Slang and fillers not allowed

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From Jerry Friedman:

A secondary school in London banned various slang and "filler" expressions in formal contexts.  Linguists consulted by the Guardian don't think it's a good idea (though I wonder whether all the people consulted were linguists).

"Oh my days: linguists lament slang ban in London school:  Exclusive: ‘like’, ‘bare’, ‘that’s long’ and ‘cut eyes at me’ among terms showing up in pupils’ work now vetoed in classroom", by Robert Booth, The Guardian (9/30/21)

Here's a list of the forbidden expressions:

Banned words and phrases at Ark All Saints academy

Fillers

The following words must not be used at the beginning of sentences:

    • Ermmm …

    • Because …

    • No …

    • Like …

    • Say …

    • You see …

    • You know …

    • Basically …

Slang and Idioms

These expressions must not be used.

    • He cut his eyes at me (he shot me a withering sidelong glance)

    • Oh my days (my goodness)

    • Oh my God

    • That’s a neck (you need a slap for that)

    • Wow

    • That’s long (that’s boring, tough or tedious)

    • Bare (very, extremely)

    • Cuss (swear or abuse)

I'm familiar with fewer than half of the items under "Slang and Idioms".  For example, I had no clue about:

“he cut his eyes at me”, which the Collins dictionary says originates in the Caribbean and means to look rudely at a person and then turn away sharply while closing one’s eyes dismissively.

In defense of the Ark All Saints academy administration, the list "is intended to steer the language used in formal learning situations and exams rather than in the playground…."  The linguists quoted in the article, however, are overwhelmingly opposed to limiting such expressions even in the students' written work.

 

Selected readings



71 Comments »

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 5:52 am

    Hallelujah. Finally a return to common sense, a time when teachers taught their pupils to write properly rather than merely tolerated whatever the latter saw fit to write and linguistics saw fit to condone.

  2. AG said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 6:13 am

    With respect, Philip, I'd like to add my opinion that *good* teaching would be to notice students' use of a non-formal term, and then guide them to familiarity with a range of more formal alternative in their next draft. *Terrible* teaching would be to issue a list of prohibitions.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 6:23 am

    I think that proscriptions have their place, AG, but in general I tend to agree with you. And of course I meant to write "and linguists saw fit to condone" rather than as typed.

  4. B Smith said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 6:32 am

    I had a language teacher who allowed the use of any expression as long as it was in the language being taught. Also, I question the prohibition of phrases whilst allowing the action it describes. This surely gets a cut eye from me and a simultaneous "suck teeth" as well.

  5. N said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 6:40 am

    I am 37 years old and if I had to remember a list of words I couldn't start a sentence with, especially if some of the forbidden were unremarkable in that position in my native dialect, I wouldn't be able to speak at all. I'd need to carry a checklist with me and consult it before every sentence.

  6. Ying-ko said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 7:38 am

    It reminds me of an old joke where a boss tells his secretary: “There are two words that won’t be tolerated in this office. One of them is lousy, the other is swell.”

    “That’s good. Now, what are the two words?”

  7. Mike Grubb said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 8:19 am

    So they consider starting a sentence with the causal conjunction "because" to be "filler"? Does this just go back to the bugaboo about having a fronted subordinate clause without an independent one or is there some other rationale I'm not familiar with? If "because" is prohibited, why not "since"?

  8. A teacher and language lover said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 8:21 am

    I used to be a prescriptivist, feeling it my self-proclaimed duty to "safeguard" the English language from "poor" usage. But what was I safeguarding? Language is something I teach professionally, but if one believes he/she needs to "protect" it somehow, then that person is living a lie. Language changes. It was changing long before I showed up in the world and it will change long after I am gone. What is "correct" now will be linguistic dust/antiquated tomorrow. I'm not telling the sticklers what to do; if they want to cuff themselves to the only ship they've known on the sea, that's their business. They will ultimately perish with it and forego the opportunity to transfer ships along the way.
    Nothing lasts. Have we not figured that out yet. The nature of life, as Carson put it, is not permanence, but flux.

  9. Bloix said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 9:15 am

    What’s going on here is more than peeving. The school is acknowledging and teaching that students must be able to use language for different functions. The issue is not merely using different registers or being able to code-switch, although clearly the school is trying to address those concerns as well.

    But by promulgating disorganized lists without explanation, the school is doing a poor job of addressing an important problem. I expect that many students (and their community) will react by thinking that the motivating principle here is simple race prejudice, and that’s a shame.

    Here’s what I see as the problem: young people usually experience language among people who have a broad shared base of information, including knowledge, values, and assumptions, and who are speaking to one another because they want to. In communicating within this group, it’s not necessary to be either concise or precise – the listener can infer what’s intended from a fairly small amount of linguistic data (coupled with non-linguistic signaling, such as tone, gesture, facial expression, volume) embedded in a larger stream of material that serves communicative purposes that are not strictly information-sharing, but are intended to express emotional or relational meanings such as solidarity, affection, disrespect, contempt, enthusiasm, boredom, delight, exasperation, and the like. Speech used for this kind of communication is spontaneous, rapid, and unconsidered, includes a great deal of self-interruption, self-correction, and filler, and often has aspects of performance, role-play, irony, and considerable humor.

    But there’s a very different kind of speech among people who are communicating not because they want to, but because they are in a situation – social, educational, work – that requires them to. In these situations, there may be little in the way of shared values and assumptions, and little or no patience with anything other than the clear and precise conveying of information. Think of a student answering an exam question, or an engineer explaining the cause of an accident to a lawyer.

