Daily Archives: July 10, 2009

American or British English?

The debate continues: American English (US) or British English (UK)?

My colleagues and I have had students – especially international ones – telling us that we should teach the ACCENT of the English language; some say that they want to use U.S. English so that they could further their studies there. Many do not like the British version because they claim that it is so difficult to understand U.K. English.

I would advise students not to have a distinction between learning U.S. English and U.K. English because both are English. It is a fallacy to even have the notion that U.S. English is better than U.K. English or vice versa. In fact, in many instances, I’ve seen and heard people code-switching, trying to impress the foreigner. They want to sound like an American when they meet one, or they want to impress the Brits by speaking the Queen’s English, but on a normal day, they speak English the way they have been speaking to locals.

Let’s look at it this way. If you go to the States and speak Queen’s English, would Americans have difficulty understanding what you’re saying? Similarly, if you go to London and speak American English, would the Britons scratch their heads trying to make sense of your sentences? No, right? So, what’s the fuss about learning the ACCENT or learning US or UK English?

I think it’s all a matter of preference. You learn English either the American way or the English way. Somehow, somewhere along the way, we speak in what I call a “Hybrid Language” where both U.S. and U.K. words are used in our daily conversations, speeches and writings. I don’t see anything wrong with that – who knows, one day, there would be a subject called “Hybrid Language” 😛

Without idolising U.S or U.K. English, my personal preference is the latter. I was brought up in a U.K. English education system though I live nowhere near the British Isles. Nevertheless, I often go hybrid too when I want to convey a message quickly.

The debate stops here, or else we would be talking about Manglish (Malaysian English) and Singlish (Singapore English).

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Verb Consistency

Verb consistency is important to ensure harmonious and clear sentences.  What if your friend tells you this:

  • I’m so happy today because my mother was coming back from abroad. She was supposed to be home yesterday afternoon but the flight will be delayed. She arrived late evening.

As you can see from the above example, the shift in tenses would obviously cause chaos to the meaning of the message. You’ll wonder whether his mother is already back from abroad, or she is coming back this evening.

In a single sentence, the verb tense that you use is straight forward. You would know whether it should be in the present tense, the past and so on. It is also easy to point out the errors. However, it’s not as easy to spot a verb tense error in a paragraph, or more. There will be inconsistencies. Take a look at these paragraphs and see if there are errors in tenses.

  • Kamal Prasad Sharma, aged 12, was a student at Saraswati Secondary School in a small village not far from Kathmandu. He was afraid when he saw a computer for the first time. He didn’t dare enter the room, thinking the computer would harm him. However, things are changing now. The E-library has helped him with his studies.

How many errors did you find, or is the paragraph error-free? Here’s the corrected version:

  • Kamal Prasad Sharma, aged 12, is a student at Saraswati Secondary School in a small village not far from Kathmandu. He was afraid when he saw a computer for the first time. He didn’t dare enter the room, thinking the computer would harm him. However, things have changed now. The E-library has helped him with his studies.

Explanation for the first error:

The sentence is factual. The boy, Kamal, is a student at Saraswati Secondary school. There is nothing to indicate that he is not studying there anymore. Besides, the second sentence indicates the past when Kamal first saw the computer.

Explanation for the second error:

Athough you see the word “now” in the sentence, don’t be fooled into thinking that the present continuous tense should be used. Therefore, it is wrong to say, “…things are changing now” because in reality, they have already changed. This is shown in the next sentence about the E-library which also uses the present perfect tense.

Identifying inconsistencies:

The question is, how do you know which tense to use in long paragraphs (in a text) to ensure that tenses do not shift incorrectly?

  • Read the entire text to get a grasp of the timelines (in each paragraph).
  • Once that’s done, tackle each paragraph carefully.
  • Do not attempt to shift tenses before you even read the text once.

This guide is good for learning Writing; however, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be used in spoken English. Remember the first example I gave earlier about your friend’s mother? That is a good example of its usage in the verbal form.