For all Intensive Purposes

Ah, to have the command of a native speaker! To be able to say exactly what you mean, without having to think about what you want to say, and without making mistakes! If only I could be that good, but I never will!

Such is the lament of almost everyone learning a language. No matter how we advance in our learning, no matter how confident we get, whenever we see a native speaker in full flow we’re at once impressed and dismayed. They remind us of how far we have to go, and the gap that, realistically, will always exist between a native speaker and a learner, unless they completely immerse themselves in the language.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. As I’ve said before, native speakers are prone to often-surprising mistakes in their own language. In many cases, these are grammar mistakes, caused partly by the fact that English grammar doesn’t tend to be taught with any degree of rigour in Anglophone countries.  The main reason we make mistakes though, is that we acquire our native language first through listening, and then speaking. Reading and writing come much later, and because they require the use of letters, accuracy is crucial to both. And yet, even when we’ve mastered the basics of reading and writing, most of our exposure to language remains aural, and our production of it, oral.

This is why, for example, many people will write your instead of you’re (I actually just typed your instead of you’re: it’s easy to do!); because when we hear someone say You’re great, and your blog is amazing (you get used to it after a while), you don’t see or hear a difference between You’re and your. Added to this, is the fact that we don’t always speak very clearly. My “teacher voice,” for example, is much louder, slower, and clearer than my voice when I’m speaking with other native speakers. Then I mumble, don’t use complete sentences, let words run into each other, and speak quite quickly. The result of this is that we don’t always hear things very clearly, and are particularly prone to mishearing commonly-used multi-word phrases. It’s the same concept behind mishearing song lyrics: the longer the phrase, the more opportunities we have for misunderstanding it. Let’s have a look at some of the most common phrases that people get wrong… Continue reading

Is Good Grammar Necessary?

This is a question that always sparks debate, and we probably all know people whose views fall on opposite sides of this debate. Some are sticklers for grammar, pouncing on any tiny error with relish. Others put less thought into how they use language and make errors without regard to how well they’re understood. And most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes. If you’ve ever been concerned about whether you have good grammar or not, then let me reassure you that your grammar is almost definitely much better than you think. Such is usually the case for most people in terms of their native language. But to know exactly what we mean by having good grammar, first we need to look at what grammar is.

What is grammar? Continue reading

Wherefore Must Thou Misquote Me?

I could write a number of different posts about William Shakespeare, and I probably will end up doing so. Genius is a word that can be thrown around too easily, but I think we can safely apply it to Shakespeare. The number of words he coined, the beauty of his language, and the thematic richness of his works are incomparable to much else. But I won’t write too much about him now. What I’m interested in for the moment is when people get Shakespeare wrong. There are many of his quotations everyone is familiar with, regardless of how much they know about his work. But quite often, we misquote or misinterpret them. For example: Continue reading

I Thought I’d Thought you Better than That!

I think everyone has little things that people say or write that drive them crazy. Things that are strictly incorrect, like I could care less, I should of known better, or I’ve went there a lot. I try not to get annoyed by such things, but there’s one that always bugs me: thought instead of taught. Continue reading

Slang

Slang.

An important word for any language learner to be aware of: no matter how well someone learns a language in an academic context, it’s crucial to be exposed to slang in order to get a sense of how a language is really used by native speakers.

So I was interested recently when I came across someone proudly proclaiming that they knew that the word slang was actually a kind of portmanteau, meaning Short Language. I had my doubts. It simply felt too modern. I was sure that the word had existed for quite a long time, and that forming a word in such a way wouldn’t have been done before recent times. In fact, we tend not to make words in that fashion very often in English: combining the opening letters of the words of a definition of a word. It just seems too neat, too self-consciously “clever.”

So I investigated and my doubts were proven to be well-founded. Like with a lot of words, the origin is unclear, and it’s derived form words with similar words which evolved gradually over time, probably from old Nordic words.

So the next time you hear sometime tell you about an English-language fact that seems too good to be true, it probably is so.