Learning Basic English, Chap 4. Grammar
Does Basic change English grammar? That is a common question asked, and the
source of much confusion. When one answers, as it is tempting to do, with a summarily
emphatic, "No," just what is meant? That Basic doesn't teach un-English ways of putting
words together. It doesn't teach pidgin or any sort of bad grammar.
The Simplification of Grammar
But if you mean by the question, "Does Basic change the rules for putting words together?" the answer is a partial, "Yes," in that it gives only some few of the rules that
traditionally make up the grammar book of English. An English-speaking person reading
the Basic rules may say, "But what about this, and what about that? Don't you tell them
that broken on the quality list is part of the verb 'to break'? That reading on the list of
general names is formed from the verb 'to read'? That when you add -ed and
-ing to 'nouns' like 'walk' and 'work' you are really forming past and present participle of English verbs?"
Basic leaves such detail till a later stage. After all, people learned to speak and write
their native language very effectively long before there were grammar rules to explain to
them bow it was done. Why let an elaborate grammar system, worked out too much on
Latin models for English comfort, dictate procedure? Basic gives only practical rules that
help a beginner to get results. It gives him a straight, an orthological start. It saves him
from broken English by not teaching him verbs like "break." Even if he is prevented by
circumstance from going on to wider English in good time, he can always handle pocket
English grammatically with his Basic kit. And he can do this without having grammatical
terminology mentioned to him at all unless you want to use it.
Compare this state of things for a moment with the more common opposite extremes
When the seasoned instructor in beginning English is introduced to Basic texts he will
be surprised and then most likely pleased. "Now that makes sense," you will often hear
him say. "I'm only expected to drill on 18 verbs." This comes as a relief from the
average first-year course with its tedious memory load and endless opportunities for
errors which the teacher must correct -- errors like these, for example1 in a piece on
Autumn by a French Canadian boy who had been studying English not for one year but
for five. (And his essay, at that, was better than the average performance in his class.)
At present the death season announces us that the winter season is coming soon.
The winter is very interesting for the sports, but don't think at us only, let us look in our
imaginations the poor families who will cold in that season.
The leaves who are fixed on branch fly away. They make conspicuous winding before
fall down. The ground is covered of leaves.
During three months ago all is death. Many times the rain comes spread more this
melancholy scene. In the street the automobiles and the streetcars water the people
who go slowly to their work and they continue so quick. The sun who warmed again
seems blinded. Everybody thinks to enter the combustible for this cold season and to
buy the necessary clothes. In one month and a half everybody will be glad to see spend
this tiresome season and after enjoy the winter during three other months more gay.
Me, I am glad to see come the winter because it procure me my favorite sports.
Him, he is equally glad, one feels sure, to see come the end of this essay because it
procure him a chance to go back to his native language and relax. If this is what he does in writ-
ing "English," when be can keep to one subject without interruptions and have a
dictionary (very evidently) to hand and time to consult it, then of what practical use is his
second language going to be? About as much as the French of the average American.
And his neighbor is in an even more unhappy plight. For whereas you can see in the
main from his paper what the first boy ii trying to say, you feel uneasy with the other
who asserts that "the fall season advertises each of us that the winter will nearly arrive."
There it a rather disturbing finality to the second boy's "fall." Proceeding to a description
of one particular autumn day before this winter which never quite arrived, he remarks
that "the weather turned to the coolness," and then startles us into attention with these
words : "A cold wind came to the city and hundreds of falls leaves climbed to the trees.
Bear trees gave the city an appearance of melancholy."
What are the troubles of discouraged boys like these? It isn't words they lack. They
have been encountering too many words too soon and in too confusing a fashion. The
bilingual dictionary is their crutch and it lets them down. Thinking in French sentence
patterns and converting the words seriatim into English "equivalents" will not work.
However many English words you "know" -- and cognates and a dictionary will help a
French boy to spell out his melancholy, combustible, necessary and the rest,
though it may not keep him from confusing homophones like bear and
bare -- you can't talk "English" in French idiom and go far.
