Things I want my students to know about English – Part 1

Here’s the first post in a new series. The title gives a clue to the topic! To expand on that a little bit, I hope these articles will help my students (and others who read the blog) to have a better understanding of my teaching methods and the reasons behind them.

1. There are other categories between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’

English is a pretty flexible language. First of all, there’s no central governing institution – that’s unusual in the grand scheme of things, as most widely-spoken languages have national or international bodies to rule on what constitutes correct spelling, grammar and usage.

If you consult a modern dictionary or grammar reference, the chances are it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive in its approach: it’s based on the writers’ observations of how English is spoken and written, not just in academic contexts but also in journalism, in interviews and recorded conversations, and on the web. There are databases called corpora where big chunks of English are recorded, so that researchers – and English teachers – can dip in and find real-world examples.

Another feature of English – or a bug, depending on how you look at it – is the way there are often multiple ways of saying the same thing. Other times, there are minor differences, but with some overlap.

For example, take these questions about a future plan. Which of these forms are correct/ incorrect? Are there differences in meaning?

  • What time do you start work tomorrow?
  • What time are you starting work tomorrow?
  • What time are you going to start work tomorrow?
  • What time will you start work tomorrow?
  • What time will you be starting work tomorrow?

We could say there are minor differences in meaning: the first one implies that the answer will be a completely immovable time, whereas the last one implies that there is complete freedom to choose. We could say that in general the questions move through increasing degrees of uncertainty or flexibility.

But for questions, the choice of words doesn’t necessarily matter. You might not know if the answerer has flexibility or not, in which case it’s fine just to ask whichever question is first to pop into your head. If I’m on a fixed work timetable, I’m likely to answer all five of these with something like “Half past eight”, and it’ll be clear from my tone that it’s a sure thing I’m starting at that time. If I’m working to my own flexible schedule, I might respond with “I don’t know yet”, or “Probably morning; why?”.

So although there’s a difference in meaning, we can’t say for certain that it’s wrong to use one of these question forms instead of another. Students will sometimes cast around for the correct form:

  • What time will… is the plane… does the plane leave? Does the plane leave? Or will… Luke, which is correct?

I’m not being deliberately obtuse if I say “Will or does; both are OK here”.

Another example is with relative clauses:

  • The restaurant (that) we went to with Dad was really good.
  • The restaurant where we went with Dad was really good.
  • Do you remember the meeting where that awful guy started shouting?
  • Do you remember the meeting when that awful guy started shouting

Is a restaurant a thing or a place? Is a meeting a place or a time? It doesn’t really make much difference to the meaning (in this case) and again, I won’t tell students that any of these are incorrect.

Let’s have a third one: what is the right way to follow the verb insist?

  • She insisted on coming with me.
  • She insisted (that) she come with me.
  • She insisted (that) she would come with me.

Doing some searches in one of the corpora, we’re able to check the frequency of each of these forms. The first is by far the most popular choice, making it the most useful one to learn. The second is less common, and the third is comparatively rare; all three forms are used in the same context of a future plan, and seem to be interchangeable as used by speakers of English.

Meanwhile, the form “insisted to come…”, commonly regarded as a mistake, got one result, from a novel. It looks to be in the voice of one of the characters, so there’s a likelihood that it was a deliberate choice by the writer to reflect this character’s lack of education. In this context, is it wrong? I’d say not – although it’s clear that “insisted to come…” is a non-standard form and better avoided in most contexts.

Let’s have a final example, showing the influence of context. This is from a 1920s account of a motoring trip. Focus, if you will, on the phrase “linger bunwards”.

  • “In Christchurch, near the Priory, is a short narrow street full of tea-shops. It is so full of tea-shops that several charming waitresses and proprietresses – for this street seems entirely a feminine endeavour – picket the doors and say with a smile, if you appear to linger bunwards, ‘Oh, wouldn’t you like some tea?'” (H. V. Morton, In Search of England, page 54, 2002 edition by the Folio Society).

I’m sure you’re aware that bunwards is not a word – at least not as recognised in any dictionary, nor in corpora (at least, not in the British one, which has clearly not picked up on Morton’s book). And yet, bunwards makes sense, if we compare it to onwards, forwards and moonwards: “towards a bun” is clearly the meaning. While this adverb implies movement, Morton pairs it, unusually, with the verb linger, which is most often used in the sense of “be slow to leave”. There is another definition of linger as “move slowly”, but I would suggest its use here implies more of a longing glance at the food, maybe a slowing down, while the tourist mentally debates whether to stop for cake and tea or to keep walking towards the Priory.

If English had fixed rules, Morton would certainly be guilty of breaking them, yet linger bunwards is an effective phrase, conveying in two words what might otherwise take eight or twelve to explain, while the linguistic ingenuity here entertains and even delights the reader. Creativity with language is a hallmark of multiple genres in English: not just novels and travelogues but also tabloid and magazine-style journalism, letter-writing, blogs and social media posts. Spoken English, meanwhile, often contains unfinished sentences, pauses, disfluencies and discontinuities, dialectical phrases, in-jokes and other phenomena which make it doubly hard to theorise any kind of discrete framework of rules.

Now, there are prescriptivists in the teaching profession. There are teachers who see things in terms of correct versus incorrect, and some of them would undoubtedly look at these example sentences and say “Some of these are wrong. The grammar doesn’t work that way” or “I’ve never seen it written like that, so it’s not standard English”. Understandably, some students want a prescriptive answer too. Life’s a lot easier if you think in this way! Instead of having to learn multiple ways of saying the same thing, you need only learn one ‘correct’ one and move on.

The problem with this mindset is that it leads to over-generalisations, unnecessary simplifications, and an overall loss of flexibility in how you use the language. Also, as there is no single authority for English, prescriptivists can only make pronouncements based on their own mental model of English together with what they’ve learned over the years, and these pronouncements – ironically enough – tend not to be all that accurate.

The descriptive approach, then, is my preferred one. To use it, we have to put away the neat boxes marked ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, and accept a whole spectrum of possibilities: standard forms, popularly-used forms, extremely rare forms – and, in appropriate contexts, entirely new forms.

Main photo from bpcraddock on Pixabay.


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