How to end a sentence

A sentence from John Brennan on the subject of UFOs:

I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.

How UFO sightings went from joke to national security worry in Washington

I think I’ll use this when we discuss hedging in class next fall.

Basic grammar vs. “school grammar”

I still need wrap up my Structured Word Inquiry series (from last November!) with at least one more post, but some of the more recent twitter chatter on SWI has brought up a broader issue that I thought I’d address first. That would be the question of which aspects of grammar actually need to be taught to students who are native English speakers.

To address this question, it’s useful to draw a distinction between “basic grammar” and “school grammar.”

Basic grammar is the stuff that native speakers, assuming they don’t have language impairments/autism, pick up incidentally without formal instruction. This includes everyday vocabulary, word order, and word endings (morphology), and syllabification. Absent language impairments, native speakers, do not, for example, need to be taught that “crumb” and “crumbs” and “do” and “does” are related, or that we say “no bananas” rather than “no banana”–contrary to what some SWI proponents have suggested on twitter:

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The Economist saves the best for last

A particularly shocking example of sentence end focus in a tweet from The Economist:

If you were wanting evidence that English readers actually do stress the end of a sentence, take a look at reaction to this tweet. Everyone reads it the same way: environment first, poor people second.

Seems clear readers would have been a lot happier if editors had flipped the sequence:

More poor people are eating meat around the world. That is bad news for the environment, but it means the poor will live longer, healthier lives.

And see:
Greetings from the West Bank
End focus, part 2
Greenbaum & Nelson on sentence end focus

End focus, part 2

The West Bank, which we spent 2 days visiting earlier this month, is divided into Areas A, B, & C. 

Area A’s are Palestinian. (There seemed to be lots of different places in each category, but I could be wrong.)

Area C ‘s are Israeli.

Area B’s are half and half, with Palestinian police and Israeli defense forces (as I recall).

Here’s the kicker: they all look alike. Completely alike. They look so much alike that at one point our guide told us he had no idea which kind of area we were driving through at that moment, an A, a B, or a C. Without signage, you can’t tell, and signage is sparse. 

Signage is sparse except when you’re approaching an Area A. Area A’s–all Area A’s, from what I could tell–greet visitors with a large red sign printed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English that reads, in its entirety:

The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, is dangerous to your lives, & is forbidden by Israeli law

Our bus blew past a lot of these signs, and each time it did, I felt a disorienting combination of amusement and alarm. 

Alarm that we were entering an area that was dangerous to our lives;1 amusement that, apparently, in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority, breaking Israeli law would be a worse fate than possibly dying.

That’s sentence end-focus.

In the English sentence, the most important information comes at the end. So, to me, the sign says that breaking Israeli law is worse than risking my life. Which is ridiculous. I don’t know about you, but given a choice between dying and breaking Israeli law, I don’t have to think twice. 

Are sentences constructed differently in Arabic?

I’ve tried to research it a bit, but have found conflicting answers. 

1. I’m not an Israeli citizen, but we were traveling with three people who were.    

And see: Greetings from the West Bank

Save the best for last: sentence end focus

From Greenbaum and Nelson’s An Introduction to English Grammar (4th edition):

8.2 End-focus

It is normal to arrange the information in our message so that the most important information comes at the end. We follow this principle of end-focus when we put such information at the end of a sentence or clause. In contrast, the beginning of a sentence or clause typically contains information that is general knowledge, or is obvious from the context, or may be assumed as given because it has been mentioned earlier.

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