Posted in English language

Bad English

I’ve recently participated in an online discussion about “corruptions in the English language”. Here are a few of the “corruptions” which raise the ire of some of the contributors and some from discussions I’ve had with teachers over the years:

“innit”

“should of” instead of “should have”

the insertion of “like” into every utterance

the word “irregardless”

confusion over less and fewer

I’m loving it

saying advertisement rather than advertisement

gotten instead of got

angry man
Incorrect English drives me crazy

Now, I don’t consider myself a complete linguistic libertarian but I am surprised when:

Some people (mainly Brits, talk about some of the disgusting Americanisms that have entered our wonderful rich English (belongs to the English right!) tongue.

Some people work themselves into a frenzy about the heinous use of less when  fewer must be used. I wonder if communication has ever broken down because of this confusion?

Some people mutter darkly about how young people are degrading the language with their new expressions and how this is symptomatic of the end of Western civilization as we know it. I’m sure these people never used expressions like “cool” or “groovy” or “hip” when they were young. It would be scandalous of me to suggest that they spoke anything other than the Queen’s English when they were spotty, hormonally imbalanced teenagers.

Excuse the heavy-handed sarcasm. It’s just that I get worked up by other people getting so worked up about the way other people choose to express themselves.

business man with laptop over head - mad
10 items or less….aaarrrggghhhh!!!

In his fascinating read The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher talks about how language change results from three tendencies:

economy  – the tendency to save effort

expressiveness  – our tendency to strive towards achieving greater effect and meaning for our utterances

analogy – our craving for order and regularity in the language.

Teacher Pointing at Map of World
English is an International Language

So, if we look at the corruptions mentioned earlier, we might be able to discover why they are used:

‘Innit’ seems to me to represent an attempt to be economical. Many languages have simple equivalents to question tag such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. How much easier is it to say ‘You will come to my party, yeah?” than “You will come to my party, won’t you?”

‘Should of’ instead of ‘should have’ in spoken English surely derives from our tendency towards phonological economy. Pronouncing the ‘h’ in ‘have’ after the modal verb ‘should’ requires a lot more effort than eliding it (I do agree that it’s absolutely wrong, if understandable, to use ‘should of’ in written communication).

Using ‘like’ probably derives from our attempt to be more expressive: to engage the listener and prepare them for our next utterance  A discourse marker used to inform the listener that we are about to say something of importance.

It was… like… absolutely awesome, bro’.

Irregardless, a blend of irrespective and regardless, probably results from analogy. The fact that this word is so frequently used suggests that the two original terms are semantically similar and we are not always sure about which one to use. We hedge our bets by using ‘irregardless’. It’s better to be partially wrong and partially right than fully wrong.

I wonder if the confusion over ‘less’ and ‘fewer‘ is also a result of our tendency towards analogy. I’ve been teaching countable and uncountable nouns to English language students and trainee teachers for years and nobody ever fully gets it. He eats less chocolate than his brother but his brother ate fewer chocolates last night. Using one word (less) and keeping the other (fewer) in the last century is an option I would seriously consider.

‘I’m loving it’, a phrase which irritates the hell out of me , does offer a more immediate and dynamic option than the present simple stative form. A classic case of expressiveness.

Advertisement and advertisement is probably a combination of economy and analogy. I’d imagine that the verb ‘advertise’ has grown in popularity in the last few decades and this has influenced our pronunciation of the noun form. Not to mention the influence of those pesky Americans and their economical use of English.

union jack
British English
USA flag
American English

The final item, ‘gotten’ instead of’ got’, often gets up the noses of us Brits and we fume about how our cousins over the pond have corrupted our language. Well, most linguists agree that English had two past participle forms of the verb ‘to get’ and the American kept both and the Brits discarded the gotten form. So, it appears that we ‘corrupted’ the language due to our tendency to economise (or is it economize) it.

Well, that brings me to the end of this post. I’m the same as everybody else and get irritated when people use English in a way I think it should not be used. I do think that we have to be alert to the use of corruptions in the language if meaning is not conveyed successfully. On the other hand, non-standard forms are used among members of different social-linguistic groups for reasons we may not be aware of.

punk
Young people can’t speak English these days!

As Henry Hitchings writes in ‘The Language Wars’:

People who use standard English allege that those who fail to do so lack linguistic ability, but in reality people using stigmatized forms of English may have complex abilities as speakers – incomprehensible to many observers but powerful among their peers.