    This kind of communication must be clear, accurate, and concise. It requires quick but careful consideration of what is to be said before the utterance begins. It must avoid self-contradiction and correction to avoid confusion, and it must be brief because the listener’s time is valuable. It needs to avoid irony and humor because the listener seeks precision and certainty and is not interested in entertaining distractions.

    For many people, it’s hard to speak and write like this. Some people pick it up by observation or by having parents who demand it, but others never do learn it. This school has done a poor job of conceptualizing what it’s trying to do and, apparently, it’s making no effort to explain to the students why they should want to learn to use language like this.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 9:53 am

    AG and Bloix: As far as I can see, the article says nothing about how teachers presented the list to the students—whether they discussed the reasons for the ban, alternatives to the banned locutions, or how they want the students to think of the ban (for instance, "Never say these things again in your life" or "This will help you learn not to rely on slang, but once you've learned that, you'll be able to decide when an occasional slang expression might be appropriate even in a formal context"). I'd rather the article had discussed that instead of, say, T-shirts bearing a phrase used by a soccer player.

    The article also doesn't say what contexts the students are using the phrases in. Are they banned from saying "Oh my God" and "Oh my days" when something surprising or upsetting happens in class, or to describe a surprising color change in a chemistry lab or an upsetting event in a novel they're reading?

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 10:34 am

    “You don’t want to make them feel they have to reject the cultural aspects of their own language,” said Dr Natalie Sharpling, who teaches applied linguistics at Warwick University. “We should celebrate the different ways language is being used and concentrate on the content of what is being said.”

    Sharpling said she had observed an increasing trend in schools to police language and said “it would be a shame if it becomes a case of if you want to be successful, this is the way you have to speak”.

    I agree with others above that schools should be teaching clear and appropriate communication as well as correct content, whether or not this school is teaching those things well.

    In Sharpling's last sentence, I wonder whether "becomes" is the right word. At the very least, the article mentions requirements for formal language in examinations and job applications.

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 12:40 pm

    @Ying-ko: The "swell/lousy" joke memorably appeared in the 1952 I Love Lucy episode "Lucy Hires an English Tutor."

    But the joke had been circulating long before that. Here it is in the April 1943 issue of The Rotarian.

  13. SlideSF said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 1:05 pm

    Instead of saying " He cut his eyes at me" one should always use "He gave me the stink-eye."

  14. AntC said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 3:14 pm

    "He …"? We're allowed to use gender-presumptive pronouns?

    Presumably "They looked daggers" is also to be banned? We'd better ban all metaphors just in case.

    originates in the Caribbean

    I hadn't heard the usage before either, but I'll adopt it henceforth — seems wonderfully expressive. This ban is just thinly-veiled racism, isn't it?

    Caribbean English has been part of London (and other big cities in Britain) since forever. Well I remember Linton Kwesi Johnson's poetry slams.

  15. JPL said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 3:44 pm

    The complex stylized gestural performance called "koht yai" ("cut-eye") (with "oh" standing in for the low mid back vowel, or "open o") of course originates in African cultures, specifically West African, and is a wonderful example of performance art in everyday discourse, although it doesn't happen that often, but reference to it definitely should not be proscribed, because there is no other English equivalent for the term or counterpart to the practice in English culture. ("He cut his eyes at me" is quite OK). It is most often delivered by girls rather than boys, and schoolgirls more than grown women. Although it can be done while directly facing the person, it is typically done while looking askance (thus distinguished from "kohna yai" ("corner-eye")), and involves repeated up and down movement of the head, as if looking the person from head to toe, while rapidly closing and flashing the eyes (a more forceful movement than mere blinking) and pursing the lips. It indicates generally to the person at whom it is directed that a grievous wrong has been done to the performer by the addressee, and will require some repair or reconciliation. My description doesn't do it justice, but the Collins description seems to conflate it with "kohna yai". The question of the semantic import of the performance is very interesting, and my brief description above is far from adequate. So "cut eyes" is not slang, but a borrowing from the Atlantic creole languages, and is necessary because the cultural practice it comes with is not found in the host culture. I would guess that it is also being picked up by the white girls in these English schools, and that is what typically happens.

    A side note: I've noticed that the PBS mystery set in the Caribbean called "Death in Paradise" often includes instances of "sohk tit" ("suck teeth"), which are always very humorous. I've never seen this anywhere else on the TV, or in movies for that matter. The local characters often have creolisms in their speech. I commend the writers for including these things.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 4:05 pm

    @JPL

    A masterful description of a gesture that I needed to learn about. Thank you.

    Reminds me somewhat of this, though with a different implication (watch the woman in blue cutting an eye at the woman in red, then end with a magnificent flourish of an eye-roll):

    "Epic eye-roll" (3/15/18)

    "Victor Mair: Eye-roll of the century"

    jichang lulu (3/20/18)

    That exquisite moment went viral and spawned countless memes, as here, but mixed in with other examples of eye-rolling.

  17. JPL said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 6:51 pm

    There's a bit of "koht yai" (not quite a full performance) in this music video from Nigerian vocalist Yemi Alade. Note the woman in orange serving her boyfriend and looking at her co-worker who had the audacity to question why this customer was getting such a big piece of fish: at 2:23 and 2:27. It's a very funny video.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr6DKUylvCk

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 7:36 pm

    I should give a second-order hat-tip to Tony Cooper, who brought this article up at alt.usage.english.

    AntC: This ban is just thinly-veiled racism, isn't it?

    Again I'd say it depends on the contexts that the teachers are hearing "cut one's eyes" in. If it's a straightforward description of what JPL is talking about, I don't see a valid objection. But why would students mention that so often "in formal learning situations and exams" that anyone would want to ban it? On the other hand, if a lot of students are using the phrase as their standard way to talk about resentment or reproof or whatever, I'd say the teachers would be right to encourage them to add other expressions to their repertoire. But is it really likely that they're using the phrase that way?

