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From Fast Food to Baseball

R. Jeffrey Blair
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Aichi Gakuin University, Nisshin, Japan

http:// / ~jeffreyb / research / ffBball.html
rough machine translation ... [ Eng=>Jpn ]

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Simple Words in Context

        When I ask students what they think is preventing them from speaking English, they usually respond that they don't know enough words. They feel a need to memorize vocabulary. Sometimes (around exam time) I see high school students in the subway reviewing cards with target vocabulary and definitions. I am always impressed by the difficulty of the words, words that never seem to appear in my university students' homework. One particularly striking example is the word "emancipate". Try working that one into a natural conversation in the 21st century. The only image that comes to my mind is that of Lincoln freeing American slaves in the 1860s.

        Students need to learn vocabulary in context ... in sentences that they can use. A simple sentence like "I go to school every morning.", for example, is much more common and natural than any sentence that might result from trying to force the word "commute" into a sentence as the English equivalent of "通う".

        One consequence of learning isolated vocabulary is that students rely too heavily on nouns to carry their message, and overuse the verbs "be" and "do". They sometimes construct sentences without verbs or that use nouns as verbs, not even realizing that many of those nouns were derived from verbs. Adjectives tend to appear in short, detached sentences following the sentence in which the modified noun appears.

        My dog is very short legs.
        My clothes is many dark colors.

        I can do a cash register.
        I have to do improvement myself.

        Japanese comic books __ very interesting.
        I __ envious of my sister.
        I can't even __ simple questions.

Macro Grammar: SVO

        At the end of a class in 1982 one of my students became very excited by something I said and blurted out, "Oh, the Five Basic Sentences." At the time I had no idea what she was talking about, nor did she explain it in the little time that was left (for an explanation in Japanese see Wales et al., 200xx). Destiny, however, intervened sixteen years later when my own daughter was in the first year of a Japanese high school. She asked for my help in her English studies, something she has never done before or after. She showed me the two perplexing lessons in her textbook and asked me to explain them. They turned out to be about basic English sentences, Types 1 to 5, nomenclature seemingly designed to be immediately forgotten.

        Students were introduced to the Basic Sentences, then shown complex sample sentences and asked to identify which type they were. Let me illustrate the five patterns with some very simple examples. Each has three slots: a subject slot, a verb slot, and a third slot. All variation occurs in the third slot. It can contain an object (or two), a complement, or remain empty.

        The S slot always holds a noun, and obviously the V slot holds a verb. What can and cannot go in the third slot depends on the verb and determines the sentence type. For most verbs it is an object; for the verb "be" and other linking verbs it is a complement; and for some (intransitive verbs), nothing can go in that slot.

        The difference between an object and a complement is somewhat mysterious when the complement is a noun, but only SVC sentences can have an adjective in the third (O/C) slot. "Birds are red." is not always true, but it is grammatical. "Birds have red." is NOT grammatical, because objects cannot be adjectives, only nouns. Having used the term "complement" for what many linguists would call a predicate, I avoid using the same term with my students for what these grammarians do call complements (see Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1983, 433)--infinitive, gerund, and "that" phrases that function as noun phrases. I will stick to my classroom terminology in this article, too.

        A fourth sentence pattern results when the third slot holds two objects.

The final pattern is what happens when you attach SV- to an SVC sentence. The sentence's subject becomes an object and the verb (often the verb "be") drops out.

        I soon realized that using this S V (O/C) paradigm of five Basic Sentence patterns could be a powerful tool to move students from isolated words to simple sentences, to help explain many of their basic grammar problems, and to provide a foundation for more complex grammatical structures.

        The noun-verb-noun word order of SVO sentences suggested to me a bread-meat-bread metaphor that could capture the imagination of any student familiar with the basic hamburger. Here are some SVO-burgers:

        People have relatives.
        People take medicine.
        Countries attack neighbors.

This metaphor emphasizes the importance of the verb and its close connection to the subject and object/complement. No customers will be satisfied with a burger which is missing its paddy, and though an open faced burger (no object or complement) might be acceptable, the piece of bread on the bottom (a subject) is also essential.

        SVO provides students with the macro grammar at the core of English sentence structure. In these very simple sentences each slot holds a single word. Usually, however, sentence constituents are phrases--noun, verb, and adverbial phrases (including adverbial clauses)--that can be quite complex. The simple three-word sentences above can be expanded in three ways. The first way involves a macro grammatical expansion, that is, adding a fourth (+A) slot for adverbial phrases to the Basic Sentence core. The contents of this additional slot--almost always optional information--does not affect the sentence type. Frequently more than one such phrase is added to the end of a sentence. Here is a simple example:

The basic burger has become a full cheeseburger meal. Notice that the "drink" (on Monday evenings) could be moved ahead of the burger and the thin "slice of cheese" (often) fits very well on top of the "beef". To emphasize the metaphor we could refer to macro grammar as McGrammar.

        Japanese subject phrases end with the particles は or が, and object phrases with を. English has no prepositions to mark subjects and objects. Only their positions on each side of the verb serve to identify them. Prepositional phrases, on the other hand, have markers (at, on, in, to, for ...) that correspond to Japanese particles (に and で), but come at the front of the noun phrases they mark, instead of the end. Prepositions thus serve to distinguish +A phrases from phrases which function as subject (S), complement (C), or object (O). Other phrases that this simplified grammar relegates to the +A slot are adverbial clauses, "that" clauses, and logical connectors.

        The students' understanding of sentential grammar can easily be checked or tested in dictation exercises where they write on pieces of paper that have been folded or divided into four columns--one for each slot. The initial word in a clause (when, that, because, so, etc.) is followed by a syntactic string that is structurally identical to a sentence. To emphasize this fact and give students additional practice, I have them put the first word followed by three dots in the +A slot and enter the rest of the clause in the four slots on the next line with three dots in the S slot.

        Many university students conceptualize English sentences simply as a string of words, believing that each word is connected equally to the words on each side of it. This misconception may be reinforced by textbooks that provide frames for target vocabulary that they want to present:

In these examples the preposition "to" seems disconnected from the noun that follows and the "to" in the infinitives seem independent of the verbs.

        Forcing students to put words in slots can help reveal systematic flaws which might not otherwise be apparent. In the sentence below, the preposition "to" between the verb "go" and the following noun would seem to follow standard English usage, because the SV verb does not take an object and the plural noun lacks any article. The "to" appears to be part of a prepositional phrase (+A). The student, however, identified it as part of the verb (V) and "bargain sales" as the object (O). The error in the student's interlanguage can become visible in the surface structure in a different situation, leaving the "to" to dangle inappropriately from the verb "want".

Micro Grammar: Noun Phrases

        The other two ways to expand our three-word sentences are (a) by inserting adjectives and adjectival (+a) phrases in the S, O, and +A slots to form complex noun phrases within those slots and (b) by inflecting verbs for tense and aspect, negating them, and adding modals to form complex verb phrases. Such micro grammatical maneuvers have great power to transform bland general statements into specific, detailed, interesting texts and utterances:

        Noun phrases, like full sentences, can be explained using a four-slot grammatical structure. Slots #2 and #3 hold regular single-word (attributive) adjectives and the core noun respectively.

Slot #1 contains any determiners, including articles and possessive pronouns,

while Slot #4 contains phrasal adjectives.

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Micro Grammar: Verb Forms
Transformations Using McGrammar Slots
Baseball Conversations

Working Papers