Featured A sentence from the grammar textbook seems off

Discussion in '英語勉強フォーラム - Learning English' started by hirashin, Oct 31, 2018.

  1. hirashin

    hirashin Sempai
    Donor

    2,245
    20
    53
    Dear native English speakers,
    There are some sentences in our grammar textbook which seem to be wrong.
    I wish I could avoid using this book.

    What do you think of these sentences? I think 2a is wrong.

    1a) You need not listen to his speech from the beginning to the end.
    1b) You need not have listened to his speech from the beginning to the end.
    2a) They could reach agreement yesterday.
    2b) They could have reached agreement yesterday.
    3a) The couple should buy a bigger house before the birth of their first baby.
    3b) The couple should have bought a bigger house before the birth of their first baby.

    Thanks in advance.
    Hirashin
     
  2. Julie.chan

    Julie.chan Sempai

    565
    23
    33
    As far as 2a goes, I would prefer this form:

    They were able to reach agreement yesterday.

    But I wouldn't say that 2a is wrong.

    I don't think any of the others are wrong, either. Of course each sentence has a different meaning, no two are identical in meaning. But I assume the textbook explains that.
     
  3. mdchachi

    mdchachi Moderator
    Moderator

    2,363
    212
    87
    I don't think any of them are wrong. Just awkward.
     
  4. Michael2

    Michael2 後輩

    159
    1
    18
    I would agree with Hirashin. I remember struggling to explain why sentences like 2a is wrong years ago to a high level class, and it's one of the hardest things to explain but there are a couple of reasons

    1) "Can" is used for general ability. In specific situations, you usually use "be able to" or "managed to", except for the 5 senses, "remember" and "understand", especially in the past tense. You can use the negative however.

    2) It might be the reason for (1), but using "could" to mean the past tense is confusing as it could be construed as the present tense speculative usage of could, e.g "She could be American" or "She could be coming by train"

    I think everyone would agree that we would never say something like "She could get to work on time even though the train was delayed." We would say "She managed to get to work on time" or "She was able to get to work on time"
     
  5. joadbres

    joadbres Sempai

    496
    45
    43
    Although you didn't clearly state it, I am assuming that all six of these sentences appear in your textbook. Furthermore, I assume that the context is showing how to convert certain types of present tense sentences into past tense.

    If that is the case, then sentences 2a and 2b are a poor example to use, and not suitable for such a lesson.

    In particular, the meaning of 2b is unclear. It could mean, for example, "They might have reached (an) agreement yesterday (but I am not sure if this happened because I have not yet received confirmation)." But it could also mean "They might have been able to reach (an) agreement yesterday (but because of unforeseen circumstances, they ultimately were not able to)." In short, this is a terrible sentence to use for teaching English.

    Based on the fact that the publishers chose to include these two sentences in your textbook, I cannot help but agree with you that this is a poor textbook. Rather than simply resign yourself to the fate of having to teach with this textbook, I recommend that you lobby hard to have it replaced with something else next year. Also, as I pointed out previously, you can communicate with the publisher and inform them of the problems you have found.

    In a situation such as this, it would be helpful for us if you scanned the page in question, and uploaded it here as an image. Then we can see exactly how these sentences are being used. If only a single page is uploaded, I do not think that there is such a concern with copyright violation. If the site moderators disagree, they can remove it.
     
  6. Majestic

    Majestic 先輩

    1,476
    289
    98
    In fact, all of those sentences are fine, depending on your intent, as basically everyone above has said or hinted at.
     
  7. Julie.chan

    Julie.chan Sempai

    565
    23
    33
    I don't see a problem with "could" in that situation. Of course it's a different meaning compared to those other sentences. "Could" indicates what was possible. "Managed to" indicates what actually happened. "Was able to" could mean either, but is more typically an indication of what actually happened.
     
  8. hirashin

    hirashin Sempai
    Donor

    2,245
    20
    53
    Thank you all for your interesting comments.
    Do you think that "an" is unnecessary before "agreement"?

    I think you can also say:
    They managed to reach an agreement yesterday.
    They reached an agreement yesterday.
    They came to an agreement yesterday.


