Saturday, September 20, 2014

Is this a pen?

"We studied English in high school, but when I hear them talk in films or on the subway, it's like they're speaking Martian. They never want to know, 'Is this a pen?'"

David Mitchell, Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut

It's the start of a new school year so a few weeks into the book, seven-year-old learners of English will soon be inquiring "Is this a pen?" But as the quotation above indicates, this is a question it's quite unlikely they'll be faced with in real life - most speakers of English recognize a pen when they see one and have no need to ask. 

In fact, a quick search of the British National Corpus, returning 50 random results for the phrase "Is this" doesn't contain a single example of "Is this a [singular noun]?"

The most common types of question in the 50 examples are:
  • five examples such as "How is this done?", with this used for anaphoric, not exophoric reference
  • two examples of "Is this the ..." as in "Is this the start of a new series then?
The great majority of the examples showing how "Is this..." is actually used in authentic discourse are affirmative statements where "is" and "this..." happen to co-occur in cleft sentences such as:

  • It is this state that fascinates particle physicists.
It's a relatively simple matter to avoid teaching the obviously useless vocabulary contained in coursebooks for beginner students, but we should take an equally critical eye to the grammar in our lessons.

No comments:

Post a Comment