English Teachers vs. Linguists

In some of my eleventh graders’ essays, I’ve come across a number of these so-called “linking words” – as if an essay would just fall apart without a liberal smattering of “additionallies” and “on the other hands” strewn across the page. I broke the habit of using linking words in formal writing because you almost never need them – they generally serve only to add to your word count, which becomes a problem when you have a professor who assigns you a series of 2-page papers on Freud, Marx, and other topics that can barely be done justice in such a tiny space.

Perhaps the most noticeable for me was the use of “firstly” and “secondly.” At first these struck me as wrong – I’ve almost never seen them in formal writing and when I bother to explicitly enumerate my ideas or arguments I personally use “first” and “second” because they have more punch. But I wasn’t totally sure and I didn’t take off points for the usage, based on my maxim of trying to never issue an unnecessary correction.

Then I saw in the students’ textbook – New Wave 11 – that the book explicitly recommends the use of “firstly” and “secondly” and so on. That couldn’t be right, I thought, so I went to the internet. Research confirms my general impression – “firstly” and “secondly” aren’t actually wrong – they have a long history and are well-attested – but almost all modern style and usage guides prefer “first” and “second” and many English teachers regard “firstly” and “secondly” as wrong, which means that if an ESL student uses these in academic writing, there’s a good chance that their readers will count it as a strike against their fluency.

In other words, even though it’s not wrong, many native speakers don’t know it isn’t wrong and many wouldn’t bother to check, and since it’s the less popular and less modern option it probably shouldn’t be the version taught to ESL speakers (or anyone, for that matter).

This got me thinking that, really, someone should be reviewing these textbooks before they are used to teach actual students. And then I immediately thought that in all likelihood, actual English teachers and native speakers were consulted on these books, and somehow failed to catch the myriad mistakes and examples of poor judgment that I have found in the New Wave textbooks. In the “firstly” “secondly” case, I can understand why it happened – there is certainly a minority of teachers who are teaching “firstly” “secondly” as more formal or proper versions, probably because they don’t know any better – but that doesn’t make it better, and there are many more errors where that came from.

So while I imagine that there’s some sort of review process for these textbooks, it’s clear that the process is inadequate. This lead me to wonder what sort of review process would be adequate, or, to put it more bluntly, who would be qualified to review an ESL textbook? Obviously I think that I would personally do a better job than whoever reviewed New Wave, but who would do a better job than me?

The first person who came to mind was linguist Geoff Pullum. Pullum is a contributor to Language Log and cowrote a comprehensive grammar called The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language some years ago. The reason I would choose Pullum is that he is a linguist, a descriptivist, and a person who has a vast encyclopedic knowledge of the English Language. He’s a native of Scotland but taught at UC Santa Cruz for 26 years, so it’s safe to say that he’s familiar with US and UK English. I would trust his opinion about a topic of English grammar and usage probably more than anyone else’s.

Thinking about Pullum drew the distinction between an English teacher and a linguist into focus for me. An English teacher usually studies grammar – in their CELTA or TEFL course, perhaps, or they could just rely on what they were taught in school – whereas a linguist actually studies language.

The distinction is important because although in theory, grammar is a set of rules that describes language, in practice, the people who write grammar – that is, the people who analyze language and create a set of rules describing it – don’t do a very good job.

That’s because grammarians tend to rely too heavily on what came before. They tend to be traditional and thus grammar books can lag behind common modern usage – and when I say behind, I mean up to hundreds of years behind depending on the particular rule in question.

Grammarians also don’t usually have a sufficient selection of searchable English texts at their disposal. This is hardly their fault – computational linguistics requires, like, computers and stuff – and so everyone doing grammar before about 1990 gets a free pass – which also means that you can safely ignore any grammar book written before then because it’s probably wrong about a lot of stuff and almost certainly woefully incomplete.

However, it is now possible to comb through millions and millions of words of written (and transcribed spoken) text in seconds. Now we can easily and quickly find examples to confirm or invalidate proposed grammatical rules. Now we don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence or “what sounds right” but can instead rely on actual data about the actual use of the language by native speakers and native writers.

