Archive for Tag: vocabulary

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My English is Better than Your English! Part 2

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

In my last entry, I discussed standard language compared to nonstandard language, focusing mainly on variations in pronunciation and vocabulary, and besides mentioning a few differences in the past and current language of Michigan compared to standard American English, I reported what my British friend Mick O’Hare had to say on the subject.

Now I’d like to mention some more differences between standard and nonstandard language, and also get a little into what we term substandard language.

I come from New York City. To this day people don’t stand in line when waiting to get into someplace; they stand on line. That’s an example of nonstandard American English. But in one part of the city, it’s common to hear people say things like You want I should do that now? instead of Do you want me to do that now? And even though it’s fast dying out, there was a time when it was common in a certain part of the city to hear people switch the pronunciation of “oy” with “er,” so you’d hear things like I need some erl for my car and That British aristocrat is called the Oyl of Devon. So should a teacher in New York City teach stand on line along with stand in line, and should that teacher tell students it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or She’s a lousy cook. The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water!?

My answer to the first question is yes, stand on line can be taught alongside stand in line since ESOL students in New York will undoubtedly hear native speakers say on line, but the teacher should emphasize which one is the standard phrase. My answer to the other question is no, teachers should not teach that it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water. That’s because such grammar and such pronunciations are not standard or even nonstandard English; they’re simply substandard English, and substandard English is unacceptable as a teachable variation. Such grammar and pronunciation basically fall into the same category as ain’t and double negatives. They exist, but the consensus of opinion is that they’re substandard forms. Sometimes it may take checking into to decide if something is a regional variation (nonstandard) or substandard.

At any rate, here are the questions I put to my Australian colleague, Penny Cameron, to get her take on things, and Penny’s answers:

Penny, does Aussie English have regional variations that are so outstanding that you don’t have a problem recognizing which part of the country somebody comes from?

There are regional lexical items, and some regional variation in, for instance, long or short /a/ in words like Newcastle. Please visit the Australian Word Map for a work in progress on this very topic.

Is there a standard Aussie English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech?

We try to teach a standard English, but the kids undermine us the way they always did.

Is there any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Aussies poke fun at the way other Aussies speak?

Not really. We make cruel jokes about other states, suggesting that Tasmanians are inbred and Sydneysiders brash and property obsessed, and we sometimes say that Queenslanders drawl.

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Aussies in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand?

Very few, I believe. See SCOSE (the Standing Committee on Spoken English) and the Word Map
.

We have a steadying influence in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) based on the BBC. Apart from giving us informed non-partisan discussion (the politicians hate it), the ABC hosts SCOSE, the Standing Committee on Spoken English.

This is from their website: “The ABC’s Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE) this year celebrates its fiftieth year. It evolved from earlier groups which had existed since 1944.

“However, the brief for previous incarnations of SCOSE was to maintain standard English pronunciations. In 1952 it was recognised that the ABC should make some departure from BBC practice and recognise Australian English.

“The role of SCOSE is to provide a reference source for broadcasters and journalists through the Language Research Unit, which is maintained by News and Current Affairs.

“Broadcasters and journalists can check all aspects of spoken and written English ― pronunciation, grammar, spelling, usage and style. The Committee also monitors the use of language in a broad sense across all ABC platforms to ensure it is conforming to community standards and the ABC’s editorial policies.The Committee meets once a month to discuss language policy and usage, queries from staff, and any observations or complaints from the public. Members include staff representatives from program producing areas across radio, television and online.”

The SCOSE Academic Adviser Professor, Pam Peters, is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University. Professor Peters sits on the Macquarie Dictionary Advisory Board and is the author of Cambridge University Australian English Style Guide, my constant desk companion.

However, we certainly sound different to other people. Please see the story at the beginning of the most recent Ozwords (Oct 2007) about the unfortunate Australian woman who got arrested.

I did, Penny, and I was amazed at what happened to her. Incredible! I hope all my readers will take a look at the story and see what misunderstandings can arise from one form of English to another. And thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, Penny, and for offering such good links to visit.

As I said last time, I’d love to hear from you folks, so please share any reactions or thoughts you have with us by leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My English is Better than Your English!

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

I returned some days ago from East Lansing, Michigan, where I gave a six-hour workshop on grammar to over 150 gracious, enthusiastic ESOL teachers from all around the state who eagerly wanted to understand more about the workings of the English language. The six hours flew by, and I feel very grateful to have had the experience of meeting and chatting with those teachers.

