I'm an English teacher in South Korea. I want to ask you whether this sentence is grammatical:

  • Jacob learned what people started to farm at school.

I think it's grammatical. I asked one native speaker and she said that it is grammatical. But the textbook claims that it's not grammatical. What are your views on this?

  • 1
    Yes, it's grammatical. No, it's not entirely natural. (Probably learned about would be more common.) It's also ambiguous. Is it something that people started to farm at school, or was what they started to farm learned about by Jacob at school? – Jason Bassford Jun 8 '20 at 7:13
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    A famous linguist and novelist called Orwell once formulated a rule of English: Break any other rule if what you're left with sounds awful. Essentially, grammaticality isn't the only criterion one should use. Almost all grammarians would agree with this (with varying reservations). About this sentence: I'll have the temerity to use a quote from @John Lawler. 'It's grammatical, but that's the only good thing you can say about it.' Grammatical but ... clumsy, and ambiguous. (Lack of context often makes individual sentences less acceptable in exercises.) So grammatical but still unacceptable? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '20 at 11:31
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    My guess is that, in this context, it means the same as "which". Not very natural, and very ambiguous. – Hot Licks Jun 8 '20 at 11:36
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    I aactually am not sure what you intend the sentence to mean. So it might be grammatical, but it doesn't make sense. – Colin Fine Jun 8 '20 at 12:09

Jacob learned what people started to farm at school.

The principle of clarity requires that the meaning is clear not only is to you (the writer), but that it would be clear to the average reader. Echoing the previous comment, it's unclear here whether "what" modifies "people" (i.e., "which people was it who started to farm"), which is not what you meant. Further, the prepositional phrase "at school" is placed too far away from the action it describes, "learned". So, moving it yields "Jacob learned at school [about] what people started to farm." I might even add, for clarity, "what kinds of crops": "Jacob learned at school what kinds of crops people started to farm." Further, I'd want to know why they only "started" to farm. Didn't they actually farm? Is the sense that farming was new to them, or they had returned to it after some hiatus? (The answer to this question depends on the context.)

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