Sunday, 20 November 2011


There are not many roundabouts in America? There are things I would never have thought of, having never been there. Roundabouts were an everyday thing for me in NZ (but not in Japan, where, come to think of it, I have never seen one). Roundabouts are such a sensible and easy way to turn a corner on a busy road.

Well, not always easy. I remember once going around the Basin Reserve roundabout four times, trying to get out the exit I wanted to get out (there are eight or nine). I just couldn't get into the outside lane at the right time. The Basin Reserve roundabout is a very large roundabout. It took a while to get around, and by the fourth time I was pretty well exasperated, mostly with myself.

But while the Basin Reserve roundabout is a bit hair-raising at rush hour, most roundabouts are a piece of cake, and WAY nicer than traffic lights. I recommend them.

Friday, 11 November 2011


Today something amazing happened. My classes on Fridays are all small ones, which is wonderful, because it means that the too cool for school kid who slouches in late, goes to the back of the very large room, slumps in a chair and tries to pretend he has been there all along, cannot get away with it, and in fact ends up looking a bit silly when he realizes that everyone else in the room is sitting at the front and enjoying speaking English with each other and with me, and he is being ignored. Eventually he slouches to the front and asks where he should sit, at which point I look surprised and ask him kindly whether he has a textbook. When he (inevitably) doesn't, I tell him (still kindly) that he can either go and buy one or sit at the back of the room and write – in English! – about what he did last weekend, because with no text he will not be able to do the work anyway.

The next week he turns up with a textbook or else he doesn't turn up again at all. (It is usually a he.)

Today the amazing thing that happened was that during a time when students were supposed to be speaking to each other in English about a topic of their own choosing, a couple of the good ones broke into Japanese. They don't, usually. When there are only twelve students they know I will know and mark them down for it. (Yes, I have to be draconian about this. They are not in English classes because they want to be. They are in English classes because it is a part of the required curriculum. The fear of failing the class and having to repeat it is usually greater than any other motivation they might bring with them, and even negative motivation is better than none at all. Sometimes they even end up enjoying themselves.)

These two students today are generally very good. They actually do want to learn English, and make a huge effort to express what they want to say in the required language. But today they broke into Japanese, so I listened carefully to find out what it was they were unable to manage in English and yet so worked up about they were willing to risk being marked down. I wanted to know what it was they wanted to argue about so seriously. My students do not usually argue, even in Japanese.

It turned out they were arguing about the TPP, and the reason they were using Japanese was that they didn't know the words for things like 'efficiency,' 'tariffs,' and 'competitiveness.'

What made this amazing was that I have never before heard any of my students even talking about politics before, let alone arguing about it. In fact I have often had the opposite problem, where I ask what they think about something dramatic that has happened in Japanese politics or business and they aren't even aware that it has happened. I have grown used to my students being so politically apathetic they are practically comatose.

Today I realized that while I had heard TPP mentioned in the news and knew that farmers did not like it, I didn't even know what TPP stood for. I had to look it up. (I have been preoccupied with following the Olympus scandal. I do not have the time to follow very much news, and recently the Olympus scandal has been it.)

I looked it up and discovered that TPP stands for "Trans-Pacific Partnership."

This did not really help, actually, so I decided that if I am suddenly going to have politically aware students (WHAT?) I should make an effort to find out what TPP actually MEANS.

But not tonight. I started a little research after I got home – I read an entire article about TPP, but my brain laughed and said,  You have to be joking, try reading it again when you're awake, idiot!

Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Verb Garden

Years ago, while I was studying for my M. App. Ling., I got stuck on a train on a two-hour commute during which the train was delayed. All I had to read was a grammar dictionary. Also, I had recently spoken to my brother, who asked me how my herb garden was coming along. I told him my herb garden was a mess because I was now concentrating on my verb garden. I was studying grammar at the time, and was rather pleased with my play on words.

This following story was the result of these three things: the horrible commute, the grammar dictionary, and the conversation with my brother. I giggled a lot while writing it, probably confirming the suspicions of a few fellow commuters that gaijin are hen.

I showed the story to a friend, who told me I should not put it on the Internet anywhere; I should try to get it published in an academic journal. They take stuff like that, she told me. Academics like a joke too, sometimes, although it might not always seem like it.

That seemed like a good idea at the time. Wouldn't it be fun if my first academic publication was this silly thing (which I was nevertheless rather proud of)?

But I am a lazy person. The story sat on my hard drive through three computers (I'm a pretty good document backer-upper, less efficient with photos) and I never quite got around to doing anything with it. Today another friend's son called her with some grammar questions, and I remembered the story, did a search on my computer, and amazed myself by finding it.

I sent it to my friend to pass on to her son. I do not expect him to learn anything from it except that grammar is not always as unpleasant as we are led to believe. It can be interesting. Also, I have given him the grammar dictionary for his birthday. It is a little old and tattered (the dictionary, not the birthday), but I hope it will give him as much pleasure as it did me. And I'm pretty sure that after all these years I will never do anything with this story, so Internet (by which I mean the four or five of you who are still reading this sadly unsuccessful blog which I am too lazy to update very often BUT YOU ARE IMPORTANT, YOU MATTER TO ME AND THAT'S WHY I DON'T JUST GIVE IT UP), here you are. It is my little gift to you.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it and, I must confess, rereading it. It still makes me giggle. Grammar has all the rudest words.

