Last night I came across Dean Spanley, a film I’d not heard of before. I was sold on the description of a quirky, adult fairy-tale with a masterful performance from Peter O’Toole. What I found, though, was a profoundly affecting take on basic human emotions. It may not be a film for everyone – at turns slow and lacking drama – but it’s everything I needed it to be, personally, as it created a very specific impact relating to grief. And it’s a keen example of how powerful art can be. Continue reading
I’d urge anyone who’s looking for an example of how to build a world without describing it to read this classic novel and take notes. I only recently read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a dystopian tale about a group of children in a world where deviations are being bred out of society. It’s not a long novel, at 200 pages, and that’s very much to its credit. Given the vastly different society the characters inhabit, and a world with a widely unexplained history, one of its many merits is a very limited use of exposition. Continue reading
Every day, people are inspired to do heroic things. They save children from fires. They stand up to bullies. They perform selfless acts. Some are inspired by a sense of personal purpose. As members of a wider society, though, huge numbers are inspired by the actions of others. You do great things because it’s what those you look up to would do. It’s when people forget this that we find a dangerous disconnect in the idea of funding arts, sports, or anything else that doesn’t necessarily have a direct financial outcome. Continue reading
I woke up in the middle of the night and saw this massive spider on the wall, about six inches across the legs and a sort of pale grey in colour. I reached for my glasses, but then it was gone. My first instinct was that as I hadn’t kept in sight it had escaped into the shadows, jumped to the floor, gone where that I couldn’t find it. Now I was doomed to lie awake with the knowledge that a monstrously big spider was somewhere in the room. My second instinct, a moment later, was that this was another hypnagogic hallucination, that spiders that big did not exit (at least not around here), and it was just a trick of the mind. With that in mind, I proceeded to get up and search the room, just to be sure. Continue reading
Are you struggling to create focused characters in your writing? There’s a gem of advice in Syd Field’s classic screenwriting guide, Screenplay, that I feel is really worth dwelling on. It’s introduced mid-paragraph, almost an aside, but I think it’s something that can really help a lot of writers quickly and solidly create a character background. In its simplest form, the point is to ask what and not why when you’re exploring your character.
As a writer, I put a lot of effort into trying to understand people and relationships. Relationships are the root of all meaningful conflict, so the source of all good stories. And as such, it’s the interaction between people that interests me most about the upcoming UK referendum. Principally that I find it incredible that it’s essentially an argument about whether or not people want to work together.
The Leave Campaign plays on the idea of “the European” as a selfish “other” who wants to improve their world at the expense of ours. This creates an attitude that we have an enemy and we’d be better off alone. Personally, I believe the people of Europe, like everyone else, have a less vindictive goal – to improve their world with one another’s support. Conflict comes from the person that would try to convince you we can’t work together – success comes from the belief that we can. Continue reading
I read a post on Facebook earlier, protesting the fact that children in the UK are being made to learn rules for fronted adverbials as part of the curriculum. Not a concept, I’d wager, most English speaking adults are that familiar with. I expect most English speakers don’t really know what an adverbial is, in fact, because why would you? As native speakers we adopt most of the supposed rules of language by learning from example, not by dissecting them or learning rules as rote. In fact, learning rules by rote, especially when those rules may actually cover rather flexible or complicated points, can be harmful to language learning in the long run.
It’s a poignant topic for me as I’ve recently released a book about sentence structure, explaining the topic for foreign learners. For adult learners, this sort of full understanding of structure and patterns is an accessible way to learn, but even from this perspective the concept of adverbial position is a hazy area involving issues of style – not something that’s easy to simplify as a rule. If the aim is to get someone to speak on a functional level, a simplified rule is fine – but a simple rule is a dangerous thing if your aim is to become fluent (which, at a higher level, increasingly requires bending the rules). It’s a problem for the Advanced adult learners I teach who have, without fail, been taught certain dogmatic grammatical “rules” when starting out and have a lot of difficulty trying to adapt to occasions when these rules are inaccurate.
When is a grammar rule not a rule?
I’m not one to dismiss learning grammar – the rules are very important and an understanding of grammar can be incredibly useful. If you break fundamental rules, your language becomes unclear or incorrect. There are rules that are always true, for example using the correct verb form to show a tense. Get this wrong and you will present a different meaning, leading to misunderstandings:
- I went to the park yesterday.
- I go to the park yesterday.
Then there are “rules” that aren’t actually rules at all, but patterns. Issues of style, where some people will say it one way and some say it another. An example, and a fairly complex area of teaching English to foreign learners, is the subject of adverb position. With the following two sentences, depending on where you’re from in the world you’re likely to have a strong preference for one structure or the other:
- I mostly have learned from mistakes.
- I have mostly learned from my mistakes.
Though one might be clearly correct, or incorrect, to an Englishman, it won’t necessarily be true for an American. What you consider to be a grammatical rule is actually subject to variation – not just based on where you’re from but in many cases depending on how you want to frame what you’re trying to say. This is a matter of style or opinion, not a fundamental grammar rule that is right or wrong. No one can tell you that it should be one way or another. And while these can be very interesting and important to learn, no one should teach you that it must always be used in a certain way.