The Basic beginner doesn't try to use announce or advertise until he can
handle the plain verb say. He doesn't get beaten by procurebecause he
sticks to get, by arrive because he uses come. Things go
up and come down in Basic. You can send a film version of Fall into reverse
but not the facts, "Falls leaves" just don't get out of hand and climb up trees. And water
is kept in its place, too. Its place on the Basic list is among the nouns. Only experience
with language teaching makes one see what manipulatory problems can arise with
simple-seeming verbs like water, look, think, and warm, and what a
sound plan it is to keep the first two and thought to noun uses and their
extensions in the system, and warm to an adjective.
On the other hand, teachers of language have grown so used to wrong past tenses of
verbs like bind, to omissions of the verb to be in places where it is
needed, to confusions over where to include the sign of the infinitive and the article and
to the complete frustrations of
beginners, over the mysteries of the English preposition that they often don't believe
such troubles can be avoided. They need demonstrations of the effectiveness of
teaching texts like The Basic Way to English and Learning the English
Language, with results too good to be explained away on the grounds that the
teacher is an expert and the class particularly gifted or industrious. Naturally, students
of the language who have had a bad start with English but know they have invested
years of study in it at first may feel dismay at being turned back to a small vocabulary
and simple sentences. But the more intelligent they are the more readily they come to
see that drill with common statement patterns built up of widely useful words is what
they need. An able surgeon from Peru will ask for three weeks of Basic structure pat-
terns so that he can present a paper on obstetrics at the medical school where he is
visiting. The medical terminology he has in common with the doctors he is to address. It
is the frame-work of simple English statement that he needs, and he finds with relief that
Basic can give it to him. It does with broken English what he can do with broken bones.
But splints and plaster casts are necessary only when something has gone wrong. Take
the simple grammar of Basic from the start and this won't happen. Tie up your language
with events and objects, and your beginner won't talk nonsense -- or even write it. The
subject, verb, object sequence of a typical English statement can be worked out in
terms of giving and getting, putting and taking actual objects here and
there. Manipulation of abstract ideas with fictions from the general list comes only later. If that
seems childish, think back to moments of foreign travel and verbal vacuum, and the word order
of the schoolboy's "other months more gay." Such simple devices as postponing the use of an
indirect object with beginners (he gave her the flowers) till they have grasped the fuller form (he
gave the flowers to her) are well worth noting. Mr. Ogden's Panopticon, a contrivance of
concentric cardboard disks, with selected lists of Basic operators, directives, qualifiers, names,
etc., printed on the respective circles, builds typical English sentences for the gadget-minded
beginner as he rotates the disks. It assembles the necessary units of the key sentence pattern
of English automatically in their right order. Rotate the disks in turn and word substitutions
change the nature of the statement while maintaining the structure. Anyone keeping to Basic
and using a Basic text gets equivalent practice with all the essential patterns that he needs. A
graded Basic approach eliminates guessing.
Grading that postpones irregularities prevents interference with learning. Nothing is difficult if
it comes at the right time. It is possible to work out an effective order of detail for presenting the
elements of English and to adhere to it so that learning is assured. The boldest feature of the
grading of Learning the English Language is its postponement of all question patterns
until the word order of widely useful statement forms has been established. The beginner learns
to say clearly what and where things are and what he and others do, will do, and did with them
(suiting the action to the word so that he is completely clear about it all) before any inserting or
inverting throws him off his balance. Even the teacher doesn't use questions, but supplies him
with models instead, from which he can go on building accounts of simple experiences in a
gradually expanding nuclear word list. For any literate beginner the first book of 10 essential
steps gives a smooth and rapid advance into practical, widely useful English in a vocabulary of
200 or so common words, few enough for him to pronounce and spell and use without any
difficulty. Double the rate of intake of new words and you more than quadruple the probability of
lasting mistakes as to spelling, sound, meaning, and construction. The rest of Basic, in the
remaining books of the series, can be explained largely by means of these early words, and the
way out into wider English by means of Basic is then open.
