She Could Steal, but she Could not Rob

It was a lovely sunny evening in the west of Ireland today, which made me feel like Abbey Road would be a good accompaniment to my walk home. Probably because it features “Here Comes the Sun,” but I think it’s a generally positive album anyway, suitable for a balmy evening. As I was listening, I was struck by a line in “She Came in through the Bathroom Window” which I’d heard many times before, but never really thought much about:

She could steal, but she could not rob.

It’s a clever, cute line, and if you’re interested in the possible meaning behind it, you can look here. This evening though, it made me think about the difference between those two verbs: steal and rob.

They are of course quite similar, and you may not have thought of the specific difference between them before, but if you think about it now I’m sure it’ll be fairly straightforward. Basically, rob means steal from, so you rob a bank, or you rob a person, for example. Native speakers do sometimes get this a little wrong, usually by using rob instead of steal. Someone robbed a diamond from the museum last night, for example. However, I don’t really hear this mentioned often as one of those mistakes that really annoy people. Perhaps because it’s not really noticeable, because the two words are so similar. Using steal instead of rob would be noticeable, but when have you ever heard anyone make that mistake?

Anyway, I was actually thinking of the two more in terms of teaching them in the English-language classroom. I remember, early on in my career, coming across a book which seemed really cool. It consisted of pairs of words and phrases which can easily be confused, with short explanations and cute illustrations to help make the differences clear for students. At the time I thought it was a pretty cool book, and I was particularly interested in the page about rob and steal, because I’d never considered that they could be confusing. I still remember the examples given to highlight the difference: Two men robbed a bank last night, and Two men stole a bank last night, with accompanying cartoons of a bank robbery, and then of two robbers carrying a bank on their backs. Cute, and I made sure to use it as soon as I could.

From then on, any time crime came up as a topic or vocabulary focus, I always made sure to teach the difference between the two words, and ask the concept-check question, Can you steal a bank? Hoping of course, for a laugh when the students realised what that would mean. And often getting it. I always felt so clever, and like I was doing my students a big favour by explaining this difference, even if I did get it from a book. At some point though, after a few years, I thought to myself: Am I really helping my students by spending time on this in class? I wondered this, because even to this day I’ve actually still never encountered a student getting it wrong.

Realising this, I then wondered why I spent so much time on these two words, so often. And I think I’ve already answered that above: it made me feel cool and clever. I liked if it got a laugh, or if students were surprised to be made aware of the difference between the two. Not that the latter often happened though, because most of them had simply never really encountered the word rob, and never really used it much afterwards, because you can get by with just using steal.

Thinking about this made me question how much of what goes on in a classroom is really useful for students. This can happen in two ways. First, the teacher might stick far too much to the syllabus and the textbook, without noticing whether doing so was really useful for the particular group of students in front of him/her. This is often a problem with newer teachers, who might still lack the flexibility to adapt a syllabus and materials to their class, or to go into depth in analysing the language.

The second way is one that is perhaps more likely to happen when you’ve been teaching for a while. A teacher soon begins to notice what gets a good reaction from students and what doesn’t, and it can be very easy then to just give students what they like, or what makes them laugh. The problem with this is, that what’s fun in the classroom isn’t always useful. Fun is important of course: making lessons engaging helps students remember what they learned. But sometimes you need to take a little time to dig into the language in class and slow things down a little. Most students, for example, like to do a lot of speaking, as it’s more fun than grammar exercises. And speaking is very useful, but it’s important to establish what you want students to use when speaking, and then make sure they understand it before they use it. This part can actually be fun too, by the way, but the teacher needs to work at that, whereas a speaking exercise can be very easy to set up, and take up a lot of time in the lesson, saving you from planning or actively teaching.

This all gets even more complicated when you work in a private, commercial school. Then there might be pressure to be popular with students, so they’ll be happier with your classes. In this case, a teacher might prioritise “fun” activities a bit too much. And this can happen unconsciously too: if a teacher gets a good reaction from the way they teach early on, they might not even consider another way of doing things. And of course we have to consider ego too. We all want to be liked, and as a teacher it’s a very satisfying thing to see smiling faces in your classroom, so you can’t be really blamed for trying to maximise that.

Which is why I spent so much time teaching the difference between rob and steal, and pretending I’d come up with the mental image of two robbers carrying a bank on the spot. Now, I might still occasionally bring it up, but only if a student seemed to be confused about the two. I miss it sometimes, but I also feel that my lessons are more interesting overall, and don’t need these fun little highlights, and that my students are happier with them, in general. And for a teacher, that’s much more satisfying in the long run.

11 thoughts on “She Could Steal, but she Could not Rob

  1. This is actually interesting Niall. It made me start to think of the pairs of words that can get confusing! I am half way through a writing qualification at the moment, (Iv gone back to refresh and update my writing knowledge) and we often talk about how confusing the English language can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a vague memory of an older English movie or tv program in which a young character says that his parents are in the ‘iron and steel business’ – later we find out that she irons and he steals.

    There’s also the phrasal verb ‘hold up’ and ‘knock over’. Doing either of those to a bank requires considerable strength.

    Liked by 1 person

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