Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton on shopping

15th October 2004 at 01:00
This one is for the shopping enthusiasts, but the point of it is to give you and your class a chance to explore vocabulary in a systematic way.

The area of meaning that we've chosen may not strike you as worthy of attention in an English class, but it has two great attractions for teaching. One is that everyone is an expert. The second is that it involves a group of verbs which display an interesting mix of meaning and grammar.

So here is a "shopping expedition", that might form the basis of an illuminating starter activity.

Let's look at the typical scene in a typical shop, a "transaction". A transaction involves four elements:

* a buyer

* a seller

* some goods

* some money (either concrete or abstract, such as a credit card).

These four elements are essential for any transaction, but we don't have to refer to them all every time we describe a particular transaction. It all depends on your choice of verbs, which can give different perspectives on the transaction.

For example, "buy" picks out the buyer and the goods, while leaving you free to mention the seller and the money if you want to: I bought a book (from him) (for five pounds). (Our brackets show elements that are optional.) In contrast, "charge" focuses on the seller and money, and this time it is the buyer and goods that are optional extras: he charged (me) five pounds (for the book).

These verbs aren't interchangeable; like all tools, each is adapted for a different task. It all depends on how you view the transaction - whose role you want to focus on. For instance, it's the shopper who decides whether and what to buy, but the shopkeeper who fixes the price; so you can pin the blame on different people by choosing "buy" or "charge".

There are four basic transaction verbs which allow us to choose either the seller or buyer as subject and either the goods or money as object.

* The buyer buys the goods.

* The seller sells the goods.

* The buyer pays the money.

* The seller charges the money.

You can show the importance of choosing words carefully by getting the class to imagine a situation for each of these verbs in which it would be appropriate and all other choices would be misleading.

The class will certainly notice two other verbs: "spend" and "cost". These are different from the first four because they don't have to involve money or a seller: you can spend time and a project can cost time. These verbs lead into a different area of meaning ("resource management"), and show how tightly interconnected our meanings are.

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