Monday, 29 June 2015

Discussions--Seris 16--ELT Professionals Around the World

Please read Post 68 and then come back here. Thank you.

Discussions—Series Sixteen
Topic 53
When time is it???
Why do we say; "what time is it?" Shouldn't correct grammar be "when time is it?"
Brian Crosson Owner/ operator at

No - that is not correct grammar. Words like "when" are "case-marked" nominals (adverbs) that combine a question marker (wh-) plus a reference marker ("-en").

"when" = at/to what time. It is a word that "includes" a prepositional reference (in historical terms, it is a case-marked word).

"then" = at/to that time.

"now" = at/to this time

"where" = "at/to what position" ("whither" = to what position, whence = from what position)

"there" = "at/to that position" ("thither" = to that position, thence = from that position)

"here" = "at/to this position" ("hither" = to this position, hence = from this position)

"What" is a "neutral" form, and corresponds to "that", "this" and "he/she/it". Just as "that" comes before other nouns so as to make a general "there" reference, "what" comes before the same nouns to show that we are asking a question.

that man, what man

that house, what house

that person, what person

that time, what time

We would no more say "then time" for "that time" as we would say "when time" for "what time".

Fascinating, Rod. Thanks.

Thank you for sharing, Rod.

And, of course : "when it's time to let go, [then is the time] you must let go."

Thanks Rod amazing comments

Rod, please consider publishing a concise "English For Dummies" book that could contain all your precise English language lessons. On this I am serious. The Dummy series exists, but I don't believe it has an English one.

"I'm telling you that it's time to let go". So much of the time written vs. spoken word diverge. I need that book for dummies to exist.

In Chinese the rough translation is "when time is it". I understood the English rules. Some English rules are overly complicated and counter productive. If we want to have a truely global language shouldn't English begin to simplify?

What time has a different meaning than When. What time refers to the specific time on the clock. When is a more general reference to time as in day, month,, year, century, season, etc. That's just a quick an dirty look at it as a native speaker...nothing I would want to frame and hang on the wall. Languages have no obligation to be logical. They are as they are in the way they convey meaning.

Russell - there is this one :

However, from what little I have seen of it - it focuses on old-fashioned, "prescriptive" grammar.

Maybe I need to win the lotto or something so as to be able to devote 100% of my time (apart from family, etc.) to something like that.

As Jeff says - languages - or rather, people - have no obligation to be "logical"; and, unfortunately, our sense of "language logic" is often based on what is "logical" for our language or the other language we have learnt, and/or "mathematical" logic. Language/human logic exists, but it is different from mathematical logic (e.g. two negatives do NOT make a positive - except when i is clear that a negative is being negated).

"When time is it" is no more or less logical than "what time is it". In a way, "what time is it" is more logical becuase the structure is simpler (Q-word + noun vs Q-time + noun).

If English is to become a global lingua franca (which at present is probably not likely), the simplification will naturally happen. This is what happened to Latin - the "lingua franca" version took on its own life and led to the modern Latin languages. We cannot "legislate" for simplification - and shouldn't, because our concepts of simplification are not necessarily real simplification (they can - and often do seem to be - complication).


PS - however, in no way did Vulgar Latin acutally become more "logical" or less "logical" than Classical Latin. If anything, in some ways, perhaps Vulgar Latin became even less "logical", with more irregularities as word forms and the like "simplified" which actually led to more "complication".

For example:

Latin ("h" pronounced as in English and German):
habeo "I have"
habes "you have"
habet "he/she/it has"
habemus "we have"
habetis "you have"
habent "they have"

Italian (the most direct descendant of Latin; the "h" in the following is a silent letter)

What happens in reality is that - when a language "simplifies" as a "lingua franca" - it simplifies towards the languages of the people who use it - which means Germanic (German, Dutch, etc.) ideas of "simplified English" are different from Latin (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) ideas, and from Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.) ideas, and from Sub-Continent (Hindi, Gujarati, Bangla, etc.) ideas, so on. I was reminded of this yesterday evening when I overheard two people talking in our office - one is Italian and the other French. They were using "English as a Lingua Fanca" - but the structures were so obviously Latin language that perhaps not only would a native English speaker probably have found it difficult to understand, but also non-Latin language speakers of English.

What~when~how~why~who the hell/heck/devil/f***/crap/in heaven/in God's name/on earth/on earth and in all the heavens above/in the world/in heaven's name/in God's name/in Christ's name/in name of all the little fishes of the sea (etc etc) - name your favorite and most colourful emphaticising phrase.

