Instances of class Noun

I sometimes find my background in computer science helpful for understanding language – ironically, since computer science often uses language as a metaphor for computing functions. One case where this is true is in understanding the various ways that nouns work in world languages and the difficulties that English learners face in adapting to our particular system.

Let’s say both our learner’s L1 and English both have a similar definition of a “tiger”:

public class Tiger {

//assume I put the necessary constructors etc. here

public static int eyes=2; //static because each Tiger has the same # of eyes

public static int legs=4;

public String name;

boolean hunt(Animal prey) {

//do something

return true;



ESL teachers can probably predict what would happen if this student were called upon to write an essay on these Tigers: lots of sentences like “Tiger is the largest cat in the world” or “Tiger does not live in Africa”. It is a mistake to conclude that this student doesn’t realize that there are many tigers in the world, not just one.

English forces you to declare an instance of class Tiger before you make any reference to its number of eyes or call its hunt() function.

Tiger a_tiger = new Tiger();  //declaring an instance of class Tiger

System.out.println(a_tiger.eyes);  //printing a_tiger’s number of eyes

I know – this isn’t good coding style. At least I can take comfort in the fact that not too many people are interested in both Java and semantics. Saved from criticism by my small audience!

Still, I hope you take my point about English nouns: they refer to instances, rather than classes, by default. We demand that references to Tigers in general need to be plural, because there are many instances of Tigers (I’m just going to keep capitalizing this word) in the world, or that they be marked and elevated with the definite article the, singling out one instance of Tiger to stand for the rest. Both of these are ways of signalling to listeners that we mean something other than actual instances of Tigers, although that is what their form implies. So in English, this would cause an error:


because you can’t refer to the class itself. As in the above examples, you need to (at least appear to) talk about actual Tigers, not just the abstract idea of one.

Meanwhile, in Japanese, the same line produces no error:


It just prints “2”, as one would expect, because Japanese, unlike English, treats nouns as class references by default, as do many other languages. In fact, you can talk quite a lot about classes in Japanese without making any implied reference to actual instances of those classes.

if (Tiger.legs == Human.legs) {



if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {;


None of this requires us to posit that Tigers or Humans are even real. We can comfortably refer to them as classes and talk about those classes’ features, even imagining interactions between one class and another, without ever letting the wheels touch the ground, so to speak, on actual, flesh-and-blood Tigers.

This requirement of English for instantiation of nouns is unintuitive for many learners. Countable nouns in English must be referred to as if they were either solitary or in groups, a distinction which we call singular/plural, even when the distinction doesn’t matter (e.g. everybody has “their” own problems). There are uncountable nouns, of course, but as any learner who’s ever gone shopping for “furniture” or “equipment” can tell you, the rules for their deployment are not prima facie clear, nor are there reliable rules for making countable nouns uncountable or vice versa as communication requires (one can refer to breads to mean “many kinds of bread”, but not equipments to mean “many types of equipment”).

This is by no means universal, and our approaches to learners shouldn’t make the naïve assumption that mistakes in English countability or plurals indicate some kind of lack of comprehension that more than one Tiger exists in the world. In many languages, class reference is the default (or definite reference, which I was surprised to find is the case with Farsi), and even in the ones where it isn’t, not all share the particular plural/the cheat code for class reference found in English.

Different languages can treat “reality” differently, or sometimes just appear to. This is a major lesson from learning another language – even if that language is a programming language.

A Taxonomy of Untranslatability

I started this post after hearing Lingthusiasm’s excellent podcast episode (referred by my colleague and work döppelganger Heidi) on this topic, wrote about 800 words before finishing the podcast and realizing that they said pretty much everything I was going to say but with much more finesse. Anyway, I changed the focus a bit and here it is.

Once in a while you’ll come across a listicle like this that tries to convey some of the majesty of world culture through “untranslatable” words. Notably, no list of this type is ever just a list of words in foreign languages without translations… that would be extremely boring. Instead, they usually have English translations for each word with accompanying explanations for why those translations are inadequate, usually something about the unique piquance of the origin language (henceforth OL) missing or some other woo-woo. Of course, nuance often goes missing when one speaker has less information about a word than another; one could argue that adults talking to children or experts talking to non-experts always results in nuance being lost. This could be why talking to children often has the same feeling as cross-cultural communication. When I explain metal to non-metal fans, I get the feeling that only about 60% of my words are being received with their intended meanings. If I were to make a list of words which are untranslatable from my head to the head of someone who actively listens to Justin Timberlake, it would include “Maidenesque”, “djenteel”, and “filth” (as a good thing).

