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Understanding Grammar

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I've been told that I am an excellent writer (in English) yet I know almost nothing about the actual grammatical structure of English. I don't know a dangling participle from a gerund.

Before studying Spanish grammar, I had no idea what a preterite was much less how to explain an imperfect subjunctive. Despite my lack of formal grammar knowlege I've helped write Ph.D. level papers and I maintain a blog where I regularly write about politics, economics and social policy. I've had nothing but praise for my writing abilities from people who don't hand out such compliments lightly.

Learning Spanish grammer has been quite a challange for me so far because I'm also being forced to learn the formal English rules as well. At times this is daunting because I feel like it takes twice the effort to learn things I should already know. It's not as if when I'm speaking or writing in English that I think about whether I'm using reflexive prounouns or what the direct object is. I'm not even close to this point with Spanish though so I get very confused at times because I have to figure out the part of speech, then conjugate the verb properly and account for irregularities. Honestly, there are some days I just want to give up because I feel like I'll never catch on.

I won't give up though. I've learned learned a lot other subject in my life that seemed very complicated and I manged to get through thouse so I'll keep plugging away at Spanish and I know I'll get it. My goal is to become conversational by the end of the year. I just began studying in earnest earlier this year.

I don't have a question, I mainly just wanted to vent a little bit and encourage others who are struggling to keep at it!

5143 views
updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Difster

20 Answers

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But that merely codifies the rule, and doesn't make it logical.

Logical? Who said anything about logic? I just wanted to find out whether there was an applicable rule. So many things about English don't seem logical. Every language borrows from other languages of course, but I think the problem with English is that what it has borrowed is so recent. I also suspect that English has borrowed from more languages than most of the others have.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Difster
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Heheh. I guess there are those who believe that. But the trend is toward a single language. A graph of the number of world languages points steadily downward. There used to be tens of thousands of human languages, but the number today is about 6800. The number with enough native speakers to survive much longer is about 600. The number is predicted to decrease by at least 50% during the 21st century.

Perhaps in a few hundred years we humans will all be able to talk to each other, and will look back with derision at the time when that wasn't true. That's my bet, anyway.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Wasn't it all those evil moneychangers in Babylon that started all this? Otherwise, we would at least be speaking the same language.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by motley
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"To talk about facts in the future or plans that will not change, use the simple present tense."

But that merely codifies the rule, and doesn't make it logical. For it to be logical, we would have to use the present tense for all future events. That is what we do in Japanese, which has no future tense. And I partially agree with those who say that English has no real future sense, since adding "will" is just stating that it is my wish or will that something happen. In BrEng, many people differentiate between "will do" and "shall do," the former implying volition, and the latter a simple indication of a future tense. That is, whereas in AmEng we might say "We will remember that," a speaker of BrEng might say "We shall remember that." I understand that this form may be dying out. "We will remember that" would imply that we are determined to remember it.

But I wholeheartedly agree with you that the complexity of language is what makes it so fun.

I have a theory that language is what makes humans special compared to all other animals. Without it, I believe we would not have been able to accomplish any of the many wonderful (and horrible) things that we have done. How would you begin to build a pyramid or a skyscraper without language'

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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James,

I did a little digging on this issue because:
A: I hate not knowing the answer to something that there might be an answer readily available for
B: I hate to think I'm right and really be wrong.
C: I don't really like being wrong.

In this case, my instincts proved me correct though my explanation was convoluted. I guess it goes back to not really knowing all the actual rules of grammar.

I found this book on line:http://www.scribd.com/doc/2190255/Basic-English-Grammar-Book-2

On page 79 (according to the number at the top, not the actual page numbering):
"To talk about facts n the future or plans that will not change, use the simple present tense."

Examples given:
Tomorrow is Sunday
Summer vacation ends on Friday.
The new library opens next week.
We fly to Paris on Wednesday.

Also in my research, I found that there are some grammarians that don't believe that English grammar actually has a future tense. They're not saying there is no concept of the future, just not a specific tense for it. I'm not in a position to agree or disagree because I didn't really dig in to the arguments. On the face of it though, I understand the reasoning since any expression of the future is explained by a modifier. "We will go." I realize though that the word "tomorrow" only refers to a future time but as far as I know, that's the only single word expression of the perfect future we have in English. An imperfect future word is "later." I'm only searching my memory, not a dictionary, so feel free to add more if I've missed something.

Language is complicated and fun. But I always enjoy a challenge.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Difster
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Are you winding DOWN yet? All these UPs have me all tangled UP!

