Do you like homeworks?

As far as grammar accuracy is concerned, native English-speaking teachers are generally pretty tolerant of unusual usages of their mother tongue.

VýstřižekVýstřižek 2

They are definitely more tolerant than their NNEST counterparts.

The other day I threw in this remark in the staffroom: “Just imagine, I have seen the plural of homework (homeworks) in a couple of contexts. It was even used by a highly regarded professor of English I knew at uni”. Needless to say, my colleagues didn’t believe me. “Well, he apparently made a mistake”, they retorted.

I’m looking at my draft now and see that my spellcheck is as intolerant as my colleagues.

According to Grammarly (and Flax, below), homeworks doesn’t exist.

Grammarly spellcheck

Flax

Or does it?

BNC (SketchEngine)

Fraze.it

Výstřižek 8

Seznam.cz – online bilingual dictionary

COCA

Somewhat confusing, right? If not for me, then definitely for an English learner who’s desperately trying to find the right answer when preparing for a grammar test. It seems that the more information available on the internet these days, the more complicated it gets.

As non-native speakers of English considerably outnumber its native speakers, English can’t resist the influence non-native speakers have on it. In Czech, homework is countable. When I came home from school, my mom would ask: “How many homeworks do you have today?” I would reply, somewhat downheartedly: “Oh, today I have three homeworks – History, Czech and Math.” “Okay, do your homeworks first and then you can go out”. Thus, at the very early stages of learning English, I tended to visualize separate homeworks when I talked about more than one piece. In other words, in my mind, homework behaved like apple(s) or pencil(s).

So far, I have used homeworks seven times in my post. Once somebody creates a corpus using the input from educational blogs written in English, my ‘incorrect’ usages will be included in the count. Then, at some point in the future, an insecure language learner will want to check the countability of homework (because he has just failed a grammar test), and he will whoop with delight: “Homeworks exists after all! I swear I’ll have my teacher for breakfast tomorrow”.

So, the word exist seems to be the problem here. Homeworks clearly exists because I have just used it several times in my writing. Even if the form hadn’t existed 5 minutes ago, it was born when I started playing with it. For me, it’s plain fascinating. I’m the creator and the starter. In fact, anybody can do the same.

Now, what do we do with this fascinating finding in the L2 classroom? As my colleague pointed out eloquently, we need some kind of codification that will help us decide what is right and what is already unacceptable. And she has a point. What do we do with homeworks in a student’s writing, for example? Will we accept it because it exists, or will we take it as a serious error because we have said a million times that homework is uncountable?   

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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11 Responses to Do you like homeworks?

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi Hana

    according to corpus studies such as Countability in world Englishes [https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B7FW2BYaBgeiMmo0M0Q3Z0R4Mm8] there is not much evidence that the occurrence of countable uses of mass nouns is that common in “non-native” uses. the general position of the paper is that such uses do not affect intelligibility and is more to do with it as a social marker between “native” and “non-native” use.

    an interesting finding is that occurrences of countable uses of mass nouns is less determined by L1 influence and more by whether English is considered as a second langauge or a foreign lanaguage.

    that is there are more occurrences of countable uses of mass nouns in countries that see English as a Second language than as a Foreign langauge. the paper says that “it is the it is exposure to, and attitudes to, different models of
    English that determine differences in the amount of countable usage of mass nouns”

    what would you say the Czech situation is in regard to English as a Second Language or as a Foreign Langauge?

    finally there is an interesting visualisation of countable uses of mass nouns here – http://perec.mcmaster.ca/noun-countability/

    ta
    mura

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Mura.

