Travelling the road to discovery

Published on 26th August, 2010 in Global Bloggers by Martin McMorrow

Auckland is blessed with a full, radiant moon. But does that mean there’s a full moon everywhere, floating simultaneously over desert sands and frozen tundra, not just our own boggy fields? Why don’t I know these things? I can only comfort myself with the quote from Einstein that opens our Global pre-intermediate Coursebook – The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Questioning, and, as a teacher, being questioned! Too often, I’ve been like the class bus driver, transporting students along my own pre-determined route – rather than a taxi service, listening and taking them where they want to go.

Questions take you off-road, on journeys of discovery. Last week a postgraduate student emailed me about tenses in his literature review. Instead of dispensing advice pills, as I usually do, I decided to let the question propel me into analysing authentic research articles. I found that about 40% of verb forms were indeed in the present simple, with only 3% in the past simple.

So far, so predictable. But digging into text unearthed unexpected treasures. For instance, how hard we work our basic grammar, even in highly sophisticated academic writing: nearly one in five of the verb forms in the research articles were simply is or are. And three quarters of the past simple uses were the single form found.

What stood out for me was how very common the –ing form is – as common in these research articles as past, present perfect and modal verbs put together! How many times have I read about the passive in academic writing: where are the champions of the humble –ing, which in my brief analysis was twice as common? Clearly –ing needs to fire its PR agent and get itself a respectable job title ASAP!

Global, at least, is on the case, with a whole page in Unit 5 (page 59). Incidentally, the three uses highlighted in Global were all in evidence in my analysis: 10% of –ings were subjects or objects of clauses, 7% followed verbs and 46% followed prepositions or adverbs. The other –ings (37%) were reduced relative clauses – let’s leave that for a future journey!

That innocuous question has held me (willingly) captive for long enough tonight. As I gaze out at the star-spangled sky, I can almost believe the Man in the Moon is smiling down on me – or is it a rabbit after all? Now, that’s a question for another night!