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TESOL Connections (May 2011)

by User Not Found | 11/08/2011


  • Grammatically Speaking, by Leo Schmitt

  • Lesson Plan: The Joys of Dictation, by Sarah Sahr

  • Understanding ESL Writers, by Valerie Sartor

    Association News

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  • Features

    Grammatically Speaking

    T. Leo Schmitt explores English grammar

    and answers your grammar quandaries.

    download the PDF

    Hi Leo,

    I hope you are well. What is this construct called? "There is/There are"

    Why do we do there is versus there are? As in, there is an answer, but there are colors. I always thought it had to do with the predicate being singular or plural, but I was told that is not why we do that.



    Hi Kate,

    Thank you for the question. On the one hand it should be straightforward, yet as with much of language, there are interesting angles.

    There is is used to indicate existence or location. The there has been described as a “preparatory subject” coming before the subject itself, but see below for more discussion on that. Interestingly, a comparable construction exists in many languages and uses perhaps surprising grammatical structures in many of them. Thus we see French il y a (it there has), Spanish hay ((it) has), Germanes gibt (it gives), يف Arabic fi (in – no verb required) and Chinese 有 you (has).

    In modern English, we generally follow the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) pattern of creating declarative sentences. Thus we have “I saw the man behind the curtain,” where I is the subject of the verb saw, and the man is the object of the verb. This is the standard declarative pattern although questions and negatives often change the order.

    However, we see exceptions to this SVO rule, such as with “Then came the day when those talking pictures came to town” or “With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch.” These are often holdovers from a time when English was much more flexible in its word order. There is can be seen as a similar holdover, yet its productivity has meant that it has thrived when other forms have declined or vanished. Traditionally, the main noun would come after the verb as in the examples above. Thus, we have “there lived a hobbit.” Many traditional grammarians approach this in this manner and ascribe the noun following a there is/there are construction to be the true subject of the verb. This continues to be a very fruitful way to look at the construction and continues to apply in many instances— especially formal ones— but as we all know, language is in a constant state of flux.

    As I mentioned, other violations of the SVO pattern are becoming rarer. I would argue that because there is a growing pressure to frame language in this SVO pattern, people are beginning to use there is as something closer to a standard subject verb construction where there constitutes the true subject. The most compelling case for this is the move towards using there is with plural complements such as “There is two kinds of music: the good and the bad” or “There is lots of cats in Greece.” While grammatical traditionalists frown on this, it is clearly widespread.

    A second argument is that there is can stand alone as a complete thought (within context of course).“There is no question two. Yes, there is.” While fragments are common in spoken language, this one exists in written language as well. This also gives credence to there being viewed increasingly as the subject of the verb is.

    A further argument is the question of agreement with multiple single objects. We know that in traditional grammar (and generally in practice) the subject X and Y is generally followed by a plural verb as in “A lion and a tiger are genetically close enough to reproduce.” However, it is not nearly as widely accepted that a there are construction is required with two singular nouns following, so saying “there are a fork and a knife on the table” or “there are a man and woman in the middle of the street” would sound strange while “there is a fork and a knife on the table” or “there is a man and woman in the middle of the street” would not. This whole trend may well be driven by phonology. It seems clear that the there is construction constructed “ungrammatically” with plural predicates is still more common in spoken language. Phonetically, English finds it much easier to have a sibilant (/s/ or /z/) sound after a liquid (/l/ or /r/) sound than the same liquid. Thus there’s rolls off the tongue much more easily than there’re. This may lead to a “frozen collocation” where speakers begin to conceptualize there is as a set phrase that is invariable.

    All of these indicate that the there is construction is undergoing considerable change. For helping students preparing for formal situations, the traditional rule still holds considerable appeal and whether the noun following is is defined as the predicate, subject, or something else, that is where the student should look for grammatical agreement. However, it is worthwhile for teachers to understand that the there is construction seems to be in a process of change and it would not surprise me to see there are begin to die out as a separate form.

    Last Month’s Brain Teaser:

    Look at the following two sentences. What traditional grammatical rule is being violated here?

    1. Mrs. Clemens asked Miss Clara to be sure and save the gentians.”
    2. “Before specifying an ultra-high density code, be sure and match the scanner to the bar code.”

    The first answer I received was from Les Vivian.

    Improper use of "and." The sentences should read:

    1. “Mrs. Clemens asked Miss Clara to be sure to save the gentians.”
    2. “Before specifying an ultra-high density code, be sure to match the scanner to the bar code.”

