Tuesday, 18 December 2012

keynote inflation

In China and Japan, the term ‘keynote speech’ seems to have undergone serious grade inflation. At the Shanghai conference I alluded to yesterday there were no fewer than 15 different ‘keynote speeches’ delivered, which seems to imply a polyphonic reluctance to remain in tune. I would have just called them ‘plenaries’.

Anyhow, a particularly interesting one was given by the organizer of the conference, Bu Youhong. She reported on some of the intonation errors she had observed among Chinese learners of English. In line with Francis Nolan’s advice, she was concerned only with ‘the division of the speech chunks’ (tonality) and ‘nucleus placement’ (tonicity), not tone.

I have tended to regard chunking (tonality) as a pretty common-sense matter, not varying much across languages, and therefore not needing much explicit teaching. Judging by some of the material Prof. Bu presented, this is not entirely the case.

Her subjects had to read aloud a written passage of English. Some of their intonational treatments were nothing short of bizarre.

  • English is spoken | as a | first language | in over forty countries | around the | world

Separating the articles a and the from their noun phrases and giving them nuclear accents suggests to me either extreme disfluency or complete failure to understand the meaning of the sentence. Isn’t it obvious that they need to be closely linked to their respective following noun phrases? (Evidently not.)

  • … Crystal also estimates | that | English plays a significant part…
  • those | who speak | it |…

Isn’t it also obvious that the complementizer (‘subordinating conjunction’) that has to be grouped with the clause it introduces, rather than treated separately or grouped with the verb it depends on? Again, evidently not: the example quoted is only one of a whole number in which Bu’s subjects had wrongly treated that as if it were a determiner (= demonstrative) rather than a conjunction ( = relative pronoun or complementizer). And isn’t it obvious that a pronoun object (here, it) has to be grouped with the verb that precedes it? It would get its own i.p., and therefore a nuclear accent, only in the rare case where it was thrown into contrastive focus.

These points are all subsumed in the general rule for not accenting function words — a rule that nevertheless calls for quite a bit of work. Do we really need to spell out that the indefinite and definite articles are covered by this rule, along with that when it is not a demonstrative, and pronouns?

37 comments:

  1. My son took over stresses like "follow ME" from an Indian boy, native speaker of Marathi, for a week or two. (He still says "ride my bike" rather than "cycle", and "my leg hurts" rather than "leg is paining", though.)

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    1. Sorry, forgot to sign.

      (Phillip Minden.)

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  2. "Isn’t it obvious that they need to be closely linked to their respective following noun phrases?" - Well yes, probably even for a native Chinese speaker. However, I would think that a native Chinese speaker makes absolutely no connection between intonation and "the meaning of the sentence", as Chinese intonation concerns the meaning of words, not sentences. I'm not sure whether you are so harsh on them John. You sound a bit like a grumpy old man...

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    1. John is harsh but 1. he is so 'off record', so to speak and 2. it's like Pope's getting indignant at some unorthodox pronouncements of an archbishop _in partibus infidelium_, not like OUR being harsh on that pitiable prof. Bu. For he _is_ something like a Pope of contemporary (English) phonetics.

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    3. Chinese certainly has intonation contours with non-morphemic meaning on which the tones are superimposed.

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  3. A striking piece, which, among other things, shows that what is obvious to us may not be so obvious to our students.
    Do we really need to spell out that … etc?
    “Function word”, technically correct though it is, sounds a bit odd when used of a personal pronoun, and this may cause some confusion.
    In your five example sentences, south American Spanish speakers usually place the tonic on the final words: it, her, about, to, me. The sub-rule: - “don’t stress personal pronouns” takes care of 3 of these for these students, and they seem to be able to improve when they understand this.

    Barry Cusack

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  4. Barry

    Surely it's a case of Occam's razor. Why have one rule for personal pronouns and another rule for other grammar/function words?

    What does call for an extra rule is the pronoun/determiner set it, its, itself. I think it's true to say that these can never be stressed — unlike all the other personal pronoun/determiners which can carry contrastive stress or the stress that comes from deictic (pointing) use.

