Another five things I’ve learned running the ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED group

Three years ago now, I was talked into setting up a Facebook group called ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED. It was designed to be a space where anyone at any level could ask questions about how English is used, whether or not something was correct, why things work the way they do, and so on. I also wanted a space that kept out a lot of what seems to blight many other similar kinds of groups – endless multi-choice ‘test’ posts, self-promotion, inane memes, bigotry, rudeness, and so on.

Perhaps predictably, the most ardent posters in the group tend to be English language teachers like myself, though plenty of learners at different stages of their journey also ask questions. As the group has grown – we’ve over 17,000 members now, of whom more than 6000 are active – I’ve had to seek help with the admin duties, and remain indebted not only to Jaka Črešnar for his help in that department, but to everyone who chips in with answers, reports inappropriate content and just generally makes it a pleasant place to hang out.

To mark the group’s first birthday, I wrote a blog post describing five things I’d learned from managing the group, and having thus set a precedent, I then did the same last year, so it now seems that I’m committed to coming up with one of these every year. Without further ado, then, let’s look at five more things that the group has given me pause to think about over the last twelve months.

(1) The honest answer to a fair few questions is ‘It doesn’t really matter’!

It never ceases to both amaze and depress me to see quite how much time and energy people spend worrying about things that basically don’t much matter. Is it I like going shopping or I like to go shopping? Both are fine and both mean exactly the same thing. The only possible time that only one option is possible is if you’re speaking whilst actually shopping, in which case you’d need the first of the two options. The rest of the time, just take your pick. Either or. Is it better to say I work in a school or I work at a school? They’re both fine, they both mean exactly the same thing and both are very commonly used. If you’re in hospital with a broken leg, do doctors promise they’ll get you to walk or get you walking? Be happy if they promise either – and be even happier when you’re back on your feet again!

The fact of the matter is that we often frame our questions in ways which aren’t particularly helpful, and as a result, we end up spending precious classroom time fretting about tiny, hair-splitting – and often purely fictitious – differences that add nothing to our students’ ability to communicate better in English.

An additional, but connected, issue here is that some nit-picking questions are misdirected entirely. For example, there’s basically no point worrying about whether it’s in Christmas night or on Christmas night, partly because we don’t even talk about Christmas night at all – and it’s not even clear if you mean Christmas Eve (the evening of December the 24th) – or the evening or night of Christmas Day (December the 25th), which doesn’t really have a particular name. In addition, without a sense of what the whole sentence is, of what you actually want to say, any discussion about possible prepositions becomes very academic. In the same way, asking whether it’s I like you feel better or I like that you feel better soon misses the point as well. It’s neither! We usually just say Get well soon or I hope you feel better soon.

(2) We often fail to see the wood for the trees.

As teachers, we’re trained to home in on grammar error with an unerring determination. One frequent – and rather depressing – upshot of this is that we often end up focusing on the most glaring surface mistakes in an utterance whilst missing the fact that there may well be more serious issues beyond the fault that is staring us in the face. Of course, this can also mean obsessing about particular lexical choices too, and correcting these rather than thinking about how best to say the whole utterance.

Take, for instance, a couple of queries that arose about this sentence from a student’s essay: I have been also thinking about taking to some fitness at home, but it seems I can’t discipline myself well enough to make a first step. The first question was about whether or not taking to worked here. There was a suggestion that maybe taking to things happens more or less involuntarily, or at least without a conscious effort. To further muddy the waters, there was then a question about whether discipline myself works here. Would it work better as make myself take? or perhaps as something else?

Such questions seem to me to be classic examples of not being able to see the wood for the trees. In fact, the real issue is that almost everything about the initial sentence is clumsy and awkward. If I were confronted with it in a student’s homework, my inclination would be to comment that while I understood what the writer meant, it’d be far better expressed as something like I’ve also been thinking of doing a bit more to keep fit at home // of doing a bit more exercise at home . . . but I don’t have the discipline to get started // but I don’t have the willpower to get started / but I just can’t seem to get started.

I suspect that one other reason why teachers shy away from this kind of more holistic approach to reformulating / re-wording student output is that they worry about the emotional impact it may have on students. There’s a widespread fear of being seen to be ‘over-correcting’ and a feeling that students might find such a complete overhaul of their own output disheartening or depressing. My own feeling about this is that the meaning is already understood as it’s basically what the student tried to say in the first place and, given this, they may be more able to pay attention to the language itself. In addition, in the end, you learn language from language, and it’s only by putting out into the world your own experiments in L2 and seeing the degree to which they match (or differ from) norms that you get a sense of where you might need to go next and what you need to learn to say what you’re trying to say better.

