Five things I’ve learned from running the ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED group

One of the side-effects of being a coursebook writer and teacher with a relatively high social media profile is that I get a lot of mail. A depressingly large chunk of this is simply messages saying things like HI! or WHERE ARE YOU FROM? Then there are messages from both teachers and students who are using our books, which are always lovely to receive ….. even when they’re just pointing out (again!) the typo on page 127 of OUTCOMES Pre-Intermediate. Finally, there are the questions about language – about how to use certain words and phrases, about whether the answer keys to certain exercises are correct or not, about why one grammar structure is correct in a particular context when another isn’t, and so on.

Following a conversation about this with a Russian friend of mine, Anita Modestova, I decided to set up a Facebook group to deal with these questions. That was almost exactly a year ago and since then more than 5600 people have joined the group – that’s more than 100 a week. We’ve had over 2000 questions posted and there have been over 36,000 responses.

There have been downsides too, of course. I’ve banned over 70 people – for everything from posting videos of goats shagging to religious proselytising, from abusive language used towards other posters who disagree with a particular strict prescriptive approach to posts seeking online girlfriends!

It’s been fascinating watching the community grow and along the way some recurrent key themes have emerged. What follows is an attempt to summarise what I see as the five main ones.

(1) Language awareness is not something you’re born with.

In this day and age, it should hardly need stating that traditional notions about the relative merits of so-called ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers are ridiculously outdated. It is impossible to tell from the language used by many of the most regular contributors whether English is their mother tongue or not. It’s also, of course, irrelevant.

What is significant is that the majority of the most regular and most trustworthy responders are not, in fact, what has traditionally been termed ‘native speakers’. Nevertheless, week in and week out, they contribute perceptive, intelligent, accurate answers in ways that are easy to understand and digest …. often while ‘natives’ on the page are struggling to put intelligible answers together. Just as we know that good teachers are made and not born, so we should also accept that language awareness – and the ability to convey complex insights in simple language – is something we are all always developing, irrespective of where we may have grown up.

(2) Difference in meaning is inseparable from different usage

Many of the questions we get asked about what are the differences between pairs of (or sometimes groups of three) similar words. For example, what’s the difference between DESPAIR and DESPERATION or PARTLY and PARTIALLY or TRIP, TRAVEL and JOURNEY. There are also often questions about how pairs of collocations like A RELAXED ATMOSPHERE and A RELAXING ATMOSPHERE or BENEFICIAL EFFECTS AND POSITIVE EFFECTS differ. These questions have often been prompted by the askers having tried to do past papers for things like Cambridge Advanced or Proficiency and getting the wrong answers.

The temptation here is to try to explain the (often extremely) subtle differences in meaning in the hope that that clarifies things. However, even professional lexicographers frequently struggle to provide any sensible answers. Take, PARTLY and PARTIALLY, for instance. The online Macmillan dictionary, which I rate highly, by the way, defines PARTLY as ‘to some degree, but not completely’ and PARTIALLY as ‘not completely’. Got that?

If you turn to the also-excellent Cambridge dictionary for further assistance, it tells you that PARTLY is ‘used to show that something is true to some degree, but not completely’, whilst PARTIALLY again just means ‘not completely’.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying I doubt these definitions or that they’re not useful up to a point. It’s just that they really don’t help users get much of a sense of when to use one word and not the other. Meaning is the least of your troubles when it comes to selecting one or the other under the time pressure of an exam. You need to ‘feel’ which words works when – and this can only be learned from examples, from exposure, from experience over time.

As teachers, one of the key things we do is help students to shortcut the process of exposure by providing examples that are a condensation of our own experience. The meaning emerges from the examples rather than vice versa. For instance, you think we all agree on what A FIRE is, but A RAGING FIRE is very different, is it not, from a COSY FIRE? There’s only one you’d want to find yourself sitting in front of, that’s for sure.

With all this in mind, here’s how I answered the question about PARTLY / PARTIALLY:

“The problem is they both basically mean “not completely”. The only real difference is in terms of usage, frequency (PARTLY is a lot more common) and collocation. For instance, we often say something happens PARTLY BECAUSE of something else or PARTLY AS A RESULT OF something else. You can be PARTLY TO BLAME for a problem that’s happened. It can be PARTLY MY FAULT or I can FEEL PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR what happened. One thing can PARTLY EXPLAIN another.

You can be PARTIALLY SIGHTED, PARTIALLY DEAF or PARTIALLY CLOTHED! A road may be PARTIALLY BLOCKED after an accident; something may be only PARTIALLY TRUE. A building can be PARTIALLY FINISHED and a plan can be ONLY PARTIALLY SUCCESSFUL.”

