Gimme, gimme, gimme...

The meaning of a statement is not always obvious from the meaning of the words it contains.

I was with one of my beginner students in the library, helping her request some materials. The exchange between the librarian and the English language student went like this:

LIBRARIAN: Have you got your library card?
STUDENT: Yes, I have.
LIBRARIAN: Well can I have it then please?

The learner did not know that, for an English speaker, its completely natural to use have you got...? to mean mean give me.... In other words, we use a structure that looks like it's asking for information (have you got a sister, have you got a degree?) to issue an order (have you got a pen?, have you got any change?, have you got a moment?) and in this situation the correct response is not a literal Yes I have, but Certainly, here you are.

To learn a new language effectively, the student has to learn not only the meaning of words and structures, but (crucially) be sensitive to meaning in the actual contexts they are used. This is called 'pragmatic competence'. So it wasn't very good actually means quite bad; would you like to leave now means I'm ordering you to leave; can you play the piano?' can, in different situations, mean either the genuine question do you possess the ability to play the piano? or the order hiding behind a question form I want you to start playing now.

These changes in meaning according to context occur throughout language, but are particularly common in the delicate area of social interaction, where saying something directly (while easiest for a learner to understand) risks too much imposition on the listener, so we prefer to couch an order in the form of a question Have you got your library card? rather than the more truthful (and consequently less polite) Give me your library card.


  1. This reminds me of British formulas for giving instructions, and how these can be misunderstood by lower int students. I've observed loads of trainee teachers who say things like 'perhaps you'd like to get into pairs now?' to students who think they are being offered a choice. My favourite signalling of the end of an activity came from a very intellectual lady in on a CTEFLA course in Cambridge who said to a bunch of lower int oriental sts 'well, if you can BEAR to tear yourselves away from this now...'

  2. It is certainly a minefield. I do a lot of marking of academic writing and it's so easy to say things like 'This MIGHT be better if this sentence was rewritten'. Teachers naturally want to be gentle and maintain rapport with their students, but in doing so risk giving a message so indirect that it is completely missed.