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  #1 (permalink)  
Unread Dec 27th, 2005, 11:23 pm
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Default How do you answer tough grammar questions?

There is a man at the door.
A man is at the door.

I was asked what's the difference and when do you use which?

I have 2 methods of problem solving the first is run as many examples as possible in my head and ty to figure out a pattern. The second would be to go to a book but in the case of this example finding this answer may prove to be difficult.

I generally prefer the first method of running over examples.

(Since I was forced to answer and my first answer "Stop splitting hairs." was deamed unacceptable, I answered that the first sentence sounds like general information and that the person we're talking to should probably go answer the door. The sencond sentence sounds more like you're asking for an explanation or I'm assuming you know why there is a man at the door.)

So, how do you usually answer tough grammar questions?
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  #2 (permalink)  
Unread Dec 28th, 2005, 02:29 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

This year i encountered more tough grammar questions than all my previous years...

i usually use your first method, run through a bunch of examples until a distinction or rhyme or reason shows itself. If that doesn't work or the students demand more, i tell them to see me after class or i take a look at a grammar book or ask another teacher during a break.

i think that specific example you gave definitely justifies the "Stop splitting hairs" response you gave them. essentially, there is no difference, but the tiny differences that you found were quite good.
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  #3 (permalink)  
Unread Dec 30th, 2005, 07:52 pm
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

I think the answer I gave him really depends on how the two sentences are said. I did tell him that for most purposes they can be concidered interchangeable.

He then followed up with this question:
Why can't we say, "There is my camera on the table." or "There is the camera on the table."

I will let you all try your hand at that explanation, but the rules are no going to the grammar books. If you know the answer that's fine but this is an off the cuff question and you can cheat. How would you answer?

I'll later tell you what I told him.
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Unread Dec 30th, 2005, 09:01 pm
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

Hi Mesmark,

I like your question.

I keep my copy of Oxford Pocket Basic English Usage by Michael Swan very handy when I'm teaching classes that enjoy persecuting me with difficult grammar and language questions. To my most persistent class and to the language-curious, I (politely) suggest the students buy a copy for themselves. Most questions students ask can be found even in the pocket version. During my sales pitch would be the only time my students see the book in class, though, because I don't recommend rustling through the pages during class time. (No joke, a doctor once did that while I was in his office and it didn't inspire my confidence, to say the least.)

I try to anticipate which questions will come up in class and prepare for those, but there seems to always be one student who asks random things that are completely off topic. Then I do much like you do and try to think of more examples and give an instinctive answer. I check the Usage book during break time and tell them what I've found afterwards.

To your question above:
"There is a man at the door. vs. A man is at the door."
I would say there isn't much difference in meaning, but the first sentence is more common.

According to Michael Swan (I like to refer to him like he's my closest friend, and in grammar classes he is ), we use the expression "There is/are..." when we tell that something exists
compare: There's a hole in my sock. (OK) A hole is in my sock. (not OK).

I'm not sure how to explain why "A man is at the door" does sound OK.


The structure is used with "indefinite subjects" -nouns preceded by a/an, some, any, no, or no article, or with somebody, anything, nothing and can be used with any simple tense of the verb be, or present and past progressive forms of other verbs.

So maybe "A man is at the door" is less indefinite, perharps it's implied someone must know who the man is.

As for the question "Yeah, but where did this "There is.. " structure come from, why do you say it that way? Why, teacher?Why, why?" I consistently fall into the "How can anyone know?" argument, which annoys some students. Sometimes I throw back a why question from their own language, like "Why do Koreans use Korean and Chinese numbers when telling the time?"

In the end, I consider getting myself a Ph.D in linguistics but then shortly afterwards I get distracted colouring flashcards for a kindergarten lesson and put off that plan.

So what do you think, are language teachers supposed to answer the Why? questions as well as explaining the hows?
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Unread Jan 23rd, 2006, 12:20 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

I let too much time slip by and I can't remember exactly what I said in regards to

Why can't we say, "There is my camera on the table." or "There is the camera on the table."

I think I said that "There is ..." is used when making general discriptions of a scene or setting. (a camera meaning one of many possible cameras.) When you use defining words such as the or my, we're no longer talking in a general sense and can't use that form.
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Unread Jul 9th, 2006, 02:07 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

I can not think of any situation where one would say 'A man is at the door' It just doesn't sound natural. As far as 'There is the camera on the table', I can think of one unlikely scenario where this would be OK. Suppose someone was searching for several things in the house but could not find the camera he was looking for. A friend could well say: 'There's the camera - on the table' but it would have to have the pause in it that I've indicated.
I love these questions - keep 'em coming!
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Unread Jul 9th, 2006, 02:14 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

I can't think of any situation where one would say 'A man is at the door' - it just doesn't sound natural. As for as 'There is the camera on the table' is concerned, it would only work if there were a pause in the sentence, ie: 'There's the camera (we were looking for) - on the table'.
I love these questions. Keep 'em coming!
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Unread Jul 9th, 2006, 02:15 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

Oh dear - I tried to edit my message and ended up with 2 almost identical ones. Sorry about that!
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Unread Jul 9th, 2006, 07:56 pm
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

Sometimes you have to go with what sounds natural rather than what is more grammatically correct. Like in your example, both sentences are correct.

I've had some tough 'grammar loving' students in my time who'd try to catch me out. Thanks to them, I now have a really great grasp of grammar from looking stuff up all the time.
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Unread Oct 5th, 2006, 11:14 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

I think what helps is always to ask the other person what exactly they want to achieve. If their answer is "I want to learn English." then I ask them "Do you know how to learn English?" They usually don't. Then I ask them who they think might know how to learn English and they usually answer that I might be one of those people. Then is the time for me to tell them that they don't need to learn grammar rules and that it's much better to worry about the "why" question. If, however, they tell me that their purpose is to become a professor of linguistics then I tell them that they are in the wrong place.
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Unread Oct 6th, 2006, 03:26 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

Tricky question!

I do the same ie run through examples in my head and try to find why something sounds wrong. Otherwise I run for the grammar book. I'm quite comfortable with doing this in class. Once I've set them off on some activity I get the book and try to find the explanation. I've always said to my students that nobody knows all the answers all the time (except Mr Swan maybe )so they don't start to lose faith in my ability as a teacher when I go for help.

A reply I often use for the student who won't let it go is that sometimes it's more important to use the language that is in common use, which may not be 100% correct, rather than be spot on but it sounds strange to the vast majority of people you speak to. Some might say that I'm being irresponsible but I'd argue that I'm teaching them 'real' English.
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Unread Oct 6th, 2006, 06:58 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

I set it as homework!
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Unread Oct 7th, 2006, 01:02 am
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Default Re: How do you answer tough grammar questions?

If the student is really stuck then I will answer it (depending on how difficult it is). Usually I don't answer questions about grammar as they know a lot more about that than me and I am a "conversational English teacher" so I tell them that and I am honest with them in saying that "I am not a grammar teacher."

If there are two different sentences and they want to know which one is right then I tell them which one is familar to me. I say something like "In English we say this..." or "You can say both of these but the second one is more popular than the first one."

I know that it's not right and that I should work on my grammar skills more but I think that fluency is more important sometimes than accuracy. I don't want them to get stuck on grammar too much
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