Awareage Languness

This is a post to recount my recent attempts or (more pretentiously) my ongoing journey to understand how linguistics can help language teaching. The post was initiated by a video teaser (on linguistics and teacher education) to a talk by Bridget R. Schvarcz in the upcoming TESOL France 2018 colloquium.

I will include various prompts which led me to my current language (or communicative) awareness location as a way to illustrate my route.

My first prompt would have to be my CELTA training of 4 weeks of which a few days I vaguely remember being devoted to orthodox segregational linguistics that language can be compartmentalised into things such as parts of speech, subject verb object sentences and various other related grammar. I did not re-evaluate this basis for some time after my initial TEFL training.

Fast forward a few years to a point after many classroom incidents that kept showing me the inadequacies of my knowledge about the English language and its usefulness in helping my students. I had a vague idea of communicative language teaching or CLT (ignoring for now its basis in the segregational linguistics of speech act theory) – but marrying CLT up with my grammar knowledge was tortuous to say the least (hands up who has not tried to and/or is mandated to shoehorn grammar points into a lesson?!).

Integrational linguistics can be summed in three words – language presupposes communication.  My route to it was from the notion of meaning invariance. As teachers of language one form one meaning is obviously appealing – e.g. adding an -s to cat means there is more than one cat.

My next prompt was being aware of Columbia School Linguistics and its focus on analysing invariant meanings. For example some/any. One of the scholars associated with Columbia School Linguistics is Ricardo Otheguy whose talk here led me to discover that there exists another line of thought (held by people such as Roy Harris, Sinfree Makoni, Alastair Pennycook) which questions the validity of invariance in language.

Integrational linguistics holds signs (meaning makers) are radically indeterminate – that is both form and meaning are not fixed codes which can be plucked and used – signs do not pre-exist acts of communication but are made in the act of communication. Hence they are not determined before the act of communication itself.

Now to a language teacher this seems most unhelpful. If form-meaning pairs do not pre-exist acts of communication then how do we teach them?

Fear not, we don’t need such codes to start thinking about planning lessons. We can focus on the acts of communication themselves. Here we see echoes of approaches such as task based language teaching, comprehensible input and total physical response.

This whiggish history of my language awareness, my awareage linguness, if you will, pardon my poor joke, hopes to have piqued you into maybe asking yourself some questions posed by Bridget R. Schvarcz in her teaser video:

What influenced who you are as a teacher today?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word linguistics?

Have you ever used any of the theoretical knowledge about language structure in your teaching?

Do you think you are a better teacher because you have studied linguistics?

If you are headed to TESOL France 2018 hope to bump into you, thanks for reading.


Signs o’ the times – some/any invariant meanings and COCA

I am glad to be writing this particular (rushed, see end) post as it involves corpus linguistics and I have not done such a post for a while. It is also about my current interest – Columbia School linguistics.

I have been over the years less enamored of the power of corpus linguistics for language teaching. It is certainly very useful to access descriptions of language but that is not enough. Explanations are also needed. Columbia School (CS) linguistics is about analyzing invariant meanings that motivate choices in both grammar and lexis. It is about one form to one meaning mappings – an ideal aim when looking to help students.

Nadav Sabar in 2016 analyses the use of some and any. The following borrows heavily from this paper.

Most pedagogical grammars state (formal) rules such as “any is used in negative sentences and not in affirmative statements”. Yet such rules cannot account for why some is used in contexts that are said to be used for any. Sabar gives the following attested example:

1) When Yvonne lived in Italy, where it seems like the whole country is married, people always wanted to know about her personal life. I remember her telling me that every time she’d come back from a great vacation, the first question from married friends was, “Did you meet anybody?” It was as if the whole point of going on vacation was to meet someone. That she had a great time and saw something new and interesting didn’t matter. The entire vacation was cancelled or a flop because she didn’t meet someone. (

Formal accounts could only say that any is also acceptable as in she didn’t meet anyone and is unconcerned with why the writer chose some in this case.

Formal accounts use the sentence as unit of analysis and see meaning as compositional – i.e. the meanings of individual words in a sentence add to the whole. CS uses signs (pairing of symbol to meaning) as the unit of analysis and sees meaning as instrumental rather than compositional. That is the individual meanings of signals need not add up to sentence meaning. There is a distinction between linguistic code that has an invariant meaning (that always corresponds to a linguistic signal) and interpretation of the code which is the subjective outcome of messages. Meanings are very sparse in that they do not encode messages but only offer prompts that may only suggest message elements.

The meaning hypotheses of some and any are shown below:

I.e. some as RESTRICTED suggests limits, internal divisions, boundaries while any as UNRESTRICTED suggests no boundaries, limits or divisions. Note that this does not mean that the domain in question in reality has no divisions or boundaries. Just that the reality is irrelevant to the message. Also note that in a pedagogical grammar such as Martin Parrott’s this meaning division between restricted and unrestricted is only described for stressed SOME and ANY.

Sabar uses the following as examples:

2) If you see something, say something. (New York City public safety slogan)
3) No parking any time (street sign)

In 2) some is used because the message suggested is a restriction on the set of things people see and say. The context drives the inference as to the nature of the restriction – suspicious looking things. Any could also have been used but that would not have been as effective a message – any would have suggested no restriction i.e. people should call no matter what they see.

Similarly in 3) any is used because there is no restriction on the domain of times of the day.

So now for 1) we can see some is used because the message suggests a restriction of the set of people Yvonne did not meet, and the context shows that this restriction as people who may qualify as marriage potential.

Now the interesting corpus linguistics part.

