Monday, January 10, 2011

Not To Be or To Not Be, That is the Question

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Back in July 2010 I wrote a piece for Teacher Talk called “Go with the Flow: Yes or No?” about some changes in what is considered acceptable, basic English. Such changes have been making the job of teaching ESOL more and more frustrating as time goes by, because lesson plans based on currently used textbooks probably aren’t keeping pace with what average educated as well as uneducated native English speakers really say these days. Well, I’ve gathered a few more of those changes, some of which are quite odd in my estimation, which have been taken from what people really say or from signs, ads, and headlines.

to not do vs. not to do

I know the argument which states that the old rule about split infinitives is faulty since it was based on Latin grammar rather than Anglo-Saxon, and I concede there may be merit to that argument, but to place the negative element after the infinitive marker instead of before it still bothers me – and I really don’t think it’s taught as okay to do so in textbooks.

  • They decided to not go through with the adoption.
  • I know what it is to not fit in.
  • Why It’s OK to Not Like Your Children

these type of … / these kind of … / these sort of …

Oh, yes. Maybe your jaw just dropped in surprise, but if you listen closely to what many people say, you’ll find this bizarre combination of a plural determiner with a singular noun becoming more and more commonly used.

  • These type of experiences don’t come along all the time.
  • Those kind of spices are found predominantly in southeast Asia.
  • These sort of details are very hard to keep tabs on.


This word can be used as an adjective before a noun (That was a fun activity), but now it can be used as an adjective in a predicate way among others, where it was traditionally treated as a noun.

  • That’s so fun (instead of That’s such fun)
  • How fun! (instead of What fun!)

It’s even used in the comparative and superlative.

  • It’s funner than what you want to do.
  • That’s the funnest place we’ve ever gone.
  • Come to Party Warehouse for the funnest stuff in town!


This verb is now commonly used as both an intransitive and transitive verb replacing lie, which used to be considered the only correct intransitive verb.

  • I was laying on the couch when the ball came through the window.
  • Next time your back starts bothering you, lay down on the floor for a while and see if that helps.

less used with countable as well as uncountable nouns

  • This year we had less donations than in previous years.
  • Clinical studies prove that people who use XX toothpaste have less cavities.
  • There’s less calories in this pasta than in that.

the object form of personal pronouns used in place of reflexive pronouns

In my piece back in July 2010, I listed the use of reflexive pronouns in place of 1st and 2nd person pronouns. For example, saying Only Bill and myself were present at the time or Didn’t he only give the information to Sheila and yourself? Well, the reverse is happening as well! Here are cases when reflexive pronouns are not used, but should be ―  according to textbooks.

  • I’m tired of being ignored by the courts. I want justice for me!
  • Don’t do it for them; do it for you.

I must tell you that I’m glad I’m retired now! It’s very difficult to figure out how to handle these grammatical contradictions plus the ones I mentioned back in July 2010. Do you continue to teach students the traditionally accepted grammar, or do you teach them the new or commonly heard forms? What’s a teacher to do???

In addition, here are some lexical items which are either quite new or relatively engrained in the language at this point. Should you or do you actively teach them?

  • Absolutely! for “Yes, indeed!” or similar exclamations

A: So you’re saying that people need to save more from their pay for retirement.

B: Absolutely!

  • awesome for “terrific, wonderful, great, etc.

That movie was awesome!

  • cool, which used to be an informal expression meaning “good” or “nice” that was used only by young people, is now commonly used by people of every generation

I think it’s cool that the language keeps changing.

  • intel for “intelligence,” i.e., information gathered or collected

What intel do you have on them?

  • issue for “problem”

Too bad about Jim. I hear he’s got a lot of health  issues.

  • on scene instead of “on the scene”

After the 911 call, they were the first people on scene.

  • pass for pass away, meaning die

Her mother passed about a year ago.

  • totally and so for “definitely”

He totally went out with her.
The boss will never forgive what I did. I’m so fired.

Finally, I’d like to mention two of my pet peeves. I’ve brought up the first one before, but not in this light. Both of these items have become engrained into the language at this point, but I personally still find it hard to accept them.

the reason why

Even though this redundancy still hurts my ears every single time I hear it, I’ve gotten to the point where I just shrug my shoulders in acceptance since the vast majority of native speakers say it all the time. What’s happened is that why has replaced that:

Now you know the reason why I kept putting off calling you.

But I still can’t accept this redundancy when it’s used as a noun phrase:

Temperatures will be taking a sharp plunge tomorrow. Here’s the reason why.

Sorry for your loss.

In case you haven’t thought about this, when you’re sorry for something, it means that you feel guilty over doing something.

  • I’m sorry for picking on your kid brother.
  • She’s sorry for what she said in the heat of anger. She didn’t mean it.

When you want to express sympathy to another person, you’re sorry about something, not sorry for something.

  • I just heard what happened. I’m so sorry about your husband getting laid off.
  • They’re very sorry about the state of homeless people. How can they help?

So what people should really be saying is Sorry about your loss. But nobody does, and that means another contradiction in terms will become commonplace in the language, which means that you as an English teacher need to consider whether you should teach both ways of saying this or just one way or just the other way. Ugh!

I got some great responses from the piece I wrote last summer, so I’d love to know your thoughts on the items I’ve mentioned here. How about joining in by leaving some comments? I mean, what’s an ELT instructor to do???


Comment from Duane Fitzhugh
January 22, 2011 at 8:01 pm

My favorite “new” expression is “Don’t take it personal.” I lose another hair whenever I hear it.

Comment from Ileana Ayala
March 14, 2011 at 9:53 am

Your article it’s awesome!!!!
You’re right about how lucky you are to be retired teaching english, we still have to deal with all this real live dramas and contradictions both teaching and learning english.

Comment from Mark Berg
February 22, 2014 at 9:48 am

Ileana, I fear you’ve just killed the author.

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