The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, December 02, 2019

Missing grammar: parallel structure

I've been researching learner language using the Cambridge Learner Corpus for 20 years now and there are certain issues that crop up again and again among learners at all levels. One that I pick up on regularly is illustrated in the examples below (made up examples rather than real corpus data, but they illustrate the point):

At the weekend, he goes to the park and play football. (subject-verb agreement)
I like playing football and run. (verb + -ing form)
I'd love to visit Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower. (verb + to do)
We went to the park and play football. (past simple verb form)
We can swim in the sea and playing volleyball on the beach. (modal + verb form)
I've tided the kitchen and did the washing up. (present perfect/past participle form)
I was sitting on the train, chatted to my friend on the phone. (past continuous/-ing form)

Basically students attempt to use a second verb form (usually) after a conjunction without repeating the subject, but they forget to match the verb form to the start of the sentence. In each of the examples above, the correct form would become clear(er) if we inserted the 'missing' subject (+verb/auxiliary/modal):

At the weekend, he goes to the park and [he] plays football.
I like playing football and [I like] running.
I'd love to visit Paris and [I'd love to] see the Eiffel Tower.
We went to the park and [we] played football.
We can swim in the sea and [we can] play volleyball on the beach.
I've tided the kitchen and [I've] done the washing up.
I was sitting on the train [and I was] chatting to my friend on the phone.

It's something I've noted in countless corpus reports, but I've never been quite sure what to call it. Until last week when I came across it for the first time in an ELT coursebook referred to as parallel structure. It was in a B2 book in a section about academic writing style and covered a wider range of structures than those above (not just verb phrases, but nouns, adjectives and full clauses too), but it still made me cheer out loud at my desk. It's long puzzled me why these incredibly common structures aren't explicitly addressed in most ELT materials when they cause so many issues for students.

I rarely get the chance to choose the grammar points I cover in the materials I work on, because they're mostly supplementary materials and the syllabus is already fixed by the time I get started. So I've never had the opportunity to cover this explicitly myself. I have tried to include examples in practice exercises, but they usually end up getting cut by editors who want all the items to fit on a single line and don't like the longer examples these structures often involve (grrr!).

So I'm making a case for this to be included explicitly in more ELT materials. It's relevant at every level and with almost every kind of verb structure we teach. It doesn't have to be a separate grammar point and it doesn't even have to have the label parallel structure. I think it's a great thing to bring up when you're revising a particular verb form as a slight variation on the usual practice activities, just to raise students' awareness. You could have a simple intro as above showing/eliciting the 'missed out' words and the correct second verb forms. Then straight into some practice examples (as gap-fills or freer practice). It works perfectly for any kind of list: 

  • daily routines (She leaves the house at 8 and catches the bus at 8.15)
  • a dramatic narrative (He opened the box and looked inside)
  • background to a narrative (People were sitting in the cafĂ©, eating and drinking)
  • things people like doing (I like watching TV and chatting to my friends online)
  • things people would like to do in the future (I'd like to go to university and study drama)
  • things ticked off on a list (We've booked a room for the party and set up a Facebook page)
  • things on a to-do list (I still need to confirm the hotel booking and renew my travel insurance)

I'm happy to be proved wrong with a flurry of comments about ELT materials that practise exactly this already ...

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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"My secretary will fax you the details"

In a recent social media post, ELT writer Katherine Bilsborough was bemoaning the appallingly sexist images that came up when she was searching for secretary on a stock image site. I won't share the images, but I'm sure you can imagine the kind of thing. The post prompted a lot of equally appalled reactions about the actual images, but there were also a couple of comments about whether we even use the word secretary anymore anyway. Which, of course, got me thinking and sent me off to check ...

My immediate reaction and that of several people I spoke to was that secretary, to describe someone who does an admin job, has been replaced as a job title nowadays by 'assistant' of some kind - admin assistant, personal assistant, executive assistant. A bit of googling very quickly turned up several articles to back up my hunch. But what do the stats say?

There is some evidence that usage of the word secretary has fallen off slightly since about the 1980s.

