Online ESL Videos and Workshops

While I was working at the University of North Carolina, I made a series of online workshops for ESL students who didn’t have time to attend the face-to-face sessions we offered. (I call them the bobble-head videos, for reasons which will be obvious if you watch one!) Since then, the Writing Center has reorganized their website (looks slick, guys!), and many of the links I’ve posted on the blog previously don’t work. So, here are the direct links to all the videos:

Update 1/22/13: The video links are not working — either there’s a problem with the server, or UNC has canceled its account with Panopto. I’m working on a solution, but in the meantime, please use the PDFs, and you can just imagine my talking head …

  • Paraphrasing and plagiarism 1: Using sources (video) (pdf)
  • Paraphrasing and plagiarism 2: Preparing a paraphrase (video) (pdf)
  • Paraphrasing and plagiarism 3: Writing a summary (video) (pdf)
  • Ten principles for writing email (video) (pdf)
  • Corpus tools part 1 (video) (pdf)
  • Corpus tools part 2 (video) (pdf)
  • Vocabulary development strategies (video)
  • Academic Word List introduction (video) (pdf)
  • Making the most of your learner’s dictionary (video) (pdf)
  • Using a thesaurus (video) (pdf)
  • Culture shock (video) (pfd)

Please feel free to use and share these with students and colleagues. Please note that the links mentioned in the workshops might not still be active.

Fun facts about modal verbs!

… because there can be nothing more fun than a modal verb, right?

In doing research for my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate student writers, I came across these interesting nuggets about the frequency of modal verbs, which I thought I’d share:

  • The most common modal verb overall in academic writing is can (I suspect because it has so many meanings!)
  • The most common modal verb for hedging (showing uncertainty or deference) is may
  • Both can and could are frequently used with passive infinitive verbs
  • Fewer than 5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a perfect infinitive (might have done)
  • Just over 0.5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a progressive infinitive (may be growing)
  • Help isn’t technically a modal, but it’s an awfully interesting verb because it can sometimes be followed by a to-infinitive (help to make) and sometimes by a bare infinitive (help make). I suspected that the shorter form (help make) should be more common in academic writing because academic writers tend to reduce the number of function words (little “grammar” words like prepositions) to increase the lexical density (number of content words per sentence). And my data supports that: only 16% of clauses with help are followed by the to-infinitive. Unfortunately, that turns out to be the highest proportion of all the registers in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, so actually academic writing is more likely to use to than spoken or other written registers, but still far more likely not to bother. Oh well, the advice still stands: the shortest form is usually the best. On which note …

Stay tuned for more tips on writing and more information about my new grammar textbook for graduate and research writers.

(All statistics are based on my searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English.)

The Google corpus

A story on NPR this afternoon made the incredibly slow drive home from Newark in the snow a little more bearable: “Google Books Tracks Cultural Change with Words.” As part of the Google Books project to take over the world … sorry, digitize all books ever written, Google has released an “n-gram viewer“. This is basically a way to search Google’s book collection as a corpus and track trends over time. Both the report and the website are very interesting — although I was amused to note that none of the experts quoted is a linguist (no-one at NPR thought linguists might have something to contribute to a story about, err, words).

So, I thought I’d run a parenting question through the site: apparently my toddler has magically turned into a preschooler (and not a pre-schooler) since he turned 3 last month. I’m not quite sure how that happened, since he definitely still toddles, and he has been and will continue to be pre-school for some time.

According to this graph, toddler has been around since at least the early 20th century, although its use took off in the 70s. Preschooler only emerged at that time, and its use appears to be waning. Of course, this corpus only contains books, which represent a very limited subset of language use. A very cursory glance at the sample concordance lines confirms my suspicion that preschooler is a much-loved term for parenting books — after all, if you’ve already bought the book on pregnancy, the book on newborns, and the book on toddlers, you’re clearly going to be in the market for a book about the next stage … oh, let’s call ’em preschoolers.

At least I have a new way to while away those long snowy evenings during winter break in Delaware.

(And if you too are the parent of a preschool toddling infant baby, check out Barefoot Books — as sold by the other parent of said three year old.)

The subjunctive is (just) alive and living in London

A colleague asked me the other day about the use of the subjunctive in British English. The subjunctive mood is a fairly infrequent feature of American English that finds its way into advanced grammar books and classes. It is used following certain verbs and adjectives that express demands or suggestions, for example:

  • We demand that taxes be lowered
  • The teacher recommended that she study harder.
  • It is essential that the class finish on time.

In the (projected) noun clauses, the verb in the subjunctive mood appears in its base form (like an infinitive without to). This means the subjunctive is only actually visible after third person singular subjects in certain tenses, as well as all passive verbs (be lowered). In other contexts, the subjunctive looks exactly like the indicative (the “normal” mood), so you could use the subjunctive without ever realizing it.

Most grammar books point to an interesting difference between British and American English here: British English no longer uses the subjunctive in this structure. Typically, students are told to use should instead:

  • We recommend that everyone should drink more water.

The question was whether should is always used, especially when the core meaning of this modal verb conflicts with the meaning of the main (introductory) clause. That is, can you require (=insist) that someone should (=ought to, but not essential) do something?

I’ve been playing with the BYU interface to the  British National Corpus to answer this, and the results are a little surprising. These searches were limited to the written section of the BNC. Continue reading “The subjunctive is (just) alive and living in London”