Coming to Terms with Grammar Terminology

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. By searching and browsing, I learned the term “disguised prepositions” and realized that this indefinite determiner can help convey frequency as the preposition  “per” would. The meaning is implied and hidden behind a. While I don’t think it’s helpful to teach the term “disguised preposition,” I do feel the concept is useful to highlight. In this case, we can simply explain that a + a duration conveys frequency: 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. 

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.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Nina Liakos says:

    Hi, Jennifer,
    I am pretty much like you in that I like to analyze and label, but I think we have to realize that language isn’t controlled by its rules, only described by them, and sometimes the rules don’t work. I read somewhere that “ESL” is an artificial language constructed by ESL teachers in a heroic effort to make the language follow the rules. I try to remember back to my pre-teacher days. Did I follow the rules (about commas after introductory words and phrases, for example, or about not making a comma splice when a sentence begins with “however”) that I follow now so assiduously? Maybe I didn’t. When the Washington Post puts a comma in front of however, maybe I shouldn’t be so strict with my students about that particular issue. I’ve recently decreased my teacher noise about not beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions (except in academic writing) because I see it everywhere.

    As for your example of “What color hair”, I also say that, and I think “What flavor ice cream” might also be possible. Back in 1977 when I started grad school, my purpose was to find the answers to all the questions my students asked me. What I learned instead is that no language has ever been fully described and analyzed (certainly not English, which is so dynamic and comes in so many version!), and that sometimes the answer to the student’s “Why?” is just “because.”

    See you in Philadelphia!

    1. How succinct and true your last thought is, Nina. “Why?” – “Because.” It reminds me of all my valiant efforts to explain things to my children, but sometimes I admit I say something very similar, “Well, that’s just the way it is. I don’t know why.”

      Both parents and teachers take on the role of guides. We try to lead others to discovery, but in truth we don’t always know what all there is to discover. Maybe we have yet to discover a certain something ourselves.

  2. I need to practice more grammar . Can you help about that

    1. You can visit sites that I recommend for additional practice.

      Good luck!

  3. Ako says:

    Yesterday I came across the same problem. I actually corrected a student of mine when he followed the textbook by saying ‘What flavour ice cream’. What I’d like to know is whether this is grammatically justifable (in the traditional sense) or it’s acceptable just because native speakers use it naturally and frequently.

    1. *sigh* I wish I had all the answers, but I don’t. I can only be sure that the pattern is used frequently in spoken contexts when we need to be specific about color, size, or other physical attribute. The only examples I feel confident enough to post are these:
      What color hair does he have?
      What size shoe do you wear?

  4. James says:

    Hello, Jennifer:

    I am really, really interested in this matter.

    Some people say that in “What color hair does he have?,” there is an understood “of.”

    For some reason, however, it is not considered idiomatic to say or write it.

    May I have your views?

    Thank you,


    P.S. I have often heard “What flavor ice cream do you want?” It takes too much effort and wastes too much time to include the “of.”

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