Grammar: How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?

Some time ago during a transformation exercise in an advanced exam preparation class, the lesson flow got snagged on this question. What do you think the answer is?

 

Complete the second sentence so that it has a similar meaning to the first sentence, using the word given. Do not change the word given. You must use between three and six words, including the word given.

Many people have blamed the hot weather for the rise in petty crime.

WIDELY

The hot weather ……………………..……… for the rise in petty crime.

(Kenny. N and Newbrook. J, 2014: 37)

 

The answer given in the book is: has been widely blamed.

Did you arrive at something different? What would you have said to the student who asked me, ‘why can’t we say has been blamed widely?

If you were asked why, has been widely blamed is correct while has been blamed widely is not, what would you have done? How would you have responded? Do you instinctively feel they are both correct? Is it really important? Do you feel it warrants further investigation?

I did what I usually do, I gave it a moment’s thought- enough time to realise that I would not be able to give a concise response- and told the learner I wasn’t sure and that I would try to find an answer before the end of the lesson.

As a side note, long gone are the days when I would nervously try and explain all questions even if the poor student was left more confused than they were when they first asked the question. For a while, I embodied the view that as teachers, we should be able to explain all grammar and vocabulary points quickly when prompted. I’m not alone. I’ve met many who will attest to feeling the same. Arguably as a teacher’s working knowledge of language become better, they should become more adept at handling awkward, why? questions, at least to the extent where surface level explanations for fairly rudimentary problems, e.g. matching an utterance to a rule, could be given without inducing noticeable strain or discontent. This, however, should be balanced with the realisation that we are not walking grammar banks and should not be expected to be an oracle on all matters linguistic. There are merits in saying, ‘I don’t know’, and then going to find out. The answer you eventually return will be better worded and more informed.

My experience tells me that teachers should be cautious before running head long into an explanation. Broadly speaking there are 2 rules:

  • Rule 1. It’s never advisable to rush into an explanation. It will almost certainly involve lots of waffle. Pause for a while before speaking, or even write the question down and tell the learner you will come back to it later. Essentially, work it out before talking.
  • Rule 2. Does the explanation require a foundational understanding of other concepts the learner has yet to be exposed to, or is it reliant on complex metalanguage? If yes, don’t bother, you will only get bogged down and it’s likely that it will frustrate you and your student(s). When a learner asks why, they are asking for a cogent answer that does not stray too far from their stage of development (see Vygotsky, zone of proximal development). If we agree that competence is incremental, the next step they take should be manageable when support is given. If the net is cast too wide, it will ‘contain too much noise, too much language that is not understood’ (Krashen 1981: 127. See Krashen, input hypothesis). If your students are now producing past simple utterances, would you want to go headlong into the use of past forms with future meaning? e.g. 2nd conditional: If I won the lotto, I would buy a new car. How much work is needed to bring the learner up to the point when they would plausibly grasp the idea? I imagine quite a lot and not something you could do in a 90 minute lesson.

For my given problem, the accompanying explanation in the book’s answer section, passive + adverbial collocation is of limited help. It is essentially asking us to view it lexically, but I see a distinction between very strong adverb+verb collocations e.g. hotly deny, totally agree or freely admit etc. and the answer, widely blamed. If widely blamed is to be placed in the same category as the other examples, it’s arguably the weakest collocation with hotly deny being the strongest and the most fixed- reversal of the adverb and verb – deny hotly – sounds awkward and unnatural while the same cannot be said for the other examples. From a grammatical point of view, a working knowledge of adverbs informs us that depending on the type and function, they are less syntactically restricted unlike other parts of speech. This could justify why it doesn’t seem to jar when the syntax is reversed.

In this situation, I knew that the answer was not going to be so simple that I could encapsulate meaning in a sound bite. With 10 minutes of silence while my group were reading a fairly hefty text, I busied myself with trying to find the answer. Without the benefit of grammar reference books and ample amounts of time, I typed the whole question as presented into an internet search rather than stripping it down into its component parts, i.e. adverb-verb word order. To my surprise someone had asked the same question on a forum and the responses were (and still are!) really interesting. Take a moment to visit the page and read the replies.

