Thursday, 9 April 2009

Objective, Subjective

"Tee-cha, can you explain?"

It's my break, but Alper is standing there, notebook in hand, looking troubled. Alper needs all the help he can get, but quite apart from that, Alper is one of the students I've identified as a trier. He may not be Einstein, but boy, does he do his best. He turns in his homework every time, faithfully writes in his journal, and frequently asks me reasonably pertinent questions. I will do just about anything for a student who tries -- they're thin on the ground around here. Giving up my break is the very least I can do.

"What do you want me to explain?"

"Why this did this one not?"

"I'm sorry, can you repeat that?"

"Why this did, this one not did?" He holds out the notebook. In it, he has written the following two sentences:

Who did Madonna marry? and Who married Madonna?

"Why this one did, this one not did?" he asks.

Okay, now I get it: he wants to know why you use the auxiliary verb 'did' in the first question, but not in the second question.

Fortunately, I'm right on top of this one: I asked a Turkish colleague about it just last month. This is one of those niggling idiosyncrasies that we native speakers of English manage to absorb with our graham crackers and milk, but non-native speakers have to learn explicitly. Fortunately for me, I teach with a lot of non-native speakers of English. I've never met a non-native speaker of English worth his or her salt who couldn't explain this better than I can.

"Okay," I say now, writing on the board Who did Madonna marry? " In this sentence, Madonna is the subject because she is the one who is marrying someone." I point out that the word who here should technically be whom because it is the object of the sentence, not the subject. And that when the answer is not the same as the subject, we have to use the auxiliary did. I then explain how the opposite is true in the sentence Who married Madonna? In this sentence, Who is the subject, and the answer will be the same as the subject, so we don't use the auxiliary.

We go through a few more examples of this until Alper obviously understands. He leaves the classroom with a satisfied look on his face and I feel like doing a little jig on my desk; it's not often that I get my point across. Now Alper knows the difference between the objective and the subjective and one little bit of chaos has been turned to order.

But I've missed my break and I'm more than ready for a trip to the ladies' room after the class. Unfortunately, when I get back to the teachers' lounge, I am irritated to see that the key is missing -- again. I scrawl the following sentence on the board: Will whoever took the ladies' room key please return it?

A few hours later, as I'm getting ready to leave for the day, I see that some idiot has changed my perfectly correct whoever to the incorrect whomever. Shocking but true: one of my colleagues does not know the difference between the objective and the subjective.

On the board, I circle the offending whomever and write the following: Will whoever made this correction please consider a review of the subjective and objective cases?

I know I could have just walked away from this, but I'm all about order over chaos.

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33 comments:

Jacqui said...

I love your comment!

Christy said...

Oh, I do love a good note war!

Nora MacFarlane said...

Hi Mary - I nominated you for an award on my blog!

Carole said...

Very, very funny.

Robin said...

Oh, boy. I hope you weren't hoping to be voted "Miss Popularity". The best you can hope for now is "Most Likely to Succeed".

Charlie said...

You have more problems with that bathroom key...

Hopefully, you won't run out of ESL stories soon--not only are they funny, but I'm learning too.

debra said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARY!!!!!
(will be back later to read :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

I have enough problems teaching English to native speakers.

Mary Witzl said...

Jacqui -- Glad you do! Whoever corrected 'whoever' didn't: s/he subsequently erased it...

Christy -- I don't particularly, but in the interests of good grammar, I'm absolutely game.

Nora -- Yay, thank you! I love awards.

Carole -- At the time I didn't see the funny side of this; I was too irritated. Then, I thought 'Hey, I've got a blog!'

Robin -- I never correct anyone else's English unless 1) I'm 100% positive that it matters, 2) I'm 100% positive that I'm right. If I'd been wrong, I would have accepted this wholly and made a mental note. But the fact that I was right filled me with righteous fury...

