Archive for Tag: language change

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.

Read more »

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Go with the Flow: Yes or No?

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

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired, and over all those years I learned to enjoy the challenges of teaching grammar the most. There were rules. I taught the rules, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly by example. There were right ways to say things and wrong ways. I figured I was teaching the right ways. I mean, I followed what was stated in textbooks and sometimes consulted what the “experts” had to say. I considered myself a teacher in the know, and did my best to pass on that knowledge to my students. Nothing was fuzzy back then. Now lots of things seem fuzzy.

Let me ask you something. As ESOL teachers, at what point do we decide to teach what a great many people really say rather than what textbooks tell us we should say? Since we have no arbitrators for English the way the French do with their Académie Française, when do we determine that we should teach our students a form or a term that isn’t found in our textbooks?

Here are some examples of the kinds of utterances I often hear made by quite a cross section of native English speakers, both educated as well as uneducated. Oh, and by the way, when you look over the following utterances, don’t think that just because one may sound more “hillbilly-like” than another that it hasn’t been said by an educated speaker:

  • On December twenty-two, did you deliver the shipment as scheduled?
  • It was a moment where I found myself wondering if I was seeing things.
  • The kids threw a surprise anniversary party for Frank and I.
  • Me and him just couldn’t agree on anything.
  • They gave copies of the invoices to both Bob and myself.
  • We couldn’t figure out where he was at.
  • Two coffees, please.
  • A: Would you mind if I asked you a personal question? B: Sure. Go ahead.
  • If I knew he was injured, I would’ve taken him to the emergency room.
  • Your child just bit mine. Look at the teeth marks on my kid’s arm!
  • Because of his obesity, his heart is having to work harder than it should.
  • I’ll try and* get help.

Not the way you’d teach those elements in bold face to your students, you say? I guess you’d go with the following instead or at least most of the following:

  • December twenty-second
  • when
  • me
  • He and I
  • me
  • n/a
  • cups of coffee
  • No. or Not at all.
  • had known
  • tooth marks
  • has
  • to*

Am I right? Yet day in and day out, I hear native speakers say such utterances the way I’ve listed them above. Are we to consider so many people wrong? After all, isn’t it a rule of thumb in English that if enough people consistently say something a certain way, it becomes an acceptable alternative? And if it is an acceptable alternative, shouldn’t it be actively taught? There isn’t one thing I’ve listed that isn’t constantly said by a very large number of native speakers on a daily basis.

And then there are some cultural issues that influence the way we speak. For example, when I was a kid, I was taught that in business or polite conversation, I should address a person with the appropriate title (e.g., Mr.) and that person’s last name. At a certain point, that person might tell me to call him or her by the first name instead, or I might ask if I could do so. Nowadays, mostly with salespeople, it seems they immediately go for using my first name, and I really find that objectionable. In a business situation especially, I feel the distance created by using the title and last name is appropriate, and I also feel it shows more respect to me if I’m addressed as Mr. Firsten rather than Richard. Is it just me? Am I that much of a throwback to an earlier era?

On top of that, at least in my part of the country (Florida), I’ll often be addressed in a similar situation as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. That drives me nuts, and I immediately counter by telling the person I’m Mr. Firsten. Does that ever happen to you? And if it does, do you accept it? Do you like it?

The point is, so many people use those alternative grammatical forms or ways of addressing people in business situations that I wonder if we have an obligation to address those alternatives in our lesson planning.

What’s your opinion on these subjects? You tell me. I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will have an opinion, and I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will be interested in learning what everybody else has to say. Okay, folks, go for it! Click on the word “Comments” and tell us what you think. I myself am really anxious to hear what you’ve got to say on this very perturbing issue.

*Yes, I know that you may think there’s nothing “wrong” with saying I’ll try and get help instead of I’ll try to get help, but put try in any other form and and doesn’t work. For example, would you accept I’m trying and getting help or I’ve tried and gotten help? Hmm . . . So if it’s not right in those forms, why would you consider it right in that one form?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It Just Sounds Right

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

“This is so hard.”

I am sure all L2 instructors are familiar with the frustration students feel when studying another language. I feel particular sympathy for ESL and EFL students (and their teachers) because English grammar is especially aggravating. English grammar is often illogical and native speaker use of it is fickle.

It must be so annoying for students to spend hours mastering a new grammar skill only to hear a native speaker using it incorrectly. For years, I diligently taught students that we did not use “love” in the progressive. Inevitably, the next day a student would point out that he or she heard “I’m loving it” on a Burger King commercial. Thank goodness many grammar books have since caught up with that one (I hated looking like a liar), but there are thousands of examples of grammatical choices that native speakers make that violate the “rules” in our texts.

Although the line that English as a “living” language that is always changing is comfortable for teachers to give, it doesn’t ease the burden our students carry. The bottom line is that English grammar is hard, and it just keeps getting harder as students learn more.

It just sounds right.

