A recent discussion on a teachers’ forum has made me wonder amusingly and bemusedly again about correctness, prescriptive grammar rules and how English teachers just LOVE grammar and arguing about it - I wish lexis would prompt such heated debates, for example what verb should go with knowledge: gain or acquire? or some such.
Among the comments about pointlessness of teaching grammar to students - why bother if native speakers make mistakes - the one that stuck with me was an amusing remark made by my friend, colleague and former co-mentor Adele who often comes by this blog (Adele, are you reading?). She wrote:
[…] It took me a while after marrying a Brit, to get used tothe poor grammar prevalent in the even among many educated people. UKAdele
Interesting thought… Recently I was coordinating Jeremy Harmer’s visit to
As part of his programme, he was scheduled to appear as a keynote speaker at the
annual study day organised by the Forum for College English Department
Heads with his talk in which he (mildly) criticizes Dogme. The talk originally
Teaching Unplugged Beats Acquisition? What to Teach to Who, with What and Why
caused a bit of an uproar when I announced it at a monthly meeting of the English Forum. The English Forum (quite a few of them Israelis of American origin) found the title ungrammatical, bemoaned falling grammar standards and stopped short of accusing Jeremy Harmer of not knowing English. The title was thus changed to:
Teaching Unplugged Beats Acquisition? What to Teach to Whom, with What and Why
This also reminded me of another incident when a North American friend of mine and I were at the closing gala of the British Film Festival a few years ago where the former deputy director of the British Council in Israel said something like “we would like to thank people who we worked with”. My friend launched into a long tirade about how she should have said “people with whom we worked” and didn’t shut up until the speeches were over and the screening started.
So is it really Brits who have poor grammar or Americans who can sometimes be sticklers for somewhat outdated prescriptive rules?
While I was writing this, the above cited message prompted the following response:
Americans are no better with overuse of the present progressive,
confusion of adverbs and adjectives and eliminaton of perfect tenses.
Just listen to President Barak O' Bama speak freely (not from a
pre-written speech) and you hear every mistake listed above.
Diachonic corpus analysis (that’s when you compare lots of written and oral texts from today with those of the past) indeed shows that the present progressive is becoming more common which is manifested in such utterances as:
I’m hating my job
You’re looking good.
and often quoted:
I’m lovin’ it.
(but let’s be honest, have you heard anyone actually use it except for Justin Timberlake in his song which was eagerly adopted by McDonalds?)
In all of the above sentences stative verbs are used in the continuous / progressive form (pace Raymond Murphy) which was not common, say, 50 years ago.
As regards the issue of adverbs and adjectives, the “confusion” can be exemplified by:
He was driving real slow vs He was driving really slowly
Then again, Americans may be using the former more often but aren’t all these examples of spoken language which does not always abide by the prescriptive rules of traditional grammar? For generations of teachers and learners raised on Murphy’s grammar it might indeed be difficult to embrace the view that language is a constantly evolving organism whose norms are inevitably changing. As a result, infinitives become split and nouns become verbs (e.g. Facebooking and googling) and subjects and verbs – this one does not cease to shock me – do not always seem to be in agreement (Windows IS shutting down).
In contrast to Murphy, Carter and McCarthy’s Cambridge Grammar of English (CUP 2006), for example, offer a much more descriptive view of the English grammar based on real every day usage with whole sections devoted to the grammar of spoken English. In my earlier post Spoken Grammar I talked about the grammar of spoken English being distinctly different from the written grammar and suggested activities that can be used to highlight the features of Spoken Grammar in class.
So what do you think?
- Do you also find that the British are sloppier when it comes to grammar?
- Should teachers just get off their high horses and stop arguing about the prescriptive grammatical rules?
- Or do you think without these debates our profession would not be as interesting?
P.S. Oh and if you’re still interested – and I trust you are since you’ve come by this blog – both “acquire” and “gain” mentioned above collocate with “knowledge”, albeit “acquire” is more common according to both Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and British National Corpus (BNC)