Feb 27, 2012

Sloppy Brits or uptight Americans?

Who is sloppier when it comes to grammar or should we all just get over it?

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 to
the poor grammar prevalent in the UK even among many educated people.
Interesting thought… Recently I was coordinating Jeremy Harmer’s visit to Israel. As part of his programme, he was scheduled to appear as a keynote speaker at theannual study day organised by the Forum for College English Department Heads with his talk in which he (mildly) criticizes Dogme. The talk originally entitled:

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So is it really Brits who have poor grammar or Americans who can sometimes be sticklers for somewhat outdated prescriptive rules?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)


  1. Really interesting post Leo! I'm terrible at moaning about poor grammar, but I'm sure if you caught me mid-ramble, I wouldn't meet my own high standards!
    As regards the English/US language divide, I think there are things which are wrong, and things which are just different. The one which makes me cringe is something one hears and reads all the time in the US: "... the President said Tuesday he would be ...". So, did he say the word "Tuesday", or did he say something *on* Tuesday? It doesn't make sense to me as someone living in England, but it appears to be normal in the US. So therefore is it wrong, or just different?
    Anyway, just to say, I enjoyed reading your post, and don't even mention misplaced apostrophes ... :-)

    1. Hi Marie

      I am glad you enjoyed the post – thanks for dropping by my blog. I know what you mean about the days of the week. Americans tend to omit “on” more than Brits.

      Since you’ve mentioned misplaced apostrophes that REALLY make me cringe. Things like it’s instead of its – a very common mistake among native speakers which doesn’t make any sense at all! Everything is becoming shorter due to text messaging, Twitter and generally the lack of time – I usually omit apostrophes when I text or chat (e.g. dont and isnt) why anyone would waste 1 character for an utterly unwarranted apostrophe which should not be there in the first place is beyond me!

    2. Leo,
      Shouldn't it be wince (instead of cringe? I got this from the blog/forum I participate in on LinkedIn for writers. (I'm also enjoying writing in to this literature blog on LinkedIn. I get responses from all these professional authors and editors, kind of out of my league, but it's a lot of fun, but a big time waster...Well, sometimes I score positive responses...So it's very addictive.

      BTW, the grammar books allow present progressive with a stative verb to express extreme feeling. So when my friends and I were coming out of a particularly great lecture by our favorite professor we were saying "I'm loving it."

    3. Well... what can I say? I am in Amsterdam at the moment on my way to the IATEFL conference in Glasgow - and I'm... well loving it ! :)

  2. Fab post, Leo. You know, it still makes me laugh (or is it fume?) how Americans (some, I hasten to add) still go on and on about who and whom. Don't they know there IS a difference between USEng and BrEng? I explained (clearly, I thought) about the usage of who and whom here: http://aclil2climb.blogspot.com/2011/10/when-to-use-who-or-whom.html

    I also cringe when some go on (and on) about split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. Come on! I mean when do you hear the average Joe Bloggs saying “people with whom we worked”. Yucks! Oh, by the way, I do cringe, though, at "I'm loving it". ;-)

    Just to add my view on a couple more things: Windows is shutting down has never sounded wrong, or awkward to me as it refers to (and I think of it as such) an operating system; therefore, it is singular.

    Gain and acquire to my pedantic ears are different. First, acquire sounds that much more formal. Also, gain sounds as though you're adding something to what you have (1+1), while acquire is adding something to something you may have nothing of (1+0) {ending in preposition was intentional ;)}
    Oh, in practice, I'd probably never use acquire! Haha

    1. Hi Chiew

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I know “Windows” refers to a system but I still find it funny. There is even a poem I’ve seen once which goes:
      Windows is shutting down
      And so are English Grammar

      Don't remember the rest but I am sure you can easily find it by googling.

      I don’t know why you don’t like “acquire knowledge” – it’s one of my fave collocations to teach. Surely, you wouldn’t use it over a pint with a friend but it’s a nice one for a CV or cover letter.

      Heading right off to your blog to check out your “who vs whom” post.

  3. Great post Leo!
    Doesn't part of it have to do with the difference between written langauge and spoken language? Pupils who find the grammar different from reality are referring to a reality the see in the movies, one of spoken language.

  4. Oh dear...have I offended unintentionally?

    You know I see myself as being an honorary Brit, and while constantly hearing "you was" initially had the effect of dragging ones' nails on a chalk board, after having been married to a Brit for almost twenty years, I learned to live with it.