As a teacher, I often feel a bit helpless when I am faced with a student’s crinkled forehead and bewildered question, “But, why?” Even to my ears, the answer, “it just sounds right,” sounds like a bit of a cop out. However, often, we just say things in a certain way just because it sounds better. A word just collocates better with one word than another, although there is no real “rule” for students to learn. One verb tense is just a little more appropriate than another, although both are technically correct.

A (wonderful, inspirational) teacher I worked with in the US begins each semester with a lecture about how English grammar isn’t like math. Students can’t necessarily memorize grammatical “formulas” and expect them to work even most of the time. This is true, but don’t you wish it weren’t so?

Transition from learner to fine-tuner

When I reflect on my own experience as an English teacher, I find that students in the High Intermediate level tend to struggle with this frustration more than any others. Recently, one of my students from Poland admitted that she was finding the High Intermediate class frustrating because she felt as though she wasn’t learning anything. I have been her teacher for several semesters, so I knew that she wasn’t criticizing me. I understood that she just missed that learner’s rush that comes with “getting” a new grammatical concept.

Beginners and Low Intermediate students are usually happily caught up in a frenzy of learning new things; however, in my experience, the High Intermediate level is all about a move toward fine-tuning. This transition can be very wearisome for students, as it is time-consuming and lacks those “light bulb” moments. It seems, too, that High Intermediate is a hurdle some never get over; they have good enough English to be understood and that is enough for many of our students.

Familiarity breeds a good TOEFL score?

It seems to me that the students who do succeed and move on to an Advanced level tend to be the ones that can get beyond an obsession with memorizing grammar rules. They tend to have a more well-rounded approach to language learning that includes reading and listening to authentic input. They are the ones that have become so comfortable with English that they just know which words go best together and which tense to choose.

I used to teach a TOEFL Prep class in the US, and I help prepare students for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam here in Belgium. At that level, students need to have internalized most of the grammar “rules” (although explicit instruction and more fine-tuning is always helpful) and they should be choosing correct answers more by instinct. Unfortunately, it’s something I have not figured out how to “teach” in a few months of class, but for the students who get to that point, English grammar doesn’t seem so hard, after all.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Prescriptivist or Descriptivist?

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

All during the years I taught ESOL, I had an ongoing battle in my mind over the philosophies that dealt with whether I should be a prescriptivist or a descriptivist as far as the rules of English grammar go. A prescriptivist basically tells you how you should say something; in other words, what’s right and what’s wrong. A descriptivist simply tells you what people say and how they say it without making any value judgments. So how conservative should I be (aka prescriptive), or how liberal (aka descriptive)? When do I know it’s okay just to say, “Hey, if it works, use it,” or when do I know if it’s safe to put my foot down and say, “No, that’s just wrong”?

One reason I kept having this battle was caused by a feeling that I was being undermined from time to time by others in the field. For example, I’d been taught to say there is if the following noun is singular and there are if it’s plural, and that’s the way I always taught existential there, which was backed up by what I always found in ESOL textbooks. Then, as the years went by, I’d hear somebody say there’s with a plural noun. I’d scoff and think to myself, “Hah! That person’s grammar is terrible!” But then I’d hear more and more people say there’s and even here’s and Where’s …? along with a plural noun. And then I noticed in a book by a well-known grammarian* that using the singular form followed by a plural noun is “acceptable” in conversational English. What?? You’ve got to be kidding! So it’s okay for me to say Where’s the files? and Here’s the files and There’s the files? Puh-leez! So does that mean I should have thrown the rule about existential there out the window years ago? Was I actually misleading my students all those years the way I taught this point of grammar?

And what about fewer vs. less? All the ESOL grammar texts I’d ever used with my students clearly stated that we should use fewer as the comparative form with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns. So that’s what I taught ― but that’s not necessarily what I heard or even found in print. Again I’d have that negative gut reaction, thinking it scandalous that so-called educated people couldn’t even use those two words properly even in TV commercials. “Less calories?” Ugh!

So I went running to a book by another well-known grammarian,** and lo and behold, what do I read on this subject? “Less is the comparative of little (used especially before uncountable nouns). Fewer is the comparative of few (used before plural nouns). Compare: I earn less money than a postman. / I’ve got fewer problems than I used to have.” So far, so good, right? But then … “Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect. I’ve got less problems than I used to have.” What was that? “SOME people consider this incorrect”? You mean lots of people consider it correct? You mean all those ESOL grammar books were misleading? Aaaarrrghh!

Well, now you get it. Now you see the quandary I was in. Or I guess I should say I’m still in. The battle hasn’t changed inside me. I mean, where do we draw the line? There isn’t an ESOL teacher alive who will claim it’s acceptable to say he is, she is, they is, so why is it acceptable to say There is three people waiting to see you? Hmm … Or is it? Could it be that it’s acceptable only when the contraction is used? Does There’s three people waiting to see you sound better? I wonder. Maybe that does sound more acceptable. I wonder. I also wonder about how nuts that seems to me!

