Posted by: Alastair Grant | August 15, 2011

To [X] or not to [X].

My Spanish bad. It really bad.

It so bad, that no waiter ever understands a thing I say when I in a restaurant here in Buenos Aires.

I think you get the message, to be or not to be. On Saturday night, my girlfriend was watching the above gem, and I suddenly thought, “why would this guy NOT be using the verb… “to be” here?” Ok ok, I’m not SO from north London that I haven’t heard this before, but can we miss out ALL verbs in the same way? Well, it doesn’t seem to work with other verbs… let’s see…

A: “What X you X this weekend?”

B: “I X to X my girlfriend, and then we X dinner in a Chinese resturant”

Apart from sounding just plain rude, the missing verbs seem very… missing. But check these babies out:

“When we all done” (“My Chic Bad” ft. Nicki Minaj by Ludacris)

“You talkin’ to me?” (Robert de Niro in “Taxi Driver”)

“Where you going tonight?” (

“She a bad girl” (“Bad Girl” by Rihanna)

All these seem to work just fine. Can you think of any other verbs that work in this way?

Great Alastair, well done. And your point is…? Bueno, ok. Last year, Scott Thornbury posted about the Third Conditional. It’s changing, it seems. At least, he came up with plenty of examples showing that it’s being used in a “wrong” way. And (mercifully) we don’t have an “academy” of English that says what is and isn’t allowed in the language so it’s fair game, really.

And how many times have your students said to you, “why in [X] song does he/she say [insert example of blatant flouting of grammar “rule” here]?”

Intrinsic motivation explains why students WANT to know about English songs, so then we get all this stuff that flies in the face of what we teach in class. And certainly, native speakers don’t use English in the way New English File says you should.

If a native speaker is using language like this, is it wrong? Do we just classify it as “interlanguage”? Hell no. It’s a different colloquial form on English, right?

So, if we’re exposing our students to different regional accents in listenings these days instead of RP, should we show them regional grammars too? Or should we ignore this until they find it out for themselves?

And yes, this IS what I do when I’m not reflecting on teaching… I’m reflecting on language. Or sleeping. Two of my colleagues last week told me to get a life. It’s a fair cop.


  1. OMG! (which is Oh My Grammar!) Being as much a student as a teacher Grammar is a big issue for me. The more you learn English the less grammar rules really work. What natives can easily do with the language leads students astray and even more teachers (who aren’t natives or natives who can say only ‘We just say it’). Then when it comes to students and they use the language from songs they are corrected and told off by their teachers or get angry looks from natives.

    • “The more you learn English the less grammar rules really work.”

      Interesting point Alexandra.

      I think this is the key issue here – I think it was Michael Lewis who talked about having to know the rules before you can break them… but when people grow up in a community with a different grammar… do THEY know these “rules”? Maybe not. And I don’t think that matters.

      Whenever I’ve taught the Proficiency level course, I always have to say “now, this isn’t ALWAYS true… it’s not really a rule, it’s a pattern”. Students understandably don’t like that as they’ve always learnt by rules…

      Perhaps telling the students off isn’t the way but asking them where they heard the language from is a good idea. And I’ve then had the question “why aren’t we learning that type of English then…?” Well, because you teach the English that is native to you.

      As the lingua franca of the world there are so many variations and there is, I think, no such thing as THE definitive form.

      Alexandra – what would you do if a student asked you why he/she can’t say, “my friend nice”?

      I’m not sure what I’d say…!

  2. You reminded me of myself asking my teacher of English “Miss, why does Joey in Friends say ‘How you doing?’ instead of ‘How are you doing’?” or “She’s got a ticket to ride but she don’t care”
    Whenever I teach a Grammar point which I know has “regional variations”, I mention them too. And my students usually provide lots of examples I hadn’t even considered.
    And yes, I have also been told to get a life 😦

  3. Thanks Stefi – and is “Joey English” wrong? I think not – although I don’t know if, with students at a basic level of English, I’d say “by the way, it’s also possible to leave out the verb too….”

    Do we have to learn the rules before we break them?

  4. I don’t know… but I like the idea of saying “Ok, this is the way language USUALLY works… it’s a pattern, not a rule”

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