Where English meets Linguistics
Yesterday I had private lessons with two students who were in form 6 and 7 respectively, and were thus reasonably advanced learners. Nevertheless, both students failed to distinguish between the meanings of even though and even if when they encountered them in an article. Therefore, I think it is justified to create a new category under the title “Contrastive Analysis,” dedicated to comparing various aspects of the English and Chinese grammars which differ from each other, as it will be of practical uses to Chinese learners of English, and possibly to English learners of Chinese as well.
After reading about a phenomenon in a book, which I found particularly interesting, I decided to do a small experiment to verify it. The methodology I employ is to make use of a flash game to perform a simple psychological test. Before I proceed to explain on the phenomenon, you may want to first try the flash game below (don’t peek at the text below before you take the test).
In English when we want to describe something as “capable of doing something”, there is a handy set of adjectives that we can use which end in either -able or -ible. Examples are numerous, to name a few, we have adorable, applicable, curable, observable, operable, portable, probable for -able, and divisible, edible, feasible, legible, permissible, plausible, possible for -ible.
These two suffixes carry exactly the same meaning, i.e. “capable of V-ing”, or more often “capable of being V-ed”, where V is a verb constituting the stem of the word. For instance, applicable describes something that is “capable of being applied“, and changeable describes something that is “capable of changing/being changed”. They are, however, not interchangeable, as illustrated by the non-existence of the words *probible and *possable. Why, then, do some words use -able and others -ible?
Back then when I was in Form 3 (Grade 9), I came across this song called “I’ll never get over you getting over me“ from the American group Exposé. I was stuck at the title of the song. No matter how many times I looked at it, I just could not understand what it means. Years later, when I listen to this song again now, I know what went wrong.
We all know there are certain irregular verbs which do not quite fit into the normal paradigm for forming the past tense and the past participle. In other words, they do not form the past tense by adding -ed and the past participle by adding -ed/-en. These include verbs like ‘come’: come came come; ‘buy’: buy bought bought; and ’sing’: sing sang sung. Those of us who are not native speakers probably had a hard time trying to remember all these forms.
But being merely irregular is fine, at least they look alike. There are a few words in English which may seem truly out of place. Foremost of these is the verb ‘be’: am/is/are was/were been. Its tensed forms are simply too creative if they were really created out of the base form. Inquisitive as we are, we want to ask why and how.