Boarders between supposed language rules and personal style?

Hi all!

I often read the forum grammar, idioms and vocabulary. And often I come across questions about expressions where is no concrete answer but just personal subjective opinions or explanations of others. I myself sometimes asked questions which were easily to answer if I myself would have thought through what I liked to express.

Dear moderators and administrators, I don?t want to anoy you, but this is a question what comes up to me often:

Is there any boarder between supposed rules ?f language and the personal way of expressing?


Hi Michael

The most important rule is that other people should be able to understand you. And what they understand should ideally be the same thing you wanted to say. :smiley: If people don’t understand you, then you may have crossed the “border” you mentioned. :wink:

Another “rule” is that the rules for informal language are a lot more flexible than the rules for formal language. Just as they are in German. But even for more formal English, there isn’t always 100% agreement among the experts about everything.

Michael, I met a lot of Germans in the US years before I came to Germany, years before I began teaching and years before I learned German. One thing that I enjoyed was the way my German friends spoke. I enjoyed their “original” ways of saying things.

Of course, today I know that many of these “original ways of saying things” came directly from German. But, the point is, even though many things weren’t “typical” English ways of saying things, as long as the ideas were understandable and clear, no problem! The differences just made things more interesting.

On the other hand, there can also be some things that create unwanted negative reactions or unexpected misunderstandings. For example, I remember meeting one German who often told me how “sympathetic” (mitf?hlend) his American co-workers were. Because I didn’t know how to speak German at the time, I didn’t recognize the “false friend” and didn’t understand that he wanted to tell me that he simply found his co-workers “nice” and “likeable” (sympathisch). Instead, I thought the poor guy was constantly unhappy and desperately needed his co-workers for commiseration. :shock:

Now let me ask you a question. You mentioned questions being asked in the forum where no concrete answer was given or just subjective opinions. Can you be a little more concrete than that? It’s pretty difficult to answer such a non-specific question. :wink:



Personal style is a very strong thing (and personality by ‘itself’ :)). As Torsten says (and I agree), use of a specific language is just one of our personal habits. :slight_smile:

When a person has a distinctive personal style in his/her own language, he/she transfers it in any language being learned/used.
For example, I myself is attached to use (in writing) long hyphen instead of comma – sometimes almost ungrammatical – in Russian, and I know and see that I do (try to do) the same when use English. Even though I am not sure at all that it’s correct.

But – yes – your (our) first language also is a quite strong thing, as it gives us the basic representation and a way to express our feelings and thoughts verbally. That’s similar to a phenomenon of imprinting :slight_smile:

Foreigners, when learning English as a second language, do it through (by, across, … :)) their mother tongue. And they tend to transfer their ‘language traditions’ (national ‘traditions’ of speaking) - in English they use.
This is the reason why any experienced ESOL teacher has his/her own models of typical use of English by people of different (national) origin(s).

For example, some nations (like Caucasian) have a tradition to use ‘flowery’ and colorific long phrases, more or less exaggerating things in speech. This is a national tradition of speaking.

By the way, I have several friends who grown up in two-language (family) culture. That’s interesting! Whimsical mix of cultures inside, I mean.


Dear Michael,

Thanks for a fascinating question - a bit of a poser. Now there’s a case in point for starters a word with two meanings either someone who likes to show off from the French, poseur or a difficult question and I meant the latter. But I’m off at a tangent but making a point at the same time; English is such a hotch potch, such a rag bag, such a pot pourri, such a ragout and even such a gulasch of so many different languages that it’s difficult for a native speaker not to be up front and personal about the choice of words for the particular occasion. That to my mind is the top and bottom of why A says this and B says that. That’s not an excuse or an apology. When you’re swimming around, to continue the metaphor, in a soup made up of so many delicacies, it’s very difficult to choose which titbit you want to sample. If you want to taste the richness of the language just dip into Bill Shakespeare’s writing and see the liberties he takes, how he turns words on their heads, invents new ones and says things which you intuitively understand without really knowing why and you are left wondering why no one had ever said that before. But then we come to the rules and Bill wouldn’t give you tuppence for them but the rest of us have to now and again and people who are learning English as a foreign language want to know what’s right and what isn’t. Now I could also say what’s right and what aint but if I ‘ainted’ in a Cambridge English exam, the examiner ( and I was one in another life)would regard that as a mistake because it is considered to be an incorrect form of ‘isn’t’ nowadays although in Regency Britain it was fashionable. In the Victorian age (most of the 19th century) the grammarians ruled the day and full of Latin learning they said what you could say and what you couldn’t. Although I’m not that old!, I can remember having a grammar textbook at school compiled by a man with the wonderful name of Oliphant (I ask you) and the rules were then very much set in stone. Then in the 60s and 70’ anything went and children weren’t taught what old fogies like me would call proper grammar and today well nobody seems to know what’s going on and recent exam results and tests for children in the UK are showing that there is a poor understanding of the use of English. So where do we go from here? Perhaps I should get back to your original point. Personal choice or rules? Well clearly where there is a black and white issue, it is necessary to explain it. So if you write: I am here since 5pm, we correct the mistake and explain the Present Perfect. If you say: The people here is very friendly, we point out that ‘people’ takes a plural verb and so on. That’s the easy bit. Then comes a question. Is it: It’s up to you or It’s down to you? Now that’s a matter of personal choice. A trivial example but the best I can come up with. Or should I say: The best up with which I can come? because some joker said I couldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.

