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I am learning a foreign language with the help of an excellent tutor who speaks enough English for me to be able to understand them. The deal is, essentially, I correct their English if they teach/correct Malaysian.

Today I got a bit stuck. They provided the following statement:

That not exactly correct

This is clearly understandable. The obvious response is:

That is not exactly correct

I'm struggling to explain why one is preferable to the other. Bearing in mind they have little-to-no understanding of esoteric grammar rules (same here, to be honest).

Google tells me it is the "third person singular of 'be'". Fantastic. What, exactly, does that mean? Also, how can I explain this using relatively simple English to a non-native speaker?

Any responses are very much appreciated, by myself as much as the ultimate recipient.

(And hell, if you want to pick holes in the grammar/vocabulary of this post, please do)

Aside: I have checked for questions related to this, but I'm sure you can appreciate that "is" is (oh the irony) a bloody difficult search query. A search query for "[is]" (questions tagged with "is") returns nothing, so again, please help :)

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English sentences require a verb. The first phrase does not have one. –  Gus Feb 3 at 18:32
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I would strongly urge you to consider using English Language Learners - you'll probably get better answers more targeted to non-native speakers. In your case, that is a noun (the thing you're talking about), and not exactly correct is an adjectival phrase (which describes an attribute of that). The verb "to be" is used to link the noun to the adjective, and it's "third person singular" because grammatically that's how we refer to one of anything that isn't either "me" or "you". –  FumbleFingers Feb 3 at 18:32
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Does a sentence require a verb? No. –  Matt Эллен Feb 3 at 18:33
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@MattЭллен aren't those examples phrases and not sentences precisely because they lack verbs? –  terdon Feb 3 at 20:02
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@terdon: that's circular reasoning. A sentence must only have a verb if you define a sentence as something that must have a verb. Which is only one of many possible definitions. "That not exactly correct." is a complete, syntactically impeccable sentence in a great many languages. That it is not in English has nothing to do with it not being a sentence, and everything to do with it being in English. Likewise, "No!" is a complete sentence in all languages, unless you go to the trouble of explicitly excluding it — and excluding it to what end, precisely? It's just a label that has no effect. –  RegDwigнt Feb 4 at 11:46

7 Answers 7

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The honest answer — especially for those who have little to no understanding of esoteric grammar rules, but also for those who in fact do — is "there is no reason". It just so happens that English is made that way.

"That not exactly correct" is a perfectly grammatical construction in Russian (or East Slavic languages in general). There, a copula is usually optional, in many cases not an option at all, and in fact for all intents and purposes you could say the word "is" as such does not even exist. (I am exaggerating just a little, and a native speaker or a linguist will understand what I mean. For everyone else, some examples follow shortly, so bear with me.)

Now, there is no intrinsic reason for English to be this way and for Russian to be the other. The only reason is "because reasons". Of course that's a disappointing answer to provide, so you actually can try to drive that point home by pointing out that there are also other differences, in the very same sentence, to which your tutor apparently is not objecting. So it's a small step for him to also not object to this one and just accept it how it is.

For example, note that in Russian (I will just go ahead and use that one as an example), the word "correct" in the sentence at hand would have to agree in gender and number with the subject ("that"), while English does not even have such a thing as inflection of adjectives for gender or number.

  • "She is correct, it is correct, we are correct" in Russian would be "she correct[female ending], it correct[neuter ending], we correct[plural ending]".
  • "There is a car in the street" would be "On street car".
  • "It is cold outside" would be "Outside cold[neuter ending]".
  • "Today is my birthday" would be "At mine today birthday".
  • "There's something strange about this language" would be "With this language something strange" — where both language and this would be inflected for case, and for a case not just English, but indeed most languages have never heard of: Instrumentalis.

Note how all these examples must have an "is" in English, and must not have an "is" in Russian. From there, it's a tiny step to accept the "that not correct" vs. "that is not correct" discrepancy, as it is indeed the norm and not an exception.

And the reason, again, is pure chance. There is no universal rule that every language must (not) use copulas, or genders, or cases, or aspects, or articles, or the dual number, or a future tense. Some do, others don't. And it took them millennia to develop that way, one tiny step at a time. You can't pin it down to one particular thing.

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It'd be cool if you added some example pairs of analogous sentences which use dash and the word "exist" in place of "is" to show how it can be avoided in certain cases, and yet retain the meaning. –  user1306322 Feb 4 at 1:27

In that sentence is is a copula.

It is used in your example to join a subject (that) to its description (not exactly correct).

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I, myself, am a speaker of three Austronesian languages (to which Malaysian belongs), and I can attest to the fact that some Austronesian languages simply don't have the be-verb. For instance, "She's beautiful" in Waray--a Philippine language--would be "Mahusay hiya" (Beautiful she.)

I understand you're not keen on overwhelming your student with a lot of explanation on grammar, and you mustn't. So, as a teacher of English myself, my advice is to use the lexical approach. Teach vocabulary in chunk/ phrases rather than by focusing on individual words. In sentences like 'She's beautiful," students must accept that that small word--the be verb--simply has to be there.

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It sounds like you haven't covered the basic types of verbs in English - the pure copula is one of them. It joins something you're talking about to one of its attributes, for instance, 'the stone is white'. The verb 'to be' is also used as part of tense formation, eg the present continuous, 'the student is learning'. It is used as an intransitive verb, where an action is described which starts and ends in the subject, eg 'I think, therefore I am', where the verb denotes existence. In your sentence, the verb 'to be' is used as a pure copula, with the sense 'That thing is a thing which is not exactly correct'.

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You are, of course, absolutely correct. The problem being, I am a native speaker, not a teacher. While I could certainly try and explain the basic types of verbs in English, I would get it wrong, and I don't want to derail somebody who has a fairly good grasp of English with my poor understanding of the reasoning behind it. Thanks to this question, and this community, I have a better understanding of sentence structure than GCSE English ever taught me. Cheers :) –  craig0990 Feb 3 at 19:20

I like to illustrate the copula using an equals sign, =. As in: He = a boy. The copula indicates (more or less) that the thing described on one side of it is equal to, or has characteristics equal to, what is on the other side of it.

I find my students usually accept this and find it makes sense. A heck of a lot more sense than the "is" in "is going", for example...

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I've been teaching English to Spanish speakers. They tend to omit the subject of a sentence, especially the formal subject "it", saying things like "Is difficult for me" or "Is hot today".

In these cases, I try to explain to them that English always needs a subject and a verb, so much so that even in cases where there isn't any logical subject, you must add a non-existent formal one. (Who is doing the raining, anyway? And what's that that is three o'clock?)

In the original poster's question, the matter was one of omitting the verb "to be". In my experience, for practical purposes of language learning, the answer must be: "In English you must always mention the subject and the verb".

Questions of "why", unfortunately, don't have much place in language learning, since they all fundamentally lead to "because it is so". English basic grammatics requires many things that are not explicable other than through intensive linguistical study (which is not the same as learning a language), but they are learnable. Otherwise, you'll end up trying to explain what the "do" in "Do you like coffee?" means.

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Arabic has the same phenomenon for the verb "to be". A method that fairly works is asking him/her to make a broken sentence in their own language, and asking them why it is marked by faulty syntax -- reflecting thus on one’s own language to enhance linguistic sense for foreign languages.

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