In other words, the best way to explain these differences in simple words is by giving examples of what the words are used to do – and to show the other words that often go with them.

(3) Notions of correctness are far more complicated that you may have realised

When I first read Michael Hoey’s game-changing book LEXICAL PRIMING, one of the things that hit me hardest was his claim that everyone’s English is different. Whether we’re so-called native or non-native, by the time we reach a certain degree of fluency, we have all had enough exposure to shared mass use of English (through the process of becoming educated, through the media, through movies and the news, etc.) to ensure a considerable degree of standardisation and uniformity, but at the same time, we all also bear the traces of our own individual primings. For so-called natives, we all heard slightly different Englishes at home, and all of us, irrespective of where we were born, have absorbed different cultural influences – listened to different songs, watched different movies, met different people, read different books. As a result, there is no one thing called English. We all have our own versions inside our heads, and these versions are all open to further change and modification.

Obviously, there’s enough standardisation to ensure widespread mutual intelligibility, and it’s still the most widely used forms that teachers should be looking to mostly teach. However, we also need to recognise and accept diversity and the fact that it’s often far easier to say what’s most normal than what’s ‘correct’.

We often think it’s in vocabulary use that language varies the most, yet within our group we have some speakers who grew up hearing things I’m not sure, but I might could do it later and You might should give it one more try, and others for whom I ain’t done nothing and It ain’t never going to happen sound just fine. Brits and Americans can’t agree on when we should or shouldn’t use the present perfect simple, and even among the English posters, there’s no agreement on issues such as whether HAVE YOU GOT or DO YOU HAVE is standard.

If this is complicated with grammar, it’s obviously even more so when it comes to vocabulary. There have been countless times over the last year that a poster has asked which of two or three suggested collocations are correct and my initial instinct has been that only one works. I then watch other posters say they’ve not only seen the options I rejected, but actively use them. I then delve deeper into corpora and online usages and end up finding plenty of examples of things I’d never knowingly seen before.

In a way, of course, this is heartening. One thing I’ve long worried about is that lexically-minded teachers will end up replacing an obsession with correct grammar with a tyranny of collocational accuracy. What the page has reiterated for me is that whilst we can often give information about what’s most likely, and we can use dictionaries, corpora and, indeed, pages like mine to get a sense of what is actually most frequent, if we don’t trust our own intuition, its much harder to categorically say a particular collocation or variation of a phrase / expression is wrong. Instead, we can say we’ve not heard it before, or that we don’t think it’s widely used or that we’d never use it ourselves. However, if it works in the context it’s being used in, maybe we’d be best off just letting it go and focusing instead on the communication that speaker / writer is engaged in.

(4) Some things are more worth worrying about than others

One of the most noticeable things that crops up time and again on the page is that the better language users tend to ask about things they’ve read / seen or about things their students have either quizzed them about or else have said, but which have seemed unusual. Many of the less fluent users have also asked interesting and fruitful questions, but among lower-level posters there has been a marked trend to either ask about entirely decontextualised sentences supposedly illustrating a particular grammar structure or about really odd, random single words. When someone’s first post asks “What does means CHIPOTISM?” you know they’ve got their priorities wrong!

One obvious conclusion that we can draw from this is that there are still far too many teachers who encourage students to see progress as to do with the accumulation of ever-more obscure words. Instead, learners would be better off focusing on doing more with words they’ve already met, and thinking more about frequency and what they’re going to do with the words they’re trying to learn.

Running in parallel to this is an obsession with whether or not single sentences, devoid of any context, are grammatically ‘correct’. Is, for instance, FRIDAY IS THE DAY WHEN WE DON’T GO TO SCHOOL ‘correct’. Now, for me, when I see I sentence like this, correctness isn’t the first thing I think about. I see a sentence that’s clearly been invented in order to illustrate a particular grammar point – in this instance, relative clauses starting with WHEN – and that’s being presented to learners without any sense of when or why it might be said. Of course, many teachers pride themselves on being able to come up with creative and unusual contexts in which just such sentences might actually make sense, but surely we’d all be better off not wasting our time on things no-one’s ever going to say, hear, see or write!

This isn’t to say that students should never see relative clauses starting with WHEN. Of course they should. But they should see typical examples, in context, rather than worry about strange, forced examples created simply to shoe-horn in unnecessary grammar. For instance, why go with the fronted example above (where WE DON’T GO TO SCHOOL ON FRIDAYS would be the unmarked norm) when you could see something like this instead? I LOOK FORWARD TO THE DAY WHEN all grammar books focus on sensible, real-world examples!

Let’s stop teaching things simply because they’re possible, and focus instead on what’s most probable.

