Words and Their Context
You have now explored in a practical way a number of different aspects of language and learning, including the difference between implicit and explicit knowledge of rules, rule discovery, the grammar of spoken and written English, phonology, and linguistic and communicative competence. I now want to turn to the significance of grammatical and communicative contexts for understanding words and grammatical structures. For example, in this unit you will study not only the grammar of the passive, but also the contexts in which it is used.
The unit begins with a look at what we can find out about a word in a dictionary and includes an activity to test your knowledge of grammar terminology. It finishes with a look at some of the reasons why words and patterns change over time and the question of what we consider to be ‘correct’ modern English.
Dictionaries can give teachers and learners an overall view of a word, with information about its many different aspects. So it’s a good idea to get to enjoy using dictionaries. I’m therefore starting this unit with an activity to test your knowledge of what a dictionary can tell you about a word.
- What information might a dictionary give about a word you look up (for example, its pronunciation)? Make a note of your ideas.
- Now look up the word kneel in a dictionary and see what information is given. Summarize what you found.
- Dictionaries can tell you about a word’s:
pronunciation (including where the stress lies)
different forms (for example past tense, plural)
- You could have found the following information about kneel:
how it is pronounced
that it is a verb
that it is intransitive (see below)
that it has alternative past tense forms: knelt or kneeled
that kneeled is used particularly in the United States
that kneel down is a phrasal verb
that it means fall or rest on the knees or a knee
that it comes from an old English word, cneowlian.
In a dictionary like Cobuild or The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, you will also find examples showing you how the word can be used: for example, He kneels beside the girl or Lottie knelt down to pray. We are also given the -ing form of the verb and an example: The kneeling figure was Mary Darling.
Transitive and intransitive verbs
A dictionary always tells you whether a verb is transitive or intransitive, that is, whether it can be followed by an object or not.
The verb ‘lost’ is transitive because we can put a noun after it. The verb yawned is intransitive because we can’t put a noun after it.
Active and passive sentences
Sentences in English are either active or passive. Teachers of English need to understand the grammar of each of them and to be clear under what circumstances it is appropriate to use either the passive or the active. Let’s start with the grammar.
English, like many other languages, is known as an SVO language. This refers to the normal order of elements in an English sentence. Thinking about English sentences, and about some of the terms you have now come across, what do you think SVO stands for?
The abbreviation stands for Subject Verb Object. Not all languages are SVO. In Japanese and Korean, for instance, the verb is usually put at the end of the sentence. EFL learners (and teachers who speak other languages) are a valuable source of information about the structure of their own languages and it is always worth putting questions to them about it, both for one’s own interest and to raise their interest in comparing English with their L1.
Here are two examples of SVO sentences.
– Adrian loves music.
– Isobel plays tennis.
Sentences like these are active sentences. In the passive structure the grammatical subject of the verb is not the person carrying out the action. So in the passive sentence, The house was lived in by a ghost, ‘The house’ is the subject of the verb ‘was lived in’, but the house didn’t do the living in – it was ‘a ghost’ who lived in it, but here it isn’t the subject. Often, the person doing the action (known as the agent) is not even mentioned. Take, for example, The last gasps of apartheid are being heard or Pushchairs must be carried. Here we are not told who is hearing the last gasps or who must carry pushchairs.
In grammatical terms we can say that we form the passive by moving the object of the active verb to the front of the clause so that it then becomes the passive subject. The verb is formed using a form of the auxiliary verb be (or get), followed by the -ed participle. If you want to mention the agent, move the active subject of the active verb to the end of the clause with the word by before it. Let’s do this with the sentence, Alan wrote a mysterious message.
Look again at the examples of passive sentences given above and check them against the grammatical description. Then:
- write a passive sentence in the spaces below
- explain why you can’t use an intransitive verb in the passive.
Since intransitive verbs can’t be followed by an object, there is no object to make into the subject. Take, for example, our previous sentence: The tiger yawned. We can’t say, *The tiger was yawned. (An asterisk before the sentence conventionally means that it is ungrammatical.)
Why we use the passive
Now you have looked at the way in which the passive is formed, read the following reasons for using it and then carry out the activity below.
Before going on to tackle the relevance of context for identifying different word classes, you’ll probably find it helpful to check your knowledge of some basic grammatical terms. This is the aim of the next activity.
Drawing on your own knowledge, these materials, the glossary, a grammar book, and/or a dictionary, insert an appropriate linguistic term in each of the blank spaces in the following exercise. (You haven’t yet come across (1) and (2) in this course, so don’t worry if you don’t know them. Leave them now and come back to them when you encounter them in this unit.)
- If you can use a word in the plural, then it is called a …… noun. Examples include: workers, forms, lollipops, women, feet.
- If you can’t use a word in the plural, nor have a or an before it, it is a …… noun. Examples include: information, medicine, advice.
