Tag Archives: Language Use

Aspects of contemporary English – TESOL Italy 2015 talk by Jon Hird

 

IMG_20151114_133837This is the fourth of the series of posts on the talks I attended at TESOL Italy 2015. You can read the previous ones here:

  1. ELF and TESOL: a change of subject? plenary by Henry Widdowson
  2. Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions. by Chiara Bruzzano
  3. ‘How to join communicative pressure and cooperation in a speaking or writing activity’ by Paolo Torresan

The session started with prompts for questions from which we had to formulate correct questions to ask our partner. Afterwards, we had to try to remember the information we heard, and check with our partner it was right by asking tag questions. This can be seen below:

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But why bother with the complexities of the ‘correct’ question tags, if we can simply use ‘innit?’ in all cases. Or can we?

Of course, many would argue that ‘innit’ as a question tag is uneducated, uncultivated, vulgar and – worst of all – ungrammatical! But is it? Jon Hird’s talk aimed to question the prescriptive attitude to the language, and through vivid and hilarious examples of language (mis)use show that any language, especially one as extensively used as English, is a living thing which never stops evolving and changing.

However, attempts to dictate and prescribe what is ‘correct’ English are by no means new. Already a few hundred years ago Jonathan Swift was convinced that attempts must be made in order to ‘ascertain’ and ‘fix’ the English language forever. A very often used argument to support this is that otherwise the language will inevitably decay, and that ‘vulgar’ forms will become the norm, while the ‘cultivated’ and ‘correct’ ones will be forced into oblivion (you can read my post about what is ‘correct’ English here, and a listening lesson plan on a similar theme here).

Despite such claims, there is of course no evidence that this might have happened in the past or might occur at any time in the future. Interestingly, as far as English is concerned, there are only a few dozen grammar features that are considered non-standard. So in the next part of the talk, we look at some examples of non-standard English.

The first example is by Jagger: “Come off of it”.

The second one is now spreading very rapidly (as a grammar plague?), not just in English, but also in other languages (it’s definitely the case in Polish and Spanish, and a teacher sat next to me said that Swedish was one of the victims of this grammar ‘vulgarism’ too). So, many English speakers now use less both with countable and uncountable nouns. It has become so common that we hardly notice it any more, unless a grammar pundit points it out. This results in famous companies making grammar ‘mistakes’ in their ads. For example, British Airways might tell you that there are “less than 10 seats left”. If you’re thinking of grabbing a quick coffee, go for Starbucks, because they are a green company, and as they put it: “Less napkins. More plants. More planet”. Can’t argue with that.

Next comes the example of the infamous tag question we already saw at the very beginning, innit? The tag is so widespread, that it’s well bad, innit? It was wicked, innit? He’s not coming, innit? And so on. Just stop by and listen to how people speak. There’s no more room for the ‘correct’ question tags. They’re too cumbersome. Too long. Too varied. Innit?

Another example of non-standard English is teenspeak. One of the examples that entered ‘adultspeak’ and became quite widespread and popular a few years ago was chillax. What a brilliant word! I remember hearing it for the first time, and it was almost a revelation. Now you could chill and relax at the same time. And you had a word that described it! Well bad, innit? Unfortunately for the teens, as soon as they found out the word was spreading among adults, they had to drop it. It wasn’t wicked any more.

But if we had to choose a word in English that was by far the most widely spread and used more frequently, it would have to be ‘like’. Jon shows us a transcript of his teenage son speaking which very clearly illustrates that ‘like’ is everywhere now:

IMG_20151114_140803

One more example Jon gives is LOL. First used on the Internet, it’s now started an exciting and adventurous linguistic life of its own. In short, it’s gone completely out of control. So now you can say: lol at you! Lols! That’s so lols!

I literally lolled when I saw these examples.

