On the local educational(?) tv channel

As we flipped by they had an English as a second language lesson.
They have actual for-credit courses, and this one was teaching English in English.
All a bit of a crack up, since she was enunciating so terribly clearly, and composing rather peculiar sentences.
All very amusing, until she came to the subject matter of the day.
The lady was informing the students about the difference between can/will, may/would.
 
As she explains it, in English can and could are informal,  while may and would are formal.
So "Could you lend me a pencil?" is informal, and "Would you lend me a pencil?" is the formal way to ask.
Then they practiced it.
I am beyond shock.

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22 responses to this post.

  1. In the strictest sense this is probably accurate but in practical use, not so much. What nationality was this teacher may I ask? Whoops, this is an informal blog; can I ask?

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  2. LOL's at Waterbaby's comment 😀

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  3. Hmmm as somebody who has Engrish as a second language, this doesn't sound so wrong. "could you do x and can I have your y" are a bit more 'demanding' as in no isn't really an option (and could be slightly rude depending on tone and situation) and "would you do x and may I have your y" sort of downgrades the demanding-ness… a bit.. in my ears at least… as in – if you feel like it… It may be a brit-speak thing though.. I have learned such a confusion of varieties of English that I no longer have a clue what came from where. There's a lot of these subtle differences in Engrish that I have a hard time with. I remember a lesson in 'when to say I will do x and when to say I shall do x'… and the conclusion was that although we have exactly the same two constructions in Danish, they're used exactly opposite (said the teacher) in English, and this made very little sense to me, so I still get confused about it… but ya know… who ever says I shall???? when it can be contracted to I'll and problem is solved!

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  4. "I'll" is a contraction of "I will" really. I say "shall" but more interrogatively–"Shall I do that now or later?" Saying "I shall do it…" for example is rarely used anymore in the US, more archaic.Could, would, and should are all conditionals–whatever action they introduce are contingent upon something else being the case. At least in their purest sense.Could is the conditional form of can. You could do X if Y can be a factor in the act, even if Y is only understood. Would is not necessarily more formal as it is more polite and implies willingness on the part of the listener.Example: (If you can, ) could you pick me up at 4:00? Example: (If you're willing,) would you pick me up at 4:00?These are such subtleties of the language. They go right over the heads of most native speakers. But I use them b/c I had them pounded into my head in Catholic school.

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  5. p.s. Also, one of the communication difficulties between men and women, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, has to do with this exact configuration of could and would. It's not even conscious, but still understood by the listener.Men use Would you… (implying willingness to the listener) while women use Could you… (implying ability). Men don't like being asked Could they do something because it implies the possibility that they can't. But women use could because they're more willing to help if they can–willingness is understood! Men like willingness to be voluntary.Try it. Next time you want hubby or bf to help out, ask them "Would you…" instead of "Could you…" You'll notice a difference in their answer.

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  6. You know, I think it may be the word FORMAL that's the problem here because you're thinking about royalty and butlers and fancy politeness schtuff when you hear it… In languages like French, Spanish and most others actually (probably the intended student's) there is much more distinction between "formal" and "informal" language than there is in English. I.e. The word 'You' is tu in informal and usted in formal Spanish (tu/vous in French, Du/Sie in German)… so the terms informal/formal is often used to distinguish between what you'd say to a kid or your family and good friends on one hand and to a complete stranger, a superior or elderly person on the other hand. This is insanely difficult for foreigners because the line where you shift from one to the other is culturally determined – so you can't use your own language as a template for it. – And, although you don't have the clear distinctions in the word you, there are these unbelievably subtle differences in how you say the same thing to an old lady you just met or your neighbor's kids.

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  7. That's very true, drude. English, esp. in the UK, has it's formal counterpart as in the Romance languages. For instance, butler speaking directly to superior in the third-person: Would her ladyship like to visit the garden now? Or in the U.S. a reporter might ask at a press conference: Would the Secretary please explain the change in policy since last year?The archaic thee/thou (formal, subjective), and you (informal or even insulting) used to serve the same purposes as Tu/Vous, Tu/Usted. A person might switch from thou to you if a discussion deteriorated and the wish was to speak down to or insult the status of the other, or to introduce intimacy between parties.I love English, can you tell? 🙂

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  8. minor correction: thee is objective.

