Grammar Guru: You’ll want to turn left at the light

You’ll want to… The pragmatics of this phrase is interesting:

  • Driver: How do I get to the lake?
  • Pedestrian: You’ll want to turn left at the light up there and then just go straight til you hit Shore Drive.

Why do we consider it acceptable and polite to predict what the person we are talking to will want to do? It would be quite bizarre to tell someone in German, “Sie werden da vorne links abbiegen wollen.” How presumptuous! So what makes telling them what they’ll want more polite than a direct imperative in English? Andreas Grundtvig recently explained to me that this is an example of implicature, that is a phrase that implies something rather than expressing it outright. Here the speaker implies a command rather than actually uttering it. Implicature is the broad term for such implied meanings. The use of this particular form – you will – used to imply a command is also found in conversations on the phone or at the front desk:

  • Amanda: I’d like to speak to someone about using room 1123 for an event.
  • Bertha: Oh, then you’ll want to speak to Marcy. Let me see if she’s in.

Unfortunately, using the will future like this doesn’t always signify an unspoken but implied command. Consider this foodie story, for example, where the writer simply predicts that once you read about these dishes, you will want to devour them on the spot:

So you need to keep your senses open to determine whether the phrase you have just heard or read is meant literally, or is a case of implicature.

Anyone looking at the will future as a form will be struck by how versatile it is in English. It’s worth exploring much more. For example, we use it all the time, especially in spoken English, to describe our habits, and what is typical:

  • When I go to the gym, I’ll generally take a bottle of water with me.
  • On Saturdays, we’ll sometimes go out for breakfast

None of those phrases are about the future at all. If anything, they reflect the past, because normalcy is based on habits developed over the years. I used the will-future above, in my intro: “Anyone … will be struck…” to express that same normalcy; yet in your case, being alerted to the form and its various meanings, the reference will naturally imply future acts of noticing.

A documentary about grammar

David and Elisabeth O’Brien, former English teachers, have raised over 22,000 dollars through Kickstarter to make a film about grammar. Talk about geeky – but they say their film is for everyone. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @GrammarRocks. Their blog, Grammar Revolution, features diagramming, which I would find too complicated for my German students. But maybe I’m wrong.

Grammar Guru: is to or has to?

Newspapers like the New York Times are reporting that Obama wants to introduce $1.5 trillion in new taxes to help reduce the country’s debt. Combined with his new $450 billion stimulus plan, he is taking a more populist approach to confronting the nation’s economic problems. He wants to call it the “Buffett Rule” for Warren Buffett, who complains that Congress is “coddling billionaires” like him.

Obama to seek new tax rate
(Washington Post news video)

“President Barack Obama is expected to seek a new base tax rate for the wealthy to ensure that millionaires pay at least at the same percentage as middle income taxpayers. The proposal will be officially unveiled on Monday. (Sept. 18)”

The headline refers to Obama’s plan to do something. So which word is missing here, is or has?

Obama _________to seek a new tax rate

Samuel L. Jackson reads “Go the F*ck to Sleep”

Samuel L. Jackson reads the book “Go the F*ck to Sleep” by Adam Mansbach.

Not in my parents’ generation, and not among some of my brothers’ families, but I do think “what the f*ck” and other similar phrases using “the fuck” as an intensifier are very prevalent indeed even in everyday family talk. I had an interesting conversation with a housemate here in Potsdam last week who said our next-door neighbors, who are from the States and have a great big yard, so we get an earful of their life through the garden fence, yell at each other a lot and use expletives. My response was, well, I frankly hadn’t noticed, but yes, that just might happen among American couples, sure. It’s sort of like saying “verdammt” in German, except of course nobody says that. Every region here in Germany has its own colorful language. Take Bavaria – and take the Schimpfwörter-Quiz.

But Mansbach’s book has in fact been translated into German by Jo Lendle, and the title translation is perfect: “Verdammte Sch*e, schlaf ein!” It’s sparked controversy among German parents, as summarized in the Atlantic Wire (with sample translations.)

Would I teach the various uses of “the f*ck”? We’ve discussed this before, but I’m revisiting the issue.  In my EFL classes, the most popular phrase, WTF, is generally acquired correctly anyway and learners won’t really have much occasion to use the other phrases until they are deeply enculturated and using them would be appropriate, by which time they’ll be acquired. I generally react to the way learners use language in class, so of course if students used incorrect phrases like “I’m not going to the f*ck do this!” I would correct to “I’m not the f*ck going to do this”, to get at least the grammar cleared up. LOL. But learners don’t, you see, so I haven’t! Thinking through acquisition and learning, I get the sense that even a long chunk like “Where the f*ck do you think you’re going (e.g. with my bicycle)?” will be acquired seemlessly if the affective filter is low enough. So the chunk will be acquired, but its appropriacy – who thinks what is ok, and where and when – must be taught. So, yes, “the f*ck” should most definitely be a part of the curriculum.

Putting this stuff out there is what blogs and Moodles are for! Many thanks to Eamonn for posting the link.

PS: Ash just posted that an Englishman would say “go to f’cking sleep.” Really? Not “Will you f*cking go to sleep”?

Grammar Guru: for or since?

I’ve known Theo _______ 5 years.  Is it for or since? Easy:


  • I’ve known him for a long time, it seems.
  • I’ve known him since he showed me his collection of old records and we discovered that we share a hobby.
  • Incorrect: I know him for a long time -> I’ve known him for a long time.

Compare my chart for “until/ by”. I developed these charts a few years ago and get a lot of mileage out of them.

Grammar Guru: until or by?

You’re going camping and want to borrow a friend’s tent over the weekend. So you say: “Could I have it ______ Friday afternoon? We’re leaving on Friday after work.”

Until or by?


  • Until means from now until then.
  • By, used for deadlines, means not later than then.
  • By… at the latest!
  • Imagine: If you said “until Friday”, your friend might say “Sure, until Friday is fine. But I need it on Saturday, so can you come round on Saturday morning to drop it off?”
  • Here’s an exercise on using “until” and “by”, with a pdf.

Grammar Guru: Nice meeting you/ Nice to meet you

Which of these two is correct? We say

  • “Nice to meet you” when we meet someone for the first time, and “Nice meeting you” when we then say goodbye.
  • “Nice meeting you” when we meet someone for the first time, and “Nice to meet you” when we then say goodbye.

˙noʎ ʇǝǝɯ oʇ ǝɔıu (s,ʇı) :ǝuoǝɯos ʇǝǝɯ
˙noʎ ƃuıʇǝǝɯ ǝɔıu (sɐʍ ʇı) :ǝʎqpooƃ ʎɐs

The difference is very subtle, and perhaps not everyone will agree with me, but it really sounds wrong to me when someone mixes up the two. I think it’s because we also say “(I’m) pleased to meet you” (which doesn’t work grammatically with the -ing) and “It was nice meeting you” (which seems to refer more to the whole event rather than just the act of meeting).

Socializing is my own main topic this week! I’m very honored to be a guest blogger on Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto’s blog, Teaching Village. She’s the co-author of a children’s English textbook series called Let’s Go, teaches children and adults in Japan, and you can “meet” her here in Darren Elliott’s video interview:

Barbara Hoskins-Sakamoto Interview from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Her blog subtitle says it all: “We’re better when we work together”. The blog has been gaining momentum as more and more people from our PLN (professional learning network) join as guest authors. Her latest venture is a series of quizzes on blogposts written by different members of the network, a great way to zone in on what these people are “all about”.

My contribution is on a socializing game I did recently and will repeat this coming week. It’s a variation on one I learned from Jo Westcombe, who is just full of great teaching ideas.