Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

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Could you read this blog post, please?

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was polite requests and responses, which reminded me of an incident which happened when I was teaching English in Korea in 2006-2009. I didn’t post it on my travel blog at the time or even record it in my diary, for no particular reason.

For part of that time I taught at a government high school. The students had varying levels and interests in learning English. One day I introduced the grammar or vocabulary point, set the students going on the practice task and wandered round checking their progress.

One student was sitting by herself, not doing the task and instead applying copious amounts of makeup. I asked, “Could you please put your makeup away and do your work?”. She smiled sweetly and continued applying her makeup. 

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said, “Please put your makeup away and do your work”. She replied in Korean, so I said “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean”.

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said “Put your makeup away and do your work!”. She looked at me, smiled sweetly and said

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“I don’t think so”

Some sentences might be right, but just aren’t, and it seems a bit weak to say to students “It just isn’t”. One sentence in a grammar review was “I ____ pass the exam”. Alongside one obviously wrong choice were “think she won’t” and “don’t think she’ll”. Several students chose “I think she won’t pass”. 

Actually, it’s not wrong. It’s perfectly grammatical, and makes more sense – I think + she won’t pass the exam compared with I don’t think + she will pass the exam (clearly, I do think something) – and could be used for emphasis: I think she won’t pass the exam. But it is used way less that I don’t think she’ll (and equivalent sentences with all the other pronouns (per Google Ngrams)), which is the usual/natural choice. Saying I don’t think she’ll pass doesn’t mean I think she won’t pass, but that I think she might or mightn’t pass. I’ve said equivalent sentences to my wife, who has picked up on the second half of the sentence without processing the “I don’t think”. PS Australia has had a very long and late summer, but some nights recently have been cooler. As I was drafting this post, my wife asked “Will we need an extra blanket?”. I replied “I don’t think so”.

A similar question required students to put the given words into order. The expected, usual/natural sentence was “Who do you think is going to win the next election?”. One student wrote “Do you think who will win the next election?”. This is wrong – the question word must come first, but compare “Do you think [name/party] will win the next election?”. 

Arrr, me hearties!

A few days ago at the gym I saw on one of the televisions a quiz show which gives the question and a choice of four answers. One question and answers was (approximately): “Which one of these is a pirate in the 1883 novel Treasure Island? A) Long John Silver B) Chips O’Hoy C) Polly Wanda Cracker D) Buck Kinnear”. The contestant didn’t know. The contestant didn’t even guess.

Quite apart from whether any random quiz show contestant might be expected to know the answer directly or indirectly, possible thought process: “John is a real given name, Silver is a real surname and I’ve heard that name somewhere. Chips is a nickname, but doesn’t sound very 1880s [the novel is set in the mid-1700s], O’Hoy might be a real surname [it is, but Hoy is more common], but ‘Chips O’Hoy’ sounds like a joke name. Polly and Wanda are real given names, but Cracker isn’t a real surname and ‘Polly Wanda Cracker’ sounds like a joke name. Buck could be a real nickname and Kinnear is a real surname, but ‘Buck Kinnear’ sounds like a joke name. Hmmm … I’ll go for ‘Long John Silver’.” It’s possible to think all that in the time allowed to answer.

I’m not sure that I could have kept a straight face if I was the quizmaster, either at the names or the contestant’s inability to even guess.

or

Many years ago, air hostesses archetypally asked passengers

“Tea or coffee?”

The possible answers were

“No, (thank you)”
“(Yes), tea(, please)”
“(Yes), coffee(, please)”
or
“Yes.”

In the last case, the air hostess would then ask

“Tea? Or coffee?”

This can also be written as “Tea or coffee?” but is distinguished by a rising intonation on “tea”, followed by a small pause, then a falling intonation on “coffee”, compared to an overall upward intonation for the first “Tea or coffee?”.

English grammar distinguishes polar (or yes/no) questions and alternative questions. The answers to “Do you want a hot drink?” are “Yes(, I want a hot drink)(, please)” and “No(, I don’t want a hot drink)(, thank you)”. Offering tea and coffee as a choice doesn’t fundamentally change that. Strictly speaking, the only two answers are “yes” and “no”. Answering “yes” is not non-cooperative; answering “yes, tea” or “yes, coffee” is cooperative, but not required.

On the other hand, the answers to “Do you want tea? or coffee (?)” are “Tea(, please)” and “Coffee(, please). Answering “Yes(, please)” is decidedly non-cooperative, and may result in a cup of coftea. (There are more choices; I found a 50-page academic paper titled Responding to alternative and polar questions. And less academically:

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past tense, travel, verb phrases, negative polarity questions

There are some mistakes which I can understand, and others which I can’t. In class one day this week, the topic was travel, and there were two readings on ‘My worst holiday’. The grammar focus arising from the reading was past simple, because most travel stories are recounted largely that way. The past simple forms appeared in the stories, but the grammar focus activity gave the plain present forms, which the students had to change to the past simple forms, then check them from the story.

One student gave the past simple form of ‘go’ as ‘goesed’, which I don’t/can’t understand how he produced. He has never encountered that form, and there is no rule in English grammar which allows the addition of two different verb inflections, especially when one of them is a present tense form and the other is a past tense form.* Just possibly, he was thinking that she/he/it needs ‘-es’ always, then added ‘-ed’ to make the past tense form, except that the story was told in first person. Just possibly, we would understand the answer ‘I goesed home’ to the question ‘What did you do after class yesterday?’, but would be at least momentarily flummoxed by it.

Another student wrote ‘gone’ as the past simple form. I can understand that. go-went-gone is probably the second hardest verb paradigm for students to remember (behind ‘be’).  ‘gone’ is visually and aurally more similar to ‘go’; indeed, ‘went’ began as a completely different word.  Certainly, we would understand the answer ‘I gone home’.**

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bin

The last lesson in the textbook was unexpectedly boring. I tried to put it across my Wednesday class and failed miserably, so I thought I’d do something different with my Thursday class. I have an educational resource called ‘Brainbox’ – a set of cards about 10 cm square, with a map of a country and pictures of representative people, places and things on one side and eight questions relating to them on the other. Students work in pairs – one asks the questions and the other answers. It’s a good way to practice clear speaking and careful listening, looking for information and sometimes attempting to pronounce very unfamiliar words, and maybe they’ll learn something about the world along the way.

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Romeo loves Juliet

I have recently been thinking about the range of nuances that are available in English. Take the statement “Romeo loves Juliet”.

We can emphasise the whole statement:
Romeo loves Juliet! (Gosh, I’m so excited!)”.

Or we can emphasise each word. In fact, each word might receive one of two levels of emphasis:
“Who loves Juliet?” “Romeo loves Juliet.” v “Paris loves Juliet.” “No, Romeo loves Juliet!”
“Romeo likes Juliet.” “No, Romeo loves Juliet.” v “Romeo hates Juliet.” “No, Romeo loves Juliet!”
“Romeo loves who?” “Romeo loves Juliet” v “Romeo loves Rosaline” “No, Romeo loves Juliet!”

In fact, too much emphasis on “loves” can turn the statement into sarcasm: “Romeo LOVES Tybalt!”

(It is very difficult to indicate the exact level of emphasis typographically!)

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