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Grammar and Foreign Languages

Posted by TheFallen on March 19, 2003

In Reply to: Gradable and nongradable . . . posted by HCD on March 19, 2003

: : : : : : : I'd like to know how to discover when a adjective or adverb is gradable or non-gradable, without having to know a large list by heart. Can anybody help me?
: : : : : : : Thanks.

: : : : : : I don't understand the question. Do you mean gradable as in degrees -- "pretty, prettier, prettiest"? Or non-gradable meaning an absolute --"unique"? Something is unique or it's not.

: : : : : Here's what I found:

: : : : : "Adjectives can be divided into gradable and non-gradable (or classifying) adjectives. Gradable adjectives can be compared (happy-happier-happiest, good-better-best, beautiful-more beautiful-most beautiful) and modified with the intensifying word very. Non-gradable adjectives do not have comparative or superlative forms nor are they intensified: a financial plan, an electric train, semantic criteria."

: : : : : Another good site is:
: : : : :
: : : : :

: : : : Look! For an English native the gradability can possibly be considered easy, but not for other origin peoples, for instance the Latins's origin.
: : : : To realize how difficult it is, take a glance at the site about gradable and ungradable adjecitves modifiers on the site:
: : : : Thanks, HCD

: : : Your question doesn't actually seem to be about adjectives in general. I took a look at that site, and the crucial point they're making is about present and past participles when used adjectivally - are they gradable or not? The conclusion seems to be that participles originating from an intransitive verb root are non-gradable, as are transitive-based participles where there's an implied causal agent.

: : : I'm not sure whether I buy into all that or not, but it's probably a good rule of thumb. There are of course exceptions, as there are to so many grammatical rules - it is correct English to describe someone as "having a rather sunken face".

: : HCD, it's easier to learn English by being exposed to large amounts of it than to learn it from grammar books that assign words to categories that have names. I grew up speaking English. I went to school in the US. I had never heard of "gradable" and "nongradable" before.

: : It seems that a gradable adjective is one that refers to some quality that there can be more or less of. "Pretty"--one painting can be prettier than another. You shouldn't have to memorize lists of adjectives. What matters is the meaning of the word. Just translate the English adjective into your own language and decide whether it means something that can be quantified.

: R. Berg, I agree with you that you possibly never have heard about gradable and ungradable adjectives and adverbs because you learned the American English, but please, take a look at the British English grammar, "Advanced Grammar in use", from the Cambridge University Press, by Martin Hewings, printed in 1999 or 2000, chapters 83 and 92.
: Thanks, HCD

...and that's the crux of the matter. You're both right, of course. Native speakers of a language don't tend to learn its grammar. They just pick it up instinctively as they use the language every day - correctness by imitation, if you like. However, in order to learn a foreign language, you definitely need to have some awareness of its grammatical rules and structure, and the depth of your knowledge depends on how rule-bound the language is, and how much it differs in that respect from your native tongue.

I was taught languages (Latin, German, French) the old-fashioned way, with a heavy focus on grammar, and this is the only reason that I have some objective knowledge on grammar as it is applied in English. This has been helpful in many ways, but the way I was taught has a downside. It tends to leave one with an ability to write perfectly in the foreign language, although maybe overly correctly, as you might find in a legal document or a novel from 150 years ago. However, when it comes to speaking the language, it tends to leave you tongue-tied, because you're too aware of all the rules and try to work them into your dialogue, even if most natives might not even bother with half of them in speech. It wsn't till I'd spent time in both France and especially Germany (the Germans having a very rule-heavy language) that I became anywhere near fluent in either language. Modern teaching methods focus far more on the spoken language, with its resulting upsides and downsides. There's probably a happy medium somewhere between the two.