The methodology of CS first involves a qualitative step where some aspect of the sign in question is looked at. So for some which suggests restriction another element which suggests the same is looked for:

4) Some Feds [Federal workers] are held up as national heroes while others are considered a national joke. (ABC Nightline: Income Tax)

Here others is used to refer to a different subset of people within the domain of Federal workers. This message element is also suggested by some – RESTRICTED. This does not mean there is only one reason for the choice of these forms rather that this message feature of internal division is one reason out of many possible reasons that has motivated the choice of these two forms.

To test this claim generally we can look at a corpus to see if there is a higher than probable chance that others occurs with some more than others occurs with any.

We can do this in COCA by using these search terms:

COCA searches for others:

Favoured Disfavoured
some [up to 9 slots] others any [up to 9 slots] others

The following screenshot shows how to find some [up to 9 slots] others (do similar for any):

To find some with not others see the next screenshot (i.e. use the minus sign -):

And tabulating the data in a contingency table:

others present others absent
N % N %
some 19078 90 8946046 65
any 2022 10 4841946 35
Total 21100 100 13787992 100

p < .0001

The table percentages and significance test supports the claim that there is one message feature that motivates use of both some and others. Note that the meaning hypothesis itself is not directly tested; it is only indirectly tested via the counts in COCA. Sabar goes onto to test both qualitatively and quantitatively other signals that contribute to the meaning hypothesis of some – RESTRICTED and any – UNRESTRICTED.

I wondered how the singular other would distribute with any and some:

other present other absent
N % N %
any 39244 52 4811937 35
some 35175 48 8930621 65
Total 74419 100 13742558 100

p < .0001

Here can we say that singular other contributes to a message meaning of unrestricted? I have no idea as I have not had time to explore this further!

I hope dear reader you forgive the rushed nature of this post but I wanted to get something up before the risk of forgetting this due to holiday haze!

Thanks for indulging.

Update 1:

Thanks to heads up from some tweeters Michael Lewis in his book The English Verb in 1986 was also pointing to the primacy of meaning:

Update 2:

Nadav Sabar has pointed out that he looked for others in one direction i.e. following some/any whereas I looked at occurrence of others both following and before some/any.
Plus in a new version of his paper a window size of 2 is used instead of 9.


Parrott, M. (2000). Grammar for English language teachers: with exercises and a key. Cambridge University Press.

Sabar, N. (2016). Using big data to test meaning hypotheses for any and some. In Otheguy, R., Stern, N., Reid, W. and Ruggles, J. (Eds.) Columbia School linguistics in the 21st century: advances in sign-based linguistics. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Retrieved from []

Article use: from cognitive salience to discourse differentiation

The following borrows heavily from the original paper.

Elena Gorokhova in 1995 reports on a developmental stage description of article use by Spanish L1 learners of English. She follows a description of final state article use that was formulated by William Diver – the founder of Columbia School linguistics which is a sign-based functional linguistics account. A sign is a pairing of a signal with its meaning.

In Diver’s account the/a signals a need to differentiate referents in a piece of discourse while the Ø zero article signals no such need. The signal is used when there is enough information available to differentiate referents and a/an signal is used when there is insufficient information available to differentiate referents. For the Ø zero article four communicative reasons are given:

a) referent is unimportant to message as message is about an associated activity.
He went to Ø bed early (went to sleep on whatever bed)

b) referent important but no chance of confusion
He went Ø home (his home)
He went to Ø school (his school)

c) only one possible referent
Ø Einstein died in Ø Princeton

d) no differentiation among instances needed
Ø Water boils at 100C (any and all water)

The above is represented in the figure below:

Gorokhova then postulates  4 stages based on her longitudinal data which culminate in the Standard English state shown above.

In the first stage learners only have the which is used with cognitively more salient referents. Hence important and visible referents are signaled by the:

In stage II the signal a is acquired. The now in addition to signaling importance is used to mark large size of a visible referent. A signals visible referents smaller in size and which are less important. Note that in stages I and II the and a are used very differently to the end state standard English. In stages I and II they are used to show degrees of attention whilst in the end state standard English they are used to show degrees of differentiation of referents in discourse:

Stage III learners begin to pay attention to the larger discourse although their linguistic value is still based on cognitive salience. Stage III is a transitional stage:

In stage IV discourse plays a significant role in the use of articles. Learners choose the and a on differentiation of referents. Context is used from restrictive clause or noun phrases or successive mention of the same referent. The is also used with familiar referents such as bank, school etc:

In stage V students acquire use of the Ø zero article. Here also “frame anaphora” is evoked by the use of the e.g. Someone is driving and there are people in the back seat. The speaker relies on shared non-linguistic knowledge (driving is usually done in a car which usually has seats) with the hearer. This stage is hard to acquire – of the seventy learners in Gorokhova’s study only two showed Stage V article usage.

Although this study suggests a particular order of acquisition – The > A > Ø Zero article, there is no consensus in the literature. Some studies support this order, others show A > The > Ø Zero article, others show Ø Zero article > The > A.

What is heavily implied though is that due to the discourse effects on article use, articles should not be taught in isolated sentences but with a piece of discourse in addition to background information about the speaker and hearer.

I recently drew Figure 1 and Master’s figure of Classification vs Identification with a student. She preferred Master’s figure as she had trouble understanding the word differentiation. It should be noted in this case of focus on form and meaning there was only a cursory look in response to her question about using articles.

Thanks for reading and do check the Columbia School of linguistics as I believe this approach has a lot of potential for use in class. And do also check some other thoughts on article use here:

  1. Articles and collocational effects
  2. Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use
  3. A, an, the, definiteness and specificity


Gorokhova, E. (1995). Acquisition of English articles by native speakers of Spanish. In Contini-Morava, E. & Goldberg, B. S. (Eds.) Meaning as explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory,  441-452. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.