"Who in the world would have done that?"
"When in heaven's name did you decide to get married?"

The prepostional phrases are reinforcers that refer to all the possible reasons or people or times or whatever that are included or on the totality of the object in the prepositional phrases - or in the case of "in God's name" and the like the reference to a higher power that envelops the source of the answer - or (hell/devil, etc.) the persumed negative cause of the event being question.

Not a worry at all. Happens.

Rod you are amazing. None of us knows as much about grammar as you do but we all teach, probably pretty well?
How about English is idiomatic. Up the road and down the road mean exactly the same thing. Grammar isn't the glue that holds English together and it never was.
We are seeing a dramatic loosening of prescriptive grammar as English has evolved into a lingua franca where 10 grammar rules suffice internationally (we teach about 208 with exceptions). .
(I thought Vulgar Latin was French lol)

Thanks, Judy.

It is not how much you know - but what you do with what you have. However, the more you know, hte more impressed the students are with you - and they are the ones that count.

All languages are equally idiomatic - our mistake is to think that we can "computerise" it - put it into neat "boxes" based on our intellect rather than learning to trust our instincts and go with the language that is. We try to battle with a "what-should-be-that-can-never-be".

As David Paul points out - we transfer words to "pictures" - and not only the written form, but also the spoken form (keeping in mind that the spoken form blends in with music, he could have said as well). Rita Baker also demonstrates this - the imagery of language. As her demonstration with "over" shows - there is no such thing as a "phrasal verb" ("phrasal verb" is one of the most useless sets of "rules" of Englsih ever devised).

To really understand language - we have to feel it, to "image" it. Once we get to that point, then we see the "truth" in English (or any other language) not actually having as many rules as some like to think (208 is a summary besides what some can claim) - and also why there is no such thing as an exception.

PS - Rita Baker in the Eavesdrop Series.

Can't compete with Rod's erudition (and I wouldn't want to) but just to add something - in all the languages I know something about - Spanish, French, Italian and Catalan - it's "what time" not "when time". Are you thinking of a language that does say, "when time", Brian?

BTW, Spanish seems to make a distinction between "when" and "at what time" (it's one of my recurring mistakes not to distinguish them!). Do any varieties of English clearly do so?

As far as I know, Nicholas, no English dialect (or any language I now) makes a clear distinction between "when" and "at what time" whebn we are referring to the time in question (When does it start = at what time does it start = what time does it start).

Asking the time does not necessary have a "what" or a "when". There are other choices in langauges of the world. In Mandarin, the appropriate question-word apparently is jǐ "how much/many":

Mandarin : What time is it (now)
Xiànzài jǐ diǎn le ?

Literally : now how-many point/degree(=o'clock) perfective-aspect (something like "Now how many o'clock(s) has it come to?")

This is the same in Malay-Indonesian (jam berapa? literally time how-much?).

Isn't Rita amazing?!!! I'm going to look for more footage of her just talking about how English works. I learned more listening to her at that event than I did the whole time I was in TESL training. She is far more accurate too.

TESL training is based on the concept of getting people "classroom safe" - at least having some knowledge of what to do in a classoom and not make a fool of yourself. It is impossible to gain much knowledge of how English works from the average EFL course - simply because that is not the aim of the course.

My background is analytical, applied, comparative-historical, anthropological-sociolinguistics, etc. - as well as years of ESL/EFL language teaching, and not just English teaching. I (like some other EFL teachers I know) have an edge where knowledge of English is concerned based on that external stuff.

Mosty EFL teachers, like Rita - do amazing stuff by being basically naturally curious - and going out of their ways to both think about things and to discover.

It is always sad when I come across EFL teachers who have been teaching 20, 25, 30 years who are still teaching with the (lack of) concepts of when they started out.

Speaking of 'classroom safe' if a student (or anyone) asked me, "When time is it?" I'd tell them the time without hesitation and without correcting. Message received. Communication perfect. Students are smart people who don't speak English - they'll figure out speaking English on their own (as you did) if the environment is safe enough.

Teachers have to be careful about what they put up on the board - students (half the time by not paying attention) write it all down diligently and take it for ganted that it is all "gospel".

I have had a complaint from adult students who do various language courses (English, French, Italian, etc.) in our organisation - the teacher wrote a word with bad spelling (sometimes alternatively bad grammar) on the board or somthing similar - and therefore is a "crap" teacher. Sometimes the student has a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/spouse from the country, and that other person then says - that teacher of yours is bad, they don't even know how to spell - or is teaching bad grammar - or whatever. Or the student later on looks the word up in a dictionary or something like that.

