Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Cutting corners

An article based on part of my up-coming talk at IATEFL in Glasgow, How To Cheat At English, Wednesday 5th April 17.55 – 18.25 (Carron 2). The other part of the talk is about exam preparation and technique.

What is considered correct English changes over time. These days, using ‘fewer’ with plural nouns is comparatively rare; most people use ‘less’, as they do with uncountable nouns. They say (and write) ‘less time’ and  ‘less students’. Is this a grammatical error? That depends on your definitions. It is certainly a change in usage but it creates no confusion or ambiguity. And if we accept (as we should) that grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive, a revision to the grammar books to allow less with countable nouns is only a matter of time. Today, all English speakers - including the writers of grammar books - accept the formulation 'It's me', even though in the past it was considered less grammatically correct than 'It is I' (because the copular verb be requires a subject, not object, pronoun). People who dig their heels in over fewer are fighting a losing battle, just as the advocates of 'It is I' were.

Many of the changes in usage that evolve over time are simplifications and relaxations of grammatical rules. So why are they so rarely presented to people learning English as a foreign language? Not having to stop and think mid-speech whether the noun they are about to use is plural or uncountable would surely boost fluency. Why should learners have to fret over grammatical distinctions which the majority of native speakers no longer bother with?

There are other examples of grammatical 'relaxations' that would help learners of English express themselves more freely. When using there is/are and some/any with nouns, students have to mentally calculate a complex matrix of choices: affirmative or negative? countable or uncountable? singular or plural? Every choice represents a likely hesitation and a potential error. In short, the more choices you have to make, the less fluent you are likely to be. So why not capitalise on the fact that, in modern English, it is perfectly acceptable to use there's, the traditionally singular form, with plural nouns? As far as some and any are concerned, you can usually omit the quantifier in the affirmative and use no in the negative. This leads to the following rationalisation of choices:

There’s an art gallery.                                                         an art gallery.          
There’s some traffic.                                        There’s      traffic.
There are some shops.                                                       shops.

There isn’t a cinema.                                                          cinema.        
There isn’t any pollution.                                There’s no  pollution.
There aren’t any trees.                                                       trees.

Whether I would actually encourage students to use there’s with a plural noun would depend on who they were and why they were learning English, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility, at least for speaking activities at lower levels. Of course, there are contexts in which the concept of countability can't easily be ducked: when asking How much …? or How many …? for example. But I would suggest that most learners spend more time answering questions than asking them. A less contentious way to simplify the grammatical load for language learners is to avoid overlap. Having multiple ways of expressing the same idea is of limited value to learners at lower levels. That kind of enrichment belongs to a more advanced mastery of the language. And yet materials writers and teachers seem obsessed with teaching fine distinctions rather than pragmatic generalisations, and with telling students what they can't do with the language rather than what they can do. A typical ELT course, at pre-intermediate level, deals with the future tense by contrasting will and going to. It gives the impression that, if the contrast were represented by a Venn diagram, it would look something like this.

In fact, a more accurate representation of will vs going to when talking about the future would be this:

There are lots of contexts in which you cannot naturally use will to talk about the future and very few in which you cannot naturally use going to. There are quite a few contexts in which you can use either will or going to, but we can disregard this. Why have two ways of saying the same thing when you're still a relative beginner? In other words, forget will when talking about the future; just use going to. You are going to be right nearly all of the time. Use will (or more accurately, use I'll) for specific functions like offering and promising, not as a general-purpose future tense. Dwelling on the tiny part of the will circle in our diagram that lies outside the much wider going to circle is perverse and unhelpful, but many books and teachers do it.

The same principle can be applied to other areas of grammar. Do away with unnecessary choices, especially while speaking, and you unclog the mind and allow it to worry about more important things, like expressing an interesting idea. For this reason, I would advise students who have a comparatively low level of English, when doing speaking activities,  to:

• ignore the distinction between have to and must for obligation – use have to all the time.

• forget reported speech and its accompanying changes of tense – just quote the words.

• stop deliberating between the present perfect and past simple for recently completed actions - use the past simple, even with adverbs like just and already, as Americans often do anyway.

And so on. There are many other corners that can be cut – with a few important caveats. These simplifications must already exist in everyday spoken English; learners are not at liberty to invent their own. Higher level learners will want and need to use the full range of forms so that they can choose the most appropriate for any particular context. And of course, care should be taken in exam situations.

Having said that, the value of cutting corners is clear: increased fluency. There are many other ways in which books and teachers can, and do, help with fluency. But expressing yourself orally in a foreign language is such a difficult task that it is surely best to do away with any unnecessary drag on your performance. You might elicit the occasional wince or grimace from pedants who regard themselves as custodians of the English language. But to be honest, who cares? Not I.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Five sayings we should stop saying

1 There's no smoke without fire.

This suggests that there is no such thing as a completely unfounded rumour or accusation. While most people would reject that suggestion if put in those terms, this well-known and frequently used saying still has the power to persuade. It shouldn't. Too often, when an accusation is made, we assume for no good reason that "there must be something in it". This readiness to believe something negative without evidence is probably an over-reaction to not wanting to be naive.

