The First One to Figure Out This Tricky Grammar Wins!

No, this isn’t a contest, but if you can shed additional light on some tricky grammar topics, you’ll have my gratitude!

#1. Infinitives as Complements

A grammar question recently came from a new Instagram follower. Yes, there’s one more place you can follow me and/or send students to. All my video clips (all six of them!) are tagged #englishwithjenniferlebedev. I like the simplicity and brevity of the platform. I’ve been on Instagram for only three weeks, but so far the interaction has been meaningful without being overly demanding. For an online teacher, that’s great. I even received this interesting question in the comments: “How is it possible to use an infinitive after a noun? It’s so strange. I don’t understand the structure you used.”

The student was referring to a YT vocabulary video on eye movements in which I explained the main rule for a staring contest: The first person to blink loses. Students tend to learn infinitives as direct objects first. Want to do, need to do, and other combinations are learned early on. Infinitives as subjects and infinitives of purpose eventually follow in one’s studies. Sometimes expressions are used without full understanding of the grammar. “It’s time to go (to leave, to finish up, clean up)” is easy to teach as a pattern without mentioning the word “complement.”

But in this case on Instagram, I felt the student should be introduced to the concept of infinitives as complements. Just as we define abstract nouns like power, freedom, and opportunity with infinitives, we can also identify a person with an infinitive:
A manager has the power to change office practices.
Citizens have the freedom to voice opposition.
I would love the opportunity to meet that movie director.
The first person to blink loses the staring contest.

Related tasks:
1. Have students create their own examples of head noun + infinitive using high frequency words: chance, decision, right, failure, permission, attempt, ability, and plan.
There’s a longer list by Biber et al. in Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (652).
2. Have students create trivia questions that can easily be answered with a search on Google. Example: Who was the first person to…(walk on the moon, swim across the English Channel, sign the Declaration of Independence)?

 

#2. Tag Questions That Break the Rules

In my early teaching days, I learned grammar rules along with the students. We’d read a rule in the textbook, and then we’d practice applying it. Today I stand with those who talk about patterns rather than rules. Rules all too easily get broken, but patterns are there for us to notice and follow only if they seem appropriate for the situation.

With plenty of context, students can learn the purpose of tag questions: to confirm or comment. As for the structure, we help students learn the pattern of polar opposites by presenting examples:
You understand (+), don’t you (-)? [seeking confirmation]
This isn’t new (-), is it (+)? [seeking confirmation]
This is easy(+), isn’t it (-)? [commenting]

But what about a casual exchange like this?
So you’re staying in town, are you? Frankly, I’m surprised.
– Well, I thought it was time to put down some roots. 

The dialogue I read in my paperback novel the other day was very similar to this. The teacher inside me rudely interrupted my enjoyment of the story taking place in a fictitious town in Montana and said, “Look at that tag question! Affirmative verbs in both clause. Are staying, are.” I didn’t silence the teacher voice. I joined the examination and asked, “What’s happening? It sounds so natural.”

Biber et al. explain that the verbs can be identical in polarity when the question is used to echo a statement or comment as as way of forming a conclusion (209). Most grammar textbooks don’t cover this variation, but it’s an interesting use to discuss with advanced students.

Related task:
1. Select a film/TV script or audio book that contextualizes this use of verbs with identical polarity. Create a gapped text to prompt discovery of the grammar. When students write in the missing verb forms, do they notice the break from the usual pattern of polar opposites? Discuss it.
2. You should also be able to find examples in context using YouGlish.com. Try different combinations (you have have you, you did did you, etc.) I found a reading of Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain illustrating the use of “Oh you are, are you?”
3. You could visit GoComics.com and share a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (October 12, 1987) as part of a noticing task. Discuss the meaning of “Oh you are, are you?”

 

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

Photo credit:
Light, Bulb, Idea, Self-employed by ColiN00B. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/light-bulb-idea-self-employed-3104355/.

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