One of the topics that came up while some of us were chatting during breaks and after the workshop dealt with a subject I had brought up in the early part of the workshop, namely, standard English vs. nonstandard English, also known as regional variations. A number of the teachers wanted to know if one was better than the other, and which form of English (e.g., standard American, standard British, etc.) should be considered “the best.” I quickly explained that there is no such thing as one form of English being better than any other and that all forms are fine if they work all right for the people who use them. I added that we have what is gingerly referred to as standard English, which seems to be the language that’s understood and used by the majority of educated native speakers. I suggested that the teachers might want to teach standard language to our students first, but that there was nothing wrong with introducing regional variations, nonstandard English, at the appropriate level and appropriate time.

Here are some examples of regional variations as opposed to the standard forms. For example, in pronunciation, since it was the fall and the leaves were starting to turn colors, I mentioned foliage (/fo – li – әj/ as the standard, /fo – lәj/ as the regional variation). Then one of the teachers brought up auxiliary. She’d noticed that I pronounced it /ŏg – zIl – yә – ri/ while she always said /ŏg – zIl – ә – ri/. Which one was standard, she wanted to know. I told her the way I pronounce the word is standard, which surprised her. But she said she’d pronounce it that way from now on.

Then there are words. In Michigan, years ago, people called a couch (sofa) a davenport. And when you were thirsty and didn’t care for water, you’d go to the fridge and get a pop (a soda). So couch or sofa is the standard word, and davenport was the regional variation. Refrigerator and soda are the standard words, while fridge and pop are regional variations. Does that mean the former are better than the latter? Not really. The only thing that may be important for us ESOL teachers is to know which should be taught first to our students. Or perhaps the two forms should be taught at the same time. Food for thought. One other thing of importance is attitudes that native speakers have about standard language as opposed to nonstandard forms. How judgmental are people about nonstandard pronunciations and vocabulary compared to the standard language?

Of course, American ESOL teachers aren’t the only ones wrestling with these questions. While preparing this blog entry, I contacted a friend of mine, a writer and editor in London, to get his take on what is considered standard language in the UK. I did the same with a friend and colleague in Sydney, Australia to hear her views on this topic, and will discuss her answers in my next blog entry.

So here are the questions I put to my British friend, Mick O’Hare, along with his answers. Mick has written some wonderful books and is an editor at New Scientist magazine:

Mick, is there a standard British English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech? Is it different from “received pronunciation”? And if it is different, who learns that and who learns RP?

Only in the public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rodean (posh private schools to you), I believe they still teach RP through elocution. Otherwise you are taught in the accent (generally) from the area in which you were born. I guess teachers tend to iron out dialect, but as far as I know there’s no law over pronunciation. For example, my teachers would have said /fæst/ whereas my wife’s would have said /fast/ purely because I’m from the North and she’s from the South. And, of course, we all had teachers who came from different parts of the country, so they just taught in their own accents. I don’t recall any calamities. RP is taught to the wealthy or the aristocratic, but it’s dying out to a certain extent as regional accents become more acceptable and as English homogenises generally through TV, etc.

Is there still any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Britons poke fun at the way other Britons speak?

Yes. my wife’s mum, for example, who speaks RP, thinks that only RP should be allowed on the BBC (even happily says it to me). But even so, society is far more egalitarian now and it matters far less. Nonetheless, certain prejudices apply to certain accents: good examples would be the Birmingham ‘Brummie’ accent, which is associated with being stupid and rather universally disliked, Glaswegian which is considered incomprehensible by everybody else, Geordie (much the same), Yorkshire (my accent), which is considered dour or down-to-earth. On the other hand, some accents such as Edinburgh, Highlands, West Lancashire, and West Country are considered ‘pleasant’. And everybody who is not a cockney hates cockney because they all love themselves too much, the chirpy l’il sparrers!

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Britons in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand? (I’m talking about regional variations within England, not including Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall.)

Yes, lots. Loads of dialect words. I’m not too up on other areas, but obviously, because of rhyming slang, there are simply hundreds in cockney. And I know East Anglia has a lot, but in Yorkshire we have plenty ― these are the ones I know best. My granddad could speak virtually in a different language if all the dialect words came out at once. A few that spring to mind are laik (“play” ― I still use this and also laikers for “players”), baht (“without”), allus (“always”), claht (“cloth”), and snicket (“alleyway”).