2 If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Trivially true about machinery, perhaps, but few aspects of human life are simple enough to be described as either broken or not broken. Most may not be perfect but are probably not in need of a complete overhaul either; they need improvement. The "If it ain't broke" approach is just an excuse for apathy. We don't need to think in terms of "fixing" things, but we can aim to make them better. Conservatives love this saying because it has homespun charm, unlike its more honest translation: "Let's not change anything unless we really have to."

3 A leopard can't change its spots.

Or to put it another way, "Once a criminal (adulterer, liar, etc) , always a criminal (adulterer, liar, etc)". But why exclude the possibility of reform or rehabilitation? An equally valid saying which expresses the opposite view might be "a snake sheds its skin", implying that radical change is part of normal development. Unfortunately, the ultra-conservative and pessimistic saying is the one which actually entered the language.

4 Old enough to do the crime, old enough to do the time.

People have a tendency to believe without question anything that rhymes. This no doubt has its roots in childhood and should really play no role in the adult psyche, but it's evidently hard to shake off. There are many examples, but the one about doing a crime and doing time is a favourite among politicians wishing to sound strong on law and order. The rhyme functions are a kind of surrogate logic and seduces us into thinking an argument has been clinched. In reality, it's just a bald assertion that if children commit crimes we should lock them up - although it doesn't sound so good put in those terms.

5 An Englishman's home is his castle.

More often than not, this is trotted out as an excuse to shoot intruders. Harking back to an era when law enforcement was a private affair, it implies that the right to defend your own property is sacrosanct and the state should basically butt out. But times have changed. While your home should certainly be a haven of safety and security, calling it a castle does not give you licence to pour boiling oil on would-be trespassers.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Five bogus arguments you hear every day

1 Thin end of the wedge

People often argue against a particular measure on the grounds that a more extreme version of that measure would be unacceptable. For example, they say it’s unacceptable for patients to pay for NHS sight tests because it may lead to charges for GP appointments. This is false reasoning. Alarm bells should ring when people ask “Where do you draw the line?”.  Deciding where to draw the line is part of everyday life and discussion; there is no reason to adopt an extreme position simply because more moderate positions involve line-drawing. This is particularly true for difficult and complex issues like embryo research, where the whole debate is about where to draw the line and 'thin end of the wedge' arguments are effectively a failure to engage.

2  False dichotomy

Complex issues rarely form neat choices, but people often try to persuade you that they do. Here, the phrase which should set off alarm bells is “If we do nothing …”. More often than not, doing nothing is not a choice favoured by anyone in the debate, but is introduced purely to serve as a false dichotomy. For example: “The police need greater surveillance powers to tackle drugs crime. If we do nothing, the war against drugs will be lost.” This deliberately elides the possibility of other effective measures. Or the classic example: “You’re either with us or against us.”

3 Misuse of analogy

Illustrating a point with an analogy is legitimate and often helpful, but it can be taken too far. So while it’s fine to liken a well-run company to a well-oiled engine, it isn’t necessarily fine to say that, like an engine, the oil needs changing regularly. Analogies are only for decoration, they have no logical force. You can’t deduce anything meaningful about the target of the analogy (how to run a company) by looking purely at the source of the analogy (how to maintain an engine).

4 Misuse of metaphor

This is similar to misuse of analogy but more subtle because metaphor is like an analogy with the scaffolding removed (to slightly misquote James Geary, who has written an excellent book on metaphor: I Is An Other). The same point applies, which is that you cannot prove anything about the target by drawing inferences about the source. Saying there has been a ‘flood of immigration’ is a metaphorical way of describing an influx of migrants. It is not a neutral metaphor – it strongly implies disapproval, because floods are invariably bad news. It doesn’t tell us anything factual about whether the influx of migrants has had a negative effect; it simply reveals the speaker’s attitude. If the speaker goes on to say that it’s time to ‘stem the flood’, the same caveat applies. Yes, we always want to stem real floods because they are always damaging but no, you can’t transfer that logic to a different scenario just through choice of metaphor. You need to argue the case for reducing immigration on its own terms.

5 Caricaturing

This one is a staple of political debate and can be entertaining and effective, but from a rational perspective, it’s bogus. Usually, it involves deliberately side-stepping a specific point and responding instead with an exaggerated caricature of your opponent's opinions. So if speaker A argues that prisoners should be allowed to vote in general elections, speaker B may decide not to argue the pros of cons of the specific proposal but instead to mock a series of exaggeratedly liberal views on prison reform in general: that prisoners should have holidays in Disneyland, hot tubs in their cells, gourmet meals, and so on. This is a particularly insidious trick because it can make the person who sticks to the point appear po-faced.