Topic: Standards and variation

These resources take an exploratory approach to the nature of English in use, in real-world contexts.

Word frequency: Activity

The 10 most common English words are:

the

of

and

a

in

to

it

is/was

I

for

Can you answer the following questions without using these 10 words?

World Englishes debate

This is a challenging lesson that can be a fantastic springboard for discussion with more able students. How do we decide whether regional, non-standard English is acceptable or not, and what role does context play?

World Englishes debate: Activity

In 1991, Professor Randolph Quirk and Professor Braj Kachru published articles in English Today debating the value of World Englishes.

Prof. Quirk argued that we must have a strong standard for English that does not allow for incorrect vocabulary or grammar.

Prof. Kachru argued that English must serve different purposes for millions of people around the world, and therefore, because a single standard is impossible, we must appreciate the variation in English worldwide.

Where do you stand?

Keeping a Language Log

Introduction

Most of the time, students' work in English is assessed by things that they write about things that they have read. For example, their exams may consist of writing about a Shakespeare play they have studied, or perhaps some non-fiction texts like advertisements or extracts of journalism from a newspaper or magazine.

Language of spam

Introduction

If you’ve got an email account, inevitably you’ll have received spam. Whether it’s adverts for vicodine or Viagra, single Russian women looking for fun (and your sort code), appeals for money from the daughters of deposed Nigerian generals, or requests to update your details from a bank that you don’t have an account with, spam is all around us.

Metaphors of language

Exploring the way we think and talk about language

This project asks students to explore metaphors of the English language. If you need a quick refresher, it might be useful to revisit some of the introductory pages on metaphor here before completing the project work.

Metaphor is a highly pervasive feature of any language, not only reflecting the way that we understand the world, but constituting and shaping it. In linguistics, we use the X IS Y formula to indicate a metaphor - for example:

Multicultural London English

Ghetto speak?

Attitudes to some varieties of English can often be quite hostile, especially when regional, racial and cultural prejudices are part of the mix. A case in point is the development of what some linguists call Multicultural London English (or MLE), but what some journalists refer to as ‘Jafaican’.

Have a look at the article 'Word on the street in London' from the London Evening Standard to see what you make of the changing varieties of London English.

Prepared speech

Using corpora to investigate prepared speeches

One very simple approach to using corpora in English lessons is to pull apart a speech using the programme Wordle, which can be found here. Wordle creates simple but beautiful images made up of words in a text that you can input.

Tag questions and gender

Teacher notes

Goals

The conversational styles of men and women are a key area of study in the two major English Language A-level specifications. Students are encouraged to analyse examples of conversation, informed by their study of some of the major research into deficit, dominance, difference and social constructionist models.

Tag questions and gender: Project

Introduction

The following is an outline of a number of questions that could be asked while putting together an investigation into tag questions.

Read the extract by Robin Lakoff in Language and gender: an advanced resource book (J.Sunderland, Routledge, 2006) which is reproduced in the handout at the bottom of this page.

Vocabulary and semantic change

Words change meaning over time. Some terms that used to have one meaning fifty years ago have developed very different meanings now. Often, slang terms are among those quickest to change, and we can see this in examples such as sick, wicked and gay, all of which have undergone fairly substantial shifts in meaning over relatively short periods of time.

Word formation processes

New words are being generated at a rapid speed and there has been a huge upsurge in the number of new words being considered for inclusion in dictionaries. A fairly limited number of word formation processes are responsible for these new words. In our suggested mini-project, students look at a range of examples, and try to work out the key patterns of word formation that are responsible. This makes a good starting point for a detailed investigation of new words.

Project aims

Corpora

A corpus is ‘a collection of pieces of language, selected and ordered according to explicit linguistic criteria in order to be used as a sample of language’ (Sinclair, 1996).

Corpora: Useful web tools

The following are corpus-related websites which we think are helpful for investigating language.

Wordle

Wordle is a simple-to-use site that lets you paste in your own data and then creates an attractive ‘word cloud’ based on the frequency of the words you’ve used. You can use Wordle as a very simple corpus tool for something like a poem, a song lyric, a political speech or a soliloquy from a play and get a visual representation of the language within it. (See also the lesson entitled 'Word clouds in action', which uses Wordle as a way in to analysing a poem).

Double negatives

Since the 17th century, English grammarians have spoken out against constructions with double negatives. Before the 17th century, double negatives were considered perfectly acceptable in English, like in present-day Spanish, French and many other languages of the world. Even today we're often taught to avoid a double negative.

The idea is that we should try to avoid saying something like:

  • He didn't not get the prize.

This is because in logic, two nots cancel each other out. So the statement above would logically mean:

Grammar

We define grammar as the study of the structure of words and sentences. As such it is an abstract system, worthy of study in its own right. However, we also see grammar as a system that is used in a range of contexts to unlock meaning. We want to look at grammar not only in written language, but also in spoken English, in a range of multimodal forms, and in all its rich variety.

Grammar: What grammar isn't

One of the big misapprehensions about the word grammar is that it is all to do with getting things right or wrong. Grammar teaching in the past has often taken a prescriptive turn, and for many people of older generations the memory of grammar tests at school is often a painful one.

Register

We all use different forms of language in different situations. At the most extreme, you’ll probably know that in casual conversation with friends you will use very different language from that which you’d use at a job interview.

The kinds of differences will relate to vocabulary (the word choices you make) but also to grammar (the structures, the complexity, the patterns of words).

Spelling: Alternative spelling

Just like humour and humor, and centre and center, a number of other words vary in their British and American spellings. How different are British and American spelling and how should you choose which spelling to learn?

The number of spelling differences between British and American English amount to less than 1% of the overall vocabulary of contemporary English. It’s not something that we need to be terribly worried about, but it is always something that we must bear in mind.

Spoken language: Dialect and slang

[Amended from Dan Clayton's Teaching English Grammar in Schools blog]

The history of grammar teaching has often been associated with prescriptive models in which the "correction" of perceived faults in language has been paramount. While linguists are careful these days to talk about what is 'grammatical' or 'ungrammatical' and 'standard' or 'non-standard', rather than what is 'right' or 'wrong', there is still a tension at the heart of the teaching of English.

Tag questions

Questions like ...isn’t it?, ...haven’t they? and ...wouldn’t you? that sit on the end of a statement are called tag questions in linguistics. There’s a range of different tag questions most people call on, varying by verb, tense, person and whether the tag is positive or negative.

Tag questions: Innit

For some people, innit is just another tag question, a contraction of isn’t it. But kids in urban Britain are using innit to cover a wider and wider range of situations. Here are some examples of non-standard use, gleaned from recent messageboard postings:

English Grammar Day 2016

'Grammar is cool, and it is cool to know your grammar'.

A video about the Third English Grammar Day held at the British Library in 2016.

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