Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What’s an ESOL Teacher to Do?

Richard FirstenRichard Firsten is a retired ESOL teacher, teacher-trainer and columnist

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired. During those years I was a classroom teacher, associate director of a university English language institute, and author of a number of textbooks both for students and teachers. I’m mentioning this because I want you to know how relieved I am that I’m now retired and not forced to deal with what I see going on in English these days.

Being retired, I have the luxury of time to observe how everyday native speakers are using the language in a variety of settings and contexts, and I have noticed some remarkable things going on that have taken hold where 20 years ago they never would have. The thing is, how does an ESOL teacher deal with what’s going on in grammar? Does the teacher stick strictly to what the textbooks say is standard English grammar in her/his lesson plans, or does the teacher incorporate into lesson plans the grammar changes that have taken hold even though those changes are contrary to what textbooks say? Mind you, I’m not talking about stylistic matters, only grammar.

Here’s a case in point, something that really did happen to me. I’d taught my class a lesson straight from their textbook about how certain foods are uncountable nouns, e.g., ‘bread’, ‘water’, ‘coffee’, ‘lettuce’, etc. I explained that in order to count these things, we must say ‘a loaf of bread’, ‘two glasses of water’, ‘three cups of coffee’, ‘a head of lettuce’. And then the next day two students who were in that class raise their hands in class and say, “Mr. Firsten, we ate dinner in a restaurant last night. We heard the waitress say, ‘So you want two coffees, right?’ Did she use bad grammar?” Yes, my face turned slightly red. Yes, I was at a loss for words momentarily. But then I realized I’d heard phrases like that a thousand times. So why was I teaching that my students must say ‘two cups of coffee’ and only ‘two cups of coffee’? Why wasn’t I giving them an alternative that the textbook failed to mention?

Language evolves; we all acknowledge that. But when so much is evolving in such a short period of time, it can make an ESOL teacher’s job much more challenging than it already is. All the changes highlighted here are ones that are used consistently and used by many different kinds of native speakers in many different settings. It’s important to remember this. It’s also important to remember that I’m not talking about slang or catch phrases that are here for a while and then gone sooner or later. You dig? Groovy!

Here is a list of grammatical items I have observed over a long period of time, items that have evolved thanks to their consistent use by native speakers of different educational and social levels. After you look at this list, you’ll come upon a couple of questions I’d like you to mull over. Perhaps you’ll consider how your answers may affect your future lesson plans. So let’s get started.

1a. This is the first photo taken of Mike and I.

1b. We read the report about he and his daughter.

The use of ‘somebody and I’ instead of ‘me’ where the object form of this personal pronoun should be used is nothing new, but it’s become a common occurrence. I don’t hear this with other personal pronouns, though. For example, I don’t hear things like “This is a photo taken of Mike and she..,” but where this kind of phrase that follows a verb or preposition has a person or animal and the 1st person singular personal pronoun, the object form is disregarded even though it’s the object of the preposition or verb. This phenomenon probably started as a hypercorrection, when native speakers thought saying ‘… and I’ sounded more formal or educated than saying ‘… and me’.

As a side note, I have to tell you that I remember the backlash that Betty Azar received from conservative grammar teachers who were absolutely aghast that she mentioned the phenomenon shown in 1a in one of her grammar books. How dare she write about what was really happening in the language and not just what ideally should happen in the language!

The more amazing thing is how often I now hear educated people saying not only what you see in sentence 1a, but also what you see in 1b in which the subject form of a personal pronoun and another person is used even though both are the objects of a verb or preposition. I remember how my jaw dropped the first few times I heard this.

2a. These type of shoes aren’t suitable for hiking.

2b. Those kind of marinades work best with chicken and pork.

2c. These sort of excuses just don’t seem believable.

For some reason, many native speakers are averse to using the plural form of these three nouns (type, kind, sort) after these two plural demonstratives (these, those).

