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Sun Jul 28, 2019, 01:00 PM

My 1950s miseducation in English.

Growing up in the 1950s, I learned from my various English teachers that shall and will are synonyms, and the proper usage was as follows:

non-emphatic: I or we shall; you will; he, she, it, or they will;
emphatic: I or we will; you shall; he, she, it, or they shall.

But this is bullshit. Nobody speaks or writes this way. In fact, now very few people ever say "shall". (I sometimes say "shall", but I'm a dinosaur.)

Of course my teachers never mentioned the fact that modals come in pairs like "shall, should" and "will, would", nor that syntactically each pair consists of a present and a past form, let alone the fact that syntactically English lacks a future tense. I'm pretty sure my teachers didn't know squat about English syntax.

I also learned that the parts of speech are noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb, verb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. Notably missing from this list is particle. Particles were rigorously mislabeled adverbs, and no teacher ever mentioned phrasal verbs, which in fact are about half of the verbs you hear in everyday speech. Just consider the following phrasal verbs: take in, take out, take over, take on, take up, take down. Here the words in, out, over, on, up, and down are particles, not adverbs of prepositions.

I also learned to "diagram" sentences, but unlike the tree diagrams that linguists draw, the silly diagrams we drew explained nothing we didn't already know.

I learned that the indefinite article was "an" before a vowel and "a" before a consonant, but not that the definite article was usually pronounced /i/ before a vowel and /ə/ before a consonant, but always /i/ if the emphasis was on the word "the". Of course we didn't need instruction about the pronunciation of "the", because we were already doing it correctly.

In short, most of my English teachers deserved a grade of F- in grammar.

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Arrow 13 replies Author Time Post
Reply My 1950s miseducation in English. (Original post)
Lionel Mandrake Jul 2019 OP
safeinOhio Jul 2019 #1
bobbieinok Jul 2019 #2
delisen Jul 2019 #3
Lionel Mandrake Jul 2019 #5
Karadeniz Jul 2019 #4
Lionel Mandrake Jul 2019 #6
Igel Jul 2019 #7
Lionel Mandrake Jul 2019 #8
PoindexterOglethorpe Aug 2019 #9
Lionel Mandrake Aug 2019 #10
PoindexterOglethorpe Aug 2019 #11
Lionel Mandrake Aug 2019 #12
PoindexterOglethorpe Aug 2019 #13

Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 01:21 PM

1. Back then we also had to learn another language too.

I've forgot all of it.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 01:39 PM

2. I remember being super confused by the same distinctions between shall and will (also school in 50s)

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 02:19 PM

3. Shall We Dance?

Shall we scream

Shall we jump into the stream?

....and if so, will we survive?


(I really need "shall".

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Response to delisen (Reply #3)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 03:20 PM

5. There is a real difference between shall and will.

"Will we dance?" would be asking for a prediction, unlike "Shall we dance?"
"Shall I open the door for you?" is similarly distinct from "Will I open the door for you?"
"Boys will be boys" can't be replaced with "Boys shall be boys".
"Thou shalt not kill" can't be replaced with "Thou wilt not kill".
"Shall" can express obligation, and "will" can express volition, but not the other way around.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 02:59 PM

4. Thank you...love language lessons!

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Response to Karadeniz (Reply #4)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 03:22 PM

6. You're quite welcome.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 05:38 PM

7. Grammars have functions and purposes.

I learned Russian as an L2. I learned formal Russian.

Later I learned colloquial Russian. Nearly every part of the grammar has some sharp divergences from the formal, prescriptive, normative grammar.

The grammar I learned was emigre grammar in the '70s, based on textbooks written in the '50s and '60s. They were based on an older norm, often pre-Revolutionary. The take-over of society by working class people--much of the reason for both the Soviet "reign of terror" and its sequelae--altered that to a large extent. But it makes Dostoevsky and Tolstoy sound "normal" to me, more normal than it does to a Russian 20-something these days, but certainly more like it would have been perceived when written.

Afterwards I become adept at more modern norms, good for the Interwar and post-war periods.

In the '90s there was another shift in norms, but while Russian linguists pitched a fit over them the norms didn't shift that radically.

These different sets of norms are best termed registers or styles. Every standard literary language has a well-developed set of styles. How you speak to your dog isn't how you speak to your wife, and those are different from how you speak to your professor in class or when giving a paper or at court or talking to a cab driver. In addition to how things vary in that regard, there are inevitably not just social dialects by age, class, education, context, but by geography. To some extent the variation by age recapitulates some recent linguistic history, but a detailed analysis of Queen EII's pronunciation and discourse shows that a person's language isn't static. In other words, she doesn't speak now like she did in 1950 but has incorporated some (few) more recent changes in the British variant of the language. In other words, RP's shifted over time.

Moreover, the formal grammar you learn for your native language is almost always precisely the *formal* grammar. You typically grow up speaking a variety of geographic and social registers, but need to learn academic registers. Some Canadian got his PhD and a lot of fame by pointing out that this is how language is structured, and so if you're learning an L2 you need to learn colloquial registers quickly, and typically do; but if you want more in society you get to learn formal or academic registers as well.