Charlie -- I'm learning too! Just teaching English grammar is eye opening. I'm so glad that all I've had to grapple with has been Japanese; I have enough troubles with that as it is.

Debra -- (Thank you!) You've been over to Eryl's blog, I see... I'm still trying to imagine swimming 400 laps...hope your daughter is on dry land now!

Charles -- Arguably I taught English to a native speaker too -- one who didn't know that 'who' is for subjects and 'whom' is for objects. Sheesh.

planetnomad said...

ROFL!
By the way, I tagged you for the "Around the Mom-Blogosphere in 80 Clicks" meme.

AuthorMomWithDogs said...

Discovered you through Planet Nomad.

Whom wouldn't benefit from a refresher course on subjective and objective cases?

Just kidding!!! I know -- who, who, who. :)

Teaching English as a first language is hard enough. Can't imagine the adventure you get to have trying to teach it as a second language.

Carrie said...

It seems like 99% of the people here in the U.S. don't use proper grammar! I'm glad you're illuminating the rest of the world, anyway.

Mary Witzl said...

PN -- Thank you so much for that -- how did you know I love being tagged? It makes me feel so special. And I love the idea of 'Around the World in 80 Clicks' with mothers in many different countries.

AMWD -- Thank you for visiting!

I sometimes wish I could get my EFL students together with native English-speaking students of the language. Maybe that would motivate my kids to see English as a communicative tool rather than a cruel punishment. God knows what it would do for the natives, though; best case scenario, they might learn a little Turkish.

Carrie -- I'm not doing much to illuminate -- there's too much darkness out there. Some days I feel like I'm standing at the edge of the sea, trying to empty it with a slotted spoon. But one of my colleagues may now have a dim notion of the difference between 'whom' and 'who'. And every little bit helps, right?

Bish Denham said...

ROFL! I love your stories!

Carolie said...

HA! Hurray for Mary! So often we think these things, but don't say (or write) them. You made me shout aloud with laughter!

Carolie said...

p.s. -- Happy Birthday a little late!

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- It's kind of you to say that. And it's really the only thing keeping me writing: the idea that people actually want to read what I have to say...

Carolie -- Yay, you're back! I've been worried about you.

As for people thinking these things, but not saying them, if I had any sense I'd probably have stilled my hand. One of my colleagues is no doubt smarting, just waiting for me to screw up publicly. I'll have to watch my grammar like a hawk from now on...

Ello said...

Are you sure you didn't write "It's on!" and start a conjugation contest also?

Loved your comment!

Nan said...

Yikes, an English teacher! Nice ta meetcha!

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh! I SO agree: do, does, did to begin questions drives Spanish speakers NUTS! (They're okay with have/has/had to begin questions because Spanish has a little used but still parallel construction.)
You did well, but here's how I explain it.
I show them that we really just moved the subject to the second spot in the sentence, as with other questions:
"Has he left?" becomes "He has left." We moved the subject.
It works with TO DO also:
"Does he like chocolate?" becomes "Yes, he does like chocolate."
Then I tell them that with the answer, you get to shorten the sentence to make it easier: Yes, he likes chocolate.
Once they think the REAL sentence is "He does like...." and they GET to shorten it, they like the structure much better than if we have to ADD a helping verb to the question.
Mostly, I'm just using advertising to sell grammar here.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Even a convict teacher knows the difference. As for bathroom breaks, never heard of them. Teachers have a higher rate of kidney problems; I should know with 32 student contact hours per week.

Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- Hmm...a conjugation contest would be fun. I'll wait until the next time someone corrects something right. I think I'll start out with 'swell'. Everybody screws up on the past participle of 'swell'.

Nan -- Pleased ta meetcha too. I'm getting ready for that 'mothers around the blogosphere' thing right now!

APW -- Perhaps I'll try that the next time someone comes along with an auxiliary question. I was lucky with that one: I knew the answer. All too often, they bring questions that make my eyes gloss over; all too often I have to look up the structure -- or give them that awful old, "English is just like that" answer.