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    1. I do not want to stray off topic but this is too tempting. In the Anglosaxon understanding of Occam's razor it's about the simplicity of explanations; in the Continental 'un it's about the number of entities employed (in this case: the number of KINDS of entities)---which is not the same, on the contrary. The theory in hand ain't simple (has got to employ two rules) because it lumps together two kinds of entities: function words (such as the articles) and personal pronouns (which do not belong together, in my h.o.)--- that is, it has made use of O.'s razor in the Continental, but at the price of making it applicable in the, Anglosaxon sense.

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    2. Wojciech

      The entities I had in mind were rules.

      Personal pronouns belong to that area of vocabulary which isn't the lexical words. The latter belong in four huge open classes. Items in closed classes are not without semantic content, but they also have grammatical or structural or functional meaning.

      The number of personal pronouns is completely closed. Even admitting determiners, I make it seven sets of five: Subjective, Objective, Possessive Determiner, Possessive Pronoun, Emphatic (Reflexive). Plus another archaic set thou, thee, thy, thine, thyself.

      There are less than 35 (or 40) because:

      • There's no possessive That body is its.
      You and it have no distinct Objective form.
      His serves as both Possessive Determiner and Possessive Pronoun
      Her serves as both Objective and Possessive Determiner

      + For some speakers, myself included, there's an extra: themself

      Thirty-six (or whatever the number) is more than the two words in the set called articles (three if you count an, four if you also count zero), but the principle is the same. These are grammar words (my preferred term) or structure words or function words (John's term).

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    3. David,

      are you saying that personal pronouns are grammar words or aren't you (to-night I am too dull obviously)? I'd my reasons to consider them lexical or 'real' words, reasons both deep and shallow, amongst the latter e.g. that, as we know from Julie Andrews, 'me's a name I call myself'. Dunno about English, but in some languages there are various modesty pronouns for 'I', e.g. 'ma pomme', 'meine Nichtigkeit' etc. Plus 'they' or 'he' in the sense of 'you' in German, or 'one' for 'I'/'we' in French, plus such things as 'you all', 'you guys', 'youse', plus various ways of marking both inclusive and exclusive 'we' and 'you'. Or take 'they' for 'he or she' in contemporary English --- no, it cannot be said without qualifications that the set of personal pronouns be completely closed. Sort of narrowly circumscribed --- yes, completely closed --- no.

      Hence, perhaps, the two rules mentioned by thee above.

      'Themself' by contrast I do not seem to know. How do you use it? Is it 'him/her/itself'?

      Chinese is rich in grammar ('empty') -- Chinese grammars both classical and modern devote umpteens of pages to them (to'em). So maybe that unfortunate prof. Bu is some use after all. For instance one 'zhi' means something like 'the fact that...' e.g. 'the cat zhi is on the mat' means 'the fact that the cat is on the mat' (arouses general uneasiness in the public). (Or some such, I can't recall 100 p.c. precisely now.) Maybe this is somehow reflected in the ways Chinese speakers misconstrue English intonation and stress patterns?

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    4. sorry, I desired to say 'Chinese is rich in grammar WORDS', i.e. has many grammar words, function words, traditionally called 'empty words' in Chinese.

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    5. For themself, please consult the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English or some other modern EFL dictionary. "It makes me happy to see someone help themself".
      But this is not a blog about grammar, so let's not discuss it here.

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    6. Wojciech

      Dunno about English, but in some languages there are various modesty pronouns for 'I', e.g. 'ma pomme', 'meine Nichtigkeit' etc. Plus 'they' or 'he' in the sense of 'you' in German, or 'one' for 'I'/'we' in French, plus such things as 'you all', 'you guys', 'youse', plus various ways of marking both inclusive and exclusive 'we' and 'you'.

      For me that's an echo of the old prescriptive vice of defining 'parts of speech' semantically.

      To be sure, lexical words and phrases can be used in place of personal pronouns but that doesn't automatically make the members of the word class.

      In English, it's a characteristic of the word class that (with predictable exceptions) the members do not carry stress. The fact that a form like your good self is almost impossible to say without stress is very suggestive. Not only does it suggest that your good self is not a pronoun, it actually suggest that it's a substitute for a pronoun when the context calls for an expression with stress. It also other forms of prominence such as end weight and sends out social signals.

