Poetry Rehab; Stack

For a long time now I have wanted to write a poem about the stacks of rock that occasionally dot the coastlines I remember visiting on holidays in Cornwall and Scotland as a child. I thank Andy Townend https://wordpress.com/read/post/id/20274240/1605 for posing this, at first, seemingly impossible prompt (my first thought was to try to do something about computer programming queues and stacks) and for eventually reminding of the other geological meaning of the word. Geology, politics and language have always been closely bound up together in the way I see our world and the way I attempt to express it in verse.

Stack

The soft limestone is worn away by acid,

as uplifted igneous rock resists,

bridging coastal tides.

Thinned by wind and rain,

it collapses under its own levity and gravity,

leaving us an off-shore stack of granite—

an imagined castle,

noble and lost.

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The Truth about English Verbs Part 3

3. The Order and Priority of the Teaching of Verb Forms in English Language Courses. A Case Study.

To what extent do the guidelines suggested by English Language Teaching textbooks and course syllabuses reflect real-life frequency of usage?

The rationale underlying the manner, timing and degree of emphasis with which verb forms are introduced in conventional course-books and courses is rarely made explicit, still less based on any solid analysis of the frequency or usefulness of the forms themselves.

In so far as it is possible to extrapolate a rationale, it would seem to be based on perceptions (or received opinions) regarding simplicity of form, the difficulty learners experience in acquiring a form (or, perhaps more tellingly, that which teachers experience in conveying it), the perceived importance of a form, a tradition whereby some forms are regarded as ‘more advanced,’ than others, and a certain proclivity for ‘clear’ binary distinctions, for which prefabricated (and largely untested) standard tasks and methodologies are easily available.

Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use—for long the standard grammar reference/practice book for learners of the English language—typifies this conventional trend. It is not alone and, at the time it was first produced, had the distinct advantage of being superficially far less confusing and far more accessible than its competitors. Criticism of it is thus perhaps more trenchant in so far as it is one of the ‘best’ examples of the genre.

The version of the Murphy grammars intended, as its subtitle proclaims, ‘for intermediate students’ covers some ground in the initial chapters that is supposedly conceived of as ‘revision’ and then introduces more ‘advanced’ structures.

The order in which the verb forms are revised or introduced is as follows:

  1. Present Continuous
  2. Present Simple
  3. Present Continuous and Present Simple
  4. Past Simple
  5. Past Continuous
  6. Present Perfect
  7. Present Perfect Continuous
  8. Present Perfect Continuous and Simple
  9. Present Perfect and Past
  10. Past Perfect
  11. Past Perfect Continuous
  12. Used to
  13. Present Continuous and Present Simple to refer to the Future
  14. Going to refer to the Future
  15. Will/shall
  16. Will vs. going to
  17. Will be doing and will have done (Future continuous and Future perfect)

Treatment of various modal verbs follows before the conditional is introduced via ‘if’ rather than ‘would’. This is followed by the Present Simple Passive vs the Past Simple Passive, the Present and Past Perfect, Continuous and Infinitive Passive (all in a single two-page section!) The second half of the book is devoted to syntax, lexis and use of the article and other qualifiers, and finally prepositions.

There are a number of things worth noting here and these are certainly not peculiar to this particular publication. First, clear priority is given to the verb and its various forms. Almost all of the first half of the book is devoted to this topic.

The book is billed wisely as a ‘reference and practice book’ to be dipped into at will or as need demands. However, in my experience, learners, unless guided otherwise by an astute teacher, rarely use such books in this way. They start at the beginning and work their way painstakingly through. If evidence of the exercises filled in in discarded copies of the book I have found in second-hand bookshops is anything to go by, most learners start at the beginning, move through in a doggedly linear fashion and give up or get bored at best halfway through.

Given that most learners will use such a book in this way, despite clear guidance to the contrary in the preface entitled “To the Teacher,” the order of topics, wittingly or not, sends a clear message: the verb, its various forms and the ways in which it is used, is the most important/basic/challenging thing to learn. This is something of a dishearteningly mixed message: the most basic thing is also the most challenging.