Please send me your ‘favourite’ corruptions.

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Author:

I'm a teacher trainer doing lots of different things in Granada, Spain and back in the UK. I've been a Course Director on Trinity TESOL programmes, worked as an EAP tutor at universities in the UK, spent a couple of years as a DoS at a wonderful school in London, and have also dabbled in online teaching, course creation, blogging and materials development.

20 thoughts on “Bad English

  1. Hello again.

    1) Even Cameron uses “gonna” instead of GOING TO (or even just “GOIN’ TO’, which would be less unacceptable) these days. I’ve heard him say it a few times, in news reports.

    2) I was listening to BBC Radio 4 the other evening and heard an American “speaking English” utter the following “When it efectuates…” (yuck!) instead of “When it TAKES EFFECT”. I’m not sure which part of the U.S.A. the speaker was from. Now OK, Florida’s population might well be approximately 27% Hispanic (so one could empathize with the English becoming more Hispanic and perhaps even begin to half-understand the increasing use of ‘Spanglish’, but I have to say that ridiculous invented verb is too much like an invention from a pre-Intermediate or Intermediate language student!

    Cambridge Dictionaries on line result:
    Results for effectuate: effectuate was not found

    Did you spell it correctly? Here are some alternatives:

    effectual
    effectually
    fluctuate
    effective
    effeminate
    affectionate
    ineffectual
    ineffectually
    punctuate
    actuate

  2. Most people confuse English propositions with the ones spoken in their native language! Actually they try to translate word by word rather than the expression! and that sounds funny and awkward! Below are the some of them.
    tired from instead of tired of
    good in instead of good at
    in night instead of at night
    belong from instead of belong to
    believe on instead of believe in
    and a lot more……………..

    1. Thanks for your comment Zubair. Prepositional phrases can be quite random in English but there are even differences among native English speakers. Is is ‘different from’ or ‘different to’ or different than’? Do we ‘talk with’ or ‘talk to’ people?

      These differences rarely result in communication breakdown though.

      1. An interesting point. Although I’m British (English), I often use ‘talk with’ as it sounds more consultative or dialogue-like, as opposed to ‘talk to’ which (to me) could suggest a smattering of one-sidedness. However, ‘talk with’ is as I understand it generally considered American English. I think television and films have been a major influence in ‘pooling’ the two versions over recent decades.

      2. Hi Mark, I find myself using both forms but I think I’m more likely to use ‘talk with’ if I need to have a private chat about a serious topic or I need to admonish or warn somebody. American and British varieties do seem to be merging, or perhaps we are going over to the ‘dark side’.

  3. One of my pet subjects! I have another theory about “unofficial” or “wrong” words, which is that a word appears when there simply isn’t a word available in current English with quite the right meaning. This is equally true of loan words from other languages (Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, siesta, fiesta,.. the list is endles and probably extends to most words in English!) as it is of recent neologisms and “americanisms” (Where we would be without americanisms such as park the car, ex-wife and boss?) Modern computers physically do not work via a modem, but “cable modem” is in general usage (network translator switch anyone?)
    Innit is a plea for an English equivalent of French “n’est-ce pas?” or Catalan “oi?” Staycation, cloud computing and infotainment are ingeniuos inventions and in wide usage simply because their meaning is instantly clear – compound words crop up constantly in other languages such as German, Norwegian and Turkish – English is following this trend.
    “Bad” words cause annoyance where the register is inappropriate, which is usually when a social boundary has been crossed (teens/parents; English speakers from different regions or countries) but most commonly in Britain it’s the infernal “class” division which for some reason most of us still cling to, that causes the friction: Far too many people still judge others on accent or choice of key words (lavatory/toilet; napkin/serviette; cutlets/chops)
    Innit?

    1. I completely agree with you Andrew. The class division is still there, bubbling under the surface. Funnily enough, I had a conversation with a Spanish woman who is married to an English chap / guy / bloke. She was stunned when I informed her that I was going to the toilet as she had been told never to use the ‘T’ word!

  4. I quite liked your post. It was very interesting. By the way, I am not a native English speaker.
    I still make so many mistakes, but with a bit more practice I am sure I will be able to acquire this amazing language.

