After years of cogitation and research, I’m absolutely convinced that the best way to teach English is by the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) method. Below I’ve detailed four basic KISS principles, and I look forward to like-minded ELT realists adding more at the end.
1 Innit? – the one-size-fits-all question tag
Question tags are a bore and a chore and at last something has arrived which is a genuinely useful and easy-to-use replacement.
Whole units of coursebooks, millions and millions of pages, have been devoted to explaining how question tags work – they’re negative if the main verb is affirmative etc etc – and giving ‘realistic’ examples.
You’re American, aren’t you?
She dances divinely, doesn’t she?
They didn’t do it, did they???
As if that wasn’t enough, if you want to be sarcastic, the rule changes, and you use affirmative-affirmative or negative-negative:
So, you missed the train again, did you?
She doesn’t fancy you, doesn’t she?
Innit? replaces (almost) all of these. The beauty of innit? is that it isn’t recognisably an existing question tag. Obviously, it’s derived from isn’t it? but is different enough to feel right in all situations. Innit?
You’re American, innit?
Phoarrrrr! She can dance, innit!!
At the moment, it doesn’t sound quite right with negative statements …
They didn’t do it, innit???
… but it’s just a matter of getting used to it.
It doesn’t really work with the sarcasm examples, so if you want to indicate this particular feeling, I recommend replacing the tag with the words Ha! Ha! Ha!
So, you missed the train again? Ha! Ha! Ha!
She doesn’t fancy you? Ha! Ha! Ha!
By making innit? the default question tag, we also come into line with other languages that only use one question tag – French (n’est-ce pas?), Spanish (¿verdad?), German (nicht wahr?), Mandarin Chinese (ma?) and Italian (no? + hands wildly outstretched).
So, say goodbye to question tag misery with innit? (and occasionally Ha! Ha! Ha!)
2 The was/were fiasco
One of the joys of teaching English is to be able to tell your students that past tense verb forms are all the same. Once you’ve learned the word went, it’s good for all persons (what a funny way to use that word!). This compares favourably to languages which have as many as SIX forms of the past tense, even with regular verbs, such as wildly extravagant Spanish.
To be able to use the past tense of a regular Spanish verb like cerrar (to close), you need to learn ALL THESE FORMS: yo cerré, tú cerraste, el/ella cerró, nosotros cerramos, vosotros cerrasteis, ellos/ellas cerraron
With an irregular verb like ir (to go), it’s even harder – yo fui, tú fuiste, el/ella fue, nosotros fuimos, vosotros fuisteis, ellos/ellas fueron
What a nightmare! So, if you’re trying to decide which foreign language to learn, and it’s a toss-up between English and Spanish, you’ve just seen SIX good reasons not to choose Spanish.
But in English, there is always something that needs simplifying, and it’s an awkward fact that one verb DISOBEYS this past tense rule. Yes, the verb to be blatantly continues to have two past tense forms, was and were.
But help is at hand. In many parts of the UK, people already use just one form of the past tense of to be. Which word they choose depends a little bit on where they live, and is different in the south east of England and the north west.
If you’ve ever heard football fans speaking, you will be aware of the regional difference. A Chelsea fan being questioned by a local police officer, for example, might have the following conversation. You’ll note that the police officer is speaking the same local dialect:
So where was you when the fighting started?
I was in the pub.
And where was your mate?
He was with me.
So you was both in the pub.
Yes, we was.
So you wasn’t fighting the United fans.
No, we was in the pub, innit!
Manchester United fans, on the other hand, would employ the northern version, using were.
So where were you when the fighting started?
I were in the pub.
And where were your mate?
He were with me.
So you were both in the pub.
Yes, we were.
So you weren’t fighting the Chelsea fans.
No, we were in the pub, cloth-ears!
You can see from the last line of the authentic exchange that there is still some reluctance amongst northerners to accept the usefulness of innit? Cloth-ears works in some, but not all, circumstances.
Anyway, you can choose to use either was or were, depending on which English soccer team you like (or hate).
3 The third person –s fiasco.
A lot of students say to me: ‘Ken, it’s all very well having the same word for all past tense forms of verbs, but why don’t we also have the same word for all forms of PRESENT tense verbs??’
They are of course referring to the third person –s, the single most irritating thing about learning English. I have to say I’m at a loss to explain why we need it. And to complicate matters, we don’t use it with modals (can, must etc), so why do we bother with other types of verbs?
We already have the ridiculous situation where singular nouns are followed by verbs ending in –s, whereas plural nouns, which end in –s, are followed by verbs with no –s.
A doctor treats ill people.
Doctors treat ill people.
It’s absurd and embarrassing.
I say, let’s get rid of the third person –s. Let’s face it, we’re already half way there – there’s a lot of support for only using don’t when making negative present tense statements.
Many people, including eminent rappers and other role models for young people, eschew the need to use the word doesn’t.
She don’t love me no more.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
Don’t is all we need. Stop using doesn’t immediately. You know it makes sense, innit?
4 Why isn’t is enough?
And while we’re about it, there are FAR TOO MANY forms of the present tense of the verb to be – am, is, are – how is one brain supposed to deal with them all? Surely is is enough to deal with most functional requirements.
Thankfully, again we have a great role model in Ali G, the urban rapper and DJ.
Here’s an extract from a conversation between Ali G and MP David Carlton:
Carlton: Tell me, Ali, do you have a job?
Ali G: Unfortunately, I is recently on the dole…
Carlton: Really? When?
Ali G: Eight years and three months ago.
Carlton: It says here you claim disability benefit, are you disabled?
Ali G: Yes, I is got a terrible DJ’ing injury – I still ain’t got full mobility in me main mixing finger…
For an insightful view on language, check out Ali G’s interview with Noam Chomsky – http://youtu.be/fOIM1_xOSro
Feel free to add any other KISS language simplification techniques.