The oral part of this same approach can be used, of course, with the not yet literate as well.
But reading and writing and are such passports to smooth transit in a twentieth-century world,
and the confirmation of oral learning through use of them so much a part of language progress,
that removing the barrier fast it the better expedient. The Commission on English Language
Studies has found that a graded approach to the use of the alphabet in reading will speed
learning in both writing and reading. Starting with Basic sentences composed with only seven
different letters, it mounts the slowly expanding alphabet-in-action upon the barest skeleton of
syntax in a text that exploits the use of visual aids to the utmost and eliminates sources of
common confusion. Words on Paper, tried first on discouraged illiterates in adult alien
education classes in Massachusetts and Washington, is finding its way into primary and
remedial classrooms and schools and hospitals for the handicapped, into any group, in fact,
whose special circumstance prescribes a gentle gradient and repeated confirmation of each
presented point. Take any nonreader through this simple little book and on through the structure
patterns of Learning the English Language and he has at his disposal a library of varied
reading on levels ranging from Pinocchio to The Growth of Science and General
History on the one hand, and the New Testament and Plato's Republic on the other,
all in a controlled vocabulary that, challenges while it confirms again, instead of confusing. (Two
of the texts, Keawe's Bottle and Basic for Business, have already appeared in
Braille; and Basic English and Its Uses will be issued through the Library of Congress for
the guidance of the blind who want information about the possibilities of Basic techniques.)
This library of reading will be the beginner's practice ground. Basic is "a vestibule vocabulary,"
as Professor Sheffield aptly styles it in a recent examination of contentious criticism,1"a medium lexically and grammatically streamlined for a communicative,
efficiency not approachable in any competing tongue." That great writings put into Basic may be
intelligently used for beginners seems clear to him as to most. Any suggestion that they are
competing with the originals would be ludicrous. He does not hesitate to remind scoffers, more-
over, that the neutral character of the controlled vocabulary has its points. "The flat, de-
emotionalized quality which critics have felt in Basic might be actually salutary in the life of our
time. With radio at work night and day, belching propaganda into the homes of the world, the
minds of men may be implemented for sanity by a common 'nuclear vocabulary of rigorous
explicitness' as against 'all smuggled appeals to feeling put forth as statements of fact.'"
Basic is not only salutary but suited to the radio age. In a world where the possibilities of film
and radio education remain relatively unexploited, its design assures it efficacy as a language-
teaching instrument uniquely suited to visual and auditory aids. Experimental film and radio
courses in beginning English already point the way to the wide usefulness of this practical
working model in those fields. Its "rigorous explicitness" is evident at once. A beginner in English
can have its meanings demonstrated so clearly that he gets a course in language as well as in a
language. His thoughts are turned on how words work, while the words he thinks about and with
are English words. Basic English and grammatical reform, as Ogden prophesied years back that
they would, are beginning to go hand in hand.
Look for a moment at some of the essential sentence patterns in Learning the English Language, Book One: (1) That is a man. (2) The grass is wet. (3) Two books
are on the table. (4) The girl put her hat on her head.
Reference to the world of experience will produce numberless names that could take the place
of man in the first pattern. Basic limits its names of things to 600 and many of these are "things
in the mind" (or fictional analogues). It is the rest, the visually demonstrable that are chiefly used
by the beginner in this pattern. If you want to tax his memory you can teach him as many more
of these as be will take. Thousands await him in wider English. Given contact with English-
speaking people, he will pick up additional names for objects all the time. The learning of them
is mere memory, not important enough to warrant attention at the expense of other things. The
word is, least explicable operator on the list, will cause more trouble than any of them.
The beginner is inclined to miss out the verb to be, this least functional of the Basic
verbs, in all the first three patterns.
