All posts by jbair

Question on Conditionals

Dear C. G.:

You wrote:
Can you tell me if the following sentence is correct?
> It’s a quality William Penn lauded before the founding of the republic when he encouraged citizens to show any kindness they can for their fellow humans.
> Some of us in the office think the word “can” should be changed to “could”. What is correct?
Either one is OK. “Could” is conditional; “can” is indicative. Using “can” would imply that you are able to it at any time. Using “could” would suggest you can do it under the right conditions. The difference is subtle, but knowing Penn (he coined the term “No cross, no crown”–the original “No pain, no gain”), “can” would work for him.

By the way, most authorities would probably capitalize “Republic” because it is specifically named. Whichever way you choose, be consistent.

Question on Conditionals

Dear Rachel Lee:

You wrote:
>> Is there any difference in meaning in the following sentences and are
>> there any alternatives which convey the similar meaning?
>> 1. He washed his hands for fear that he should be contaminated.
>> 2. He washed his hands for fear that he would be contaminated.
>> 3. He washed his hands for fear that he might be contaminated.
All three are pretty similar. “Should” is a little stronger than “would” in most cases; similarly, “might” tends to be weaker than “would” in terms of likelihood of the event happening, but the distinction is slight in most cases.

There are certainly other ways of saying this, e.g., “He washed his
hands for fear of being contaminated.”

I hope this helps.

Question on Tenses

Dear A__:

You wrote:

> -You have never read books by him, have you?
> 1-Oh yes, I have. When I was young I read some books
> by him.
> 2-Oh yes, I have. When I was young I read a few books
> by him.
> 3-Oh yes, I have. When I was young I read books by
> him.
> Are sentences 1, 2 and 3 all possible replies to the
> question at the beginnning?
> Is there any difference between the meanings of them?
Yes. All three are possible replies. There is no significant difference
among them. #3 might be a bit more vague, but they are all essentially the
same answer.

Why Grammar?

I admit that I am old enough to have graduated from high school before grade inflation. When I was in high school a “C” was truly the average grade and nothing to be ashamed of. Now my high school students get upset sometimes with a “B”–and many of those times I think I am being generous!

Ironically, while the grades have grown higher, the output, especially in English, has diminished. A few years ago I attended a college reunion at Harvard. A friend who is about 15 years older than I counseled me that I might be disappointed. He said that many of his classmates looked down a friend who was a high school principal. His friend got very defensive: “I like kids,” he explained to his classmates who were doctors and lawyers and business executives.

I am happy to say that I did not have that same experience. Almost to a person, my classmates said, “I hope you are teaching them to write well,” or “I hope you are teaching them standard grammar” or some such similar thing. They each told me horror stories of people they had employed–many with advanced degrees–who were unable to communicate. One friend, now a history professor, said that at his school most kids take five years to graduate because it takes a year of remedial courses to get them up to a college level. Even then, he said, it is not a very high level. I got similar reports from people in business and engineering.

Regardless of what field people work in, they need to be able to communicate effectively. They could be doing some great cutting-edge research, but if they cannot tell others about it, it is useless.

Yes, my students may sometimes complain that I am not an easy “A,” but I try to be realistic and honest with them. They say that grade inflation was an offshoot of the self-esteem movement. Perhaps. But I believe self-esteem is more honest if it is based on actual accomplishments and skills.

Know Word Parts! – A Mini-Soapbox

One of the signs of educational decline–at least in America–is that fewer people seem to know about or understand word parts: roots, prefixes, and suffixes. If you know word parts, especially roots, you can usually have a good idea of what a word means and how to spell it.

Here is a simple example. Many people have a problem spelling the word repetition. It is not a hard word. It is a common word. Yet a lot of people have special trouble with the second vowel. It is a schwa, an unaccented vowel that sounds like “uh,” so it could be any of the vowels. How do we know the second vowel is an e? Simple, the root of repetition is repeat. Repeat is spelled with an e. So is repetition. With very few exceptions, the vowels in a root do not change unless they are conforming to an English spelling rule (changing the y to i before adding –es, that sort of thing).

There is a lot more that could be said, but at least this shows one way the understanding of roots can help you.

What’s the Big Deal about Grammar?

To many people, grammar is an annoying school subject. In some “progressive” schools, grammar lessons are ignored or minimized in order not to stifle a student’s creativity. Yet others are annoyed by grammatical mistakes and even judge a person’s intelligence by his or her grammar. What is the big deal about grammar?

First of all, without grammar there is no verbal communication. The communication in any language (English or otherwise) is made up of two parts: words and grammar. Of course we understand that words are a necessary part of communication. But grammar seems a little fussy. It seems that way because for the most part people take grammar for granted.

To express a thought, we use words, vocabulary. But then we have to arrange and form those words in certain ways so that our listener or reader can understand what we are trying to say using those words. Grammar is how we arrange and form those words.

Here is a very simple illustration. We have three words: John, Mary, and loves. If we know which John and Mary we are talking about, we know what those words mean. However, if we want to say something about their love relationship, we have to use grammar. In English, we sometimes alter the form of words, but we mostly rely on word order. (Languages that rely on word order are called synthetic languages. That does not mean they are artificial, it means they are put together.) If I say, “John loves Mary,” that could be quite different from saying “Mary loves John.” The words are identical. The vocabulary is the same. It is the grammar that is different, and the grammar gives the sentence meaning. Without grammar, we would all be like infants just learning words. We could say the words, but we would have no way of communicating our ideas, how the words relate to one another.

So, yes without grammar there is no communication.

P.S. Languages that are not synthetic are usually inflected. That means that the relationship between or among words is shown by changes in the form of the words themselves. Now in English we have a few inflections–we add -s to plurals and to third person singular verbs, we add -ed or otherwise change the form of past tenses, we make a distinction between he and him or she and her. However, some languages use inflections to show all or nearly all the relationships between words.

Latin was an inflected language. For example, in Latin we would say “Iohannes amat Mariam,” for “John loves Mary”; however, if we were to reverse the order of the words to “Mariam amat Iohannes,” we would still be saying “John loves Mary.” The relationship is not based on the word order, but on the form of the words. The -es at the end of Iohannes tells us that John (or Iohannes) is the subject of the sentence; the -am at the end of Maria tells us Mary is the direct object. That does not change regardless of the order we put them in. It would not be uncommon in Latin, in fact, to say “Amat Iohannes Mariam.” If we want to say “Mary loves John,” what we change is the form of the words, not the order. We would say, “Iohannem amat Maria” to say “Mary loves John.” We could put it in any order: “Maria amat Iohannem,” “Amat Maria Iohannem,” etc. Anyway, that is a simple illustration of a non-synthetic or inflected language.

Different languages have different degrees of inflection and synthesis. English is primarily synthetic with a few inflections as mentioned above. French and Spanish are also synthetic, but they have more inflections–for example, you have to know masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives, and you have to know six forms for every tense of every verb. Latin is highly inflected, but order does matter some, especially with prepositions. Now Hungarian is inflected even more than Latin. Hungarian has no prepositions, so every noun has over twenty different forms. (I think the exact number is twenty-seven.)

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