Have you ever caught yourself saying something that immediately stopped you in your mental tracks? One second the words are out, and in the next second you question, “Did I just say that?” The slightly odd phrase gets highlighted by the Grammar Check and Vocabulary Check in your head (we teachers have these automatic functions, you know), and your self-analysis has one aim: to see if you committed some kind of gross error.
Oh my! Is that possible? Could a teacher possibly utter something non-standard? Of course, it’s possible. We’re human and we’re part of the everyday world, so like other speakers of English we can be influenced by patterns we’re exposed to and sometimes we deviate from the norm. I suppose what makes us different from others who use non-standard phrasing is that we are usually more sensitive to the distinction between standard and non-standard English. Furthermore, we must accept the responsibility of keeping our deviations from the norm to a minimum when serving as a model for our students.
In my August 31 recording for the activity Truths, the phrase “last evening” tumbled out of my mouth. In the effort to keep the recording smooth and natural-sounding, I pushed on to the end and then listened to the playback. Hm, I thought. Should I redo that? Isn’t it more common to say “last night” or maybe even “yesterday evening”? I seized the opportunity to have a learning moment and did a bit of research. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English confirms the correctness of last night and yesterday evening. I also checked the frequency of all these phrases through Phras.In to see if I was out in left field and standing all alone there. English speakers on the Internet have created 122 million hits for “last night”, a bit over 3 million for “yesterday evening”, and only 88,300 hits for “last evening”. Okay, I thought, I said an uncommon phrase, but I clearly didn’t invent it either. For now, I’ve decided to keep “last evening” in the previous post and see if it sparks any kind of comment. So far it hasn’t. (That may change after this post!)
Coincidentally, a student recently asked about a phrase I used in an old video lesson of mine on the present perfect. In my on-camera talk I mentioned that I had already been to the doctor’s two times that year. “Why didn’t you say ‘twice’?” asked the student. “I was taught that only ‘twice’ and ‘once’ are correct. ‘Two times’ and ‘one time’ are incorrect, aren’t they?” This particular question stumped me more than my query about “last evening”. I feel that there are contexts in which either alternative is possible (once/ twice OR one time/ two times) and contexts in which only one is possible. For example, we say “once in a lifetime” and “once bitten, twice shy”. We cannot substitute “one time” or “two times”. However, in my statement about going to the doctor’s, I’d argue it’s acceptable to say “twice” or “two times”.
Should we teach the hard-and-fast rule that once and twice are preferred to one time and two times in standard English? Is use of one time and two times more typical of informal English? Possibly, but I wouldn’t correct a student for using one time or two times unless the phrases were idiomatic and substitution wasn’t possible. Also, we cannot use once and twice as modifiers as we do in phrases such as “two-time winner” or “one-time password”.
What are your thoughts on using less common collocations?