Not just words in other languages, but all words exist differently in the minds of other speakers – even speakers of the same language. Since all communication is a matter of messages being sent and received by people with different lives and therefore different mental representations of words and worlds, one could argue that all language is untranslatable, if our bar for perfect translation is putting the exact same idea in the listener’s head as was in the speaker’s. For example, for a long time my prototype of a “dog” was a friendly but mischievous toy breed, because I grew up with pugs. Obviously, someone who grew up around Golden Retrievers will have a different idea about typical dog qualities, and someone who grew up in hell will have different ideas from both of us based on their long experience with Chihuahuas. When I used the word “dog” with one of these people, I’m not exactly putting into their minds what is in mine, because our experiences have built different conceptions of “dogs”. Instead of circling off certains words as “untranslatable”, we might do better to call all words “imperfectly translatable”, including among native speakers of the same language. This definition doesn’t respect the commonsense view of “translation” as a matter of crossing linguistic/national boundaries, but it does change the unhelpful “translatable or not” dichotomy into a spectrum of difficulty that includes issues of nuance, grammar, and culturally unique concepts. At one end are unique people who have the same denotation of the word “dog” as referring to a 4-legged furry companion animal but necessarily different personal experiences with dogs, and at the other end citizens of different planets whose languages either are dance-based or feature non-linear conceptions of time, and neither of which has carbon-based life (or by extension, dogs). They would probably write (or dance) some very interesting listicles.

We should also keep in mind that words “not existing in (language)” is a readily fixable problem: when speakers of that language start using those words, then they are words in that language. In that sense, “schadenfreude” is as much a word in English as “skirt” or “scaffold” (although marked for the time being as foreign in origin, while the others have lost that distinction). Lists of foreign words can easily become lists of English words if English speakers pick up on them and start using them – every nam pla is a potential future ketchup, and every ikigai is a possible candidate for kaizen.

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Source. Note that they get the pronunciation wrong – why not just ask someone on Twitter?

Now, you should listen to the podcast episode linked at the top of this post to get some more nuts-and-bolts reasons that translation is difficult, but if you’re interested in why people persist in using the label “untranslatable” for socio-cultural reasons, I think I have a decent taxonomy of reasons below.

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Justified adjectivization

This post springs from, but then quickly digresses thoughtlessly from, a question from a student about the difference between the adjectives “justifiable” and “justified”.

My answer at the time, that the difference was whether the process was capable of being applied or had been applied, was probably too first-principlesy to be useful. I probably should have directed her to COCA and let her work back to that conclusion from examples. Incidentally, after doing so myself, it turns out that “justified” is much more common overall, and especially more common in post-hoc rationalizing. That squares with what I said, but I could have found a more brain-friendly way of putting it.

(I find I have to force myself not to correct dangling modifiers these days, perhaps out of some misplaced notion of descriptivism – did you notice the one in the last paragraph? To me, it’s like an ingrown hair that the doctor has ordered me to leave be.)

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A chunky good man

My first instinct when confronted with a hot political controversy is to go over the language used to express it with a fine-toothed comb*. It is in this spirit that I noticed the great frequency with which the chunk “a good man” being thrown about in reference to the recent Kavanaugh hearings, either for Kavanaugh himself or good men in the abstract.

Example courtesy of Lindsay Graham:

This good man should not be destroyed. If you legitimize this process by one vote short, woe be unto the next person.

My first thought was that if they had nominated a woman like Amy Coney Barrett instead, and she had had similar alleged incidents in her past, this rhetorical nugget would be unavailable for her defense. No phrase of similar cultural heft exists for women, although the phrase “a good woman” is just as grammatically possible as “a good man”. My guess as to why is that while the image that the phrase “good man” conjures up in people’s minds is an archetype of competence, dependability, and bonhomie (emphasis on the homme), “good woman” only vaguely summons the idea of something like a loyal wife. Woe be unto any woman nominated for a high position who needs her character defended with reference to implicit cultural norms.

blur close up focus gavel

PIctured: The tool of a good man, not a good woman. Photo by Pixabay on

I did a quick search of BYU’s corpora to see if the linguistic record backs up my instincts.

The string “a good man” gets 12372 hits on iWeb and 1643 on COCA.

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I’ll leave it to you to dig into the contexts.

Meanwhile, “a good woman” gets 1807 on iWeb and 262 on COCA.

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That’s almost 7x the frequency on iWeb (the larger of the two corpora) and more than 6x in the other.

COCA, unlike iWeb, allows you to separate hits by their source (magazines, academic journals, spoken, etc.), yielding a bit more information of what kinds of contexts “a good man” and “a good woman” are typically uttered in.

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Within that about 6x overall on COCA, “a good man” is used about 10x as often in spoken contexts, 5x in fiction, 5x in magazines, 8x in newspapers, and almost 4x in academic writing. For some reason, Bush’s first term in particular also sees a spike in use of “a good man” – perhaps this relates to the politics of that time, including the 2004 election, where adherence to certain conceptions of manhood were a subtext for the Kerry and Bush campaigns.

For comparison, “man” and “men” occur a total of 582,307 times in COCA vs. 483,248 times for “woman” and “women”. This means that “a good man” does indeed occur much more often relative to “a good woman” than one would predict if the phrase were simply a matter of combining parts of speech according to the rules of grammar. “A good man” is a chunk bordering on an idiomatic expression for a certain, known, type of person, like a “people person” or a “person of faith”. This particular type of person’s goodness seems to depend on their not being a woman.

