Asked by a fellow teacher, hasn't got a clue.
February 7, 2011 11:24 PM   Subscribe

In need of help with grammar, again.

Thanks for your help on my earlier question. I'm still here, in Japan, and my language skills aren't close to what they once were. Another Japanese English teacher at my school has come to me with a question, and I've tried to answer to the best of my ability, but, well, I'm stumped. I'd love to believe that my answer is right, but since I'm asking the question, let's just say my confidence isn't what it once was.

In the text book, the students were given the sentences

As I bought the book, I have no money left.


Having bought the book, I have no money left.

Now, here's where the problem comes in. In the work book, they have to fill in the blanks to make these two sentences have the same meaning:

Born in America, she can't speak English.

________ _________ _______ born in America, she can't speak English.

The answer in the text is 'Though she was born in America, she can't speak English.'

Here's where it gets tricky. One of our best students looked at that, and wanted to know, if the second sentence has the passive voice (was born), why the first sentence doesn't say:

Having been born in America, she can't speak English.

So far, I've got two trains of thought on this. 1) The construction "Having been A, B" is roughly equal to an 'so' conjunction, in that B must follow from the conditions set in A. Therefore, the sentence wouldn't make sense, since it sets up a condition, then ends with a result that has a result entirely at odds with the condition. 'Though she was born' is okay because it sets up the contradiction with though.

The other part of the answer is that the first sentence, like in many conjunctions, has dropped redundant words (like in I like ice cream. I like cheese. --> I like ice cream and cheese.), but done it in a way opposite to the norm. The redundant words have been taken from the first half of the conjunction, rather than the second half, in other words. If all the words were added back, it would read much like the sentence where the students fill in the blanks (Though she was born, etc.).

Finally, it seems to me that the 'Born in America' construction is, well, old. I know people will surely show me many examples where this is not true, but at the end of a long day (spent teaching students exactly opposite of this one shining bright light), it feels to me like this construction is an old and outmoded one. As far as I can tell, the only place I've seen it in work created in my life time has been in overly flowery poetry or bad singer/songwriter wankery. Bu$hleaguer by Pearl Jam comes to mind with the line

Born on 3rd base, thinks he got a triple.

and while I like Pearl Jam, lord, that song was awful.

So, yeah, help me, please. And, if possible, teach me the right way? I admit that, as an English teacher, I should have a better grasp of this stuff than I do. Unfortunately, the last four years of my career have been spent teaching students who, after their six years of disastrous English classes, come into my class unable to conjugate the be verb, and most often, have little interest in figuring it out. I haven't taught things at this level in years, and usually, the students who get taught this stuff aren't even paying attention. I'd like to help my colleague, and I'd like to help this student, so I'd appreciate any help you can give me.
posted by Ghidorah to Education (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You, your colleague, the student, and the example in the text book are all correct. The assignment in the work book is flawed and confusing.
posted by trip and a half at 11:48 PM on February 7, 2011

I'd say the text made a mistake. Not as uncommon as you'd think.

Sentence A ("Though she was born in America, she doesn't speak English") does not say the same thing as Sentence B ("Born in America, she can't speak English"). Whereas the "though" in the first clause of Sentence A definitely predicts a contrast to the second clause, there is nothing doing that in Sentence B. Without anything to indicate that "Born in America..." is unexpectedly contrary to the following clause we sense the dissonance between the two clauses. Without that "contrast" marker, we expect them to have a cause and effect relationship, which they clearly don't. It would have been better, if still awkward, if Sentence B said "Born in America, but she doesn't speak English."

Without comparing it to Sentence A, Sentence B comes off as some kind of shorthand description of the person that doesn't stress either the relationship or the contrast between the parts (e.g., "She was working part time at the five and dime, her boss was Mr. McGee.") Those attributes are not related, they just serve to describe the person further. Hence, no harmony or dissonance is sensed.
posted by holterbarbour at 11:53 PM on February 7, 2011

I think you are right on both aspects of your answer.

'Having been A, B ' would only be used when A implies B or when B follows on naturally from A. 'Though A, B' would be used when given A you would not expect B.