On following up on the "complaint" - in ALL cases, it was because the teacher wrote up the MISTAKE that students are supposed to avoid - and the students just did not get the point.

A pleasure.

interesting! if I have to translate it from my first language, it will be "how much time is it?"

"If we want to have a truly global language shouldn't English begin to simplify?"

Languages have to have a certain degree of complexity if they have different functions: Pidgins used between slaves and their masters or for just doing business cannot serve for writing poetry to the one you love. You could convey the concept by saying "I very like. How much?" (or suchlike), but it wouldn't be very romantic.

Bear in mind, also, that languages have to maintain a redundancy of around 50% in order to be properly comprehensible. The phone would not work otherwise (a regular house phone conveys just 2 harmonics), and a person with a cold would be effectively dumb.

Languages regularly simplify, because of human laziness, but they have to create redundancy (i.e. complexity) in some other way to make up. Remember that the king of northern France, at a certain point, let his court get so lazy that the couriers couldn't understand each other, and he had to send ambassadors to the South to request the permission of their king to allow them to use some good old Occitan words.

Now where did contracting "I have" get us British??? It got us to have a contracted form the same as that for "is" in the 3rd person. So we had to use something distinctive (both phonetically and otherwise) to reinforce what we meant. Thus, we introduced a present perfect form, which all elementary school teachers teach - and most kids get to university and don't realise that "I've got" is a present prefect (although the concept is the same with get), and it's a mess! The Americans were somewhat more sensible, generally speaking, although not always. Gotta go...

Courtiers, sorry. However, the others would also have been important!


Which resident of the United Kingdom has the largest feet? We have a list of those, even though it's a long one. It's not infinite. What is the time? Now, there is a limited number of those too, within the day. I can explain to kids who ask me (very frequently) why we say What is your name? and not Which is your name? Many languages ask "How are you called?" so, given that the "which" ones I know have a list of Saints' days they should adhere to, that's not a problem. Explaining the difference between how and what is not a problem.

Students have asked me "Which is the hour?", but no one has questioned any correction I might have made. They just "get it". But, thinking about it, it's not that simple.

Can you explain?


I've answered that Helen.

That is the question I always use for my students to help them understand verb tenses

Our people are habituated and always try to copy others, never check, so that grammatical errors are many.

"What" in this context is an interrogative adjective; "when" in this context is an interrogative adverb. "Time" is a noun; nouns take adjectives, not adverbs. (Gerunds take adverbs, but gerunds are verbal nouns). See (highly regarded in adademia) for detail.

It is interesting how terminology varies. Strictly speaking, "what" and "which" are interrogative articles - but what Peter just wrote does appear in so many grammar books and descriptions:

definite article : the (the happy man)

demonstrative article : this/these/that/those (this happy man)

interrogative article : which, what (which happy man, what happy man)

The reason that some traditions call it an "adjective" is that it comes before the noun. If such traditions really analysed sentence structure, they would notice very quickly that "what" and "which" fit into the same slot as the other articles, not in the adjective slot(s).

this 'English for Dummies' concept appeals to me, Rod!! I think you should pursue it....

"It is not how much you know - but what you do with what you have. However, the more you know, the more impressed the students are with you - and they are the ones that count." Rod, that is exactly right!

But... your audience has to be receptive/engaged enough to appreciate it as well.

The more you know - the more you know how to engage the audience - unless you want to end up in an ivory tower.

Regarding the view that "what" and "which" are interrogative articles, rather than an interrogative adjective and an interrogative adverb, this divergence of opinion is but part of the 'battle' between present-day linguistics and traditional grammar. The crux of the matter is that there is a distinction between parts-of-speech and linguistic function. A noun can function as an adjective, for example "business necessity", but grammatically it will always be a noun. "The" is an article (i.e. that is its part-of-speech) but it functions as a determiner; "this" and "my" function as determiners but their part-of-speech is adjectives (demonstrative and possessive). Understand this duality and most of the conflicting views can then be reconciled.

Brian, I see concern for your students in your ‘If we want to have a truely global language shouldn't English begin to simplify?’ But then if other non-native speakers of English request for such accommodations, for one thing English wouldn’t be English and for another there’d be no end to accommodations. And can English handle all these? Or are they desirable or even necessary?

When we learn another’s language, we should learn it as it’s being spoken; of course we may have our own varieties but they can be only for ‘local’ purposes. If we wish to engage with those other than ‘us’, then we’ll have to learn it the hard way.

I’m here imagining a situation and responding to it, nothing more than that, Brian