Archive for the ‘Grammar’ category

Nothing but the Truth: Using “but” as a Preposition

August 6, 2014

A learner recently asked me to confirm that we use the base form of the verb after “nothing but” and only infinitives after a phrase like “no choice but.” Hmm.  I could have created greater complexity by throwing out the fact that gerunds could also appear after nothing but. After all, if but functions as a preposition, then we know that gerunds could also be indirect objects. Consider this example: “There is nothing but whining and arguing at those committee meetings.” (See comment below about dummy subjects.)

However, I felt it best to limit discussion to the two constructions [nothing but + base verb] and [no choice but + infinitive]. The latter phrase has a noun, and nouns can have infinitive complements: the right to remain silent, the need to express oneself, the choice to be free. The infinitives help us define those nouns, those ideas. It doesn’t matter if the phrase is affirmative or negative: no rights to exercise, no needs to speak of, no choice but to fight. Agreed?

As for nothing but, dictionaries prefer to use examples with noun and pronoun objects. We could start with such examples to help students discover the meaning of this phrase: They serve nothing but healthy food. = They serve only healthy food. We can then start offering more examples to show the range of objects: They serve nothing but the best. = They only serve the best. / The food critic did nothing but complain.= The food critic only complained. (He did nothing else.)

I think it’s easier to see nothing but as an equivalent of only, as noted in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Comparing it to except creates confusion for learners because we also have except for and constructions like except do something and except to do something. I also think it’s helpful to show the patterns that are most frequent. We usually see [nothing but + base verb] after a form of do: He did nothing but complain. She plans to do nothing but sleep. We‘ve done nothing but work, work, work. Sometimes the most helpful explanation to a question is not about targeting the why aspect, but rather targeting what the standard is.

If you’d like to help your students learn some standard patterns with but as a preposition, please check out my Nothing but the Truth_handout.

If you’d like to help me gain greater clarity on this topic, please post a comment. Thank you!

Frequent Flyer: An activity to practice adverbs of frequency

June 20, 2014

“AW9FYG” by Sam ChurchillIt has been a long time since I worked with my friend and student Natasha, with whom I made my playlist for beginners. We are both in new towns and very far from each other, but because there has been a demand for more video lessons, I found the time to drive out to her new home recently. (Video to come!)

We reviewed, and then I decided to test her familiarity with adverbs of frequency. Natasha did well, but if given the chance to practice more with her, I would like to reinforce word order. Students generally pick up on the meanings quickly, but variation in word order can be the main challenge. With that in mind, I created my Frequent Flyer_handout. If you have basic level students, you may find this simple activity to be a good way to reinforce the patterns in word order. For this lesson, I limited the focus to always, usually, often, sometimes, rarely, and never.

 

Photo credit:

“AW9FYG” by Sam Churchill

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons.

Push to Dispense: Understanding the grammar of consumer labels

June 12, 2014

DSC00127 Test Shot Cleaning Product 10-01-2014A few years back, I posted suggestions for using authentic weather reports in a language lesson. Those ideas came under the heading of “Survival English.” Recently, a student’s question highlighted another source of authentic language that will inevitably be encountered and that also poses a challenge for the learner: consumer labels. You know what I mean — the information on the back of a box or bottle that supplies instructions, warnings, and other pertinent information for the consumer.

Once your eyes adjust to the small text, you encounter a very specific writing style that is not unlike news headlines. Consumer labels use abbreviated language. The absence of articles as well as the occasional auxilary verb or object confused the one student until I explained the need for brevity. It was then I hit upon the challenge of asking learners to put the abbreviated language into standard spoken English. “Turn nozzle and push to dispense foam” really means “turn the nozzle and push it to dispense the foam.” We could explain to another user, “You have to turn the nozzle and then push it down to make the foam come out.”

Want a practical and original warm-up for upper level students? I call it Consumer Demos:

  1. Bring in a mix of personal care products and household cleaners, one for each student.
  2. Give them a minute to read the consumer information. Ask them to scan and find the uses and the instructions. They must be able to explain in more conversational English but using standard grammar what the product is for and how it should be used. Dictionaries may be used. Possible products: facial lotion, mouthwash, make-up remover, aftershave, all purpose cleaner, tub and tile cleanser, jewelry cleaner, car wax.
  3. In small groups, each student will take a turn presenting their product. After each student speaks, group members can comment on whether they have used the product or a similar one.

You can easily move into a grammar or vocabulary lesson by selecting language from the labels.

  • Definite article and other modifiers. Present a line from the instructions and ask students to change it from abbreviated language to standard language. Example: “Squeeze small amount into palm of hand.” > “Squeeze a small amount into the palm of your hand.” Discuss the reasons why articles or other modifiers are needed.
  • Vocabulary. From “nozzle” to “dispense,” most consumer labels tend to use the same word choices. Are your students familiar with these words? See my Push to Dispense_handout for more practice.