So what should we do as ESOL teachers? Do we teach with a prescriptive approach: “Say it this way. Don’t say it that way.” Or do we just teach our students any and all deviations from what the traditional grammar textbooks have said for decades just because a certain number of native speakers use this deviation or that?

If you’d like an extreme example of the descriptive approach, I can give you one. Many moons ago when I was in grad school taking a course in modern English grammar from a well respected teacher who was born and raised in the midwestern US, I remember vividly her discussion on the use of certain modal auxiliaries. She pointed out that in some areas of the Midwest it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like I might could do it and She shouldn’t have ought to done that (although she pronounced it as She shouldn’t’ve oughta done that. Once again, maybe those contracted pronunciations sound more acceptable than when the words aren’t contracted!)

Before you shriek in horror, let me just tell you that this teacher considered such sentences perfectly acceptable since that’s how people spoke in those areas of the Midwest that she hailed from. She said such sentences didn’t bother her at all. Can you imagine? And she was teaching modern English grammar! So does that mean she was telling us we could teach such sentences as variations on how to use modal auxiliaries? Your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t ask her ― probably because I was in such a state of shock.

I seem to see a trend these days that has people poo-pooing anyone who sounds like a prescriptivist. Maybe with so many other things it’s becoming politically incorrect to tell people how they should say something. I still cringe every time I hear people say me and him when they should say he and I. Isn’t this taught anymore in public school English classes? Are language arts classes a dying art? And how does all of this affect what ESOL teachers do in their classrooms?

You know what? I’m getting very worked up right now. I think I’ll have a couple of beers to calm down. That’s right, a couple of BEERS. Countable? Uncountable? Hah! Who cares anymore?

*L. G. Alexander. Longman English Grammar. Longman. 1988
**Michael Swan. Practical English Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2005

Saturday, October 11, 2008

So What’s New? Plenty! Part 2

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

One of the greatest joys I get out of delving into the wonders of language, especially English, is that never-ending wonder I experience from witnessing the way words that have been around for so very long can suddenly be found with totally new meanings. This has been happening to English, as well as all other living languages, I presume, since Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons cavorted around Europe and the Middle East, and Homo Habilis ventured into Asia.

In a recent entry to my blog entitled “So What’s New? Plenty!” I dealt with words that I never would have heard years ago such as edamame, plain water, server, and weightage. I’d like to continue this, but in a different way. On a few occasions, I’ve come across a masterpiece of writing that’s on the Web which, besides being extremely funny, perfectly exemplifies the new meanings that old words can take on.

Perhaps there are those of you who have never heard of the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, very famous comedians who made movies in the 1940s and 50s, and had their own television show in the 1950s. One of their most famous routines was called “Who’s on First?” In this classic comedy routine, Abbott tries his best to explain the game of baseball to Costello. If you know baseball, you’ll really enjoy listening to the routine.

I wish I could take credit for what I’m about to post here, but I can’t. And I wish I could find out who the author of this marvelous piece is, but once again, I can’t. If anybody out there knows who the author is, please let me know and I’ll be very happy to give him or her full credit.

At any rate, here is this hysterical take-off on the original Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” Even if you’re not familiar with those two great comedians of the past, you’ll still appreciate fully how placing them into our era can make for great comedy and can be an excellent example of how language keeps generating new uses for old words. So, if Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were alive today, their famous sketch might have turned out something like the following. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!
________________________________________________________________

Costello calls a store to look into buying a computer, and Abbott happens to be the salesman who answers the phone.

ABBOTT: Super Duper Computers. Can I help you?
COSTELLO: Thanks. I’m setting up an office in my den and I’m thinking about buying a computer.
ABBOTT: Mac?
COSTELLO: No, the name’s Lou.
ABBOTT: Your computer?
COSTELLO: I don’t own a computer. I want to buy one.
ABBOTT: Mac?
COSTELLO: I told you my name’s Lou.
ABBOTT: What about “Windows”?
COSTELLO: Why? Will it get stuffy in here?
ABBOTT: Do you want a computer with “Windows”?
COSTELLO: I don’t know. What will I see when I look at the windows?
ABBOTT: Wallpaper.
COSTELLO: Never mind the windows. I need a computer and software.
ABBOTT: Software for “Windows”?
COSTELLO: No. On the computer! I need something I can use to write proposals, track expenses and run my business. What do you have?
ABBOTT: “Office.”
COSTELLO: Yeah, for my office. Can you recommend anything?
ABBOTT: I just did.
COSTELLO: You just did what?
ABBOTT: Recommend something.
COSTELLO: You recommended something?
ABBOTT: Yes.
COSTELLO: For my office?
ABBOTT: Yes.
COSTELLO: Okay, what did you recommend for my office?
ABBOTT: “Office.”
COSTELLO: Yes, for my office!
ABBOTT: I recommend “Office” with “Windows.”
COSTELLO: I already have an office with windows! Okay, let’s just say I’m sitting at my computer and I want to type a proposal. What do I need?
ABBOTT: “Word.”
COSTELLO: What word?
ABBOTT: “Word” in “Office.”
COSTELLO: The only word in office is office.
ABBOTT: The “Word” in “Office” for “Windows.”
COSTELLO: Which word in office for windows?
ABBOTT: The “Word” you get when you click the blue W.
COSTELLO: I’m going to click your blue W if you don’t start with some straight answers. What about financial bookkeeping? Do you have anything I can track my money with?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: That’s right. What do you have?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: I need money to track my money?
ABBOTT: It comes bundled with your computer.
COSTELLO: What’s bundled with my computer?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: Money comes with my computer?
ABBOTT: Yes. No extra charge.
COSTELLO: I get a bundle of money with my computer? How much?
ABBOTT: One copy.
COSTELLO: Isn’t it illegal to copy money?
ABBOTT: Microsoft gave us a license to copy “Money.”
COSTELLO: They can give you a license to copy money?
ABBOTT: Why not? They own it!