Pronunciation might still catch people out area to area.

Thanks very much for your i
nsights, Mick. I think it will be helpful for English teachers, no matter where they are, to read your take on these points about British English, compare them with things I’ve mentioned about American English, and then think about whatever form of English may exist in their parts of the world. This may have more of an impact on how they teach English than you might think at first glance.

Any thoughts, folks? If something comes to mind, please share it with me by leaving a comment.

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.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Head Scratchers, Part 2

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

Awhile back I wrote a piece with the same title as this piece, “Head Scratchers.” I had lots of fun with it, and I must say I enjoyed sharing my amazement with you over the things that people say or write without anybody questioning the logic of what they’ve come up with. I said in that piece that I’d have more little gems to comment on, and the time has come. So let’s get started.

First off, there’s the case of one of my all-time favorite redundancies: Church of Christ. Now really, can there be any other kind of church besides one that deals with Jesus Christ? Or there’s a Spanish version I’ve recently come across: Iglesia Cristiana, “Christian Church.” This is just silly. Jews have temples or synagogues; Muslims have mosques; Hindus and Buddhists have temples ― and Christians have churches. We know who churches are for.

Besides silly things people say or write, there are things in our grammar that make me scratch my head just as much as the kinds of things I talked about in my first piece on this topic. Take, for example, a newspaper headline like “Ice Cream Chain Co-Founder Dies.” (This was a story about Irvine Robbins, one of the co-founders of Baskin & Robbins, Inc.) Yes, I know it’s common to use the simple present in such headlines, but have you ever stopped to consider how silly that is, how funny that sounds, and how this use of the simple present can confuse ELL’s? Here’s a verb form that signifies something done repeatedly or habitually, and it’s being applied to something like dying? Where’s the logic in that? I mean, if you’ve died, you’ve died. You’re not going to do that all the time! If you want to say Ice cream chain co-founder shaves, that’s okay. Ice cream co-founder smokes, that’s okay (grammatically speaking, anyway). But Ice cream co-founder dies? Doesn’t that bother you? There are points of English grammar that do bother me!

And just for the heck of it, how is it that highly is an adverb, but lowly is an adjective? (Just thought I’d throw that in.)

Continuing with more grammatical oddities, let’s talk about teeth whitening. I’m beginning to come across this outrageous creation of advertising more and more. TEETH whitening? Not TOOTH whitening? To begin with, the grammar rule is that when you’re compounding nouns ― which is what’s happening here ― the first element, the descriptive element, is almost always in the singular. That’s why we don’t say *bedsroom or *starslight. The exceptions are when that first element is normally used in the plural, like in the arms race. Why on earth would they think that teeth whitening would be acceptable? Do we say TEETHbrush or TEETH decay? And how about fingers or feet? Have you ever heard anybody say FINGERSprints or FEETprints? Exactly! I rest my case.

Finally, before we all run for some aspirin or blood pressure medicine, there’s the matter of unnecessary mispronunciations. Shouldn’t educated people at least approximate the way a name is pronounced? Not too long ago, the famous fashion designer Yves St. Laurent passed away. That’s pronounced “Eev San Laurón” for those in the know, not like my local news anchor who pronounced it, “Eev Saint Law-rent.” Ugh! And I recently heard the actor Ben Stiller do a public service announcement to help the victims of that horrible cyclone that hit Burma, also known as Myanmar, or, as Mr. Stiller so sophisticatedly pronounced it, “MY-an-mar,” as if the first syllable should rhyme with tie. I must have heard a hundred news stories about that country after the cyclone hit, and in every one of those stories, the reporters pronounced the name more or less correctly, “Myanmar.” But not our Mr. Stiller. I guess he never listens to the news. And along the same lines, another one of my local news anchors called the General Secretary of the United Nations “Ban Kigh Moon” (“Kigh” also rhyming with tie) instead of the right way, “Ban Kee Moon.” That gentleman is the Secretary General of the United Nations, for Pete’s sake!

Am I amazed at these mispronunciations? Yes! I would think that educated or professional people would know better. They don’t have to get the pronunciations exactly native-like, but they surely can come close if they just put a little effort in checking out the pronunciations when in doubt. The problem is, they don’t seem to care.

