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 »

Noun is difficult

Polysemy is one of those concepts I got from Steven Pinker and was totally hoping would be a part of my Applied Linguistics MA course.  It wasn’t, of course, since it is more relevant for philologists and other deep parsers of language than ESL/EFL teachers.

In a nutshell, polysemy is the ability of words to have several related meanings, for instance “supermarket” referring to both a business and a building.  In English we use the preposition “at” to show our location with reference to the former and “in” with the latter (“at the supermarket” not necessarily being physically inside of it), which shows that the conceptual difference is there even for people who are not explicitly aware of it.

In keeping with my general theory of language, in essence that everything affects everything else, I did some wondering about how the lack of plurals in Japanese might affect polysemy in ways other than the obvious – that each noun has to stand for multiple instances of itself in addition to the usual (for English at least) one.

“Sumo” – the sport, the person, the people

Read More »