A few days later . . .

ABBOTT: Super Duper Computers. Can I help you?
COSTELLO: How do I turn off my computer?
ABBOTT: Click on “Start.”
________________________________________________________

Yep, it’s a joy to witness how old words can take on new meanings! A joy for us ― but not for poor Costello, who passed away in 1959 and probably never even heard the word computer.

If you’ve come across old words that have taken on new meanings and they’ve surprised or delighted you, please let me know. We teachers always need to do our best to keep abreast of these changes.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Being Politically Correct Correct?

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

Understand me. I don’t like ruffling people’s feathers. I don’t like being confrontational. I also don’t like being silly. As much as language reflects the most profound thoughts and greatest of achievements in society, it can also reflect the hypersensitivity and silliness of that society. So it is at times with what people refer to as “political correctness.” But when does the language go too far with being “pc,” politically correct?

Let’s start off with the term American. Over the years, I’ve had many students from Latin America object in class to my calling myself an American. They would immediately pipe up and say, “We are Americans, too!” I could always anticipate that response, and then I’d give out a big sigh and proceed to explain why we call ourselves Americans in the US. It’s not to exclude all the other peoples of the Americas; it’s because the official name of the country has been the United States of America since the time of independence from Great Britain. Back then the US was the only country that contained a group of united states; ergo the official name. Now people from the United States of Mexico are called Mexicans, people from the United States of Brazil are called Brazilians, and people from the United States of Colombia are called Colombians. So if people in the United States of America aren’t called Americans, what should they be called? Besides, that’s what people in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world call us. Heck! Even the Canadians call us Americans. I rest my case.

What about the term Native American? I think this is another case of political correctness gone too far. I, too, am a native American having been born and raised in the US. If the “pc” people insist on using it, why is it that there are indigenous people in the US who still use the word Indian to describe themselves? They don’t seem to have a problem with that term. I love when “pc-ers” tell others what they should or shouldn’t be called. Talk about presumptuous! I like the term indigenous people or the Canadian term First Nations people. Both terms are neutral and appear quite accurate, don’t you think? But ultimately it’s up to the indigenous people to decide what they should be called.

Remember when you started seeing humankind replacing mankind? That was considered “pc” because that new use wouldn’t exclude women. Well, if those who try their best to be “pc” have changed mankind to humankind, what are they going to do with a word like anthropology? After all, anthropos means “man” in Greek, and anthropology means “the study of man.” So should they insist we rename that science anthropinology, which means “the study of humans”? Food for thought, if you ask me.

Now what about the terms used for black Americans? The following terms, which were considered acceptable in their day, were Negro, black, Afro-American, and now African-American, although black is still used. Why was there a need for those changes? None of this would bother me if it weren’t for the fact that I’m still called white, not European-American. Why was it necessary for the “pc-ers” to make the leap from black to African-American? If there’s nothing wrong with being called white, why do they consider it wrong to be called black? I remember the famous slogan “Black is beautiful.” And it is. So why did that change? It mystifies me, but it clearly shows the continuing racial disquiet in this English-speaking society.

We’ve been deluged with “pc” terms for people with physical and mental disabilities. Here are a few you can find on a Web page of the Life Span Institute that’s entitled Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities. I’ve added some thoughts of mine in italics:

“Reflecting input from more than 100 disability organizations, the preferred terms for referring to disabilities are listed and defined below.

Autism is a mental disorder originating in infancy that is characterized by absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality, inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, and language dysfunction. Do not say autistic. Say person with autism.Huh? Isn’t autistic simply the adjective for autism? Is there anything pejorative in saying He’s autistic?

Brain injury describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say person with a brain injury, woman who has sustained brain injury, or boy with an acquired brain injury.Does anyone find it offensive to say brain damaged? In this case, doesn’t that mean the same thing as injured? I don’t see the difference.

