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What do the underlined phrases in these sentences have in common?
In each case the phrase 'belongs to' one of the words in it (the word in red). For example, in loving him, the -ing form is used because it follows stopped', in the Europeans in mathematics and philosophy, the pattern of 'noun + in + noun' belongs to instructed; and in of beating Australia, the preposition of followed by an -ing form is used because it follows chance. Phrases such as these don't occur at random because they are part of the way that stop, instruct, chance are used. We might say that all the underlined phrases in the sentences above are part of the 'grammar' of the words in red.
It is not only a few words, such as stop, instruct, chance and suggestion that behave in this way in fact most words do. That is, most words are found in phrases made of particular other kinds of words or clauses. These restrictions on how words are used are known as 'patterns'. The pattern of stop, shown above, is 'verb + -ing'. The pattern of instruct is 'verb + noun + in + noun'. Chance has the pattern 'noun + of + -ing'. Suggestion has the pattern 'noun + that - clause'. The pattern of interested is 'adjective + to-infinitive'; and the pattern of angryis 'adjective + with + noun + for + noun'. (Words can have more than one pattern - stop, for example, can be used with a number of different patterns: stop someone; stop to do something; stop doing something; stop someone from doing something; or just stop!)
Before we look at the advantages for learners in being able to identify word patterns, you might like to raise your own awareness of the different patterns that words have. Try these exercises in identifying patterns.
Look at these two sets of sentences. Each sentence from the first set matches one from the second set in that the word in bold has the same pattern. Match up the two sets. (For example, sentence 1c matches 2a because in both the verb is followed by ofand a noun - died of a heart attack and complained of a headache.)
In this short extract, describe the pattern of each of the words in bold. (For example, want has the pattern 'verb + noun + to-infinitive'.)
If you want us to give you a free quotation please telephone us on 700 6000 anytime to make an appointment to call and see you. If you do not require our services, we apologize for troubling you. Just throw this leaflet away. We will not knock on your door.
1 : 1a - 2c; 1b - 2e; 1c - 2a; 1d - 2d; 1e - 2b
2 : want - verb + noun + to-infinitive; give - verb + noun + noun; telephone - verb + noun; pleased-adjective + to-infinitive; appointment - noun + to-infinitive; require - verb + noun; apologise - verb + for + -ing; throw - verb + noun + adverb
Why patterns are important
Why do patterns matter to learners? Probably for three reasons: patterns and meaning are linked, so knowing a pattern helps a learner to guess the meaning of a word; patterns are important to accuracy and cause a lot of mistakes when they are mis-used; and knowing a word with its patterns encourages fluency. Let's take each of these in turn.
Patterns and meaning
When words share a pattern, they often share meaning as well. For example, the pattern 'verb + at + noun' is used with verbs meaning:
Speaking loudly and unpleasantly, eg
I just laughed at him.
She just screamed at me.
I shouted at her.
She often snapped at him.
She swore at her mum once.
Communicating with a facial expression or gesture, eg
They're all grinning at me.
We just wiled el each other.
You used to wave at me.
He winked at them.
Looking at someone or something, eg
Theo glanced at his watch.
He kept glaring at me.
Everybody looked at me.
He noticed a man staring at him.
Giving a bad opinion of something, eg
Our mothers grumbled a wasting
A spokesman his out at the tactics.
The prime minister lashed out at his own government.
The students protested at his decision.
His opponents scoffed at the idea.
Other meanings include: hitting or touching something: beat, grab, hack away, knock, pull, slash, stab, swing, tap, tear
Biting, eating and drinking: chew, gnaw, nibble, nip, peck, pick, sip, suck
Attacking : aim, come, fire, fly, rush, shoot
Having a size, level or weight: average out, bottom out, level off, peak, run, sell, stand, work out
A few other verbs : guess, hint, point (Information from Francis et al.)
Arranging these words in groups which share a meaning helps learners to make sense of and remember the pattern, because it shows that the verbs which are followed by at are not a random collection. It makes sense, then, when explaining vocabulary, to draw attention not just to the word itself, but also to the word and its pattern. Learners can be encouraged to record vocabulary with patterns, and to form groups of their own. For example, a learner may notice that patterns with at often indicate aggression - laugh at, glare at, shout at and so on - or movements with eyes, face and hands - look at, smile at, wave at and so on. Suppose the learner then meets some of these sentences:
The boys scoffed at the girls and their romantic ideas.