(* The iWeb Corpus lists “fine tooth comb” as about 3x as frequent as “fine toothed comb”, neither with a hyphen. This makes my usage rather pedantic to the point of being functionally incorrect.)

The simple present, unsimplified

Since I started my hobby/rigorous research pursuit of conducting Google Forms surveys on grammar, I have been thinking about the big one.  The one that combines the most assumptions and nuance and the simplest form into a wad of meaning with white dwarf-like density, which is maximally unbalanced in its complexity and the earliness and brevity with which it is treated in grammar textbooks.  The big one is, of course, the present simple.

This is going to be a long post.

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Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

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The Devil’s Dictionary of Correction Codes


Wrong in ways I can’t be bothered to specify.


Everyone from your junior high English teachers to your ESL instructor has tried to explain the differences between gerunds and infinitives to you using logic and rules of thumb.  We were just trying to make ourselves sound smart.


You accidently requested that the reader commit a human rights violation instead of informing them that one had happened.  I don’t have time or space to explain that, so here’s a single letter instead.


Please stop writing according what 99% of your input implies are the rules for native-like English.


The teacher is willing to treat this as a language error, but secretly believes you wouldn’t notice if you suddenly had 3 cats instead of 1.


Wait 100 years or so until the 3rd person singular dies out and this will no longer be a problem.


In English clauses, you don’t need to show degrees of formality, gender, intention, or whether the information in it was learned directly or indirectly.  However, you must always be clear when it happened (roughly divided into the past except when it’s relevant to the present, the present which isn’t really the present, and the future except in subordinate clauses) and remind the reader of that with each finite verb.  We’ll just assume you know what a finite verb is and which ones they are.


As an ESL student, you are expected understand and apply metalanguage that native speakers need to complete at least 2 years of post-graduate work in linguistics for.


I won’t let you transfer or get your second Master’s degree in engineering until you show respect for conventions of writing that are present in only 0.01% of natural input.


Just giving you the answer would save us both time, but making you do the work allows me to claim that my marks are student-centered.


Your teacher consulted Google and confirmed that this comma should not be here.  It might belong somewhere else.  Google it.


We expect your use of conjunctions to be more correct than the New York Times.


(I hope it’s clear that I’m making fun of teachers including myself here and not learners)

Dead quantitatives, revived by “grammar”

A bunch of teachers have taken my grammar test.

Or is it… a bunch of teachers has taken my grammar test?

Why does the second sound so bizarre?  Is the frequency with which we match apparent subjects like “a bunch” with “have” or “are” a lamentable pattern of grammatical laziness or is “bunch” just a special kind of word, rather than the noun it appears to be?

An interesting transition appears to have happened or be happening to English partitives and quantitatives, phrases like “a piece of”.  Under certain circumstances, they seem to lose their grammatical class as noun phrases and are instead interpreted like adjectives, modifying a noun to come rather than being nouns themselves.  You know the most common of these – “a lot of”, which appears to be a noun phrase with an indefinite article (“a”), a single noun (“lot”), and a prepositional phrase (“of ~”).  In practice, “a lot of trees” is interpreted as a noun phrase about “trees”, not about a “lot”, which can see reflected in in the verb conjugations in sentences like “a lot of trees are in the park”, wherein “are” conjugates to match the plural noun “trees”.  Needless to say, different noun phrases with a similar forms to “a lot of”, e.g. “a room with” or “a shot in”, are not treated this way – “a room with windows” is not a noun phrase about windows.  I’ve never heard a sentence constructed like “a room with windows were open to let in the breeze” – have you?

You probably think I’m about to condemn a lot of the English teachers who took my survey for having bad grammar.  No, I’m not.  Instead, I’m about to propose a semi-regular change in grammatical class that most people’s (including my) notion of correct grammar hasn’t caught up with yet.  I name this below the jump.

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Discursive stowaways and human logic (dangling participles part 2)

Dangling participles are less ambiguous than style manuals would have you believe.  They are subject to the same basic rule that governs all modifiers – namely, that human readers with functioning representations of the real world will give them the most plausible interpretations and move on.  At worst, they are just like a lot of adverbials or adjective clauses in that they could conceivably refer to multiple parts of the sentence.  More often, danging participles in common use are essentially idioms with set meanings, whether or not they share a subject with the main clause.  These are the ones you hear on the evening news – keep an ear out and you’ll catch quite a few.

I put together another survey after the last one to further investigate what may make a dangling participle seem more comprehensible or clear besides having the subject of the main clause as its subject.  Specifically, I was interested in a few things that seemed to be the most common implied subjects, and whether using these reliably made a dangling participle more comprehensible than other implied subjects.  My conclusion was not what I had expected.

If that hasn’t already put you to sleep, read on.

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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.