Meaningless Grammarisms

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When you hear a newscaster say, “The hurricane has WENT from Hawaii to Osaka overnight,” perhaps, like me, you yell, “That’s GONE from Hawaii, you knucklehead!” Nevertheless, you have understood that knucklehead perfectly despite the grammatical error.  There is no ambiguity in his meaning.

 Meaningless Grammarism 1: Irregular Present Participles

So, if your students write, He has ate the sandwich already, would you correct them? The grammatical error is the same one the newscaster made, and the meaning of the sentence is obvious. We hear this kind of error all the time from our English-speaking friends, professors, reporters, etc.  I call this kind of mistake a “meaningless grammarism”. It’s a way of communicating that doesn’t comply with standard English grammar rules, yet doesn’t impede clear communication.

Meaningless Grammarism 2: Third Person Singular “S”

There are many meaningless grammarisms in English.  For example, what purpose does the “s” serve on this present tense third person verb “The woman looks at her daughter”?  That “s” does not add meaning to the sentence. The sentence is equally clear if I write “The woman look at her daughter”.  In fact, some forms of pidgin English and dialects always leave the “s” off third person verbs, without sacrificing the clarity of their sentences. Should we correct this error in our students’ writing?

Meaningless Grammarism 3: Of after A Couple

Increasingly in my reading I’m seeing a third kind of meaningless grammarism. Consider this example: She gave her son a couple dollars before he left for the store. There is no of after the words a couple.  Although standard English dictates that the preposition should follow them, the meaning of this sentence is clear and adding an of would not improve its clarity.

How should we, as grammar teachers to second language learners, respond when students incorrectly use the simple past form with the present perfect tense, forget the s on a third person verb, or leave out of after a couple? None of these errors compromise their ability to communicate in English.  Afterall, isn’t our goal to help our students communicate clearly in English? Or is our goal to help them become grammatically perfect, perhaps even beyond many native speakers?

To be honest, I generally do mark these grammarisms as errors in my students’ writing. After all, it is, my job to teach students the most grammatically correct English I can, and meaningless grammarisms, while irrelevant, are errors nonetheless. However, if I have a struggling student who has countless other errors to correct, these grammarisms are the first mistakes I overlook.

What about you? Do you correct these kinds of errors? Can you think of any other meaningless grammarisms?

If you are reading this blog, then you’re probably familiar with my world, a world that spins around teaching, grammar, pronunciation, sentence structure, Canadian culture, and all things English. I’m fascinated by the places where cultures intersect: when Asia meets America, South touches North, and desert dwellers converse with snow shovellers. I see these things every day in my class, and they are the things I want to post about. After teaching EFL in China, and computer skills in LINC, I started teaching EAP at the University of Guelph, and sixteen years later, I’m still at it. I earned a BA in English literature from the University of Waterloo, and a B.Ed from Western Ontario University. I also have my ESL Part 2 and TESL Certification.


6 thoughts on “Meaningless Grammarisms”

  1. Love the post, but I’d call them “less important” grammarisms, not meaningless. While the first example is something you can let slide when you’re focusing on Fluency and meaning, I can’t help but think that Subject/Verb agreement should be corrected early and often. Otherwise, shoot, I’ve seen English learners who have studied for years and simply can’t do it in speech.

    1. That’s true, Jamie. However, recently, a well-recognized Canadian politcian who is also an immigrant spoke on CBC. This person spoke in excellent English, was completely comprehensible and accurate, except that this person spoke without adding “s” on the third person singular verbs. It wasn’t a problem for this politician since the “s” serves no real purpose.

      1. Very interesting post.. However the errors in speaking and writing need to be distinguished….İn speaking errors are in intentional and those are totally acceptable but this is not the case in writing.. To me we cannot generalize this concept…

  2. I repeat here my comment in LinkedIn.
    It’s a pity that the idea of helping students identify errors could be seen as meaningless; error correction is not about mark deductions or giving up but empowering students to notice —to be aware that there are types of Englishes (what you refer as “pidgin English and dialects,” yet being able to switch tones and “Englishes” to their hearts’ desires and depending on the occasion is possible. Perhaps fossilization is getting the best of you, but don’t give up on trying! To help you with this, you may want to refer to Michael Long’s theory of “focus on form vs focus on forms” and suggestions on how to help students to reach their goals (usually employment or academic pursuits). Good luck!!

  3. Excellent article — however I feel it necessary to point out the typographical errors in the last two paragraphs – “afterall” and the extra comma in the last paragraph. Because after 30 years as an administrative assistant and 10 years as an ESL instructor, my brain is wired to grab these errors and flag them, and to point out the irony of an excellent article on grammarisms and how easily the little things escape us. On another note, I would like to point out another trend in our language – the dropping of the “n” in “an” before a noun that begins with a vowel. E.g., “a egg”, “a orange”, “a invitation”. Also the “thee” pronunciation” before a noun beginning with a vowel. E.g., “Put thuh eggs in thuh oven.” I hear this more and more in otherwise professional journalism.

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