This post is inspired by the moment I noticed that I finished a recent post with a sentence beginning with besides, and ending with anyway. Not so unusual, but it brought back some painful memories…
Quite a few years ago, I was teaching an IELTS class (IELTS is a tough Academic-English exam). The lesson was a vocabulary one, about using linking words in writing. Quite straightforward for me at that stage, as I’d been teaching for some time. I had a quick look at the main exercises (I’d like to say I wasn’t provided with much time to prepare the lesson, but I’m pretty sure my quick look at the materials was solely due to my overconfidence), and was satisfied: Ok, there’s furthermore, however, although, despite, in addition to… yeah, that’s easy, I’ve time to relax for a bit.
Into the lesson then, and everything was going ok. Ok, until I had a look at the exercise I’d just had the students start. It was pretty straightforward, the students had a text with gaps, and had to choose which words to put into the gaps. Normally, I’d get the answers from them afterwards, and get them to explain what they meant. Which would normally be fine, until I spotted that one of the words to be used was besides, and it was supposed to fit in the last gap. And I asked myself: What the hell does besides actually mean!?
(an interlude: think about how you would explain the meaning/function of besides/anyway in the following sentences. I think I’ll stay in actually, I’m feeling pretty tired. Besides, I don’t really like that restaurant. Anyway, I’d better go, I’m quite busy.)
I was calm for a few moments: I’m a native speaker, I know what it means – I use it all the time. And the sentence it was used in the text was pretty straightforward. I’d be able to explain it; I just needed a moment to think of the simple concept behind it, no problem.
Only that concept never came, and as the students got closer to finishing, and I got closer to the point of having to face up to explaining besides, I began to panic a little. Come on, it must be easy! It’s like adding an additional point like furthermore or moreover, isn’t it? Except there’s more to it, I can’t just replace one of those two words with besides. Besides has to come as the last point, I think, but isn’t there a sense of contrast to it too? Oh god, they’re finishing…
Maybe it won’t be so bad, I thought. They’re at a pretty high level, maybe they’ll all have put besides in the right gap, and no-one will ask what it means, and I’ll just move swiftly on. We went through all the answers, all went smoothly, and then we got to besides. And everyone put it in right place, and I was about to move on, when…
Ah. Of course.
-Niall, what does besides mean?
I won’t bore you with the details of my flopping attempts to explain it. Besides (!), I don’t think my personal and professional dignity could bear to think back to it in any great detail. Suffice it say that my explanation wasn’t too different from how I’d tried to explain it to myself. And no-one was really convinced, but no-one asked for any more detail either, so I basically got away with it.
But I wasn’t happy. I should’ve checked through the materials more thoroughly, and I should’ve been able to explain besides. Now it does happen that, as a less-experienced teacher, you get stumped in a lesson. It happens, and you usually learn from it. After the lesson when you’ve no pressure you think about what the word might mean and figure it out. Maybe if it’s complicated, you look it up, but still, you learn, and the next time goes better. Only this time, I just couldn’t figure besides out! I could think of lots of examples, and they all made sense, but I still couldn’t express what its function was. Luckily it’s never come up in a lesson since, because even to this day I’m not entirely comfortable with besides. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been thinking again about how to define it, with my more confident language knowledge and ability to explain words. And it’s still hard! Most dictionary definitions leave it at in addition to or furthermore, but for me, that’s not sufficient. We use it in that sense basically, but more specifically we use it to end a discussion, to end doubt. It introduces the final word on a matter. Back to the example above: we’ve explained why we don’t want to go out, but we’re not convinced that our explanation (being tired) is enough, so we need to add one more point to satisfy ourselves and our friend that we have a legitimate reason for not going out, and aren’t just being lazy.
I’m more satisfied with this explanation, but still, it’s a little vague. And still quite hard to get across in a simple way to students. Looking at the word itself might help a little. Obviously it’s related to the preposition beside: we’re adding a further point, but it’s not really a new point, it’s related to the previous point, so we’re kind of parking it beside the previous point, aren’t we? Is that even vaguely convincing? It’s perhaps a little easier to do this with anyway, which can often be used interchangeably with besides. Anyway is of course a combination of the words any and way, and I think it hints at the inevitability of the way we use the word. We’re telling our friend that any way they look at it, any way things might turn out, we’re not going out because we don’t like the restaurant. Fin. It’s not happening, so stop thinking about it. End of discussion. It’s an insight into the slightly cynical way we can use these words: we’ve already made our decision, and now we’re thinking of reasons to justify it. I’m reasonably satisfied with this exploration of the word, but again, very difficult to explain in a lesson.
How is it that we use these two words so naturally, and can easily think of examples of how to use them, but find them so hard to explain? Surely we should be able to explain any everyday word we use? You’d think so, especially when you’re an English teacher, but I think the strange case of besides and anyway is a result of the direct link between psychology and language. All language reflects a thought or feeling, of varying complexity. Usually there’s a fairly simple correspondence between a single word and a single concept. But things are a little more complex with besides and anyway. There’s often a lot going on in our heads when we use them. We’re reassuring ourselves and the person we’re talking to, we’re adding to a previous point, we’re trying to move the conversation away from its current focus, we’re trying to end a discussion, we’re feeling a little guilty because we’re trying to end doubt: it’s complex! And we represent all these complexities of thought with two simple words, because that suits the practical nature of the moment. Like an English teacher who doesn’t want his students to dwell on his sub-par explanation, we don’t want our conversation partner to dwell on the topic we want to move away from, so we use short dismissive words that hopefully move things along quickly.
It’s actually one of the great things about your native tongue: it’s full of little shorthands like this that express complex concepts in a simple manner. The problem is that this is not so welcome when you’re an English teacher and trying to explain these complex concepts. At least when you get more experienced as a teacher, you become aware of what is inherently difficult to explain, and don’t blame yourself so much when you come across them. It’s ok to say to students, This is actually quite complex, even for native speakers, just as in your own language there are things you’d find hard to explain. If you’ve shown previously that you know your stuff, the students will usually trust you, and as long as they’ve got good examples which demonstrate the words’ use, they’ll be satisfied.
As a teacher, it’s important to accept what you don’t know, or what you find difficult. Even in our native tongues, there are obscure little corners whose secrets remain hidden to us. As you can see from Friday’s post, I’ve been thinking lately about what I don’t know about English, and coming to terms with that. I’m not sure what my conclusions are, as I still want to think about it a bit more. But for now, I’m content to consider the idea that an English teacher can’t expect to be a complete expert on the language.
Besides, how often are students going to use besides anyway?