For some, this is a clear indication that language is going to the dogs. And if this decay is to be prevented and reversed strict measures need to be taken. For example, banning certain words from use:

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One aspect of English that tends to drive some grammar pundits up the wall is the uncanny ability of the English language and its speakers to turn any word into a verb. Even LOL is now a verb. Anything can be a verb. As Humpty Dumpty put it, the only question is, who is to be the master. And verbing, as it’s sometimes called (yes, apparently ‘verb’ is a verb too), has been going on for centuries. According to Pinker, “It’s what makes English English”.

But of course, certain people don’t like the way in which this process ‘impacts’ the English language. For example, BBC went as far as banning the use of ‘impact’ as a verb. We can only see how this might ‘impact’ the English used by BBC reporters, but looking back at the history of English, ‘impact’ as a verb is there to stay.

There are many other more interesting examples of verbing words in English, though. For example, if you’re on Twitter, you can ‘favourite’ others’ tweets. No one questions that now you ‘google’ things. However, you might want to ‘wikipedia’ it too. And if you’re playing Angry Birds, well, you can angrybirds it up, yo!

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So, did you have a good time conferencing? I certainly did. And Jon’s talk was well bad, innit?

PS The issue English teachers are faced with is whether any of the above uses of language should be taught in class. They’re incredibly widespread, and students – especially the ones studying in an English-speaking country, or watching a lot of TV and films in English – are bound to come across them sooner or later. Would you teach ‘innit’, ‘like’ or verbing to your students? Why (not)? Let me know what you think in the comments section.

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What does it mean to speak correct English?

Some time ago, James Taylor’s article: ‘Why I wish I was a non-native English speaker teacher’ raised quite a bit of a stir because of its content and thought-provoking title. Interestingly, one native speaker insisted in his comments that the title should have been ‘Why I wish I WERE’. I wish I was is wrong, uncultivated and déclassé, he explained. Despite the fact that according to Swan’s English Language Usage, the Ngram Viewer (thanks for pointing it out, James Taylor), and to the majority of English speakers it sounds correct, the person was adamant. And furious. They really didn’t like I wish I was. This made me wonder: what is correct English and who says so?

We are very often told that English (and Spanish, Polish, the whole lot) is deteriorating at a break-neck speed. The young corrupt the language by inventing strange words and misusing the existing ones. The non-Native Speakers do so by 10-items-or-lessmisemploying grammar and vocabulary. As in the example above, some of us might indeed have very strong feelings about what is right and wrong language usage. We also tend to believe that there is only one, correct and proper way of using alanguage. For example, take the infamous TESCO sign ‘Less than 10 items’ queue. Or the uneducated use of relative pronouns: “the man who I saw”. Surely, ye’all agree that it should be: fewer than and the man whom I saw. How uncultivated to think otherwise, ain’t it? Worse still are the unruly nouns used as verbs, which negatively impact the language. You and me both know we shouldn’t of say it.

But who says it is wrong? The native speakers? The linguists? Are there any immutable rules of correct language use? I’d like to argue that our feelings and believes about what constitutes correct grammar and language usage are for the most part arbitrary, biased, illogical and above all – transitory. They are like clothing fashions – what was in twenty years ago, might be completely passé now.

Yet, in the heat of the moment it is easy to forget that any language is a living and evolving creature. A product of hundreds, thousands, millions, and even – in case of English – billions of speakers. It’s also been around for centuries. In that time it has changed completely. And we need to understand that what for us seems good grammar and correct English, might have seemed completely wrong a century or two ago (not to mention Old or Middle English times), and vice versa.

For example, Aunt Betsey from Dickens’ David Copperfield is a matron who speaks in a very educated, schooled and elaborate manner. Yet, she says: he don’t, and it don’t matter. Since Betsey belongs to the upper class, we can safely assume that to say it don’t was perfectly acceptable socially. Otherwise, she would have never said. However, to our ears it clearly sounds wrong. As does: this street is badly lighted, as said by one of the characters in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published only a century ago. It should be lit, shouldn’t it? Well, actually, most of Mirth’s contemporaries would have found lit horribly déclassé. For them it was lighted.

correcting grammarLiterature is full of examples like the two above which show us that what is considered proper English is, and always has been, in a flux. For example, in the nineteenth century, builded and swimmed were the appropriate past forms of build and swim. Were they speaking ‘bad’ English back then? Of course not. Neither do we. For there is no logical reason why built is ‘more correct’ than builded. It’s a product of arbitrary preferences of English speakers. And grammarians also have such preferences.

