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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

June 15, 2009

The Daily Yomiuri column (and two more grammar puzzles)

1. Two more student-generated grammar puzzles

A few more classroom questions about English that have popped-up recently. (Note to readers- it’s not that I don’t have answers to these questions or am befuddled as to how to deal with them. The idea here is to throw out some oddities and ask how you would address or explain them):

A. I’m 18 years old.
vs. I’m an 18 year old boy.

The plural for years disappears in the 2nd case. Why? After all, the ‘18’ is still explicit.

B. I come from Oita. Oita is one of the prefectures in Kyushu
vs I come from Oita. Oita is a prefecture in Kyushu.

Why does the former seem awkward? (In Japan the former seems to be taught as a legitimate way of expressing the latter)

2. That Daily Yomiuri newspaper column I write

As some readers know, I write a monthly column in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper called ‘Indirectly Speaking’. The focus is on EFL learning and teaching in Japan. Since I get asked the same questions about that gig a lot I thought I’d answer some here in indulgent self-interview form.

Q- How did you get that gig with the Yomiuri?
A. Six years ago they were actively seeking articles on EFL/ESL for their Language Connection section. I wrote one about the importance of the awareness of pragmatic force in EFL classrooms. They seemed to like it and asked me if I wanted to continue to so on a monthly basis. They may still be looking for contributors- I haven’t checked recently.

Q- Why the title ‘Indirectly Speaking’?
A- Only because that first article was about pragmatic force and thereby, implicatures, which of course is an indirect way of communicating. I’ve wanted to change the title but the editor seems to like it as it is.

Q- Do you get a huge stack o’ money for these articles?
A- No. I get a very basic gratuity.

Q- So why do it? Do you get a publication credit?
A- It’s neither refereed nor academic so I don’t get a publication credit. It goes onto my resume and database as a kind of professional social service, flying the flag of the university I suppose. Basically, it’s a nice public format for self-expression.

Q- Do the editors impose a lot of rules and restrictions?
A- Not really. They want me to do op-ed/commentary articles so that’s what I do. As long as its connected to English teaching in Japan I have free reign. I’m pretty sure they don’t want the articles to be too vanilla so I try to say something a little offbeat each time but without being deliberately provocative or knee-jerk contrarian. I have to keep in mind that not all readers are teaching professionals and that over half are not English native speakers too. There is also a word limit of 1000-1200 words which is the hardest part for a bombastic, grandiloquent, blowhard like myself. The copy editors usually write the titles, although I might suggest something else if I’m not happy with what they’ve come up with.

Q- Do you get a lot of comments from readers about the articles? And what are these comments like?
A- I always get at least a few follow-up comments for the less controversial columns and quite a number for the more controversial items- about two-thirds of these are from native English speakers. If they write to my personal mail address (attached to the columns) they are usually positive. Japanese teachers are apt to ask more for clarification but can also be very critical. I give them credit for writing directly to me and questioning my positions though.

Online, if you do the right word searches you’ll find some unflattering comments about the columns. Some are just downright weird- people with bizarre chips on their shoulders, those with a knee-jerk reflex to ‘take my uni big shot punk ass downtown’. Others clearly haven’t understood the article (and have obviously not even made the effort to try) but that doesn’t stop them from spouting off all sorts of nonsense. A few offer thoughtful and constructive criticism but the typical internet forums are obviously not great founts of such insight (‘You are a looser and a moran’). This is the price you pay when you have even the slightest public profile so I shrug it off and have stopped looking. The only comments I find frustrating are those that engage in unfounded speculation about my work or background (‘I heard that Guest didn’t graduate from high school and actually works part-time at a Mr. Donut and got this column through his family’s LDP connections’ ). That type of thing. Go figure.

Q- Is it hard?
A. Coming up with topics and ideas is not. The biggest problem is the last-minute editing. If you write much you probably know the feeling when you’ve stared at something so long you no longer see it objectively- when your eyes pass over an obvious problem. Or, you make one small change that demands a restructuring or rephrasing elsewhere. Then you have to change something else to avoid repetition but that throws the main idea out of order. So you start tinkering with it too much and, like messing with the intestines of the computer, there’s a good chance you’ll actually be making the whole thing worse.

With a blog like this I can re-edit without any concern but with a newspaper column, once it’s published any blotches remain blots forever. When I read the article on the day of publication I occasionally notice some sloppy stylistic problem or an out-an-out error which is now staring at me boldly in the face. It can feel a bit like looking in the mirror after you’ve been chatting up an attractive lady and seeing a big green chunk of spinach jutting out from between your teeth.

Q- Has anything strange happened regarding these columns?
A. One got reprinted in the China Daily so it was all over English-speaking China. Wouldn’t you know it- that column was about the difficulties that Japanese have with acquiring English. I had no idea that the Yomiuri let the China Daily copy it (I certainly wasn’t informed).
The Star (a Malaysian newspaper) ran the same piece which lead to a Japanese person living in Malaysia to write a baffling response (I'll post the link to this when I find it) accusing me of linguistic imperialism and generally a being bigoted know-nothing.

Some universities have also used my columns as texts on their entrance exams but they don’t tell me until the exams have finished (due to exam security). They have a deal with the Yomiuri such that columns like mine can be used without explicit written consent.

Anything else you might want to know?

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A. I’m 18 years old.
B. I’m an 18-year-old boy.

Usage of "year" in A above is nominal. Plural countable nouns in English usually require a plural morpheme. ("Old" is an adjective, not a noun. This is one of the few English cases where the adjective succeeds the noun.)

Usage of "year" in B above is adjectival. Unlike many European languages, English adjectives do not take a plural morpheme.

C. I come from Oita. Oita is one of the prefectures in Kyushu.

Usage in C is stressed information in reply to a question. If someone asks where or what Oita is, a reply might be "one of the prefectures in Kyushu."

D. I come from Oita. Oita is a prefecture in Kyushu.

This is the normal unstressed usage.

a lot of very interesting information about your column. i am also a regular reader. your column is insightful and informative; i cannot imagine anything that you have written being controversial. keep up the good work.

re: the grammar questions. the first one i always explain that adjectives are almost always singular in english (there are rare exceptions). i have yet to come across the second one. i'll have to think about that.

Hi Harry and Greg.

Your responses seem right on to me. I usually mention the fact that "an 18 year old" modifies 'girl' or 'boy' and that English modifiers don't take plurals (with rare exceptions).

As for the "one of the" example, I think Harry is right in stating that it is marked. "One of the" implies a limited set or group, something already understood by context ("Ed was one of the victims"). Of course, it is also commonly used with superlatives ("One of the greatest..."), again implying a limited range.

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