But that’s not what really gets me. What absolutely flabbergasts me is that those people aren’t working in a vacuum. They’re involved with script writers, producers, directors, videographers, et al., and yet nobody but nobody seems to notice their off-the-wall mispronunciations and think it important enough to save the day by giving them a tip on the right way to pronounce the name. That’s what flabbergasts me. I just don’t understand it.

Here’s one for you that you may not know. There’s a very ancient fish swimming around out there in the ocean that scientists thought had gone extinct about the same time as the dinosaurs. It’s the coelecanth. That’s right, you haven’t read it wrong; the coelacanth. Now don’t you think it would be a good idea to check out how on earth that name is pronounced? I certainly do. Well, it so happens that the name of that ancient fish ― which isn’t extinct after all ― is pronounced “SEE – luh – canth.” So, besides being one of the ugliest fish you can imagine, it’s also got a name whose spelling doesn’t give you much of a clue about its pronunciation. Of course that didn’t stop yet another TV newsperson from calling it ― yes, I’m sure you can guess ― the “koh – ELL – luh – canth.” You can imagine how fast I fired off an email to him! At least he had the courtesy to thank me for the correction.

Of course the example of the coelacanth is kind of understandable. It just boils down to laziness or not having enough curiosity to check the pronunciation out. As far as all the other gems I’ve cited in these two pieces like “Recorded before a live audience” or teeth whitening, I keep trying to come up with scenarios that will explain how such blunders are made, but I can’t. I simply can’t. If any of you can explain this to me, I’ll be very grateful. I’d like to stop scratching my head before my hair starts falling out.

I don’t think I’m being picky in these instances. Some things are acceptable, but some things just aren’t. And yet there they are, for all to hear and read and use. And we don’t have any Academy to rule on such usages, do we, or to tell us what is or isn’t silly. Nope, we don’t. With English, it all seems to be very “democratic,” so to speak. If enough people say it’s okay and use it, or simply don’t react negatively to it whatever it is, it becomes “acceptable.” That certainly doesn’t make our jobs as English teachers any easier, but what can you do? So even though I lowly recommend it, we may find ourselves having to teach our students these odd alternatives to what we traditionally cons
idered “correct logic,” “correct English” or “correct pronunciation.” And, by the way, this piece has been pre-written.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sometimes Reform Can Spell Disaster!

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

Can you spell /pyu-sә-læ-nә-mәs/ the way it’s normally written? I can’t ― unless I look it up in a dictionary. I mean, why should I know how to spell it? I never use the word. Well, okay, it’s spelled pusillanimous, and it means “afraid to take even a small risk” or “cowardly.” Talk about a low-frequency word!

But what about /ne-bәr/ or /saI-ka-lә-ji/? Can you spell those the way they’re normally written? Oh, you feel better now, don’t you. You know I’m talking about neighbor and psychology, right? Did you have trouble spelling those two? I have a hunch you didn’t. They’re high-frequency words, so you’ve seen them and used them many, many times. That’s why you had no trouble spelling them.

So how would you feel if I told you that from now on they should be nebr and sykaluji? How would that grab you? (I think I can see you grimacing.) That first one looks like it could be a kind of phonetic transcription of an ancient Egyptian word, and the other looks like it belongs to some Turco-Mongolian language. They certainly don’t look like English anymore!

And that’s my point. For years and years there have been many people calling for a drastic reform of English spelling. They claim that the majority of even US high school students can’t spell well, and that too much time is spent trying to teach English speakers how to spell their language. I can’t argue with them about that; I’m sure it’s true. I’m also sure that we’re stuck with the spelling system ― if it is a system ― that we’ve got, but I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing.

True, if you look over the history of English spelling, you can’t help but laugh out loud at times when you find out what people did to make the system illogical, awkward, and somewhat inconsistent. Part of the problem comes from the fact that monastic scribes, and later on, printers, had a great deal of influence on how we spell words.

Do you know why so many words contain the combination ck? Some scribes decided that spelling could show it’s necessary to maintain a short vowel sound if that vowel is separated from another vowel by doubling a consonant. That’s why we know how to pronounce pinning vs. pining, or robbed vs. robed. But those scribes didn’t like the look of kk ― it just wasn’t esthetically pleasing to them, I guess ― so they arbitrarily decided to write ck instead. They thought that looked prettier. That’s why we now write picked instead of pikked and won’t confuse its pronunciation with piked. Hah!

