A London secondary school is trying to stop its pupils from using “basically” at the beginning of sentences and deploying phrases such as “oh my days” in a crackdown on “fillers” and “slang” in the classroom.
Ark All Saints academy has produced lists of “banned” language which includes “he cut his eyes at me”, which the Collins dictionary says originates in the Caribbean and means to look rudely at a person and then turn away sharply while closing one’s eyes dismissively.
Neither should they use “that’s long”, which can mean something that is boring or tedious, or “that’s a neck” which indicates a comment or action is stupid. “Bare”, “wow”, “cuss” and “oh my God” are also out.
The list – which is intended to steer the language used in formal learning situations and exams rather than in the playground – has drawn criticism from linguists who described it as “crude and shortsighted … a disservice and discredit to young people”.
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Teachers say it guides pupils to use language that fits more formal situations and helps them succeed. The school said the specific words and phrases on the list were selected because they were “showing up a lot in pupils’ work” and it stressed the importance of pupils expressing themselves “clearly and accurately”.
Expressions that must not be used at the beginning of sentences include: “ermmm”, “because”, “no”, “like”, “say”, “you see”, “you know”, and “basically”.
“The development of reading and speaking skills is a central part of what drives our school to help our students learn effectively and fulfil their potential in academic and non-academic ways,” said Lucy Frame, the principal at the school in Camberwell, south-east London.
“None of the words or phrases listed are banned from general use in our school or when our students are interacting socially. But this list is used in some formal learning settings to help students understand the importance of expressing themselves clearly and accurately, not least through written language in examinations.”
The intervention may reflect a widening gap between language that is accepted by examiners and that used day-to-day by pupils in some areas of the UK. External examiners have noted pupils nationwide using “unnecessarily rude and strident vocabulary” in weaker answers. Bridging the gap between what is normal language for pupils and what is acceptable for exams is a challenge for teachers. A 2019 survey of 2,100 tutors found that “slanglish” was the most common reason for English GCSE failures.
Yet, as a subject of study, “code-switching/style-shifting, youth slang … and use of accent and dialect” is increasingly of interest to English language A-level students, according to the AQA exam board.
Some of the phrases prohibited in formal learning at Ark All Saints have been widely used in books and music. “He cut his eyes at me” is a phrase that has been used by the popular teen novelist Lily Anderson as well as Richard Ford, the 77-year-old American writer. “Oh my days” appears in lyrics by Stormzy, and even inspired a line in T-shirts after the footballer Jeremie Frimpong, declared “oh my days, best game ever” in a post-match TV interview after winning a trophy for Celtic against Rangers.
Other schools are also trying to restrain rapidly evolving slang, which is finding its way into pupils’ written and oral work.
In Birmingham, St Thomas Aquinas Catholic school has attached instructions to schoolbooks about achieving “eloquence”. They include avoiding the use of “colloquialisms” such as “like” and “so” in academic speech and writing. The instructions encourage the use of “furthermore”, “consequently” and “in conclusion” to link sentences and clarify meaning.
Some fear such moves could alienate some pupils.
Dr Marcello Giovanelli, a senior lecturer in English language and literature at Aston University, said: “Slang has always been at the forefront of linguistic innovation.” He described “he cut his eyes at me” as a “wonderfully creative example” and said “dismissing students’ home or own use of language may have negative effects on identity and confidence”.
Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College London and the director of the Slang and New Language Archive, said: “It shouldn’t be about good or bad language, it should be about appropriate language for the context.”
“You don’t want to make them feel they have to reject the cultural aspects of their own language,” said Dr Natalie Sharpling, who teaches applied linguistics at Warwick University. “We should celebrate the different ways language is being used and concentrate on the content of what is being said.”
Sharpling said she had observed an increasing trend in schools to police language and said “it would be a shame if it becomes a case of if you want to be successful, this is the way you have to speak”.
This is the text of the notice at All Saints academy. Definitions added by the Guardian in square brackets.
Banned words and phrases at Ark All Saints academy
The following words must not be used at the beginning of sentences:
You see …
You know …
Slang and Idioms
These expressions must not be used.
He cut his eyes at me (he shot me a withering sidelong glance)
Oh my days (my goodness)
Oh my God
That’s a neck (you need a slap for that)
That’s long (that’s boring, tough or tedious)
Bare (very, extremely)
Cuss (swear or abuse)