    I do not really consider myself as being a stickler for grammar. I realize that language is a living organism that changes and evolves with use - and I have no problems with people splitting their infinitives and asking who they are speaking to rather than to whom they are speaking.... but if I am to be expected to get used to conjuncting the verb "to be" together with second person singular as "you was"(which is how most of my British friends and relatives speak - although maybe it is just an Essex regional thing )..... well... that will take me about a century to get used to - by which time it will, no doubt, change again.

    Still love you, Leo! Keep up the great work!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Isn't 'you was' dialect, just like 'that's the man what done it' (London) and 'he were sat in t'pub' (Yorkshire) are. These have their own rules, which are just as established as those of Standard English, and there's no reason to think they are inferior to those of Standard English. There is, for example, no logical reason why we should have a different form for 3rd person singular in present simple, when all the others are the same. Similarly, double negatives, commonly used in English dialects, are just reflecting the usage in many other Indo-European languages.

      Professor of Linguistics Peter Trudgill has estimated that less than 15% of British people use Standard English as their 'first language'. Most people use both of course, depending on the circumstances. In my opinion, dialects are just as much a part of our heritage as Standard English (which is just the dialect that got lucky), and should be equally cherished.

  5. I am glad you liked the post, Naomi. It certainly has to do with the difference between written and spoken – hence the reference to my previous post, where I talked in more detail about Spoken Grammar
    and how it is different from the "traditional grammar".

    If you were learning a foreign language you would want to learn how the language is spoken not only how it’s written, right? Therefore I think teachers of a foreign language should relate to both in class.

    Dear Adele! You have not offended anyone. On the contrary you’ve provoked a lively discussion – see how many have commented already :)

  6. I enjoyed this post and the comments to the same extent!
    I didn't want to comment because I am a second-language learner and my opinion might be biased and be viewed as insulting to either party.
    It reminded me though of Stephen Fry's thoughts on language and its dynamics. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY&feature=autoplay&list=PL1DE78DE602DAE0B3&lf=mh_lolz&playnext=9 (worth watching video, IMO).

    1. Will check out the video - thanks, Cristina. Re other point you mentioned - see my reply below. Thanks again!

  7. it's funny you mention the use of whom vs who, i got pulled up in my use of who in teh staff room a while back. one of the teachers kept asking me what the title of the book hemmingway wrote was.
    i tried in vain to argue about prescriptive vs descriptive uses!

    but it shows the important role language plays as a power postioning tool even in these trivial arguments
    (blogger doesn't seem to like my wordpress login so had to post anon)

    1. Same here, Mura.
      Wordpress doesn't like my Blogger login so I just had to open a Wordpress account in order to be able to leave comments.

  8. Dear Leo,

    What about us Aussies do we get off unscathed?

    As an EFL teacher I find the obsession with teaching grammar at the expense of teaching English really worrying. I have had learners who could quote the rules for all of the tenses yet couldn't write a comprehensible sentence. Let's not forget what our jobs are - to teach our learners how to communicate in English.

    So in short I think we should focus more on lexus and spoken grammar and actually using English and hearing the learners speak English in the EFL classroom.

    1. You're off this hook this time, Jane, but I'll find something on you :)
      Thank you for finding time in your busy schedule to drop by and leave a comment.

  9. Hi Leo,

    Great post. As someone who loves going through the nuances of language, this post was a real hit for me.

    A few nights ago, I was watching 'Attack the Block', a film by Adam Buxton about a group of youths in a South-London council estate who are attacked by Aliens. The film is filled with dialect and cringe-worthy grammar bending (coined here 29.02.11). Anyway, I was watching this with an American girl, who didn't so much as flinch when one hooded mugger said "You is bein murked, blud". We've chatted lots about the differences between our languages, and on finishing the film, I wanted to know what she thought of it.

    After a bit of chatter about the film, she said that you would hear people in the south of the USA making similar sorts of errors with spoken English:

    "you gon' do that now"
    "You'z treadin a thin line"
    "if I would have seen you I would have said hello"
    "It's not something what I would do"

    This is just variation on how language is used. Learners, if they head beyond their textbooks and classrooms into the world of English, are likely to come across this language. Maybe there is an argument here for teaching grammar? Not traditional prescriptive grammar but heightening our students' grammatical awareness in such that encourages curiosity about usage, e.g.

    "The person who I went with"

    They know it can be said with whom, but someone decided not to, for some reason. What reason?