Then see what a range of things from the Basic list he could substitute in turn for grass in
the second pattern -- almost as many as for man in the first. Most things can get wet,
though one would not mention the fact that water or any other liquid is wet, or think of fire as
wet, perhaps, since water -would put it out! Now keep grass in the pattern and see the
range of substitutions for wet -- every quality that grass may have or that you may think it
has. A stalk of grass may certainly be broken, as a plate or a pencil may be. Broken can
be thought of as a quality of grass as easily as bent. And so with other "participles," if
you would call them that. The student has no difficulty later in fitting derivatives like rooted,
dropping, pulled, flowering, etc., into this pattern, when he has learned to use the words
from which they are constructed (root, drop, pull, flower, etc.).
Next take the third pattern. Substituting in turn for two and books and on
and table will quickly show what factors in the world of experience limit the choice. Any
number of books a table might hold will replace two, or if you prefer, such qualities as
small or good or old. Change books and you are limited in your
replacements to things that will go on; table perhaps, or are you? Eyes may be on the
table in. one sense and thoughts in another (more fictional analogues). These
metaphorical extensions of on can be brought into play when the student is ready. But
restore books to the pattern and you return to the physical world. If you try now to
substitute for on you will find yourself limited by a few directives which describe positions
books maybe in with respect to a table -- under it, by it, etc.
The fourth pattern (x put y on z; give y to z, etc.) will
cover a range of operations. The work of every word in the statement may be made evident by
performing such an act while describing it. The doer of the act could be changed, or the
same person referred to by means of the grammatical accessory she. (Note that you
change nothing in the world of events and things when you substitute she for the
girl. ) If took is substituted for put,would any
other changes be necessary to keep the statement sensible? Taking one's hat somewhere on
one's head is done, of course. It is so commonly done that one would rarely have occasion to
comment on the fact. Taking it off the head is more often mentioned, or
giving it to a person or getting it from him. Substituting
appropriate words for girl, put, hat, on, head will show what factors govern choice in
every case. The student must fit his language to experience, as he knows it. Only practice on
this key statement pattern with the simpler words on the list in their simplest uses will give him
confidence and competence to proceed to fictional operations with put and take
and give ("He gave much thought to his work") which metaphorically extend such
relations beyond the physical world. "For Basic, four of the eight accepted parts of speech --
Nouns, Adjectives, Verbs and Prepositions-are pointers with functional and fictional
analogues,"2 Ogden reminds us. We teach the functional
before the fictional, and we get them operating smoothly in simple sentence patterns before we
move on to less demonstrable structure units like "This is the place where he put it," or "When
did the man say that?" or "He came because I sent him." Where and when and
because are drawn from the lower left-hand column of the list discussed on pages 11 -
34. "The distinction between the parts of speech which name constituents of the universe and
the grammatical accessories which enable us to fit them into the pattern of our thoughts is
forced upon the student by the Basic classification." 3 When
he has learned to manipulate all the grammatical accessories in his left-hand column the Basic
framework has been built, Adding special name in special subject fields, as needed and
as their signification can be grasped, is then a simple task. Keep the new words to noun form
and you have no more grammar to learn.
Much has been recently made of this fact with the instruction of foreign-language groups in
technical subjects. Chinese Air Force units must be taught to operate planes by American
instructors in Arizona and California. There is no common language of instruction and many of
the technical terms have no equivalents in Chinese, Moreover, some of the students speak such
widely different dialects of their own language that they have difficulty in communicating with
one another. The solution is obvious. In three weeks of Basic instruction at Luke-Field, Arizona,
Chinese pilots may be given such a grasp of English sentence patterns that they are ready to
start at once on their training in the air. They have been taught on an adaptation from
Learning the English Language which substitutes altimeters and
gyros for pots and pencils, used in the same sentence patterns, drilling the same operators and
Take a similar simplification of Tank corps instruction for Chinese soldiers in India. Men who
have had a few weeks of work on The Basic Way can use a Basic version of instruction
manuals which simplifies their learning in a parallel manner. Technical terms are adopted
sparingly and with Basic definitions where needed. Instructions such as "Tank units should
bypass towns in which the buildings are of masonry construction," will read, in the simplified
version, "Tank units are not to be used against towns in which the buildings are of brick or
stone," and so on. -
U. S. Naval Training Centers at Great Lakes, Illinois, and Camp Perry, Virginia, have found
similar simple restatements effective with non-readers and slow-reading recruits. For non-
English-speaking sailors, Learning the English Language gives needed language
instruction; and with illiterates, Words on Paper gets reading under way. Then, with the
help of Basic, the Blue Jacket's Manuall has been streamlined into a simple syntax and
vocabulary for the use of men with a reading level of approximately the fourth grade. An
explanation of the main characteristics of warships in Chapter V is handled in the simplified
version in this way;
(1) Size (2) Armament -- size and sort of guns (3) Speed -- how fast a ship can go (4)
Armor -- amount of metal protecting the ship (5) Watertight subdivisions (6)
Cruising radius -- how far the ship can go (7) Ability to evade detection -- to sail
without being seen.
