Posted in English

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing 

Grammar is Hard
A Gramática é difícil

Language exchanges might just be the best thing about the Internet. We don’t need to go to lessons anymore, we can just reach out to other people through apps like Hellotalk or iTalki and learn from them as they learn from us, and it doesn’t cost a penny. It has taken me a while to get going but these days I have a really good network of people I chat to, or whose instagram and twitter feeds I read. 

The aspect of it that might seem like  a drag – having to answer other people’s questions for half the time – is actually one of the best bits because it makes you realise how utterly clueless most of us are about what we say and why. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has asked me a question and I have been floored. For example, one of the most common questions I get from lusophones is when do we use the various types of of past tense:

I worked

I have worked 

I was working 

I have been working 

On the face of it, this is quite simple, but the more you think about it, the more you realise that it’s not. We use them in ways that don’t seem to fit with their textbook definitions, and yet that use and misuse isn’t arbitrary or wrong. If someone uses the wrong tense, it stands out a mile. The whole business of tenses is much more involved than it seems. We also use the present tense in place of the past (in jokes mostly) and in place of the future tense (all the time) and don’t even realise it. We have different future tenses and different presents and they’re deployed in ways most of us can’t even begin to explain. 

I’ve also been asked what we say at the end of conversations and online chats – the equivalent of the Portuguese “beijinhos” (kisses) or “um abraço” (a hug). I couldn’t answer because it’s so dependent on your age, how well you know the person, where you are, what you’ve been talking about and half a dozen other things. There must be some deep-seated rule that we’re all more-or-less aware of but writing them down would be impossible, and even if you could do it, it would be out of date within a year. 

Portuguese people are the same. Quite often I’ll ask a question of three different people and get three different answers, or the person I’m speaking to will think for a bit and give a very hedged, ambivalent answer. I’ve recently written a couple of blog posts about grammar that are stitched together from several written and oral sources and I really got a sense of how subjective these things were. 

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter. Knowing the rules helps us to an extent but it’s not everything. We really need to use the language *a lot* to get familiar with it and get a sense of what feels right. 


Just a data nerd

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