    I'm suggesting that we don't really know enough about what's going on at the school to judge these matters.

    On the history of "cut one's eyes", the OED says

    P2. g. Chiefly U.S. colloquial and regional (southern). to cut one's eyes (also eye) (at a person): to cast a glance or glances (at a person), esp. furtively or coldly; to catch (a person's) glance; (Caribbean) to glance at (a person), catching the eye, and then deliberately turn away, as an insult. Also †to cut eyes.

    1803 Boston Weekly Mag. 22 Oct. 211/2 The girls kept cutting their eyes at me—that was'nt more than I expected—I liked that—but whispering I do detest.

    1827 L. Dow Jrnl. (1850) 177/2 Went to New York, took steamboat to New Brunswick thence stage No. 7, strangers crossed words and cut eyes.

    1837 Southern Literary Messenger 3 233 ‘Why, we thought about here’ said he ‘that you were cutting your eye at Miss Gatty.’

    1885 ‘C. E. Craddock’ Prophet Great Smoky Mountains xv. 288 Ter see him cut his blazin' eye aroun' at ye, ye'd low ez he'd never hearn o' grace.

    1938 M. K. Rawlings Yearling xi. 102 Look at him cut his eyes.

    1961 F. G. Cassidy Jamaica Talk vii. 137 A cut-eye is the action of ‘cutting’ the eye at someone by way of insult—that is, catching the person's eye, then deliberately turning one's own away.

    2006 P. Williams-Forson Building Houses out of Chicken Legs i. v. 148 I have been witness to black women in church kitchens cutting their eyes at one another or arguing about whether or not a dish should be cooked a certain way.

    2007 A. Theroux Laura Warholic xlvii. 786 She cut her eyes at Jeff coldly now, making the narrow slits watchful.

  19. AntC said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 7:58 pm

    From the Guardian article

    They include avoiding the use of “colloquialisms” such as “like” and “so” in academic speech and writing. The instructions encourage the use of “furthermore”, “consequently” and “in conclusion” to link sentences and clarify meaning.

    "So" is over-informal? Whereas those five-shilling words 'clarify meaning'? This is the worst sort of prescriptivism my English teacher indulged in 50 years ago — although the Chemistry teacher was worse, and ignorant of English as a language, as I discovered only later. I'd be criticising that style for using polysyllabic Latinisms where 'also', 'so', 'then' are perfectly clear.

    Doubtless they'd also be down on Shakespeare for his florid metaphors.

  20. Anthony said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 10:12 pm

    I wonder how people will say "no man is an island."

  21. RfP said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 12:15 am

    No one is an island.

    Innit?

  22. Rachael Churchill said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 3:15 am

    RfP, this list isn't about gendered language, it's about (among other things) starting sentences with "no", so it would equally forbid both your and Anthony's perfectly grammatical sentences.

    Similarly, I assume the prohibition on "because" is intended to prevent sentence fragments like "Because there was no catalyst" being given in written answers, but it inadvertently also forbids the perfectly grammatical "Because there was no catalyst, the reaction did not proceed."

  23. maidhc said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 3:31 am

    One of my wife's students started an essay "In today's iffy and fugacious world …"

    "iffy" is, shall we say, an informal word.
    "fugacious" is a word that 99% of native English speakers would have to look up in the dictionary. It betokens a guilty familiarity with the thesaurus.

    It is not incorrect, but it is poor writing. There is not a consistency of tone. An important thing about writing is to write for your audience.

    The resort to the thesaurus is something I associate with sportswriters, who have to reiterate the same ideas day after day, so can be forgiven for their "He propelled the spheroid up the sward". But it is not something to emulate in other fields.

    This is setting aside the banality of the concept of the opening, which is a different point.

    My wife taught technical writing to graduate students, so it's a bit different than what we're talking about, but not that much, I think. At any level, students need to learn how to set a tone, how to decide who their audience is.

    I would think that young students should be introduced to different kinds of writing and what their characteristics are. There are some fine Caribbean poets, and some fine English poets, and some essayists, and some journalists, and so on. But I have no credentials in teaching English, so what do I know?

    Making lists of things and saying DO NOT DO THIS might actually be OK It all depends on the context and how it is presented..

    For example, telling Indian English speakers DO NOT SAY "according to me". For anyone who is not an Indian English speaker, hearing a presenter say "according to me" will cause a violent negative reaction that will result in the hearer completely disregarding anything further that the presenter has to say. That is something that is worth knowing.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 6:11 am

    @maidhc

    "according to me"

    Good point.

    Yet we can say "in my view", though it's not an expression I would normally use.

    My wife was so anti-egoistic that she would go to great lengths and all sorts of contortions to avoid beginning a sentence with "I". She shunned expressions like "I think", "I feel", "in my opinion". She also didn't like to say "thank you" or "I'm sorry", and she didn't like other people to say those things to her.

  25. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 8:44 am

    @maidhc

    I don't think "In today's iffy and fugacious world" is poor writing at all. I think it's very good writing, and the inconsistency of tone, the playful contrast between registers and sounds, is what's good about it. The student probably got there by accident, by blindly plugging in synonyms for "uncertain" and "ever-changing." And I know that technical writing is not the right context for this sort of thing. But someone with the word sense to write like that on purpose ought to be encouraged, not told it's bad and wrong.