      Thanks for adding a more scientific perspective to my viewpoint. In the Czech Republic, the role of English is still the one of a foreign language. I would say that the reason we make the error I described in my post has to do with L1 interference and/or overgeneralization of the rule for making plural. I’d say that a Czech learner is unlikely to say *lots of snows*, for example because it doesn’t exist in our language either. It seems to me that the learner simply has to be aware of the fact that homework is a mass noun to avoid adding the plural -s, at least at the early stages of their L2 development. Of course, if you are exposed to lots of examples of a language item, you will soon stop thinking about it consciously. I imagine that if one hears plenty of examples of *homeworks* or *informations* in an ESL environment, on the other hand, they may choose to start using it despite the fact that it’s deemed ‘incorrect’ in the Inner Circle. Every error is specific – many of them are common to speakers of all languages while others are influenced by one’s mother tongue. As an English learner myself, I feel *homeworks* falls into the latter category.

      Like

      • eflnotes says:

        i was looking at the examples of homeworks you give from various sources and the more i was reading them the more they sounded okay. i think this is because we can easily individuate homework as a single bounded concept hence easier to “count” it; other mass nouns are more difficult to individuate i guess but not imposssible?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. ljiljana havran says:

    I liked your post very much, Hana, as I enjoyed the tweets about this two days ago. 🙂

    When speaking about accuracy, the non-native teachers are usually more disturbed by the mistakes made by breaking common grammar rules (so-called ‘basic mistakes’). Non-native teachers seem to be most upset by the fact that learners continue to break rules which were taught at previous stages, and which the students ‘should’ therefore have mastered. The native speaking teachers generally regard as more serious the mistakes that are concerned with ‘intelligibility’.

    As the main purpose of learning a language is communication, I think that the mistakes like “s” in “homeworks” or “aircrafts”, or omitting “s” in the Present Simple Tense, or some other grammar mistakes are not as serious as vocabulary, or pronunciation mistakes that can impede understanding. Also, some grammar rules are very confusing/difficult to teach to students at pre/intermediate level, and therefore a complete waste of time: e.g. “will” and “going to” future, the difference between “must” and “have to”, the difference between separable and inseparable phrasal verbs, etc. (and this all is included in the “New Headway” intermediate coursebook syllabus, for example).

    Ljiljana

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Ljiljana.

      Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, we NNESTs are generally more error sensitive, so to speak. I don’t know why it is so, but maybe we feel our students need something crystal clear and tangible, otherwise they will accuse us of sloppy work. If a NEST says ‘well, it is so because we use it this way’, students will usually accept this statement with no objections. Once I admit that there is an exception to the rule which I can’t explain satisfactorily, my students may become suspicious.

      Of course, we both know that the main purpose of learning a language is communication. But we also have to convince our students that English is changing fast and it’s becoming flexible – sometimes more flexible than we can swallow.

      Liked by 1 person

    • ven_vve says:

      Also the difference between the present perfect simple and continuous – ah the joy of having to explain this to Croatian learners who are generally happy to dispense with the present perfect altogether. New Headway intermediate has a lot to answer for! The funny thing is, once I stopped using it I never came across another coursebook that focused so heavily on teaching the difference between PPS and PPC (to the point of devoting a whole unit to it) – at least not that I can remember.

      Re homework with an ‘s’ – in the BNC it seems to appear a couple of times as the name of a store or a chain?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hana Tichá says:

        Hi, Vedrana!

        You comment reminded me that one of my current B2 classes once struggled with the difference between the future continuous and the future perfect simple. Eventually, though, to my utter amazement, they got it and started using it correctly. And they still remember it now! You never know. How can the coursebook writers know? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. ljiljana havran says:

    Thanks for your response, Hana. I’d just like to add that we as NNESTs are more error sensitive as we are generally obsessed with grammar. I strongly feel that we ‘should’ tend to place more weight on being intelligible than on being (grammatically) correct so that our students’ wish to communicate should not be frustrated. (Grammar accuracy should be perfected at more advanced levels)
    Language is complex and constantly changing, as you pointed out very well. It’s very easy to explain that to our students, IMO (there are so many examples: If I were / if I was, I shall / I will, etc., and it’s very likely that the plurals like aircrafts/homeworks/informations will be accepted as grammatically correct one day).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Homeworks, evidences, and other dilemmas | Random Thoughts

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