December 2, 2007
Teaching Grammar Grammar Project
“Mountains of Modals, Pingos of Pronouns, and Inselbergs of Infinitives: Is ‘it’ Happening Now, or, ‘might’ ‘it’ Happen? Bad Grammar, or Choices Designed to Facilitate Meaning and Comprehension?”
Word choices, intentional or accidental, affect meaning and may make communication easier or harder. Untraditional grammar usage can also alter meaning and communication between writer and reader. Probably the most important factor to consider when reading an essay is whether or not communication and meaning is being adequately conveyed based on the choices made by the writer. This essay will examine word choices made by an eighth-grade Chinese-ESL student and how they alter the meaning of his essay and if they facilitate communication or make it difficult. This student’s essay was written as a response to a PSA style assignment but was not graded using a PSA rubric. Time and space does not allow for a complete examination of the entire essay, but instead limits the examination to a single sentence. The intent is to do a thorough analysis of the opening sentence which will provide readers with the tools to comprehend the rest of the essay.
“Some people might find it weird to play online games to relax yourself, but for me, I enjoy playing this online game to relax myself.”
The author begins this sentence ambiguously by writing that “some people” might find playing online games to be weird. Some is being used as a determiner (indefinite article) for the indefinite pronoun people. Some is an indefinite article because the author does not clearly state how many people might find it weird to play online games, or out of all the people which people specifically find it weird to play online games. So who are these “some people” and how many of them are there? The author does not say. Is the amount of people important? Or does it not matter if the number of people who find playing online games to be weird is a few or a great many? The author seems to be saying the number of people is important because he uses the conjunction but to separate himself from those people. He is saying that there are people out there who find this activity weird. But, he doesn’t, so he plays online games. How can he make a definitive statement like this? Has he personally experienced being called weird for playing online games (from an older sibling or parent perhaps)? Has he heard from other online game players that they have been called weird? Has he read or heard about studies done on the “weirdness” of playing games online? He does not say.
He does seem to be tapping into some kind of implied or innate knowledge possessed by people that tells us that we do know that somewhere out there is at least one person who will find something to be something. Seems fitting that more than one person will find playing games online to be a weird activity. I am one of those people. Throw in a few more and we have some people who find playing online games weird. Or he could be referencing comments or insults he has personally received but he can not reference them specifically because he has not been researching this topic and didn’t think to keep a notebook for all the snide remarks. They are in his memory and he can access more general remembrances, but if asked (and some people do do this) to name a specific occurrence and all its related details he probably couldn’t.
The author then says this unknown number and body of people might find it weird. Why might? Might is a modal and is the first of seven used by the author. Modals are used to convey attitude and judgement. In this instance the modal might is being used to convey the possibility that some people find playing online games to be weird. This begs the question, they might find it weird if…what? The what isn’t said specifically so readers are left wondering if some people really do find it weird. But then using might this way implies that the author does not know if some people find playing online games to be weird or not. Can the author get away with writing that some people might find it weird without actually knowing if they do or don’t? Well for an informal personal high school essay, maybe he can. In formal academic or professional writing he will need to cite a source or personal anecdote to support his claim. Also, since the modal might suggests a possibility of something happening I think its only fair to say whether or not this possible behavior has actually occurred. One last thing about might. The author does not say where he got the idea that other people find playing online games to be weird. So can this feeling be his own? Does he unconsciously, or consciously, think this activity is weird? It could be that playing online games isn’t weird at all, I know a good number of people who play video games. If the author does think that, then his feeling could be proof that stereotypes take a long time to go away.
The next word is find. Find is a verb whose primary meaning is to discover by chance or by searching. Find does also mean to recognize but the implication is that the people being referenced in this sentence think or believe this activity is weird. One wouldn’t actually go looking or searching then find playing online games to be weird. Finding something to be weird is kind if a colloquialism. Using think or believe in its place are better choices but no meaning is lost by using find and in this piece of informal writing using find is acceptable.
It is next and just what exactly is it by the way? It is a personal pronoun which is used to refer to a specific individual or thing. At this point in the sentence what it is referring to isn’t clear. It can’t be some people because that would mean those people are finding themselves. And no other noun has yet to be mentioned so we must assume that its antecedent will be found further in the sentence.
Two words later the antecedent for it is found in the verb-heading noun phrase to play online games. But before we talk about that, let’s briefly look at the touch of Pittsburgh-ese bandied about here. The author writes find it weird, not find it to be weird. What’s with the omission of the to be verb? Weird is an adjective modifying to play online games. A form of the to be verb is needed to make the phrase cohesive and to let readers know that the author is calling something something else. Omission of the to be verb is common amongst Pittsburghers but this writer is an ESL student so the question is the to be verb not a part of his native language or is he primarily learning to speak English by listening to his peers? I can’t correctly answer questions about the Chinese languages but I have read (somewhere I can’t reference but I remember reading it) that people learn more about anew language from the way it is used by its native speakers.