About 75% of the mistakes that my Georgian coteachers have made – both at the Police Academy and School 51 – can probably be attributed to having studied grammar books written by people who had themselves acquired a poor understanding of the English language from those who came before them. This is one of the reasons why native speakers are important in language instruction – we just naturally use language with far greater fluency and accuracy than someone who has learned every rule in a grammar book by heart.

The benefit of studying linguistics, though, is that it gives you the tools you need to determine who is right and who is wrong when a conflict arises between everyday language usage and grammar-book-English. These tools include the ability to think about and analyze grammar (and other parts of language) logically, the terminology that helps articulate arguments and reasoning, and the research skills to find answers to questions that are not immediately obvious, like why “first” is better than “firstly.” Linguistics also has the benefit of making those who study it skeptical of grammar books. If I had not studied linguistics I probably would never have uttered the phrase “well I’m right and the grammar book is wrong” and certainly not with such frequency.

I’ll give you a non-grammatical example of a benefit of studying linguistics: One of my coteachers once asked me how to pronounce “Mel Gibson.” When I told her (for those who may not know, it’s a “hard g” or /g/) she said that according to her grammar book, the rule is that a ‘g’ followed by an ‘i’ should be “soft” (or /dʒ/). Being somewhat of a contrarian, I immediately began to think of a list of counterexamples: gilt, git, gimp, giddy, give, gift, Gilbert. Then as I looked at these I thought of soft g “gi” words – giant, giraffe, gin, etc. My teacher asked me which was the rule and which were the exceptions, and at the time I had a roughly equivalent number of examples in each category, when suddenly it struck me – the hard g words all felt Germanic to me (gilt was the gimme) and the soft g words all felt French or Latin (giraffe being the most obviously French). Much googling confirmed this insight: in words that came into English through Anglo-Saxon – and, probably because English is a primarily Germanic language, words that were invented as new English words – the g is hard before an i; in words from Romance languages the g is soft.

The point is, it’s nice to be able to discover and articulate patterns in the English language in response to questions like “what determines how I should pronounce this word?” Of course, in this particular case the answer isn’t terribly helpful unless the student happens to also know enough Latin or French (or Frisian) to be able to recognize a particular English word’s provenance, but I think that it always helps students to know that there is a reason and a logic to some of the more annoying quirks of the English language, and something like this might actually spark a student’s interest in learning more about the language.

Education specialists should play a prominent role in designing textbooks, especially for particular demographics, like teenage ESL students. However, when it comes to the technical details that are actually being taught, I think that textbooks and grammar books should be reviewed by at least one linguist who is not only a native speaker of a language but who has also studied a broad array of the technical details of that language. All the pedagogical skill in the world doesn’t make a lick of difference if you’re teaching students grammatical “rules” that are just flat wrong.

And sure, for edge cases like “first” vs. “firstly,” where very, very few people are likely to care which one (if any) you use, it probably doesn’t matter much. But I’ve heard numerous examples of grammatical rules that are one hundred percent dead wrong being taught either from a coteacher’s personal knowledge or directly from a book. For instance, my coteachers all teach their classes that you must always use the definite article with a superlative adjective – in other words, you can say “the biggest” but never just “biggest.” If this rule were true the sentence “I’m your biggest fan” would be grammatically incorrect, but I think any native speaker can instantly see that it isn’t.

Another one is the putative list of verbs with no “-ing” form. One of my teachers had the whole class memorize a list of “verbs wtih no -ing form” which included “be,” “understand,” “know,” “forget,” and many, many more. I’m being serious here. So sentences like “I’m always forgetting my coat” and “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle” and “You’re not understanding me” and, not to mention, “I’m being serious here,” are apparently ungrammatical in the strange and troubled world of whoever made that particular grammar book.