And do you know why we spell the word lamb with that silent b? Well, those scribes kept the b in comb and tomb and climb as a reminder of their older forms in which the b was pronounced (camban, tumba, and climban). So when they wrote that word that means a baby sheep, they automatically added that b even though in its original form the word never had a b. We should still be writing it lam, not lamb! And the list of oddities like these goes on and on.

But let’s get serious for a moment. It’s all right ― or alright ― to scream for spelling reform, for a more phonetic way of writing English. But has anybody come up with a system that will work? Not the way I look at it. One big question I have to ask is, with so many variations in the pronunciation of English words, whose pronunciation will we choose to use as the standard for sound/symbol correspondence? If you want to make the system more or less phonetic like we find in Spanish or Russian or German, whose pronunciation will each vowel or consonant represent? Will it be that of the Australians, or New Englanders, or Cockneys, or the British who use “received pronunciation,” RP? Take the word path. If I’m American, I say [pæθ]. If I’m British using RP, I say [pa:θ]. And if I’m a Cockney, I say [pa:f]. So how can we be true to a phonetic way of writing when one word can be pronounced so differently by people who are all native speakers of English? I think you see my point. It just won’t work!

At any rate, we don’t learn to read and write one letter at a time, not after the very beginning. We learn sight recognition, looking at a whole word all at once and recognizing what it is. We don’t sound out each letter of a familiar word when we read it, not if we’re normal readers. To me that’s akin to how Chinese characters are read. They, too, are in a system that relies on reading by sight recognition. So this is one more reason I can’t take those spelling reformers seriously.

And one other thing ― a very important thing ― that they overlook is the personality and unique identification that our spelling system gives to the written language. Take a look again at how I suggested we spell neighbor and psychology. For me there’s something special, almost mysterious, about why those words are spelled as they are. And if I choose to, I can find out the reasons by learning more about the history of the language, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Neighbor comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, neah and gebor, which mean “near farmer.” I like seeing the remnants of those ancient words in the spelling. And psychology is really interesting, too. The p was pronounced in the original Greek word psychos, which means something like “soul.” The Romans incorporated that word into their own language, but they had a problem. Greek had a sound similar to the Scottish or German ch that didn’t exist in Latin, so the Romans chose to represent that sound as ch even though they pronounced it more like a k. Our one word is really from two Greek words, psychos and logos, which mean something like “the study of the soul.” I find there’s a romance in such spellings that I don’t want to lose. Is it impractical? Perhaps, but it adds a character, a personality, a charm to English that I think well worth keeping.

Of course, the most compelling argument for not reforming the English spelling system is this: What will happen to spelling bees? Would you want to take away the fun that so many children have competing in those contests? Would you want to be that spoil-sport? Not I!

Friday, August 15, 2008

And the Answer is . . . Part 2

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

In a few previous entries on my blog, I listed some interesting idiomatic expressions, commonly used terms the origins of which most native speakers don’t have a clue about. I also listed some commonly heard errors that, at least for now, are mostly still considered errors. I’ve already listed some of the answers in “And the Answer is …” Now it’s time for me to list the answers to more of those interesting little bits and pieces that make English so much fun to delve into. The ones listed below are some of the quirks of English that I asked about in rhetorical questions for you to consider. I’m also including those commonly heard errors that may end up becoming acceptable one of these days. As English teachers whose bread and butter is the state of the English language, we should have some knowledge at least of the more commonly used idioms that pop up in conversation so frequently that our students are bound to ask us about eventually, and we should be thinking about changes that are going on right now in how native speakers use this language. So here’s information about some of those quirks and errors I mentioned in those earlier entries. I hope you continue to find them informative and entertaining.

1. Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
On the face of it, these do seem to be contradictory, don’t they? But they’re really not, of course. The particle up isn’t being used in its literal sense here. Up can be used with certain verbs to mean “completely,” so to burn up really means “to burn completely.” Here are some others that work with a similar meaning for up: blow up, clean up, cut up, drink up, eat up, grind up, grow up, lap up, and tie up.