Does it help to reverse A and B? The meaning is the same:
She can't speak English, though she was born in America

I'd say that the 'Born in America' construction is terse rather than old or outmoded. I guess you might see it in headlines when space is short, or in lyrics where words fit to music.
"[Having been] born down in a dead man's town/ [it was only natural that] the first kick I took was when I hit the ground" would have been a struggle, even for Bruce Springsteen.
posted by paulash at 12:08 AM on February 8, 2011

I agree with holterbarbour. I think most native English speakers don't usually put the participial phrase before the subject unless they are indicating a cause-effect relationship (or in the exceptional circumstances paulash describes where space is at a premium or the writer is trying to make it scan).
Driven to distraction by the constant ringing, Alan turned off his cell phone.
Why did Alan turn off his phone? Because he was driven to distraction by it.
Knit from pure wool, the sweater was extremely warm.
Why is the sweater warm? Because it was knit from pure wool.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:18 AM on February 8, 2011

For what it's worth, I find the example sentences you give to be stilted and not great English. I'm wondering at the overall quality of the text. I would never say or write something like, "As I bought the book, I have no money left." I had to read it a few times to get the gist of the sentence, and kept expecting the second clause to say something like, "I saw that my bus pass was missing from my wallet" or "I heard my cell phone go off in my bag" (i.e. "As I bought..." meaning "While I was purchasing..."). "As" isn't always perfectly interchangeable with "Because", and I think it's a dangerous precedent to set for non-native speakers.

What especially bugs me is the idea that there is One Correct Answer for exercises like this - every language course I've ever taken has generally accepted that there are a lot of ways to say the same thing. Also that this isn't a law class or a precision class, but a class to teach you to speak a language. Your student's answer is correct English and perfectly good if the goal is to use prepositions correctly in conditional clauses (or whatever). It's not perfect if the goal is diction or precision, but then neither are any of the example sentences.
posted by Sara C. at 12:35 AM on February 8, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so far for the great answers. Will hold off on marking bests in order to attract some more comments (my last grammar question got more interesting as time went on).

Sara C., the text book is lousy. It's part of an incredibly flawed system where students are expected to learn English from the 1950s (when most of the English 'experts' in the Education Ministry studied it), in order to pass university entrance exams that bear little to no resemblance to English in use almost anywhere in the world. All this while being taught from textbooks written almost entirely in Japanese aside from example sentences and problem sets. Most of students at this level couldn't respond to "How was your weekend?" if giving half the answer and a list of things they did last weekend (I know this to be a fact, since that was the conversation test I gave them). This one student is so far beyond her peers I'd like to tell her to transfer to a better school, but that kind of thing is sort of frowned upon.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:48 AM on February 8, 2011

Is it a British-inspired textbook 'from the '50s'? As you say, the passive-voice construction implies a since-therefore causality. You could nastily say "as [since] she was born in America, she doesn't speak English." So if that's not what it wants students to say, yes, the example is flawed.
posted by Namlit at 1:13 AM on February 8, 2011

There are several three-word combinations that fit. Even 'Despite having been' works well enough, unless you over-analyse it.

I suspect the writer of the book may just have provided their answers as a guide, for use when a real teacher isn't available to judge whether particular responses are acceptable.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:21 AM on February 8, 2011

Response by poster: Sadly, that's not the case. These textbooks don't make it out the door without a concrete "Only these answers are right" teacher's book. To compound it, most schools don't let their native English teachers anywhere near the grammar course, so I've got my Japanese colleagues tearing their hair out trying to figure out the answers. In this case, what we have is a high motivated student, advanced far beyond her peers, asking her teachers questions that they aren't equipped to answer.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:25 AM on February 8, 2011

Having looked at several of your posts, I can offer the general observation that if you see something in your text book or work book that seems like it might be wrong, and you have devoted a reasonable amount of time trying to determine how it might be correct but can't figure it out, it is likely that the book is wrong and you are right. You are clearly very proficient in English.
posted by Mr. Justice at 5:23 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree with everyone above who said the "born in America" sentence is a bit of a non sequitur.

I would make sense if was punctuated differently. Imagine someone saying "Born in America. She can't speak English" in kind of a shocked or disgusted tone of voice, or even "Born in America - she can't speak English?" with the question mark indicating more surprise than a question. Inserting "and" would fix it too.

It's basically two sentences with the first one functioning as a kind of interjection. That's not the correct grammatical term, I know. Linguists call these topic something-somethings, I think. It has basically the same form as "Ice cream! I love ice cream!" or "Five hours of trying! It's still not fixed!" But somebody re-punctuated it as one sentence to smoosh into the exercise format.

