Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Now You're Cheating
I spent what must have amounted to several months of my fifteen-year stint in
trouncing badly-designed practice tasks in home-grown English language teaching
material. Here’s one I’d regularly denounce in teacher training seminars: Greece
Complete the sentence with the correct form of the verb:
Look! Mary ……… out the candles!
a) is blowing
b) has blown
d) will blow
e) is going to blow
We do not know – nor is it of any great consequence to us – who Mary is, where she is, or when the action is taking place. We don’t know who is drawing our attention to the fact that there’s a connection between Mary and the extinguishing, at some point in spacio-temporal continuum, of some sodding candles. Is it a doting Granny at a little girl’s birthday party? A dispute over who gets to close a Satanist ritual? Unless we know and give a stuff, all five options are a possibility. Context, I’d say evangelically, is all. No context, no meaning.
This evening I got a text from a colleague telling me to start on page 9 of the course book tomorrow. This has practice of the distinction between simple and continuous forms in English, and our supposedly up-to-the-minute coursebook gives us this to do:
Five of the following sentences are wrong. In pairs, identify which they are, and discuss why they are wrong.
1. You’re absolutely right! I am agreeing with you.
2. I was writing a letter to my mum on the train, but I didn’t have time to finish it.
3. She’s working as an au pair until she goes to university.
4. We stay with our parents until the work on our house is done
5. My grandfather is knowing how to text.
6. Look. He talks to the linguistics professor.
7. Peter is studying telecommunications at the moment
8. These days mobile phones get smaller.
Cotton D., et al (2008) Language Leader Upper Intermediate
You are supposed to go for numbers 1, 4, 5, 6 and 8. However, I reckon only number 5 stands out as obviously not 'natural'.Even the grammar checker on my laptop doesn't like it, because ‘know’ is a stative verb, and stative verbs are not used in continuous forms, except when they are. (‘Yah, it’s rarely good on you – and I’m liking the mandarin collar.’) Of course there are stative and non-stative uses of verbs rather than verbs that fall decisively into one or the other category, but I can’t, off hand, think of an instance of ‘know’ used in a continuous form, can you? Anyway, all the other ‘wrong’ forms seem perfectly OK to me, potentially:
1. You’re absolutely right! I am agreeing with you, right, so chill, dude, yeah? (Use of the full form of the auxiliary here might itself suggest that interpretation.)
2. We stay with our parents until the work on our house is done. It’s always such a pain. Where do you stay when you have the builders in, now your mum’s dead?
3. My grandfather is knowing how to text. (‘Wrong’- or at least it tastes a bit off. However, see Scott Thornbury's comment below.)
4. Look. He talks to the linguistics professor. Honestly he does. He talks to him after every lecture, but he never gets any sense out of the bugger, OK?
5. These days mobile phones get smaller, computers get more sophisticated, consumer choice increases, yet how many of us, brothers and sisters, are truly happy?
In a university in
in 2013, are students to be presented with perfectly formed English sentences
and required to judge them wrong?
Well, not in my class they aren’t. I just hope everybody else is skipping this
bit that got past the editors – or maybe even got put in by them. I know from
painful experience that not everything you write for your book actually gets
into it. Editors have egos too. England
, I gave a group of new
teachers a few sentences to judge correct or incorrect. This they did quickly
and decisively. Then by placing the sentences into various contexts, we proved
them all ‘correct’. One woman was not happy. ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘now you’re