    Oh! Do all of them sound awkward? Wow! I might as well stop using this book.

    Would you mind correcting the sentences into good natural ones if possible?

    My grammar books and dictionaries edited by native speakers say that you cannot use "could" when somebody managed to do something on one occasion. So I think (2a) is grammartically wrong while "They could reach an agreement tomorrow" or "they couldn't reach an agreement yesterday" is correct.

    Majestic, what do you mean by "fine"? Do you think the sentences are in good natural English? Do you agree with joadbres on (2b)? Does (2b) sound unclear to you, too?
     
  9. Michael2

    Michael2 後輩

    159
    1
    18
    But, in the past, "could" does not indicate possibility, "could have" does, and "Managed to" and "was able to" indicate ability, which is why 2a is wrong.
     
  10. johnnyG

    johnnyG 先輩

    947
    132
    54
    @hirashin I have a question...

    Is the textbook published by a company (with no author given), is it published under the name of several authors (three or more), or is it published under the name of one author (I'm guessing this is not likely)?

    The reason I ask is that--in my experience leading a group of five, who are editing questions for entrance exams--sometimes "natural" or "good" English suffers death by committee (or is smothered, or choked).

    People on the committee, or the authors of your textbook, can sometimes have strong opinions about picayune little grammar details, e.g., the discussion above whether could or would would be best, and how those different choices might change the meaning of a given sentence.

    Some people working on exams, or this textbook, can sometimes dig in and be pretty adamant--that they know a rule, or have a certain experience or knowledge, or were taught something in a certain way--and there's almost no way that you can talk them out of it.

    So what can happen is that most of the time the committee does okay, but that in a few cases, something gets by and into an exam because someone had to prove that they were right, even if it was for just a few questions on an exam. The other members, for the greater good, and with a wink and a nod, let one or more questionable things on to an exam (or into a textbook), to satisfy one or another person's idiosyncrasies.

    When I was leading exam committees, I quickly learned to require members to over produce (we need 40 questions for this part of the test, so please make 50-55). Then, when opinions got warm about something, we I could just put that question aside and choose another. This worked the same for simple multi-choice, reading passages, short conversations, and so on--anything on a test. The rule: if it becomes questionable, put it aside and move on to something else. This is not just the rational thing to do, it also preserves the wa.

    People can be pretty stubborn sometimes, and language issues can sometimes be endlessly arguable. I'm a descriptivist, so if it's occurring out there in the world, I tend to accept it. Others are more prescriptive (sometimes very much so), and there are 'rules' to follow and adhere to. Yes, over the years I came to realize who the picky people were, and they didn't get invited back onto the committee--nor, in fairness, did the lazy ones!.

    tl:dnr--your textbook was produced by a group, which made some trade-offs. Some of what got included is a little iffy.
     
  11. mdchachi

    mdchachi Moderator
    Moderator

    2,363
    212
    87
    "an" is unnecessary in this case. Your examples are good too.
    When you say "an agreement" it sounds more formal and conclusive. As if they made a contract. But it's not a strict rule, just a general feeling. (My opinion.)
    They managed to reach agreement about where to eat for lunch.
    The managed to reach an agreement about the purchase price for the needed component.


    Well they sound like textbook English. Not wrong. Just something you wouldn't say much in real life. But that's how textbooks work. You are trying to teach specific topics even if they are not commonly used.

    1a) You need not listen to his speech from the beginning to the end.
    1b) You need not have listened to his speech from the beginning to the end.

    These sound awkward because I would not say "need not" in the first place.
    I would say
    You don't have to listen to his speech from beginning to end.
    You didn't have to listen to his speed from the beginning to the end.


    2a) They could reach agreement yesterday.
    As already discussed above. This sounds awkward and may even be wrong.

    2b) They could have reached agreement yesterday.
    This one sounds ok. Maybe more conversational would be:
    For all I know, they could have reached [an] agreement yesterday.

    3a) The couple should buy a bigger house before the birth of their first baby.
    3b) The couple should have bought a bigger house before the birth of their first baby.