For example, Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage does not like the singular they, as in: if a student fails an exam, they can retake it in September. He also objects to aggravate being used in the sense of annoy, which he feels is uneducated. In the same fashion, Strunk and White in The Elements of Style argue that hopefully, as in hopefully, it won’t rain tomorrow, is clearly wrong (despite the fact that supposedly, or certainly in the same example are not). More recently, this point was also brought up by Heffer in this article. He doesn’t like how people misuse hopefully (and a score of other words for that matter). I say he doesn’t like because his arguments (as those used by Fowler and Strunk and White) are completely arbitrary and based on his personal feelings and preferences about language usage.

Nevertheless, we often feel compelled to believe the language experts. After all they should know. What I personally object to, is how they pick and choose on a whim what language usage they like, and then deem it approprate. For example, Heffer and Grammar-Police-to-Correct-and-Serve-T-Shirtsothers think that we – the uneducated – corrupt the correct and proper meaning of words. Strunk and White are appalled by the uncultivated use of the word obnoxious to mean extremely unpleasant or annoying. According to them, we must preserve the original meaning which derives from Latin obnoxiosus, (ob = towards, noxa = harm), that is, exposed to harm. Heffer, among many other usages he personally dislikes, highlights decimate to mean devastate or destroy. Surely, everyone knows that it originated over a thousand years ago as a form of Roman punishment whereby every tenth legionary was killed. Hence, it is absurd to say: the population was decimated by 50 per cent.

Yet, if we wanted to be consistent, and to follow their logic in all cases, we would not only deprive ourselves of meanings that have become the most familiar and commonly applied, e.g.:

  • morbid – from Latin meaning diseased (and not interested in unpleasant subjects)
  • fabulous – from Latin meaning legendary or mythical (and not great, brilliant)
  • fantastic – from Old French meaning unreal, not from this world, which in itself is a corruption of the original Greek word, which came to French via Latin, phantastikos, from phantazein ‘make visible’, phantazesthai ‘have visions, imagine’, from phantos ‘visible’ (related to phainein ‘to show’)

but we would also end up with some truly bizarre meanings:

  • hysteric – from Latin “belonging to the womb”
  • bizarre – from Italian via French meaning brave
  • peruse – perhaps from Anglo-Norman French peruser to mean use up, wear out

Which “original” meaning should we preserve? Surely, nobody would argue that hysteric means “belonging to the womb”. Yet, we are told, hopefully is not a real word and that obnoxious should mean “exposed to harm”.

Hefferians will also cringe at how some nouns are misused as verbs, for example to impact or to google. Again, this is purely arbitrary and usually concerns words that are new in the lexicon. However, Strunk and White still dislike to chair, or to host. Peculiar, isn’t it? Indeed, because if we followed this logic, saying to copy, to worship or to silence would all be wrong since all of them – and thousands more – were originally nouns.

Even more peculiar is how some will still insist on using whom as the object relative pronoun, as in: the man whom I saw. In this case, according to the pundits, using who or that would be incorrect. As it would also be in: Who did you see yesterday? – a question which to most of us sounds perfectly normal and grammatically sound. Mind you, we also must never end sentences with prepositions, so the man who we talked about goes out of the window. Why?

The issue goes back to Robert Lowth, an eighteenth century author of very influential books on correct language usage. For example, he also argued that: “Whose is by some authors made the possessive case of which, and applied to things as well as persons; I think, improperly.” He went as far as criticising Shakespeare, Milton and Swift for bad grammar.

