Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Boy, do I have a proposition for you!

I learned a new piece of English grammar last week. This might astound you as I've taught English for more than a third of my life, and am revered as "a grammar guru" and nicknamed "Professor" in two different centres. But yes, I learned something new, something lurking right under my nose, and yet something that apparently most Chinese students learn at University. It hadn't come up as a question, not in normal materials and textbooks. So it remained unlearned and unexamined until now. It's called a noun complement.

It all came about when my other half presented me with a student sentence and asked me to explain why it was wrong. Here, you have a go: "There is a phenomenon that children are doing too many exams and not learning enough real knowledge." It clearly is wrong to the ear by a small margin but why exactly is it wrong? Both of us could quickly fix the problem using "where" instead of "that", and in fact that's exactly what she'd said to the student, but the student, as some student tend to do, said that he wanted to use a noun complement. What is this thing that the student was bent on using (wrongly)? Well here are some examples of noun complements: "It's a fact that he is corrupt.(1)" "There is a possibility that New Zealand will also win the cricket series against India.(2)" All of these are logical sentences and they look very similar to the wrong sentence. The noun complement (in italics), however, is not all it seems. The key idea is that a noun complement is a proposition and the noun in front of it (e.g. fact, possibility) shows the author/speaker's attitude towards proposition. Got it? So in sentence 1 and 2 the author is commenting on an idea by stating it's a fact or a possibility. And going back to the student's sentence, stating that something is a phenomenon is not an attitude, it's an observation or a description. It doesn't fit the mould, no matter how much our student would like to use some fancy pants grammar. "The student won't follow that explanation." Well, that's there own fault: if you can't understand my explanation don't use grammar that you're using just for ego. Don't play with fireworks; you might get burnt!

But the idea of a proposition is a fascinating one. Suddenly I wondered whether I should read a book about logic to find what it means in philosophy (it is a philosophical term), but my eyes dried at the thought. Yet here embedded in language is a device which sucks the substance out of a statement to reduce to a proposition and hoists it by a ropey noun of the author's choice. I like it. And I like that I know it.

Neither an attitude or a proposition, I became an uncle for the second time with the birth of my brother-in-law's first child. I actually became an uncle when I got married (I gained a 12 year old niece-in-law) and now I have a nephew, my wife's younger brother's son. Her younger brother is the only son of the family so the only bearer of the family surname that continues patrilineally back to the ancestor who came to Qingyuan so many generations ago. Now with that procreation all done and diapered, my mother-in-law is looking at us to further the family... Suddenly I start to look at it as some kind of proposition.

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