Sunday, 28 July 2019

Mogg's rules

No sooner had Jacob Rees Mogg accepted the position of Leader of the House of Commons than news emerged about him issuing a list of language rules to his staff. 

I'm not a fan of enforced speech, (regardless of who is doing it) and have written quite a lot about the kind of arbitrary pedantry which passes for 'good style' in the minds of many editors and journalists (see here, here, here and here for examples). I've even made a video about it. 

While it's important for people to write clearly, Rees-Mogg's rules probably seem baffling to those uninitiated in the long history of linguistic prescriptivism. So in this post I will attempt to explain what I think are his (misguided) rationales for choosing these words to ban. Some of them, like "due to" are old favourites for language mavens. Others, such as 'Disappointment', are a bit harder to guess at


A few of Rees-Mogg's prohibitions fall into the category of being considered by some to be 'redundant'. This category usually includes gripes about things like 'ATM machine' 'pin number' and 'HIV virus' which have been dubbed RAS syndrome Other writers, Like Bill Bryson in his 'troublesome words' complain about 'each and every', 'reason why' and 'revert back'. The usual complaint is that two words are used when one would suffice. This seems to be the case with the following 

  • Meet with 
probably Rees-Mogg wants just 'meet'. 
  • Ongoing 
Ongoing has been criticised for being redundant, and journo @JohnRentoul has claimed that "Any piece of writing can be improved by deleting the word. The always excellent language log have a post on it in which an editor is overheard saying 'If I see someone using ongoing in The Chronicle, I will be downcoming and he or she will be outgoing.'

Academic/formal English 

Others fall under what is often called "academic style". This is the idea that writing for academic subjects should be objective and impersonal. Thus, a lot of the words banned here are things which an academic might consider too vague. They include:
  • too many 'I's
Not impersonal enough
  • Got 
Too vague perhaps? I got a new car (did you buy it? did you steal it? did someone give it to you?) 
  • very 
I'm guessing Rees-Mogg would want an exact number or a more substantial word. No doubt he would consider this 'meaningless'. Neville Gwynne, a retired accountant who rose to fame after publishing a book on 'correct grammar' called "Gwynne's Grammarwrites of very "use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves" (a quote he took directly from the awful 'elements of style' by Strunk and White.) As an aside, actual linguist Geoff Pullum describes Gwynne as a "preposterous old fraud" and Oliver Kamm described his grammar as "the worst book I have read on language and perhaps on anything". 

  • Lot 
Pretty much the same as very.

old favourites 

  • due to 

The alleged problem with this phrase can be seen in 'Gwynne's grammar':
Due to. Incorrectly used for “through,” “because of,” or “owing to” in adverbial phrases such as “He lost the first game due to carelessness.” In its correct use, it is related to a particular noun as predicate or as modifier, as in “This invention is due to Edison”; “losses due to preventable fires.”
This is a case of someone claiming 'the whole world is using this word incorrectly except me and the smart folks I know'. Oliver Kamm writes:
"Style guides typically describe due as an adjective. They maintain that it remains an adjective in the phrase due to. It must therefore have a noun or noun-phrase to qualify or complement. In the sentence above, it has none. Instead, due to has been used as a prepositional phrase...If due to as a prepositional phrase offends you, don’t use it. But it’s Standard English"
  • hopefully 
This is a real old chestnut. Hopefully is allegedly wrong because 'very smart' people see phrases like 'Hopefully, I will be able to go' and believe the writer is actually saying, 'I will be able to go in a hopeful manner'. Of course, the contortions they must mentally perform to believe this are as ludicrous as the people who convince themselves upon hearing a double negative that someone might really get confused about the meaning. Kamm states that the criticism are "quite arbitrary" and notes that "the adverb thankfully provokes far less hostility than hopefully when used to modify a clause or sentence (thankfully, the idle columnist has at last submitted his article)."

  • Yourself 

"If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;"

Yourself is an odd choice as it singles out only one of the hated reflexive pronouns. In contrast, grammar scold Bill Bryson does not mention yourself but rails against 'myself'. I had started to believe that all of Mogg's rules were coming from one place, namely, Gwynne's Grammar but Gwynne actually uses the word throughout his book saying thing like:

Remember always, when you are writing for anyone other than yourself, that you are giving. Do not, therefore, write to suit yourself; write with your readers constantly at the forefront of your mind. Put yourself in their shoes when you are deciding how to express yourself. (source)
Despite the seeming approval from Gwynne, Kamm notes that this is quite a common peeve. "Sticklers are incensed at the way reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves) are used in constructions that are not reflexive or not intensive". Rees-Mogg has a point that constructions like "you yourself said it" or the ubiquitous restaurant question "and for yourself, sir?" can seem a bit clumsy. But the blanket ban is equally ridiculous.

