The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, December 13, 2019

Lexical layers 1: register and genre

One of my pet hates when it comes to vocabulary teaching is when I see materials that don't venture beyond the basic denotational meaning of a word or phrase – that is, the thing or idea it refers to in the real world. So, we could say that purchase is another word for buy, that wonga is money or that built like a brick shithouse means large. But that's really only the first layer of meaning peeled off and in many cases, is not enough to really understand what the speaker intends by their choice of word(s) and is nowhere near enough to know when and how you can use it yourself.

I especially come across this on social media with posts from all kinds of sources (trusted and less so) offering fun words of the day or sets of useful phrases or lists of synonyms, all aimed directly at learners but invariably explaining nothing at all about when or where or to whom the words would be appropriate. And, to be honest, conventional published materials don't always fare much better either, with the teaching of idioms being an area liable to see me sinking my face into my hands in despair.

In ELT, it's an issue that tends to get increasingly relevant as students work their way up the levels. A lot of the vocabulary we teach at the lowest levels is the very high-frequency words. Many of these tend to be fairly neutral; there's not much more to say about table, pencil, car, walk or blue. As students expand their vocabulary beyond the basics though, the picture gets less clear. Yes, there are still plenty of neutral words, especially simple concrete nouns like tunnel, stadium, fennel or sieve, but there are many more words with multiple layers of meaning that we really need to be getting across to students so that they properly understand the language they read and hear, and perhaps more importantly, so they don't go around inadvertently giving the wrong impression or making dreadful faux pas.

Register and genre

The concept of register in language teaching, if it gets covered at all, tends to get reduced to 'formal' and 'informal'. You might come across a lesson on formal and informal messages in which Yours faithfully is labelled as formal and love from as informal. Register, though, goes much further than that. Here's a definition from Oxford Dictionaries:

register: linguistics
A variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and standing of the user.

Let's start off by just focusing on words that are typically used in particular contexts or genres (types of text or speech). The most obvious of these are labelled in learner's dictionaries. So, you'll find that purchase is labelled as formal because it's not a word we typically use in everyday, informal conversation. At the other end of the scale, wonga is likely to be labelled as informal or slang. How far learner's dictionaries go with other register labels varies, but you might come across a word like herewith labelled as law/legal, kinetic might appear as specialized or technical or have a science label, and elegiac will likely be shown as literary. Of course, you could dig around in any genre and turn up a whole host of typical vocab that would seem odd used elsewhere:

Business jargon: core values, scalable, going forward, think outside the box
Tabloid journalism: mum-to-be, blonde bombshell, love rat, (jobs) axed
Football commentary: play to the whistle, against the run of play, hit the woodwork, handbags
Academia: epistemological, existential, ibid, give rise to, allude to
Official announcements: Kindly refrain from …, Bags must be stowed …, Please proceed to …, Alight here for …

As proficient speakers of English, we mostly don't notice these choices until there's an obvious mismatch. My favourite example of this (apologies if you've seen me quote this before!) is from a television advert from a few years ago for a job search website. A primary school teacher is seen speaking to a class of five-year-olds … name that register!

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

Then there's the distinction between language in current use and words or phrases that are falling out of use or have become 'marked' because they no longer feel contemporary. In a dictionary, you might find labels indicating language that's dated (used within living memory, but not current: phone box, discotheque, groovy), words that are old-fashioned (the fair sex, gramaphone, wedlock) and old use (only really found in literature from centuries past: thou, smite).

Of course, these are very broad distinctions which any proficient English speaker could refine into scales of formality, of datedness or of specialization. And exactly where the boundaries lie are grey areas that will vary between speakers – a point I'll return to in a later post.

In the classroom, I think the thing to remember is that context is key. If you come across a new word or phrase in a reading or listening text, by all means look at the (denotational) meaning to help students understand the text, but don't then take it out of context and slot it into a productive activity or add it to a words-to-learn list without considering any restrictions on its use. Encourage students to note who used it and where it came from, to look out for it in future and again, notice the context. Help them avoid rushing to use newly-learned vocabulary where it doesn't really fit. To take a recent example I came across online offering alternatives to please for asking for things politely, just adding kindly to a request probably isn't going to go down well. As most learner's dictionaries note, it's either used in very formal, usually official instructions - We kindly request you read the following information carefully - or it's actually a tetchy, passive-aggressive show of annoyance – Kindly move your car immediately!

In my next post, I'll be looking at another lexical layer: connotation.

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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 café, 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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