Now down, on the other hand, is used in its literal meaning, so if a tree or a house burns down, we really mean that every part of it has come tumbling down to the ground. Some other verbs that work more or less the same way with down are blow down, bring down (in its literal meaning and one idiomatic meaning, i.e., to kill or disable a large animal), fall down, go down, lay down, lie down, put down (in its literal sense), sit down, and stay down.

2. Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
This is a fun one! Once again, we seem to be looking at opposites as far as those particles are concerned, but they don’t represent their literal meanings here. The difference is that while both phrasal verbs mean that some sort of machine starts functioning, if it goes off, it begins working with an accompanying loud noise or explosive effect, whereas if it goes on, it simply begins working. So I suppose that’s why an alarm clock goes off, but a coffee maker goes on.

In those previous entries, I listed some of the most typically heard errors, which are so common nowadays that at least one has already been raised to the rank of “acceptability.” The others I’ve listed may follow suit, the way things are going. Who knows?

3. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
Even though the more conservative of us grammar wonks still don’t accept lay and lay down as intransitive verbs, but feel that lie and lie down should be the only intransitives in this “contest,” how long can you fight City Hall? I, for one, hear lay and lay down used intransitively more than lie and lie down, so at this point I just sigh and move on. There are even dictionaries that have given in to this change!

4. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
Real easy should be really easily or very easily, and quicker should be more quickly. Although I don’t think these are considered acceptable alternative forms, the two of them tend to be moving in that direction. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is on these.

What’s very interesting to me is that I see a greater and greater trend towards using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain sentence environments and in certain collocations. I know I’ll be getting around to writing a blog entry on this issue at some point in the future, so please stay tuned.

5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.

This seems to be a relatively new trend, unlike the sentence construction that’s been around for a very long time in which people use two conditionals instead of a subjunctive and a conditional. For example when they say, I would’ve helped you if you would’ve asked me.

6. A: Do you know where’s the main office? B: Sorry, I’m not sure where it’s at.
Speaker A is demonstrating an interesting trend in the question above. This may be happening due to the influence of immigrants on the language, but I’m really not sure about the cause. The correct word order is Do you know where the main office is? but I’ve heard this kind of incorrect word order used more and more frequently.

As for what Speaker B says, it’s amazing how many people, usually in less educated groups, don’t feel they’ve uttered a complete idea in a question or statement with where unless they throw in at at the end of the utterance. If you happen to get that popular TV show Cops where you live, listen to how almost every single police officer throws in that at at the end of a question or statement containing where. Of course there’s absolutely no need for using at in an utterance with where.

7. We utilize at least a cord of wood in the fireplace every winter to make the living room warm and cozy.
It’s interesting how so many native speakers mix up use and utilize. I have a hunch they use utilize ― or should I say they utilize utilize ― to sound more “educated” or formal. But in reality they’re just using the wrong word. Our speaker should say We use at least a cord of wood … When you’re talking about the specific, direct purpose for something, you use it. When you’re talking about finding a way to accomplish something by means of using a thing not necessarily designed or planned for that use, then you utilize it. After all, utilize means “to make a use for” something. I ca
n choose to say something like I utilize an old toothbrush to clean the grout on my tiled bathroom walls. Of course, I could opt to say I use an old toothbrush, too. But it would sound odd to say I utilize a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I think you get the idea.

I hope you’ve found this entry informative and entertaining. And I hope it helps kindle that curiosity in you to look into where certain words and expressions come from, see trends that are developing for better or worse in English grammar, and think more about the proper or improper use of certain words. If any others come to mind, please feel free to mention them here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name, Part 2

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

Okay, I know you’re not supposed to do something like this, but let’s eavesdrop on a conversation:

A: I hear your brother’s in a correctional facility. Is that true?
B: Yes, I’m sad to say.
A: What happened?
B: It was all a misunderstanding. He worked for a large clothing retailer. He was let go after he was caught with pilfered goods. My brother didn’t know what they were. The guy who gave them to him said they’d fallen off the back of a truck.
A: Oh, I see. Hmm … And how’s your younger brother doing?
B: He’s between jobs right now. He’s returned to the nest, so that’s good for him financially, but he’s got payments to make on a pre-owned car he bought recently.

Don’t you love the way English can soften reality, or help us avoid directly facing ugly facts, or help us to be more tactful? In an earlier entry also entitled “A Rose by Any Other Name,” we started delving into the wonderful world of euphemisms, and that’s what we’ll continue to do right now.