JR -- 32 student contact hours per week. THIRTY TWO? Who's the prisoner there, for pity's sake? When I worked in Northern Japan, we had 25 contact hours and everyone was up in arms over this and threatening to quit. Shall I send you the contact details for my Japanese school?

Bish Denham said...

Here's a toast to you Mary, I've nominated you for the Lemonade Stand Award!

A Paperback Writer said...

JR's thumbprints
Okay, I don't have 32 contact hours per week, but I don't get bathroom breaks either.
I'm in a relocatable, far away from the teachers' restrooms, and we're never supposed to leave the kids unattended so that fights don't break out and/or school property doesn't get damaged. (junior high/ prison -- the students have a lot in common) This means my only chance to dash to a toilet is at lunch.
this also means I almost never give hallpasses for kids to use the restroom.
"Miss, I have to use the bathroom."
"So do I. Guess we'll both have to wait until lunch."
"But I drank a pepsi before school started!"
"Well, you'll know not to do that again, won't you?"

In my class, only vomit, blood, or a contact lens in your hand gets you a hall pass.

laura said...

I hate to say it, but I think your Turkish students have a better grasp of the English language than I do. If and when you come back to these great United States I want you to be my tutor!! My grammar, punctuation, and the ability to leave participles dangling somewhere in outerspace are very embarrassing.

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- Thank you for this! I've been out picking lemons today, so this is a real coincidence -- I must have known!

APW -- 'Vomit, blood, or a contact lens in your hand' -- that's a great rule of thumb!

I'm nasty about breaks too, as students always seem to ask for them the minute I enter the classroom. Some girl will approach me making that 'You're-a-woman-so-you'll-understand' face and request a toilet break, and I'll tell her that if she's really that desperate, why did she wait until class was about to start? Or some boy will practically jump up and down and I'll tell him that at 18 he ought to be able to hold it. I always do ask if they're about to throw up, though. 95% of my kids know the verb 'vomit'.

Laura -- I would be VERY surprised if my Turkish students have better English grammar than yours. My Turkish colleagues may make the occasional mistake, but when it comes to explaining grammar efficiently, they have you beaten all hollow. They have me beaten all hollow too...

Carolie said...

Sorry to worry you, Mary! I've been reading, just crazy busy with the Sailor at home and big work projects. He's back out to sea though, so I hope to be in better touch (and to blog again!)

Kim Ayres said...

Sorry to have missed your birthday, Mary. Hope you had a great day :)

I'm so glad I don't have to teach grammar...

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- I'm looking forward to your next posts. Let me know when you've written one so I can visit and comment!

It must be fun referring to your husband as 'the sailor'. I know I'd love it.

Kim -- I wish I didn't have to myself! A lot of the kids we teach come to us having mastered the essentials of English grammar, but a surprising number obviously never figured out what it all meant. They also happen to be the ones that are hardest to teach.

Angela said...

BWAHAAAHAAA! Did you ever find out who wrote that comment? Oh to be a fly on the wall when they saw that message....

Mary Witzl said...

No, but I have my suspicions. (A certain individual with a bee in his/her bonnet and a knee-jerk tendency to fix what is not broken...) But you are so right: oh, to have been there to see the look on her/his face! Whoever (!) it was erased both comments immediately.

Katie Alender said...

I'm just LOL'ing at Christy's comment! I do know that Christy has never been one to back down from a battle of the words (or wits).

In my various day jobs, my very least favorite thing is when someone takes something I wrote, makes it worse or incorrect, and sends it back to me for notes as a "next step" in the document's life. Frequently, my reply is, "My notes are, I liked it the way I wrote it, which is why I wrote it that way!"

Mary Witzl said...

You are far too polite!

I'm always in awe of people who don't bristle when falsely accused. I readily admit it when I have made a mistake, but if I haven't, damned if I'm going to take it lying down.