    Well done, Les. Of course, in spoken English the use of “to be sure and” is heard often enough. However, traditional approaches recommend us to say “be sure to.” We generally expect an adjective in this case to be followed by an infinitive, as in “happy to come,” “born to run,” or “ready to go.” In many speech communities, the supplanting of the to with and in an infinitive occurs in other contexts, perhaps most notably with “try and,” as in “try and stop me.” Interestingly, “be sure and” is more restricted than “try and.” For example, “be sure and” generally appears only in that specific form. Thus we would not generally hear “I am sure and answer this question.” However, “try and” can appear not just in the infinitive “Karen Rodriguez Sings Mariah Carey to Try and Stay Alive on 'American Idol,” but after modals “Haye should try and fight Wladimir before Vitali,” and even as a finite present form: “Tight knit culture but they try and put you on their path and not your own.” It does, however, seem that using “try and” to replace “try to” has not moved over to the simple past. Thus, I have not seen “I tried and find my lost keys” although given the growth of the phrase “try and,” this may be a direction in which our language will move.

    Language teachers must navigate what students will hear and give them appropriate feedback. According to the Micase corpus, “try to” still outnumbers “try and” by about four to one in academic settings, so it should be enough to teach “try to” and just make students aware of the ”try and” variant.

    This Month’s Brain Teaser:

    Look at the following sentences. What traditional rule has been violated here? How would you explain this to students?

    Clearly this must of been today because Justin has his new haircut.

    These movie stars could of went further during their career but their time has passed

    The first correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking. Note that example sentences listed are from actual usage and not the author’s creations.

    Please e-mail your responses to

    When writing to Grammatically Speaking, please include your name and location (city and state, province, or country), and your title and affiliation if you wish it to be printed. If your question or response is selected for publication, your information will be printed unless you specify otherwise.


    Lesson Plan:

    The Joys of Dictation!

    by Sarah Sahr

    download the PDF

    Call me old fashioned, but I love using a good dictation lesson with my adult learners. (I think the students love it, too.) I would argue that dictation is one of the greatest activities to encompass all four language skills: Students listen to the words. Students speak for clarification. Students write the words. Students read to self-check. Dictation can be used as a quick check on student progress. The instructor can “gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each student,” (Alkire, 2002) and plan subsequent lessons accordingly.

    Some benefits of dictation

    • Dictation has real world applications: phone messages, bus schedules, etc.
    • Dictation utilizes higher levels of thinking.
    • Dictation can be viewed as developing note taking skills for university classes.
    • Dictation exercises student’s short-term memory.
    • Dictation can be used at any language level.
    • Small classes or large classes, dictation can be an incredibly engaging activity.
    • Students can self correct. (adapted from Alkire, 2002)

    Dictation as filler

    A filler is a short activity that has educational value but is quick to set up and execute.

    Every teacher should have several fillers in their bag of tricks. Dictations are excellent fillers. Have students keep a small notebook for these types of activities. Here are some real life examples you can use:

    Filler Activities

    1. Appointments

    Read the times and dates. If you repeat them (as you should) you can vary the format (for example “two fifteen p.m.” and “quarter past two in the afternoon” or “Monday, May 7” and “Monday, 7 May”)

    • 2:15 pm, Thursday, 25 June
    • 4:40 pm, 12th January
    • 12 noon, Wednesday 27 April
    • Saturday, the 19th of August, 2:05 am
    • 5:50 pm, 01/05/08

    2. Flight Schedules

    I find it’s best to read flight times in the 24-hour format (for example “oh-seven-forty,” “thirteen-thirty…”) because most tickets are actually printed that way.

    • departs Paris terminal 2A 12:25, 3 May, flight AF 157
    • Arrive Quito, 07:40 4 May
    • Wait in Transit Lounge C
    • Depart Jakarta, 11:45, 4 May, flight TH263
    • Arrive Sydney 13:30 4 May

    3. Money

    Change the currencies as you wish. You could also introduce the international currency abbreviations (GBP, CHF, USD, JPY, EUR, etc) if appropriate.

    • 97 ¢ (cents)
    • ¥5,630,000 (yen)
    • 367Fr (Swiss Francs)
    • £200.50 (pounds)
    • €250.00 (euro)

    There's More!
    Download the rest of the activities.

