“A glass on her head”

I wish I could draw, but I can’t. Sometimes I draw very simple stick figures and sometimes those leave my students even more confused than before.

A few days ago, my students were doing a communicative activity. The book provided two sets of drawings of six people with small difference between them, the activity being to describe each person accurately enough that their partner would understand that the drawing was different. One of the people was wearing sunglasses on her head. One student said, “She has a glass on her head”. I asked “What has she got on her head?”. She replied “A glass”. I quickly drew these stick figures:


I repeated my question and the student answered correctly. It turns out that the sunglasses were not one of the differences between the two sets of drawings. (The same often happens with “She has a long hair”.)

Glass can only mean “the substance”, and “a glass” can only mean “a drinking vessel”. But “glasses” can mean “two drinking vessels” or “spectacles”. But in this context, “She has glasses on her head” is going to be interpreted as “spectacles”. In the context of a circus performance, we’d have to say “She is balancing glasses on her head”.


inning and innings, outing and outings

On  Saturday evening I went for an outing to a baseball game. This is slightly unusual in Australia (there is a baseball competition, but it is almost unknown) and very unusual for me (I would not otherwise go to a baseball game, except …).

Last year I semi-did a course in photography on Coursera (I watched the videos and did the standard quizzes, but didn’t pay money to do the assessment quizzes and submit my photos for peer review). A few weeks ago one of the lecturers (a professor of photography at a university in the USA) emailed people in Australia who’d done the course, saying that he would be in Australia in late Dec-early Jan and was planning a trip to the baseball. (Which makes about as much sense as me travelling to the USA and going to a cricket match, but his son is involved with the baseball team here.) Seven photographers and three hangers-on attended. We had a short session together, then wandered around taking photos before and during the game. After some time, we each had a one-on-one with the lecturer, and he said some seriously nice things about my photos.

Photos first, then language: Continue reading

Grammarbites ch 5 – Nouns

Part 1 – introduction

[when I put the whole thing in order, Nouns will come here]

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 4 – consonant clusters

I am currently wading through many explanations in grammar books and online of countable and uncountable nouns. Many sources have too many examples, many have too few. My challenge is to provide you with a good amount of representative examples, with some rhyme or reason.

Continue reading

The Blue Mountains v Blue Mountain

Yesterday I went driving, exploring and photographing in part of what some of my students call Blue Mountain, and what I insist on calling the Blue Mountains. There’s no place in Australia called Blue Mountain, but there are genuine linguistic reasons why some of my students (and, I guess, many others) change the Blue Mountains to Blue Mountain. Many languages do not have the equivalent of English a and the, and many speakers of English as a second language just aren’t used to saying those two English words. Many languages also do not have the equivalent of English plural s (or, as in Korean, it may be optional). English plural s often makes a double, triple or even quadruple consonant cluster with the final consonant(s) – here ns, which many second language speakers find difficult and want to simplify.

The Blue Mountains cover a large area, and people usually go to only a very small part of them. The officially defined geographic area covers 11,400 km2, almost as large as the Sydney metropolitan area (12,367 km2) and larger than 37 sovereign states. The local government area and the state electorate are, respectively, the City of Blue Mountains and the Electoral district of Blue Mountains, respectively.

And they aren’t blue. The sun filtering through evaporated eucalyptus oil gives the scenery a very slightly blueish tinge, but the trees are otherwise green and the rocks brown. I hope tourist books explain that.

The same linguistic issues arose when a student told me that she’d gone to Southern ’Ighland (viz, the Southern Highlands) the previous weekend. This sounded either like Southern Island (there is no Southern Island anywhere in the physical world) or (in my non-rhotic pronunciation) Southern Ireland (ooooh, a lot of Irish history and politics there).

[edit 6 Oct: after I posted on Facebook about another photo-hike to the Blue Mountains, an online friend from Canada told me that there is a Blue Mountain in Ontario (the name of the mountain and a ski resort), as well as nearby town named ‘The Blue Mountains‘.]

partner and mothers

One student has mentioned his ‘partner’ without specifying or otherwise revealing a gender, at least as far as I have been able to understand his speaking. I have suspected male, if it’s any of my business. Yesterday he told an extended story about his partner and rather disconcertingly switched between he/him and she/her randomly throughout. I didn’t say anything in front of the other students, but had a quiet word with him later, and his partner is definitely ‘he’.

Someone I spoke to later suggested that maybe the partner is transitioning and the student is still coming to terms with it. I think a simpler explanation is that the student speaks a language which has one gender-neutral pronoun; students from that country tend to struggle with he and she. Another factor is that the student has a slight sh-ishness to all his hs, which might explain he/she, but doesn’t explain his/her.

Another student completed the given beginning ‘I really love …’ with ‘my mothers’. I asked how many she has, and she quickly confirmed that she has just one.