Saturday, May 25, 2024

The answer book

Where to go when you just don’t know

50 QUESTIONS ABOUT ENGLISH USAGE

David Crystal Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers: Pocket Editions Cambridge University Press, 2021 ISBN: 978-1-108-95918-6

From time to time, language teachers come up against a student with a particularly inquiring mind. You know, the one who continues to ask those tricky questions such as, “How many words are there in the English language?” or “Why can’t we begin a sentence with ‘And’? These thought-provoking tests of professional knowledge tend to get asked at the end of the lesson, often when on the way to a well-earned cup of tea, so delaying the issue for later reflection is thus possible. Breaktime over though, the student is often to be found at the classroom door expecting an explanation – and woe betide the teacher who fails to deliver. Happily, we now have this superb pocket-size resource to refer to under such duress.

Author David Crystal is, of course, widely known and very highly regarded in the ELT world, so it comes as no surprise that the publishers asked him to respond to 50 popular queries on English usage. The results are, as one would guess, endlessly fascinating. He acknowledges quite rightly in the introduction how learners of English as a foreign language gain interest and confidence from an understanding of why, for example, the varieties of English now available are not discrete, but in fact reflect principles that tend to operate in their own mother tongue, too.

The 50 questions are grouped into five broad areas: words and idioms, grammar, pronunciation, spelling and punctuation,

“As for lunch versus dinner, well, that’s been raging for over a century 
and is one to discuss with friends and colleagues”

and genres. Inevitably, there are many points of overlap. Where to begin was my first problem, as I constantly dipped in and out of each section, wanting to know the difference in the first group between a cup and a mug, and lunch and dinner. How would you respond to those questions at your next grilling?

Very briefly, cup is an Anglo-Saxon word borrowed from the Latin cuppa, meaning simply a drinking vessel; while mug is probably an adaptation of a Latin word for a larger measuring vessel, a modium. But there’s much, much more. And as for lunch versus dinner, well, that’s been raging for over a century and is one to discuss with friends and colleagues, or even set for your class’s homework this week.

Following the 14 queries concerning words and idioms, which covers variations in use, such as among and amongst, and the use of pidgin English in statements like ‘long time, no see’, Crystal deals with 15 grammar points. One of these reveals how, although a pet hate of strict prescriptive grammarians, beginning sentences with ‘And’ may often enhance a text stylistically and was in fact a notable feature of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Also looked at in this section are whether we can use ‘because’, ‘since’, ‘as’ and ‘for’ interchangeably; why verbs such as ‘burn’ and ‘learn’ have two past forms in burned/burnt and learned/learnt, plus why people these days use ‘Whatever!’ as a stand- alone phrase.

Crystal’s analysis of pronunciation issues I found the most fascinating. After explaining what Received Pronunciation is and where it came from, how English accents have changed in Britain during recent years, and what exactly Estuary English is, he then tries – but in my opinion fails – to put to rest one of my own linguistic pet hates: the increasingly used high rising intonation on statements, usually at the end of them. Labelled ‘uptalk’ by linguists, it is believed to perform a helpful social role in establishing rapport during interaction. Perhaps, David, only perhaps. Personally, I feel it’s simply affectation.

The final two sections cover issues such as why English spelling is so irregular, variation in the use of the apostrophe and whether or not an exclamation mark can be added to a question mark in order to increase the emphasis, eg, What!? or What?! Also in focus is how a grammatical analysis can help identify phishing – those attempts to create texts that may lead to online fraud.

For such a small book (only 104 pages), this one packs a mighty punch. It’s certainly one I shall be carrying around with me this summer. And, no, you may not borrow it – I know I’ll never see it again!

Wayne Trotman is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Çelebi University, Izmir, Turkey.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY ROBIN HIGGINS FROM PIXABAY and Ron
Wayne Trotman
Wayne Trotman
Wayne is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Celebi University in Izmir, Turkey. Wayne has been involved in language teaching both in the UK and overseas since 1981. He holds an MSc in TESOL from Aston University and a PhD in ELT and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick.
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