And (Oh, they say you shouldn’t start a new sentence with a conjunction like ‘and’) now to my final point: as one of the original three founder members of the site and the only native English speaker of the three, I initially and I suppose I still do, have said what I personally think and have therefore been subjective but I have endeavoured to steer a course between the strict rules and freedom of expression. Above all I have preached the need for clarity as the most important part for expression. Since the first years of the site of course I have been joined by others who have admirably put their points of view and all the subscribers to the site can have a rich variety of choices and explanations at their disposal. For that reason, Michael, I think you should rejoice that there is this cornucopia at your disposal.


There’s still another twist to this whole issue.

Sometimes native speakers use strange grammar or word choices that they’ve heard from foreigners, and those become standard phrases in English. Among them are:

[b]Long time no see.

wild and crazy guy

the mother of all battles

running dog lackey of the American imperialist war-mongering pigs[/b]

The first one comes from Chinese pidgin English. The second one is an imitation of people from Czechoslovakia. The third one is from a press announcement by Saddam Hussein, and the last one is from an old press release or something from Mao’s government in China. The first time these phrases were heard, most people thought they were comical. Because of this, people started repeating them so much that the phrases became part of the language, even though they violate all the rules.

Sometimes you hear this happen in specialist circles also. I’ve often heard ESL teachers say “a vocabulary” instead of “a word” when they want to be funny, because that’s a mistake foreigners make a lot. At large companies in the US that use the German accounting software SAP, the Americans often can be heard using strange terms because not all parts of the SAP programs are translated well into English.

Hi, Jamie:
I thought “Long time no see” was used by English native speakers :roll: But we do have a similar Chinese phrase . About the last one I think you may have read some books or articles written by Chairman Mao. I read it for the first time , but I don’t know whether it is translated well, anyway, I understand a bit through the “dog lackey” and the "American imperialist " , just don’t know what the "war-mongering pigs " is . I think they are special historical terms which have the political colors. People seldom use them now.


In the context of personality, which is stronger-than-grammar, what about Ringo-ism(s)?…

And not only Ringo-…

‘We don’t need no education.’ (Pink Floyd) – you know, such sayings present real English all over the world much more successfully than all grammar books…

Hi Tamara

Please define “real”. :wink:

Even before I turned into an English teacher, I never used the construction “I don’t need no…”.

Does that make me unreal? :lol:


Amy, I grown up in the USSR…

So, to me - real and alive English (in contrast to tedious, ‘adapted’ and absolutely useless ‘school English’) was the language of those singers we listened that time with trembling. (And it was almost taboo!)

Hi Tamara,

I feel a new can of worms is being opened. I would be most interested to hear more about your experience in learning English at school. By that I mean what you refer to as:


Hi Alan,

As my school wasn’t a so-called ‘English special school’, I (as the vast majority of Soviet schoolchildren) was taught English mainly by people who never spoke (or even saw :)) native English speakers face-to-face… And who was taught by people who never…. etc., etc.

They taught me greeting people with the phrase ‘Hello! How do you do?’ :slight_smile:

By using textbooks with adapted materials. (And that time people, in fact, had very limited access to ‘more real’ things…)

In particular, do you know that in the USSR the only publishing house (Prosveshenie, Moscow) had the exclusive rights to publish school textbooks?

And its – actually highly qualified!… - censors were very careful to filter ‘improper’ English… Improper for Soviet children and generations of Soviet people…

I wasn’t the worst student, believe me… but my school English appeared to be completely liveless – in reality.

You know what I mean.


Hi Tamara,

Thanks for that. I hope we on the forum can help although I wouldn’t say your English was lifeless now. Anyhow keep posting as it’s always a pleasure to hear/read your comments.


Thank you, Alan.

Just to say a word more… :slight_smile:

One of my last year tutors, young lady who is a language teacher in third generation (London area), told me that, in fact, she is forced to speak several quite different Englishes, as her ‘mother English’ & her grammar school English (quite natural for her) sounds posh when used in everyday communication with the vast majority of ‘more common’ people. They just refuse her at all with her ‘too right’ English. :slight_smile:

Even some colleagues…

Hi Tamara,

Well yes, that’s life. I think we all do that. It reminds me of my days in the Tower of London (when will I ever forget?) when I was among what you might call without sounding too snobbish the lowest of the low, my policy was to keep my mouth shut for fear of giving away my background but since then I’ve become a true language chamelion adapting my speech to fit the situation. And that reminds me. I shared a tutorial with another student when I was at university who came from Liverpool and he could do a strong Liverpool accent. Fascinated with this I asked him to teach me to speak Scouse as they call it and he invited me to stay with his family at their house in Liverpool one weekend. In the days just before the Beatles became famous we visited the Cavern, a night club (later made famous by the Beatles) and I started as one did to chat up the local girls but they ran away at the sound of my London accent. I then took my first tentative steps at speaking Scouse and it worked perfectly!