      Forms such as yous y'all, yous guys are not part of Standard English grammar. As they're not part of my grammar, I have no instinct as to whether they are pronouns or pronoun substitutes. One possible test would be to reverse the rule. Can they be uttered with no stress? I believe I've heard unstressed y'all and you guys. I don't think I've ever heard unstressed yous guys. I don't even think I've heard unstressed yous, though I believe I've heard something like unstressed jɪz.

      All that said, if your good self is a personal pronoun, and if it can't be completely unstressed, then Barry Cusack's rule “don’t stress personal pronouns” is inapplicable. If we call it a substitute for a personal pronoun then you and the rest are covered by John's rule for 'function words'.

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    7. 'For themself, please consult the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English'

      By George, I shall. I was unfamiliar with this word to the point of not as little as suspecting that it MIGHT be listed in a Longman's or,for that matter, any other dictionary. I seriously thought it was part of David Crosbie's idiolect.

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  5. Wocjiech

    are you saying that personal pronouns are grammar words or aren't you...?

    I am.

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  6. But this is not a blog about grammar

    True, but the starting point is a global phonetic rule which operates (under normal conditions) on a class of words that's defined grammatically.

    If we redefine that class into two or more, the we need two or more rules.

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    1. 'But this is not a blog about grammar

      True, but the starting point is a global phonetic rule which operates (under normal conditions) on a class of words that's defined grammatically.'

      We were doing meta-grammar in fact (the issue having been whether personal pronouns were or not grammar words). I thought the problem in hand was one about how the two levels of language (phonetics/phonology and grammar) inter-acted and inter-mingled, rather than rested neatly separated.

      But to return to the proper topic:
      I am I must say seriously confused about another point: the logical stress. Do function or grammar words not get it too, sometimes, and does that not militate against the rules set forth above?

      E.g.:

      Prof. Wells is not AN, but, much rather, THE English phonetician. (der englische Phonetiker schlechthin).

      Follow ME, not HIM, still less HER!

      I said that not to THEM but to YOU.

      I gave you this mouse in order for you to keep IT as a pet, not that other ugly beast.

      (Can't for the moment think of any example of 'that' in the sense of 'dasz', 'que', similarly logically stressed.)

      Is this kind of stress/accent _toto coelo/caelo_ different from what is at issue here?

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    2. Wojciech

      Prof. Wells is not AN, but, much rather, THE English phonetician. (der englische Phonetiker schlechthin).

      Follow ME, not HIM, still less HER!

      I said that not to THEM but to YOU.

      I gave you this mouse in order for you to keep IT as a pet, not that other ugly beast.


      Yes, that's why I inserted the caveat (under normal circumstances)

      Contrastive stress is a predictable creator of abnormal circumstances. Nothing but the need to contrast with a(n) or zero allows for stressed THE. The same is true for IT. I actually don't find your example plausible, but I can imagine a contrast with the other element in a Subject-Object pair, e.g.

      Big strong dog, that. Are YOU leading IT or is IT leading YOU?

      The contexts which allows Follow ME etc are closer to 'normal', but I think we can still devise some rules whereby unstressed me is the default>.

      As starting point, consider the idea that the norm/default is that grammatical words in general and personal pronouns in particular do not carry the focus of information.

      Thus clauses with follow deviate from the norm in that it's very difficult to frame one without an Object. It's possible in a context when the thing or person followed is visible and obvious to speaker and hearer, but otherwise the hearer need to be informed what is being/is to be followed.

      Even the two of us are face-to-face and I'm obviously speaking to you, it's not enough for me to say Follow!. Not unless I'm already moving in a clear direction. I can't even say Wait five minutes then follow with any certainty that you'll understand. That's why I say Wait five minutes and follow me.

      Either stressed or unstressed me is possible, even if there is nobody else for you to follow. I suppose the distinction is between:
      • Follow ME = 'Don't just make your own decision'
      • FOLLOW me = 'Don't stay behind'

      Some grammar words are more resistant to stress-permitting contexts than others. But the three obvious examples are in different word classes: articles the and a(n) and personal pronoun it. I'm not sure that there can be a phonetic rule to account for these three. I suspect that we need some rules of reference. For example:

      the, a(n)
      The determiners that signal definite/indefinite reference alone (without, for example, proxemic or deictic reference) do not carry stress — except for strong contrast.
      The normal equivalents if you need a word to carry stress are the only/the pre-eminent and one.

      it
      The pronoun that establish further reference (anaphoric or cataphoric) without signalling proxemic or deictic reference and without referring to speaker or hearer(s) and without stipulating gender do not carry stress —even for contrast, with very rare exceptions.
      The normal equivalents if you need a word to carry stress are this, that, these, those.