Speaking of which, how many euphemisms can you find in that conversation? Go ahead, count them. Let’s see what you get. I’ll wait . . .

All done? So how many did you find? I found nine. And here they are:

1. I hear Translation: Somebody – I won’t say who – told me that . . .
2. correctional facility Translation: jail
3. It was all a misunderstanding. Translation: My brother really screwed up.
4. He was let go. Translation: He was fired.
5. pilfered Translation: stolen
6. They’d fallen off the back of a truck. Translation: They’d been stolen.
7. between jobs Translation: unemployed
8. has returned to the nest Translation: living at home with momma and poppa again
9. a pre-owned car Translation: a used car

It says a lot about a culture that uses euphemisms in such a way. Sometimes euphemisms soften a not-so-pleasant truth, as we’ve seen in this conversation; at other times, they can be used to show respect or deference to a group of people. Just look at all the euphemisms English has created ― and I’m sorry to be so blunt ― for old people: the elders, the elderly, the aged, people in their golden years, retired people, mature people, and the ever popular seniors or senior citizens. Why is it, I ask you, that the word old has such a negative connotation? It’s not inherent in the language, is it? It’s a cultural thing, of course. But that’s the whole point: Euphemisms are completely culture-bound.

Sometimes we can see two totally different ways that segments of our population view something by the euphemisms they choose. For example, what about the dead? We can be reverent when talking about somebody who’s dead, or we can be flippant. I wonder which group has the sillier ways of telling you that somebody’s dead.

So let’s be reverent for a moment.

A: Did you hear about poor old Mr. Mertz?
B: No, what?
A: He’s passed/passed away/passed on/passed over/deceased/expired/gone to meet his maker/resting in peace/in a better place/crossed over/defunct/departed
/
gone/been taken/succumbed/no longer with us/given up the ghost.
B: Oh. Do you mean he’s dead?
A: Yes, poor thing.

And now let’s be a little flippant.

A: Hear about Billy-Bob?
B: No, what?
A: He’s pushing up the daisies/bit the dust/bought the farm/cashed in his chips/

checked out/kicked the bucket.
B: Oh. Ya mean he’s dead?
A: Duh!

I suppose both ways of imparting such news are equally effective in the long run. I just think it’s fascinating that we’d rather opt for one of those euphemisms rather than just come right out and say the poor guy croaked . . . er, died. And then we have this quaint way of letting you know that somebody’s dead by saying the late so-and-so. How bizarre is that? Late? Late for what?? If Mr. Mertz’s time was up, how can we say he’s the late Mr. Mertz? That’s a head scratcher, if you ask me!

Of course my favorite area for euphemisms deals with that always popular sport, sex! In a culture that still has trouble dealing with this topic, euphemisms abound. Just look at some of the ways we can talk about having sex: have carnal knowledge of/have (intimate) relations (with)/make love (with/to)/have an affair (with)/sleep with/sleep together (with)/go to bed with/make whoopee/there was some hanky panky/fooling around/monkey business/playing around. And the beat goes on!

Yes, euphemisms definitely serve a variety of purposes. One thing’s for sure, they certainly enliven the language! But on a more serious note, we also use euphemisms to deal with delicate subjects, especially politically correct ones such as handicaps. People who are sensitive to the handicapped have a lot of credit coming to them, especially those people who insist that proper terminology be used when discussing different kinds of handicaps and the individuals who deal with them. If you’d like to see something very interesting and meaningful, the Life Span Institute of the University of Kansas has set up an online site where you can familiarize yourself with the current terminology that should and should not be used when talking about handicaps. Visit the Life Span Institute and see what I mean. It’s a great way to teach ELL students this very important vocabulary. On that Web site, just click on “Appropriate Terminology.”

And if you’ve got any favorite euphemisms that haven’t been covered here and you’d like to share them with us, please leave a comment for all of us to see. Now that I’m feeling a bit knackered, I think I’ll go to the bedroom to rest ― even though I still think it should be called the restroom! I mean, after all, isn’t that what we do there? Hmm?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Head Scratchers

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

Ever have one of those moments when you hear or read something and do an instant double-take? “Huh? What was that? What did I just hear/read?” And then you wait to see if you’ll hear it again or you reread what you just read so you can check out that you weren’t imagining things? Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had those moments. So have I. And then comes that “aha” moment. You hear it again or reread it, and it was exactly what you thought it was ― nuts! Totally illogical! Downright silly! But then comes the moment of self-doubt. “Am I the one who’s being illogical or silly? Am I perhaps being too picky?”

