Thanks to the power of the internet, I teach English as a Foreign Language to students around the world. My favorite part is listening to the creative responses they come up with for some very un-creative questions.
As an example:
(during a lesson on the solar system)
Me: What would happen if there was no sun?
Student: (thinking) The plants would die.
Me: And what would happen to the people?
Student: (thinks a bit longer, shrugs) They’d have to eat the other people instead.
In any event, teaching English to non-English speakers has given me a new appreciation for what they go through. I mean, I do know something about the difficulties of learning a new language (I’m working on my fifth), but I really feel for those who tackle the particular insanity of my native tongue.
Today’s linguistic conundrum: would and should. On the surface, this seemed super easy. They’re basic English words that we use all the time, so explaining the differences should be a breeze.
But it’s the subtleties that’ll getcha’. And gotch me they did.
Like this seemingly innocuous turn of phrase: “Would you do the dishes?”
Simple, right? But, depending on your tone and the circumstances, I see three entirely different meanings.
1. A polite request that may or may not get done.
2. If it’s coming from a parent or significant other, a demand disguised as a request that better get done.
3. A hypothetical, as in “If a meteor were about to touch down in your front yard, would you do the dishes?”
And then there’s the declarative uses, which include giving advice (“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”) and talking about the past (“When I was little, I would ride my bike every day.”).
And how about “should”? It can ask for advice (“Should I go to the 24-hour Transformers movie marathon?”), give advice (“No, you really shouldn’t.”), give a general opinion (“You know, we should go visit Billy Bo Bob Barnes some time.”) or declare something to be super likely (“We should have that car fixed for you by this afternoon. Three weeks from now at the latest.”).
I guess what I’m saying is (1) English is kinda nuts, (2) I’m really glad I grew up speaking it so I didn’t have to learn it later, and (3) to everyone who is climbing that particular linguistic mountain, I salute you.
Are there any aspects of English that drive you nuts or that you just find fascinating or bizarre? Share them in the comments below!