An Essay by Jeremiah Bourque
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The English language really begins with two words:
English verb phrases are defined by two things: what is definite, and what is indefinite.
Put differently, English verb phrases are defined by what is definite, and what is not definite.
“I” is English’s primary 1st person pronoun, meaning the speaker’s self. “Am” is the plain, present tense of the verb “to be,” the simplest expression of existence known in the English language.
Therefore, “I am” states to us:
- The speaker exists.
- The speaker is real.
- The speaker is an individual.
- The speaker is aware of his existence.
In philosophy, there is a famous phrase that, in English, is known as: “I think, therefore I am.” That is, the speaker can think, and as a result, he is aware of his own existence. If he was not able to think, he would have no proof of existence; but because he can think, he knows for certain that he exists.
Therefore, “I think, therefore I am.”
We may adopt a slightly different rule here: “I speak the words, ‘I am’; therefore, I am.” The person “is.” The person exists.
Therefore, when someone says, or writes, “I am,” we know for certain that the speaker, or writer, exists.
The existence of the speaker is definite. We know that the speaker’s existence is true and real.
We know nothing else.
Let me repeat that.
We know nothing else.
Everything except the mere existence of the speaker is completely unknown. “I am” does not tell us anything else.
This begs an obvious question…
“What am I?”
Let me use myself – I, Jeremiah Bourque – as an example.
- I am a man.
- I am thirty two (32) years old.
- I am a Canadian.
- I am an English tutor.
- I am an author.
- I am the author of Sun Tzu for the Modern Strategist.
I am all of these things, at the same time.
Everything in bolded sentences above after “I am” functions as a noun.
The “a,” “an” and “the” words are articles that are used in English to flag, that is, to announce, the presence of a noun.
The word “English” is simply a modifier of the noun that follows, tutor. I am a tutor. What kind? I am an English tutor.
What am I?
- A man.
- 32 years old.
- A Canadian.
- An English tutor.
- An author.
- The author of Sun Tzu for the Modern Strategist.
These nouns, and noun phrases, are simply answers to the question, “What am I?“
They are details.
These details are necessary because the original two words, “I am,” do not provide any details on their own.
“I am.” -> We know the speaker exists. -> Existence: Definite
“What am I?” -> We do not know what the speaker is. -> Details: Indefinite/ Not Definite
In the English language, all statements of fact can be divided into what we know, and what we do not know.
The style of English – the art of English, if you will – is in understanding what is certain, and what is uncertain; what is a solid foundation, and what is mere mist.
I have begun with something very simple; and yet, for English learners, this may not be so simple at all. After all, what we have seen shows us:
A statement that is self-evidently true, nonetheless begs an obvious question.
The question is either answered, or it is not answered.
Knowing how to tell the difference is a fundamental skill for learning good English.
At Learn Out Live in general, and for my tutoring and writing in particular, good fundamentals are never a waste of time.
The question is simply how to explain the fundamentals in a way that is simple.