Barb's Blog

Skittish about English

As a hearing person growing up in an English speaking environment I acquired English easily and effortlessly.  I loved the structure and organization of the language.  I was fascinated by my eighth grade text book, Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, where I learned the differences among (not between!) an independent clause, a dependent clause, and Santa Claus.  I diagrammed sentences for fun.  My subjects and verbs always agreed.  They were even friends!  I know when to use “who” and “whom.”  I know the literal meaning of “literal.”  In fact, I’m proud to say that, according to a test I just took on Facebook, my knowledge of English grammar is pretty darn good. 

Let’s face it, grammar is handy.  As everyone knows, grammar saves lives:

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”

“Let’s eat Grandma.”

So correct use of grammar is really a public safety issue, if you think about it for a minute.

One thing I have learned is that if you really want to get a good view of a language it is best to look at it from the outside.

For the past few years I have been tutoring hearing students who are learning English as adults.  It is through this experience that I have learned that English makes no sense at all, and, let’s be honest, is a pretty dopey language.

Here is a sentence from our book:  “He means a lot to me.”  Easy, right?  Of course the students know the word “mean.”  They sure do:  “Bad.”  “Not nice.”

“Uh, no.  ‘He means a lot to me.’  That means he’s important.  He’s special.  It means . . .”  Jeez, what does “mean” mean, anyway?

No worries, let’s move on to the next lesson “it.”  Any word whose claim to fame is that it is instrumental in a game of tag should be pretty simple to explain.  “Okay, here are some examples:  ‘It is raining.’ ‘It is late,’ ‘He broke it,’ ‘It is June.’” 

Really, you have to wonder whether “it” means anything at all. 

Today our lesson covered tag questions.  I didn’t know what a tag question was either, so I had to look it up.  Here’s an example:  In the sentence “English is really wacko, isn’t it?”, the tag question is: “isn’t it?”

In the sentence “You’re coming back to English class again next week, aren’t you?”, the tag question is: “aren’t you?”

In the sentence “Some day I’ll understand this, won’t I?” the tag question is:  “won’t I?”

The idea is I give the student the first part, and the students add the tag question. 

Are you with me so far?

So, in the line “The English teacher looks really confused today, the tag question is – obviously - “lookn’t she?”  No, wait, the tag question is “doesn’t she.”  Wait – what happened to “looks?”  Why don’t we say “lookn’t she?”  And where does “does” come from? 

Well, when things don’t make any sense, which is pretty often, I do what my advanced tutoring training program instructed me to do:  Shrug my shoulders, flash a friendly smile, and say “That’s English.”  Then I mumble something incomprehensible and check my watch.

Here are more sentences we have covered:

“I’ll learn to speak English in this class.”

“I’ll finish reading the book.”

Not:

“I’ll learn speaking English in this class.”

“I’ll finish to read the book.”

It goes on and on.  The letters, commas, and question marks of the English alphabet are strung together in arcane and magical ways.  String them together right, and you say or write exactly what you mean.  Mix them up a little and – hey, has anyone seen Grandma?

© Barbara Raimondo 2015