As you scroll down, you will notice a variety of responses, some of which appear plausible, while other suggestions less so. Some suggest an inferred subtle difference in meaning while others suggest it’s simply due to accepted conventions. What I notice is that little of what is said really gets to the heart of the problem; there is no real consensus among the contributors that is until you arrive at the final post which reads:

Adverbs are adjuncts, which means that they can be omitted, so you can say “the hot weather has been blamed for the rise in petty crime.” What that means is that adverbs are not arguments of the verb (adverbs are not needed to complete the basic meaning of the verb). In your sentence, “for the rise in petty crime” is an argument (a “prepositional complement”), and as such, it naturally comes immediately after the verb “blamed.” A basic syntactic principle is that nothing should come between the verb and its argument. Now, as to the adverb placement. There are basically two types of adverbs: predicate modifiers and propositional modifiers. “Predicate modifiers” modify the verb and are placed to the left of the verb as in your example: has been widely blamed (they can also appear at the end of the clause/sentence.) “Propositional modifiers” modify an entire proposition/clause/sentence and they can appear, for example, at the start of a sentence. The difference between an adverb that is a “predicate modifier” and an adverb that is a “propositional modifier” is semantic; it depends on meaning. Could we say, Widely, the hot weather has been blamed for the rise in petty crime? To me, it sounds a bit forced, because “widely” modifies the verb “blamed” and not the entire sentence. Notice the difference if we use “apparently” instead of “widely:” Apparently, the hot weather has been blamed for the rise in petty crime. That works, because “apparently” is a propositional modifier. So, I think that’s the answer (or, one way to look at why you don’t say “blamed widely”): 1. this adverb can’t come between the verb “blamed” and its complement; 2. “widely” is a predicate modifier, and it is placed to the left of the verb.

(https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/widely-blamed-blamed-widely-adverb-passive.3187025/)

The first thing you may notice is that this has almost certainly been written by an applied linguist. It’s filled with metalanguage, which is probably unfamiliar to many teachers. In fact, understanding requires a robust understanding of linguistics, arguably at a postgraduate level.

Once you have managed to imbibe the message, you essentially have the answer to the question. All you need to do now is read it to the student who asked the question… Go ahead…

Feeling reticent? I’m not surprised. This, as an explanation, explains nothing. You are violating Rule 2 as the answer is laden with unfamiliar metalanguage and requires the learner to grasp other concepts first. If you were to go headlong into this, it might induce confused silence. Equally, it might throw out too many difficult questions, thus falling foul of Rule 1– waffle.

So what did I do? I threw caution to the wind, powered up the IWB and showed the blog post to the class. I triumphantly exclaimed, ‘Here is the answer!’ only to hear the sound of deafening silence. I should really say I did forewarn that the explanation would not be helpful but my own curiosity to see how it would go down compelled me to show it anyway. How did it go down? Not especially well, no surprise there. However, it did allow some scope to probe when an explanation is helpful and when it is not. The responses I received correlated with Rule 2– it should be within their scope of understanding.

If we agree that no response is better that a junk response, would you agree that no response is better than the fullest answer? My learners seemed to think that if this is the answer, but doesn’t deliver meaning, forget it, move on. I would agree, some things are best left unexplained.

You could quote from the explanation, ‘A basic syntactical principle is that nothing should come between the verb and its argument’. But this is a rule which is often broken and if the learner wants to dig deeper- why? you may end up confusing them.

Of course, we could spend the time to strip the answer down so it is more palatable, but this would take time to prepare and time spent considering how to deliver it. We would also need to consider what our learners already know and what scaffolding would be needed to support understanding. But is it worth it? No, not really. I see no added value in disseminating something which, at least from my point of view, is quite trivial.

But let’s be honest, we are all guilty of this. I’m guilt of this type of teacherly overindulgence. I suspect we get drawn into it as it’s sometimes expected of us. But really, we shouldn’t. Sound bites are fine, they may even add value but anything more delivered off the cuff is best left.

Personally, I might send a class group some web links they can visit to consolidate their understanding. Those that really want to know can follow the trail. Feedback from this has always been positive as it allows learners the ability to process information in their own time. In many circumstances it requires stopping, copy-pasting some terminology or concepts that need further clarification before coming back to the main idea. The path is rarely linear.

So just remember to think twice- you’ve planned your lesson, the language your learners might need to use builds on what they are comfortable with, you’ve even thought about what question might possibly be raised and how you might appropriately respond- but when faced with THAT question, how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go? Personally, I ain’t going further than my ankles.

 

References:

Kenny. N and Newbrook. J. 2014. Cambridge English Advanced Practice Tests Plus 2. Pearson. Harlow.

Krashen. S.1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Pergamon Press. Oxford.

https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/widely-blamed-blamed-widely-adverb-passive.3187025/ (accessed: 04/04/2019).

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_proximal_development

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Input_hypothesis

 

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