Thursday, October 11, 2012

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 1

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

Now that I’m retired from teaching ESOL, I have the luxury to sit back and observe things at my leisure. Having been in the field of ESOL for the better part of four decades, one thing I like to observe and muse about is how many items in English are now accepted or may one day be accepted as standard language that weren’t “back in the day,” as they now say. I’d like to share some of my observations with you and ruminate a bit about a few of them. I’m going to have some fun pointing out why some items don’t seem logical and why others seem totally unnecessary to me. But the long and short of it is that these items are commonly used by native speakers every single day, and that’s what I think needs discussing.

Almost all the examples I’ll be giving come directly from educated native speakers, which is what I find most interesting, that educated speakers are saying what they’re saying. It used to be that many of these utterances were considered uneducated or nonstandard, even substandard – but oh, how times have changed!

So what’s my motive for bringing these points to your attention? It’s that as ESOL teachers or others involved in teaching or learning English, you’ll want to keep up on what’s going on in the language. Not all textbooks or teacher reference books deal with the latest developments in English that have come to my attention, items that used to be frowned upon, but aren’t frowned upon anymore. Being aware of such things will help keep what is taught and what is learned as accurate as possible. And I have to admit that I just think it’s a lot of fun to catch what’s going on in the language and make others aware of these things if they aren’t already.

There’s plenty of material to discuss, which is why I’m going to divide it into six parts for “Teacher Talk.” So let’s plunge together right into Part 1.


 Bits and Pieces Already Accepted in the Language


Redundancy is so Redundant!

English speakers – and speakers of other languages, too –  just love redundancy, so I think it’ll be fun to review some of the redundancies that have become part of modern, standard English.

  • One such redundancy – which you may never have thought of as a redundancy at all – is the vestigial conjugation ending in the 3rd person singular form of verbs in the simple present. What am I talking about? Well, that darn -s or -es like in he/she/it lives or he/she/it goes. Do we need those verb endings in this tense? Of course not! From the days of Anglo-Saxon to modern times, we’ve gotten rid of the other endings we used to have on verbs in the simple present (e.g., thou livest), but we held on to this one. Strange, isn’t it? But there it is. It’s redundant because if we say he live or she go, with the subject right there, it’s just as clear as you live or they go, making that final –s and –es superfluous. The subject that goes with the verb tells us all the grammatical information we need, so the subject plus one of those endings is a built-in redundancy that we all accept, even though it’s illogical. Will that silly –s or –es fall off one day? Only time will tell.
  • Then there’s the kind of redundancy in which we repeat a word or use synonyms together to emphasize meaning:
    • a very, very interesting story
    • a tiny little insect bite
    • a great big house
    • my whole entire life
    • not for one single moment
    • the honest truth

Redundancies like these are quite accepted and a regular occurrence in the language, and I have to admit that they make such phrases more fun to say and listen to. The last one may be questionable as far as its acceptance goes, but it’s still commonly said.

  • Here’s another redundancy – one of my favorites – that’s so common, most people don’t even think about how silly it really is:
    • I like tuna fish sandwiches.
    • I never developed a taste for codfish.

We know that tuna and cod are different species of fish, don’t we? Then why do we need to say fish? We’re not even consistent in doing this. We don’t say salmon fish or red snapper fish, so why say tuna fish and codfish? An unnecessary redundancy, right?

Ah, but what about swordfish? That’s fine, actually. It’s not a redundancy to say fish in this case, because without it, you’re talking about a sword and not a kind of fish, of course – and that won’t work.

Moving right along, we can find quite a number of redundancies that at one time or another were considered poorly spoken language, but now seem to be accepted as standard English. Here are some examples. I’ve mentioned one or two of these in previous contributions to “Teacher Talk,” but they’re worth repeating:

  • I don’t believe him, and this is the reason why.
  • That’s the reason why I was afraid to tell you the truth.

I remember my English teachers in junior high and high school having fits if any students said or wrote these two words together. They’d point out how redundant the phrase is. You can say this is the reason or you can say this is why, but putting the two together is really taking redundancy to another level – although it’s been so commonly said for so very long that it seems to have become accepted as proper English. Just about everybody uses this redundancy nowadays.

  • The reason I cursed at him was because I was so angry.

Because is a redundancy when partnered with the reasonBecause means “the reason (for something),” and that’s why it’s redundant. It wouldn’t be redundant to say The reason I cursed at him was that I was so angry or I cursed at him because I was so angry, but here’s another redundancy that English speakers use all the time.

And, for the fun of it, we can take all three words (reason, why, and because) one step further and combine them all into one sentence as many native speakers actually do: The reason why I cursed at him was because I was so angry.

  • They’re going to return back home shortly.
  • She returned the wallet back to its owner.

The verb return means “come back,” “go back,” or “give back,” so saying back in these two cases is totally redundant and totally unnecessary.

  • To use an ATM machine, you have to know your PIN number.
  • Before we repossess a car, we always check the VIN number to make sure it’s the vehicle we want.

How often do you hear these phrases or say them yourself? The M in ATM means “machine,” so when people say an ATM machine, they’re really saying “an automatic teller machine machine.”

The same is true for PIN. The N means “number,” so when people say PIN number, they’re actually saying “personal identification number number.”

And, of course, the same is true for VIN, which stands for “vehicle identification number.” So once more, people who say the VIN number are really saying “the vehicle identification number number.” Wouldn’t it be nice if people just said ATM, PIN, and VIN? But of course, they don’t, they don’t.

In Part 2, we’ll be looking at more surprising bits and pieces that are used all the time now in English, so stay tuned.


Comment from nice delima
October 11, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Hi Richard,

Thanks for this info. Very helpful. It makes me think twice before I become redundant. English is my second language.

Comment from Natalie
October 21, 2012 at 4:07 am

I say most of these things and – honest truth – I never even considered the redundancy. I love the quirkiness of the things people say. I especially love when people like your English teachers get bent out of shape over such silly and inevitable realities of language. I hope no one remembers me that way one day!

Comment from Pascal
November 19, 2012 at 3:12 am

English is a language full of subtlety. They say that French is a difficult language but when we move from French to English is not always obvious because of its subtleties, such as redundancy and the fact that it is a language which is constantly evolving.

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