Saturday, January 28, 2012

Typical language vs cliché

On two occasions when I have presented the idea of vocabulary frames (see below) as a path to non-native speakers using vocabulary in more typical ways than they do when they work from an L1 starting point, one person in each setting has politely insinuated that such an approach must produce very clichaic language.

What people don't realise is that language is full of prefabricated chunks. And that's what makes speech and writing sound "natural". What I learn from this is the need to start with different assumptions when introducing the value of prefab language, vocabulary frames being but one type.

An example of a vocabulary frame is
X takes priority over Y
But can any noun phrase occupy the X and Y positions? They are relatively open semantic fields when compared with the next example.

In X regales Y with Z
  • regalers are unlikely to be trees
  • the recipient is unlikely to be a TV 
  • the gift is unlikely to be a window
The semantic category of these three positions is restricted, not by grammar rules, but by semantic preferences. If Z is chocolates, then X is likely to be male and Y female. But if Z is the far more likely stories/tales/adventures, Y is likely to be a group. The Macmillan dictionary is on the right track with its entries for regale. By saying what the word is and does, does it indicate what we can't do with the word? The first definition, to entertain someone with a story, contradicts the illustrative sentence which has the plural tales.

Likely = tendency, i.e., that which is probable.

In the slot and filler approach to grammar, the tree regaled the TV with a window is a perfectly acceptable sentence. No syntactic rules are violated.


  1. Yes, James, I have also come across the problem of the borderline between typical collocations and clichés in my lexicology lessons. A phrase or idea that is boring because people use it a lot and it is no longer original, according to Macmillan. The key word is probably the word boring. But that is a very relative notion, isn't it?
    By the way, how do you hyperlink and format words in your posts? Do you use html? I did not find any easier way.

  2. So this raises the question, is it better to be boring than wrong?

    But it's not really what I'm trying to get at. Plenty of mistakes occur in NNS language because vocabulary is not learnt/taught properly. My mis/ab-use of Czech being but one example.

  3. As to the HTML question, in this software (Google's blogger), there is an HTML editor in the original postings text box, but not in these reply boxes. Not even HTML hard coded would work here.

  4. HTML - I've just changed the type of Comment tool and now, as you can see below, you can use tags.