The ensuing description
Ships are typed according to the predominance or combination of these main characteristics in their
construction. No one type has the maximum of all of them. The nearest to this ideal is the battleship,
which embodies size, armament, armor, watertight subdivision and cruising radius to a maximum in its
construction.... The sustained speed of battleships in the Spanish-American War was about 10 knots, in
the last war about 20 knots and should be above 30 knots in this one.
yields a simplified version which runs as follows:
Ships are built with these points in mind. No one type of ship has all these points. The battleship is the
only ship that has most of them. The speed of battleships is now around 30 knots.
This version cuts out some of the detail while building up essential words through Basic or
near-Basic restatement and replacing others by simpler language. The slow-reading English-speaking recruit need not be protected from familiar words like type and can, but
he benefits from the breakdown of complex verbs like maintain, demoralize, accumulate,
jeopardize, indoctrinate, evade,and obstruct, and fictional nouns like precaution.
Inconvenience, alteration, acclaim,and evolution which are all replaced as they occur
in the text.
Or again we get the simplification of international advertising on a technical level. The
Hercules Powder Company, for example, with new combustible and poisonous preparations
to be introduced to industrial plants all over the world, find a reliable translation of semi-technical
instructions into many languages hard to acquire and harder still to check. Insecticides and
varnishes are among the products this company. is launching with descriptive booklets in Basic
for world distribution. Words from the special science lists are used where necessary in
instruction pamphlets, and trade names and technical terms are borrowed and explained
"Insecticide is the general name given to chemical mixtures for destruction of insects,"
reads the foreword to Thanite under the Basic caption Quick Death to Insects.
"Among the most widely used forms of insecticides," it goes on, "are sprays' which are liquids
made with a small amount of insect poison mixed in water or petroleum oils. In use, these
sprays are forced by air pressure through small holes in-the mouth of a spray gun, and come
out in a thin mist or spray. This gets on flies and other insects, causing loss of the power of
motion, or death. A spray's power to put insects down is named its 'knockdown' in the trade,
while its power of causing death is its 'kill.' Good sprays are said to have high knockdown and
kill. They may have, in addition, 'repellency'; that is, they may keep insects away from the
places sprayed for some time after spraying."'
Such developments follow the pioneer effort of several years ago of the Kollsman Instrument
Division of Square D Company to put out a handbook of airplane instruments in the simple word
list and syntax of the system with small vocabulary additions as required. Wrenches and
pin vises and suction cups, essential equipment for the repairman's bench, are
used in the Basic text and readily explained through pictures and diagrams.
A general account of the way in which Basic can be used for the purposes of science is given
m Mr. Ogden's Basic for Science (Kegan Paul, 1943), successor to Basic English
Applied: Science (1931). The book gives a sampling from the Basic Science
Dictionary,,, now nearing completion, and lists of special vocabularies for the sciences
reprinted in the Appendix of this handbook. It reprints extracts from scientific writings at two
different levels: (a) science far the general reader and the foreign-language beginner1 keeping
in the main to the word list, and giving Basic definitions of any additional science words that may
be used; and (b) specialist writings in various scientific fields which make use of the general and
special science lists. Both use, as international, Latin names for plant and animal families and
The Chemical History of a Candle, of which an extract is reprinted in the next chapter of
this book, illustrates an intermediate stage of difficulty in which only the general science list is
used. Such writing is suitable for schoolbooks in the subject and for the foreign student who has
mastered the Basic framework. Confining the additional vocabulary in the main to substantive
form keeps syntax problems out.
