Friday, September 22, 2017

Language Notes

A student asked a punctuation question yesterday in my comp class. A student wrote: "It was so hot, I felt sick." She wondered if there should be a period instead of a comma. The answer depends on the meaning she wanted to convey. "It was so hot. I felt sick" separates the two ideas so that they are coincidental. Both are true. It's hot. She felt sick. Both are occurring at the same time, but there is no causal connection implied. "It was so hot, I felt sick" says there is a causal connection: the reason she felt sick was because it was so hot. In speaking those two versions, suprasegmental phonemes would provide verbal cues to a listener. Suprasegmental phonemes include differences in stress and pitch. In the causal formulation, the word "hot" would likely be accented and might either raise or lower a bit in pitch, and "I felt sick" would lower in pitch. In the non-causal formulation, "hot" would likely lower in pitch, and the "I" in "I felt" would likely raise in pitch and be equally stressed and the "sick" would lower a bit in pitch. In the examples above, the punctuation drives the meaning in written English and the suprasegmental phonemes in spoken English. Unlike Victor Borge's comedy routine about punctuation, we do not normally provide punctuation in speech, although we might say, "I'm not going, period." ***********************

Another student wrote: "the crickets’ chirping, the birds’ singing, and the rooster crows." This was at the end of a perfectly good English sentence about helping her grandmother in a rice paddy in her home country of Vietnam. Several grammatic aspects came to mind when I read this: the plural genitive case of "crickets''" and "birds''", but not "rooster," the participle/gerund forms of chirping and singing, but not "crows." And perhaps there was only one rooster. And the word "crow" can also be a different species of bird. "Chirping" in the usage above is a gerund, a noun, as is "singing." "Crows" can either be a verb or a noun in the phrase above. I would prefer "crowing" above to be parallel in form to "chirping" and "singing," that is to say, the present participle form of the verb as a gerund. The phrase "and the rooster crows" can either be the last element of a series, a, b, and c as a noun phrase, or it can be a new independent clause at the end of the sentence. "The crickets chirping" emphasizes the crickets as a plural form; "the crickets' chirping" emphasizes the chirping, as so also "bird's singing" and "birds singing." In one formulation the emphasis is on the action of chirping. In the other, the emphasis is on the aggregation of chirps. The construction is a melange of gerunds, participles, genitive case v. plurals, parallel verb/noun forms as a style issue, with each version or possibility with slightly different nuanced meanings. As English was the student's second language, and she had bigger language fish to fry, I let most of that go and suggested "rooster's crows."

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