Keepin’ it real: what can we do about language change?

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INTERVIEWAs an editor and writer of English language materials, I’d like to think that I never make grammar or spelling mistakes.  However, the other day, a colleague of mine kindly pointed out an error in one of my blog posts.  I had unwittingly erred by writing ‘with regards to‘.  She went on to explain that we either said ‘with regard to‘ or ‘as regards + noun’.  Indeed, the Macmillan Dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary Online and Oxford English Dictionary corroborated her explanation.  The result? I resolved to correct my blog posts.   However, this piece of well-meant feedback did raise a question in my mind.  Am I alone in making this mistake?  It seems not. There are 56 examples of ‘with regards to’ occurring in spoken and written English cited by the British National Corpus and a quick search of Google yielded 278,000 hits on Google News and over 600,000 on Google Books.  The incidence of the correct form is far higher, but I wonder whether this will be the case in a few years’ time.  How often does a non-standard form of English have to be used in order to find its way into dictionaries and grammar guides?

Linguistic traditionalists would like to think that grammar rules are immutable, but as Jennifer Jenkins observes,’Language is of its nature unstable. It is essentially protean in nature, adapting its shape to suit changing circumstances’1. It follows that descriptive grammars of English have to change with it.  As widely-recognised authorities on the English language become more and more willing to include non-standard English variations, it is perhaps inevitable that the division between what is judged to be standard English and what is not becomes indistinct.  Here’s an example of this blurring in action – Scott Thornbury describes the acceptability of the form ‘comprised of‘ in the passive voice.

[pullquote] ‘Language is of its nature unstable. It is essentially protean in nature, adapting its shape to suit changing circumstances'[/pullquote]

What do teachers and learners of English do with this information?  Can IELTS students around the world safely start to use ‘comprised of‘ in their Task 1 graph descriptions?  There is a danger in their doing so, perhaps.  Published grammar guides warn against using non-standard English forms in exams.  For example, English Grammar Today points out that both didn’t use to and didn’t used to are common, but we shouldn’t use the latter spelling in exams.  As far as exams go, at least, it is better to play on the safe side.

This leads me to draw the conclusion that our choices about the language we use needs to be determined, at least in part, by the expectations of our audience and the context in which we are operating.  If I apply this to my EAL learners, the majority of whom want to study alongside native English speakers at prestigious universities in the UK, I could presume that I would be doing them a disservice by allowing them to use non-standard English forms, however pervasive these forms might have become.

The importance of context has implications for coursebooks as well.  As coursebooks have to cater for learners who want to use English for a wide range of purposes (one of which is likely to be speaking to other non-native speakers) should they continue to teach standard forms only, or should they be including descriptions of commonly  used non-standard forms?  ELF proponents would, I think, argue for the inclusion of non-standard forms.  However, would this be helpful for a pre-intermediate student, for instance, who is trying to get their head around the basics of the English grammatical system? Should, then, information on non-standard forms just be reserved for those learners studying at B2 level and above?  I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s worth asking the questions.

1 Jenkins, J. 2003. World Englishes: A resource book for students. London: Routledge, p. 166

3 Comments

  1. This is not the first time I have felt like cheering while reading one of Verity’s blogs. I am impressed by the clarity of her presentation of the issues, and its practicality. We do indeed have to take into account our students’ needs at various stages of language learning – “didn’t use to” fits into the pattern of regular verbs to which the elementary and lower intermediate learner has become accustomed, for instance: “didn’t go”, “didn’t look”, “didn’t say” – as well as the standards by which they are going to be judged, not only in English language examinations but
    even in Oxbridge interviews. It is indeed hard to decide at which point one goes with the flow as far as changes in language are concerned. I’ve no doubt that I could find many instances of the confusion of “imply” with “infer” in contemporary corpora, but I can’t imagine myself allowing students to follow this example in the foreseeable future!

    • Thanks Penny. Sounds interesting. I’d love to know how to do this – is it straightforward?

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