Small/short stature describes people under 4’10″ tall. Do not refer to these individuals as dwarfs or midgets, which implies a less than full adult status in society. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Say persons of small (or short) stature. Some groups prefer the term “little people.Okay, I’m a person of short stature, being only 5’6” tall. For a man, that’s short. And ironically, I find the term “little people” demeaning, since I can’t help but compare it to little boy or little girl, which deals with age and level of maturity rather than height. So can’t that imply “a less than full adult status in society”? I’m perplexed!

In addition, I saw a documentary in January 2008 on the Discovery Health Channel called Dwarf: Standing Tall. Neither the producers nor the little people featured in the documentary had any problem using the term dwarf. They also used people of short stature and little people, but the term dwarf was used more often than the other two. So what does that say about instructions given at the Life Span Institute’s Web page?

My point is that English, because of the times we live in and the people wh
o want to do the right thing, has become a testing ground for changes in attitude that good people want to bring about in society, but I think this quest may go too far at times. I remember when it became a standard joke to add challenged to a variety of adverbs in order to sound politically correct:

  • He’s not short, he’s “vertically challenged.”
  • She’s “cosmetically challenged.” She never learned how to put on makeup.
  • I see your little boy needs glasses. How long has he been “visually challenged”?
  • I can’t stand my wife’s cooking. She’s “culinarily challenged”!
  • Half my students are “auditorily challenged.” They never listen to me.

So in teaching and speaking English, should we just toss out all the standard adjectives we’ve used for centuries perhaps to describe people and things? How do we determine what ELL’s should learn? I’d like to hear your opinions on this subject, so please join in the conversation.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

So What’s New? Plenty!

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

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between two friends in a restaurant. As you read through their conversation, make note of any and all vocabulary that you don’t think you would have heard or used ten or fifteen years ago the way they’re being used in this chat. Then we’ll compare notes.

Ann: Hmm … Everything looks so interesting on the menu.
Kim: I think we should start off with edamame. It’s delicious and so nutritious.
Ann: Yes, they certainly are nutritious.
Kim: What are?
Ann: The edamame. I was agreeing with you that they’re nutritious.
Kim: You mean, it is nutritious, not they are nutritious.
Ann: Huh? No, I think you’re supposed to say they are nutritious.
Kim: Whatever. Edamame is certainly one of today’s iconic foods, don’t you think?
Ann: Absolutely!
Kim: Oh, there’s the server. Excuse me. Could you bring us some plain water, please?
Server: Certainly. I’ll be right back.
Ann: So how is Julie enjoying her summer vacation?
Kim: Oh, she’s having a wonderful time staying with her grand uncle Tim.
Ann: Nice of him to look after her all summer.
Kim: And you know what? She’s joined the girl scouts.
Ann: That’s terrific. That’ll be a good experience for her.
Kim: Absolutely. And she’s getting involved in a girls’ softball team.
Ann: Oh? That must be hard for her since she’s so new at the sport.
Kim: They’re giving her some weightage in each match because of that.
Ann: That’s considerate of them.
Kim: I’m glad we got here early enough to enjoy a leisurely lunch.
Ann: So am I. This way we won’t have to rush to catch that reading of Under Milkwood.
Kim: I’m so glad the theatrette is just a block away. Okay, let’s order.

One way that I know I’m getting older is that I notice more and more how many words or expressions I hear quite often that I probably wouldn’t have heard and definitely wouldn’t have used the way they’re used today when I was younger. In one way, it’s nice to witness how my language keeps evolving, to see how it can generate new vocabulary so handily. In another way, it can be somewhat disconcerting or even disorienting to hear familiar words used unfamiliarly in everyday conversation. After all, it is my language, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I feel comfortable with what’s being said?

Keeping up with new words and expressions can be a daunting task for ESOL teachers, but I suppose it can be a fun activity, too. Here are the items that I know I wouldn’t have heard or used in this way just ten or fifteen years ago: edamame, whatever, server, plain water, grand uncle, girl guides, absolutely, weightage, and theatrette.

Interesting, eh? “Eda-what?” Edamame! It’s the Japanese word for soy beans. They’re served in the pod in a bowl along with drinks.

Did you use the adjective iconic years ago the way Kim used it in the conversation? I didn’t. I understood what it meant the first time I heard it, and that’s one of the wonderful things about language. It can generate words we’ve never heard before or used in ways we’ve never heard, and yet we can understand them. Amazing! But what’s even more amazing is how the noun icon has been turned around from the days when I used it many years ago. Here are the definitions given by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. Note especially the order that the definitions are given:

icon [countable]
1. a small sign or picture on a computer screen that is used to start a particular operation:
To open a new file, click on the icon.
2. someone famous who is admired by many people and is thought to represent an important idea:
a 60s cultural icon
3. also ikon: a picture or figure of a holy person that is used in worship in the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church
iconic adjective

Isn’t that fascinating? For me, no. 3 would have been the first meaning, but now it’s been relegated to the last meaning on the list of definitions. Wow! And the adjective would only have referred to a painting or mosaic found in a religious setting like a church. How word usage has changed!