    This sounds awkward to me because it's giving personal advice but with an impersonal, generic subject "the couple." Much more natural to me is:
    They should buy a bigger house before the birth of their first baby.
    They should have bought a bigger house before the birth of their first baby.
     
  12. Buntaro

    Buntaro 運動不足

    941
    50
    43
    #12 Buntaro, Nov 2, 2018
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2018
    You are correct, it is wrong. Your example 2a is a classic example of a “Japanglish” mistake. Here are the three usages of “could” that your students are probably aware of:

    1. Could = be able to (出来る)

    --> 1a. (Wrong) I could graduate last year.
    --> 1b. (Right) I was able to graduate last year.

    2. “Could” as used in a polite form (敬語)

    --> 2a. Can you pass me the salt?
    --> 2b. Could you pass me the salt?

    (Example 2b is more polite than 2a.)

    3. “Could” as used in subjunctive mood (仮定法)

    --> 3a. If I go to Hawaii, can I go by ship?
    --> 3b. If I went to Hawaii, could I go by ship?

    (3a and 3b have different meanings.)

    This is correct. Using "could" in this way is a mistake. This is an example of 1a.

    This sounds strange. I would say, “You don’t have to listen to his speech from the beginning to the end.

    This sounds strange. I would say, “You didn’t have to listen to his speech from the beginning to the end.

    I think it sounds strange even though it is grammatically correct. It is better to say, “They were able to reach an agreement yesterday.” This is because the word "agreement" is countable. (If you would like some examples with uncountable words, please feel free to ask.)
     
  13. Michael2

    Michael2 後輩

    159
    1
    18
    Apart from, as I said above, the 5 senses, "understand" and "remember".
    Sentences like "I could smell something burning in the kitchen"
    "I could eat everything they offered me"
    "I could remember most of what we'd learnt when I did the test"
    "I could understand what he was trying to say"
    are examples of acceptable examples of the past positive use of "could".
     
  14. Julie.chan

    Julie.chan Sempai

    565
    23
    33
    I would disagree again.

    "She could have gotten to work on time even though the train was delayed."

    This to me means that it was possible at the time, but didn't happen (and implies that the subject did something she shouldn't have done, or failed to do something she should have done, in order that she make it to work on time). Just using "could" makes whether or not she did make it to work on time unanswered, so it's more neutral.
     
  15. hirashin

    hirashin Sempai
    Donor

    2,245
    20
    53
    Michael2, what do you think of 1a and 1b? Do you ever say "You need not listen to" or "You need not have listened to"?
     
  16. Julie.chan

    Julie.chan Sempai

    565
    23
    33
  17. Michael2

    Michael2 後輩

    159
    1
    18
    But saying "I could get to work on time", as you say would be a neutral sentence as to the probability, but in the present, not the past, like "It could rain", or "I think he could win the race", which would both have a present meaning.
     
  18. Michael2

    Michael2 後輩

    159
    1
    18
    You don't say it that often and it is quite formal but like Julie.chan says it is certainly correct and there is a different nuance to it than "don't need to"
     
  19. mdchachi

    mdchachi Moderator
    Moderator

    2,363
    212
    87
    Yes of course. When he asks about what sounds natural or not I usually answer regarding spoken English. There's nothing incorrect about that wording. But it's not something I hear around here or think I would use conversationally. It wouldn't surprise me if it's conversational phrasing in some regions or countries.
     
  20. Julie.chan

    Julie.chan Sempai

    565
    23
    33
    I think those cases are really just colloquial substitutions of "can" with "could". At least, that's how I interpret. I think of "could" as generally-speaking being past-tense "can".

    These not only sound perfectly good to me, but like sentences I myself would say:

    "By that time I could leave work without penalty, but I decided to stay until the very end of my shift."
    "I could hear wolves howling on the way here."
    "I couldn't make it last week."

    And here's a classic example:

    "Jack Spratt could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean."

    The only thing I'm seeing wrong with some usages of "could" in this way is when it leads to a completely vapid sentence that tells nothing useful. For example:

    "I could go to work yesterday."