- A word which describes a noun, and often comes before a noun, is an …… Examples include: curly, pink, mouldy.
- A word or phrase which tells you how, where, when or how often something happens is an …… or an …… phrase. An …… often has -ly on the end, but there are exceptions like the word friendly, which is an ……
- Words expressing a relationship of meaning between two parts of a sentence, especially concerned with space or time, for example, at, with, between, on, to, until, after, are called ……
- Some verbs are multi-word verbs, made up of a verb and one or two particles. Examples include: come in, get on, put up with. Some multi-word verbs can stand alone, with no object. Examples include: they stood up; she knelt down. These are called …… verbs.
- The word the is called the …… A and an are ……
- When the -ing form of a verb is used as a noun, in phrases like cooking is fun, or she’s good at catching frogs it is called the gerund in older grammar books, but nowadays we often call these the -ing ……
- In the same way, when you add -ed to the verb, it is called the -ed ……
Your response should have been as follows:
- count; 2. non-count; 3. adjective; 4. adverb, adverbial, adverb, adjective; 5. prepositions; 6. phrasal; 7. definite article, indefinite articles; 8. participle; 9. participle.
Traditionally, -ed forms (like walked, yelled, fired) are ‘past participles’ and -ing forms are ‘present participles’, but these labels are unclear. Verbs with -ed are not restricted to past time (for example, You’ll be noticed) and -ing words are not always about present time (for example, She was going). That’s why many linguists now simply say -ed participles or -ing participles.
Don’t worry if you had problems with this activity. But if you did, go back over it having read the comment and make sure you understand the terms.
Word classes in context
As I implied in some of the questions in the previous activity, when you are identifying what class a word belongs to, it’s important to know its grammatical context first. In Unit 3, we looked at what a verb is. Here we move on to considering what sort of words can be used as verbs. For instance, the same word can often be used either as a verb or noun or adjective, depending on the context. (In a moment we will see how the same word can also be used to convey different meanings.)
The next activity brings this idea to life.
To appreciate the importance of grammatical context for assigning word classes, make sentences on a separate sheet of paper using the following words, first as nouns and then as verbs (adding -ed, -ing, etc. as you wish).
The use of these words as nouns should be obvious now, so I’m only giving example sentences containing them as verbs.
My sister booked a table.
They carpeted the hall.
Use this paper over the cracks.
Please pencil the date above your signature.
He pictured her riding off into the sunset.
I never learned to box. She chaired the meeting brilliantly.
The Opposition tabled five amendments.
If you found this difficult, or still feel unsure about it, look these words up in a dictionary like Cobuild and find examples of the different ways they can be used.
Count and non-count nouns
Just as we can’t say that a word is a noun or a verb without knowing the context, so we cannot say that a word is count or non-count. As before, it depends on how that word is being used.
You saw in the first activity of this unit that count nouns are ones which have a plural, such as geese, machines and knives. In other words, you can count them. When nouns are non-count like information, advice, employment you can’t put them in the plural. However, many nouns (such as beauty) can be used either countably or uncountably depending on the meaning. Beauty and beauties have quite different meanings.
For an EFL teacher this is a helpful concept because many learners have difficulty in knowing when to use a and the as the usage is often very different in other languages. Indeed a number of languages, such as Russian, don’t use articles at all. Understanding the idea of countability is a step towards mastering the use of articles in English. The next activity aims to check your own understanding of the idea of countability.
Write two sentences for each of the following words, using them as count nouns in one and non-count nouns in another. Write C or N after each sentence, as appropriate.
Possible sentences include:
Language is a miracle. (N)
She speaks eight languages. (C)
Give me service with a smile. (N)
There’s a service going on in Westminster abbey. (C)
It’s good to develop different interests. (C)
He showed no interest in fishing. (N) No coffee for me, thanks. (N)
Three coffees and a tea, please. (C)
All languages have words which tend to be used with certain other words. As British Rail knows, in English we drag our feet (not our knuckles). We also dig our heels in, (not our feet). We might expect the word leafy to accompany glade or washing to be used with hair (rather than cleaning). A language learner must learn not only what it is possible to say grammatically but what a native speaker is likely to say.
What this activity shows is that collocation is a kind of continuum, running from total predictability at one end, to words having no predictability at the other. The more fixed a collocation is, the more we think of it as an idiom, i.e. a fixed pattern like head over heels, or dog eats dog. In the middle of our continuum there is some room for different possibilities.
Ask a minimum of five English native speakers (ten would be better) what word they think most people would use to complete each of the following phrases. If you can find learners of English to compare your results with, so much the better. Make a note of the level of agreement.
Her knees turned to………………….
Don’t make me………………….
This document is………………….confidential.
This beer has been brewed to………………….
He got into………………….
