Matching Pairs exercises

A student the other day had difficulty with a textbook matching exercise. The prompt was:

Are you watching the TV?

The required option was:

You can turn it off.

I think the difficulty here was due to the incongruence of the lexico-grammar (present-in present material Process) with the Interpersonal semantics (a request to turn off the TV rather than a request for information). The exercise was ostensibly practising the present progressive but the student was confused as the expected response (‘Yes, I am watching the TV) did not appear.

I must admit I’m not a big fan of these exercises. I can see why materials writers like them, they seem fairly straightforward, but they tend to assume that all forms of that tense are the same (‘Let’s practise the Present Progressive!’) and don’t take account of grammatical metaphor like the one above. Also there is an implicit assumption that practicing these will lead to native-like acquisition of the form but, personally, I feel that the opposite is the case – that native-speaker competence allows the interpretation of the form.

Recently then I’ve been taking a different approach by giving the students the completed matching pair dialogues and discussing which are congruent and which are not. For those inconguent, we try to guess what the grammatical metaphor is (this is related to Speech Act theory in traditional sociolinguistics).

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Metaphors of time and grammar

One of the most common EFL grammar lessons, especially at Beginner or Pre-Intermediate levels, is the ‘Present Continuous to Talk About Future Plans’ lesson. While this is an important usage for the present-in present and should be introduced at some stage, the problem I’ve always had with these kinds of lessons is that it doesn’t explain why we might choose that tense in that situation. Recently however, I’ve been trying to introduce the notion of grammatical metaphor in relation to time and tense choice: the dichotomy between real-world time and grammatical time. Let’s call then R-T and G-T.

If R-T and G-T match, then we are presenting some fact about the world directly. For example, I go hiking on weekends, where R-T and G-T both construe a primary present, expresses a true condition about my habitual action while I’m going hiking on weekends these days, where the G-T shifts to a secondary present-in present, expresses some change that has occurred (hence the Circumstance these days – we want to know when the change started). Often, when R-T and G-T match it can be too pragmatically direct. Compare, for example, Do you want a drink? (R-T = G-T) with Did you want a drink? (R-T ≠ G-T).

When talking about the future this grammatical metaphor also comes into play. Imagine explaining there is a meeting tomorrow (there is/tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T construing the meeting as a hypothetical event). We may wish to construe this as confirmation of a fact about the future with primary future (I’ll have a meeting tomorrow – R-T = G-T) or shift it slightly into the primary present (I have a meeting tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T) to suggest some slight hypotheticality or that it is one as usual out of a regular scheduled series. This slight difference can be used by writers to subtle effect. Here are two newspaper versions of the same story written by the same reporter. Note the shift in the last two sentences of each:

Power firm angry over new rule on shipments By Barry Turnbull A ROW has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Furious bosses of electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen got the go-ahead for the £40m Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year. But cautious councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading dust. Hazard claim Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard. But Powergen bosses have reacted angrily to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit. ” The company claims providing covered wagons would cost £12.6m, with an additional £900,000 a year running costs. Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Local councillor Eddie McEvilly said: ” I don’t really want to talk about conditions on the operation, because I don’t want to see it at all. ” Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee meet tonight to discuss the issue. The Bootle coal mountains are to be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Costs row over coal terminal By Barry Turnbull A MULTI-MILLION pound row has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen was given the go-ahead for the Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year, but councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading coal dust. Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard and a nuisance. But Powergen bosses have reacted quickly to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit which may result. ” Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee will meet tonight to discuss the issue . The dockside coal depot will be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Why does the writer do this? Note the use in the first article of evaluative language – furious bosses, cautious councillors, reacted angrily – which is largely absent from the second which is more concerned with taking a factual tone. This change is then also expressed through the shift from metaphorical grammatical choices (meet tonight, are to be…tomorrow) to non-metaphorical (will tonight, will be…tomorrow).

To return to our meeting, a shift to primary present (I have a meeting) may then be narrowed in focus with the present-in present to express who (I’m having a meeting with John), where (We’re meeting in the boardroom) or what time (We’re starting at 2pm). It’s also possible, however, that we might want to put some metaphorical distance between speaker and event. In this case we might shift to a present-in future (I’ll be having a meeting with John).

Hopefully, by presenting the event in this way the students can begin to think about the ways in which speakers make grammatical choices and the reasons why those might be made.

Modality – modalization (probability)

Modalization operates on propositions, in the space between ‘It is…‘ and ‘It isn’t…‘. There are “two kinds of intermediate possibilities: (i) degrees of probability [and] (ii) degrees of usuality” (H & M, p.147). Probability is concerned with “‘either yes or no’, that is, maybe yes, maybe no, with different degrees of likelihood attached. This degree of likelihood may be construed as being either subjective or objective.

1.  Subjective

Here is a quote from Bill O’Reilly, cited on Huffington Post:

I may be an idiot.

This expresses a Low subjective opinion that implicitly admits to the possibility of it being true. We can change this, of course, to High:

I must be an idiot.

We have, then, three values of implicit subjective probability:

High: She must know.

Medium: She’ll know.

Low: She may know.

We can also make the Medium and Low values softer by creating metaphorical distance through the past tense: She’ll know She’d know and She may know She might know.

We can also, however, make this subjective opinion more explicit with grammatical metaphor. Here, being concerned with opinions and statements, we most commonly use mental Processes:

High: I know she knows.

Medium: I think she knows.

Low: I guess she knows.

2.  Objective

Here is an overheard conversation that was reported in Column 8:

Lady: How much is this metal hat stand?