Ask yourself Jacob, Could you live with yourself if Kipling's 'if' was banned? 

  • Commas and spaces 
As well as the word list there are items insisting on double spacing after full-stops and a ban on comma use after the word 'and' (not before, as in the Oxford Comma as many are mistakenly reporting) which is also entirely arbitrary. Regarding the two spaces after the period, copy editor Benjamin Dreyer gives this advice.

Q. Two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence, right?A. Wrong. I know that back when you were in seventh-grade typing class and pecking away at your Smith Corona Coronet Automatic 12, Mrs. Tegnell taught you to type a double space after a sentence-ending period, but you are no longer in the seventh grade, you are no longer typing on a typewriter, and Mrs. Tegnell is no longer looking over your shoulder (Dreyer)

Though it should be noted that Dreyer also thinks people should try to avoid words like 'very' and 'really' so whether or not you want two spaces after a full stop (not necessary but some people prefer the way it looks) is really up to you.

Harder to guess

The remaining words are a bit harder to guess. If anyone out there has any good ideas as to why he has allegedly taken against these words, please let me know.

  • 'Invest' in schools 
**Update** so this is apparently unacceptable as it is emotive. If someone 'invests' in something then there is an assumption among the listener that there will be some kind of 'return'. It is possible to pointlessly give money to schools (buying class sets of Ipads for example, or spending it on BrainGym training). It seems Rees-Mogg doesn't like the 'settle argument' sense of 'invest' in schools. 
  • unacceptable 
  • equal 
  • Speculate 
  • No longer fit for purpose -Possibly considered a cliche
  • I am please to learn 
  • Ascertain 
  • Disappointment 
  • I note/ understand your concerns 

Some have claimed the list is all a ruse to make the public focus on the wrong things but as with claims of Trump's cunning media strategy, I am sceptical. It would not surprise me at all to learn Rees-Mogg really does believe in the correctness of his pronouncements on language. I was more surprised to see what was missing from the list. No mention of split infinitives, 'disinterested' or 'literally'. 

Like all pedants and grammar scolds, Rees-Mogg apparently breaks his own rules. (though this does seem to be in speech and not in writing). And like all pedants, he seems not to care if these rules make any kind of sense, as long as people are forced to follow them. Recently, Rees-Mogg authored a book about Victorians despite not being a historian. Reviewers were not kind, and it seems to me that the criticism of the book as "staggeringly silly" and "mind‑bogglingly banal" could equally apply to his ideas about good grammar use. 

Thursday, 30 May 2019

tooth fairy expertise

The topic of experts vs "gurus" came up at this year's IATEFL and I'm not really sure I really know the difference. I think "Guru" has come to mean someone well-known who I don't very much agree with. Perhaps 'experts' are the people we do? Is Thornbury an expert or a guru? How about Penny Ur? Was Vygtosky an expert? And how about Howard GardnerWho falls into which category and who gets to decide? 

Expert presumably means someone with expertise. But does expertise necessarily means someone should be listened to? In an article on the Science Based Medicine website the author notes that a person could easily become an expert in 'Tooth Fairy science': 
You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists. (source)
Being a tooth fairy expert would thus mean that you actually don't have any expertise. There are, after all expert mystics, like Baba Vanga, experts in NLP, and experts in classroom uses of telepathy

I got to thinking about all of this since I noticed people saying we shouldn't listen to gurus and others tweeting out quotes from experts. The one that stuck in my mind was:

Brian Tomlinson says PPP is the worst way to learn a language. It's an illusion.
I couldn't resists asking, somewhat cheekily if Tomlinson was an 'expert' or a 'guru'. I was told he was an expert. But how does one become an expert? I put this question to the original poster and met, I think, the end of her patience and was told to 'Google it'. I did and indeed, according to his bio he is "one of the world's leading experts on materials development". 

As I have written before, I actually do think we should listen to experts, when they have something to back up their expertise. But just listening to them because of who they are is probably not wise. For instance, Tomlinson is a firm believer in the false notion of left brained and right brained learners and frequently tells materials writers to plan materials with those types of learners in mind. For example: 
1.4.14 Materials should maximise learning potential by encouraging intellectual, aesthetic and emotional involvement which stimulates both right- and left-brain activities (source)
this method is successful because it caters for the majority of learners who seem to be kinaesthetic in their preferred perceptual learning styles as well as global and experiential in their general styles. These are what are known as right brain learning processes (2014) 
He also repeatedly promotes writing materials which cater to students' perceptual learning style, a concept which has no evidence to support it
[consider if] the materials help individual learners discover their learning styles (2014)
perceptual learning style research overwhelmingly suggests that most learners prefer kinaesthetic input over auditory and visual forms of language input. None of the beginners’ coursebooks I have seen accommodate this type of learner, however (2014)
He also seems to accept the idea that the brain is somehow underused and we can unlock it's full potential through good teaching. This is not true
The maximisation of the brain’s learning potential is a fundamental principle of Lozanov’s Suggestopedia (source
most researchers seem to agree on the value of maximising the brain’s capacity during language learning and the best textbooks already do contain within each unit a variety of different left- and right-brain activities. (2014)
None of this means that the advice Tomlinson gives in general on materials should be disregarded. There are no doubt a lot which can be gleaned from his writing. The question though remains, what is the advice based on. I can't help but think we tend to listen to experts when they tell us things we want to hear. If we don't like PPP then an expert saying it's 'the worst' will sound very convincing to us. 

