It’s English, yes - but is it Good English?  - by Robert Wilde

Here you are in Britain learning, you hope, the language first-hand from those who speak it as their mother tongue – but is it all going to be good English?

Sorry, no. We are not talking of grammar, or spelling or pronunciation, but clarity – and by clarity we mean that what we say should be instantly understandable to our listeners or readers.

But before we begin – what is good English? And more to the point - what is bad English?

It’s a huge topic but I’ve found a few irritating errors which should be avoided. They are mistakes English-speakers make, but you don’t have to make them!

I hate this one – blindingly obvious. You’ll hear it and read it everywhere. But it’s bad English because if something is obvious it won’t blind you, will it? What should you say? Simply obvious. Obvious means 100% visible or understandable, and that’s enough!

Another pet hate of mine - and you’ll hear and read this everywhere, too – is it’s patently obvious. Unfortunately, patent and obvious mean exactly the same thing , so it is patent = it is obvious – you don’t want to say it’s obviously obvious, do you?

Over to America, for the next language crime from Mr. Haldeman, a particularly unpleasant employee of President Nixon. At this point in time and at this moment in time. Horrible English.

This one is not really wrong but it irritates the ear and the eye, because it’s used so often that it’s beginning to lose its force – it is at the end of the day. The meaning is supposed to be – after you have looked at the matter carefully.

Example: It’d be nice to start this new project but at the end of the day we don’t have enough money.

How to correct it? Just leave it out! The word but would do just as well!

And now we come to a delicate subject – of course, you will hear and read lots of so-called bad English words. They are very common in everyday speech and, well, it’s a problem for the non-English speaker – can I use them or not?

Let’s take all those words you’ll hear which are a variation on a splendid old Anglo-Saxon verb which is four letters long: f***. It comes from Latin fecundus. Similar verbs exist in German and French and other European languages.

You’ll hear these words everywhere – in the street, on TV, on the radio – but never in Parliament!

There are many more words which are more difficult to decide to use or not!

Time and place and situation and context are vital here.

I’ve known the maker of this website for 44 years and sometimes we’ll use these words about one another or against one another, in a joking fashion. But

c. we’re men, and men sometimes swear a lot together but we wouldn’t use these words in front of women; as professional teachers, we would never dream of using these

A friend of ours, Oxford educated and highly intelligent might use one of these words – but when he does, you know that he feels deeply about something.

And one of these words appears in a famous poem by Philip Larkin – but he uses the word with absolute precision, to the extent that only this word is exactly right in the context.

Swearing is widespread, and the reasons are many; with the uneducated, it is just the way they speak and although not nice to hear, is harmless enough. But it shows something more important; very often the word very would do instead of f**ing. as an adverb and too, too often it is just a matter of lazy speech – using these words because finding another word is either beyond their intelligence or appears more manly or acceptable to their peers in the group they belong to.

In other social groups, swearing is perhaps not so common, but when it happens you can be sure the user, unless drunk or angry, has carefully noted the surroundings. He or she won’t use these words if there are older people present, or the locale is wrong.

In other words, swearing is a very subtle, problematic subject, and for you, the non-native speaker, however good your English is, it is a minefield!

Calling somebody stupid in English is not terribly serious – now try calling an Italian stupido! He won’t be happy!

I’ve been learning German and French for 55 years, and know all the bad words in both languages – but I very rarely use them. How can I be 100% sure I am not offending someone?

And there’s a further problem – the use of these words is different in the States – and what might be acceptably here in London would get you a punch in the mouth there!

So the rule is clear: just don’t use these bad words, ever! To tell the truth, we don’t like it much when you do use them – it doesn’t sound right, and usually, the non-native speaker gets the emphasis or the tone or the place or the occasion wrong, just as we would in your language.

But do learn them and know them, and see how people use them. These words sometimes have their place, and there is a time when they can be used. See if, by listening, you can find out when those times are. It’s a good language exercise for you!

Bob Wilde



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