      The indefinite of it is one: I saw it vs I saw one. it's perfectly possible to stress one, but some contrastive notion of 'only' is pretty sure to follow.

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    3. Sorry, you gave me more information than I needed. I was curious whether it were not the case that while the 'default option' for, say, personal pronouns was not to be stressed, for purposes of logical emphasis they could be (stressed). There are languages (Romance, Slavic, Dutch) where there are special unaccented forms of (the spelling of) pronouns, e.g. je le lui dis versus je le dis a` lui, I am saying that to HIM (rather than to someone else). Yet, speakers of various languages (including Polish) tend to in English stress the personal pronoun by fault, that is, they say 'to HIM' where what they mean is 'TO him' 'to'im'. This is a tendency of theirs which I have been fighting since decades, without much success, regrettably. Maybe Prof. Bu labours under a whole family of similar misconstruals and -conceptions.

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    4. Wojciech

      Unfortunately, I am saying that to him is unidiomatic English. In the sort of situation where those notions were involved, I'd say the default would be I'm telling him. In speech, we could stress telling (default) or him (contrastive). (For other effects we could stress I or even am, but that's another story.)

      To reproduce the effect in writing, we could use him specifically. (Some sentences might allow personally to do the same job.)

      There are differences between Tell him the story and Tell the story to him, but not the simple difference in your French examples.

      Often the most significant factor is pragmatic.

      • If the speaker believes that the hearer recognises him as the obvious person to be informed, the emphasis falls on the decision to tell (or fact of telling).
      = 'I'm filling a gap in his knowledge'

      • If the speaker believes that the hearer recognises that it is knowledge shared by the two of them but unknown to him, them emphasis falls on person being brought in to share the knowledge
      ='I'm bringing him into the circle of those who know'.

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    5. David

      Yes I know 'saying that to him' is bad English as a purported synonym of 'telling him that' but I thought it meant something like 'saying that in his direction' (rather than in someone else's direction) or some such. Bad example and the French 'uns double-confounded the confusion. But what about 'communicating that to him'? Ain't that good E.? Now, my assumption has always been that in the more frequent situation where what is news is what is _going to happen_ to him (presupposed as the default addressee of speech and other acts)it's '... TO him' ('to' stressed, 'him' not), whereas in the less frequent situation where the addressee is news it's '...to HIM' ('him' stressed). Is that wrong? Now you seem to be saying, 'in writing we should use a reinforcement like 'him specifically' or an elaborate circumlocution like 'filling that gap in his knowledge'). Am I getting you wrong?

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    6. David, I don't find it unidiomatic, just not the unmarked expression. Compare I was saying (just) that to him or That is (just) what I am saying to him.

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    7. John Cowan

      The tense makes all the difference.

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    8. I now seem from the days of yore to remember I believe an American, a Doris Day, who used to sing, reporting a conversation with her mother: '[I asked her this and that and] that's what she said to me ''Que sera, sera---whatever will be will be'''.

      Obviously, Ms. Day's mother was rather strong at tautologies. But 'that's what she told me' wouldn't have been the same, would it.

      Now, is according to you-guys 'I am saying to him' inapplicable under all circumstances? I thought it would express the idea of performing a speech-act towards 'him', or it would be applicable in contrastive contexts: saying something about someone as distinct from saying something TO someone.

      Anyway, we all now agree---do we not?---that, whatever the verb, 'him' CAN be stressed, if it be (logically) stressed, if it convey the 'news' (who? HIM, rather than HER or THEM). But only if. Many foreigners, Chinese or other, imagine that the personal pronoun can receive stress even if not logically emphasised.

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    9. @Wojciech: stressing the word 'to' would seem decidedly odd. There might occasionally be a slight weight on the word as a result of the general rhythm of the sentence (“What’s HAPpening to ’im?”), and contrastive stress is just about possible (“He’s not giving the presents, they’re being given to him”).

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    10. Wojciech

      Changing to Past I was saying that to him remove some problems, but the expression is still, as John Cowan says, highly marked. It needs a particular context to justify that rather than it and two special variant contests for unstressed and stressed him.