The Verb Garden

What does a Verb Garden look like? Well, first of all you have to understand that the name is a little misleading: a Verb Garden does not contain only Verbs. It has all sort of other linguistic features as well. It's just that the Verbs tend to be more active, and you notice them first.

A Verb Garden looks a little like an ant farm, only instead of ants running around the place busily, it has Verbs and Adjectives and Articles and Vowels and Consonants and so on. Of course they don't all run - the Weak Vowels tend to huddle in a corner, and Passive Verbs don't do much, and Hanging Participles just hang around looking cute, but there is a lot of action all the same. It's all very entertaining, and best of all, a Verb Garden doesn't take up much space. You can keep the whole caboodle in the corner of a small room.

But Verb Gardens can be dangerous, as I discovered, and I gave up this fascinating hobby when it became more trouble than it was worth.

It all started when a Noun Phrase offered a rather feisty Dynamic Verb a Prepositional Complement. She thought the future perfect had finally arrived. "We've been living in synonymy for years," she said. "It's about time we conjugated."

("Oh, absolutely," simpered a passing Modal.)

Unfortunately, however, the Noun Phrase was paratactic at the time he made the offer, and in the morning he couldn't remember a thing. The Dynamic Verb was furious. She threw a plurale tantum, injuring a Passive Verb in the process and causing it to suffer from adnominal pains. (It consequently became Irregular.)

The offending Noun Phrase tried to explain his mistake. "It's not my fault!" he whined. "I'm delexical. It was meant to be a Deferred Preposition. Now I'm feeling all tense, and I'm not even a Verb."

"You idiolect!" the Dynamic Verb yelled. "You're nothing but a great exocentric corpus copular! I hate you! Why can't you be a Proper Noun?" She threw an Object, but it wasn't a Direct Object and narrowly missed his genitive.

The Head Noun heard the fuss and came to investigate. He was exophoric. "I've always fancied her, myself," he said. "Perhaps I should make my move now, while she's still hypotactic. I’d love to collocate with her. We'd make a great lexical item." He added smugly, "I predicated something like this would happen one day. That Noun Phrase was heading for trouble with his extralinguistic activities."

By now the Dynamic Verb was well and truly intransitive. "GET YOUR STUPID DANGLING MODIFIER OUT OF MY SIGHT! " she screamed at the Noun Phrase, "OR I’LL ELLIPT IT!"

(A Euphemism wafted past. "Oh, look!" it warbled. "A minor disagreement.")

The Noun Phrase backed away hurriedly, tripping over a Weak Vowel. The Weak Vowel was an 'O', and in a retroflexive action it started a lingual roll.

The result was catachrestic. The Weak Vowel, not watching where it was rolling, hit three Diphthongs and several Monophthongs. The ensuing domino effect caused a Great Vowel Shift which tipped the entire Verb Garden sideways. 
What a mess! There were split Infinitives all over the place. Subjects and Verbs got separated in the chaos and a whole bunch of new disagreements started. Polarity went from positive to negative, there was a great Plosion, and the entire population of my Verb Garden spilled over into the room.

I moved as fast as I could. I grabbed the Language Acquisition Device and vacuumed like mad, sucking up Metaphors and chasing Gliding Vowels across the tatami. It took some time, but eventually the whole squabbling bunch was back in the Garden, and I could relax. I thought I'd saved the day. Oh, I noticed a couple of Solecisms had got in there somehow, but I thought it was just a result of the general disorder.  I thought things would settle down in time.

But I was wrong. There were bugs in my Garden. In the frantic rush the Language Acquisition Device had somehow managed to suck up some student homework I'd carelessly left lying around, and after a few days the infection started to spread. Style Disjuncts demanded better outfits. Unfulfilled Conditions moaned in frustration, attracting the unwelcome attention of marauding gangs of Ejectives. Whole Clauses were rank-shifted without permission. Euphemisms proliferated, several Verbs were entirely abandoned and Adjective order was hopelessly scrambled. Punctuation got lost in the mess (aside from a few malfunctioning Colons), and when I asked what had happened to the Paragraphs a Run-on Sentence exhausted itself trying to explain. Nothing made sense. Subject-Verb disagreement became epidemic and the hideous noise kept me awake at night.

It was tragic, really, but there was nothing I could do. Inevitably some of my Garden escaped into the real world, leading to such incidents as the T-shirt I saw one day soon after the accident, on which was written: "A halt to action fresh perspiration brings forth a pleasant melody." It was all my fault! Feeling guilty, I decided on the spot to give up Verb Gardening until I knew what I was doing. I resolved to study hard, become a Grammarian, and somehow, someday, atone for my dreadful lapse in responsibility.

But it was fun while it lasted.