The Weird Little Old Irish Lady (and other strangeness)

One of the bonuses of teaching English as a foreign language is the insights it gives you into the dark recesses of this very peculiar communication tool. Here’s a few that people may not know about, something to think about if you have to read, write or deal with this particular coagulate of grammar structures and unstable lunacies. Hope this can help you muddle through.

* Adjective lists. If you’re gonna describe stuff with a sausage-string of adjectives (i.e two fetching brown leather riding boots, a priceless 1st century Japanese lacquered box, a dirty old metal garden seat or the weird little old Irish lady of the title). All these must be placed in a certain order to be correct. No other order will work, so all English language learners have to learn this sequence:

Personal opinion (is always 1st on the list) followed by; size, age, shape, colour, origin and material.

Got it? You can try remembering it using a helpful acronym such as OSASCOM if you like. Note: ‘riding boots’ is a compound noun and is, therefore, never separated.

Of course in practice these things can change and mutate. Take the ‘Japanese lacquered box’. Now, it’s quite possible to change the order here to ‘lacquered Japanese box’, which still makes sense. Chinese boxes have that privilege too. But if you try French, Spanish, Italian or Russian, the rules change; no ‘lacquered French box’, I’m afraid. It just sounds strange. And the meanings change as your brain tries to make sense of the jumble. Is there a compound noun in there? If so, what can a French box be? A ‘Russian box’ can be suddenly transformed into a container-shaped version of Russian dolls, so unless that’s what you mean, stick to the correct order. Go back to ‘French lacquered box’ and ‘Russian lacquered box’, to make the previous mental images go away again.

A final example for the still unconvinced:

1) A weird little old Irish lady.

2) A weird old little Irish lady.

See the difference? In the 2nd sentence the word ‘old’ attaches to ‘weird’ (it’s all it can do, being put so cruelly out of sequence), to form the amalgamated ‘weird old’, thus making the 2nd sentence more insulting than the 1st. (plus you get no inkling of the lady’s age in the 2nd ).

Be aware also that a) ‘old Irish lady’ is different to b) ‘Irish old lady’, to the point where you might, in a colloquial sense, be married to b).

Anyway, enough adjectives already.

* Pronunciation, however, is the biggest problem for the English language learner. Particularly so for people whose native languages are phonetic (i.e. they are written down exactly as they sound). Here’s a little poem that highlights the problem. Read it out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

“I take it you already know

of tough and bought and cough and dough

others may stumble but not you

on thorough, plough, enough and through

Well done! So now you wish perhaps

to learn of less familiar traps

 Beware of heard, a dreadful word

 that looks like beard and sounds like bird

And dead is said like bed not bead

for goodness sake don’t call it deed.

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt)”

– I could go on, but you get the picture.

Anyway, before I start going off on a rant about the gerund or relative clauses, I’ll stop there. Just think I’ll leave you with the kind of advice that native speakers often give but usually break with impunity themselves (because on top of everything else, you see, languages are also unfair).

* Remember to never split an infinitive

* Don’t use no contractions or double negatives

* Watch out for incorrect verb forms that have snuck into the language.

* And never start a sentence with a conjunction.

Oh, and a happy Easter to you all.

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About floppybootstomp

Lecturer, teacher, writer and traveller all perfectly good nouns aren't they? Do they have anything to do with me? Ask the taxman.

Posted on April 22, 2011, in Writing Stuff and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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