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.