      I was saying that to him = 'I was asserting that while I was speaking to him'

      I was saying that to him = 'He wasn't asserting that to me; it was the other way round' or 'While you were asserting that to her, I was asserting it to him'

      John Cowan's variants with just are more idiomatic still, but beware I was Just saying that to him with the implication but I didn't mean it

      The problem remains that to make the sentence idiomatic you have to imagine a context, and it's the context that determines whether him is stressed or not.

      It seems an unnecessary complication to have two referring pronouns that and it to play with.

      (Unless you want to discuss the first of the two, that it. I'm fairly confident that the choice is between unstressable it and stressable that, which needn't have full primary stress, but can't be reduced to ðət.)

      So let's make it I say precisely those words to him. The pronoun is clause-final not so that it can be the focus of NEW information, but for a purely grammatical reason: say, unlike tell cannot form a clause with and Indirect Object form.

      So, to him is the only possible form. Whether to stress him or not is a simple choice of contrast or no contrast. As I see it, the non-contrastive form is the unmarked form — i.e. unstressed him is the unmarked norm, even though it's clause-final.

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    11. that's what she said to me ''Que sera, sera---whatever will be will be'''.

      No, Wojciech,
      Here's what she said to me
      Que sera sera...
      .

      In the remaining verses:

      Here's what my sweetheart said
      Que sera sera ...


      I tell them tenderly
      Que sera sera ...

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    12. Ad Steve Doerr:

      'such things happening to him without his special wonder'. It is clear that 'to him' as such is not stressed in a group like that, not under normal circumstances, yet I thought that, unless logical stress be on 'him', 'to' would be weakly (secondarily, tertiarily even)---perhaps very weakly---stressed. Would it not? I mean, are you saying that whilst 'hap-' be strongly (primarily) stress'd, the rest does not carry any stress at all? I should find something like that barely pronounceable. Lots of NNS stress 'him', wrongly....

      Ad David

      'So let's make it I say precisely those words to him. The pronoun is clause-final not so that it can be the focus of NEW information, but for a purely grammatical reason: say, unlike tell cannot form a clause with and Indirect Object form.

      So, to him is the only possible form. Whether to stress him or not is a simple choice of contrast or no contrast. As I see it, the non-contrastive form is the unmarked form — i.e. unstressed him is the unmarked norm, even though it's clause-final.'

      Yes, I know all of this. My point was just that in order to stress the indirect object logically you can (must?) stress 'him' phonetically, albeit you normally do not stress personal pronouns in the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible (to speak with Prof. Higgins). I did _not_ say that that was a very frequent situation, let alone that you can do without 'to' or any such...

      My other point was that many foreign learners of English stress the personal pronoun whether it carry logical emphasis or not, and it's high time for English teachers to do something about this scandal.


      You obviously remember old songs better. Is your point that 'that's what she said...' would be anaphoric or backward-looking whilst 'here's what she said...' is forward-looking, as the context requires?

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    13. Is your point that 'that's what she said...' would be anaphoric or backward-looking whilst 'here's what she said...' is forward-looking, as the context requires?

      Precisely that, Wojciech. I trust you also noted the use of tell in the third verse.

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    14. David,

      yes, but that was not in the least my point, nothing can be farther from the truth that I have the intention to reform the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible (to quote Prof. Higgins) by getting the English to say
      'say that to him' instead of 'tell him that'. What was important rather was the Day sang 'here's what they said (or whaddeva) to me' with 'me' heavily stressed for logical or perhaps musico-rhythmical reasons, or both.

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    15. Wojciech

      Day sang 'here's what they said (or whaddeva) to me' with 'me' heavily stressed

      I wouldn't say 'heavily'. Not by musical standards.

      if a native speaker utters the words Here's what she said to me, the possibilities are perfectly clear, depending on what the speaker intends to convey:

      1. 'Here are the words my mother used when she answered my question'
      said to me NO OTHER POSSIBILITY

      2. 'She may have given different answers to other people but these are the words she used to answer me'
      said to me NO OTHER POSSIBILITY

      3. 'That's what I said to her, and this is what she said to me'
      she said to me or (less likely) she said to me

      It wouldn't surprise me if it proved that the lyres writer originally thought in terms of [3]. If the tune allowed for This is what she said to me then the stresses could fall on This, she, me: TUM-TI-TI-TUM-TI-TI-TUM.