Okay, so you’d like to know what I’m going on about. Well, here’s an example: “This program has been pre-recorded.” Think about that for a moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that flashed at the bottom of my TV screen or heard it delivered by a voiceover. “This program has been PRE-recorded”? Huh? Does it mean the program was recorded before it was recorded? Isn’t that what it means? Isn’t that totally nuts? Do you react the way I do? I doubt the TV studios that produced those shows got lots of letters pointing out the silliness of that statement. I say that because they’ve kept saying it, year after year. I just end up sighing in utter frustration. How about you?

This is fun. I love to vent, so let’s keep going. Another of these little silly gems created by the same TV studios, one that always cracks me up when I hear it or read it, is “Recorded before a live audience.” You don’t say! A live audience, eh? So they’re reassuring us that the show wasn’t performed in a cemetery or in a morgue full of corpses? Nice of them to let us know. Well, at least they didn’t say “Pre-recorded before a live audience”! How can people actually say such things deliberately? I mean, I can understand if somebody says something silly like that on the spur of the moment without realizing how silly it is, but you’d think that somebody else would catch it or the person saying it would catch it himself and realize how funny it is. But no, statements such as these have been thought out, accepted, and used on American TV shows without anybody so much as blinking when they’re flashed on the screen or said by a voiceover. How amazing is that?

Another gem that used to make me chuckle every time I saw it was a sign in the New York City subway system. It was there for years, and I wonder if it still is. It was at the 14th Street station on the IRT line, and it said, “Use last two stairways for toilet.” Don’t you just love it? I wonder if any literal-minded, inebriated person ever followed those instructions to the letter. Actually, I’m glad I never found out in person. But there you have it. Another example of people not realizing what they’re saying or writing. Sure, I understand perfectly well that it’s an ambiguous sentence, and that’s why it’s funny, but couldn’t somebody have come up with something unambiguous? I mean . . . really. (By the way, if any New Yorkers who ride the IRT read this piece, please let me know if that sign is still there, okay?)

Here’s one more that’s made me scratch my head on more than one occasion: “I’ll try and get back to her before the end of business today.” What’s with that often-heard phrase I’ll try and + base verb? Shouldn’t it be I’ll try to + base verb? Okay, I can just see you making a face and thinking, “Aw, c’mon, now you’re being picky. Lots of people say that.” Yeah, I know they do, but they don’t say it in the past (*I tried and got back to her …) and they don’t say it in the present (*I’m trying and getting back to her …), so how come it’s okay to say it in the future? I just don’t get it! It’s also another one of those gems that don’t make sense when you think about them in detail: You’ll try AND get back to her? You’ll try WHAT? You forgot to mention what you’ll try before you get back to her. Aaaaarrrghhh!

I’ve got to calm down. My blood pressure, you know.

Why does it seem that so many things we teach our students ― even the most basic things ― always seem to get contradicted in real-life English? Every Level 1 teacher goes over such basics as Thank you and its customary response, You’re welcome. You’d think that combination couldn’t be tampered with, wouldn’t you? Well, think again. I listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) most mornings. They give wonderful, in-depth stories that really inform their listeners. More often than not, when a piece is over, the anchor will say, for example, “Thank you, Quil, for that report.” Now you’d expect Quil to say, “You’re welcome, Lisa,” or “My pleasure, Lisa,” or something like that, right? Nope, that’s not necessarily right. What does Quil say? “Thank you, Lisa.” So Lisa has said Thank you and Quil has replied Thank you. And I sit there, making a face and thinking in a whiny sort of way, “We can’t teach our students to say that. Why are those two saying that?” And they’re not alone. It’s amazing how often I’ll hear Thank you repeated instead of a good old-fashioned You’re welcome or My pleasure. (Time for me to sigh.)

I could go on and on about head scratchers like these, but I’ll save the rest for another time. I’d love to know if you’ve got any I haven’t mentioned, ones that make you do a double-take, too. And I’d like to know if any of them have kind of ambushed what you teach your students they should say. So let me hear from you. I promise that your pre-recorded comments will be viewed by a live person.