Saturday, January 3, 2015

Fun With Grammar!

Whenever my Latin students say, "Dr. Massey, I have a question," I respond, "Is it a Latin-based question?" If the answer is in the affirmative, I chime, "That's my favorite kind!"

Now, what I really mean is any question linguistic or grammatical in nature. If, for instance, an Arab student were to ask me about the formation of a maSdar with an irregular verb, it makes my day!  And my Saturday today was brightened by a dear friend enlisting my native speaker instinct regarding a question within, mirabile dictu, an English test administered in China.

Here's the question and the possible answers:

Wasn't it the icy road rather than the
drivers ______ responsible for the accident?

a. that was      b. who were    c. which were 

d. who was 

This is a classic case of congruency conflict when you face intervening material. The phrase "rather than the drivers" is an aside. It could be put in parentheses. If we take it out of the equation, the answer A is obviously correct. The problem is, on a psycholinguistic level, it's very difficult to keep track of antecedents when you insert material as this sentence does. My native speaker instinct is to prefer B, even though I know as a linguist that A is the "correct" answer.

But, on further reflection, I'm more interested in how the fronting of the verb in an English negative question essentially negates the negative!

I had not considered this before. Here's the issue. Exhibit A:

The icy road was not responsible for the accident.

In this sentence, the icy road is fully exonerated.

But note, we can shuffle the same words to create a question and reverse the sense. Exhibit B:

Was not the icy road responsible for the accident?

Guilty as charged, icy road!

And I suspect that when I, as a native speaker, prefer B above, it's because the very structure of the sentence disinclines me from A because of the inelegant verb repetition:

Wasn't it the icy road that was...


At any rate, as a linguist who has successfully acquired a proficiency in a number of languages, I believe the question above, however grammatically interesting, is a pedagogical absurdity.

Getting this "right" or "wrong" will in no way further promote the ability of these students to arrive at a functional speaking ability of the English language.