Leaving this—at the very least dubious assumption—aside for the time being, let us examine the number of pages devoted in the Murphy grammar to each verb form.

Given that each ‘topic’ is accorded a double-page spread, I shall count two for a double page devoted to a single verb form and one for each form when two forms are compared in a binary fashion and compare this with the relative frequency of the form as outlined in the previous section. I shall ignore for now the footnote-like sections dealing with ‘irregularities’ that often undermine/deconstruct the message the main body of the text strives to convey.

Table 1: The Percentage of Verb Section of Murphy Grammar Book Devoted to each Verb Form compared with Estimated Percentage Frequency in Real Life Use.

Verb Form Frequency in Murphy Grammar Estimated Frequency of Real-Life Use (%)
Absolute (pages) Percentage
Present Perfect Simple Active 7 14 4.1
Present Continuous Active 4 8 3.3
Present Simple Active 4 8 44.1
Past Simple Active 4 8 27.6
Future with will simple active 4 8 4.5
Present Perfect Continuous Active 3 6 < 3.1
Future with going to 3 6 < 3.1
Past Continuous Active 2 4 1.5
Past Perfect Simple Active 2 4 2.4
Past Perfect Continuous Active 2 4 < 3.1
Used to 2 4 < 3.1
Future with shall 2 4 < 3.1
Conditional Present 2 4 3.8
Future with Present Continuous 1 2 < 3.1
Future with Present Simple 1 2 < 3.1
Future with will continuous 1 2 < 3.1
Future Perfect Simple Active 1 2 < 3.1
Conditional Past 1 2 < 3.1
Present Simple Passive 1 2 3.8
Past Simple Passive 1 2 1.8
Present Continuous Passive 1 2 < 3.1
Present Perfect Simple Passive 1 2 < 3.1
TOTAL 50 100

The first most obvious difference is that while the active forms of the Present Simple and the Past Simple make up over 70% of all the verb forms used in any kind of discourse in the English language, grammar and exercise books (at least at an intermediate level—whatever that means) devote only 16% of their pages to these forms, compared to 14% to the Present Perfect Simple Active alone, which accounts for only 4.1% of verb forms in actual discourse.

This means that many learners and teachers will be attempting to develop ‘knowledge’ of these relatively obscure forms, while neglecting learning the irregularities and subtleties of usage and meaning of the much more common simple active present and past. It is much more useful to know that the past tense of ‘buy’ is ‘bought’ and how it is pronounced than to agonize over whether “I bought some shoes in Rio,” or “I have bought some shoes in Rio,” is the correct form. This is a nice distinction, but one far less likely to impede communication than pronouncing ‘bought’ with an ‘f’ sound before the ‘t’ or not bothering to use the past tense at all, as many students who pore over arcane distinctions and regard themselves and are regarded as ‘intermediate level’ learners are still apt to do.

In the Murphy grammar, as in most others, the irregular past simple forms of verbs are relegated to an appendix and then in a boring alphabetical list and in the form of archaic Latinate ‘principal parts’ of the verb, with little or no guide as to how to accomplish a comprehensible pronunciation of the word, still less how frequent—and hence useful—it is.

More shocking still is the fact that 28% of Murphy’s introductory pages for the intermediate student are devoted to various obscure continuous forms of the verb, while these forms account for only 4.8% of natural English discourse of any kind.

This prejudice (a bizarre and inexplicable one) in favor of the Present Continuous is signaled in the very first chapters of the intermediate-level Murphy grammar . The very first chapter of the book is devoted to this form and the third to a supposedly binary contrast (note the direction of the comparison) between continuous and simple forms of the present tense.

This leads in to the fourth section of this essay, which deals with the way false dichotomies are introduced in grammar books and by English teachers, in the interest of simplicity, but in fact only sow confusion and deflect attention from much more easily acquired specific quirks.