If there was a high level of agreement, then you can safely say that those words often collocate with each other and that would be helpful information to pass on to a language learner. If there was no agreement, then you have not found evidence of any particular collocation.
Change over time
Referring to naughty children as ‘little monkeys’ may or may not become old-fashioned soon, but if this doesn’t, other usages surely will. Earlier you investigated how sometimes the same word in modern English can belong to a different word group and have a different meaning depending on the context. This final section aims to remind you of the range of grammar patterns and meanings that words develop over time. Language change is important to teachers and learners because it is current usage which a teacher often takes as her yardstick for correctness, rather than a word’s original usage. Things aren’t correct just because they relate back to an original usage. Equally, things aren’t wrong just because the usage has changed. But as you’ll see, there is plenty of room for debate here! First of all, let’s look at how changes come about.
Changes may simply evolve.
Jane Austen’s books, are full of examples: ‘They are gone back to Kellynch’ would now be written as ‘have gone back’. ‘I have forgot’ has given way to ‘I have forgotten.’
Changes in vocabulary usage have also occurred. Instead of the word finished, Jane Austen writes: ‘He had done and was unanswered.’
There can also be changes in the degree of formality that a form of words conveys. ‘Do let us have the pleasure of taking you home’ would sound either very formal or slightly joky now, but it was a straightforward friendly offer two centuries ago.
Changes may follow fashion.
Examples include teenage slang (which I mentioned in Unit 4) or informal grammatical patterns like the current forms: ‘How come?’, ‘No way would I’.
New developments in areas like computers may generate new language items such as interface, user-friendly and programmed to.
Changes may occur through pressure from particular groups.
Using language which is clearly offensive to women or Black people is now much less generally acceptable than it used to be owing to such pressure, though of course people can still disagree about whether particular terms are offensive or not, as the following short activity may demonstrate.
This activity may have indicated how conservative you are about change. It also shows how much of our own opinion goes into judging what is appropriate and what is not. Try to bear this in mind when dealing with learners’ queries about whether particular language items are‘up to date’ or ‘correct’. Because of the constant, rapid and far-reaching changes in the English language, it is very often difficult to give a clear-cut answer to such questions. What you need to remember is that language changes because society does, and so change is inevitable. Many patterns in language reflect aspects of society. Male and female roles in America have changed but we are far from total equality. Although English has no actual different patterns used by each sex, research does show that women use adjectives like lovely and super more often than men, together with exclamations such as Oh dear! and Goodness me! and patterns like so such. In conversations with men, women ask more questions and encourage the speaker with more utterances such as Hmm, I see. Men, on the other hand, interrupt more and use you and we much less frequently than women.
Here are two examples where social change is resulting in language change.
– Male speakers of Punjabi traditionally use informal language forms when speaking to females within the family, whereas women use formal forms to speak to men. This is now beginning to change and the formal forms are beginning to be used by both in many families, in the interests of equality.
– Japanese contains words and grammar that have a female style, a masculine style and a sexually neutral style. Nowadays many women are exercising a choice over which kind of speech they use, depending on the context. For instance, they may choose female speech to emphasize their femininity when talking to friends about their children, or the sexually neutral style in business. Japanese schoolgirls are increasingly opting for a masculine style of speech to show their commitment to sexual equality.
In this unit you have learned that:
– the subject in a sentence is the person or thing responsible for the action expressed by the verb
– transitive verbs can take an object and intransitive verbs cannot
– sentences can be active or passive and are used in different communicative contexts
– the class a word belongs to (for example adjective or noun) is not fixed, but depends on its grammatical context.
– nouns are count or non-count. Some can be used either way, depending on their meaning and context
– knowing the grammatical and communicative context of a word is essential to understanding its meaning
– understanding which words tend to occur with which other words is very useful to a language learner. It is known as collocation.
– language changes occur for a variety of reason, in particular as a result of changes in society.
- Read the sentence below and answer the questions that follow it.
They have invested money in a crumbling business.
What is the subject of the verb?
What is the verb?
What is the object?
Is the verb active or passive?
Which of the following does it contain? (Make a note of them.)
a set of words which collocate together
- Your answers should have been as follows:
(a) The subject of the verb is They
(b) the verb is have invested
(c) the object of the verb is money
(d) the verb is active
(e) auxiliary verb: have
phrasal verb: none count noun: business
words which collocate together are: invested and money.
When you have completed this unit you will be able to:
– use a dictionary to obtain a wide range of information about a word
– explain the meaning of basic linguistic terms, including subject, verb, object, count and non-count nouns, participles, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, phrasal verbs, definite and indefinite articles
– distinguish between active and passive sentences
– explain the meaning of words taking account of their grammatical and communicative context
– identify words which tend to be used together, using the notion of collocation
– suggest in what way particular utterances might reflect social changes.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.