Katharine & Doug on how to ask a question in English

re: Linguistics on the fly and the do-operator

Here’s Katharine:

I love the Question Rule! I run through a gradual derivation of it with my education students so they can see how tricky it is to teach people with language delays and people learning English as a foreign language. Most people (however automatically they form grammatical sentences) have no idea how they do it!

The basic rule is purely formal (as opposed to semantic): when there’s an auxiliary or “be”, use that; otherwise use “do”.

Is that unusual?
Are you noticing anything unusual?
Have you noticed anything usual?
Had you noticed anything unusual at that point?
Will you report anything unusual?
Might you have noticed something unusual?

“Do”, like the fronted auxiliary verbs in the above sentences, is what carries the tense:
Did/do you see anything unusual?

And here’s Doug:

That would be what at least John McWhorter1refers to as the “meaningless do”, which is one of the features of English that makes it an odd language. His claim (or perhaps speculation?) is that it came into the language by contact with Celtic languages. And you’re right, it can be very hard for ESL students to learn idiomatically.

In most Germanic languages, a pattern like, “Eat we breakfast?” would be idiomatic, where in English the idiom, of course, is “Do we eat breakfast?”

1. Linguistics Prof at Columbia and brilliant lecturer on linguistics, including in the Great Courses series


One of the things I loved about working with Katharine on the textbook is that she always knows the answer to grammar question — not just knows the answer, which I usually know intuitively, but can explain the answer.

This sentence stumped me:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors say were involved in the plot.
From: One by One, ISIS Social Media Experts Are Killed as Result of F.B.I. Program

That “whom” sounded wrong.

Usually, when something sounds wrong to me, it is wrong. But then, when I read the sentence again, thinking about its grammar, I wasn’t sure.

Wasn’t that “whom” the direct object of “say“?

Whom” is the direct object form. Not “who.”

I’ll post Katharine’s explanation tomorrow. (Or make her do it!)

Teacher’s lament

I’m going to be working with a graduate level research class next week, and in the process of trying to track down papers on the relationship between writing and thinking, I’ve come across a fabulous passage, quoted in Exploring Literacies Theory, Research and Practice by Helen de Silva Joyce and Susan Feez:

Bringing up the question of learning to read and write reminds us of the comment by the primary-school teacher who remarked, ‘It’s lucky we’re not responsible for teaching them to talk. If we were they’d never learn that either’. Nevertheless, a surprising number of people do become literate, mostly through being taught.
(Halliday 2009/1978: 178)

Halliday and Hasan are two of my favorites. Our writing curriculum is strongly influenced by their work (which I have yet to read in full, I should add).

I don’t post this passage to malign teachers, by the way. Not at all.

Being good at teaching isn’t enough. To teach well, teachers need a field-tested curriculum.

But instead of providing teachers a proven curriculum, schools expect them to Google lessons and posters on Pinterest, purchase them from Teachers Pay Teachers, or stay up till all hours of the night writing curriculum themselves.

I personally have spent what feels like years of my life Googling lessons, handouts, and worksheets, and in the end what I have to show for it is a massive heap of digital stuff (some of it fantastically helpful, to be sure) that doesn’t cohere and isn’t a curriculum.

Conlangers are a thing (part 1)

I’ve just discovered an entire category of people:


Conlangers make up languages for fun.

I had no idea!

I knew there was one conlanger on the planet: the guy who invented Dothraki.

I had no idea there were others, let alone multiple others.

Turns out there are so many others they have their own conlanger societies, listservs, wikis, software, and books.


And see:
Teaching freshman writing via conlanging (part 2)

This is why we need a linguist

Well, this is why I need a linguist.

I’ve just read Katharine’s “Can you spot the sentence fragment?” post.

For me, the first fragment is easy:

Though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.

That’s a fragment because “though” is a subordinator. Coming before “I did snap at friends…” it turns a complete sentence into a subordinate clause:

complete sentence I went home
subordinate clause (or fragment) although I went home
complete sentence I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed
subordinate clause (or fragment) though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed

But I’m having a big problem with the second fragment, which is that it “feels” like there are two other fragments in Katie’s post, not just one.

First fragment:

From this weekend’s New York Times Magazine

That’s obvious (no verb) — but, to me, this sounds like a fragment, too:

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage to Adderall, but rather that it brings up the first of three downsides.

I say “sounds like a fragment” because I write by ear — never learned formal grammar beyond 4th grade or thereabouts (and, no, learning grammar in Spanish class doesn’t help. Not really.) So my rule for complete versus incomplete is whether a string of words sounds complete or incomplete.

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” sounds incomplete to me, and the reason it sounds incomplete to me is that opening “at which point.”

But why?

Is “at which point” a subordinator, too?

And if it is, how do we know?

Katharine knows the answers to all these things.

It’s a very strange thing, trying to make unconscious knowledge conscious.

The minute you try, you lose your sense of conviction.

Always happens with spelling. If you really think about how to spell a word — consciously think about it — it slips away.

Try it.

Try consciously thinking about how to spell “Hoover v— cleaner” instead of just writing it down, on automatic pilot, the way we normally do.1

Now that I’ve thought about Katie’s at which point sentence, I’m completely mystified.

Very annoying.

1. OK, I admit: I can’t spell vacuum unconsciously, either, not with any reliability. But I really can’t spell it if I think about it.