Graph from Google Ngram viewer showing a slight decline in use of the word secretary between1970 and 2008
Source: Google Ngram viewer

graph showing a slight decline in the trend for the word secretary between 1958 and 2008
Source: Collins Dictionary online

It's difficult to pin down stats though because it's hard to disentangle from its other senses referring to a. political positions (Secretary of State, Home Secretary, press secretary, etc.) and b. formal positions in the hierarchy of certain organizations (Secretary General of the UN, General Secretary of a trade union, club/company secretary, etc.). I looked across several corpora though and took a random sample of corpus lines to scan through. In each case, for recent corpus data, there were a tiny number of cites that referred to the admin assistant sense (less than 5 per 100 cites). Comparing that to the old BNC (from the 1980s and 90s), I came up with around 18 in 100. Not rigorous research but still a fairly clear decline.

So, we're all agreed that secretary is probably as dated as typist or air stewardess. Which begs the question, why was an ELT materials writer looking to illustrate it? Answer: because it's on a (newly updated!) Cambridge exams vocabulary list ... Cue a flurry of further checking ... and I was slightly shocked to find:
  • it appears on all the major publishers' word lists - A2 on EVP and (the brand new!) Oxford 3000 and B1 on the Pearson GSE
  • it appears in all the major UK learner's dictionaries (Oxford, Cambridge, Collins COBUILD, Macmillan and Longman) without any kind of label or usage note to flag that it's old-fashioned - unlike stewardess which is labelled as 'old-fashioned' in all but one of them. I won't name and shame the dictionary with the example sentence of the title.

I found this particularly disappointing because I know just how aware lexicographers are of trying to keep on top of this kind of thing. I know how much work goes on to try and weed out dated entries and examples from dictionaries. And with most ELT lexicographers being female, we're especially sensitive to anything that smacks of sexism. It seems that this one has just slipped through the gaps.

So, I'm calling on all those dictionary publishers to at least take a look and reconsider your entries and also to relook at your word lists. I know this kind of change can't necessarily always happen overnight, but can you at least promise to check it for your next editions?

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Monday, September 02, 2019

Walking away from my desk

Friends with conventional jobs often say that they wouldn't have the discipline to work from home. I think they imagine me lounging around in my pyjamas and watching daytime TV. To be honest, after almost 20 years of freelancing, I probably suffer more from the opposite problem. Especially when I'm busy with several projects at the same time and deadlines are coming thick and fast, the greater danger is in spending too long at my desk.

As an RSI sufferer, I've always been conscious of taking regular breaks and yes, going downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and maybe hang the washing out while I wait for the kettle to boil is a good way to take those much-needed regular physical breaks from a focused, tense posture at my desk. It's not enough on its own though. Last winter, I found myself 'home alone' with my partner working abroad for a few months and with grey, uninspiring weather outside, it was all too easy to spend all day at my desk and some days to not leave the house at all. Going out for regular daytime walks was already a part of my routine, but one that tended to slip when the weather was bad or when I had a deadline looming or was just feeling a bit low and couldn't be bothered.

Photo looking down at walking shoes in a puddle in the rain

Then friend and ELT colleague, Karen White told me about a walking challenge to walk 1000 miles during the calendar year (that's about 1600km). It's a semi-organized thing which you can sign up for or which you can just decide to do individually and you can set your own rules about what counts. I already walk quite a bit generally because I don't own a car and walking is the main way I get about. What I needed though was to get out regularly for conscious breaks that were just about walking and fresh air and clearing my head, not nipping to the supermarket to get some groceries. So I decided to log just those 'proper' walks using an app on my phone.

To do 1000 miles in a year works out at around 83 miles a month or 20 miles a week or 3 miles a day.  From where I live I can do a walk of just over 3 miles around Bristol harbour which takes me between 45 mins and an hour depending on how fast I walk and whether I stop en route to take photos or get stuck crossing roads. That doesn't sound too difficult until you realize you need to do that EVERY day .... you miss a day and you have to fit in 6 miles the next!
Screenshot of my walking app showing my regular route
My regular route

I've just reached the two-thirds point in the year and so far I'm bang on target with 669 miles walked to the end of August. Looking back at my stats, I don't generally manage to walk every day, but I typically fit in my 20 miles a week spread over about 5 days. The missed days tend to be when I just can't fit in a walk because of other commitments in the day. I also swim twice a week and I can't always justify an hour out of my working day to swim and an hour to walk, although I do have some swim+walk days.  And although I do walk in all weathers, I am occasionally put off when it's really heaving with rain.

