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Lewis Michael. The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning

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Lewis Michael. The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning
Language Teaching Publications, 2002. — 180 р. — ISBN 0-9067 17-40-x.
«This book deserves to be read by every language teacher». National Curriculum Resource Centre, Adelaide.
The first part of the book is quite different, and different from most other grammar books. It is about attitudes to grammar — what grammar is, what it can and cannot explain, and how it can be of use in language teaching. For many readers not only will the format of the book be unusual, but also many of the ideas which are discussed. The reader is asked to approach the book with an open mind. Some of the ideas may seem new, strange, and unhelpful. It is important that the reader understands a complete idea before rejecting it as wrong, useless for the classroom, or before raising questions about examples which seem superficially not to fit. The basic structure of the English verb is not particularly complicated. Nor is it full of exceptions. If approached in the right way, there is only a small number of ideas which need to be understood. These are, however, ideas which many readers will not have met before. They are difficult only in the sense that they may be unfamiliar to the reader.
What is a grammar of English?
The term a grammar is used in several different ways. The differences are important. To a linguist (in this book this word is used to mean ‘a student of language, a language scientist’ not ‘a person who speaks several languages’) it means a description of a language.
The linguist who wishes to produce a grammar of English, would gather together an enormous number of examples of English, and then arrange these in some way to show how the language is used. Nowadays, linguists would gather examples of both spoken and written English. Some readers will be familiar with the recent (1985) publication A Comprehensive Grammar o f the English Language. This is a descriptive grammar. It draws on an enormous range of examples, sorts and classifies them, and then describes them. In making such a grammar, linguists are never concerned to reject examples of the language as it is really used. They are not trying to tell us how the language should be used, but to describe how it is used. Such a grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive. A grammar of this kind will be good, if the examples are chosen from a very wide range of sources, and if they are clearly and correctly sorted and described. This work is a long way from the language classroom. The descriptive grammarian would include examples such as It weren’t him what did it. If the example exists, it is included, and described. An example such as that just given, would probably be described as non-standard, uneducated, but the simple distinction between right and wrong is not helpful for the descriptive grammarian.
Any good descriptive grammar will be very large. Often the descriptions will be complicated and technical. They will not be of much use to the average student of English as a foreign language. They are, however, often the basis for the second kind of grammar — a pedagogic, or teaching, grammar. This is the kind of book with which foreign language students are very familiar. For most students ‘a grammar’ means a reference book which can be used when they are in doubt about English usage. The book will tell them whether a particular form is possible or not. It will also frequently include explanations of why forms are, or are not, possible. There are many differences between the two kinds of grammar — a pedagogic grammar will usually be much smaller, and easier to use. Many possible English sentences will be excluded. The book will, to some extent, artificially simplify the language. There are, however, two more important differences. Firstly, the purpose of the descriptions in the linguist’s grammar will, as far as possible, be accuracy. A description can be long, technical, and complicated. Such grammars can be, and usually are, as difficult to use as a technical book on any other subject. The purpose of the descriptions, explanations and rules in a pedagogic grammar, is very different. Here, a compromise is necessary between accuracy and accessibility. There is no point in giving descriptions to students which are perfectly accurate, but which they cannot understand. On the other hand, if accessibility is given too great importance, students will understand, but what they understand will not be true!
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