And what about that rejoinder Whatever? Was that usage part of your vocabulary ten or fifteen years ago? It wasn’t part of mine. I understand, of course, that it means I really don’t care too much about what we’ve been discussing or debating or what you’ve just said. It’s a kind of curt way to end that discussion.

As for server, I still have a problem with that one. I have no problem saying “Waiter!” or “Waitress!” or calling the waitress “Miss!” but saying “Server”? Nope, I just can’t get into that.

The first time I heard somebody ask for plain water, I almost laughed out loud. What on earth is that? I had to ask of course, and found out it means the customer doesn’t want bottled water or mineral water. I would have said tap water, but I guess that doesn’t sound nice enough, so now it’s plain water.

Grand uncle. Now that was a new one on me. It means the same thing as great uncle, in other words, the brother of one of your grandparents. And, of course, there’s also grand aunt besides great aunt. I’m sure these two terms have been around for a very long time, but until recently I’d never heard them. I guess the reasoning for saying grand uncle and grand aunt is that if you have a grandparent, you should also have a grand uncle and a grand aunt. We don’t say *greatparent, so why should we say great uncle/aunt? Of course I can see the logic in it.

Was I surprised to learn about grand uncle and grand aunt? Absolutely! Oops! There’s another word used in a relatively new way. Isn’t it amazing how often people use this adverb as a rejoinder nowadays? I try to use it sparingly, because I’ve noticed that one person can use it an outrageous number of times during just one short conversation, which starts to get on my nerves. It seems like every other word out of the person’s mouth is “Absolutely!” That can get absolutely irritating!

Another term that makes me exclaim “Live and learn” is weightage. According to Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, Preview Edition, 2003-2008, weightage is defined as “a weighing factor assigned to compensate for a perceived disadvantage.” I suppose it’s starting to take the place of the term handicap, which was the term used in my day. I’m told that it’s still something heard more often in British English than North American English.

And last, but not least, we come to one of my favorites, theatrette, an offering from our cousins “down under” in Australia. We can easily figure out that it means, a relatively small theater, and I think it’s a great term. I first heard it not long ago while talking to a friend of mine from Perth. I’m not sure it’ll catch on throughout the English-speak
ing world, but I, for one, like it. And at least I didn’t have to squirm to figure out what my Australian friend was talking about when she used it! I can’t find this term in dictionaries yet, but I’m sure it’ll make its way into some in the near future.

So there you have it, a sampling of words and expressions that have either changed the way they’re used or have been created to fill a need that some speakers perceived was there. And the beat goes on! If this should teach us anything, it should be to react with interest and curiosity when we hear something new or something old that’s used in a new way. In the long run, that’ll make us better, more “with it” language teachers.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Is it a Change ― or is it a Goof? Part 2

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

In “Is it a Change ― or is it a Goof?” I dealt with the topic of recognizing whether some items are actual changes in the language or just mistakes made by people who don’t know any better. I think this topic merits an additional look, and I hope you do, too.

Just to put some more perspective on this issue, let’s showcase the words apron and umpire. If you had wanted to look those words up in a dictionary back, say, in 1200 (imagining that such a thing as a dictionary existed at that time), you wouldn’t have found them listed under a and u respectively. They would have been listed under n. “Huh?” you say. Yep, both of them would have been under n. That’s because something really odd ― but also funny ― happened to those words. When people speaking Middle English said those nouns with the indefinite article, after enough time had passed, the /n/, which was the first sound of those two nouns, migrated over to the indefinite article, so a napron became an apron, and a numpire (originally numpere) became an umpire. Ain’t that a linguistic kick in the head! And that’s the way those words changed. From a funny mistake said often enough, napron and numpire got transformed and became real lexical changes. That’s accumulation of error at work, all right!

And it keeps happening. A rather recent example is livid. Its original meaning is “gray,” or “ashen” in color. The original expression was livid with anger or livid with rage. In other words, if you felt that angry, your color would turn something like ashen. Well, you can see what happened without my telling you: the “… with anger” or “… with rage” parts got dropped, and livid has come to mean “very angry” or “furious.” And that’s okay. That’s what happens to language.

But here’s something that drives me slightly nuts. Almost everybody now says the media is rather than the media are. I talked about this in my first piece on this topic, when English speakers don’t recognize any longer that the Latin and Greek neuter –a ending is really a plural. Well, so be it. If English speakers want to make that an acceptable change rather than just a goof, okay. But I think that if it’s a real change, it should be consistent whenever used ― and in this case, it isn’t. Read the following and think about whether or not you feel comfortable with it:

The horrendous earthquake that hit southwestern China and the terrible cyclone that hit Myanmar were well covered by television, but were they covered just as well by another media like radio?