3. I see you’ve chosen to not do the homework assignment.

There is no intrinsic rule in English grammar that says you cannot split an infinitive. We began thinking that was a no-no when Bishop Robert Lowth wielded tremendous influence over English grammar in 18th century England and tried forcing Latin grammar rules onto English, which is a Germanic language, not a Romance language. But now it’s the norm to split this infinitive. What would Shakespeare say? (“To be or to not be, that is the question.”)

4. What would have happened if you went instead of me?

He cheated on her and then ended up in jail. If those things didn’t happen, do you think they’d still be married?

The past perfect, which used to be used in past subjunctive/conditional sentences and past sentences contrary to reality such as those beginning with ‘wish’ is disappearing. The simple past and past progressive are taking over even though they are also used to represent the present in subjunctive/conditional sentences and those contrary to reality (What would happen if you went instead of me?). I would still say What would have happened if you had gone instead of me? and If those things hadn’t happened, do you think they’d still be married?

5. My cat brought a dead bird into the house and drug it all across the living room floor.

Even though this form of the simple past of ‘drag’ is hard to find in dictionaries, it’s being used more and more even among educated speakers. I even heard Mitch McConnell, the current US Senate Majority Leader, use it the other day! If so many native speakers say ‘drug’ instead of ‘dragged’, should it be taught as an alternative form the way ‘dived’ is taught as an alternative past tense of ‘dove’?

6. We want to have more women employees in the company than we do now. We have a disproportionate number of male employees at this time.

Here’s an example of inconsistency which can actually be found in the name of a long-existing American organization called the League of Women Voters. We don’t normally say phrases like ‘men voters’, do we? We say ‘male voters’. We say ‘a male nurse’, not ‘a man nurse’, so shouldn’t we say ‘female voters’ and not ‘women voters’? After all, it’s ‘male and female’, ‘men and women’. You’re probably comfortable saying ‘female nurses’ but not ‘women nurses’, ‘female flight attendants’ and not ‘women flight attendants’, but what about ‘female journalists’? Are you comfortable saying ‘women journalists’? If so, why? Think about it. This phenomenon is so inconsistent!

I wonder if there are times when ‘female’ sounds like a loaded word, that is, one with a negative connotation, whereas ‘women’ doesn’t carry any extra baggage, so to speak, and that’s why it’s not called the League of Female Voters. Hmm . . .

7.  Plaintiff: Your Honor, I’m suing the defendant for the damages to my car.

Judge: What are the damages?

Plaintiff: The back bumper is twisted and there’s two big dents on the back left side.

We have two items to discuss here. The first is a change in the noun ‘damage’. It used to be exclusively an uncountable noun with no plural form and meant some form of harm or  destruction to something. Now, however, native speakers use it in the plural for the same meaning when there is more than one occurrence of harm to the same thing.

(This is not to be confused with the existing plural noun ‘damages’ that’s used in lawsuits to mean money that a plantiff claims is owed as punishment against a defendant for harm done to the plaintiff.)

The second item is the use of the existential phrase there + be. It’s nothing new that in this existential phrase the 3rd person singular form of ‘be’ (there’s / there was) has been used followed by a plural as well as a singular noun in informal speech, e.g., There was five stray dogs just roaming the streets. / There’s three people waiting to see you. But nowadays this form is used in formal speech and in writing as well. That is a real change. (It’s important to keep in mind that the written language is more conservative than the spoken language and changes more slowly than the spoken language, so when a change like this one appears more and more often in written form, not just spoken form, it signals a change that’s becoming accepted.)

8a. I’m so tired, I’m going to lay down and take a nap.

8b. When she got home, she found her dad laying on the floor.

These days, only the staunchest conservative native speakers will insist that ‘lie’ is the intransitive verb which should be used in the two example sentences above. But it’s apparent to any observer of how native speakers use English that the majority now use the transitive verb ‘lay’ in place of ‘lie’ and that they reserve ‘lie’ to mean ‘not to tell the truth’. In other words, ‘lay’ is now considered both transitive and intransitive. So whereas conservatives will say ‘lie down’ and ‘lying on the floor’, most people are very comfortable saying ‘lay down’ and ‘laying on the floor’. We need to consider this acceptable now.

9a. A: Who was home at the time?