Bibliography

Murphy, Raymond (1995) English Grammar in Use. A reference and practice book for intermediate students. Cambridge University Press.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 2 (by)

It is hard not to wax lyrical about ‘by’. No little word is so resourceful and yet it sets about its business with such humility that it goes largely unnoticed. It finds itself on the end of the names of humble ancient Viking towns, and also as a stylish, if somewhat starchy, prefix betokening bespoke elegance. It is the preposition writers, composers and film-directors use to sign their work and yet it is also the one used to refer to two objects that find themselves in accidental proximity. It bears the whole burden of labor of the instrumental case inflexions of more antique languages. An omnibus of a word; its most ancient origins lie in an embrace. It can even disappear completely and yet still be there, blessing us with its absent presence.

German ‘um’, meaning ‘about’, ‘around’, is a cognate of English ‘by’. We know this because, in this case, we have some flimsy written testimony. In the vast majority of cases, no such evidence exists. Etymologists should beware of mirages; but also open to the bizarre.

Both German “um” and English “by” derive from proto-Germanic “umbhi.” German took the first half of the word; English the second, as if in some indenture arrangement. “Umbhi” itself is conjectured to derive from a more ancient “*ambhi”, which is, in turn, related both to Greek “amphi-“ as in amphitheater and amphibian and Latin “ambi” as in ambiguous and ambidextrous. It is further conjectured that the “bhi” part of “*ambhi” is in fact an instrumental inflexion akin to the –bus suffix in the dative and ablative plural of third declension Latin nouns. It may also be related to ancient dual inflexions of verbs and bi- type words for two; perhaps even to being itself, seen not as one but as two.

And yet this little word with such a long pedigree and such metaphysical weight goes largely unnoticed. It is not a preposition—like in, at, and on, or to and for—that language learners lose much sleep over. It is introduced humbly in textbooks and classrooms as a means of transport—by foot, by car, by train, by plane—like the school bus driver. It insinuates itself into the mind of the learner in the form of under-the-radar colloquial phrases conveyed in casual discourse and popular ditties as time goes by. Teachers use it unthinkingly in banal classroom discourse as X sits by Y and the lesson ends by four and thus teach it without thinking. It rarely merits more than a page in a grammar workbook.

Blessed be the word by. It is quietly telling us how all teaching should be. Urging, egging, nudging, ever open to change; subtle and profound; yet never quite explicitly telling us what to do.

Fluidity of Person

The distinction between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons would seem to be one that is rock-hard and practically universal. However, in practice, there is a surprising degree of fluidity between them and the pronouns and verb endings used to express them tend to shift wildly over time.

I was reminded of this by various pronouncements by Donald Trump following the formal announcement of his candidature for the Republican Party nomination for US president. Trump is one of a small number of individuals who routinely refers to himself in the third person.

It is easy to explain this away in terms of egotism and a heightened sense of self-importance. But there must be more to it than this. Many people are egotistic and have an inflated opinion of themselves—most use the word I a lot—but few resort to this peculiar rhetorical device.

There is something regal about referring to oneself as a third person; a sense of certainty that one’s place in history is guaranteed—an entitlement that only hereditary monarchs rightly or not enjoy. But even kings and queens tend to avoid this use. The queen of England prefers the famous royal ‘we’ or ‘one;’ Louis XIV said l’état c’est moi. I is still king.

Julius Caesar, the man who gave his proper name to emperors, Kaisers and Tsars, in his lengthy report on his military campaign in Gaul refers to himself throughout in the third person. This may merely be a rhetorical device to claim objectivity for a highly propagandist account. But there may be something else going on here too.

During his campaign in Gaul, Caesar was not a dictator, emperor or king. Indeed aspiring to be either of the latter would have been treasonable and extremely dangerous and irresponsible in the republican Roman ‘Empire’ of the time. And yet, by persistent use of the third person, Caesar both casts himself as a figure of unshakeable world-historical proportions and distances himself from charges that he is assuming this role for reason of sheer selfish self-promotion.

There is a certain self-doubt and detachment of public from private persona in this. An appearance of presumptuous self-confidence is undermined by its opposite.