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  9. I love English, can you tell? 🙂 heee — yes! Moi, aussi!The amount of perspicacity required for erudite loquaciousness is f*#%ing amazing! I used to drive people at works NUTS with this stuff. Even diagrammed sentences for them, if their brows furrowed, thusly: }- (

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  10. lauowolf — I would have been yelling at the TV if I'd seen that…. *sigh*

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  11. I'm a beyotch to argue with b/c I hold people to their use of the language, and it comes across as preoccupation with semantics. But it's not just semantics, it's what I hear when people use words a certain way.

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  12. Yes! Language MATTERS.

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  13. I only use "shall" when I'm drafting language for collective agreements, or settlment documents. As in "the producer shall pay the writer forthwith." Good word to have.

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  14. "Men don't like being asked Could they do something because it implies the possibility that they can't. But women use could because they're more willing to help if they can–willingness is understood! Men like willingness to be voluntary."I love this stuff. I was an anthropology major, and one of things we had to study as part of good Boasian four-field anthropology was linguistics. Unfortunately I had a horrible prof in undergrad who completely turned me off of linguistics. It wasn't until a graduate course in social linguistics (how language is used by a particular culture and how it shapes and is shaped by cultural meanings) that I really enjoyed it. One of the most interesting and eye-opening anthro books I have ever read was "English with an Accent" by Rosina Lippi-Green…and that is saying a lot coming from an archaeologist!! Highly recommended…she shows how discrimination based on accents and language use in the US is pervasive not only in the media, but classrooms, the law system, and business, and how this promotes and maintains social inequality.

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  15. Posted by IG on May 4, 2008 at 7:46 am

    Yay jaypo! I'm favoriting this thread, it's too deliciously geeky for words, heh. What a great way to wake up on a Sunday. Nerds nerds nerds! 😀

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  16. Oh, good, I don't feel so totally pedantic then?!? I'll go on with Laurie's comment…Shall is a great umbrella term which covers higher territory than it's alternatives. Consider this: You and your boss have discussed a project and there's some confusion on your part about what the next step is. This is how I see the choices:1. Shall I draft it now or wait? – All things have been considered by both parties. What does the situation demand? Judgment call for the boss. Makes boss feel good, you feel participatory. 2. Do you want me to draft it now or wait? – All things have been considered. Conciliatory and passive sounding.3. Should I draft it now or wait? All things have been considered. Asking for guidance from boss, which is ok, but sounds indecisive on your part.So, so subtle. But people understand what they hear, not always what you're saying. Communication is a creative challenge under the best of circumstances.

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  17. And, if I may add: Would you like me to draft it now, or wait? A touch of the obsequious, perhaps; my personal favorite for fluid or unknown relationships, especially where ambivalence is present. Communication is a creative challenge under the best of circumstances. Oh, yes.

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  18. I just remember having can/will hammered into me as a child.Can you lend me a pen?I can, but maybe I won't.Now, how do you ask for something?My mother taught English in high school and college in the 30's and 40's.I'd back in a few fierce rounds of grammar with anyone.

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  19. We'd make an awesome pair, lw. I've had a grammar post rolling around in my noggin for months. It may be time to give in!

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  20. Enter the common gutter snipe(that would be me) I still remember the lesson about this in grammer class and I am 48. Could indicates your ability to preform said task, would indicats the choice to do or not do said task.

    Damn that came out sounding snooty didn't it .. just so you know my lack of grammer skills are legend. especially now as I try to learn spanish which is taught with reference to sentence structure we as english speaking people were supposed to learn in school. ( a subject I failed at quit spectacularly). (Diagraming sentences =I do not want)
    So now I don't put my sentneces in the correct order for spanish or as my Spanish professor says to the class… Her sentence has been framed as if it were written in english with spanish words what is the correct placement class?
    Sigh I see three years of spanish classes ahead of me.

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  21. A great site for ESL students is AIDtoCHILDREN.com.AIDtoCHILDREN.com is a dual-purpose site for building an Englishvocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the mostimpoverished places around the world.Check it out at http://www.aidtochildren.com

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  22. This one hasn't got much spam in it.

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