And of course I never really know what to do in these cases. I don’t want to undermine my coteachers in front of the class and I don’t want to undermine myself by accusing the grammar books of being full of shit (which they are) without proof at my immediate disposal (which I rarely have). Students tend to trust their textbooks more than their teachers – which is sometimes justified – and I can’t just disrupt class over every dispute to go and find proof that I am right on the internet. So far I’ve just been recording the more extensive errors so that I can go over them with my coteachers at some point, and correcting the minor errors as they come up (and usually my coteachers fight me on these corrections, but c’est la vie.)

And if I do somehow manage to convince my coteachers that the grammar books are full of serious problems, what will they have to rely on? How will they know to distinguish between a relatively high quality textbook or grammar book (like the Cambridge “English in Mind” series) and a really low quality one (like the Georgian-made “New Wave” books)? Once you challenge the very foundation of someone’s knowledge of a language, they will forever struggle with the kind of epistemological doubt that leads some to question the very existence of existence itself. I’d feel more comfortable doing this if I knew for certain that there was a good Georgian translation of Descartes out there to guide them out of the woods on the whole existence issue.

One possible solution presented itself as I was checking out Pullum’s Wikipedia page – Pullum himself has now co-authored a grammar book for students (“A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar“), based on his Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which, based on my research so far, is both excellent and easily pirateable in e-book format. Of course, I’d kill for a hard copy version, but maybe if I am successful in my plans to get this book adopted as the official English grammar source for all of Georgia the Ministry will lend me a copy for use while I’m here.

Some British comedy about language:

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14 Responses to English Teachers vs. Linguists

  1. pasumonok says:

    hey, u’re gonna laugh, but in college, in the states, i learned that using “firstly” sounds more academic than using “first” and i produced tons of essays featuring “firstly” and “secondly” and feeling superior to my peers for doing so 🙂
    secondly, i had a whole day of class about importance of transitions and the easiest way to do transitions is to pepper a paper with linking words.
    thirdly, i had a very hip, young teacher who told us that using pronoun “I” was o.k. so, it is hard for me to believe that she would teach us something wrong or old…
    and also, i never got less than a- on my essay, not counting 1st several paper-like creations that i wrote in the 1st month of college, never having any prior training in academic writing.
    so either teachers don’t care about these words if u have a good essay, or there is no consensus on what is correct, or this mistake might not be a mistake at all…
    u did the research though, so i’ll keep this info in mind.


    • panoptical says:

      It’s not funny – it’s sad that college professors have formed no consensus on what is correct and what is incorrect, and don’t bother to research what they teach, and end up creating confusion for students of English, native and non-native alike.

      Most of us have teachers at some point who are stupid judgmental pricks who will downgrade an essay that is written in perfectly good English because it doesn’t conform to their pathetically limited understanding of the English language. If you haven’t come across this, you have been extremely lucky. Like I said, I wouldn’t take points off for someone using “firstly” and “secondly,” but I certainly do take it into account when forming an opinion of a person’s writing. One or two quirks that deviate from the style that I expect in a particular context are fine – they are what make writing interesting and individual – but a large number of quirks can indicate a lack of mastery of or experience with the language.

      As for using “I” in academic writing, that’s another source of controversy, but while you’ll almost never find a professor who will hold it against you if you *don’t* use it, you’ll find a number of professors who will hold it against you if you do. I think it’s fine if a professor says “I don’t mind if you use ‘I’ in your essays” but it’s irresponsible if they say “it’s always okay to use ‘I’ in writing.” There are innumerable academic journals in which the use of the first person is completely unacceptable (to the point of awkward constructions like “the authors found…” instead of “we found…” being quite common in the literature) and of course in journalism you can’t use “I” unless you’re writing an editorial and you’ll see things like “The New York Times sat down with…” or “this reporter spoke to” to avoid the use of the first person.

      But overall, the thing that most college professors who endeavor to teach writing skills seem to miss is that what is acceptable in writing depends on the context. It’s hard to teach that to students so most professors seem to choose one option and teach that as the only correct option, when it is not. Most professors tend to be lazy and reductive and few actually care about producing a good writer as opposed to producing written works that match their particular aesthetics.


