“The English Sense” by Vinton Poon

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For many people, learning a second language involves familiarising themselves with the grammatical rules of the language. My experience of learning the English language has been no different. In my younger years, I assiduously memorised the participle forms of verbs, acquainted myself with the infinitives, and processed the differences between definite and indefinite articles. I became very good at understanding the rules of constructing English sentences, and distinguishing between the present perfect tense and past perfect tense was easy for me. I also had no difficulties communicating my thoughts in English, since I had been dutifully learning new words and expanding my vocabulary.

Yet, my sentences were (and are) still full of grammatical mistakes.

Of course, me being a careless writer often contributes to the high number of errors. However, what really hampers me from writing grammatical sentences is a lack of fundamental English sense. While I have no doubt that my English teachers in high school were not holding off from teaching me the rules of English grammar, there were some things about the language that they did not teach me. These “things” were the more visceral part of the language – the part that is related to the language users’ intuition. It is so fundamental that native speakers often fail to explain why and how it works, and it is also the most difficult element to grasp for a non-native speaker when learning the language.

As a native Cantonese speaker, I have no difficulties distinguishing between different end-of-sentence particles, and would rarely, if not never, use them wrongly. I, for example, thoroughly understand the differences between the following expressions, and know which one to use in different situations:

唔係咁噃 (bor3)
唔係咁嘅 (ge2)
唔係咁啦 (laa3)

Can I use them correctly? Yes (as mentioned above). Can I explain the differences? It is also a “yes”, but a more hesitant one. For many native speakers (or at least for myself), it is very difficult to explain the semantic differences between the three end-of-sentence particles. I am able to choose the right end-of-sentence particle for a particular context; I can also detect a sense of weirdness if an incorrect one is used in that context; but if I were to pinpoint why and how exactly the right one is right and the wrong one is wrong, it would be a much heftier task. It should be noted that the task being difficult does not mean it is impossible. In fact, many scholars (especially syntacticians and semanticists) have written in various grammar books and academic articles about the functions and meanings of these end-of-sentence particles. Still, for a lay speaker like me (I’m more of a sociolinguist/ discourse analyst), explaining the meanings and use of these particles is by no means an easy task.

I believe the same kind of difficulty is also encountered by native speakers of other languages, which of course include English. When it comes to fundamental elements like prepositions and (definite and indefinite) articles, I rarely see native speakers using them incorrectly. They also have a sense of distinguishing the right uses from the wrong uses. However, when asked why this use is more preferred than another, the native speaker often finds it hard to explain. To this kind of question, the most common response is “it’s just how we use it”.

How do I know that it is the most common response? It is because I often ask this kind of question. As familiar as I am with English grammar (I teach English linguistics for a living), I often find it difficult to choose the most appropriate prepositions to use. I know, for instance, that both “a piece from the statue” and “a piece of the statue” are grammatically correct, but this is the extent of my sense of the language. To answer further questions like “how are these two noun phrases different?”, my sense of the English language has nothing to contribute. While many grammar books contain rather comprehensive introductions on the meanings and good uses of English prepositions, they usually fail to identify subtle semantic differences. The semantic distinction between “from” and “of” in the above examples would be similar to the difference between 噃(bor3)/ 嘅(ge2)/ 啦(laa3) in the Cantonese expressions I mentioned above. Native speakers have a natural inkling of what to use in a particular sentence or expression, but this inkling is too subtle to be explicitly spelt out.

Another very good example is the structure [NOUN to VERB] vs. [NOUN for VERB +ING]. A few days ago, my partner (who is a native English speaker) was proofreading my abstract. In the abstract there was this sentence.

In this talk, Vinton and Olivia first briefly lay out the motivation to initiate the project and conduct the workshop.

Upon reading the abstract, my partner pointed out that, instead of “motivation to initiate and conduct”, it was better to write “motivation for initiating and conducting”. Not surprisingly, seeing that both ways were grammatical, I asked why. He first responded by saying that even though both forms were grammatically correct, he felt that using the gerund form was better. It was only after I pressed him to explain his feeling that he gave me a more comprehensive answer. He said that “motivation to” looked better with present or future tense, while “motivation for” sounded more natural when linked to past tense. Having learned the language almost all my life, and having lived in the U.K. for 12 years (and used English in all my interactions), I only knew that both were grammatically correct. As much as I was familiar with the grammar of the language, I would never recognise this subtle difference. Even my partner needed to rack his brain (and receive a fair amount of pressure from me) to explain such a difference.

This subtlety may be the reason why many grammar books do not explain these differences. It may also be the reason why non-native speakers find this part of the language to be especially hard to grasp. Professor Antonella Sorace of the University of Edinburgh, who researches second language acquisition, proposes that second language speakers can at most attain a “near-native”, rather than native, level of speaking the target language. This kind of element may be the language sense that near-native speakers remain near-native, despite their immense effort to learn and speak the language.

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This piece is as much as a blog entry as a love letter. My partner of seven years, Mike, has been my most loyal reader, and most diligent proof-reader, of my writings. He says that explaining this kind of subtle difference is actually quite difficult because they are too close to his mind (he once said it was almost like using his brain to explain his brain), but still, every time I ask, he is willing to patiently explain to me how these “quirks” (his word) work. It takes not only endless patience, but also love, to “pour his brain and mind out” for me. To him, I have nothing but thankfulness.

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VintonJust like an average person, Vinton Poon assumes many different identities. To name a few (not in any particular order), he is a son, a lecturer, a badminton enthusiast, an extrovert, an elder brother, a debating coach, a semi-Buddhist, an academic, a friend, a hypochondriac, a volunteer, and a pursuer of good tea. [Click here to read all entries by Vinton.]

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