(3) The 18,674 rules of article usage!

I’ve often joked in the group that I really ought to start another page called something like QUESTIONS ABOUT ENGLISH ARTICLES ANSWERED as it sometimes seems that a good 10% of everything that’s asked there revolves around the way articles are used. Now, article use in English is quite peculiar and a lot of languages manage perfectly well with a far less arcane and complicated system. For many speakers, it’s also the last area of grammar to finally fall into place, and in the majority of cases, complete accuracy in this area will probably never quite be reached.

A large part of the problem is that once you go beyond the basic rules – use a / an when introducing singular countable nouns for the first time; use the when you think the listener / reader understands which thing you’re referring to; don’t use any articles when talking about things in general – things start getting very tricky very quickly. Sure, you might possibly want to teach such general truths as we say the sun and the moon, the River Thames and the River Nile, the Alps and the Himalayas, but Mount Everest, London Bridge and Tiananmen Square, but surely only the more optimistic teacher really believes that accurate use of articles can come from memorising each and every one of these 18,674 – or is it 18,675 – rules.

Look at just a few of the endless questions about articles that have come in and you soon start to see how contextually-dependent article usage actually is, and how many shades of grey there are; how much ambiguity learners need to get used to. Here are some examples, with my answers underneath.

(a) Is it better for students describing photos for an exam to say In the photo there’s a girl cycling in a park or in the park?

I’d personally go for in a park here, meaning in some park somewhere … I’ve no idea which one it is. Having said that, though, if I heard in the park, it’d also sound fine and I’d understand it as meaning in the park that you can see in the photo here.

(b) We say I’ve got a splitting headache, but I’ve got really bad toothache. Both words seem basically the same to me, but one is used with an article, the other one without. Why?

I honestly wouldn’t bat an eyelid if somebody said I’ve got a really bad toothache, though as a Brit, my preference would be to not use an article here. I know plenty of Americans who’d use an article every time there, so to be honest, I really don’t think it matters much either way.

(c) I’m working on a translation and today I got stuck with articles in the following pattern: profession + proper name. The example I have is Canadian businessman Jim Estill. Is it the Canadian businessman, a Canadian businessman or just no article? How should we go about using articles in patterns like this?

Here, it could be either zero article – as in your first example above – or it could be the Canadian businessman Jim Estill, though this sort of presupposes readers may be familiar with him already. In the same way, you might see something like Russian dairy producer Buryonka, but the American car manufacturer Chrysler.

(d) In class today, one of my student asked about this sentence: My aunt Julia was a most inhospitable woman. I never even saw inside her front door! They wanted to know why it’s a most inhospitable woman here – not the most. How would you have answered?

Most inhospitable here isn’t a superlative. When we use a before most like this – as in He’s a most annoying little man, it just means He’s very annoying. This kind of usage is more common in written English, particularly literature, where you might also see things like We spent a most enjoyable afternoon at the races, and so on.

(5) Are the definite articles in the following sentences actually necessary? The Argentinians invented the tango; the Greeks are very extrovert; the Poles play a lot of basketball.

The is optional in all these cases rather than compulsory, Not using it creates a slight sense of some Argentinians, etc. which actually kind of makes more sense here. But seriously, either or. It really doesn’t matter much either way.

(4) The urge to over-correct is strong

One definite trend I’ve noticed over the years is that many non-natives (and, to be fair, the occasional native speaker too) will come across instances of English that exist outside their realm of experience, and rather than be curious and try to find out how common these oddities are, whether they’re geographically specific or have particular class-bound uses or are linked to other sub-cultural groups, instead they simply try to correct them.

“Why does this sentence use the past simply and not the past perfect?”

“I saw a sentence where the writer used the word themself. Surely that’s wrong?”

“I heard a native speaker say It weren’t half hot. What does this even mean? And why do people make such weird mistakes?”

“I don’t understand the grammar of a meme I’ve seen which says British people be like . . . . and then you get all these different pictures and so on. Is it a mistake?”

Now, in some ways, this stems from the fact that many people learn the language in a very rule-based way, where the idea of correctness is both quite central and also quite restrictive. If the notion of grammatical accuracy is drilled you into from an early age and the fear of making what might be seen as grammar mistakes is deep-rooted, it’s entirely possible that you’ll bring this with you into your own teaching. Consequently, you’ll come to regard adherence to the rules as laid down in bibles such as Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use as being of paramount importance, and feel dismissive of those who fail to do so.

