December 15, 2002 - From: Dr Winford James

A misunderstanding of English grammar II

Continued from:
A misunderstanding of English grammar

So, quite clearly, subject-verb agreement in English involves not only the notion of NUMBER (i.e., singular and plural) but, crucially, also the notion of PERSON (i.e., 1st, 2nd, and 3rd). Indeed, except in the case of the verb 'to be', the grammar of subject-verb agreement in written English can be stated as follows: Add an 's' (or 'es' or 'ies', as the case may be) to the verb if the subject is THIRD PERSON SINGULAR; leave the verb as bare as it is if the subject is anything else.

Putting this grammar into practice with the verb 'light' will yield the following results:
Third Personal SingularAll Other Kinds   
The president
  lightS deya
  The acting president and her husband (3rd person plural) light a deya
  I (1st person singular) light a deya
  You (2nd person singular) light a deya
  We (1st person plural) light a deya
  You (2nd person plural) light a deya
  They (3rd person plural) light a deya
The table clearly shows that the verb 'light' has an added 's' ONLY WHEN THE SUBJECT IS THIRD PERSON SINGULAR. In the case of all other person-number combinations, it lacks the 's'. But English textbooks, English teachers, and English connoisseurs like Undine Giuseppi teach that subject-verb agreement is a matter of singular verb agreeing with singular subject (through 's' on the verb), and of plural verb agreeing with plural subject (through lack of the 's').

We can readily agree that the transmission of wrong information or content, whether wittingly or unwittingly, is an index of poor teaching. But is such information responsible for the subject-verb disagreement errors that abound in the local press? And if it is, how is it then that Ms. Giuseppi, one of the transmitters, gets her verbs right?

It must be true that ignorance begets errors. So that if Trinbagonians do not know the English rule on subject-verb agreement, they will produce green verbs. But I don't think that their errors are due only to ignorance of English grammar; they seem to also stem from non-English habits that underlie their attempts at English, from an insufficient social exposure to English, and from a regularizing tendency of the language acquisition device in the brain.

Creole is the routine language of Trinbagonians. It is the language heard in most public contexts, for example, bus stations, street corners, taxis, roadsides, shops, markets, liming spots, cricket and football matches, schoolyards. It is the language of informal get-togethers. It is the language acquired through socialization in particular contexts and networks. By contrast, English is the language of formal contexts, invoked typically to produce formal discourse like feature speeches, dinner toasts, radio and TV news, and newspaper reports and columns. It is the language learnt typically in the classroom, in the upper social classes, from foreign TV and radio programmes, in travel abroad, from books in English.

We create our own version of English in Trinidad and Tobago by superimposing on Creole grammar an English tutored in the classroom and acquired from insufficient socialization in natural contexts of acquisition (that is, contexts such as those in which we acquire Creole). The inevitable result is that our English is imperfectly acquired, and that our Creole grammar mixes routinely with this kind of English. Indeed, Creole grammar frequently assumes superficial English form where it appears and is perceived as English by the unsuspecting.

This, despite formal tutoring in the classroom. The classroom is not the only place where English is acquired, and it is not the best either. The social network where acquisition is untutored and variegated is the best place.

Because of limited social opportunity to fully acquire English, we invent our own rules in acquiring it even though we have been taught by rules such Ms. Giuseppi's on subject-verb agreement and, in the process, the brain forces us to regularize language conditions. One such regular rule is that 's' must be added to verbs that come after third person plural subjects, while it must not to verbs that come after third person singular subjects.

So when you hear and see 'The acting president and her husband lightS a deya', it is a case of the 's' associating with a third plural subject. And when you hear and see 'The acting President light a deya', it is a case of absence of 's' associating with a third person singular subject. I hear and read examples of this grammar every single day of my life in Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, it is the grammar that Ms. Giuseppi has been complaining about.

It is a grammar created between a Creole grammar that lacks subject-verb agreement (e.g., I (does) light, You (does) light, Dey (does) light) and an English grammar that has agreement ONLY IN RESPECT OF THE THIRD PERSON SINGULAR SUBJECT. It is therefore an interlanguage grammar that will either give way to English grammar consequent upon sufficient social exposure to, and negotiation of, English, or fossilize as a variety of English in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider world if insufficient exposure continues.

When, therefore, local writers produce their interlanguage agreement rule even though they have been taught Ms. Giuseppi's wrong rule, we must look to an insufficient social context and the regularizing tendency of the language acquisition device in the brain for the answer. And when Ms. Giuseppi produces the English agreement rule even though she herself teaches the wrong rule, we must look to a sufficient social context.

One kind of context disables perfect acquisition of the rule; the other enables it.

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