(5) Tensions between descriptivists and prescriptivists remain high

There’s a clear divide in language teaching between those who believe it’s important to adopt a nonjudgmental approach to language that focuses on how it is actually spoken and written – the descriptivists – and those purists who insist that certain versions of the language are simply superior to others and should be promoted as such – the prescriptivists.

Interestingly, the vast majority of regular posters on the page fall into the former camp. Naturally, this may well simply be because birds of a feather flock together, though it may also be a reflection of the fact that you don’t get to be incredibly fluent in a foreign tongue without noticing and taking on board the myriad ways in which the language operates.

Nowhere is the futility of prescriptivism more noticeable than when it comes to pronunciation. Whether you grew up with English as your mother tongue or learned it as your second – or even third – language, you may well have been told that certain words or phrases are – or at the very least should – always be pronounced in a certain way. Good luck with forcing the rest of the English-speaking world to conform to the way you believe things should be. Even the two Lexical Lab co-founders, Andrew and Hugh, disagree about how simple words like grass or castle should be said, with Andrew, who grew up in Birmingham, preferring a hard /a/ in each.

And, of course, prescriptivism comes up against similar challenges when it comes to be vocabulary and grammar. Sure, we all have our own pet hates. Maybe you’re one of those people who starts foaming at the mouth when you hear people say LESS instead of FEWER or when you hear THERE’S A LOT OF PEOPLE IN HERE – not THERE ARE! If you are, though, recognise that your rage is ultimately futile. Things change – not as fast or as randomly as many fear, but change they most certainly do. And keeping up with the changes is one of the responsibilities anyone involved in language teaching has. Of course, none of us can ever keep up with everything, and there’ll always be new things to learn, but it’s good to stay open, stay curious and stay fresh.

One interesting response to a more descriptivist approach that I’ve encountered on the page is a sort of howl of despair and anger and a claim that this must mean there are no rules anymore, then! Whilst I understand the frustration that one might feel when confronted with realities that don’t match what you’d been led to expect, most of the old rules and generalisations nevertheless remain. It’s just that new norms also emerge and at some point become so widespread that they’re worth taking into consideration when deciding what to teach.

Anyway, here’s to the folk who’ve made the page such a vibrant place to share questions and responses, and to the next twelve months!

Join ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED here.

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8 Responses

  1. Excellent and well foreseen piece of analylical writing it is. The review of the year-long “English questions answered” group activity is worth sharing. It’s the most reasonable account of grammar/vocabulary issues I have ever encountered. The only link missing is perhaps the backwash effect of language exams that turns our teaching community towards particulars regarding the do’s and don’ts in the language. And yet there is one point to make regarding which evil is the lesser one: grammar accuracy or lexical collocations precision. Neither. The true evil is focusing on the form instead of thinking about the message. If the message is worth attending to, any form will do (outside the exam room, of course).

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for such kind words and for such a thoughtful, considered response Radislav.
      You’re right, of course, that exams cast a long shadow and that much of the obsession with strange, decontextaulised grammatical sentences is very much a result of this.
      It’s a shame more counries don’t learn from the Cambridge exams and treat tests of competence in a more global, holistic way.

  2. Mike Budden says:

    Have been looking forward to reading this article all day after I bookmarked it this morning to read later when I get time.
    I think that prescriptivists are indeed fighting the loosing battle, but my teaching has taught me over the years that mentalities can be quite hard to change. Surely Hugh’s hypothesis that prescriptivists/those obsessing about the meaning of decontextualised words don’t ultimately go on to become successful language learners is accurate—I rest assured though when I get a solid group of core students that stick around in my courses and where the rest end up, well I don’t really know or care. Like any artist, there are going to be people that just don’t get it.
    We are however surely also priming our students/contemporaries to slowly shift their thinking into think about only contextualised language, by giving them loads of examples of how to answer questions about language 🙂

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for the comments Mike.
      You certainly are right about change being slow.
      All we can do is keep fighting the good fight, having the argument, playing out why we do things we do them, and pushing students on with better input and a sharper focus.

  3. Nataly Agam says:

    I have read the article (a long read) as if it was a piece of fiction
    Very interesting and extremely well written
    I prepare my students for Russian National Exam and we struggle with very subtle difference between the words in multiple choice part of the exam
    By the way, I have never dared to ask a question myself but I regularly read the questions asked by others and responses
    Thanks for this group!

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read – and to respond, Nataly.
      I’ m glad it made sense to you.
      Yes, those fine shades of difference that get tested in exams can be very difficult to do with.
      Learning them takes time, experience, and exposure.
      Glad you’re enjoying the group, anyway . . . and feel free to ask any time you need to.

  4. Julie says:

    Thanks so much for this fascinating, accessible read. So good to have some of my own experiences with teaching validated, and others challenged (gently!).

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