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When I gave my ELF talk several weeks ago at the ETp conference, I could see some members of the audience shifting uncomfortably in their chairs as the talk progressed. I knew I was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to them and saying things they probably didn’t want to hear.

It’s impossible to deny that English is now often used as the lingua franca in the worlds of business, trade, tourism and education. And if we are teaching students who aren’t learning English in order to assimilate into an English-speaking country, it’s easy to accept that we ought to prioritise intelligibility and the ability to get meaning across successfully rather than to spend too much time on how one can make a good impression on a native speaker of English. Those who are accustomed to teaching Business English might even question the relevance of the explicit focus on English culture in some General English coursebooks. (You can read more about this in this previous post: Seeing the world the English way – Teaching English? Or teaching English culture?

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However, what do these claims about prioritising intelligibility really mean? How are teachers going about doing this? As one teacher once said, “We’ve still got to teach them something!” 

So, what do we teach the learners? 

When we begin to examine the list of language items commonly used in ELF communities that do not impede intelligibility, here is where we start to ruffle a few feathers. 

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Here are some examples of innovative lexicogrammatical usage that have been found to not impede intelligibility (See Seidlhofer, 2004 and Cogo and Dewey, 2012 for further reading). 

Do you consider these errors? 
How do you deal with them in your classroom? Can you let them go? Or do you flag them up for correction (on-the-spot or delayed) whenever you hear students using them?

1. Use of 3rd person singular zero
e.g. She live in Milan; He deal with foreign investments; It catch my attention.

2. Confusing relative pronouns 
e.g. The manager which he works for is extremely bossy; I do everything which I want.

3. Omission of prepositions & shifts in preposition use
e.g. I listen the news every morning; It depends the time; We discussed about the budget; He has to handle the problem and then contact with the client.

4. Innovative usage of articles
e.g. The happiness is the most important thing; He is accountant and is in same department as me.

5. Overusing de-lexicalised verbs e.g. ‘do’, ‘make’, ‘take’, etc.
e.g. He do the organization of the conference very well; She really do a big effort everytime; I’m going to take a coffee in the café; She took an interview but didn’t get the job.

6. Increased explicitness
e.g. How long time do you need to find the blue colour folder?

Are you shifting uncomfortably in your seat yet? Are your feathers ruffled?
Where should we draw the line between what is correct and what is incorrect?
How far can we go before we step in to say “That’s just wrong!”?

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Have a look at the following sentences. If you can, have a colleague or friend do this exercise with you. Which would you say are correct and acceptable sentences? 

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1. She is working less hours this month.

2. Who were you speaking to?

3. I have to quickly finish this job.

4. Come and look at this film with me.

5. He’s been working there since two years.

6. The data is all wrong.

7. $3.6 billion of taxpayer money was poured into finishing the World Cup stadiums in Brazil.

8. The company is liable to make a profit of $5million this year.

9. I was sat there having my dinner when the news came on.

10. He should of listened to my advice in the first place. 

By now, you might have realized that the above ten sentences are spoken/written by so-called native speakers of English. 

How many of the ten sentences did you find uncomfortable accepting? Did your colleague or friend share the same sentiments as you did? 

(See below for explanations as to why these ten sentences might be considered wrong by some)

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It is more than likely that your friend/colleague was more tolerant of some ‘deviations’ than you were while you were probably more accepting of some than they were. But what does our different levels of tolerance say about us? 

Should we embrace a more liberal attitude towards the changes and shifts that occur in language, or are we ‘letting standards slip’? 

Should grammar pedants be proud of upholding a strict (but prescriptive) standard or should we accept the fact that a language is what a society/community makes of it. 

Perhaps the ‘grammar pedants’ and ‘the liberals’ symbolize two ends of a continuum on which we find ourselves plotted along. And our position on this continuum will keep on shifting as language changes and what was once deemed unacceptable becomes part of our everyday language. After all, there was a time when ‘to edit’ was considered an unacceptable verbalisation of the noun ‘edition’, and yet, no one bats an eyelid to the use of that verb today. 

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Perhaps understanding this is key to helping us accept the inevitable changes there are in language use and in ELF use, and this would enable us to better prioritise our classroom time so as to focus on helping our students become better communicators.

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Why some might take issue with those ten sentences

1. Few/fewer is used for countable nouns while little/less is used for uncountable nouns. ‘Hours’ is countable and so the sentence should read ‘She is working fewer hours this month’.

2. The dangling/hanging preposition ‘to’ at the end of the sentence might disturb some grammar pedants, who might insist that the correct sentence should read, “To whom were you speaking?”

3. The split infinitive is often cited as a grammar mistake by those who pride themselves at being purists. This however has been slated for being a residue of Latin rules permeating the English language.

4. ‘Watch’ is often used for moving objects while ‘look at’ is often used for still objects. However, in some English varieties, e.g. Irish English, ‘look at a TV programme’ and ‘look at a film’ is considered acceptable usage.

5. ‘Since + a definite point in time’ e.g. since the 8th August
‘For + a period of time’ e.g. for two weeks

The above is the commonly taught rule in English coursebooks. However, in some parts of Scotland, ‘since + a period of time’ is common usage.

6. Strictly speaking, ‘data’ is the plural of ‘datum’ and so the sentence should read ‘The data are all wrong’.

7. The plural of ‘stadium’ should be ‘stadia’, and the plural of ‘syllabus’ should be ‘syllabi’. But these days, ‘stadiums’ and ‘syllabuses’ have become accepted plurals.

8. The modern use of ‘liable to’ to mean ‘likely to’ seems to irritate some people. 

9. The passive structure ‘I was sat’ seems to suggest that someone else has put you in that seat. However, these days, ‘I was sat there’ is often used interchangeably with ‘I was sitting there’, much to the annoyance of some.

10. The construction is ‘should + have + past participle’ but somewhere along the way, the ‘schwa’ used in the pronunciation of ‘have’ started being misunderstood for being ‘of’. I must admit herein lies my limit and this is where I draw the line…

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Cogo, A. and Dewey, M. (2012) Analysing English as a Lingua Franca : a Corpus-driven investigation. London: Continuum.
Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua france. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, (24), pp 209-39.

Related reading:

Whose accent is better?

Death by idioms


Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 


Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York. 

She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com