Compared to other Indo-European languages, English grammar is rather uncomplicated. Verb conjugation by person, for instance, is virtually nonexistent; and unlike in German and the Balto-Slavic languages, there is no declension of nouns, articles or adjectives. In English, only personal pronouns have different ‘cases’ (I/me, he/him, we/us, etc.) and the vast majority of nouns are gender-neutral, which takes away the headache of having to guess whether each and every noun is feminine or masculine – or indeed neutral.
The relative simplicity of English grammar is probably one of the reasons why the language has become the official or de facto common language in virtually all international environments, including most international political institutions.
Nevertheless, English language learning does pose its own challenges – one of them being pronunciation, as there are very few rules and countless exceptions.
As a foreign learner, and even as a native speaker, you can rarely be sure of how to pronounce a word you do not know, unless you are familiar with phonetic script, in which case you can look it up in the dictionary. In this day and age, you can do that online and a recorded voice will read out the word to you, but the pronunciation uttered on these sound or video files is not always the correct one.
The lack of fixed rules makes English pronunciation rather arbitrary. Many words can be pronounced correctly in more than one way, (think of the words ‘direction’ and ‘either’ as examples) depending on regional accent or simply personal preference.
To be completely sure, there is something called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is meant to establish the ‘standard’ way of pronouncing English words, though this has been largely abandoned, even by the BBC. Which is great for authenticity (only a tiny minority of people speak like that) and for political correctness. Why should one region or a relatively small group of people establish all of the rules?
I trained as an EFL teacher in 2002, and as far as I am aware, teachers have always been allowed, if not encouraged, to teach pronunciation based on their own regional accents. This authenticity makes the English language more fully alive and accessible.
However, the downside for foreign students is, that if you grew up in a country that is more rigid with its linguistic rules, or if you are just the type of learner who favours rules, you might struggle with this flexibility.
To compound the confusion further, there are also a number of differences between American and British English (AE and BE) – grammatical and orthographic, as well as phonological ones.
Of course, English is the main language spoken in other former colonies, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. It is also an official language in several Indian states, the sole official language of the Judiciary of India, and a lingua franca throughout the Indian subcontinent.
In his book, The English Language, David Crystal writes:
“British English is now, numerically speaking, a minority dialect, compared with American, or even Indian, English.”
However, due to socio-political factors, there are only two reference varieties of English: American and British.
Here are some of their grammatical differences:
Past simple and present perfect
A major grammatical difference between AE and BE is the use of the past simple (preterit) and present perfect. BE uses the present perfect in cases where the past time isn’t clearly defined (Have you eaten yet?); whereas AE uses the past simple (Did you eat yet?).
However, the use of the present perfect has started to decline in BE, probably due to the influence of AE, given that, Britons are exposed to AE a lot more than Americans are to BE.
Transitive and intransitive verbs
A transitive verb takes a direct object – ‘I ate an apple’ (the apple being the object); whereas an intransitive verb does not. With many intransitive verbs, a preposition can be used to attach an indirect object: ‘I’m talking to you’.
An example of a verb that is used differently in British and American English is ‘write’. AE: ‘They wrote me’ (transitive). BE: ‘They wrote to me’ (intransitive).
Regular and irregular verbs
Some verbs that are irregular in BE are regular in AE: Lit/lighted – and vice versa -Dived (BE), dove (AE).
The definite article
A rather confusing difference for EFL students is the use of the definite article. Britons say ‘I have to go to hospital’ whereas Americans say ‘I have to go to the hospital’. In other cases, it’s the other way round. AE: ‘I play piano’ – BE: ‘I play the piano’.
This is particularly misleading for those students whose native tongues don’t even have the definite article!
In BE, collective nouns (words that refer to groups of people or institutions, such as ‘family’ or ‘government’) are followed by a verb conjugated in the plural: ‘My family live in Italy’ – whereas AE uses the singular: ‘My family lives in Italy’.
Like in the use of the past simple, this Americanism is also starting to influence BE.
Subjunctive verb forms were common in Old English but disappeared in Middle English. However, from the 1920s onwards, the subjunctive has re-appeared in AE – mostly thanks to speakers of other languages who use it an awful lot more in their mother tongues.
An example of the subjunctive in use is: ‘The doctor suggests that he stop smoking’. In BE, the subjunctive isn’t very common. Instead, BE speakers use should + infinitive: ‘The doctor suggests that he should stop smoking’ – or the present simple: ‘The doctor suggests that he stops smoking’.
One of the trickiest aspects of any foreign language learning is the use of prepositions. Native English speakers make this even trickier for foreign students by not always being consistent in their usage.
In many cases, different prepositions can be used almost interchangeably: At the weekend or on the weekend. At school or in school. Different from/to/than, and so on. The choice can depend upon context, preference, or the variety of English.
Since the Second World War, the USA has been the most powerful country in the world – militarily, financially, and also culturally, at least in terms of popular culture. Which is why AE is the variety that has dominated globally for several decades.
However, in the past 20 years – thanks to the internet and globalisation – Americans seem to have become more aware of the BE variety. It can be said that some native speakers across the world speak a form of Mid-Atlantic English, i.e. a variety that is neither American nor British.
In recent decades, linguists have focused on the use of English as a lingua franca in mainland Europe and have coined the Euro-English variety. The term was first coined in 1986 and it referred to the English spoken by the staff of the EU institutions, who made grammatical errors and borrowed terms from other European languages.
Some linguists suggest that Euro-English is just another example of the flexibility of the English language rather than a separate dialect of it, whilst others believe it falls under the Mid-Atlantic variety, which is a neutral form of English without any distinct geographical associations.
Euro-English allows speakers of other languages to express their own socio-cultural identities when speaking English, because it is an endonormative lingua franca; that is, it derives its norms from its own usage rather than from native BE or AE. Expressions initially used and understood only by people who know the language of origin, eventually became accepted and used also by native English speakers.
The variety incorporates elements of RP, Standard AE, and the speaker’s own mother tongue; and it uses a vocabulary that is understandable to most English speakers worldwide.
Many of us noticed the articulate, fluent English spoken by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during the Brexit negotiations. Several commentators in the UK and in other countries remarked on the clarity of her English compared to her British counterparts!
Ironically, in international milieus where English is the common language, Britons are often the odd ones out. I will never forget having dinner in India a few years ago with a well-spoken Englishman, a Tamil man who spoke perfect English with a strong Southern Indian accent (which is notoriously difficult to understand) and an Italian woman whose English was fairly good but who would on occasion ask me to translate for her. Out of curiosity, I asked the woman which of her interlocutors she found harder to understand – and to everyone’s amusement, she pointed to the English guy!