    Communication is much more than stringing together a line of correct sentences. Italians, for example, are very prescriptive when it comes to grammar. Go outside, onto the street and it's not so often that you might hear grammar used correctly. To fit in and sound like the people with whom I communicate, I try to imitate them. I ask myself about the style, the people around me and how they know each other, what is the setting. I then wonder how I would say the same thing If I were speaking to a girlfriend's parents or at a formal occasion at work.

    Anyway, thanks again Leo for a thoroughly entertaining post


  10. There are many non-native English speakers here, Cristina, so I don't think anybody should be insulted especially if we are to believe that English no longer belongs to the native English speaking community, ELF and all that. But the fact that people can still be insulted by language related remarks probably has something to do with language being a "power positioning tool", as Mura nicely put it.
    Thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving comments, Cristina and Mura.

  11. Hi Dale,

    Thank you for contributing to this discussion.
    I totally agree with your comment about "heightening our students' grammatical awareness". For example, I personally don't use ain't (well unless I'm being facetious) but I will certainly draw my students' attention to it. This does not mean it I endorse its use - it's their call to make but I will surely warn them against using it if they are writing a cover letter to a prospective employer. I understand that this is the view you also support when you talk about adapting your conversational style in Italian to suit different communicative needs and contexts.

    Thanks once again for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. And why am I not surprised that you like alien movies? :)

  12. I'll admit it, I am a bit of a geek for alien/zombie films, although my tastes in the horror genre finish there; I'm not a big fan of gory human on human stuff, it brings out a part of the human psyche that I'm not so comfortable seeing.

    Coming back to the American versus British debate, I taught a group of students last summer who were far more interested in learning Americanism, produced American grammar and were for the most part obsessed with all things USA. Anyway, having lived with US students and having grown up on a diet of US sitcoms, I was able to handle myself in class... Fast forward 8 months and now I'm learning standard American pronunciation to content those students on the US side of the divide. Perhaps as teachers there is an apparent need for neo 'bilingualism' - US and British - if we are to meet the needs of our students. Just a thought.

    To finish, I don't want to step on an ELFer's toes here. The area fascinates me but I still know very little about it.


  13. Per Dale's comment of mastering a second accent/dialect in English, I give you David Crystal lightyears ahead of us all:

    We may, in due course, all need to be in control of two standard Englishes—the one which gives us our national and local identity, and the other which puts us in touch with the rest of the human race. In effect, we may all need to become bilingual in our own language. ---The English Language, 1988

    Language is built upon the edifices of constant change and there is no such thing really as a standard, only a perceived standard. We can call a rock a rock for as long as we want but time will erode that rock just as it will erode and change language. The linguist John McWhorter has recently signifcantly on this issue of correct vs incorrect, standard vs non-standard, specifically taking the African-American accent as his cause to show it's just as magically creative and worthy of respect.

    Cheers for the great post and convo, Leo. Let international English in all its beautiful colors be heard from the mountaintops ;-) -Brad

    1. "recently signficantly" = written significantly ;-)

  14. Thank you, Brad and Dale, for respectively visiting and revisiting this post.

    It's interesting how this post which I originally intended as a prescriptive American vs sloppy Brits debate has evolved into a discussion about international Englishes - one of the beauties of blogging: blog posts having lives of their own :)

    As regards neo-bilingualism, I, for example, try to control when to use "flat" or "apartment" depending who I am talking to. Also, I wouldn't use things like "he's a nice bloke" or "I'm knackered" unless I am talking to Brits. So perhaps, David Crystal's prediction from 1988 has come true?

    Thanks again, guys (or blokes?) for pitching in with your comments.

    P.S. With reference to my previous post, "built upon the edifices" - hmmm that's a nice chunk :)

    1. Talking of flats... I find it increasingly difficult, and awkward, to say My flat is... instead of My house is... when the norm here is flats and not houses. The well-to-dos live in houses, the rest of us in humble flats, or apartments, or condos...
      It's more natural for me to say I've got to clean my house and not I've got to clean my flat...
      Whatcha think?

    2. So you're implying that you're among the well-to-dos, Chiew? Then you shouldn't be cleaning your own house/flat in the first place! :)

    3. No, no, no. Perhaps I didn't explain myself well enough. Oh, language is the cause of all wars, we know that, don't we? Haha.
      Note "the rest of US..."
      What I mean is I, like 80% (my estimate) of the population in Las Palmas, live in a flat, but I feel awkward in saying "flat". The Spanish use "casa" to refer to their homes, so they may say "Tengo que limpiar la casa" or "el piso" but not "el hogar" (= home) just as I'd find it even more awkward to say "I've gotta clean my home".
      So, what I'm saying is that I'd say "Our house is dirty" meaning "Our flat..."
      So, am I wrong to do that? Technically, maybe so. But, I don't really care because I use "house" to mean the place I live in. :-)
      By the way, Macmillan's definition #1 for house is "a building for living in".
      Now, how did I get into the subject of flats...?