    Best regards from Chile,

  5. How about ‘There’s a lot of people here tonight.’ Instead of There are a lot of people here tonight. Another economical saving and similar to the question tags example..many other languages have one phrase for singular and plural. The French ‘Il y a…’

  6. Hi Rachel, There are a lot of people vs There is a lot of people is an interesting example. As ‘a lot of’ can be used with countable and uncountable nouns (there are a lot of plates to wash or there is a lot of rubbish in the street), the speaker has to decide if the noun is countable or uncountable. ‘People’ is uncountable in many languages so L2 speakers often get confused. It’s tricky for native speakers as well because ‘people’ is the more common irregular plural noun of people and generally used rather than the regular plural noun ‘persons’. I doubt we would say ‘there is a lot of persons’.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. I totally enjoyed reading this as an American and former literature/language arts teacher, and YES, I do see that we here tend to want to shorten words (as well as other things…for to us “time is money”) as well as make nouns into verbs, both of which either drives me insane, or I just accept it after awhile, for I told my students that the bastardization of the language is often inevitable.

    I think from the above, we teachers here hate the use of “should of” and “irregardless” the most, especially in writing. The use of “like” is on its way out from what I can tell, but the problem using “less vs. fewer” will be around for awhile, I am sure. Now the first one on the list, “innit”, I have not heard here nor “gotten” for got, and of course “advertisement” is, well, the way we say it…which leads me to “I’m loving it” as the only place I have heard it here is from the McDonald’s ad, so is that where you all got it from?? Just curious as it would not surprise me in least due to the influence of phrases from commercials past.

    But with that said, I had to chuckle about your comment of how the Brits “fume” at what we have done to the language (but isn’t there a long standing joke that the only thing that separates us is the language?) as I am on the rampage as to what “crossed the pond” to us, and that is the phrase(s) “went missing” or “gone missing”. I mean, HOW can someone go there when it isn’t a place or a state of mind?? Our news people now say it and write it without blinking an eye, but it drives English teachers crazy. SO, I guess it is turnabout fair play in this instance. Regards from Florida

    1. Very interesting to hear an American point of view. Although we listen to lots of American English, we Brits probably generalise about your variety / varieties of English as much as you do about ours. I remember a comic sketch about a Brit complaining that in the USA, hamburgers had no ham in them and nobody ever rested in the restroom and other such things. Thanks for your response and I’m glad you enjoyed reading the blog.

  8. “Innit?” reminds me of a book by Iain Aitch, “We’re British, Innit? An Irreverent A-Z of All Things British.” Fun reading!
    The following is a list of some controversial grammar points I’ve been using in talks to teachers.

    ACCEPTABLE GRAMMAR?
    1 There’s not enough jobs for everyone today.
    2 Please read very slow.
    3 These (or This) data is sufficient for our purposes.
    This is a media that has been developing fast.
    4 There were less road accidents this July than last.
    5 They invited John and myself to the party.
    Do you bank with ourselves?
    6 She told Bob and I the whole story.
    Between you and I, she drinks quite heavily.
    “This has been a marvellous experience for Prince Philip and I” (The Queen)
    7 Everyone has their off-days.
    8 Either you or I are mad.
    9 I saw this play twice already.
    He was only the Pope for a short time when he was shot.
    10 He didn’t used to smoke.
    11 Kevin is more keen then his brother.
    He is stupider than I thought.
    He is a more well-known writer than Conrad.
    12 We’re all understanding the situation better now.
    I’m sure he’s remembering the story.
    I’m loving it!
    13 It’s essential that he come without delay.
    14 It looks like they’re getting nervous.
    15 The dog had lost it’s collar.
    16 A great deal of people attended the meeting.
    The amount of people who attended the meeting was amazing.
    17 Where did you learn to play guitar?
    18 The scissors is over there.
    19 The British people is ready to accept change.
    The United States are sending a new ambassador there.
    20 Arsenal are playing Manchester United at home.
    21 She thought it a quite ridiculous idea.
    This is a too hot saucepan.
    22 There’s no use crying over spilt milk.
    23 We are the people to who they turn when in trouble.
    24 You didn’t ought to have done that!
    25 “Rooney may have scored just before half-time, but missed.”

    Please do comment!

    Cheers
    LEN

    1. Hello Len

      Your requested comments, so here are some, using your sentence numbers as references:

      3 – Mmmm, interesting point. Looking pragmatically at this quite common usage, I think we might just have to ignore this, especially in the information age! To me it’s a bit like “referendums” which one even hears on BBC R4. As a word with Latin etymology, shouldn’t that be ‘stadia’?