    Sportswriters in the US haven't said things like "propelled the spheroid up the sward" since the heyday of Grantland Rice. They actually use a limited vocabulary of stock words and phrases, passed down through the generations. They can sound odd and stilted, but a writer who says things like "amassed 200 yards in rushing" or "surrendered a lone field goal" or "willed his team too victory" isn't resorting to the thesaurus. It's just sportswriter language, and it's so pervasive that even the athletes, when talking to writers or TV announcers, will use the same phrases.

    @Victor Mair

    It's strange (or I should say "I think it's strange") that "I think" and "I feel" should be seen as egoistic, when the intent is so often the opposite: they're meant to be self-effacing, not self-assertive. Is it that your wife feels it's understood that what she says is only her opinion, and referring to herself means drawing unnecessary attention to the person who said it?

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 8:48 am

    "This insignificant person" and other self-deprecating ways of avoiding saying "I" are well attested in the works of Ernest Bramah and other authors writing Chinese historical fiction in a similar vein, but I have never before heard of anyone not liking others to say "thank you", "I'm sorry", or similar. Are you able to shed any light on why your late wife found such expressions of gratitude, sympathy, apology, etc., so disconcerting ?

  27. Victor Mair said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 8:57 am

    @Morton Jonsson

    Good questions and observations.

    My wife had an almost pathological aversion to the pronoun "I / Wǒ 我", and she really didn't like to ascribe opinions to herself. Her modus vivendi et operandi was to describe things and act upon them decisively. She was not a reflective person. She was a doer without much of a point of view.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 9:45 am

    @Philip Taylor

    Li-ching would get very angry if my son would say "I'm sorry" to her. She would rail at him:

    1. You shouldn't have done it in the first place!

    2. Don't do something like that next time!

    As for saying "thank you" and such, she thought it was insincere and cheap to express gratitude in mere words. Better to demonstrate it through action (see my previous comment).

    See Mary S. Erbaugh: "China expands its courtesy: Saying 'Hello' to Strangers," The Journal of Asian Studies, 67.2 (May, 2008),621-652.

    Here is the abstract:

    Courtesy reveals fundamental judgments about who merits respect. Traditional Chinese courtesy rests on lifelong hierarchical bonds that are too clear to require constant verbal reinforcement. But strangers, women, peasants, migrant workers, and others often do not merit face work because they lack status, fall outside the network of insiders, or are politically taboo. Until very recently, European-style equivalents of “hello,” “please,” “thanks,” “sorry,” or “goodbye” existed only in impersonal-sounding translations restricted to brief contacts with foreigners. As Beijing steps back from the socialist revolution, it is promoting these “five courteous phrases” (ni hao, qing, dui bu qi, xiexie, zai jian) to expand courtesy to universal, reciprocal greetings. Popular acceptance of this “verbal hygiene” is spreading via rapid, urban service encounters in which one's connections are unknown. In this way, China's self-identity as an “advanced civilization” is being retooled in international terms.

    Cf. "'Have a good day!' in Mandarin" (9/5/12)

    ——

    Li-ching was very, very old fashioned and traditional in the Chinese way. She lived in America for half a century, but never, ever came close to coming to terms with Western mores.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 10:10 am

    Thank you, Victor — a very interesting and informative reply.

  30. Bloix said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    “You don’t want to make them feel they have to reject the cultural aspects of their own language,” said Dr Natalie Sharpling, who teaches applied linguistics at Warwick University. “We should celebrate the different ways language is being used and concentrate on the content of what is being said.”

    Sharpling said she had observed an increasing trend in schools to police language and said “it would be a shame if it becomes a case of if you want to be successful, this is the way you have to speak”.

    In other words, it would be a shame to teach students to speak the way I speak in order for them to be successful like me.

    I find this sort of argument – and the jargon that goes with it, such as "policing" in place of "instruction" – to be a grossly patronizing form of bad faith.

    Sharpling has been taught to speak concisely and pointedly. She has learned to use standard grammar and a professional vocabulary. Her language skills demonstrate her status as an academic and an expert. She uses these skills to advocate that school children not be taught them.

  31. Dick Enzyan said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 11:16 am

    Bloix ( in his/her two contributions) explores most of the issues well. There is a formal style (or register) in English and pupils should learn to write in it.
    Mind you, if a fourteen-year-old presented me with a discursive essay in which “like” was used to begin a sentence, or something was described as “a bare chill”, I would think they were just being provocative. The wise teacher has often, however, to be careful when responding to teenagers’ written work. For the substance, one response; for the style something different.

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 11:24 am

    “You don’t want to make them feel they have to reject the cultural aspects of their own language” — of course one doesn't, when they use those cultural aspects at the right place and the right time (e.g., while chatting to their fellow Carribean friends in the playground, or whatever). But if schools lead them to believe that they are going to enhance the probability of securing a senior position within (say) Coutt's Bank by using those cultural aspects during an interview, then the schools are doing them a massive disservice. Society is, as a whole, conservative (with a small 'c') in its outlook, and institutions in general prefer their staff to dress conventionally (Dominic Cummings being a notable exception), speak conventionally and so on; school pupils needs to be made aware of this if they are going to seek to gain admittance to such institutions.

  33. RfP said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 11:45 am

    @ Rachael Churchill:

    Thank you! Sometimes my reflexes get ahead of me…

  34. RfP said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 12:02 pm

    @ maidhc

    I agree with Morten about “iffy and fugacious.” Maybe this person is a budding Thurber!

    I’m a technical writer myself, and I’m constantly working on how to improve the quality of my colleagues’ writing. If I saw someone using a phrase like this, I would say to myself:

    “Wow, how wonderful that this writer has an imagination, and a certain degree of skill and talent! Now I just need to explain to them why this kind of tone is out of whack with our brand voice—and I bet they’ll have a good chance of really getting it!”

    In that context, the tools of the trade—the thesauri, the dictionaries, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, even—should not be discarded so cavalierly.

    I was just reading James McPhee’s book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, which was originally published as a series of articles in The New Yorker. In the eponymous chapter, he states:

    “The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.”

    In other words, use the tools, but think about how you’re using them.

    After all, if thesauri are outlawed… Oh, sorry, wrong thread!

  35. Bloix said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 1:38 pm

    "Maybe this person is a budding Thurber!"
    Yes, or SJ Perelman, or Woody Allen. This is very much a classic New Yorker kind of humor. And the joke is the inappropriate juxtaposition of words that sound in different registers, which unintentionally reveals something about the speaker – depending on context it could be pomposity, or innocent cluelessness, or duplicity. When used without humorous intent by young writer or an autodidact, this sort of writing undercuts the reader's confidence in the writer's expertise. Not a desirable result.

  36. RfP said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 3:09 pm

    P.S. For some reason the (book and) website https://accidentallywesanderson.com comes to mind…

  37. RfP said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 3:16 pm

    @ Bloix: “When used without humorous intent by young writer or an autodidact, this sort of writing undercuts the reader's confidence in the writer's expertise.”

    Precisely.

    And my first flippant desire was to comment along the lines of “Budding Thurber or cluelessly tone deaf—you decide!”

    But the context is a student essay. And the task is to train this student based on their own unique qualities.

    Part of the reason I’m commenting on this at all is that I am in the middle of creating more formal instructional materials for my colleagues. And I am racking my brains about how to overcome the knee-jerk sterility that passes for “best practices” in so much of my industry (that is, the tech writer biz).

    For deep-seated reasons that infect most business and professional writing (as has been fruitfully examined by authors as varied as Steven Pinker and Richard A. Lanham), much of the writing that professes to explain technology suffers from its own inability to take stock of how writing itself—language, that is—is a technology in its own right. As a result, the reader suffers.

    Because good writing requires a lot more than a style guide, or easy access to The Chicago Manual, or a list of dos and don’ts. You have to examine the interplay between syntax and diction and tone and register—among other things. You also have to think deeply about your audience, including a realistic assessment of what they already know, and what they can’t be expected to understand.

    If I had a student who coined this phrase, I wouldn’t just laugh them out of court, as it were. I would ask them to seriously examine what their intent was in producing it, in the context of questions of tone and register and audience expectation.

    And they might just learn something. Something important. Something that lurks, even as we speak, within the vast blind spot of my industry.

    P.S. For some reason the (book and) website https://accidentallywesanderson.com comes to mind…

  38. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 3:55 pm

    Were I a student at this school, I could have loads of fun with that list of word prohibited from the beginning of sentences. It is trivially easy, for example, to find sentences in the King James Bible that begin with 'Because.' Most of the rest of the list would be equally easy to mock this way.

  39. David Marjanović said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 4:28 pm

    Her language skills demonstrate her status as an academic and an expert.

    I'd rather say the content of her publications demonstrates her status as an academic and an expert. Language skills are neither sufficient for that, nor are they strictly necessary (few journals bother with the expense of copyediting these days, so lots of brilliant papers are published in very obviously nonnative English which can be downright hard to understand), desirable though they may be.

  40. JPL said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 6:14 pm

    WRT the expression "cut-eye", and noticing again the Collins Dictionary definition in the OP, it occurs to me now that they must be talking about a different conventional gesture than what I was talking about. The gesture I described and which is exemplified in the video, called "koht yai" (cut eye) in Sierra Leone Krio, not only is different in its physical description, but in the pragmatics as well. The West African gesture I described does not, I would say, carry with it mainly an intention to insult or be rude; the word I would suggest as more accurately describing the pragmatic intent and effect of the gesture as a "speech act" is "rebuke". (You can see in the video the reaction of the target of the look is like, "Sorry!" and "Never mind".) I notice that the Collins def (and the OED's) is similar to the quotation from F.G. Cassidy. Frederick Cassidy was a prominent creolist and was I think born in Jamaica, so he must be talking about something real. The expression "cut-eye" seems to be used for different gestural performances; the one I was describing is in its full performance much more elaborate and even ritualized, and holds much linguistic interest. I don't know which of the possible gestures the British schoolchildren are calling "cut-eye". (Although I think the West African "koht yai" could, for example, in the school context, plausibly be directed at someone who was attempting to bother or bully the "speaker". (And it is a gesture that is definitely "directed at", not in the sense of daggers or arrows, but in the sense that the addressee who is to take note is clearly indicated.))

  41. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 8:10 pm

    JPL: Thanks, I was wondering about the different definitions.

  42. Philip Taylor said,

    October 9, 2021 @ 5:24 am

    Richard H — "Were I a student at this school, I could have loads of fun with that list of word prohibited from the beginning of sentences". Indeed you could. Or you could ask, and attempt to learn, when such words may legitimately start a sentence and when they may not. Which do you think would stand you in better stead in later life ?

  43. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 9, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    @ Philip Taylor: Oh, even when I was in high school I would have understood the distinction. But that distinction is quite explicitly not being taught. These words "must not be used at the beginning of sentences". Such foolishness deserves nothing but mockery.

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    October 9, 2021 @ 8:25 am

    But is it, Richard ("quite explicitly not being taught", that is) ? What we have is a second-hand account from a national newspaper with a quite marked agenda. What we need, before we are in a position to start passing judgement, is a first-hand account from those at the school responsible for setting this policy. I include a number of retired and current schoolteachers amongst my friends, and all are in favour of education of this sort, where an attempt is made to guide pupils into using language appropriate to context. Those who are retired deplore the modern tendency to accept errors in punctuation, spelling, register, etc., and judge (if at all) only the content; those who are still teaching understand why content is nowadays judged more important than form, but still believe that they must be allowed to correct errors (as listed above) if they are to make a real contribution to a child's education and development.

  45. RfP said,

    October 9, 2021 @ 2:12 pm

    I can’t resist one more comment, in this case, an admittedly lengthy quote from Clear and Simple as the Truth, by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner.

    This book is invaluable.

    “The teaching of writing in America is almost entirely controlled by the view that teaching writing is teaching verbal skills—from the placing of commas to the ordering of paragraphs. This has generated a tremendous industry, but the effect of this teaching is dubious. Why is American prose as bad as it is, even though we have more writing programs than ever?

    Our answer is that writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and that skills visibly mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them. In this way, writing is like conversation—both are linguistic activities, and so require verbal skills, but neither can be mastered just by learning verbal skills. A bad conversationalist may have a very high level of verbal skills but perform poorly because he does not conceive of conversation as distinct from monologue. No further cultivation of verbal skills will remedy his problem. Conversely, a very good conversationalist may have inferior verbal skills, but a firm grasp on concepts such as reciprocity and turn-taking that lie at the heart of the activity. Neither conversation nor writing can be learned merely by acquiring verbal skills, and any attempt to teach writing by teaching writing skills detached from underlying conceptual issues is doomed.”

  46. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 10, 2021 @ 2:28 am

    In my limited experience, lessons in formal language usage do not try to explain code-switching and are very prescriptive. When I was a substitute teacher in Kentucky for a few years in the 1990s, one of the lessons I had to teach to several sections one day involved formal language. As I think I have recounted before here, the students were indignant that words that were part of their working vocabularies were “wrong.”

    One example in the textbook involved saying a pipe was broken instead of “busted.” One boy leaned forward indignantly and said, “But if a pipe is busted, it’s BUSTED!”

    Fortunately, I could explain to the students about using different language in different contexts. The teacher’s manual for that textbook, however, did not give any advice about explaining code switching, but went full bore ahead with prescriptivism. The nationally known educators who wrote that textbook (no linguists involved) apparently had no idea how deeply patronizing that lesson was, nor how inadequate the teacher’s manual was.

    Academia’s habit of siloing English, linguistics, and education separately has contributed to mediocrity in textbooks and the classroom. As a substitute without a degree in the field of education, there were a number of areas I found inadequate in the textbooks the district was using.

  47. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 10, 2021 @ 7:00 am

    @ Philip Taylor: It is a fair point that news reports lose detail. It is possible that the school is in reality teaching a nuanced understanding of code switching between formal and informal English, and when a construction such as beginning a sentence with "Because" is suitable in formal English and when it is not. I very much doubt it, based on my experience with how language typically is taught. Putting out a stupid list of prohibitions would be far more typical. But it is possible. We do not, however, and contra your claim, have any evidence for this.

    I see also that you are taking the stance that the story appeared in The Guardian, so it doesn't count. A bit of googling will show that similar stories appeared in a wide range of papers, including the Daily Mail.

  48. Philip Taylor said,

    October 10, 2021 @ 10:21 am

    Richard — I made no claim, other than that "what we need, before we are in a position to start passing judgement, is a first-hand account from those at the school responsible for setting this policy". I cannot see that your most recent comment is "contra" that.

    As to the Guardian, it is (almost) my sole source of UK news, other than BBC radio when I catch a news broadcast. But despite being a Guardian reader, I am not so stupid as to fail to identify its only too obvious agenda. Thus I assume that while it publishes facts, it nonetheless frequently (tho' not invariably) puts a slant ("spin") on them.

  49. Rodger C said,

    October 10, 2021 @ 10:47 am

    Because dependent clauses can appear in first position, this rule is nonsensical.

  50. RfP said,

    October 10, 2021 @ 11:40 am

    @ Barbara Philips Long

    It seems to me that the textbook authors were treating this type of “instruction” as a discrete set of skills, when they should have been training people in intellectual activity, as discussed in Clear and Simple as the Truth, by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner:

    “The teaching of writing in America is almost entirely controlled by the view that teaching writing is teaching verbal skills—from the placing of commas to the ordering of paragraphs. This has generated a tremendous industry, but the effect of this teaching is dubious. Why is American prose as bad as it is, even though we have more writing programs than ever?

    Our answer is that writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and that skills visibly mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them. In this way, writing is like conversation—both are linguistic activities, and so require verbal skills, but neither can be mastered just by learning verbal skills. A bad conversationalist may have a very high level of verbal skills but perform poorly because he does not conceive of conversation as distinct from monologue. No further cultivation of verbal skills will remedy his problem. Conversely, a very good conversationalist may have inferior verbal skills, but a firm grasp on concepts such as reciprocity and turn-taking that lie at the heart of the activity. Neither conversation nor writing can be learned merely by acquiring verbal skills, and any attempt to teach writing by teaching writing skills detached from underlying conceptual issues is doomed.”

  51. legatrix said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 12:16 am

    Hate to wade into the whole racism thing, but: I guarantee you no teacher at that school is racist, or if they are, it would never come to light or affect grades, etc. This is yet another example of the gulf between theory and practice. The professor at Warwick can make her pronouncements from on high about 'preserving culture' or whatever. Meanwhile, teachers marking essays have to deal with reading 'bare' and 'cuss' fifty times a week, writing 'slang!' or similar in red pen every single time. The teachers, with the best interests of the pupils at hearr, patiently explain, every single time, with goodwill and a forced smile, that it's not really appropriate. Meanwhile op-eds and university professors slam them for racism. Plus ça change…

  52. Andrew Usher said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 7:32 am

    Certainly I agree with Philip Taylor that news stories like this need to be taken with a grain of salt. Even if they have no bias (as they surely do here) for or against the matter being discussed, they always have one toward making it a good story, though that usually means over-simplifying it.

    Here, though, I think it's safe to assume that this list is genuine and was written to be taken literally. But whoever wrote it (probably an administrator) didn't put a lot of though into it by our standards, and is that surprising? They're not linguists, and they're not going to get into the level of nuance that a linguist would. But surely the list is not going to be enforced literally when it would lead to absurd results. The purpose of it isn't going to be lost on the teachers.

    Look, part of being educated is learning to use the language that educated people use – that sounds circular, but it really isn't. If students can learns that on their own, great, but if they can't, it's the school's job to get them to.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  53. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    The school says it's only trying to teach students what kind of language is appropriate in formal writing. And quite a few commenters here seem to be taking that at face value. But if so, why are there so many expressions on the list that are unlikely to appear in student writing? The school says they do appear, but I don't believe them. No one would begin a sentence in a paper with "Ermmm." No one would say "That's a neck" or "He cut his eyes at me" in an essay on Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge." This is a list of verbal expressions that teachers find irritating, and claiming the school only wants to keep them out papers is pure, obvious disingenuousness.

  54. Philip Taylor said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 10:18 am

    Morten, whilst I agree with you that even the most disruptive pupil is unlikely to be able to successfully infiltrate "he cut his eyes at me" into an essay on Wordworth's Composed upon Westminster Bridge, I think that the same pupil would have no difficulty whatsoever in using it in an essay on "How I spent my summer holidays". And the latter is far more likely to appear as a subject for an essay than the former, I would suggest.

  55. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 11:46 am

    "How I Spent My Summer Holidays" is not a formal subject. It's one where the student's natural voice, not a book voice, would be perfectly appropriate. Or would "He cut his eyes at me" be improved by changing it to something like "He cast me a sidelong contemptuous glance"?

    I gather your point with that example is that students today don't read anything, don't know anything, can't be given any challenging assignments, have no ambition to improve themselves as they did back in the day, etc. I don't share your cultural politics.

  56. Philip Taylor said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 12:23 pm

    My point, Morten, is nowhere as complex as you suggest. It is, quite simply, that a schoolteacher is far more likely to ask pupils to describe how they spent their summer holidays that he or she is to ask them to analyse a piece of classical poetry. The real world, not an fictional one in which those who would include "he cut his eyes at me" in their idiolect would also be likely to be studying the poems of William Wordsworth.

    And of course, yes, most certainly "he cut his eyes at me" would be improved by changing it to something like "He cast me a sidelong contemptuous glance", since the latter is accessible to all while the former is meaningful only to a tiny minority. I would, however, re-write your improved version as "He cast a sidelong contemptuous glance at me", which I think reads more naturally — "he cast a …" is very much more widely attested than "he cast me …" (see Google ngrams).

  57. Doug said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 5:28 pm

    "Morten Jonsson said,

    The school says it's only trying to teach students what kind of language is appropriate in formal writing."

    No, they didn't say it was limited to writing. The principal referred to "The development of reading and speaking skills"

    Having a student give a presentation or speech to the class would be a non-written "formal learning situation."

  58. Doug said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 5:35 pm

    I broke one of their rules by starting a sentence with "no" — and it would have been better if I hadn't. I may have come across as "unnecessarily rude and strident" as they put it.

  59. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

    Morton Jonsson: No one would begin a sentence in a paper with "Ermmm." No one would say "That's a neck" or "He cut his eyes at me" in an essay on Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge."

    I can very easily imagine this:

    Question (I mean "Prompt"): Wordsworth has been called a great nature poet. Would you agree that "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" shows his preference for nature over the products of industrial civilisation?

    Answer: Ermmm *cuts eyes* no? It obviously shows [etc.]

    I don't know that the teachers see quiz answers like that, but I don't know that they don't. Maybe they're writing "Ermmm", maybe they're saying it in presentations, maybe they're only saying it in classroom discussions. I'd have different reactions to the ban depending on which of those apply. The reporter could easily have asked the teachers for examples of what they see and hear—invented but supposedly typical examples, to protect the students' privacy. (Asking the students for reactions might be going too far.)

    However, I feel sure you're right that most of the teachers find the banned expressions irritating.

    I gather your point with that example is that students today don't read anything, don't know anything, can't be given any challenging assignments, have no ambition to improve themselves as they did back in the day, etc.

    Not speaking for Philip Taylor, especially since he already answered, but I teach at a community college in the U.S., and I can assure you that there are students like that and students who are just the opposite and many in between, same as in my day. Sometimes they change from one kind to another. I very strongly suspect it's the same in high schools in London.

  60. Viseguy said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 9:44 pm

    I'd never, before reading this post, come across "He cut his eyes at me", yet find it completely accessible and a lot more colorful, dare I say cutting?, than any standard, polysyllabic "contemptuous sidelong glance" equivalent. Would it be beyond the pale for schools to teach that the contemptuous sidelong glance is what you need in a book report or term paper while cutting one's eyes is acceptable in, say, an online review of one's teacher? Why do we teach language, anyway? As an occupational necessity, a means to finding one's place in the corporate or social hierarchy, on one side, or as a way of potentially becoming more self-consciously human, whatever that means, on another? I think I know which side a list of no-no's falls on.

  61. Philip Taylor said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    A question, Viseguy — at what do you assess the probability of your being able to explain the phrase "he cut his eyes at me" before reading this thread, and what accuracy of explanation do you believe that you would have achieved ? And the same question, of course, for the phrase "he cast a contemptuous sidelong glance at me" ?

  62. Andrew Usher said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 7:50 am

    I agree that most have never encountered the phrase cut one's eyes at and would be puzzled by it. But in this cases, it may not just be a matter of dialect as the phrase is associated with a specific culture and may reflect a gesture characteristically used in that culture; in which case, cut one's eyes at would really be the best choice to specifically describe it.

    But is it really necessary to specify the details of the gesture? Not usually. None of the ways that I would expressing a similar concept do. So I don't think substituting 'contemptuous sidelong glance' is really the best improvement.

    But yes, I think it appropriate to insist that all school work be written or spoken in standard English, even if the subject is 'how I spent my summer holidays' – standard dialect has less formal registers, and learners should be comfortable there as well.

  63. AmyW said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 10:54 am

    Andrew Usher said this: "But surely the list is not going to be enforced literally when it would lead to absurd results."
    I'm sure that some sentences would pass by without notice, like any number of sentences beginning with "no" as a determiner. But I wouldn't give teachers too much credit. As a writing tutor, I once worked with a student whose writing was required to be so objective that she wasn't allowed to use any transitional devices, including pronouns. The instructor was literally counting off if they used the word "it" in a sentence. So the student was wasting hours of her life editing a 10-20 page paper to suit the arbitrary rules.

  64. Matthew said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 12:53 am

    Wow. That's just long.

    You know, of course, that this list is unhelpful. Why? No doubt you're already aware. It's simply because English doesn't have a "proper" way in which to be spoke. Like a fruit-cake it's a mish-mash of half-baked ideas and unnecessary vocabulary. You see it, for example, in the appallingly easy manner in which I've demolished this list. And without having to torture the grammar once!

    Basically, you can't tell English what to do. Say what you like, English will evolve the way it will. Because nature doesn't care about your opinion.

    *pauses for thought*

    I can't think how to start a sentence with "Ermmm".

  65. Wanda said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 11:33 am

    I was talking to a director of a freshman writing program at my university. She said that our students, by and large, come in convinced that the only way to write is to use formal language and as a result they are terrified to do it. She says she feels her own job is to help them discover their own voice and see writing as a thing to enjoy.
    I'm dubious. For my part, I can't imagine enjoying writing. It's a tool I need to use to have the impact I want on the world, and I appreciated when instructors taught me how to use it effectively in various contexts to convey the meaning I want and convince others to do things like publish my papers. Our university has around 70% STEM majors. I would think that most of them will grow up to have the same relationship with language as I do.
    I think what I want our freshman writing program to do is tell them that different fields have different styles and to not be judgemental about other's language. But what I really want them to do is to get them to practice the clarity of thought that allows

  66. Wanda said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 11:37 am

    Sorry, the previous comment posted while I was composing it!

    But what I really want the writing program to do is to get the students to practice the clarity of thought that allows them to write and explain complicated arguments. Also, I'd like them to tell the freshman that it's far better to use a simple word correctly than to use a complicated word incorrectly, which is something I notice that the students here do a lot in formal contexts.

  67. Philip Taylor said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 12:23 pm

    "She said that our students, by and large, come in convinced that the only way to write is to use formal language and as a result they are terrified to do it". I wonder why she said "as a result". At school we were taught to write correct grammatical English, and, for lab. reports in particular, were required to cast in the passive voice. Whilst the results lacked the "aforesaid"s and "hereinafter"s and so on that characterise formal legal prose, they were nonetheless cast in "formal" English, as a result of which I cannot imagine many of my peers being intimidated by the idea of having to write formal prose at university. Is it therefore the case that your students do not come prepared in this way, and if so, is this the fault of the education system in the area in which you live ?

  68. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 15, 2021 @ 9:46 am

    Matthew: *pauses for thought*

    I can't think how to start a sentence with "Ermmm".

    I see what you did there.

  69. SusanC said,

    October 15, 2021 @ 12:16 pm

    Myself, I teach at undergraduate/postgraduate level, not secondary school, but I know some people who teach English at school level…

    … and my understanding is that it is a completely standard part of the school curriculum to explain that different styles of language are used in different contexts (probably with writing exercizes in different kinds of style).

    So a simple list of "banned words and phrases" — without some strong indication of the context to which it applies — runs highly contrary to this.

    As far as I can see, the prohibited expressions would be fine if the students were writing fiction … which they often are.

    =====

    I have had occasion to explain a more subtle version of this at the undergraduate level when it came up in classroom discussion. Consider how the the same scientific technical result would be written differently:
    a) for publication in a scientific journal
    b) as an internal document within the US Department of Defense
    (Students for this course will have read plenty of scientific papers and declassified/unclassified government documents .. exercize; pastiche the respective writing styles)

  70. SusanC said,

    October 15, 2021 @ 12:39 pm

    Oh, and while we're on different styles being used in different contexts, you guys may be familiar with this:

    https://improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume12/v12i5/chicken-12-5.pdf

    Recipe for how to write a scientific paper (at least for a Computer Science journal): take the "Chicken Chicken Chicken" paper and replace "chicken chicken chicken" with whatever it is you want to say about your chosen topic, while retaining the same basic structure.

  71. Julian said,

    October 16, 2021 @ 6:53 am

    @SusanC
    When I downloaded the pdf of the chicken paper Adobe offered the option of having it read out loud.
    Siri/Alexa or whoever it was got the intonation pretty well, including falling intonation at sentence ends and (sometimes) rising intonation at the comma after preposed subordinate clauses. Impressive.

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