So is Tomlinson right that PPP is 'the worst way to learn a language?' Worse than say Suggestopedia? I ask because Tomlinson's 2011 book on materials writing includes a chapter advocating 'The Lozanov method' by author Grethe Hooper-HansenHansen has written on subjects like "Organic Learning: Crossing the Threshold from Conscious and Unconscious", and "Turning the tide of hemispheric shift: the case of non-conscious learning". She is a major proponent of Suggestopedia and believes that some kind of educational 'quantum revolution'  in education is under way: 
There have been many wake-up calls: from Carl Rogers, Ivan Ilich, Paolo Freire; more recently from Howard Gardner, Herbert Benson, Daniel Golemen, Parker Palmer, Tobin Hart, and Alan Block, to name just a few. The quantum revolution, now nearly a century old, spelled out in great detail the changes that needed to be made to balance yang with yin (source)
In her chapter on materials development she tells us that these days (2011) it's easier to understand where Lozanov was coming from since "quantum science has become more familiar" meaning we can perceive in "multidimensional" ways

She goes on to say that "the complexity of Lozanov's method is due to a lifetime's research into the hidden language and territory of the unconscious, in particular the nebulous area where it meets the conscious, which he calls the 'para-conscious'". I won't go on, you get the picture. As Steve Novella notes  “today one of the most popular legitimate scientific ideas used to justify nonsense is quantum mechanics” (source). In fact it's misused so much by people like Deepak Chopra that there is even a wiki entry for Quantum Mysticism

So according to Tomlinson PPP 'booo', quantum kinaesthetic left-brained teaching 'hurrah!' Forgive me if I'm skeptical. Jason Anderson has done some interesting work on PPP (see here and here for examples) and he doesn't seem to think it's the worst way to teach English. For all it's flaws, I'd put my money on PPP producing better results than Suggestopedia. I'm no expert though. 

Friday, 29 March 2019

evidence based resources

So you want to be evidence based but don't know where to start! Here are a list of sites and resources which promote evidence in education for free! 

Summaries of research

Research bites is an excellent site which offers summaries of ELT and SLA research. THe site offers summaries of single papers in clear and accessible terms. There are a range of author and I believe the summary writers write to the article authors to check that they are happy with the summary. Anthony Schmidt runs the site and his own blog is worth a look too. 

The OASIS summaries page offers something very similar to research bites but is run by academics rather than teachers. They also offer advice about how to cite the summaries in your research. The summaries are in pdf form and can be download. The IRIS database also includes summaries of research and in addition to that offers research tools . The NCELP is another site which offers resources but for modern language teachers. 

Free access journals 

Should you want to read academic articles directly there are a few things you can do. There is increasingly a move towards open access in all kinds of publications and ELT is no different. This article on open access in ELT, is open access. It's written by Emma Marsden who is a big advocate for transparency in research. 

ELTjam featured a really nice article showing you which journals have free access and limited free access and these days most journals have something you can view for free. The article has a lot of great tips on getting hold of articles (legally) for free. Another thing you can try is writing to the author. With academics I've had a pretty good success rate when just emailing them and asking for a copy of papers. I think most of them are just overjoyed that someone wants to read their stuff. Disclaimer: I wouldn't try this with someone who makes their living selling reference books and the like. I very much doubt Scott Thornbury will email you a copy of 'the A-Z of ELT'. 

The British council and Cambridge (CUP) both offer some of their own research for free. You can get hold of quite a lo of good quality stuff just by browsing their sites. It should be noted that nothing in this post represents an endorsement of any of the research you find on these sites. For instance, the British Council site has a section on the dubious '21st century skills


The education endowment Foundation also offers some summaries of research (though it is general education not ELT). The site also has reports on various areas of teaching. The site is very accessible and lays out information in a very accessible way

A couple more useful sites are 3 star learning and the learning scientist (the latter of which has an accompanying podcast). They both offer interesting articles on research in Education however the former seems to have no way of navigating the site. The learning scientist has some nice, clear downloadable resources. (Thanks to Anthony Schmidt for directing me to these two websites.)


