The Soldier Was Hit by the Sailor

by Translation Guy on September 15, 2010

Got it? A simple English sentence, no fancy words or tricky grammatical twists, just a plain old English sentence that any native speaker can understand. Right? Wrong. Or at least that’s what recent research by Dr. Ewa Dabrowska of Northumbira University suggests. Many English speakers don’t really understand simple English grammar.

Now I’m not pointing any fingers here, at least not at you gentle reader, or at least not to your face. Despite what you read from the TranslationGuy commentariate, I know from heart-breaking experience that anyone who wades through more than a line or two of my posts is a master at parsing meaning from nonsense. I learned long ago that no one knows what the hell I’m talking about most of the time anyway. And all this time I thought it was me. So Dr. Dabrowska’s findings have lifted a great weight from my shoulders, because now I can blame others for my incomprehensibility.

Dabrowska started quizzing adults on reading comprehension of simple phrases like the headline above. Over-educated grad students were tested alongside under-educated people who had left school at 16 or so.

Those quizzed were asked to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences, as well as sentences which contained the universal qualifier “every.” The two groups performed very differently.  A high proportion of those who had left school at 16 began to make mistakes. Some speakers would have done better if they had just closed their eyes and started checking answers randomly. (I’ve tried this myself, and would not recommend it as a strategy for test takers.)

Dabrowska says, “regardless of educational attainment or dialect we are all supposed to be equally good at grammar, in the sense of being able to use grammatical cues to understand the meaning of sentences.  Of course some people are more literate, with a larger vocabulary and greater exposure to highly complex literary constructions. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level, everyone in a linguistic community is supposed to share the same core grammar, in the same way that given normal development we can all walk.”

This means that Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar is not so universal after all. Test-taking skill, working memory, all those kinds of things did not seem to be affecting results. Chalk it up to stupidity? High school drop-out vs. grad student―seems obvious, right? But check this out: once the drop-outs were taught the rule, they understood it easily. Dabrowska figures that the only reason these less educated speakers did not initially understand was because they were never taught in the first place.

Here’s a link to that brilliant scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the Swamp King encounters similar comprehension problems with his staff, which reminds me of some recent conversations I’ve had with my own colleagues in the past (not, of course, with any of you who read this blog).

Jokey quips aside, I would imagine that this lack of a universal grammar in English can also be found in other languages, and that the range of comprehension among non-literate speakers must be even higher. Lots of implications here for those working in languages that are not taught formally. Does anyone know of any work being done on this?


  1. Ahem, you put your own grammar trap into that penultimate sentence: “languages that are not taught formerly”. Err, “formerly” as in “a long time ago”? I can’t quite fit the verb tenses into that interpretation. Or is there some other rule that hasn’t yet been taught on this side of the Atlantic? (And do you interpret the phase “pulling your leg” the same way as we Brits do?)
    More seriously, for all the unlearned distinctions between active and passive verb forms, I suspect that the “ungrammatical” speakers in this study nevertheless have ways of making fine distinctions in meaning, and that in some instances both you and I (as socialised speakers of a minimally distinct trans-Atlantic grammar-based form of English) would miss the point.
    Perhaps you guessed: I am currently reading a book by John McWhorter on language change.

    • Ken says:

      What a drag that I wrote “formerly” when I meant “formally,” since that has the most interesting implications.

      If formal education is required to make sure that everyone understands their own language, how does that change the rules of discourse in languages that are non-literate? I wonder if linguists have been studying this, since Chomsky’s
      “universal grammer” thesis seems to be the recived wisdom in the field. But the long minutes of Google research required to answer this question mean that an answer will have to wait.

      As to your point that these non-passive-voiced stiffs express themselves with their own patterns of eloquence that passes beneath our upturned noses? Well mistakes have been made in the past.

  2. I inadvertently added my own trap, writing “phase” instead of “phrase”. Another instance of Murphy’s law of proofreading!

