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Learning X-words: ought, will, shall

Page history last edited by Bonny Hart 8 years, 3 months ago









Grouping the X-Words 


My students have quick recall when I ask them to memorize the X-words as only SIX words--eliding the families together and saying them as fast as possible:


Word 1, the "Be" family: am-is-are-was-were

Word 2, The disappearing "Do" family: do*-does*-did* (which I write with the asterisk as much as possible)

Word 3: The "Have" family: have-has-had

Word 4: Conditionals set 1: could-would-should

Word 5: Conditionals set 2: may-might-must-can (can has to go somewhere; why not here where it is so different?)

Word 6: The future: will-shall


I also set them up as descending groups in clumps-- vertically--so that visual recall kicks in. I know this is not news, but it serves for a modest pre-amble to the following response to a question that came in recently about "ought."


Like Linda and others, I dis-include "ought" because it is disappearing from the language. I am loathe to bump "can" to the "coulds" and group "ought" with the "musts," probably due to long practice with the set the way I have it.


Shall & ain't 


Note: in the 1950s all good English teaching required that "shall" could only go with the first person (I and We) and "will" could only go with the second and third person (you, s/he/it, they). The penalty was typically 5 points off grammar for word mis-use. I was frequently so penalized I believe. The rule made no sense, unless first person was communicated better by having its own X-word as reinforcement and redundancy. The rule has vanished, AND I note that "shall" is rapidly vanishing and no longer occurs in common speech, especially among my students. "Shall" will shortly follow the polar bear into extinction.


The negative "ain't," however, continues strong in the language pool, but I also recall in the middle 1950s that there was Hell to pay for including it in Webster's Dictionary because critics felt that to acknowledge it existed gave it status as a legitimate word. The WD editors replied that they described language and were not in the business of legitimizing it one way or the other. 


Best wishes to all, David E. E. Sloane 1-17-13


Comments (1)

Bonny Hart said

at 10:21 pm on Jan 24, 2013

Thanks David I like the way you've organized the X-words. I've been wed to the "jingle bells" song that Jim Lydon used. It works well for students to memorize the X-words quickly, but it does fall down when we get to the modals. I've been trying to find corpus-based research that updates modal frequency and use. Do you know of anything?? "Ain't" ain't going away -- we need something with one syllable for songs, otherwise "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone" would be "there isn't any sunshine when she's gone." Of course, I'm in favor of standardizing the verb "to be" and getting rid of the 3rd person "s", too.

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