Seeing those sentences above, two people without being instilled with grammar “rules”, may argue “That just doesn’t sound right to me.” and might agree to disagree. Give someone a little (incomplete) knowledge like “adverbs come after auxiliary verbs”, though, and the argument becomes “You’re wrong and this is why so you must bow to my superior knowledge!” Perhaps leading to fisticuffs. Not saying people should stay ignorant to avoid conflict, but with teaching rules comes a lot of responsibility that might not be considered if you simply segue them into a curriculum…
The Difficulty with Adverbs
Adverbs and adverbials (covering adverb functions represented by other words and phrases) can modify a lot of different parts of a sentence. Simplified, adjectives describe nouns (that is, things, e.g. a fat cat), adverbs describe almost everything else (such as actions, describing words, other adverbs and so on). That means they have a massive range of uses and fit into sentences in a very varied way.
Roughly speaking, there are four types of adverbs that have slightly different rules for how they fit into a sentence, when they describe manner, frequency, place and time. They can fit into a clause in front, middle and end position (with the middle position creating further opportunity for flexibility). In my book Word Order in English Sentences, I’ve taken 6 pages to introduce how to apply these ideas in their most basic way. And even these “rules” must be qualified with the fact that in many situations there is no clear reason to use one position over another, “rules” dotted with words like can, normally, often and usually. When to use certain patterns can be roughly explained, for example that a time placed at the front of the sentence adds emphasis, but it won’t always be true. Without context, there is really no difference here:
- Every day, she goes to the gym
- She goes to the gym every day.
It’s a broad subject that can take a lot of theory to cover, and even then the theory doesn’t fully translate to practice because there are exceptions and specific rules for different adverbs and situations, and people adopt their own usages depending on regional styles and emphases.
Yet the real kicker to all this is that few native English speakers know the basics of these rules or patterns, for the very simple reason that this level of understanding is only useful if you need to explain it to someone. If you grow up speaking English, you don’t need to understand what an adverb is, or where it should go, to be able to say:
- Fortunately, I can speak English.
If you make mistakes, you notice and correct them by adapting to common usage, not by looking them up in a rulebook. Likewise for more complex adverb phrases and clauses. On the other hand, knowing what an adverb is and where it should be placed can have a negative effect and make your use of English less effective, as you’re led to believe that something is incorrect if it doesn’t fit the rules as you understand them. To use a rather simplistic example, someone who’s been drilled into using an adverb in a specific position might see the sentence:
- I can speak English, fortunately.
…and protest That’s incorrect! That adverb should be in the front position! Why? Because you’ve been told there’s a rule, when there isn’t. There’s a pattern, a style, a choice.
On a more basic level, it can lead to learned mistakes. When I teach foreign learners grammar, I’m careful to make note of the “rules” that can be bent. I’ve had TEFL teachers tell me this can be harmful, because it makes the language more difficult to learn in the early stages and people want rules they can stick to. The problem is, when you’re faced with someone at an Advanced stage of learning, trying to become a fluent speaker, and they keep repeating the same mistake because they’re using a rule that native speakers don’t use themselves, it becomes incredibly difficult to correct that.
Ours is not a language that sticks to the rules, so focusing on rules in a dogmatic way at an early level creates barriers later in life. It leads to people making mistakes as they try to fit a certain pattern. It creates adults who argue about grammar in a way that depends on what they were once taught, not based on what is practical, popular or accepted. It can create people who think they are right about something that does not have a right or wrong answer, and that’s a very dangerous thing.
If you’ve ever wanted to brush up on the basics of fitting a sentence together, my latest grammar guide, Word Order in English Sentences, will help. Updated from one of my earlier works, published on my English learning site, I’ve now made this expanded grammar guide available in electronic and print formats. Though designed as a guide for foreign students of English, it has a practical application for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how sentences fit together. Continue reading
The following is adapted from a guide on my English Lessons site, as it’s something I think is relevant to writers everywhere. Something I invariably find when editing writing, particularly non-fiction such as reports, essays and general academic texts, is the over-use of bridging words, adverbs typically used as conjunctions or to connect ideas across sentences and paragraphs. It’s a widespread problem – when I edit my own writing I find a large number of these words. Expressions like thus, hence, however, therefore, as such, moreover, indeed and many more are useful to connect different ideas in writing – but must be used sparingly, otherwise they sound run the risk of becoming repetitive and redundant. Continue reading
Correct English sentences are formed of some basic rules that start simple but allow a lot room for manoeuvre. Especially true of more complex, longer sentences, we have many options to rearrange what has been written, and to explore varieties in word order. This is useful if you want to restate something, to add some variety, or to add emphasis to particular points – all options when you want to present the same information, just a little…different. I decided to produce an article exploring basic word order in a more advanced way, originally aimed at foreign learners – but I think this has a place here, too, to show how a solid grasp of the fundamentals of English word order can offer a lot of room for creativity. So, here I’ve demonstrated how a single example sentence can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Over and over again… Continue reading