The TEE view on the English language - Part 4

This is a much-revised and rewritten text that was originally published in the website's companion book, Typical Errors in English, and may be used for a possible second edition of the book.


 

In part 3 I looked at whether it's possible to fix the language, and what books that are currently available could best be described as 'official' guides. But in part 4, I go back to the question, 'what is Standard English?', and the ideas that lead into Typical Errors In English...

 

Standard English. Again.

At the risk of repeating myself, it is the form of English that is taught in schools, used in the media and is the form used in current dictionaries and grammars. It is also the form that many native speakers would associate with those people who would be regarded as well-educated and have very good jobs. But there are differences in what is regarded as ‘Standard English’ across the world, particularly between the USA and the UK.


For the purposes of the TEE book and this website, what is regarded as Standard English is down to how widely used a particular word or phrase is, along with its construction and grammar, and with more particular focus on British English.

 

There are many examples where certain sentence constructions would be grammatically correct, but not accepted as being the correct use of English. For example, Harry Kane has appeared frequently for Tottenham Hotspur would be considered incorrect in terms of word order (it should be has frequently appeared) but there is nothing wrong with this structure.  By contrast, the phrasal verb have got (as in I’ve got a car) is considered an idiomatic phrase, but many argue it or any other two or three-word verbs should not be used in formal language. But phrasal verbs are used in Standard English, particularly when speaking, so there’s nothing wrong in teaching it. You’re going to have to get used to it.


As a language instructor myself, and despite those problems I have mentioned, over the past twenty years I’ve been listening to several students from all over Poland and heard them making the same clear errors over and over again – that is, errors that would not be used in Standard English. (They may have used colloquialisms or slang, which might be perfectly acceptable when talking to a native, but would be of little or no help if you are studying to get an English language qualification.)

 

At the beginning of my teaching career, and using some examples, I would do my best to explain the reasons why they got things wrong, but I was not always clear or… Sssshhh, do not tell anyone… I was not all that sure. (Believe me, I’m pretty sure of them now!) So I began to collect examples (which I did know) on paper. I’d write explanations that were often brief, perhaps not always that good, and sometimes even a little inaccurate. Or maybe a little or even overly prescriptive. After a few lessons, it became clear that for many students those drafts of mine were more interesting than the lessons. Copies were requested and a book was suggested. But the idea of a book meant that I’d have to properly conduct plenty of additional research. I was well and truly going to have to take English more seriously and far more professionally and academically than before. And that was (and still is) a very interesting activity.

 

Despite the fact I have the necessary academic university paperwork (I studied English at the Open University quite late in life), I can happily admit to finding myself learning so much more about the language, and at the same time discovering that not everyone agreed on how and why certain areas of English work the way they do. In a sense, this book was an adventure of discovery for myself.


Of course, other teachers are aware – or should be aware – of the errors included in this book. Many of them, along with other linguists and enthusiasts, have collected examples of their own, discussing them over the internet on blogs and forums. Some have even put their own books together that remain unpublished for various reasons. You can still find many of these examples on the internet along with those that haven’t been included in this book: not because they’re wrong, but because I’ve not heard these mistakes often enough to give good reason for their inclusion, or some of them are clearly obvious (students often mixing up he and she is a very common error in Poland, although we all know what they should be), but you may feel free to disagree. It is fair to say that much of what has been included in the collection I've accumulated in the book and on this website can be found on the Net, but for you to do all that exploration to find out for yourself so often involves not only trying to conduct extensive searches, but also confirming whether the explanations are correct and that they’re easily understood by English language students – which was not always the case when I was conducting such research!


The English that we’re focussing on here is the variety used in – yes, I’m going to mention it again - Standard British English, both spoken and written. Or to be more precise, the variety known as Estuary English, the Queen’s English, or perhaps more commonly known, the variant of English used by speakers on the British Broadcasting Corporation – BBC English.
Standard English is also the English used and recognised by official English examination bodies such as the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) for their CAE and FCE exams. However, because most of my experience has been teaching English in Poland, it contains many references that have been based only on my Polish experiences. But I believe that there’s much here that a student of any nationality will find useful.


Now one thing I do admire about Polish students (and, as I’m sure, many of our other learners of English as a second language) is their determination to learn English. I admire their resolve (another word that means determination) to speak it as fluently as possible. They even want to remove their accents and replace it with BBC English. Now while there are many academics who say that English with a foreign accent is nothing to be ashamed of, many students believe that perfecting their accents allows them further opportunities abroad by removing the idea of the Central European stereotype talking in a funny way. If you get the chance to watch an episode of a classic old American comedy show called Taxi, which had a character called Latka Gravas, then you will see what I mean. Or Borat, of course.

 

But if you want to have a perfect English accent, that’s fine with me. In fact, if you perfect it to the point that you are even able to use the local accent or dialect, then I think I’d certainly consider that a job well done.

In part 5 - the final part - well, native speakers don't always speak in 'Standard English', more opinions on the language, being a reformed pedant and the correct way to make a British cup of tea...

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