There is a scene in Oliver Stone’s Nixon in which the embattled president mired in the Watergate scandal, played admirably by Anthony Hopkins, is frantically going through transcripts of his tapes redacting with a black marker pen expletives and racial slurs that, as he puts it, “I said, but Nixon can’t say.” The whole film is a Shakespearean-style disquisition on the tragic political psychology of a carefully crafted public persona of supreme self-confidence undermined by the personal weaknesses on which it is founded. The shift from first to third person aptly expresses the shiftiness of the underlying personality.

An almost opposite phenomenon is described with especial perspicuity by Tom Wolfe in Chapter 23 of The Bonfire of the Vanities. A previously anonymous—albeit extremely wealthy and powerful—banker is thrust into the media spotlight when he kills a young black man in a hit-and-run automobile accident. Wolfe beautifully and abstractly describes the very modern feeling of ‘being turned inside out’, his sense of private self ebbing irrevocably away into the third person of the public sphere. As Wolfe’s anti-hero is processed through the prison system and attracts increasing media attention, he at once becomes more reified and yet is more keenly aware of himself as a physical individual, stripped of the trappings of bourgeois dignity, rather than a privileged member of a protected tribe.

The detachment of public and private personae marked by a shift from first to third person and back again is relatively rare and usually a sign that the individual is at once uncomfortable in and yet fatally attached to their public role. It is a discursive phenomenon that almost never occurs in ‘real’ everyday life. The closest situation I can imagine in ‘normal’ discourse would be that of a manager firing an employee, saying “Personally, I would like to keep you on; but as a businessmen, I must let you go;” but this is not really the same phenomenon, since the distinction between the subjective individual and the role is here made clear, necessitating the use of the preposition ‘as’. Where you sit is where you stand, but it needn’t change how you see yourself.

There is, however, a growing tendency in everyday discourse to shift, even within a single sentence, from first to second person. This is one of those linguistic quirks that, when I first noticed it, struck me as being especially odd and I initially dismissed it as a result of arbitrary linguistic slippage, sloppiness, absent-mindedness or failure of forethought under stress. However, I have now heard it so many times, even in the public discourse of individuals—President Obama, for example—who are obviously experts at measuring the potential impact of words as they speak, that it cannot be so easily explained away.

On the one hand, this can be understood as an attempt on the part of an already powerful individual not to dwell in an unseemly fashion on his or her personal prowess—a forgivable false modesty that exploits the ongoing shift of ‘you’ from strict second person addressee to an indefinite pronoun indicating anyone or everyone. When Obama switches deftly from “I” to “you” he is carefully casting himself not a as a world historical figure or a narcissist, but as an ordinary guy: “I am one of you”.

But I have heard cases where this is clearly not a carefully crafted political ploy but simply a new habit of speech. It seems to be an especially prominent feature of the discourse of ordinary people thrust before a camera and a microphone after suffering some kind of personal tragedy. They begin with “I” but almost always end with ‘you,’ although there is no obvious shift in reference towards a higher degree of generalization.

Why would people do this? One explanation would be that those recounting personal misfortunes derive some comfort from generalizing and thereby sharing and dissipating their negative experience. “I was raped. You feel helpless.” At once an appeal for sympathy and a self-effacing shrug. “We” here, although objectively more accurate, would appear too feistily feminist; “it” too cold; “I” too self-pitying.

But there is something discomfiting about this explanation, which would seem to ascribe too much conscious manipulation of discourse to those in extremity. Neither does it explain why people are increasingly using the same discursive shift even in the most banal of situations.

The trend poses an intriguing counterpoint to that which I have observed elsewhere with regard to the possessive pronoun.

It is important to remember that pronouns are always directional and may differ subtly or drastically depending on which way they are pointed. Me saying ‘you’ does not necessarily mean the same as you saying ‘you’.

Traditional conjugations invariably put the ego in a privileged position at the top of the list. I look down on you and we both look down on him her or it and especially ‘them’, which is almost always relegated to the bottom of the hierarchical pile.