Vendor: $260. It’s Victorian.

Lady: Well you must mean it comes from Melbourne, because it’s certainly not that  old.

After subjective hedging to imply ‘it’s just my opinion’ (you must mean), the speaker offers an objective assessment regarding the age of the hat stand (it’s certainly not that old) that is also construed as being ‘obvious’, or implicit. Again, we can have three values:

High: She certainly knows.

Medium: She probably knows.

Low: She possibly knows.

We can also construe it as being an explicit objective opinion, metaphorically separate from the speaker:

High: It’s certain that she knows.

Medium: It’s probable that she knows.

Low: It’s possible that she knows.

Modality – system

Modality when presented to EFL learners is often limited to items such as should, could, must, etc. but the complete system network does extend beyond this, and I try to show students how the whole system interacts first rather than the usual ‘bottom-up’ approach. Here are some examples from the BNC with the modality underlined:

  1. Erm the Englishman always likes to stick one on them and
  2. I think that’ll be the case tonight
  3. Of course, it can be difficult to estimate size of, say, an ankle
  4. It is possible that future cohorts of older people will illustrate different patterns of disability.

(I love the idea of ‘cohorts of older people’.) Here we can see that only one of these, No. 3, uses traditional ‘modality’. Even this may confuse learners used to ‘can’ as ability only. Here it operates within modalization to express usuality. Together with modulation, it makes up the system of MODALITY TYPE.

Example No. 1 also expresses usuality but, unlike No. 3 which is presented more as a subjective opinion, it is presented as a kind of understood fact. From this we can see that modality can be expressed both subjectively and objectively. Both No. 1 and No. 3 are presented as being somehow implicitly ‘understood’, yet it is also possible to make this explicit by employing grammatical metaphor, as in No. 2. Rather than ‘That’ll certainly be the case’ we can project it with a mental clause + idea clause (I think + that’ll be the case). This is still, however, a subjective opinion. We may wish to present it objectively with a relational clause + factual Carrier as in No. 4 (It is possible + that future cohorts of older people will illustrate...). These expressions of subjective-objective and implicit-explicit together make up the system of ORIENTATION. One gap in this is that “there are no systematic forms for making the subjective orientation explicit in the case of usuality or inclination” (H & M, p.619).

We can also notice, however, that some of the examples are stronger than others. No. 1 is presented as being of high probablity while No. 3 of low probablity. No. 2 is medium. These three together give us the system of VALUE.

All of the examples above are positive. It is, of course, also possible to make them negative within a system of POLARITY. Notice, however, that there is a subtle difference between the polarity being directly on the proposition (I think that won’t be the case) or transferred to the modality (I don’t think that’ll be the case).

From all this we can now get the system network of modality:

(From H & M, p.150)

Activity: Polite requests and grammatical metaphor

We often try to introduce students, especially in higher Elementary and Pre-Intermediate levels,  to ‘Could you …’ type polite requests  but I’ve found that textbooks do not always explain quite adequately exactly WHY one form is more polite than another. This is a simple little activity that might make it a little clearer and students have found helpful.

First, think about household requests (field), like hang the washing out, do the washing up, etc. and write each request on a piece of small paper. Next, write on the whiteboard the following:

1. Open the door please.
2. Will you open the door please?
3. Can you open the door please?
4. Could you open the door please?
5. Would you mind opening the door please?
6. You wouldn’t mind opening the door would you please?

The activity is then very simple. A student picks up a piece of paper with an activity written (‘turn on the heater’), rolls a dice (‘5’) and uses the corresponding form from the list (Would you turn on the heater please?).

Either before or after the activity we can look at just why some forms appear more polite than others. Students often assume that one form is inherently more polite than another but this is not really the case. I think the answer is in different forms of grammatical metaphor. In terms of the discourse semantics  of exchange all six of the requests above are exactly the same – a demand for service. In only first one, however, does the lexico-grammar match the semantics with an imperative clause. From there we go through a series of changes through grammatical metaphor that puts distance between the discourse function and lexico-grammatical form.

From 1. to 2. we change from imperative to interrogative clause. Then, in 3., we change the element of modality and then from 3. to 4. there is a further shift from present to past tense. This use of the past tense for politeness, by putting (metaphorical) distance between the speaker and the lexico-grammar, is often new to most students but can be an important part of politeness in English (compare Do you want…? with Did you want…? for example). Then, in 5., there is an example of nominalisation (open opening) and a shift from a material Process to a mental one (mind). Finally, there is a change from an interrogative clause to a declarative clause + tag.

Hemmingway, genre and metaphor

In the 1920’s, Hemingway was bet that he could write a story using only six words and came up with the famous:

For sale:
Baby shoes.
Never worn.

The story works on many different levels, with the pathos of the image contrasted brilliantly with the banality of the language. Beyond that, however, it got me thinking about just how it manages to achieve this.

On the surface, it appears to belong to a genre of ‘For Sale’ classifieds as might be found in a newspaper or, these days, on Craigslist type websites. A closer look at this genre, however, shows that it is missing a number of features. There is no price or contact name/number. There is also no listed size or colour for the shoes. You could say that this is just because of the nature of the bet, only to use six words, and so these features were omitted. That, I think however, is the important point here: The text only looks like a ‘For Sale’ genre but in fact functions as a story genre. If it were actually posted in the classifieds it would fail as a text but it succeeds as a story.

I wonder, then, if there isn’t a generic metaphor, similar to grammatical metaphor, where a text takes on the surface features of one kind of genre but, in fact, functions as something different?