Sadly, this great novel insight was old-hat to the Prague Linguistic Circle folk in the 1920s, but they wrote in French and how could a Canadian researcher possibly be able to access that. (No, the problem is that people think that nothing older than their high-school career could possibly be relevant, so they refuse to learn stuff then take great pains to rediscover it and say, "I'm the first!"

The PLC went further, and broke language down not just into colloquial and academic/formal registers, but showed that typically different jobs or professions have different norms, as well. We discriminate by context in just that granular a way, at least if we're paying attention. This came up in code-switching research (again, rediscovered, with some people who know how to do research saying, "Um, that's not really new" where language seems often to be tied to context. You're speaking colloquial Russian with a friend and need to refer to something that happened at work in English--different set of norms--rather than recast things in Russian in the equivalent norm it's easier just to keep the norm from work and put it in English. (This is different from the "I insist on making sure that you know my identity because I am a token, not an individual" and "I insist in making sure you know we share an identity, making us on the same team and different from those people" varieties of code switching.)

Your '50s grammar was prescriptive to uphold formal and academic norms. It wasn't there to teach you something you already knew. In fact, grammars for native speakers make horrendously bad teaching grammars. (I also suspect that there's a bit of confusion--I know my high school teacher sometimes got the content seriously wrong.)

Diagraming sentences wasn't there to teach you grammar. It served to help you learn Latin; to understand structure; and to help make your prose a bit more clear, at least in theory, or help you to figure out how to clarify things that others didn't understand. I found that invaluable a few years later when I was taking formal syntax as part of a linguistics program and had to draw tree diagrams, identify phrase types, spot dislocations of phrases or constituents.

Probably the biggest mistake that is made in even teaching grammars of English is misunderstanding and misrepresenting verbal aspect. Note that those "particles" you point out have a lot of functions, and in some cases the difference is (nearly) purely aspectual.

Even something as useless for modern American usage as "shall" and "will" is still something a native speaker should know for reading older texts. That "should" is the past tense of "shall", and "would" the past tense of "will", doesn't come up very often; and, in fact, used as modals they're no longer past tense. The flip-flop rule on when to use will/shall ("I will, thou shalt, he/she/it shall" is a quick and dirty shorthand for dealing with different modalities, mostly for students who are too busy asking, "Why are we learning this?" and "When will I ever need this?" while eyeing up somebody who's especially sexually attractive, thinking about something they want to buy, pondering what they want to eat, or sorting through how they're going to hurt somebody.

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Response to Igel (Reply #7)

Sun Jul 28, 2019, 08:25 PM

8. You have interesting things to say, as always.

A couple of observations: This group is not very active, but you seem to monitor it constantly. My OP was mostly a story about my past. Your reply was likewise mostly about your past.

The sentence diagrams inflicted on me in public school were nothing like those in linguistics, and they had nothing to do with learning Latin. There was no Latin instruction in my junior high school. The Latin teacher in my high school refused to die, so Latin was an option, but, like the vast majority of college-bound students, I chose something else. I took French and hated it. In college I took German and hated it. Much later, I got interested and actually learned a smattering of these and a few other languages. When I did so, I learned some English grammar for purposes of comparison.

My Greek teacher used to say: "Who loves you? The definite article!" My Latin teachers, alas, couldn't say anything of the sort, nor could your Russian teacher(s), for these languages lack articles. Eventually Latin developed them, but by then it was no longer Latin.

Aspect as distinct from tense was never part of the curriculum in my English classes. Nor were syntax and semantics. The purpose of grammar was never discussed. It was always presented as gospel truth, not an after-the-fact construction. Whatever it couldn't explain was by definition an idiom, i.e., unexplainable.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Original post)

Thu Aug 1, 2019, 12:49 PM

9. My high school freshman English teacher

in 1962/63 insisted that it was never correct to say "I won't", but must always say "I shan't". At age 14, and as a powerless student, I wasn't able to tell her emphatically that no one under the age of 50 or so said "I shan't". It was incredibly annoying, but I got the answer right on the test and have never said "I shan't", not ever.

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Response to PoindexterOglethorpe (Reply #9)

Fri Aug 2, 2019, 04:12 AM

10. "Shan't" sounds archaic to me,

because I'm an American. "Shan't" is commonly used in the UK, but even there it's not wrong to say "won't". So your English teacher was misinformed.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Reply #10)

Fri Aug 2, 2019, 01:50 PM

11. My English teacher was probably in her early 50's at that point,

born before 1920. And she was being blindly adherent to a grammar rule she'd probably learned from someone born in the 19th Century, when that word was commonly used in this country.

That's right up there with the nonsense of never splitting an infinitive. English has a two word infinitive, so of course it's splittable.

There's too much of English grammar that was invented by people who thought Latin was the perfect language and that English should force its grammar into that model.

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Response to PoindexterOglethorpe (Reply #11)

Fri Aug 2, 2019, 06:39 PM

12. Yes, it's a grave error to carelessly split an infinitive.

And a preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with.

I agree that trying to force English grammar to mimic Latin grammar is ridiculous. If Latin is the perfect language, then we should never use the words "a", "an", and "the", which have no Latin equivalents. Lots of luck with that.

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Response to Lionel Mandrake (Reply #12)

Sat Aug 3, 2019, 01:03 AM

13. Bingo!

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