Journeying in English: Recent encounters

Episode 1 

I was booking a table for lunch and the guy at the other end of the telephone line asked me to spell my last name. So I said “es-zed-ee”. He couldn’t get it. I repeated and he still couldn’t get it. Then I said “ESee-yiZED-Yee”, and he got it at once.

Episode 2

I was having breakfast at a McDonald’s, and the lady at the next table was shouting at her five-year-old son: “It your foot; it your foot.”

Episode 3

– Since two years ago, every reminder that has landed in my email inbox has been titled “Gentle reminder.”

– Four weeks ago, I saw this sign in a parking lot that reminded people to be careful with their personal belongings. The sign began with “Warm reminder.”

– Three weeks ago, I had a short trip to Macau. There was this notice at the immigration counter urging people to be careful about H5N1. The notice was titled “Warming reminder.”

– Last Sunday, I went to the exhibition for the “River Scene at Qingming”. There were huge posters everywhere with the heading “Friendly reminder.”

– When will I be able to find a reminder that just says ‘reminder’?

Episode 4

There is a book for TESOL teachers titled “Teacher language awareness” written by Stephen Andrews of HKU. I think this is a very clever book title, because the title itself is promoting language awareness, by inviting people to figure out whether it means “Awareness of the language that teachers use in teaching”, or “Language awareness for teachers.” So I related my amusement to Icy, who emailed Stephen Andrews immediately about my response. (Then Andrews explained to Icy why he didn’t go for ‘language awareness for teachers’, even though this was the actual meaning.)

Episode 5

A former student sent me a message on Facebook asking whether it is appropriate to begin an answer to a Why question, in a reading comprehension exercise, with ‘It is because …’. Of course, we know that this is still standard practice in some schools in Hong Kong, as there is this deep-rooted belief that simply saying ‘Because ….’ is ungrammatical since it is not a complete sentence.

Then we had a detailed discussion on Facebook about ‘It is because …’, ‘Because …’, ‘This is because …’, and ‘The man killed the cat because …’ My position is that we should focus on the meaning when marking the answer to a comprehension question. We should not penalise students for writing an ‘incomplete’ sentence.

Moreover, beginning an answer to a Why question with ‘Because’ is a very natural thing to do (in a reading comprehension question), and in fact, even the word ‘because’ can often be omitted. Also, beginning an answer with “It is because” is not grammatically wrong, but not quite natural when you are giving a simple, matter-of-fact, answer to a question. We use ‘It is because’ only when we wish to foreground or emphasise a reason, or contrast one reason with another. A simple corpus search (such as the British National Corpus) will indicate the appropriate usages for ‘It is because …’

Three weeks ago, I was doing the session on the teaching of reading with my PGDP class, and I briefly mentioned the issue above while talking about the limitations of traditional reading comprehension questions (as opposed to task-based reading). I didn’t know that many of them would talk to their colleagues at school about this issue after that session.

One week later when we met again in class, some of them reported their colleagues’ disagreement to me. One teacher reported that it is the practice (of deducting marks for not beginning with ‘It is because’) of the secondary section of the school, so the primary section has to follow suit. One teacher said her colleague wanted me to cite my grammar reference source. One teacher said that her colleague insisted that “It is because” was required in public exams. One teacher consulted her NET colleague, who couldn’t see what was the problem with ‘It is because.”

I was quite amused because I didn’t know that so many of the teachers would follow up by talking about this issue with their colleagues, and also because there were such strong feelings about my questioning of a common English structure found in the classrooms of Hong Kong.

So I did two things afterwards. I looked up “It is because” again in the British National Corpus. I looked up the Answer Key in English Language public exams (TSA, HKCE, HKAL, LPAT) in Hong Kong to find out the ‘official’ form of the answer to a Why question.

And I invite teachers to do the same. This is a useful activity in language awareness.

Meanwhile, let me clarify:

The structure ‘It is because …’ is not grammatically wrong, and it does exist (though often followed by ‘that’, i.e., ‘It is because ….that …’; or prefaced with ‘If …’, i.e., ‘If ……, it is because …’). But as an unmarked, factual, answer to a Why question in a reading comprehension exercise or test, ‘It is because’ is an unnecessary, and somewhat unnatural, opening. And I still stand by my view that when we grade the answer to a comprehension question, we should focus on the meaning. If we want to penalise students for writing an incomplete sentence, we should do it elsewhere, say, in marking compositions.

British National Corpus: http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/

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