Perhaps a more pernicious problem, though, is the lack of discussion within the profession as a whole of the fact that what we may have been trained to regard as norms are the result of socio-political / economic forces and that they exclude as much as they include – often along lines of class, geography, age and gender. This results in a failure to grasp the richness and the diversity of language use and to see non-standard examples as somehow errors rather than conscious choices made by fluent users operating in particular contexts.

Usually at this point in discussions of this nature, someone will throw their hands up and shout “So anything goes, then, does it? In that case, what’s the point of teaching anything!” This has always struck me as a singularly unuseful response. There are clearly still variants of English that are seen as being higher status. In British terms, this means the language traditionally used by wealthy straight southern white people. It’s fine to accept this as the dialect of power, to teach it in the knowledge that being able to reproduce it in some shape or form may well open doors, and even to claim to prefer it. However, to do so in such a way that other versions of English are banished altogether or else regarded as inferior and undesirable – as opposed to simply being different and less socially and economically privileged – is problematic in the extreme.

(5) Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s worth worrying about

One of my biggest take-aways from working with Michael Lewis in my youth was the idea that there’s a world of difference between what’s possible and what’s probable, and that as teachers we really want to be focusing on the latter rather than the former. Now of course, Lewis didn’t invent this idea. Pawley and Syder were already very aware of it in their seminal 1983 paper that you can read here. Nevertheless, despite the fact these ideas have been knocking around for almost four decades now, they still haven’t been fully accepted or embraced, and few things demonstrate this more clearly than the regular questions that crop out about bizarre sentences students have been forced to create in order to exemplify certain grammar structures. Here are but two examples of many:

(a) Are these sentences acceptable?
(i) Tomorrow she will have been home (for) one year.
(ii) Tomorrow by this time she will have been back home.
(iii) Tomorrow by this time she will have returned home.

(b) Are these sentences grammatically correct?

(i) What I want to do is go shopping.

(ii) What I want to do is to go shopping.

(iii) What I should do is to go shopping.

(iv) What I have done is gone shopping.

(v) What I am doing is going shopping.

The problem with thinking about – and looking at – language like this is there’s zero context. Sure, these are grammatically possible sentences of English, but without an understanding of when they might be used, it’s a pretty dry and pointless activity to spend time looking at them. It’s very difficult indeed to think of why you might ever want to say any of these sentences. I mean, I guess it’s just about possible that someone might say something like She’s away on a business trip at the moment, but she will have returned by this time tomorrow, but you’re far more likely to just say She’ll be back tomorrow instead.

In the same way, you could perhaps imagine a situation (and never underestimate teachers’ abilities to dream up bizarre contexts for odd bits of grammar!) where a family are discussing plans in this kind of way:

A: So what do you all want to do tomorrow.

B: I’d really like to go and see the new James Bond movie. I’ve heard it’s amazing.

A: And what about you, Chris?

C: I’m not interested in James Bond, to be honest. What I want to do is to go shopping.

Even then, though, it’s much more likely that Chris would just say I’d rather go shopping instead. In other words, far too many people spend far too much time worrying about grammar that’s highly unlikely to ever be something they’ll need to use – and to make matters worse, the grammar that might be needed in real-world communicative contexts is generally far simpler than the obscure items being obsessed about. Just say no, folks. Life’s too short.

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5 Responses

  1. To tell the truth, it is so incredible that you were able to create such an educational and beneficial group which has such an interesting format and where people can find answers to many important questions concerning the English language. It is so cool that you designed it in such a handy way. Frankly, I really like to be engaged in self-development and always find ways to do it because I think that it is an integral part of our life. Of course, the English language has many nuances and subtleties about which we may not always know, but which we should be aware of and it is so cool that you enlightened some of them here in such a fascinating format. It truly helped me to clarify many things and become more confident in my knowledge.

  2. Annette Flavel says:

    Yes, Hugh. The probable outcome of my college students knocking about with their American peers is the diminished use of the present perfect. Oh, well! It means they’re making friends.

  3. Olga Vekova says:

    I think that one of the reasons why so many teachers focus way too much on correcting grammar and vocabulary rather than helping students to say what what they wanted to say in more natural ways is that these teachers are not that proficient in English. They just don’t feel that the sentence is clumsy and awkward. What they can see and correct, though, are particular grammar errors.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      That’s definitely true, Olga, though I was also very much focused on those kinds of errors too when I was younger, simply as a result of my training, so I guess there are various factors that feed into this.

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