    4. We in Israel also mostly live in flats (apartments) and the well to do live in private houses (called villas/cottages). But I also say I have to clean up my house or come over to my house when speaking to friends.

    5. Glad I'm not alone, Marlene!

  15. I am glad you've found something in common, Marlene and Chiew :)
    I also often say "clean the house" although I live in a flat - so I think there's nothing wrong with that.
    Thanks for all your comments!

  16. Sharing a comment which was sent to me by email:

    Hi Leo,

    The warnings I got against posting a comment on your blog have scared me away; hence, I'll do so here:

    First, I think you've been too generous in calling your current blog "Sloppy Brits or Uptight Americans" because we colonists are no more immune to abusing the language than you are! I must clarify that statement by stating that while I am not a diehard descriptivist (as I too see language as a sort of living entity that naturally evolves), I cannot abide trampling on every grammar rule for the sake of "free expression", "innovation' or whatever. These are just excuses not to learn the {choose the adjective/s you prefer} standard, normative, accepted and/or proper way to use the language.

    Granted that we can speak about a colloquial / informal English vs. written / formal English, but I'm still not prescriptivist (or democratic) enough to believe that "anything goes" as long as the majority agrees. Perhaps part of the problem is that there are no reference tools for prescriptivist grammar (if that's not an oxymoronic expression), but I still maintain that -- ever-changing or rigid -- a language can't be considered intelligible if there are no rules to follow. We may not like restrictive laws either, but we recognize that we cannot have a civil society without them!

    As teachers, we must be prepared for this inevitable question from our students (especially native speakers, be they Brits, Americans, Aussies, etc.): But why do I have to learn all this grammar? I never talk like that, and everyone understands me! Fine, we old-timers say, but you should at least know the "other" English (that's used in academia); then you can decide how you want to speak. Would you say -- after accidentally dropping a sheaf of papers from an interviewer's desk -- "Sorry; that's my bad"? How would you respond if the interviewer said, "No, it's 'my bad' but your fault!"? (I've been told this actually happened; the interviewer couldn't resist "adapting' the meaning of the jarring expression!)

    When this issue came up on a writers' forum, I suggested that we needn't all adopt the Queen's English, but that doesn't mean we have to sound like the scullery maid either!

    Incidentally, this is a good opportunity to thank you for your well-written blogs.


  17. Really interesting post! As an Argentinian teacher of English I often find myself listening to my students complaining about all the grammar explanations they get and when they listen to songs or TV series, even when facebooking with foreign contacts they realize natives do make mistakes, or do use forms which are not grammatical according to what they have studied. What I tell them is that they have to know that in spoken interaction and informal settings, discourse is quite different from other kinds of contexts - as in the example given on US president's speech and the recording of they way his speaks when being in a more informal situation. Really enlightening post! I will definitely follow this blog...Ceci

  18. Hi Ceci
    Thank you for the comment - I am glad you fount it enlightening :) I like your idea of two examples of the US President speaking (formal & informal). Can you please share the link to the informal one?

  19. It's time that the Brits and Americans learnt to consult with the Irish on all things linguistic - we're known for our gift of the gab:))

  20. Actually, I think Jeremy Harmer was probably correct in writing ‘What to Teach to Who’. The trouble is, this is unorthodox grammar anyway. ‘Teach’ would not normally be followed by ‘to’, (what shall we teach *to the students?). You would only use ‘to’ if there was already another substantive object (shall we teach English to the students?), but in this example there was not. The phrase is clearly a contraction of ‘what to teach and who to teach it to [sic]’, and designed to place ‘what’ and ‘who’ in parallel. In this circumstance it seems to me that the phrase ‘what to teach to whom’ gives ‘whom’ a specific referent, which in fact it does not have. Lacking such a referent, the pronoun cannot stand in the accusative case and becomes instead the existential ‘Who?’ which is the actual meaning it has in Harmer’s phrase.

    This is all rather exegetic, but there is clearly something ‘right’ about ‘who’ in this phrase which Harmer intuitively felt, no doubt because it more clearly expresses what he had in mind. This is, after all, what good grammar is supposed to do. ‘Whom’, in this context, just feels pedantic and its use would simply be an instance of reflex rule-following.


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