      • pasumonok says:

        thanks 4 ur reply…
        my college prof was wonderful and she actually explained all the nuisances of “I” pronoun…for example, she advised us to stay away from it if the professor is more on the conservative side, old school, usually older in age…
        so this is why i was surprised that she never corrected something that sounds so wrong.
        in this particular case, i really can’ blame the teacher. she was one of the coolest teachers i’ve had in college.


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  3. Tornike says:

    Your blog entry is full of run on sentences, comma splices, fragments etc. and numerous other grammar errors.



    • panoptical says:

      No, it isn’t, but since I’m an English teacher and a linguist, I’ll humor you this time. Why don’t you cite some examples and I’ll explain to you why you are wrong?

      And by the way, it’s “run-on” sentence, not “run on” sentence.

      (EDIT: By way of explanation, Tornike here is one of the trolls who was most responsible for my decision to moderate all comments. Normally I don’t approve or respond to his comments but this one may have pedagogical value.)


  4. Tornike says:

    The more I read your blog, the more convinced I am that you’re a shallow idiot with false pretentious. I feel sorry for you. You cannot take any constructive criticism or slightly opposing opinion without getting angry and flustered. I think you feel more important in Georgia than you ever did in America ( not sure why) it’s pathetic.


    • panoptical says:

      (See what I mean about him being a troll?)

      Look, dude – I don’t know what it is with you. Maybe your English isn’t good and you just don’t understand, or maybe you’re deliberately being a jerk in these situations, but if you really don’t like my blog then do us both a favor and fuck right off. It doesn’t do anyone any good for you to leave insulting and baseless comments on every single one of my posts.

      And just to highlight the difference between “constructive criticism” and “trolling” – the comment that you left is not constructive because if my post truly did contain grammatical errors then based on your comment I would have no way of identifying them and thereby fixing them. “Constructive” criticism is criticism that the person who receives it could somehow benefit from. “Trolling” is when you throw false accusations around that you can’t or won’t back up with actual evidence.

      But seriously. I don’t expect you to understand this comment because clearly you have some kind of comprehension deficit, so I’ll restate this point simply: please go away and leave me alone. Please do not comment on any more of my posts. Please do not even read this blog any more. Go away.

      You will have a happier life if you don’t go around seeking out blogs that annoy you and harassing their owners for weeks on end. And the world would be a better place if people like you would grow the fuck up.


      • pasumonok says:

        i don’t know why, but comments like these–and replies–make me laugh.
        i guess i am just happy that some people are troller (is that a mistake, tornike?) than me:-)


  5. Tornike says:

    HAHA your blog IS full of grammatical errors (funny since you’re wring about GRAMMAR) . Anyone with basic knowledge of English grammar can see that.

    Anyway, I’m not going to go over your stupid grammar mistakes. I’m DONE wasting time on idiots


  6. Tornike says:

    Sentences like “I’d feel more comfortable doing this if I knew for certain that there was a good Georgian translation of Descartes out there to guide them out of the woods on the whole existence issue.” LOL

    This is the last time I’m commenting on this blog.


    • panoptical says:

      Thank you for demonstrating conclusively that you have no idea what you are talking about, and for agreeing to stop commenting. No one will miss you.


  7. pasumonok says:

    ummm…personal blogs are really not supposed to be very academic or perfect. the purpose of such blog is to be engaging and easy to read. the purpose of such blog is to keep people interested, so that they visit again next week. the purpose of such blog is express your thoughts, and at the same time cater to the audience–an audience that has no spare time to waste on boring shit and does not give rat’s ass about run-on sentences!
    audience and goal of the paper determines the style of the paper.
    for example, i don’t capitalize letters in comments. coz blog comments are not college essays, and priority here is to get ur thought out, make it short and fast. nobody spends hours editing comments.
    similarly, a personal blog entry –unless it targets a linguistically-oriented audience–does not require two weeks of editing, proofreading and polishing. clearly, neal can write well. he knows the rules.
    but sometimes, we break the rules to make our writing more interesting!


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