The one-sentence version with "Though she wasn't born ..." is unemphatic and doesn't express surprise.

So, yeah, bad exercise example.
posted by nangar at 5:52 AM on February 8, 2011

I just wanted to say I feel your pain. I teach ESL in Korea and some of the grammar questions the Korean teachers ask me and the books they show me make my head spin.
posted by kathrynm at 5:55 AM on February 8, 2011

The key diagnostic here that lets you know you do actually have two separate sentences, not one sentence with an introductory clause or participle, is that you can insert "and" between the parts.

You can say "Born in America, and she can't speak English!" and "Five hours of trying, and it's still not fixed!" but not *"Having bought the book, and I have no money left" or *"As I bought the book, and I have no money left."

(This doesn't work with my "ice cream" example, though.)
posted by nangar at 6:16 AM on February 8, 2011

In addition to what you and everyone else has said, one problem is that it's fairly conventional in writing (not in speech) to use the "Born in America, ..." formula with an utter non sequitur: "Here's a fact about this person's birth or childhood, and now here's something about the present that has nothing to do with it." It's a journalist's device for cramming lots of information into a small space.

I remember reading a usage book (can't remember which one) with a sentence that would prevent me from ever being able to take this kind of sentence seriously again. It was along the lines of: "Born in Dayton, Ohio, I'm getting tired of these non sequiturs."
posted by John Cohen at 6:31 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Linguist here. I think there are two problems here and teasing them apart might provide some clarity. The first is a pragmatic one (and I'm using the linguistic term pragmatic, not the more common layman's usage). You and other comments here have hinted at this problem by pointing out the issue of contrast. Words like "though" and "but" serve the purpose of setting up a contrast. Consider the following two sentences:

The apple was green and tasty.
The apple was green but tasty.

These two sentences have the same truth conditions, that is, they are always both true or both false, yet we feel that they are different somehow. The difference is that the term 'but' introduces the idea that something is counter to expectation. A speaker who utters the second can be assumed to believe that green apples are not usually tasty.

Given no additional contextual information, it seems weird to expect that someone born in America would not typically speak English, or at least it is not the conventional assumption. Thus the second clause does seem to be counter to expectations, and yet there is no pragmatic element indicating this (such as 'but' or 'nevertheless' or 'though'). In the absence of such a counter-to-expectation indicator, the conjunction seems odd.

The second issue is the question about the construction itself. It might sound old-fashioned to you because it's very rarely used in spoken English, but it can be found all over the place in any written language corpus. It's particularly common in describing people, so I just went to the NYTimes, found an obituary, and immediately located a paragraph where this construction appears twice (emphasis mine):
Expelled from a private school, the young Mr. Getty was living a bohemian life, frequenting nightclubs, taking part in left-wing demonstrations and reportedly earning a living making jewelry, selling paintings and acting as an extra in movies. He disappeared on July 10, 1973, and two days later his mother, Gail Harris, received a ransom request. No longer married, she said she had little money.
Roughly speaking, it's an adjectival phrase that describes the subject of the following clause. Note that simple adjectives work in this location as well. A quick googlebook search turns up, for example: "Penniless and heartbroken, he returned to California..."

Linguists call these topic something-somethings, I think.

Are you referring to topicalization? This is not exactly that; topicalization (again roughly speaking) is the movement of a constituent from its normal location in a phrase to the front, as in "Fifty dollars was all that he brought to New York" or "Bagels I love, but bialy I could live without".

I would never say or write something like, "As I bought the book, I have no money left."

Just to provide a contrasting data point, a search of my outgoing email yields lots of examples of this construction. I'm sure I write it more than I say it, but it is by no means outmoded or unusual (I'm a native speaker of a Mid-Atlantic dialect of American English).

I'm not a syntactician, but I'm sure I could point you to some scholarly articles on the topic if you're interested in some theory beyond the answers in this thread.
posted by tractorfeed at 6:44 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The "born in America" or "expelled from school" constructions are very close to being idioms. The though being expressed is "Having been born in America.." or "Although he was expelled..." Depends on the sequence of events and the tense.

In: "As I bought the book, I have no money left," you are saying "I have no money left because I bought the book."