    I don't think there's any problem with this sentence on a grammatical level. The problem with it is it doesn't tell anything useful; did you go to work? Did you not go to work? Did your ability to go to work affect something else? It just leaves a whole lot of questions. But if you add just a couple more words:

    "I decided I could go to work yesterday."

    All of a sudden it has meaning, so nothing sounds wrong with it.

    So back to this example:

    "She could get to work on time even though the train was delayed."

    I see no problem with this one at all because while whether or not she actually got to work is left out, it's still providing useful information: the effect of the train delay on her ability to get to work. It's just worded in such a way that it can be either a criticism of her (if she did not make it to work), or a compliment of her (if she did make it to work).

    And as for the original example:

    "They could reach agreement yesterday."

    This sentence doesn't really have any useful information in it; it doesn't state that agreement was met, only that it possibly could have been, i.e. completely vapid and obvious. That's why I think a wording that also includes information about the end result makes more sense. But as far as sentence structure goes, I don't think there's anything wrong with it.
     
  21. hirashin

    hirashin Sempai
    Donor

    2,245
    20
    53
    Thank you for your information. The grammar books here often include very formal or even old fashioned expressions probably because English language education in Japan traditionally focuses on written English rather than spoken English. That's why many English teachers as well as many students are very bad at speaking the language although the Ministry of Education has directed the English teachers to give their English lessons mainly in English. If English teachers were to give their lessons in English only, most students would not be able to understand what the teachers say and be at a loss.
     
  22. Michael2

    Michael2 後輩

    159
    1
    18
    The thing is Julie, grammatically, basically,

    past ability

    "Could" cannot be used in positive sentences in which you describe a momentary or one-time ability.
    Yesterday, I could lift the couch by myself. Not Correct

    The exceptions, as I have said a couple of times above, are the 5 senses, "remember" and "understand", so sentences like "I could hear wolves howling on the way here." and "Jack Spratt could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean." are fine.

    I think my example, "I could get to work on time even though the train was delayed" was confusing because there was too much context which made it seem less wrong, which was why I used simpler sentences later, but I still don't see myself ever saying it. If you saw the sentence "I could go to work" in isolation you would think it might be a joke you said to yourself lying in bed wide awake at 5am, not what you could have done when the trains were delayed.
     
  23. hirashin

    hirashin Sempai
    Donor

    2,245
    20
    53
    Buntaro, "agreement" can be either countable or uncountable.
    This is from Longman Online Dictionary.
    It is easier for two parties to reach agreement than for three.
     
  24. Buntaro

    Buntaro 運動不足

    941
    50
    43

    Technically, yes, it is both countable and uncountable. But I would also say “reach agreement” (uncountable) is an older form that is slowly disappearing from (American) English. (To me it sounds じじ臭さい.) I did a Google search for “reach agreement”. Google suggested looking at results from these ten searches:

    reach an agreement
    reach an agreement crossword clue
    reach an agreement meaning
    reach an agreement sentence
    reach an agreement or become calm
    reach a mutual agreement
    reach an agreement in Spanish
    reach into an agreement
    reach an agreement in French
    reach only representative agreement

    There are ten suggested-search results. Only one does not contain a/an.

    There is also this pair of questions:

    A. How much agreement did they reach?
    B. How much of an agreement did they reach?

    A sounds really strange and wrong. I would mark A as wrong and mark B as correct (on a 米国英会話) test).
     
  25. Julie.chan

    Julie.chan Sempai

    565
    23
    33
    I'm not so sure about that. "Reach agreement" is definitely something I would use.

    Isn't that a contradiction? The Jack Spratt example uses "could" with "eat". It seems to me that doesn't match with your stated exceptions.

    This particular example seems to me to be perfect if you're trying to contrast your ability to lift the couch yesterday vs. today.

    If it isn't clear already, I don't have any sort of scholarly justification for my position that these sentences are fine. I just think that they're fine based on my own experience and feeling merely as a native speaker. You seem to be quite knowledgeable on the topic, on the other hand, so I assume you must be some kind of expert on English usage, like perhaps an English teacher or professional writer? At least, you seem to speak with air of authority on this topic.
     

Share this page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice