As we have learned over the years, much of what we teach our students has little directly to do with the rules of grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. In addition to the cultural issues we have talked about here from time to time, we have also to contend with not only what we have to say, but how we say it. Of course, there are some completely incorrect expressions, such as the (unfortunately) widely used “the media” and “criteria” when used as singular nouns; politically correct clumsiness like “he or she” used whenever a personal pronoun is needed, or “him and I went.”

For a while, the term, “fuggedaboutit” was fairly common in colloquial life. Lifted from the television series The Sopranos, this way of telling someone to disregard what had previously been said became the preferred manner of expression. There were, and are, many others: 1. gotta – must do 2. wanna – desire to accomplish 3. don’t gotta wanna – do not need to desire the accomplishment of 4. like – an all-purpose mark of oral punctuation, used mostly by youngsters. Has nothing to do with approbation, or similarity 5. gonna – will do 6. lemme – allow me to 7. howcum? – why?

For some purposes, this sort of bad English is not a problem when our students are learning to read. The quotation marks these expressions should be enclosed by are clear signals that they are not standard English. Rather, it is when students—particularly ESL students—desire to become more fluent in the spoken language that they run into expressions that don’t qualify even as colloquialisms. All this of course means that we tutors must devote some time to explaining why a particular expression is used, and perhaps a clue to its genesis. Using that time is not a problem, rather it is an opportunity to explore the true richness of our language; but it does provide another opportunity for confusion, and to help students believe that there is a conspiracy against them.

Finally, at the risk of sounding didactic, I think that we need to tell our students that the talking heads they see on TV are not necessarily good users of language. Among the American broadcast media, I believe that misuse of language has the intent of showing that the talking heads are not elitists who place themselves above the common man. In the print media, on the other hand, technology (i.e. the spell checker) has to some extent replaced the thoughtful editor. We thus are confronted by the impeccably-spelled word that is entirely inappropriate for the use it is put to.

The bottom line (a truly useful colloquialism borrowed from bookkeeping) is that we tutors find ourselves paying attention to more than we want to and less than we need to.

~~ Phil Fultz, Chairman