      However the tune calls for TI-TUM-TI-TUM for
      • sera sera
      • she said to me
      • my sweetheart said
      • them tenderly

      So the three stresses — this sort of tune in this sort of song can't tolerate two or four — must fall on Here, said, me.

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    16. lyres

      Sorry, that's what my spellchecker wrote. I meant to write lyrics, and probably should have written lyric.

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    17. Yes, I did understand you correctly immediately, your spellchecker, though, seems to hold you in an enthralling grip. Why won't you switch the blackguard off?

      Re 3. Yes, the 'lyres' writer most likely had that in mind, had this scene in front of his mind's eyes: Ms. Day had asked her mother whether she (Ms. Day) would be pretty and so on, and HERE IS, ladies and gentlemen, surprise surprise, what she (Ms. Day's mother), in her turn, said to her (Ms. Days): que sera, sera... How true.

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      Those 'capture' inscriptions are sometimes absurdly difficult (for a heavily postcocious like me) and sometimes equally absurdly easy (now you have to be an expert in epi- and palaeography, now just reasonably literate). Strange.

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  8. David

    Why have one rule for personal pronouns and another rule for other function/grammar words?

    Obviously one rule is better and simpler than two. Sometimes, however, students have a very hazy idea of what a function word is, but a very clear idea of personal pronouns. It depends on the exact teaching moment, and what stage the students are at.

    What does call for an extra rule is the pronoun/determiner set it, its, itself. I think it's true to say that these can never be stressed — unlike all the other personal pronoun/determiners which can carry contrastive stress or the stress that comes from deictic (pointing) use.

    Yes, it seems difficult to stress it or its. Itself seems also unstressed as a simple reflexive pronoun in unmarked examples:
    1. I hit myself by accident with the HAmmer. (nuclear stress in bold capitals)
    But surely, contrastive stress is imaginable, too, with this simple reflexive pronoun:
    2. I didn’t hit YOU, I hit mySELF.

    However, as an emphatic reflexive pronoun, it would seem natural to stress it:
    3. I did it mySELF (ie he didn’t do it, nor did she.) (Nuclear stress in bold capitals, as before)
    But we can imagine unstressing it, too, in order to stress other elements in the sentence:
    4. A: You’ve done all this yourSELF?
    B: Well, I painted the WOODwork myself, but I didn’t put the WALLpaper up.

    Maybe, itself, himself etc are exceptions to the rule that grammar/function words are unstressed.

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  9. Barry, Wojcieck

    John's 'Elementary Reasons' may not stand to stringent examination as an exception less rule. But they're perfectly acceptable as a basis for advice to students on pronunciation. As best i can reproduce them, they are:

    Elementary reasons for deaccenling:
    ....................function word
    He keeps worrying about it.
    I've just received a letter from her.
    What's all the fuss about?
    Who were you talking to?
    Why are you avoiding me?

    Students at most levels can easily grasp that worry, talk, avoid are verbs and letter, fuss are nouns. They can, I suggest, easily be led to recognise a bigger class also including adverbs and adjectives. Then all we need is a class of everything else words. We wouldn't need to define everything else. provided that students recognise nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, they can automatically recognise whatever term we use use for everything-else words. The only problem with calling them function words is that it challenges the students to perceive some common characteristic.

    In the five examples, six words are found following the last noun/verb of a clause. They are: about (twice), it, from, her, to, me. By definition they are 'everything-else words' aka function words, grammar words or whatever. Our advice to students is simple: Don't stress any of these words unless there's a good reason.

    Sure, all seven instances of these six words could accept stress, but there'd need to be a justification — in these cases to signal a contrast. In the case of it, the justification would be very hard indeed to find, but i suppose it's just about possible. The other personal pronouns are no more and no less likely to accept stress than the prepositions.

    Fortunately, I've just received a letter from her and Why are you avoiding me? are clear cases. Only an obvious desire to contrast can justify final stress. Sure, there are potential examples such as I was saying those words to him where stressed him would not be so marked and unusual. But that just means that students won't produce inappropriate stress, since both for him and for him will sound reasonable appropriate.him

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