I was so miserable I snapped at the kids. He just glanced at the list.
A learner who does not know the meaning of scoff snap or glance might guess the general meaning through the similarity with laugh at, shout at and look at.
Patterns and mistakes
The second reason why it is important to draw learners' attention to patterns is that they are the source of many mistakes. Even advanced learners, who may have mastered tenses, articles and other such mysteries, may be unaware of the patterns words have. Because pattern is linked to meaning, the teacher can use this fact in explaining the correction. Here are a few examples taken from essays written by very advanced learners of English:
The verb discourage is not used with this pattern (though its opposite, encourage, is). The correct pattern is 'verb + noun + from + -ing", so this should be discourage students from trying... The teacher could point out that discourage is similar in meaning to stop and prevent, which have the same pattern.
* Not all undergraduates are given the privilege to stay in university accommodation.
The noun privilege is rarely used with this pattern (though the pattern It's a privilege to meet you is common). Much more common is the pattern 'noun + of + -ing' (the privilege of staying). The nouns advantage, benefit, distinction, gift, honour, luxury and pleasure are also used with this pattern.
* Teachers have the objective to help learners acquire natural English.
Again, the noun objective does not have this pattern: it does have the pattern 'noun + of+ -ing' (the objective of helping), along with aim, function, purpose and role.
Patterns and fluency
The advantage for learners in knowing patterns as well as words is that not only is their speech more accurate, it is also likely to be more fluent. This is because if a word has been learnt with its pattern, the learner can produce, not just one word, but a series of words, a phrase, together. For example, here is a native speaker of English talking about his addiction to cigarettes: My nan sometimes says to me that I get really moody when I don't have a cigarette and I keep snapping at her she says but I try not to do it but I just keep doing it and then she gives me a cigarette.
Each of the verbs in this short extract has a pattern, which translates into a recognizable phrase: say: verb + to + noun + /Aa/-clause (says to me that)
get: verb + adjective (get really moody) have: verb + noun (don't have a cigarette) keep: verb + -ing form (keep snapping; keep doing)
snap: verb + at + noun (snapping at her) try: verb + to-infinitive (try not to do) do: verb + noun (do it; doing it) give: verb + noun + noun (gives me a cigarette)
Together, these phrases, which are not fixed but are not random either, make up a large proportion of the utterance. So, although a learner may never have heard or said keep snapping at her before, it can be produced without hesitation by putting together the pattern of keep (keep snapping) with the pattern of snap (snapping at her).
Patterns in the classroom
Patterns, then, are important and useful, but they are also difficult for learners because they are so detailed. Learning about patterns means knowing many
different words. Some patterns have traditionally been the focus of grammar lessons (the difference between stop doing and stop to do or between remember doing and remember to do, for example). Now that we know that so many more patterns exist, the possibility of tackling all of them as teaching items becomes more remote.
A better plan is to consider making learners aware that words have patterns and that the patterns are meaningful. Often, awareness-raising exercises can be based on things that learners have read or listened to. For example, Willis and Willis suggest using the short text 'Auto-pilot' as the starting-point for consciousness-raising activities, and give some examples. The same text is given here with three sample exercises, focusing on the pattern 'verb + noun + past participle'.
Patterns tell us the different ways that words are used, and knowing a word properly means knowing its patterns and the different things they mean.
Learners need to 'know patterns', but this knowledge is complicated. Rather than trying to teach all patterns, we might simply try to make learners aware of their existence and their importance. If learners can be taught to recognise patterns, and if teachers can use them when explaining mistakes, part of the problem of 'sounding right' or 'sounding wrong' in English might be solved.
Note: The examples and concordance lines in this article are taken from the Bank of English, with acknowledgements to HarperCollins publishers and the University of Birmingham. Most examples have been taken from the spoken corpus of the Bank of English. Further details of the Bank of English can be found on http://www.cobuild.collins.co.uk.
Francis, G, Manning, E and Hunston, S Verbs: Patterns and Pract
Willis, D and Willis, J 'Consciousness-raising activities in the language classroom' in Willis, J and Willis, D (eds) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching Macmillan Heinemann 1996
Susan Hunston is a senior lecturer at Birmingham University, UK. She has previously taught English in Britain and the Philippines and applied linguistics in Singapore and at Surrey University, UK. She has also worked for Cobuild publishers, and is co-author of the Grammar Patterns series. S.E.Hunstonebham.ac.uk