In: "Born in America, she can't speak English," and "Though she was born in America, she can't speak English," you are saying "She can't speak English in spite of having been born in America."

In the former, the thought being expressed is "I have no money," and the reason is given for merely for context. It is an answer to a question like "Why aren't you buying any coffee today?"

In the latter, the thought being expressed is "She can't speak English even though she was born in America." It is an answer to a question like "I thought her parents were from Idaho?"

However, they are all very awkward prose. I'm not sure why it is being taught. If someone ever used this construction more than once or twice in a conversation (or report, essay, letter), they would sound strange to the listener. It is usually a context changer. An obituary might say:

Paragraph 1: "So and so, who was an expert at something, died today. Etc."
Paragraph 2: [description of events surrounding death]
Paragraph 3: "Born in Communist Russia, ..." and then their biography.
posted by gjc at 7:03 AM on February 8, 2011

tractorfeed makes a good point about the tone being expressed. It has to do with what the speaker thinks the listener believes.

Using the apple example, if the speaker knows that the listener knows they are talking about an apple that is supposed to be red, they would use "but". Because they are describing something that wouldn't normally be true.

But if they all knew they were talking about a golden delicious apple, they would use "and". Because everyone knows that apple is supposed to be green.

It is sort of the "tense" of truthiness.
posted by gjc at 7:11 AM on February 8, 2011

Such a bad example for a textbook! At any rate, if the first sentence were surrounded by context, it could make sense:

Young Maria lives in a large immigrant community in SomeCity surrounded entirely by native Spanish language speakers, as well as signs, billboards, newspapers, and even TV shows that are almost all in Spanish. Born in America, she can't speak English. Blah, blah, blah.

In this case, it becomes obvious that

________ _________ _______ born in America, she can't speak English.

is best filled in by "Though she was born in America, she can't speak English," as opposed to "Having been born in America, she can't speak English."

Tell your student that the textbook made it unfairly difficult to understand the correct answer.

(I taught ESL in Greece for a while, and had to apologize for textbook formulations and mistakes as well. It seems slightly better if the text is simply obscure or poorly presented instead of flat out wrong, since nobody wants to work on exercises that may actually have no correct answer because the book is flawed. I've stared at my teacher's guide, blinked, and just carried on by totally ignoring the supposedly correct answers in many cases.)
posted by taz at 7:23 AM on February 8, 2011

Just to provide a contrasting data point, a search of my outgoing email yields lots of examples of this construction. I'm sure I write it more than I say it, but it is by no means outmoded or unusual (I'm a native speaker of a Mid-Atlantic dialect of American English).

With the clauses in that order, "as" forward? I parse "I had no money left as I had bought a book." My brain has to work really hard to understand "As I bought the book, I had no money left." Maybe it's just that particular sentence, just an exceptionally weird non sequitur and not the syntax of it at all. In context it could probably be OK, if stilted. It would sound a lot better if the verb were "had bought", though. I'm a native speaker of English, from the US south and NYC, if it matters.
posted by Sara C. at 7:30 AM on February 8, 2011

I'd write in "Because she was..."

The person who wrote the workbook made a mistake.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:10 AM on February 8, 2011

The "born in America" or "expelled from school" constructions are very close to being idioms.

This is not true, at least for the linguistic definition of 'idiom'. An idiom is a phrase whose intended meaning is not derivable from the syntax and semantics of the phrase itself, and must be learned as a piece (e.g. you're pulling my leg). The phrases you mention are participles, and function as adjectives. Their meaning can easily be derived from the words and their order. Perhaps you're alluding to the fact that it seems some part of the whole phrase "she was born in America" is elided to form the participle?

Sara C., I think you're reacting to the fact that the construction in question with a simple past inflection (i.e. "I bought" as opposed to, as you point out, "I have bought" or "I had bought") is homophonous with the phrase that means "during the act of purchasing". The ambiguity seems extra-weird in the past tense, but somehow better in present. Compare, e.g.:

As I'm washing dishes, I listen to music.
As I'm washing dishes, I can't come to the door.

Looking back at my personal examples, I see that they mostly conform to dis-ambiguating tenses.

To bring this back to the original question, the term 'as' can be used to mean "during" or "because" (as well as the "as ... as" comparative construction) and this is part of the confusion.
posted by tractorfeed at 9:32 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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