 

Photo credit:

“DSC00127 Test Shot Cleaning Product 10-01-2014″ by rodtuk

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons

Fun, Useful Ideas for Working with Adjectives

June 5, 2014

My next grammar video will target the order of adjectives. I find it’s one of those topics that can put me a loss for answers. Why do we put size before color? Why do we put shape after size? Well…because. It sounds like a lame answer, but that’s just what we do. Language users develop standards, and it’s best to observe those standards for clear communication. If you talk about a brown big couch, you might be putting a pothole in the road to comprehension. In contrast, the phrase a big brown couch is easily digested in the flow of conversation.

I’ve posted some ideas for practice in the past. Now I’d like to offer a way to help learners discover the patterns before moving into production. Please consider my reading-based activity: The Empty White Room_handout.

The Trick to Telling a Good Tale: Simple Past or Simple Present?

May 16, 2014

ST001: Figure 2.1One of my recent online exchanges centered around the choice of verb tenses for telling a story. Do we narrate an event in the present or the past? The learner who raised this question had just learned about the use of the simple present to make a narrative seem more exciting and real, as if the action were unfolding right before the listener’s eyes. It took several exchanges to strengthen this learner’s grasp on when this shift in verb tenses is appropriate.

This kind of question certainly requires a look at grammar beyond the sentence level. I offered some models, such as clips from performances by comedian Bill Cosby, who skillfully recalls moments from his past with humor to entertain all ages. As I gave the matter more thought, I began to compile a list of other possible models. For you and for me, I will keep this list handy for the next time I need to illustrate this grammar point. The range of contexts should enable us to choose the one model that best suits the given learner’s age and interests.

  •  The story of Swan Lake in the film Billy Elliot. The simple present is used to tell a familiar tale, the plot of the famous ballet.
  • Bill Cosby on Understanding Children. The simple present is used for facts, general habits, and humorous past acts.
  • A man goes into a seafood restaurant…” joke posted on Smilezilla. The simple present is used to tell a humorous story.
  • The First Case, a joke posted on Reader’s Digest (joke page). The simple present is used to tell a humorous story.
  • Marty McFly recalling Doc’s accident in Back to the Future. The simple past is used to tell the sequence of events that led to Doc’s idea for time travel. This scene nicely contrasts with any of the previous models.

 

Photo Credit:

“ST001: Fig. 2.1″

by Rosenfeld Media

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons.

Student Stumper 41: Would you want to be (a/the/Ø) king for a day? Which article is correct?

May 7, 2014

"Crown" by Jason TrainIn my last post, I mentioned two recent grammar points that learners prompted me to reflect on. Here’s my discussion of the second along with a classroom activity.

QUESTION: Does a singular noun always need an article?

ANSWER: No. In fact, I could ask, “Do you want to be a king?” or “Do you want to be the king?” or “Do you want to be king?” All three could be correct. Why?

Why indeed! A learner questioned my wording when I asked, “Would you want to be president for a day?”  Hmm. Why didn’t I use an article before president? It came out rather naturally, and I didn’t pause to think why I had no article. As I reflected, I knew that “be a president” referred to the chance to be any president of any country in the world. That wasn’t what I meant. I could have used “be the president” to clarify that it was an opportunity to lead one’s own country, a specific position within a specific country. So why is a zero article also possible in this second case?

Biber and his co-writers discuss the use of the zero article with institutions, from public places to meals For example, I could write, “After church, the family had breakfast.”  My use of articles is appropriate because I’m using church and breakfast as institutions. “What is important to note is that  these structures involve nouns which in other contexts behave as ordinary countable nouns” (261).

The dictionary solves this dual nature by listing words like dinner as a countable and uncountable noun. That’s fine for meals and places, such as college and jail, but what about positions, like president? “President” is listed only as a countable noun in the LDCE, so we can’t say it has an abstract use. Biber explains that predicate nouns naming a unique role or position can appear with either the zero article or the definite article (262).

To help upper level students grasp this finer point of article usage, I offer a short activity. Please see my King or Queen_handout.

 

Source:

Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

 

Photo credit:

“Crown” by Jason Train.

Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

In like a Lion, Out like a Lamb: Practice with similes

March 13, 2014

March Comes in Like a Lion and Goes Out Like a LambOn this mid-March day the snow is falling yet again, and I am reminded of the saying, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.”

Similes are so short, and yet so colorful and exact. Once students are aware of these structures, they’ll begin to note the use of similes in the language they hear and read every day, from songs to novels.

I’ve offered suggestions in the past for using similes and metaphors in the classroom, but today I decided to share my ideas using only similes with animals. There are so many to choose from, and being mindful that too many can cause information overload, I designed an activity only with ten comparisons. It’s optional to add in others. Please look at my In like a Lion_handout. I hope you and your students enjoy it.

Additional similes available at YourDictionary.com.

Photo credit: “March Comes in like a Lion and Goes out like a Lamb” by Jan (garlandcanncon) retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/garlandcannon/ under Creative Commons.


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