Thursday, April 19, 2007

Learning grammar and vocabulary: There ARE five fish, damnit

When I was younger, I made many promises, like last month or so, when I promised to share some of our favorite and least favorite baby items. The time for sharing has finally come, and I'm starting off with one of 3B's most favorite product lines, the Amazing Baby books.

3B's ability to both enjoy his first tender steps into the world of literacy and simultaneously manage his brand-name loyalty amaze me. He likes these books more than any other books that we have. Sure, he's having a bit of a fling now with Goodnight Moon, and he was seen curling up in an easy chair with the Lady with the Alligator Purse a few days back, but those are only temporary distractions. 3B only has eyes for the Amazing Baby books, although he does read more and less of various titles from time to time, depending on his mood and how far under his crib he's flung them.

Mama and I share his love for these books. Our general rule is that anything that gets 3B to enjoy reading is worth reading, and 3B loves reading these books. These are the books that he learned to turn pages with, in part because he couldn't wait to get to the next page and, when he got to the end, he couldn't wait to start again. In addition, these are among the only books in which 3B focuses on the words first, then looks at the picture. I checked because I was sure that his fascination with these was due to the large pictures of baby faces on almost every page, and that, while fascinating to him, they wouldn't be much good at teaching him about language, since they were essentially picture books. When I watched him as I turned each page, however, I saw that he would study the words, then look at the picture for a moment before going back to gaze at the words. Perfect.

Except one little thing. Or one big thing, if your daddy is an editor, as 3B's daddy is--subject-verb agreement.

The trouble starts with an innocent little splash--"splish splash," to be precise--at the beginning of Five Fish. From those first two words, the reader is taken on an amazing journey through a sea filled with first one, then two, then three, then four, then five--five!--fish. The pacing is exhilarating to behold from one page to the next, keeping the reader's eyes agog with each plot twist (who knew that after two fish, there would be three?), keeping the reader sucking his thumb at a furious pace, and keeping the reader grasping for the next page as he races for the inevitable denouement. But it is that conclusion, these four words, that ends up destroying all that came before it:

Now there's no fish!
No. No there aren't. Now there are no fish, damnit.

Sure, part of the fun of this book, and of One Fish, Two Fish, is that the word "fish" can be either singular or plural, which is why the phrase "one fish, two fish" makes sense, unlike "one car, two car." But in this final sentence in Five Fish, "fish" is plural, which means that it requires the use of a plural verb. Just as you wouldn't say "there is no cars" you can't correctly say "there is no fish."

And yet, that's exactly what I have to say, if I read this book verbatim, because "there's" is a contraction of "there" and "is." That's as grating to me as if the book ended with the sentence, "Now there is no rules for reading and writing." OK, that wouldn't make much sense in a book about five fish, but neither does this grammar faux pas in this one book in what is, overall, an excellent collection, in the refined taste of one nine-month old boy, anyway. But even that slip-up doesn't stop a word geek like me from recommending them as good books for a baby that are also fun for the parents to read.

Besides, it's not a big problem, since 3B will have outgrown this book by the time he figures out that his old man isn't actually reading the words on the page. By then, he'll be on to age-appropriate fare, like, "Curious George Gets Kidnapped from His Native Ecosystem by the Imperialist Oppressor." Think he'll ever figure out that that's not the real title?

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  1. Most reasonable people would be happy to agree with you that "There are no cars in the garage" is perfectly acceptable American English usage.

    But you might consider the rarefied grammar of "There is no car in the garage." Any time you change words, you change meaning--even if it's just nuance, shading, emphasis.

    A hair-splitter (and I'm long past having hair enough to spend splitting) might ask whether "There are no cars in the garage" leaves room for, just maybe, one car in the garage. After all, if there's one car in the garage, it's not arithmetically wrong--though it's certainly misleading--to say there are no cars in the garage:

    Are there cars in the garage? No, there aren't cars in the garage. It would be wrong to say there were cars in the garage. There is a car in the garage. But there are no cars in the garage.

    It does feel slightly stilted to say "There is no car in the garage." We tend to wear our grammar rules baggy like beach shorts.

    Well-drafted legal documents don't worry about wearing the equivalent of high-water pants in their wording: The tenant will determine that there is no defect in the floor before moving in.

    Neither usage is out-and-out wrong, but if you consider the inflection for a moment, you might be less distraught at teaching 3B that there is no fish in the bowl--not even one.

    Because what he really needs to learn is a different distinction: Sometimes there be no fish in the bowl, and sometimes there be's no fish in the bowl. Whole different situation, and it has a lot to do with whether there will be supper on the table tonight.

