Friday, November 07, 2008

I don't know how to explain the difference among "might," "could," and "would" to a non-English speaker.

One of the challenges of this incarnation of the blog is that I suspect many of the things I don't know are interesting only to me. I do reading work with a wonderful woman whose English is quite good, but is not her native language. Her native language is one that does not have conditional forms of verbs, and we have really struggled with this.

"Might" means that something will happen if the proper circumstances are in place; "could" means that you have the power to do it, but not that it will necessarily happen; "would" means that you have the power but you might not have the desire, or the circumstances might not be correct. I feel a little dizzy typing that out, and I know it wouldn't make sense to me if I were hearing it for the first time. (And look at that, I just threw the subjunctive in there. I can't explain the subjunctive, either.)

So tomorrow I'm spending six hours in a seminar sponsored by the Literacy Volunteers of Central Maine (Augusta and Waterville together), and this is what I'm hoping to learn.

Learning in a classroom setting is a skill of its own, and one that disappears without practice. It's hard for me to sit quietly and pay attention for any length of time. I structure my work day in 50-minute chunks, and on a typical day jump among three or four clients, or three or four projects for the same client. It's a structure that works around my personal weaknesses, and keeps me from getting too bored or frustrated.

Literacy work is one of the most rewarding things I do, and teaches me the value of persistence over time. Progress is incremental and sometimes slower than either of us wants, but sometimes we have days when the cumulative work produces a breakthrough. Suddenly the words come easy and everything makes sense, and that feels miraculous to both of us.

What I Read This Week

I didn't finish a book this week. Instead I read two screenplays and two manuscripts, as well as a bunch of comics. (I forgot to mention that I went to the Boston ComicCon last Sunday; it was fascinating, and I'll blog about it at some point.)

I also read two more of Declan Hughes's plays: his first, I Can't Get Started, a fantasia on the lives of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, wildly ambitious in structure but gorgeous in language and tone; and Twenty Grand, an Irish homage to Mamet that might make a pretty good movie.


Anonymous said...

Let alone explaining the difference to someone who speaks English.

I have been involved in drafting portions of a federal Environmental Impact Statement for a highway in Wiscasset, and these words have very specific connotations that I am having a time figuring out.


Kevin Wignall said...

I taught English as a foreign language to young adults for one summer (I was in a rut and needed to do something to get me going again - it worked).

The English language is such an odd creature that I found the only way to teach most of it is by example.

So, I would (!) use a number of real-life examples such as -
I might go to the theater.
I could go to the theater.
I would go to the theater.
It's just a great starting point. For example, only one of those clauses really stands on its own, the second could (!) have several meanings and is usually the response to a question (often posed by the speaker themselves), and the third needs additional clauses to make sense.

Interestingly, and this may be a US/English divide, we would say "the difference between". That Noah Webster!

AnswerGirl said...

We say "between" for comparisons of two items, among for comparisons of three or more items.

Kevin Wignall said...

How very strange! Given that I essentially write in US English, I'm still constantly amazed by small differences like this.

It reminds me of that famous Alistair Cooke quote about how we were two nations "divided by a common language".

Anonymous said...

and yet
In my federal experience, Our Style Guide allows me to draft, for example, a
"Memorandum of Understanding between Federal Highway Admin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service,and [state agency]"


AnswerGirl said...

Well, there you get into the requirements of legalese. These multilateral agreements are "between" each agency and "among" all the agencies together, so it gets confusing. The association I worked for in the 1990s developed multistate and state-federal agreements for interstate bank supervision, and we tended to use "between and among," which covered all our bases.