      B: Myself and my husband.

9b. A: Hello, Bob! How are you?

      B: Fine, thanks. And yourself?

9c. People such as yourselves are real angels for doing so much to help the homeless.

9d. Workers like ourselves deserve raises and better working conditions.

It used to be that reflexive pronouns were used when the subject and object of a sentence were one and the same (Vampires don’t see themselves in a mirror) or to show emphasis (Little Darla baked the cake herself). That still holds true, of course, but the use of these reflexive pronouns has expanded. We now use these forms as some kind of honorific when referring to ourselves or to others. At one time, it was a commonly used, slightly amusing form in Irish English replacing ‘he’ and ‘she’ (And when do you think himself will finally get out of bed?) Now, at least in North American English, the reflexive form in the singular and plural is commonly used in place of ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’.

10. The floor caved in because too many people were allowed on the dance floor. There should have been less people out there.

As much as conservative speakers want to fight against this, the distinction between using ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ is disappearing with ‘less’ winning out over ‘fewer’. That’s just the way it is. As time goes by, more and more native speakers don’t seem to care much about whether they’re dealing with a countable or uncountable noun, so ‘less’ is becoming the word of choice in both instances.

11a. Sorry, but I’m not believing anything you just told me.

11b. She thinks the massage feature on her new bed is great. She’s loving it.

11c. I know you haven’t heard from me in a while. I’ve been wanting to get in touch, but …

We have a small class of verbs called stative verbs and a much larger class called active verbs. Stative verbs are ones that don’t actually have any action involved, such as ‘believe’, ‘love’, ‘know’, ‘want’, etc. The rule has been that stative verbs only use the simple forms of the tenses and aspects, while active verbs can use the simple forms as well as the progressive forms. Nowadays we’re witnessing a trend to make more and more stative verbs act like active verbs, as you can see in the examples above. This trend will likely continue, perhaps to the point where there won’t be that distinction anymore between stative and active verbs.

12. We live in an era where it’s often difficult to discern facts from falsehoods.

The time is approaching where gender equality will be a reality in all developed countries.

This is so illogical yet common among native speakers to use ‘where’, which is a word about location, instead of using ‘when’, a word about time, and of course, ‘era’ and ‘time’ are words that should go with ‘when’, not ‘where’. Why this is so commonplace, I can’t begin to figure out, but I do find that nine out of ten times you’ll hear ‘where’ used when ‘when’ should be the word of choice.

So now we’ve looked at the last item on my list of consistently used changes which a great many native speakers have adopted into their use of the language. Well, what are you ESOL teachers to do? Do you ignore these changes, simply brush them aside, and just stick to what traditional grammar textbooks contain?  Or do you think you owe it to your students, especially your intermediate and advanced students, to incorporate these changes into your lesson plans and give your students these alternative forms?

I’m not going to offer my opinion on this issue; that’s up to each of you to decide what’s better to do. But I would certainly welcome feedback from you and I encourage you to discuss this issue with your colleagues as well as your program administrators.


Comment from KLODJANA
November 14, 2019 at 6:10 am

Dear Mr Firsten,
I am an ESL teacher and I do find myself quite often in the situation that my students identify grammar rules being bend in most of the materials they search or the ones that they find on internet.
I have tried to introduce to them these kinds of flexibilities, but I can see that they get more confused.

Comment from Jamal Almuhaish
November 17, 2019 at 2:17 am

Hi Richard, I like how this question is also posed by a native English speaking teacher since I (non native) have been asked similar questions like why MacDonald uses the advertising sign ‘I’m lonving it’ in which I also get embarrassed trying to justify that it is wrong by standard English yet it is commonly used by native speakers.
In my opinion, we should address this phenomena in our teaching plans to explain that language is evolving and subject to change by giving an example of their mother tongue.

Comment from
June 14, 2020 at 12:56 am

Many kids at this age get hooked on one author or one particular type of story and they want more.

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August 10, 2020 at 11:54 pm

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Comment from happy wheels
September 3, 2020 at 2:18 am

Whatever is good for your soul, do that

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