There are a number of blogs which seek to present evidence in education. This blog, for instance has a 'try this it works' section which attempts to summarise research. Philip Kerr has some good stuff on translation and adaptive learningIn addition to this Greg Ashman's blog on teaching is usually well researched as is David Didau's 'learning spy' site. These last two are general education though. 

If I missed anything out please let me know and I'll update this page. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Woo Watch: EdyouFest

I recently came across an education festival for TEFLers called 'EDUyoufest'. Plenary speaker Lonny Gold is presenting a talk on "Teaching WITH the brain instead of AGAINST it". Now whenever 'the brain' gets mentioned I do start to get a bit worried. Brain based approaches generally tend to come from the Romantic Humanist wing of the ELT world so I decided to investigate further and Gold did not disappoint. 

Gold, a Suggestopedia Master Trainer, has appeared in videos promoting the whacky teachings of Georgi Lozanov. Regular readers of this site will know that I have something of an obsession with all things Lozanov and so Gold instantly grabbed my attention. 

I managed to find a few of his articles and one of them in particular really impressed me. Most of lozanov's acolytes are cool with his claims of accelerated learning and suggestive states of mind. Yet there aren't many who are willing to follow the good doctor when he starts talking about using telepathy as a communication method. Gold is fearless though. He writes about a workshop presentation he held for the Liverpool SEAL conference:
The third and final segment of the workshop dealt with telepathy. In any open and nurturing environment, the telepathic connections between people are countless and to pretend they do not exist is silly and even irresponsible. In the case of teachers, a belief that what happens in class is not largely determined by the telepathic links within the group is either a dereliction of duty or - far worse - an admission that all form of human life has been successfully extinguished.
So there it is folks. Telepathy as a teaching tool. You heard it here first! 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The authenticity trap

Whenever I go to Japanese restaurants outside Japan, I'm always a bit annoyed to find they're entirely staffed by Chinese people. After spending years in Japan, I'd quite like authentic sushi lovingly crafted by authentic Japanese hands. Anything else is cultural appropriation, right?(I kid, but only a bit.)

Authenticity in an age of mass production is a valuable commodity. It also forms part of the communicative ideal of language teaching. We all like authenticity, but isn't it just discrimination to want Mexicans staffing my Mexican restaurant? Can't the Taiwanese or Japanese produce Whiskey just as well as Scots and Irish?

I'm sure a Mexican woman could make sushi just as well as any Japanese man. There's no logical reason this couldn't be the case. But there is something undeniably attractive about the idea that you're getting the 'real deal' -as fictional as that authenticity might turn out to be. 

This is one of the reasons I'm a little wary of shouting ‘racist’ at someone who expresses a preference for native speaker teachers. I can't help but wonder about my Chinese students. Arriving in Leicester, the first UK city to have a white minority, after being brought up on images of a fictional white Britain often leads to ignorant questions like 'where are all the British people?' For these students having possibly their first foreign experience, 'white' possibly equates to 'authentic'. 

This notion is backed up by research. Kiczkowiak points out, that often 'non-white native speaker teachers are rated less favourably on their pronunciation and teaching skills' than white NS teachers. What isn't always mentioned as much, is the flip side of this. I've noticed that white NNS may be given a pass by students.Their whiteness seemingly being enough to be deemed ‘authentic’.

'Native looking'
A Fair AND blonde native American 
Kind hearted and loving

The notion that 'white' means 'authentic' is as silly as thinking someone Japanese will somehow be better at making sushi or Chinese people will be Kung Fu experts. Yet, the authenticity illusion is seductive. Even Kiczkowiak, known for his admirable work on NNS discrimination doesn't challenge it when it is presented in the right way. In a podcast episode his co-host and he, discussed the merits of retaining one’s accent when speaking a foreign language:
R: if I pick up the phone and someone's trying to sell me wine and they have a French accent immediately they're going to be much more credible, I'm going to believe that they know their wine, the wine that they're selling me is of a good quality because of our association between good wine and France...if you have a student in your class is going to be doing a job like that you're actually having a negative effect on their sales figures...and if you're a professor of ancient Rome and do you have an Italian accent that's going to be a really positive thing people are going to saying oh this person is from's more believable that they know about this particular subject. (source
As I noted earlier, I think these associations are real, and part of the shortcuts brains employ to save energy. Want to know about wine? Ask a French person! Want to get great Sushi? Find someone from Japan. Want to Learn English? -fill in the mental shortcut students have for English speakers. That these stereotypes exist is undeniable. But as with all kinds of mental biases, we get smarter when we learn to recognise and discard them.