A small number of special expansions from the Basic list are recommended by Ogden for use in
science (Basic for Science, page 45). For instance,
cracking -- the chemical process by which the complex substances
forming certain oils
are broken up by heat, etc.
earth -- electric connection with the earth
firing -- process of making such thing as bricks hard by heating in an
level -- instrument giving a line parallel with the sky line, for testing if
a thing is level
lift -- lifting power of a machine
and special uses of power, process, running, thread. Physics-chemistry, geology, biology,
economics, mathematics and mechanics have their extra 50-word lists of special vocabulary
additions as well as these. International science words provide additional terms for the experts,
though general science writing keeps to its vocabulary of 1,000 words (850 Basic, 100 general
science, and 50 terminology of the special field).
Such, then, is the framework of simple English at expanding levels for every form of discourse, general or technical; "getting down to
the roots of the purpose and structure of language," as Ogden explains, "and specially
designed as an instrument for the distribution of knowledge." "A polished instrument," Madame
Litvinov calls it. It uses few abstractions, and keeps facts where possible away from feelings. Its
poetry and Bible lists contain the most emotive words, and these are used in special
circumstances. The birds and animals on the poetry list are dove and eagle, hawk
and lark and raven; then wolf and fox and lion and
lamb, with the more general additions flock and beast. Additions as
always are to the vocabulary of Basic but not to the syntax.
With syntax growth the student, whether he is foreign-born or native, a beginner in English or
a remedial or disability problem, moves out into wider English. Obvious steps have already been
suggested. The near-Basic version of Plato's Republic will provide an instance. It
primarily makes recourse to the embedded verbs of Basic, the 365 words among the 850 which
will furnish additional structural freedom when the system has been mastered.
EXERCISE . Find the extra verbs in the following passage from Book VI of the
Republic, and the Basic words from which they-have been derived. Underline any other
examples of wider English that you can find in the paragraph and see what connection they
have, if any, with words on the list :
Adeimantus : "No one, Socrates, will attack any one of these points of yours. But, all the
same, when you argue this way those who hear you feel like this : They believe that -- with such
small experience in putting and answering questions -- they are being taken a little bit out of the
straight line at every step of the argument, and when these bits are all added together at the
end of the discussion, great is their fall -- they seem to be saying the opposite of what they said
at first. And, as players who are not good at checkers are shut in at last by the expert without a
move to make, so, in this other sort of checkers, which is played with words, not with bits of
wood, they are shut up and haven't a thing to say; and yet they feel this has to do with the
words only, and they are
still in fact in the right. I say this with the present discussion in view. For any one of us might be
unable to fight against you in words, question by question, but when it comes to facts, 'many will
say that those who go in for philosophy -- not as a mere part education dropped while they are
still young, but seriously -- become, most of them, very strange indeed, not to say rogues, and
even the best of them become quite useless to the state through the very thing which you' have
Socrates' answer to Adeimantus, coming later on in the Ninth Book (502), is perhaps
worth adding here as an appropriate end to an exercise on such a theme.
Socrates : "Well, what is anything to be judged by if not by experience, reasoning, and
discussion? Or will someone name a better test than these?"
We ask no more than that Basic as a gateway to wider English be judged by these.
KEY : Full verbs derived from Basic words in the extract include attack, argue, hear, feel,
believe, add, fight, and name. Less is used as a suffix on the Basic word use.
Checkers, many, philosophy, mere, rogues, and praising are additional words.
- - - - -
1 . A. D. Sheffield. 'The Baseless
Fabric of 'Basic' Criticism', College English, November, 1944
2 . Basic English and Grammatical Reform,, C. K. Ogden,
supplement to The Basic News, July, 1957. p. 13
3 . Ibid.
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