In a more progressive society in which the exercise and enjoyment of personal power is universally frowned upon, the I shifts from tyrant to subject. My authority morphs into your leader, whom you must address as such. As a result, use of the second person pronoun or an impersonal pronoun has increased in recent years.

Second person singular pronouns are especially fluid. Many societies distinguish between a ‘tu’ form for use among supposed equals and a ‘vous’ form for addressing supposed superiors (to use, only for the sake of convenience, the French terminology). But practice and rapid change over time reveals astonishing levels of ambiguity and fluidity. Genuflecting “vossa mercê” in Brazilian Portuguese has long since given way to more casual but still respectful “você,” and, much to the chagrin of some socially conservative purists, to a clipped convenient “Cê”. Nevertheless, in counter-opposition to this democratizing trend, the use of the clearly slavish ‘o senhor/a senhora’ as a mark of inferiority/respect is still widespread in Brazil. “Tu” in Brazil occupies a peculiar position: used by parents, children, siblings and lovers in everyday discourse, but replaced by você in most other relaxed power relations and yet still the standard form of the second person singular in general in Biblical and literary discourse. As one Brazilian poet once put it to me, “you can use você in a love song, but not in a love poem.”

English is apparently simpler. Informal yet formal ‘thou’ has almost entirely fallen out of use, although it still persists in Biblical language and the folk memory of faux archaic poetry and fixed phrases such as “holier than thou”. “You’, originally the accusative plural, has come to be the dominant form. Uncomfortable with this democratic trend, some English-speaking cultures, such as that of Texas, have evolved a “y’all” form, not, interestingly, to re-introduce an apparently obvious and necessary binary distinction between singular and plural (as with Liverpudlian ‘youse’) but to distinguish an aggressive accusatory ‘you’ (Your country needs you. I’m gonna shoot you) from a more affable, respectful, diner-friendly ‘y’all’.

You is all about variations of respect and it is thus unsurprising that, in a more democratic massified rational society, it should be co-opted to refer to everyone, replacing the increasingly pompous- and dismissive-sounding indefinite pronoun ‘one’ and then to identify one’s own personal feelings and experiences with those of the community as a whole.

What happened then with ‘we’? Many modern languages tend to replace the traditional first person plural with a more neutral form: “on” in French, “a gente” in Brazilian Portuguese, “you” in English. In 1981, victorious socialist supporters chanted “on a gagné”, while the Front National slogan was “Nous, nous les déporterons”. A vague ‘on’, ‘a gente’, ‘you’ is clearly more inclusive than a hysterically repeated “we” juxtaposed with “they” in a clear expression of exclusion.

“We” is problematical because, in most Indo-European languages, there is no distinction between the exclusive and the inclusive forms, and much leeway as to where the speaker intends and the listener understand the line between excluded and included to lie. A once politically powerful pronoun (We shall overcome), it is now one that politicians and the people in the street who imitate them prefer to eschew. “You” makes you seem tolerant and objective; “I” taints you with selfishness and egoism; ‘we’ is worse still, suggesting that you identify with a tribally exclusive group.

Poetry Rehab 101–Hymn to Sleep

Here is my somewhat belated contribution to the Poetry Rehab 101 Sleep prompt

http://maraeastern.com/2015/06/15/poetry-101-rehab-sleep/ It is a reworking of a 2003 poem, but the ending is completely different; hence the ‘second’ in the title.

Second Hymn to Sleep

 

Cover me, please, with your dark

multicolored wings – sleep – blessing

undisguised – next best thing

to never having been &

not as rotten as death.

In your arms

I am relieved of the pendulum of

the everyday

till alarm clock wakes abruptly up

& wish

I could go sleep again.

Your eyes, sleep, are the kindest

& the blindest I have ever seen.

The look of love gutters like a candle-flame;

yours is always

forgiving and lit.

Your sweetness

is a last refuge for the tried;

your imaginary hands and heart

caress away all cares;

prepare us for the day ahead,

ready us for death.