  2. If I was going for that meaning, I would say, "There isn't a fish in the [bowl, sea, whatever]." Of course, this book doesn't name a container, which makes this construction impossible to use. Similarly, I would say, "There isn't a car in the garage." That's less stilted, and still addresses the possibility of there only being one car in the garage.

    Also, this points out the difference between spoken and written language; I read this aloud several times before I stopped and looked at it. When speaking, it sounds OK to say "Now there's no fish."

    There's not enough hair on 3B's head to split over issues like this either, so I'll save this discussion for when he's older.

  3. People who have studied or spoken more than one language tend to say some of these things differently. If you've studied German, for example, it's easy to sort out grammar by superimposing German rules and syntax on English, and vice versa. If your second language is Spanish, your rules for speaking English might be a tiny bit different, since Spanish idiom and grammar are somewhat different from German.

    "Rules" in language are like lane lines on a highway. They can be crossed, but the idea is to keep most of us communicating more or less clearly and not colliding in misunderstandings. You can always pick apart any bit of language until it loses its meaning. But we use language to communicate, and our understanding of each other is based on convention--what does someone usually mean when they say "truck"? If I'm going to use "truck" to mean something else, I need to flag it somehow--even if my usage is technically correct, my intent (usually) is to communicate rather than to obfuscate.

    So you get into neat questions like "Is there zero fish" or "Are there zero fish"? "Is there any car" or "Are there any cars"? "Is there any red car in the garage" or "Are there any red cars in the garage"? "Does three-quarters of the banana have to be mashed" or "Do three quarters of the apple have to be mashed"? (And what's the difference between a basket full of kittens and a basketful of kittens?)

    In other languages, where some of these words have more clear singular and plural forms, correct and incorrect usage are sometimes plain. (Some languages mirror the ambiguity of these English constructions.) But I think our brains are wired to understand the sense of either construction. Grammarians steeped in rules of multiple languages will often say only one or the other construction should be considered correct. To me, that seems like a small-minded approach. Just because one or the other is the only "right" way to say it in Greek, or Italian, or Chinese, that doesn't mean English has to (or should) follow the same rules. A different tool set is available in English.

    My general answer is to say that most usages are fine as long as the meaning is clear.

    A finer answer, for those ready to make more delicate distinctions, is that when more than one construction is available to us and both are clear in base meaning, the construction we choose lets us convey a nuance.

    "There are no fish" and "There is no fish" and "There isn't a fish" and "There aren't any fish" mean the same literal thing: The fish are extinct. But I think I'd say the second construction, particularly with a contraction, puts a little more emphasis on "no," as a number, which makes sense in a counting sequence. There's one fish . . . now there's no fish! There's a car . . . Presto, now there's no car! (You prime your ear for a different answer when you're counting upward and then you drop to zero: "There is not one fish" vs. "There are not five fish.") "There are no fish" allows the emphatic "are" instead of requiring the emphasis on "no." Using "'s" is a subtle nudge toward reading the written words with the intended emphasis. It's not the only possible right answer. But it's a clue to the direction the writer was thinking in.

    (Note the preposition at the end of a sentence--considered very bad form in some languages. I rejoice at the richness of English!)

    The different grammars of different languages grow into subtly different mental models of the world we live in. Think what a revolution in perspective it was when Europe adopted a numbering system that included a symbol for nothing. As you move from language to language, culture to culture, what's the conceptual difference between a motherland, a fatherland, a homeland? What's the more natural word to use if you're Russian? German? Korean? Again I'm delighted to use a language where many shades are acceptable.

    I remember watching children's TV in Israel, not understanding much of it. A teacher standing nearby who knew Hebrew watched for a minute, then observed aloud: Every sentence, no matter how silly, how hip, how emotional, was grammatically precise and correct. The characters were funny and engaging and charismatic and zany (it was actually an American puppet program dubbed in Hebrew), but their grammar was pure. Just like in the U.S., you'll find people in Israel whose language is less than perfect, but for the kids the editors had taken pains not to stretch the rules, even when in everyday speech someone might use a more casual construction.

    I'm of a mind that both numbers of fish (singular and plural) are acceptable in the book. And in the end you want a kid speaking English to have a good command of both structures. But it's interesting to see which one the editors chose, and to speculate why they ended up with it.

    One thing I'm pretty sure of: They didn't spend as long thinking about it as we have here.

  4. I'm a fan of subject-verb agreement myself.