In Defence of Stephen Jay Gould

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Wed Dec 22 15:08:31 MST 1999

ilagardien at wrote:

> ... English is my second language and as a writer I have been using it
> (exclusively) for almost 20 years... I certainly wish I had a better grounding
> in the English language, especially grammar; not that I am particularly
> pedantic, it just helps, sometimes...

When you learn a foreign language it is (usually) necessary or useful
to study its grammar systematically. (Though remember that people
have been speaking for around 100,000 years and the oldest
grammars are really only yesterday.) For speakers of many
languages it would be useful, in learning English, (1) that nouns as
well as adjectives can modify other nouns and (2) that when a
noun and an adjective modify a noun the order is adjective
noun noun. Hence "fine Spanish teacher" (compare fine teacher
of Spanish) but *not* "Spanish fine teacher." And if you say
of someone that she is a French Spanish teacher you know that
she is a woman from France who is teaching Spanish. In other
words, in that phrase "French" is an adjective and "Spanish"
is a noun. "Spanish French teacher" would be a woman from
Spain who is teaching French -- in that phrase "French" is
an noun and "Spanish" is  an adjective.

But no native speaker of English needs to know all this. They all
do it perfectly without having the slightest idea in their heads
about nouns and adjectives.

The more two languages resemble each other in their syntax,
the less grammar a speaker of one has to study to learn
the other one. An acquaintance of mine once translated a
textbook for Bulgarian written in Russian to use as a textbook
to teach Bulgarian to English speakers. Now it seems that in
Bulgarian great use is made of both aspect and tense, but
in Russian little use is made of tense. Huge sections of the
textbook could be skipped in preparing it for English
speakers -- all those sections devoted to teaching Russian
speakers how the Bulgarians used tense. English speakers
already knew it.


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