Nothing is arbitrary, so what?


I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person who strongly believes that nothing in life is really arbitrary.  If nothing in life is arbitrary, then nothing concerning language is either. However, when a student asks me why Bronx is used with the definite article but Brooklyn isn’t, even though they are both boroughs of the same city, I brush them off by saying: “It’s just the way it is”. The truth is, though, that I know that there is probably a solid explanation; according to Wikipedia, the use of the definite article is attributed to the style of referring to rivers or to the fact that the borough’s name stems from the phrase “visiting the Broncks”, referring to the settler’s family. However, explaining the story of every seemingly illogical definite article would be a bit too time-consuming. After all, we have better things to do in the few lessons of English a week.

The same goes for collocations. Mura Nava wrote an interesting post about collocations and how, contrary to a popular belief, they need not be arbitrary at all. Collocation is the behaviour of the language by which two or more words go together, in speech or writing. Honestly, it no longer surprises me that a word prefers the company of specific words but the implication that language ‘behaves’ in a certain way is thrilling. It suggests that language has some of the properties of human beings. Sorry if I’m crossing the line here; actually, I’m aware that language would not exist without human beings and it’s obviously not a living entity of its own. What I’m trying to say is that if one human being prefers (or avoids) the company of another human being, it’s not arbitrary at all; there must be an explanation and there certainly always is one, even though it may not be obvious at first sight. So we either accept the fact that there is a reason and we’ll leave the subject for good, or we become psychologists and start digging deeper into mysteries of human nature. As far as language is concerned, in order to find answers to some of the most burning questions, we can become linguists and start poking our noses into the origins of bits and pieces of language.

My conviction that there is a logical explanation for every aspect of life and language is comforting. And I don’t even mind that some truths will remain hidden forever. But I’m glad to know that at each and every point, I am free to decide which secrets I choose to uncover and which I will ignore. The same freedom applies to language teaching; I believe some things should be left alone, no matter how exciting they may appear to the teacher. The teacher’s job is mainly to help students communicate in the language effectively. If they want to dig deeper and think harder about the hows and whys, they’ll certainly find ways to do so outside of the classroom.

Caveat: the above conclusion doesn’t mean that I do not believe that generalization of what students have learned is useful; the thing is that one has to think twice before investing time into lengthy explanations of why something works this or that way.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Nothing is arbitrary, so what?

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi Hana
    nice to see a post from you : )

    it is interesting the example you pick about using the with Bronx and not with Brooklyn (or the other boroughs) – this use of non-generic the has been called “cultural” and found to be the hardest (the others being situational, textual, structural) not only for English learners but also for first language users of English (Liu & Gleason, 2002 –

    often the literature recommends “no sustained attention” needs to be given to article use (for beginners).

    so depending on the area of language we are teaching we can decide what to give more attention to or less – so maybe collocations teaching would benefit more from “sustained attention” than article use?


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Mura,

      nice to see a comment from you. 🙂 Thanks for offering a more complex view on the topic of non-generic use of the definite article. I definitely agree that collocations should be given more attention than articles. To me, language output, either written or oral, appears much less flawed when articles are used incorrectly than when wrong collocates are provided. Also, based on my experience, the correct use of articles is something which is quite difficult to drill or teach explicitly. Rather, it is something that comes with time and exposure to L2. And although many of the rules about articles are quite simple and straightforward, and students are familiar with them in theory, when it comes to language production, they use them incorrectly.

      Anyway, thanks for the post; it’s comforting to know that you can do a mistake. 🙂



      • eflnotes says:

        yes also I agree with the main point of your post – lots of language is arbitrary but we can help students with the parts that are non-arbitrary; plus important to note that a lot of such explanations that we can help students with can only be made after the fact i.e they will be more helpful in comprehension rather than production

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s