A Love of Grammar and the Grammar of Love: Teaching and Learning English in Ecuador

    Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, April 24, 1999

    “What’s the difference between ‘need to’ and ‘have to’?” asks Jen, poking her head out of her intermediate English textbook.

    “’Need to’ is stronger, like ‘I need to see a doctor’,” I reply, “while ‘have to’ is used more for obligation. You explained this to me yourself two months ago.”

    “Did I?”

    “Sorry to interrupt,” chimes in Mary, a middle-aged Brit teacher, “but does anyone have a rubber?”

    Jen and I, both Canadian teachers, burst out laughing at what we know to be another case of mistranslation from British to North American English. Mary looks back and forth at us in bemused but genuine puzzlement.

    “Do you mean an eraser Mary?”

    High school English classes be damned, grammar can be fun. At least this was the conclusion I came to after six months of teaching English – while trying to stay one step ahead of my students and learn its finer points – in Quito, Ecuador. Why, you might ask, is ‘bad’ worse than ‘too bad’? Why do noses run and feet smell? By what logic are ‘wise man’ and ‘wise guy’ opposites, or ‘quite a lot’ and ‘quite a few’ synonyms? Have you ever run into someone who’s gruntled, ruly, or peccable? And if a vegetarian eats vegetables, just what does a humanitarian eat, anyway? This confusion was aggravated by the fact that even between people who, in theory, speak the same language, the mix of British and North American teachers at my school couldn’t even agree whether to meet ‘at’ or ‘on’ the weekend.

    Teaching English abroad has to be one of the few professions you are allowed to learn on the fly, due to the near desperation of schools worldwide for teaching staff to meet the demand for the latest international language. At my school, each teacher became a disciple of a particular grammar book, cherishing our chosen tome with the fervor of the devout. With our favourite volume clutched tightly to our side, we felt we could smite the foulest of grammar riddles.

    Like sailing, grammar has its own vocabulary. “Check the gudgeons and pintles, secure the antecedents, tighten the cunningham and hoist the non-restrictive relative clauses!” Yet the worst riddle a teacher can face is not one peppered with this esoteric grammatical terminology, but simply, why? “Just because” will only quell rebellion for so long before you have to shift tactics. “Why do you think?” is a good way to stall for time while your mind races to find the creative grammatical leap that the situation demands. If you’re lucky, a student will suggest a way to reel in the rogue grammar point before desperation forces you to find a hidden order amidst the linguistic chaos:

    “Well, if the word starts with the first 12 letters of the alphabet, or refers in some way to the colour blue, or rhymes with ‘suite’, then it is followed by a predicate nominative. Of course, there are a few exceptions, as always, but let’s not worry about that right now.” It’s amazing the clarity of mind a bit of pressure can impart.

    While teaching, I hit upon an idea for a book. I would call it The Grammar of Love. The present continuous tense is the most romantic of tenses, I think. Doesn’t the phrase ‘I am loving you’ revive the tired old simple present ‘I love you’ with the new life a moment unfolding as you speak? And what a difference the humble preposition ‘in’ makes when dropped in front of ‘love’? To ‘fall in love’ may be good grammar, but how much more poetic and descriptive to ‘fall into love’. Poetry and idealism can be found even in the names of the tenses themselves: a perfect past, a perfect present and a continuous present – selective amnesia, wild optimism and Taoism all find expression in grammar.

    But grammar gives with one hand while it takes with the other. As my knowledge of English grammar blossomed, my grasp of Spanish grammar remained mired in the tangled undergrowth of verb conjugations. With a bit of practice, however, I found that I could cloak the language in the skimpiest of simple present tense garments, button it up with a few choice words like ‘since’ and ‘ago’, and get away with it. I could dodge the tricky present perfect answer demanded by the question, “How long have you been here?” with a simple and to the point, “Since September.” I became a master of brevity: When asked at an informal get-together to translate what the director of the school had just said in English to the Spanish-speaking staff, I pointed and complied with an efficient, “Comida alli (Food there).”

    If my Spanish was occasionally a source of amusement for Ecuadorians, then their English provided me with equal entertainment. The burgeoning tourist trade is currently far outpacing advancements in the knowledge of English, resulting in a plague of bad English on signs and in publications everywhere. As profitable as a service that offered to correct these slip-ups could be, owners of certain signs, such as, “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid,” or, “The manager has personally passed all the water here,” should be kept blissfully unaware of their gaffes.

    Before I started teaching I had always thought of grammar – if I thought of it at all – as a set of rules imposed on once liberated speech by dusty, obsessive-compulsive men in tweed suits. However, I soon realized that English grammar is as anarchic as the words it delineates. I remember the moment that my perception of grammar underwent this fundamental shift. I was looking up a problem in my faithful grammar book and found as an answer, “This is an area of grammar not yet fully understood – more study is required.” The thought that there were uncertainties in grammar, frontiers in knowledge to be pushed further back, staggered me. Grammar is not consciously invented, it is discovered! My heart sang at the thought of untamed conditionals still roaming free, resisting the grammar cowboy’s lasso and branding iron. Images of tweed were replaced by men clad in denim, watching over their herds of clauses.

    So if you think you know all about semi-colons, you can find me out on the range. We’ll settle our differences like true grammarians: by drawing grammar reference books at high noon – on the weekend, okay?