    Sarah welcomes feedback and suggestions. E-mail her at


    Understanding ESL Writers:

    My Journey as an ESL Writing Teacher

    By Valerie Sartor

    download the PDF

    The Writing Endeavor

    Having taught academic ESL writing since 2005, I have formulated a number of concepts about its teaching and learning. For example, I believe ESL teachers can answer questions only if they know the writing process themselves. Additionally, modeling the writing process (our own processes) helps students understand what they are doing. By watching teachers go through the writing process, students perceive that writing isn’t always easy for fluent speakers. They learn that everyone struggles; it’s part of the process. In fact, all writers begin by making choices and then rehearsing in their minds. Asking: What do I want to say? In what tense? With what point of view? prepares students for the actual composition process.

    I define composing as everything students do as writers, from their first words on paper until all drafts are completed. Composing is an ongoing process with a specific, cyclical pattern: select; compose; read—repeat.

    Issues for ESL Writers


    ESL student writers must accept their own voices. L2 students often take on American names, want to do everything the academically correct way, and see themselves as being molded into a factory model of the perfect, assimilated ESL writer. Their writing voice is often “educated out,” despite the fact that ESL students start with a unique voice in their first language.


    The basic quandary ESL writing teachers have is encouraging and supporting individual voices while, at the same time, scaffolding ESL students’ grammar, punctuation, and style so that the students write clear English prose. Each student has different challenges, despite being grouped into generic fluency level groups. In truth, a student’s growth comes through problem solving, and the solutions are often emotional. Moreover, reaching the “aha” moment—that moment when the many scattered parts of a concept fall mentally into place—takes time and effort.

    All writers, native and nonnative speakers alike, are atypical. Everyone needs to learn to be conscious of what he or she does with written words. For example, as a fluent speaker, I use sentence structures unconsciously; it is thrilling when I see my learners experimenting with English structures unconsciously as well—but it is important at these moments to point out what they are doing so that they become aware.

    Student Growth

    For ESL writers, a pattern often emerges in their levels of confidence and fluency. For some students, legible handwriting or learning to use English keyboards can be major issues that need to be initially overcome. The next challenge comes with choosing topics and learning to gather information. Some students have been pre-educated in their own countries, or educated by other ESL instructors, to accept the teacher’s topics. Some students have less technological savvy regarding information searching. In my experience, the majority of ESL students have issues regarding revision: primarily the adding and removing of information. Inexperienced writers often don’t understand that revision is a process. It is imperative for them to learn that words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire drafts, can be discarded, revised, and edited more than once.

    The Teaching Endeavor

    Past learning can cause an ESL writer to fall out of balance. Some students, for example, may obsess about getting the grammar right because a previous teacher instilled in them the notion that grammar must be perfect; these students may lack the sense that coherency (or ideas, or structure, or diction) is just as vital as proper grammar. ESL students in the United States are being bombarded with great amounts of sensory and cultural information; they can only take in so much. It doesn’t make sense to flood our ESL students with too much error correction; it is best to focus with each student on a personalized agenda that will help them to develop into better writers. It is useful to, in effect, design a road map for each L2 writer. By following the map and conducting activities in class, writing comments, and holding conferences, teachers can give each student a guide to overcoming the challenges they face as aspiring English writers.

    Considering Student Context

    Teachers must understand that teaching ESL writing demands new ways of looking at changes happening in the minds and hearts of our writers. Students grow through time as they make the transition from their home countries to other countries; they constantly assimilate new ideas, whether they are living in English-speaking countries or interacting with English speakers who are their teachers, colleagues, or friends. At the same time, these ESL writers are experiencing the writing process, making aesthetic choices regarding work and making informed decisions regarding structure and lexicon.

    For all writers, some days are better than others. For our ESL writers, we must accept that differences are affected by countless variables, and that we, as ESL teachers, might have a significant effect on those variables. Sometimes ESL writers are hesitant to try new things. Maybe their cultures are highly structured, or comments another teacher wrote were not supportive enough or were misunderstood. Writing, especially ESL writing, is an emotional process. Our students are vulnerable: they are looking for guidance and support. If the support lines are crossed, both the teacher and student feel frustrated.

    ESL writers are going to go through a wide variety of changes as they write. Accept this, and know that you will witness these changes and that they may affect you in turn—hopefully by making you a better teacher. Some of the changes teachers can positively influence; some of them teachers have no control over whatsoever. A few examples of factors that are out of teachers’ hands but that impact the writing moods and abilities of ESL students are economic and home situations, and personal choices regarding health and work. Though teachers cannot necessarily affect these factors, it is useful to keep them in mind when one or more of them influence a student’s learning.

    Supporting Student Growth

    Read the rest of this article...