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Ours not to reason why

August 20, 2008

Hello again,

I was asked recently why the future tense in English is used only for certain types of future expression. As I launched into my lengthy explanation, I realized very quickly...

...quickly that I had lost the attention of the student. The question “why” is always a tricky one. And that set me thinking about why it is so difficult to give students precise reasons for a particular language phenomenon.

One reason lies in the nature of English as opposed to more rule-based languages. As an analytic language, English relies on its syntax for meaning rather than a more rigid system of inflected forms. One effect of this is that there is a great deal of idiosyncrasy in English and a great deal of importance on word order. A simple example is the effect of moving the word “only” in a sentence: only she paid for the coffee/ she only paid for the coffee/she paid only for the coffee.

Then there is the relationship of linguistic structure to ideas. Take the example of the future tense. The grammatical tense seems to express certainty but we all know that the future is anything but certain. It is therefore not surprising that we use the future tense as part of conditional constructions: if he wins the election, he will be the first black president. Or we use it when the weight of evidence suggests certainty: it will rain tomorrow morning but will be dry by the evening. We use it when we make a promise, as in marriage vows. We also use it to threaten, although threats are also often conditional: I will tell your mother if you do that again.

Explanations of why words that appear to be synonymous cannot be used interchangeably are equally difficult. Aspects of usage such as collocation and connotation influence our choice of words. For example, “slim,” “thin” and “skinny” are roughly synonymous but “thin” and “skinny” are pejorative, whereas “slim” can be used as a compliment. And of course, the word “quite” is a minefield. Tell your girl friend that the lunch she cooked was “quite nice” and you will be trouble, tell she is “quite exquisite” and she will be flattered.

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  1. Julie Says:

    So what's the solution? Do you always give the lengthy answer or is there a simpler way?

  1. Eric Roth Says:

    Concise, practical explanation with vivid examples of why that short word "why" can confuse so many students.

    Good job.

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