  3. Ron Barak says:

    You wrote “Here’s a link to that brilliant scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, but I fail to find the link you refer to :-(

  4. Sue Hamrick says:

    We can not let the brits standardize English! Think of the number of “u”s we would have to have to give safe harbour to.

    • Ken says:

      u can say that again, Sue…

  5. I don’t know that anyone expects the Americans to write in British English, but it might perhaps not be too much to expect the British to do so.

  6. Luis Turner says:

    The clergy and laity of Germany have refused to accept a newly-translated funeral rite and the bishops there reported to Rome that “the new ritual must be considered a failure.” The result is that the new translation of the funeral rite has been abandoned. This is probably just the beginning of a movement in the Church, a movement that may be of the Holy Spirit. It appears to me that when the new English Mass translation becomes mandatory, many priests, if not the many, will continue to proclaim the good news that Christ died for all.

  7. jcups says:

    I’ve done my time in the United States. More than I deserved, actually, so I’m very familiar with American attitude. They always complain about having to press 1 for English and “those dirty foreigners” not knowing English. Well, let’s put aside the fact that to call American English English is a stretch, at best, and assume, for the sake of argument, that it is English. That said, Americans still seem to have disproportionate difficulties with English than nationalities who learn it as a second language.

    My last boyfriend, Zhen, never wanted to speak with me on the phone because, as he put it, “My English is bad.” I rang him up several times, anyway, because I enjoyed speaking with him, and I could understand what he was saying, the majority of the time, without having to have him clarify. And he’s never lived in an English speaking country.

    Americans, on the other hand, are quite different. More often than not, they’ve never lived outside their own country, yet still have difficulties speaking to me in a way that I can understand it. On top of that, I constantly find myself having to simplify my statements just so they will understand me. Maybe it’s all the text messaging.

  8. I think the reason for this is really quite simple. Non-native English speakers actually care enough to learn English because they want to communicate with English speakers. They’re often self-conscious about how bad their English is, and are constantly apologising for it, and working to improve it. Conversely, native English speakers (or, at least, Americans) don’t really care. They get raised on poor grammar, taught that learning is bad, and just speak the way they always have. Poorly.

    • Ken says:

      While I’m the first to agree that Americans are knuckleheads, being one myself, I should point out that this particular study was conducted in the north of Britain. I wonder how common the problem is in other regions or languages.

  9. Tritboss says:

    Right, until Americans will actually put the effort into learning to correctly use the English language, and the practice into implementing it, non-native English speakers will always be better at speaking English.

  10. CenturyBreak says:

    this whole issue could be solved tomorrow if we decided to kill every language but one, and have us all use the same language. It can’t be English. No. That would be too convenient for Americans. To make it fair, it would have to be something obscure. A language that has been dead for a while. A language only a handful of geeks (must be small geeks to fit in a hand) with the time to acquire useless trivia know. I think we all know what language I’m talking about. It starts with an L.

  11. Judy Schultz says:

    Nice post Ken – happy to add your blog to my Reader.

  12. Turn on BBC Radio 4, once the keeper of The Queen’s English, and there is every likelihood listeners will hear highly-educated, intelligent reporters and correspondents say ” I am stood here,” or ” I am/was sat there.” It would appear that nearly everyone now says “there’s lots of things to do today.” It is common in the UK to hear “we was, they was, you was.” And the use of the subjective is on the wane, as demonstrated in “If I was a billionaire.” Crazy!

  13. Sad, but children cannot be blamed, because they speak as they are spoken to.

  14. Bruce Wiley says:

    So annoying Ken! People do not seem to be vexed by their countrymen using adjectives when adverbs are required. So it seems to have become accepted English to say “he dug deeper into the ground” rather than “he dug more deeply into the ground.” To dig is a verb. Adverbs describe verbs and they usually end in “ly.”

  15. I’ve never been a grammar nazi or anything. I’ve always been okay with what is said as long as it’s clear what the person meant.

    There, was a time, however, that I was driving, and after exiting the highway, I had to slow down, and I thought of the word, “decelerate.” lol

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