Academic Suicide

The so-called “college paper” has been a debated topic practically since its initial inception. A recent class statement brought the debate to the forefront of my mind. Professor O’Donnell stated, in a tone of bemusement, that his students tend to perform better on the blog assignments than on their actual papers. It does seem odd that a discrepancy exists between two writing exercises. However, the answer formed almost immediately within my thoughts and has expanded through the discussion of prescriptive rules versus descriptive. The reason students are so terrible at writing the “college paper” boils down to differences between prescriptive rules and descriptive rules. With that I commit myself to academic suicide by breaking the general guidelines and prescriptive rules of academic writing and adhering only to grammatical prescriptive rules and a more formal dialect to explain the phenomenon of why students are incapable of writing the traditional North American college Read the rest of this entry »


Grammar and identity: Prestige, gender, and sexual orientation

A number of student in my grammar class have written essays about relative prestige in terms of grammar.

The Wikipedia has a very good entry on linguistic prestige (their linguistic entries are generally very good).

Particularly interesting for many, might be the section on gender and prestige. This section discusses what has become a rule of thumb in socio-linguistics, that men tend to speak a variety that is lower than their actual social class (i.e. is perceived by the speech community as being characteristic of a lower class) whereas women either speak at their social class level or above it.

The usual view is that men are the marked group in this (i. Read the rest of this entry »


Why doesn’t anybody ever tell you this stuff? On the origins of the masculine and feminine pronouns.

I just discovered the most amazing posting about pronouns in the American Bibliopolist.

There are many perfectnesses in this work. But the best, by far, must be his excursus on the origins of he and she:

It would be a fortunate thing for us if there were any fossil remains of language. We could then discover in the rock of the earliest words made use of, many of which are necessarily buried in oblivion, and so arrive at some conclusion respecting the invention of our masculine pronoun he. It is supposable, and, indeed, only supposable, that it first found utterance through the lips of a woman, an event something like the dropping of pearls from the lips of the girl in the fairy tale. The Scotch woman always speaks of her husband as he. In the days of courtship her maiden timidly prevented her particularizing him. Besides, what need had she to specify the one who was all the world to her? Read the rest of this entry »


Morphology and destiny: On words for snow and Sapir-Whorf

We had a lot of fun in my grammar class yesterday.

We were beginning a unit on morphology. The night before class, I had carefully prepared lecture notes on my tablet (I’m using a new textbook this year and taking the opportunity to revise all my lesson plans).

For reasons known only to my tablet, however, the notes I prepared were gone when I showed up in class yesterday morning , meaning that I had to wing it after all. Since my goal for the lecture was to derive a typology of English morphology from my students innate grammatical knowledge, I decided simply to write a bunch of different types of words on the board and see where things took us: dog, books, do, does, revert, convert, I’ll, we’d, and… undoifications.

Turned out this last was an inspired choice. One student clapped every time we managed to put one of the sub-forms into a meaningful sentence and the student blogs are full ideas stoked by the example: one student went home and impressed his Read the rest of this entry »


On translating sense and syntax in Old English

A student in my Old English class asked a good question today in her class blog:

I’m confused. The point of this class is to be able to read Old English. Does this mean we are supposed to be building a lexicon that would eventually become so engrained in us that the words don’t require as much of a “translation” as an innate understanding of the meaning of the text? This seems rather frightening. When I hear the words “nominative accusative singular” sweep one after the other my head begins to spin. I have to look at the dictionary three times in three minutes to remember what one word means.

I think what process seems natural to me would be to translate a sentence, and after knowing what the words are in modern English, to determine what words are nominative, objects, etc. in the translated sentence. Read the rest of this entry »


Dolphin Language

The textbook I am using in my grammar class, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, suggests that humans are unique in that they are the only species known to show abstract language use in the wild (they do mention the example of chimpanzees that have been trained to use sign language).


Very recent research, however, provides a potential counter example: Dolphin names. It has long been known that dolphins communicate with each other verbally. And since the 1960s, researchers have believed that individual dolphins use a “signature whistle” to identify themselves that is recognised by others in their population. What is new, however, is the evidence that dolphins use the signature whistles of other dolphins to refer to them—that is to say, recognise a particular whistle sequence as being symbolic of a particular individual dolphin, distinct from themselves.


This use of arbitrary signals to refer to a specific object, if true, would invalidate the claims in Brinton Read the rest of this entry »


English 2810a: English Grammar (Spring 2014)

English 2810 Grammar is a technical course in the form and structure of the English language. Our focus will be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Students will learn how the language works in actual practice rather than how people think it ought to be spoken or written.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, the study of descriptive grammar can be useful for anybody interested in working with the English language, as it provides a framework and set of terms for understanding how the language works.

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On the dangers of thinking you are indispensible: English professors’ edition

Apparently in 1917 people had a different view of the centrality of English professors…

When we consider our educational position, we teachers of English composition are in a fair way to become conceited. In view of certain featuresof our daily experiencethe dangerof becoming conceited may not seem imminent. But the outstanding feature of our position among pedagogues surely spells danger in that very direction. The practically universal assumption that our work is educationally indispensable is truly ominous (William Hawley Davis. 1917. “The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status.” The English Journal 6 (5) (May 1): 285–294. doi:10.2307/801590).


If you ever need an argument on why it is harmful to focus on mechanics in student writing…

From George Hillocks 2005, “At Last: The Focus on Form Vs. Content in Teaching Writing,” Research in the Teaching of English 40 (2) (November 1): 238–248. doi:10.2307/40171704.

Hillocks-2005-AtLastTheFocusonFormvs.ContentinTeaching

Based on a review of “500 quasi-experimental studies of writing instruction between 1963 and 1983” concentrating on those with strong research design.

 


Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech (Word Classes) Exercise Answers

Here are possible answers to the exercises in Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of speech. In some cases more than one right answer might be possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Basic Old English Grammar

Old English and Modern English can be deceptively similar from a syntactic point of view. In particular, word order frequently is the same in the two languages (though Old English is actually probably closer in some aspects of its word order to other Low German languages such as Dutch). This means that it is often possible to translate simple declarative sentences from Old English by simply looking up the meaning of each word in a dictionary… Read the rest of this entry »

How to Study Old English (or Latin or any other dead language) for a Test or an Exam

So how should you study in Old English class? Here are some tips I’ve compiled from personal experience and asking other scholars of my generation who have studied ancient or medieval languages (e.g. Latin, Greek, Old English, Old Frisian, etc.). Read the rest of this entry »

Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech (Word Classes)

Words are different from each other in meaning—car and unwelcome mean different things, after all. But they can also differ from each other in more than meaning: they can also differ in the way they are used in sentences. Read the rest of this entry »

Grammar Essentials 1: Inflections (Inflectional Morphology)

For the most part, English uses word order to indicate the relationship among words in sentences. When I say “The boy bit the dog”, people listening to me know that it was the boy who did the biting because The boy comes first in the sentence. Likewise, they know that it was the dog that was bitten because the dog comes after bit. Read the rest of this entry »

Grammar: A Guide to the Essentials

This tutorial is intended for high school, college, and University students who need a quick guide the essentials of English grammar. Its goal is to help you understand the core grammatical terminology used in textbooks and lectures in courses on foreign languages, the History of English, Old English, or other medieval and classical languages. Read the rest of this entry »
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