The infinitive noun phrase to play online games is headed by the infinitive verb to play. The way this sentence is structured the choices are using the infinitive or using a gerund (playing). The infinitive form, or simple present, to play suggests currency but is also kind of static; someone is playing online games no real action is taking place right now. Using the gerund playing implies more so that someone is actually doing something and suggests that this activity will continue into the future. In either form the verb play is used as a noun and either usage would be correct.
Another infinitive verb, to relax, follows. This answers the question of what some people might find to be weird – playing online games to be weird. This infinitive is in the simple present but again implies that something isn’t happening right now (people are currently relaxing by playing online games) but is something will has happened and will happen again.
This clause ends with an unnecessary use of the pronoun yourself. It is unnecessary because what readers will know that the writer is saying that people play online games to relax themselves and not other people. For someone to be relaxed by another person’s action that someone will still need to be a participant somehow, like they are watching or listening to someone playing the game. Also, the pronoun itself is wrong. Yourself is a singular pronoun which needs a singular noun as an antecedent. The correct pronoun to use is the plural reflexive pronoun themselves. Even if the author used the correct pronoun its use still would have been necessary.
A comma follows yourself, ending the first clause of the sentence. At this point this clause appears to be a marked theme, which means that it is a sentence opening clause that is not the grammatical subject of the matrix clause – it has nouns and verbs and a subject, but it is not the main idea the author is trying to get across. But, before we get to the matrix clause we find a coordinating conjunction, but, followed by the prepositional phrase for me. Coordinating conjunctions function to connect clauses of equal rank, so we once we read but we can assume that this is a compound sentence with two matrix clauses. For can also be a coordinating conjunction but is used here as a preposition in an adjectival phrase that modifies something that will follow ( I actually can’t figure out what it modifies). I wonder if a better preposition could have been used here, like to, or better yet, the adverb not. Writing to me means the author is saying something about the way he feels. ‘I don’t think it is weird to play online games to relax,” for instance. Writing not me puts his feeling about playing online games in opposition to how some people feel about playing online games. Saying that he opposes those people is what is trying to get across to his readers. He feels differently about something, even if it means that others will find him to be weird. Using but for still signals that the sentence will take a change in tone in the next clause. So let’s look at the next clause.
It begins with the author naming himself with the personal pronoun I. This I usage personalizes the essay and informs readers what it will be about; it will be about the author and probably about how he feels about playing online games, which is going to be different than finding it to be weird. This much we can infer from what has been written and is accentuated by the coordinating conjunction.
The next word is the simple present base form of the transitive verb enjoy. The author is saying I enjoy playing online games. Using the base form tells readers that the author plays the game in the present time and plays it regularly.
I enjoy is followed by the gerund playing. Here it acts as a noun and the indirect object of I and describes what the I enjoys about online games. The direct object of the transitive verb is online game. Another infinitive verb comes next, to relax, which is followed by the pronoun myself. These three words combine to form an adverbial prepositional phrase modifying enjoy playing.
Between the gerund playing and the direct object online game is the determiner and demonstrative pronoun this. This is generally used to point to something close to the subject of the sentence or clause, in this case I. It is not clear to me if this is a definite or indefinite article. This refers to a game the author is close to, but also one that he hasn’t named yet. This game suggests that it is one member of a larger group of games, so my choice is that it is an indefinite article. This is awkward phrasing. It may be better for the author to name the game at this point, since he is mentioning it specifically as the game he enjoys playing specifically. Instead, he waits until the next sentence to do so, which creates the situation of one run-on sentence followed by a sentence fragment.
Mechanically speaking not many actual errors appear in this sentence. Aside for using yourself instead of themselves, for instead of not or to, and this in place of the game’s name, the sentence is constructed in such a way that readers will have little trouble identifying the message the author is trying to convey. The sentence could be rewritten to make it shorter and less wordy, or broken up into two separate sentences, but that is mostly a matter of style. And considering that the author is an ESL student, he does an admirable job working within the confines of the confusing English language grammar system. I graded this paper and gave it a 90% grade, which is a “B” grade under his school’s grading system. In my opinion the essay’s content and attention to the prompt rates an “A” grade. The grammar issues apparent in the essay can be best addressed by allowing the student time to practice with the new language and these issues should not be used to discourage the student. The main issue, the use of modals to deflect attention away from the present tense, may at first confuse readers, but a close reading will allow for the intended meaning to be clear.