Phrase of the day: What’s not to like?

We’ve often said that what strikes us most about the many incredibly competent non-natives we meet in our field is very rarely their grammatical accuracy! Rather than noticing the correct use of a mixed conditional or the stunning use of articles, instead what we tend to be aware of is the sheer range of expressions at people’s disposal. So it was this morning that, while listening to an interview with Daniel Kehlmann, the German author of the best-selling historical novel Measuring the World, I was very taken by the one particular rhetorical question that he used. The interviewer had suggested to him that it sounded as if he was quite a big fan of one particular character he’d been researching, to which he instantly replied Well, what’s not to admire about a man like that?

This question is a variation on the perhaps more common What’s not to like / love? It’s used to suggest that you can’t think of a reason why anybody would not like or love something. Literally, there’s nothing not to like or love here! As with all rhetorical questions, it doesn’t require a response – apart from perhaps broad agreement.

As with many relatively fixed chunks, you may find some variations, but they’re usually on a very similar theme. One twists I can remember hearing is:

I don’t get it.

> What’s not to understand? It’s pretty straightforward!

In classroom terms, the chunk is unlikely to appear in the vast majority of even more advanced material, so unless it somehow crops up somewhere, the best way to bring it into class is either discretely – through teacher talking time – or else more explicitly – via reformulation.

For the former, it could just be something you say when modelling a speaking task you want students to do. For instance, if they’re going to be discussing their favourite films, you could begin by saying something like this:

One of my all-time favourite films is Mean Streets by Martin Scorcese. It’s a crime drama from the early 70s and it’s it’s got Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in it. It’s got an amazing soundtrack as well and it’s filmed in New York, which looks amazing throughout the film. What’s not to like?

This way, the more perceptive / linguistically aware students may well notice the question, especially if you raise the volume a bit when asking it.

Alternatively, you could introduce it more explicitly by getting it onto the board as part of a language-focused round-up after students have been talking, and after you’ve heard someone try to express a similar idea. For instance, perhaps a student says something like this:

It’s an amazing place. It’s very beautiful, the scenery there is incredible. They have great food. Everybody must like it.

You could then write this up on the board:

It’s an amazing place! It’s very beautiful, the scenery is incredible and they have great food. What’s not to like?

Of course, you could also omit the word not from the question, see if anyone knows the missing word and then add it in once you’ve checked / elicited.

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