      7 – Often heard too, I suppose it could be considered colloquial and on a par with the semi-acceptable use in modern conversational English of “If I was [WERE] rich”, etc.

      9 – The first sentence – here we see use of the past simple tense instead of what we could consider correct here, the PRESENT PERFECT. It’s wrong in British English, but often heard in American English – and Europeans who get their English from American coursebooks or, increasingly, the Internet.

      Suggestion: promote links to BRITISH English on your blog(s)! (I do.)

      The second sentence – yuck, plain and simple bad English i.m.h.o.

      10. He didn’t use to / He used not to … , Exactly, yuck. A good point you raise here. Arrgh, that’s not a sentence! It’s difficult to detect the error of the extra ‘d’ in didn’t used to”) in spoken conversation, due to linked pronunciation.

      12 – People see the McDonald’s fast food advertising slogan with the incorrect use of the present continuous tense for stative verbs (e.g. to love, to understand, to believe etc) and having seen it, THINK it is correct English, copy it, repeat it and so it sticks – and worse, spreads. Increasingly. For the unenlightened, see
      https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/grammar-reference/stative-verbs

      Additionally, Indian English speakers often use this type of construction when they speak English as it models their native language(s).

      13 – I wonder whether this is acceptable, as a rare example of the subjunctive. “Be that as it may”, “Whether it be sunny or cloudy, we’ll …” , for example.

      15 – Call the Apostrophe Police now!! This is one of my pet hates too – and an example of bad teaching and usage. Again, not detectable in spoken English.
      If you would like to see an example of my very occasional contributions to the campaign of enlightenment against this creeping error, please see:

      20 – If this is an example of the present continuous to talk about the near future (as in personal plans – people and places), I suppose it’s something we might have to tolerate. Logically, one would expect a football fixture to follow the same pattern as a concert, theatre or cinema timetable (or even work or courses), such as:
      “The film starts at eight (o’clock)”
      The bus leaves at …
      My flight is this Sunday evening at ….
      John begins his new job next week
      so – “Arsenal play (against) Man. Utd.”
      … or was it the ‘at home’ you didn’t like – perhaps “in a home fixture”, though that’s less conversational. I’d be interested to hear your bone of contention with that one.

      21 – I wouldn’t have any problem(s) with the alternative use of the word “quite” in this sentence, though many young people don’t seem to recognise it these days. Oh dear, I’m beginning(?) to sound like my parents!

      See: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/quite
      and scroll down to:

      › (UK) used to show agreement with someone’s opinion: “You’d think he could spare some money – he’s not exactly poor.” “Quite.”

      > quite a/some sth › used to say that someone or something is impressive, interesting, or unusual: That’s quite a beard you’ve grown, young man!
      From a car manufacturer that, until quite recently, had very little experience in producing diesel engines at all, that’s quite some achievement. quite the best, worst, etc. formal

      › used for emphasis: It was quite the worst dinner I have ever had.

      I understand the reason why i think you have included this sentence as a possible error – for example we would NOT usually say “The elephant was a bit enormous”. However, Sentence 20 could be using ‘quite’ to EMPHASISE the adjective, not to modify/reduce it.

      21 – 25 : totally agree, bad English, made me laugh. Let’s start another campaign along with the one for superfluous apostrophes, to bring back ‘whom’.

      To who would he/she/they be responsible? – WRONG
      Who would he/she/they be responsible to? – ENDS SENTENCE WITH PREPOSITION TOO, ESCHEWED BY SOME WRITERS AS A “STYLE” ERROR but there are some who dispute that point.
      To whom would he/she/they be responsible? – CORRECT.

      I hope this helps and do feel free to correct me if there are any factual errors.

      Have a good weekend!