I mostly do my regular route around Bristol harbour just because I can go out on autopilot without having to plan. And it's a great route with so many different things to see, people to watch and stuff going on. I've developed a few other regular routes too, including a couple of good 5-milers for when I need to catch up on my mileage. 

Photo of Bristol harbour in the snow
A snowy harbour walk
Photo of old cranes and a steam train
Cranes and a steam train on a grey day

Photo of an old boat in dry dock for repairs
Always something to see in Underfall boatyard
Photo of Bristol harbour in the sun with sailing boats on the water and colourful houses overlooking
A sunny day on the harbour

The #walk1000miles2019 challenge has definitely kept me motivated to keep it up as has sharing my walking with friends on social media and via the #StetWalk hashtag on Twitter which aims to encourage editors and writers to get out and away from their desks - 'stet' being an editing term meaning 'let it stand'. 

A Tweet showing a photo taken from Cifton Suspension Bridge and a tweet with the hastag #stetwalk

Has it made a difference? I think it has. It definitely kept me from slipping into depression through some of the more miserable, lonely winter months. Not only did the actual walking and fresh air often perk me up and give me a sense of achievement, but coming up with suitable photos to share on social media - even if they were rather grey and soggy - gave me a reason to stay connected.

It was helpful during a lull in work at the start of the year, giving me a regular activity to plan my days around. And more recently through a particularly busy, full-on patch of work juggling numerous different projects, when it felt like I had a hundred things whizzing around my head, an hour out walking often either let me switch off completely and come back and start afresh or else it helped me settle everything back into order and get stuff back in perspective.

Will I be doing #walk1000miles2020? Probably not, but I'll definitely be trying to keep up the habit for the sake of both my physical and mental health.

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Talking teaching writing in St Petersburg

Last weekend, I was in St Petersburg, Russia to deliver a day of workshops to a fabulous group of local teachers. It was the first time I'd visited the city since 1986 and unsurprisingly, it has changed quite a bit! It was lovely to have a couple of days to explore a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with its spectacular museums and dramatic architecture, and I was pleasantly surprised to come across some gastronomic treats too with some great meals in interesting contemporary restaurants.

I was leading a day of workshops on the topic of Teaching Advanced Writing Skills with a group of 20 very knowledgeable and engaged teachers. It's always good to get away from my desk, especially after a long stretch with my head down writing, and I find delivering CPD workshops particularly rewarding professionally. 

Connecting with teachers: 
I sometimes feel a bit guilty that as a materials writer, I don't get much time in the classroom myself nowadays. I think that spending time with teachers from different contexts though can actually be just as helpful. Although I write materials primarily for students, teachers are also a crucial part of my audience. If something on the page doesn't work for the teacher, they're going to struggle to get it across to the class. And when you're writing for a global market, understanding the attitudes and approaches of different groups of teachers and the reality of their teaching contexts is really key. Of course, you can't be familiar with every possible context and you can't please all the people all the time, but I find it helps to have a few different real teachers in mind. I'll often imagine each of them working through an activity and think about whether there are any tweaks I can make to help it work better for them.

Developing ideas: 
I also love that after more than 25 years working in ELT, my ideas and knowledge about teaching are still developing. Each time I give a workshop on a particular topic, it's an opportunity to review and reflect on my ideas. I've been delivering this particular series of workshops over the past 5 years or so and although the basic structure has remained the same, each time I come back to them, I make a few changes. This time I added a look at some practical activities to focus on specific writing skills using short, focused writing tasks and also a couple of tasks to work on editing skills. I think they helped to flesh out my point that teaching writing can involve a variety of different task types and angles, and doesn't always have to follow the traditional writing lesson which builds up to a final complete text to be written for homework at the end.

However, in my excitement about including the new tasks, I realize I didn't really think enough about how they were going to be integrated into the workshop. We ended up with a rather repetitive set of three similar groupwork tasks which, with hindsight, I should have varied somehow. But hey, that's the joy of development, you're always learning and I'll be able to tweak and improve the format next time!

Thanks to the lovely teachers of St Petersburg for inviting me, for being such a receptive audience and for giving me the excuse to revisit your lovely city!

Photos: Thanks to Tatyana and Tatiana of Deutsch Klub who helped organize the event and passed on the photos of the day.

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