Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Now You're Cheating

I spent what must have amounted to several months of my fifteen-year stint in Greece trouncing badly-designed practice tasks in home-grown English language teaching material. Here’s one I’d regularly denounce in teacher training seminars:

Complete the sentence with the correct form of the verb:

Look! Mary ……… out the candles!

a)      is blowing
b)      has blown
c)      blew
d)      will blow
e)      is going to blow

We do not know – nor is it of any great consequence to us – who Mary is, where she is, or when the action is taking place. We don’t know who is drawing our attention to the fact that there’s a connection between Mary and the extinguishing, at some point in spacio-temporal continuum, of some sodding candles. Is it a doting Granny at a little girl’s birthday party? A dispute over who gets to close a Satanist ritual? Unless we know and give a stuff, all five options are a possibility. Context, I’d say evangelically, is all. No context, no meaning.   

This evening I got a text from a colleague telling me to start on page 9 of the course book tomorrow. This has practice of the distinction between simple and continuous forms in English, and our supposedly up-to-the-minute coursebook gives us this to do:     

Five of the following sentences are wrong. In pairs, identify which they are, and discuss why they are wrong.

1.      You’re absolutely right! I am agreeing with you.
2.      I was writing a letter to my mum on the train, but I didn’t have time to finish it.
3.      She’s working as an au pair until she goes to university.
4.      We stay with our parents until the work on our house is done
5.      My grandfather is knowing how to text.
6.      Look. He talks to the linguistics professor.
7.      Peter is studying telecommunications at the moment
8.      These days mobile phones get smaller.

Cotton D., et al (2008) Language Leader Upper Intermediate Harlow: Longman. 

You are supposed to go for numbers 1, 4, 5, 6 and 8. However, I reckon only number 5 stands out as obviously not 'natural'.Even the grammar checker on my laptop doesn't like it, because ‘know’ is a stative verb, and stative verbs are not used in continuous forms, except when they are. (‘Yah, it’s rarely good on you – and I’m liking the mandarin collar.’) Of course there are stative and non-stative uses of verbs rather than verbs that fall decisively into one or the other category, but I can’t, off hand, think of an instance of ‘know’ used in a continuous form, can you? Anyway, all the other ‘wrong’ forms seem perfectly OK to me, potentially:

1.      You’re absolutely right! I am agreeing with you, right, so chill, dude, yeah? (Use of the full form of the auxiliary here might itself suggest that interpretation.)

2.      We stay with our parents until the work on our house is done. It’s always such a pain. Where do you stay when you have the builders in, now your mum’s dead?

3.      My grandfather is knowing how to text. (‘Wrong’- or at least it tastes a bit off. However, see Scott Thornbury's comment below.)

4.      Look. He talks to the linguistics professor. Honestly he does. He talks to him after every lecture, but he never gets any sense out of the bugger, OK?

5.      These days mobile phones get smaller, computers get more sophisticated, consumer choice increases, yet how many of us, brothers and sisters, are truly happy?

In a university in England in 2013, are students to be presented with perfectly formed English sentences and required to judge them wrong? Well, not in my class they aren’t. I just hope everybody else is skipping this bit that got past the editors – or maybe even got put in by them. I know from painful experience that not everything you write for your book actually gets into it. Editors have egos too. 

Back in Greece, I gave a group of new teachers a few sentences to judge correct or incorrect. This they did quickly and decisively. Then by placing the sentences into various contexts, we proved them all ‘correct’. One woman was not happy. ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘now you’re cheating.’  


CJB said...

Sucky exercises - and when the students INSIST that you explain WHY the book answers are what they are, I just put my head on the desk and weep.

Is, "It's knowing that your door is always open etc etc" -thank you Dean Martin - a continuous or a gerund? Your grammar is better than mine ever hopes to be.

Vilges Suola said...

It's a gerund - 'the fact of knowing' but it doesn't really scan.

Yeah, rubbish exercises, unbelievable for a book that's supposed to be 'cutting edge'.

CJB said...

Knew it was a gerund - I'm so crap. Lack of confidence through being utterly self-taught and crap, really. "Cutting Edge", huh? Yeah - I have a little offering by a notable worthy that went shelf-ward after even the instructions were impenetrable. I may share if I can be remembering where I was seeing it. But I'm not knowing if I can.... :)

Vilges Suola said...

When you will find, please to be telling us. We wait expectorantly.

Anonymous said...

Now I have the 59th Street Bridge Song stuck in my head.

Vilges Suola said...

Dammit, I have too, now you've Named That Song.

Scott Thornbury said...

You're absolutely right that context is all, and I'd add that none of these sentences are ungrammatical (in the sense of 'ill-formed') but that some are not very likely, that's all. But every so-called stative verb can be made dynamic if that's the meaning the speaker wants to express. Here are some examples of 'knowing' in the dynamic sense, culled from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

SPRINGER: Tell me about your boyfriend. You have a boyfriend, Chris. ERICA: Yes. SPRINGER: Tell me about him. ERICA:

Well, I've been knowing him for six months. I've been dating him for two months. He had been pursuing me, and I knew

that he didn't know, so I kind of backed off. But he was real persistent about it, so eventually I started going out

with him. And, I mean, it just went from there. [Jerry Springer show]

DOW: What hurts about it? SYPRZAK: Well, I mean, it's just -- you don't have -- I mean, it's like you don't -- you don't

know somebody who helped create you, you know. You don't get to spend time with them. I mean, I wouldn't care if I only

saw my dad once a year; I'm seeing him. I mean, that's the important thing. I 'm knowing him. I'm having a father-son

relationship. [CBS 48 hours]

Polls are a tool. I mean, we used to call reporting, reporting. You used to make phone calls and ask people what they

thought, and now we just sort of glibly repeat polls, because we think we 're knowing magic things. We think we can know

the unknowable, what the American people really think at any moment. [CNN Interview]

CARVILLE: Congressman, Congressman, I think that a lot of sports fans, and myself included, we've been knowing this

stuff has been going on in the NFL. We've been knowing it's going on in the Olympics. We've been knowing it's going on

in baseball forever. And then, finally, it blows up. [CNN Crossfire]

Ms. CORDOVA: Yes, I believe so. I think- it just seemed that the kids were given too much information, prior to CII and

at CII, that it was hard for many of the jurors and also me, in many of the cases, you know, depending on the child, if

we were knowing their personal experience or if we were just hearing what their parents had talked to them about and

what CII had talked to them about. It was very difficult to tell the difference [ABC Nightline]

Vilges Suola said...

Hi Scott, thanks a lot for the comment and the 'know' examples. They do sound rather odd to my 50-something British ears, just as the MacDonalds slogan 'I'm lovin it' did first time I heard it. Will have to keep my ears open for Brits using 'know' in the continuous now. Won't be long.

Richard said...

I am completely agree with.


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