“Another media.” Are you comfortable with that? Wouldn’t you probably opt for another medium? If your answer is yes, then we’ve got a troublesome inconsistency. On the one hand, you may go along with employing media as a singular collective noun (the media is), but on the other hand, you may feel you should say another medium instead of another media. That’s not consistent. Maybe this is a change that’s still in the process of taking place. Maybe that can explain the inconsistency.

And if that isn’t enough to question how this word is used, even though with a completely different definition, read the following sentence, which I copied down verbatim from a television commercial for a language-teaching program ― of all things ― called “Rosetta Stone.” This is the testimony given during the commercial by a satisfied customer: “I’ve used a lot of different mediums to learn a language, but …” Oh, my goodness! “A lot of different mediums”? Before I freaked out altogether, I ran to different dictionaries to check this out. Most said that when the meaning is a means of communicating or transmitting information, the “usual” plural is media. One dictionary, however, listed an alternative plural form as mediums. So I guess mediums isn’t used anymore just to mean people who claim to communicate with the dead. I just keep shaking my head more and more when I come up against things like this. Is a real change going on? Is that why one dictionary I looked at mentioned that media is still the preferred plural form, but that mediums is okay, too? Maybe the jury’s still out on this one. But being the kind of conservative speaker I am, I’ll stick with television is a medium and television and radio are media. And as far as I’m concerned, Alison Dubois, who can see dead people, is a medium, and she suspects that her daughters are mediums, too!

So let me end by asking you how you’d categorize the following. Do you see them as changes, or do you see them as goofs? I’ll let you know what I think later, so do feel free to comment. And what do you think about this whole issue? Let me know.

1. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
2. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
3. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
4. “Do you know where’s the main office?” “Sorry, I’m not sure where the office is at.”
5. We utilize those logs in the fireplace during the winter to make the living room cozier.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is it a Change — or is it a Goof?

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

Ever feel conflicted about what is and isn’t considered “acceptable” in English? I know I do. (Guess what. I just used an adjective, conflicted, which wasn’t considered “a real word” some years back.) So we sometimes find ourselves in this awful gray area of language, which has got to be the most uncomfortable place for an English teacher to be. Do we teach this word is acceptable? Do we teach that word is unacceptable? Do we just shrug our shoulders, sigh, and leave it up to somebody else to decide? And if we go for that third choice, who’s that “somebody” supposed to be?

If you want to get some perspective on this issue, here’s a term for you: an accumulation of error. It’s a term used as a way of accounting for what the language has done with particular words or phrases over the centuries. If an error is made often enough and by enough people, it finally stops being an error and becomes acceptable. And going along hand in hand with this is the concept that if a word is a high-frequency item, chances are it won’t change much over the centuries. A case in point is high-frequency irregular verbs such as go, eat, and see. We use them so often that there’s no confusion about their past tense (went, ate, saw) or past participle forms (gone, eaten, seen) in standard English. But verbs that aren’t used quite so often have either gone through a complete transition from being irregular to regular (e.g., the past of help used to be halp; now it’s helped) or they’re in transition at this time (e.g., the past of dive is now dove or dived).

I have to ask myself, though, are some of the things I hear or read real changes caused by accumulation of error combined with low-frequency items, or are they just goofs that people make because they don’t know any better?

One example of this is a bunch of nouns we got from Latin or Greek. Those two languages have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In Greek the ending on a neuter noun is –on in the singular and –a in the plural. With Latin neuter nouns the endings are –um in the singular and –a in the plural. So that’s why the Greek loan words phenomenon and criterion are phenomena and criteria in the plural, and that’s why the Latin words are datum and bacterium in the singular and data and bacteria in the plural.

The problem is, how many English speakers know this anymore? Not too many, if you ask me. And because there’s this gap in their linguistic awareness, they view data and bacteria as singular nouns rather than plural.

Funny how that problem never occurs with masculine singular words like octopus and cactus. For some reason, English speakers always recognize them as singular nouns. The only problem that came up was putting them in the plural. Do we really want to use the Latin masculine plural and say octopi and cacti? Nah! Sounds uppity:

A: Hey, Clem, how’s about you and me go to the nursery and buy us some cacti for the front yard? They’ll do great in this drought.
B: Yep, sounds like a good idea, Myrtle. Bet they’ll look mighty nice!

No, I just can’t imagine Myrtle saying “cacti.” It’s going to be cactuses for her. And why not? We’ve been regularizing the plurals of loan words for quite some time, so it’s cactuses and octopuses and hippopotamuses for Myrtle. But at least she recognizes that it’s one cactus and two cactuses. Not so with those poor neuter plurals like data and bacteria.