      1. MARK:
        You made some good comments on my sentences. Thanks!

        20
        My point here was singular/plural of the verb:
        An American would say A. is playing M.U.
        A British colleague and I (not really ‘me’!) were playing around with the following recently:
        Arsenal is/ are playing well this season.
        Arsenal is/ are a London (a rich) club.
        Arsenal have/ has won the league 3 times.
        Arsenal always play/ plays well at Wembley.
        Arsenal is/ are managed by Arsène Wenger.
        Arsenal was/ were beaten 2-0.
        Arsenal is/ are in trouble.
        All we arrived at was that it is always possible to use the plural, but only occasionally the singular … (in BritEngl). Americans would tend to use the singular.
        21
        I was thinking of the word order. Most grammars would say that “quite” comes before the indefinite article, so: That was quite a fascinating exhibition, NOT … a quite fascinating … But this “rule” is frequently broken today
        A few more sentences I thought of.
        Grammars usually point out that as a pre-modifier you use “sick”, not “ill”: He’s a sick man. But this is not true any more: He’s a very ill man. Etc
        Jason hit Kevin in his stomach (instead of “the”). This breaks the rule that says possessives should only be used referring back to the subject ofg the sentence.
        Rooney may have scored but Hart saved. (instead of “might”). If you use “may” it sounds as if it’s possible that he scored … Quite common in sports columns (even in the Times and the Guardian!).
        And so we could go on and on…

        Here’s an extract from a letter I received before giving a talk. I had asked participants to give their own examples of what they wanted to discuss. The sender is English, working as a headmistress in a language school in Spain, and she has lived here for 30 years. Some of her examples highlight the difficulties someone who has lived abroad for a long time, without daily access to normal speech, has with some recent language changes. But it also shows the interest in language changes which as a matter of fact you may notice much better from the outside, so to speak, where you’re not exposed to the language on a daily basis. I quote:
        “I would like to add to your list some of my favourite bêtes noirs, for example:
        1 ‘these ones’ instead of ‘these’
        2 the ‘foot’ and ‘feet’ confusion: ‘It measured ten foot by six foot’ – recently heard on the BBC.
        3 ‘like what I thought’
        4 the confusion of whether to use a plural or a singular verb with collectives, such as ‘the police’, ‘the government’, ‘the clergy’ or ‘the management’
        5 singular or plural with ‘None of them … and with ‘either’ and ‘neither’
        6 the omission of the ‘ly’ from an adverb of manner, usually when it ends a sentence
        7 and whatever happened to the use of ‘shall’ with the 1st person sing & plural?
        (however, it’s interesting to see that she ends her letter ‘I’m so sorry that I WILL not be able to attend the first of your talks …’)

        As you see, she questions things you and I would probably have no problems with. (Oops, I finished a sentence with a preposition – up with which I will not put!)

        Have a nice weekend
        LEN

      2. Hello Len

        Ahhh yes … now I see your angle / you and your friend’s angle and I liked the ‘Arsenal debate’, as one might Christen it!

        You’re right – we could indeed seethe about such misdemeanours for ever (!). So instead, I thought I’d just reply quickly to: “7] and whatever happened to the use of ‘shall’ with the 1st person sing & plural?”.

        Like your friend I teach English in Spain (apart from writing too). It certainly true that it is important to make an effort to maintain familiarity with one’s mother tongue as spoken by native speakers, and not imho some wonky Hispanic sub-version which uses mainly or only the Latin verbs “e.g. “I entered the supermarket”, instead of “…WENT INTO…”, ad nauseam.

        When my students sometimes do not understand classroom instructions and I have repeated them, one might still get a “question” such as “I read?” – instead of “Shall I read it?” – or even just a rather more direct “Do you want me to read it?” or preferable “Would you like me to read it?”. * (See footnote.)

        When they do this (i.e. say “I read?”), if it is a small group or one-to-one, I will often – and sometimes repeatedly if necessary – stop for a second or two and say “That’s an affirmation, in the present simple. When do we use the present simple?” (pause for answer) “That’s right – habits, routines, something that is always true” (condensed explanation, to avoid disrupting lesson flow too much). “So are you telling me ‘Every day I read’ ?”. I then ask them whether they remember (the lesson about) how to make suggestions, how to suggest things with ‘shall’ and “let’s” etc.

        In summary I think your friend may/might be encountering something like this. It’s just that ‘shall’ isn’t directly translatable from a Spaniard’s mother tongue so they literally go word for word:
        ¿Lo escribo? -> “I write?” Arrggghh! “Shall I write it/that?” / “Shall I take/make a note/ notes?”

        Perhaps this has already occurred to your friend anyway.

        I hope this helps.

        FOOTNOTE
        * However, what one usually hears is “Do you want [rather unattractively mispronounced w – ahhhhhhh – nt] that I write…?” due to the structure of the Spanish subjunctive. They learn better, but either don’t use it or forget it – or both.
        Chin up, language teachers!

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