How dare he!

Yet, his successors still judge and scold us for ‘misusing’ the language. Clearly, though, nobody who wants to have friends will ever say Whom did you see yesterday?, or the man about whom we talked. It makes one think that perhaps some grammarians do not want to have friends after all.

The “Hefferians” seem to forget that all languages change over time. And that change is a highly creative force which can enrich the language, adding new words and meanings. There is absolutely now logical reason to claim that languages deteriorate over time. Nor that they improve in any objective sense of the word. They simply become different. After all, nobody would say that Shakespeare spoke incorrect English. Nor that Chaucer could not spell correctly. Wouldn’t it be more productive then to embrace the changing nature of the language, rather than fear and ridicule these changes?

Further reading and listening:

References:

Is language going to the dogs?

English Dictionaries

Two articles I’ve read recently prompted me to dig out this old lesson plan from oblivion and share it on the blog. They were:

  1. What are the correct rules of English grammar? by Michael Rundell, which you can read here
  2. What’s the future of English? by Keira Ives-Keeler, which is available here

I am quite tempted to comment on both of the above posts, but I will leave the discussion on correct grammar rules, what they are and whether they exist for a different time and place (6 months later I finally got around to writing about this and you can read my article here).

I have used this lesson plan mainly with advanced students, but also once with a 1-1 intermediate student. It takes about 60 minutes.

The listening material can be found here.

Main Aims:

By the end of the class the students will be better able to:

  • identify the main topic of an academic lecture
  • use content schema to facilitate comprehension
  • listen for details and take notes
  • react to an academic text in a personal way

Pre-listening

Before you listen discuss these questions in threes/pairs. Think both about English as well as your first language:

tough day for mr. newman :-<

  • Do you think that language is really going to the dogs (i.e. becoming less ‘correct’)? Why?
  • Do you think in the past people used to speak more correctly?
  • Have we become too careless about the way we speak and write? Can you give any examples?
  • Who are prescriptive (to prescribe) and who are descriptive (to describe) linguists and how do they differ? How might their opinions about language correctness differ?

Listening for gist

Task 1. (4:10 – 6:40)

Listen to the extract from a lecture by Professor John McWorther entitled Is language going to the dogs? What’s his opinion about strict grammar rules? Do you agree with him?

Zine Study XIV: [language]

Listening for details

(IDEA: before listening assign one or two sentences per student, after listening put the students in groups to share answers)

Look at these examples from everyday colloquial English. The underlined parts indicate possible grammar mistakes. Listen and make short notes on sentences 1-4:

  • who thinks these sentences are incorrect and why?
  • What does John McWorther think?
  1. That’s a store I would not go to.
  2. It is considered incorrect and uneducated to continuously split infinitives.
  3. If a student comes before I get there they can slip their test under my office door.
  4. The new rules are impacting the efficiency of the procedure.

Reaction to the text: speaking

    • Have you ever made the above “mistakes”?
    • Do you think the sentences should be considered incorrect? Why (not)?

Re–playing

(IDEA: be prepared to find the parts students would like to listen to; get the whole class to decide on maximum 2 specific parts – otherwise some students will “switch off”)

Are there any parts you’d like to listen to again? Be specific about what information you’d like to hear and what was problematic (e.g. connected speech, vocabulary). Decide in pairs.

Speaking

Look at the examples below and decide what might be wrong with the underlined words.

  1. This is the man who I saw.
  2. I haven’t done nothing.
  3. The amount of people that go to cinema every day has decreased in recent years.
  4. This line is for people with 10 items or less (an actual sign in Tesco supermarkets).

What do you think prof. Mc Worther would say? Do you think the sentences are really incorrect?

Discuss

  • Do you still think language is going to the dogs?
  • Do universal, unalterable rules exist? If not, should such rules be imposed?
  • Who is to decide what is correct and what is not?
  • Should we care at all about the way we speak or write? Why?

Dictionary