Okay, I’ll make a confession, owing to the fact that I tend to be conservative in my use of language. I find it jarring to hear somebody like a doctor, nurse, or TV journalist say a bacteria instead of a bacterium. But that’s just me. In fact, not only has bacteria become accepted as a singular noun, but it’s also been pluralized by adding an –s, so some people actually say and write bacterias. Yikes! We’ve now got a plural on top of a plural. It’s a linguistic “two-fer”: two plural forms for the price of one! Well, is this a goof or is this a change? I don’t think the jury’s out on this one. I think it’s a change.

Oh! By the way, speaking of a word like phenomenon . . . I was watching an American TV game show called The Phenomenon. (It didn’t have a long run.) Anyway, the host of the show, a young man from the UK, actually kept saying “phenomenom.” The first time he said it, I thought I’d just heard him wrong. But he said it three or four more times during the show: “phenomenom.” Unbelievable! But do you know what I found really scary? The fact that nobody from the script writer to the cue card guy to the director to whoever else was involved with that show ever corrected him on it. That’s what I found really scary. Now that was a goof, not a change!

So here are a few goodies to ponder over. The question is, are they changes or are they goofs? I’ll leave it to you to decide. They’re some of my favorites because they bother me. (Remember, I told you I’m kind of conservative.) Anyway, I’d love to know what you think of them. Are they acceptable changes or are they goofs? Any others you can think of to add to my hit list will be appreciated. Just let me know.

  • She’s an alumni of Duke University.
  • He shouldn’t talk like that about John and I.
  • “Do you mind if I sit here?” “Sure.”
  • The police found teeth marks on the victim.
  • The media isn’t reporting this accurately.
  • They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007.

Now ponder, dear reader, ponder. I’ll have more to say on this subject at another time.

Friday, May 16, 2008

When Two Wrongs Make a Right

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

I remember learning a term in college: reactionary. It meant somebody who reacts negatively and strongly to any social or political change. I think we can apply that term to language as well. I’m not a reactionary, but I suppose I’m a conservative when it comes to language. I find I have to push myself into accepting a change in the language that I don’t like or don’t want to stay as a permanent fixture. I usually don’t really accept the change; I just swallow hard and say something like, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become ‘acceptable.’” It sometimes hurts to say that, especially if I’m gnashing my teeth, but I take a deep breath and do so. The thing is, I find myself saying that more and more often, and that tends to disturb me. I suppose I’ll have to get used to it, though; it’s the nature of language to change.

Here’s something that’s becoming “acceptable.” I can’t tell you how vividly I remember finding a big red mark an English teacher of mine had put through the word why in a sentence I’d written in a composition. That why was part of the phrase the reason why. When I questioned my teacher about it, she explained it was redundant. She reminded me that why means the same thing as the reason: He told me the reason he had done that. / He told me why he had done that. “You see?” she said smiling. “If we can substitute the reason with why, it shows you that they mean the very same thing, so using them together is a redundancy ― and it’s silly.” I’ve never forgotten that. My teacher really opened my eyes to the world of redundancies, which I spoke about in a previous piece on this blog. And you can bet the ranch that I’ve never said or written the reason why again.

Well, as the saying goes, “That was then; this is now.” I hear educated people say the reason why every single day, usually many times a day. I still cringe a little whenever I hear it ― a reflex action, you know ― but I’m going to develop a tick if I don’t stop cringing. Almost everybody says the reason why these days, so does that mean I have to say once again, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become acceptable”? I suppose it does. (Can you hear me sighing?)

Here’s another example. I remember being taught that we should use each other when speaking about only two of something and one another when speaking about three or more. Come to think of it, I was taught the same grammar rule for between and among. Well, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard educated speakers throw that rule to the wind and use one another for just two people and use between for three or more. I just shake my head and wonder. I’ve found that even dictionaries and fairly recent grammar books now accept one another in place of each other. (I’m sighing again.) So can the same laissez-faire attitude towards between and among be far off? Probably not.

And what about less and the least vs. fewer and the fewest? Awhile back I was watching a hit TV show called The Biggest Loser. They had some trivia questions for the television audience, among which (not between which!) was, “Which of the following kinds of pie has the least calories?” Yes! They said “the least calories”! The writer who came up with that question thought it was fine. The graphic designer who mounted it on the screen thought it was fine. The narrator who did the voiceover thought it was fine. I guess the director thought it was fine. Everybody thought it was fine ― except me! At least, that’s the feeling I got. Well, if nobody thinks there’s a problem with it, who am I to decry that use? Do you see why I wonder if I’m just a conservative or a true reactionary? And I don’t want to touch on what I should do in the classroom with my ESOL students. No, no, don’t even go there! I still have nightmares over being forced to deal with explaining why it was okay to say two coffees when the lesson in our antiquated grammar book clearly said coffee was only an uncountable noun. Ugh!

So what’s your take on all of this? Are you an ultraliberal as far as these kinds of language change go? Or perhaps you’re a conservative, or even a reactionary. I’d really like to know if I’m all alone or if I have colleagues I can commiserate with. Tell me what changes you’ve noticed that you find either completely acceptable or you would like to see disappear from common usage. Talk to me!