Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Further Reflections on a Subject that Interests Only Me

A few weeks back I picked up a copy of the McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar (and by "picked up" I really mean pulled off my bookshelf where one of my apartment's previous inhabitants had left it) and started devoting a morning or two every week to expanding my knowledge of grammar, usage, and all those pesky technical terms. This may have been a poor decision since the Japanese Language Proficiency Test looms forebodingly on the horizon and I already had a lot of grammar and kanji to brush up on, but I knew it would be helpful for my writing, my ability to self-study, and my job. The latter was really the biggest contributing factor, as students will often come to me with grammatical queries ranging from the commonplace to the minutely detailed.

"I have a question," asked a particularly curious high-school girl after the lesson had ended.
"Of course," I replied in a tone of utter confidence.
"What's a modal?"

My blood ran cold as I leaned over the grammar page of her textbook (which was thankfully in English) and read a note about how to adjust the structure of requests using modal verbs with an example that did not make at all clear what a modal was. The other students were attracted by her question and looked at me in intense anticipation of some useful bit of information they could only get from a native speaker. There was a dead silence in the room as I ran through the sentence trying to figure out which of those words could possibly be a modal, a term I knew I'd skimmed over lightly in grammar textbooks a dozen times without bothering to understand the meaning of.

I waited as long as I reasonably could keep up the charade of interpreting the textbook example, then feigned an exaggerated note of recognition. "Ah, I see! Here, a modal is a kind of special verb in English, but don't worry about this too much. Basically, this sentence means..." (Here I lapsed into an explanation of the example sentence using the grammar we'd covered in class while dodging the initial question, which yielded thoughtful nods from everyone in the room.)

This situation happens more often than I care to admit. It is particularly humiliating when the question comes from one of my junior high-school students, a precocious girl who is studying for several major English exams and is interested in nuances so subtle that they boggle my mind. There is an expectation inherent in every class that a native-speaking English teacher will always know the answer, and to admit that I don't dashes students' confidence to a crippling degree. It also makes me feel like a gaijin hack who gets by using only his natural ability rather than any actual knowledge of English grammar, and it is a sad reminder that any English-speaking idiot can come out here, hold up the cards, play the CDs, and be an eikaiwa teacher. I guess I just want to do it better than that.

Some interesting facts I learned from my foray into English grammar:

  • A modal verb is one of a special list of helping verbs paired off with other verbs to talk about the future or clarify other meanings: can, may, must, shall, will, and their past tense forms.
  • The only English verb without a past tense form is must.
  • In American English, commas and periods should always be placed inside quotation marks. However, in the rare case where a semicolon or a colon overlaps with quotation marks, it should always go outside. Question marks and exclamation points can go either way, depending on the situation.
  • Went, the past-tense form of go, comes from the older English word wend, which also means to travel.
  • Apostrophes were originally used only in place of omitted letters in words and contractions such as can't. During the Elizabethan era, grammar handbooks started recommending them for use in possessive forms as well, citing that the phrase Arthurs land was really a shortened form of Arthur, his land, and so the former needed an apostrophe: Arthur's land.
  • Even after carefully studying that entire book, there will always be grammar questions I can't answer.

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