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Natasha
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That was awesome! Keep UP the good work!

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Difster
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Thanks for making me crack UP, Motley!

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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UP, which leads me to this

The meaning of "UP"

UP
Lovers of the English language might enjoy this.....

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that word is "UP."

It's easy to understand UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP?

At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP a and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report?

We call UP our friends And we use it to brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver, we warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen. We lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car.

At other times the little word has real special meaning.People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses.

To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP is special. And this UP is confusing:

A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.

We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night. We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP !

To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP, look the word UP in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4th of the page and can add UP! to about thirty definitions .

If you are UP to it, you might try building UP a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with a hundred or more.

When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP. When the sun comes out we say it is clearing UP. When it rains, it wets UP the earth.

When it doesn't! rain for awhile, things dry UP.

One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP, for now my time is UP, so.............

Time to shut UP.....!

Oh...one more thing:
What is the first thing you do in the morning &the last thing you do at night?

U P

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by motley
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I realize that my explanation is a bit of a stretch but it makes sense.

I don't think it makes sense because the same logic applied to tomorrow would have to be applied to yesterday. That is, if you consider tomorrow to be a state of existence that exists in the present, you would have to consider yesterday to be a state of existence that exists in the present, as well. The only real answer to my student's question is one we have all heard many times from our own teachers: "We just say it that way."

As to verb+preposition idioms, I agree that they are certainly the most difficult aspect of learning English as a second language, because they often make no sense, or at least don't make sense if you don't know the etymology. For example, to say someone looks run down in the sense of looking tired makes no sense unless you know that "run down" comes from the expression used about clocks, which would run until their springs had lost tension. The "down" came from the fact that the weights pulled down on a chain connected to the spring.

Someone once said that English is a ridiculous language because first you chop down a tree, and then you chop it up. And a house that burns down is the same as a house that burns up.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Having to reevaluate English in the process of learning Spanish has been fascinating for me. I can see why it's a difficult language for others to learn.

"You say yesterday was Tuesday, and today is Wednesday, so why do you say tomorrow is Thursday, instead of tomorrow will be Thursday'"

I think I have an answer for that. "Tomorrow" is a state of existence that exists in the present so we use the present tense. Think about this. Tomorrow is Thursday and I will go shopping. Next month is my birthday and I will celebrate at the beach. A fixed point of time in the future is referred to in the present because it's relative to "now" which is always "is."

The reason that "yesterday was..." is because yesterday no longer exists and it's not a point that will be reached.

I realize that my explanation is a bit of a stretch but it makes sense.

I've also been thinking lately about idioms and how difficult it must be for someone learning English to figure them out. For example. We are told to "buckle down" or "buckle up" however the act of buckling is neither up or down and it is certainly not intuitive that "buckle down" means focus on your priorities. That's fodder for another post though.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Difster
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Difster,
I think we can all relate to what you're going through. Learning a foreign language forces us to analyze our native language in ways we would never have done otherwise. We absorb our native language, rather than learn it, by and large, so we don't give much thought to why we say certain things the way we do. I believe that learning a foreign language is one of the best ways to improve one's native language. I know that I never truly understood the subjunctive in English until I learned Spanish.

I used to teach English as a second language, and my students would often ask me questions that brought me up short. And I had scored in the 99 percentile for English on my SAT, so I thought my English skills were really superb (I've since learned some humility). But their questions always made me learn something, or at least think about it. For example, one student asked me this: "You say yesterday was Tuesday, and today is Wednesday, so why do you say tomorrow is Thursday, instead of tomorrow will be Thursday'"

Good question, eh?

Así son los idiomas.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Difster
My sentiments exactly, very well expressed.
I think you forget all those grammar labels that you learned in school. I've had to go to an English grammar site to refresh my memory. That is why it's so hard to explain things to a Spanish person learning English & conversely. The teachers do a better job since they stay familiar with the rules.

It's frustrating to try to put a sentence together, right sequence, conjugation, tense & place all those little pronouns all around.

Just try to remember how far you have advanced from when you started, that should make you feel better.

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by motley
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All is excellent but the last line is: "intentaré tratarte de tú".
Happy dreams

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Dunia
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¡Que interesante! Mi bebé me despertó hace un rato. (Is that right for "My baby woke me up a while ago"') Debo dormirme otra vez. Aquí son las cinco de la mañana.

¡Hasta luego! Y intrataré te tratarte de "tu"!

updated MAY 21, 2008
posted by Natasha
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