By opening up my community forum, I’ve accepted the challenge of satisfying learners’ curiosity and resolving their doubts. Sometimes I truly get stumped, though, and I wonder if I will ever arrive at an explanation that fully answers a particular question.
A couple of questions posted recently made me reflect on the need to label parts of a sentence with familiar grammar terminology. For some people, being able to identify every word and its function is necessary. A word without a label causes unrest. For others, it’s enough to know that a structure is common and acceptable in everyday speech. They accept the new construct and begin to use it. I admit that I fall into the first group. I like to break language down and build it back up again, but when I fail to justify the correctness of a speech pattern of mine, I am no longer at peace when I use it.
One point that troubled me has mostly been resolved. A viewer had questioned my use of “five days a week” in my lesson about weekdays and weekends. The student wondered why no preposition was needed: five days in a week, five days during the week, or another variation. The student was more familiar with “per,” as in five days per week. My conclusion is that “a” is a determiner, and it can have the same meaning and use as “each.” The use of a preposition is redundant because [number + instances + (indefinite article) time period] already expresses a rate: They go to school five days a week. I take vitamins two times a day. The store is open 24/7, that is, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Agreed?
A second language point is still troubling me. It also concerns determiners to a degree. Again, I was caught on camera saying something that felt natural, but later I was questioned about it. In Lesson 32 of my new series for beginners, I asked, “What color hair does he have?” I was trying to avoid a possessive adjective since we hadn’t covered that topic yet, and I felt this question was an acceptable alternative to “What color is his hair?” Was my choice incorrect? A viewer asked how “what color” could appear before “hair” as a modifier.
We all know that “what” can be a determiner with a meaning similar to “which.” We prefer which when a choice is limited and what when an undetermined number of possibilities exist. Compare: What person in their right mind would turn down a vacation to a tropical destination with all expenses paid? / Which person is right for the job? Cindy, Joseph, or Morgan? With this much understood, we can conclude that the construct “what color” is acceptable. However, can that phrase be placed before a noun since “color” itself is already a noun? Or perhaps “color” has lost that label and now functions more as part of an interrogative phrase?
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English doesn’t shed light on terminology, but it does confirm the frequency of my word choice in its first example for the use of color: “What colour dress did you buy?” Does this pattern only exist for “color” or can you think of other nouns that fit [what (noun) + head noun]? All the examples coming to my mind require the preposition “of”: what time of day, what flavor of ice cream, what kind of flower, etc.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.