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A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

written by on the topic of Education on May, 2009

Just recently one of our college students was working on her bus route when a Hispanic lady approached her with a question about English. To her credit, the Hispanic lady was taking a course to try to improve her skill in speaking and writing English. But she was puzzled about our language.

She indicated that she understood the following information:

For the Verb DO

I do
You do
We do
They do

He does

She also indicated that she understood the following information:

For the Verb LIVES

I live
You live
We live
They live

He lives

In thinking of all this, she was stumped by the phrase Where does he live? She said, “Based on my understanding of English grammar, shouldn’t it be Where does he lives?”

And her reasoning makes a lot of sense. We are supposed to say does he, not do he; and we are supposed to say he lives, not he live. If all that information is true, why is it incorrect to say Does he lives?

Our student had done a lot of work in an advanced grammar course at our college, including a study of the rather technical topic of finite and non-finite verbs. Because of this, she was able to answer the lady’s question about the rationale for the correct structure of this verb phrase.

When our student relayed the experience to me, she said, “I knew what was correct before I took advanced grammar at Golden State, but I couldn’t have explained this to anyone. I’m glad that I learned advanced information so I could answer an apparently simple question.”

This situation is a great illustration of a common human problem. Often, we have the wrong idea that we know more than we think we know because we know a piece of information. But there is often a missing piece of information that we do not know that makes sense of a situation.As Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

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