contextual knowledge to make sense.  “Jim died on me” implies that Jim’s death negatively affected me in (to my ears) a vaguer way than “Jim died for me” implies that I benefited – “died for me” implies that he knew I would benefit, where as “died on me” doesn’t imply any intention on Jim’s part.

Read More »

The Simple Present, academic speech and political correctness

The shortest sentences possible in English are overgeneralizations.  That is, simple S-V constructions along the lines of “They run” describe stereotyped behaviors rather than any situation that ever has to occur in the real world, certainly not in any chronological or physical proximity to the speaker.  This is a problem, what with the modern distaste for “labeling” – our language makes the broadest, most sweeping stereotypes the easiest to articulate.

More justifiable when Dio said it

Read More »