English native speakers do use this phrase, but it comes from Chinese pidgin English, mainly because native speakers at one time thought it was funny. Most native speakers now don’t know that it came from Chinese English. We have another expression like this: No tiki, no washee! It means, “If you don’t pay me, I won’t do the work.” Unlike “long time no see”, it’s very clear that this expression comes from Chinese speakers.

Right. But when that bad translation was issued by the Chinese government in the 1960s, people found it so funny that they started to use it. Even today, you still hear Americans calling someone a “running dog lackey” of someone else. One time I worked with an editor who insisted on using too many punctuation marks, and I called him a “running dog lackey of the grammatically prescriptivist speck-mongering prigs”. He immediately knew this was a pun on that Chinese phrase.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by a Ringoism, but I can add this: When Czechoslovakia was more or less closed off by communism, a lot of people learned a lot of their English from Beatle songs. Later on, one characteristic of a certain generation of Czech person was that his English was laced with a lot of clich?s from these songs. For example, they didn’t know how to say, “Forget about it,” or, “Skip it,” or, “Never mind that.” They always said, “Let it be!” because this was what they’d heard thousands of times on a Beatle record. This was so common in that country that Czech characters in the English newspaper comic strips there talked like this. It was simultaneously irritating and funny, and it was ALWAYS from the Beatles, and never from any other source. The only exception was one time when I was chasing a teenage girl through the school with a squirt gun, and she shouted, “Don’t be cruel!” which was from an Elvis Presley song.

Just as an aside, I’ll tell you that the Beatles rerecorded quite a few Motown songs from my home city of Detroit, but sometimes they didn’t understand the words correctly, and occasionally a song doesn’t make sense when they sing it.

However, I have to say that even in that closed Soviet society, the Russian publishers of English textbooks, and some of the teachers, did a very good job! I worked with a Russian English teacher in the Czech Republic, and she was always getting trouble from the Czech teachers about issues of English grammar or vocabulary. The Czechs hated the Russians, and they thought of themselves as more advanced and cosmopolitan, which they weren’t. Czech English textbooks from the communist days often taught the grammar in a strange, distorted way that was based on the Czech language. When there would be an argument about grammar or vocabulary, it always turned out that the Russian and I were on the same side together against the Czechs. This Russian lady had been taught English in a different way, and her grammatical concepts were the same as a native speaker’s.

By the way, I enjoy learning Russian from Soviet-era textbooks and recordings. They are very thorough, and they are also full of interesting kitsch. I have even digitized my Soviet-era Russian cassettes so that I can use them in an MP3 player. They teach me a lot.

Hi Alan!

Like Amy mentioned, I think, that rules of languages clear up the communication between inidviduals, forces the clearness of said or written things and if anybody is stuck up disregarding the rules they must take in account to get missunderstood. I believe, we do agree here, don?t we?

Well, as you are very proficient in the English ( I mean not only but it?s one of your main interests, I imagine, beside of gardens and garden-dwarfs :wink: ) I took this as your way to express your thoughts. And (oops) for a correct comprehension of what you shared to me mentioning a poser I need to endeavour my brains and investigation-skills, too. I mean, if you thank me for raising that question you normally couldn?t consider me being pushy, stuck up or a poseur, right? So if my dictonary don?t offer me the due translation I?m needed a more painstakingly, meticulous reserach for clarifying your intended expression.

This is what I had in mind! I mean the optimist probably would say It?up to you! and the pessimist would say It?s down to you! :lol: But there are some else examples in my mind. For instance as and since in a proving sense we talked in another topic about. You referred to the British regards of as and Amy claimed the American use of since. Since that I?ve been prefering to use as if there is a prove without temporary regards and always if I can discover any temporary regard I insert since no matter if I write in the Present Perfect or not (I have no clue whether I fail here)!

At this point I, and I think all of us, have to thank you for providing such lots of solutions. Surely, it needs much more efforts to find the correct expression as if you stupidly would follow one straight and hard direction but the same time it offers a lot of opportunities and enables a thoroghful user a variable and precise command of the English.


Hi, Jamie:
I can’t find that"No tiki, no washee" . It must be an unusual American slang. In fact, I can’t find any clue to that Chinese pidgin English concerned here. Why do you say " it is very clear that this expression comes from Chinese speakers"? I feel a little confused. Because everyone would say " If you don’t pay me, I won’t do the work" :lol: , That isn’t a typical way of Chinese. I think you mean that for other reasons, right?
Another interesting thing is, Chinese would like to translate some English phrases or idioms into what we are familar with, for instance, “No pains, no gains” . When we make sentences or write articles we use it frequently, in fact I don’t know whether it should be called "English " or “Chinese pidgin English”, because we use it so often and people enjoy this kind of mixture(as the second nature, I guess) , Surely, nobody cares . :lol:


Hi FangFang
Try this spelling: no ticky, no washy

The expression arose from the stereotype that Chinese immigrants frequently owned laundries and it supposedly mimics the language difficulties they had when trying to tell a customer “If you don’t have your receipt (“claim ticket”), I won’t give you your wash back.”