Finding the subject of a sentence

Perhaps the biggest problem with understanding long sentences is that they seem to be a lot longer than the basic syntax unit. Today we accept that there are seven basic sentence pattern types, where the possible number of obligatory units is between 2 and 4 (SVOC, SVOO and SVOA). Yet a sentence with, for example, eleven words seem difficult to fit into this pattern. The secret is to chunk them into units. Take the following sentence:

A lot of Carp fans are standing by the back entrance.

What is the subject? We know the subject of a sentence is a person (who) or a thing (what). And that in this case “standing” implies a person or people. So ask the question:

Who is (or who are) standing by the back entrance?

The answer is of course Carp fans. If in doubt the entire chunk ‘a lot of Carp fans’ would also be fine to be called the subject.


Incidentally, if you want to know what is the pattern type just think about what is necessary within the sentence.

In the above sentence almost every word is necessary. The only words which can be cut are ‘a lot of’, ‘Carp’ and ‘back’ which gives us

Fans are standing by the entrance.

Words which help nouns are called ‘adjectives’ and are mostly “decorative”. The remainder of the sentence therefore tells all that we need to know, that there are fans and they are standing (implying waiting) by the entrance. This is an SVA sentence. You can say

The fans are standing. 

but that would have a different meaning not implying waiting. Therefore by the entrance is obligatory.

Grammar or experience?

What is wrong with the idea of “universal” in the Universal Grammar of Chomsky? It is that what is taken as being universal is wrong. It is not the grammar in the brain that is universal, but rather it is the human experience that is universal. We all have the same set of senses and mental faculty. We all input the same kinds of sensory and perceptive experience. But we also have the same kinds of choices and decisions to make about language which do not necessarily need to be a brain-module specific to operate. 

“Language is transformational” is partly correct, but it is probably at a more a general rather than being a specific mechanism that uses the properties of reality, sound and image to produce what is language. Certainly we are creatures who like to express themselves and to communicate with other creatures. We are undoubtedly social creatures. 

Why syntax over morphology

Over the years of teaching and writing I have noticed how much more emphasis had been given to words (morphology) over sentences (syntax). Perhaps it is because sentences are mistakenly thought of as so much harder to pin down. When people see a sentence of twenty words they think of twenty things. Rarely do they think of the sentence as one thing. In my opinion, a sentence is a unit of complete communication. It is not the only unit to be considered complete. Words, of course, are considered (and taught as) complete units. Fair enough. We can use words out of sentence-context and still get some kind of meaning across, but just not very well. But because of the inaccuracy, it seems logical to work with the unit which best gives a “complete” meaning, instead of working with units which do not make a unit of communication. It is for this reason that I believe that syntax should be given priority in teaching and learning.

Dealing with long difficult to understand sentences

I have talked about the seven sentence patterns here. Those are all simple sentences. A simple sentence contains a single verb, that is, one clause. Complex sentences contain more than one verb, or two or more clauses.

An SVO sentence theoretically can have three clauses, having one each for the subject, verb and object. It is possible to have more clauses (and/or phrases) by adding optional elements like adjectives and adverbs. But the more clauses you add the more complex and difficult it becomes to understand what-is-what within a sentence.

It is advisable not to make add too many clauses to a sentence. If you do find you have created a long and difficult to understand sentence on your hands break it down to two or more shorter simpler sentences.

What is morphosyntax?

Morphosyntax is another word for grammar.

Grammar can be divided into morphology and syntax. Morphology is the study of words and their rules of formation. And syntax is the study of sentences and their rules of formation. Essentially, morphology and syntax are studies of the same thing – formation rules of a language – but at differing “levels”.

By calling it by the transparent term morphosyntax we are highlighting this dualism.

When we talk about word-formation (morphology) we use terms like

  • Noun
  • Verb
  • Adjective
  • Adverb
  • Pronoun
  • Determiner
  • Preposition
  • Conjunction

And when we talk about sentence-formation (syntax) we use terms like

  • Subject
  • Verb
  • Object
  • Complement
  • Adverbial

The term verb unfortunately has “double duty” for word-forming and sentence-forming. So when using the term be careful and clear to your reader/listener as to which meaning of the verb you are trying to convey.

Note also that the sentence-formation terms do not appear in dictionary definitions, indicating most clearly the idea that dictionaries are about words, and not sentences.

Don’t blame the computers for poor scores

Recent PISA score (shown in today’s newspaper) from the OECD has shown Japan has dropped from 4th to 8th in the ranking for Reading. A government official was quoted as saying the lower score was due to the change to an all-computerised testing system, and that students were confused as to how to answer questions. But isn’t it true that all other students from around the world had the same conditions of this new test format?

Either Japan heavily prepares their students for these tests (which I suspect might be true) or they cannot cope with change. 

Think again. The students sitting for these tests are not the same students for the last test. So one must assume some kind of priming (preparing) is occurring here. So I guess it is not the students who cannot cope  with change. 

Big data, Japan and education

I like data. And I like data when it is big.

The Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture and Science and Technology (MEXT) in Japan announced that it will promote the use of big data. According to a source quoted in an article in today’s Japan News only 6.8 percent of 1,100 companies surveyed said they utilise big data. And 40 percent of those companies that use big data see developing human resources for this an issue.

Japan lags behind other countries in utilising big data even though it is an ideal country for it being one of the most connected countries in the world.

Who is the next Natsume Soseki? Scholarships and the Japanese people

This year is the 100th anniversary of the death of the Japanese novelist, Natsume Soseki.

Until recently he had been featured on the Japanese one-thousand yen banknote (about USD10). He had studied in London on government scholarship for two years from 1900. This month the Soseki Museum in London privately run by Ikuo Tsunematsu, a scholar, will close this month on September 28th.

1000_yen_Natsume_SosekiIn 1999 I came on a Japanese government scholarship to Japan to study Japanese Literature. There is nothing better than being given the opportunity to learn. I had always wondered why the Japanese government spent so much money on foreign exchange students like me but gave next to nothing to its own citizens. They should be giving out scholarships like they did during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) to people like Soseki. They should be making the next Soseki, Kafu and Ogai instead of doling out to others who may not stay in Japan, but they don’t. Japan really has a lot to lose by not nurturing its own talents.

Frequency is everything

Within the mind we tend to think of things as universal or generic without relating it to the wider world. We say things like, “the sun rises from the east”, without seeing it in context that which it occurs. We probably even have a perfect literally unclouded image of a singular sunrise that represents all sunrises in our heads.

But the sunrises from the east with a frequency and regularity that is often not taken in account when it should be. It rises once a day. Or to be more precise the earth, covered in an protective “lubricating” atmosphere, turns once a day to give the illusion of the sun rising. We are so easily duped and we’re duped on a daily basis by all kinds of illusions.

The reliability of this event like all other events is what gives us our understanding and our rhythm. We often choose to have a rhythm in order to have a regularity to help us through the day. So in this sense frequency is something important. It may be everything.

As I get older things are no longer a singular mental object but repeated objects with a certain frequency. Understanding that frequency is what gives sense to the world. Otherwise there are only perfect mental objects, which is not true at all.

Yes, frequency is everything.

Assistant Language Teachers in Japan getting the raw end of the deal

Being an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japan used to be a prestigious job. It was government funded with high infrastructure and support. But since the mid-2000s the government had started to source for teachers from the private sector.

During its heyday an ALT would earn a minimum 300,000 yen (USD2,639 as of writing) as the basic minimum wage. Somewhere along the way the government had discovered that it was cheaper to outsource and that people were willing to work even at this low salary.

But what happened then is that the quality of the teachers employed dropped dramatically, leaving schools to pick from a smaller and below average pool. ALTs were from the beginning not good anyway, as they were never qualified to be teachers in the first place. A bachelor’s degree is all you need. In this sense, then, the salary reflects this. I do not think some ALTs are worth the original pay minimum because they were not qualified to even be assistants. Their area of study was not that of English. What qualified them was that they were native speakers and nothing else. Most had zero training and even if they have an interest in the English language their competence is not that high.

Below is a video which explains just how much an ALT can have on a months salary at the current pay level. I feel for them on this one.