The hobgoblins are back! Or rather, they never went away

I have already mentioned hobgoblins in an earlier post – those unintended faux pas to which our students are prone at those critical moments when they would like their English to be at its best, its most professional, its most serious. I refer to them as ‘unintentionally hilarious’ but of course hobgoblins should never be regarded as a matter for levity; it behoves us in our role as professional language trainers to keep a straight face, a poker face, and deal with these errors just as we deal with every other. Our students expect nothing less.

We must be constantly alert, therefore, and as with any other category of error we should be looking into Hobgoblin Analysis™ and searching for clues and patterns so that we can help our students to avoid situations that might lead to an eyebrow being inappropriately raised in mirth. So I have been weeding some fresh hobgoblins out of my language notes, and casting an analytical eye. What, if anything, can be deduced?

This first group (they weren’t a group, but I have grouped them together) are interesting in the following respect – in each case, the sentence is (more or less) correct but the last word is wrong. The hobgoblin comes at the end. What effect is that?

“We have increased our production capacity and now we are searching a large place for our stockings.”

“We have checked the production line carefully and so far we find no deviants.”

“Ernst has a lot of technical skills, because of his different experience. He is able to work with metal (drilling, milling, grinding and bending), and has knowledge in vanishing.”

“When he stopped work, he was travelling in India and China. Now his home is full of strange antics.”

“When I have made a salad I serve it with a simple sauce, made from olive oil and vineyard.”

Is there a linguistic term for this, in the annals – terminal glitch, final erratum, snaggle-end? Another thing I notice is that the examples here are all nouns (or gerunds). That’s interesting, because when I make mistakes at the end of sentences in German they are invariably verbs. Anyway, speaking of verbs, one thing we know is that every sentence needs a verb and if the verb in a sentence is wrong, that’s big trouble. Here are some examples.

“Some of the sales team are acting in front of the customers, and the others are resting in their offices.”

(Practising appointments on the telephone): ‘Could you spoil that for me?’

“In my spare hours I have dabbled widely, mostly in literature, and in this way I am substantiated.”

No pattern seems to emerge here, but that could be that the sample is too small. What we do note, however, is that hobgoblins come in many forms and sow a strange variety of tares in otherwise tidy grammatical seedbeds. Those two incorrect verbs in the first example could well be false friends. The second example is simple mispronunciation, perhaps, or word confusion brought on by the stress of real time telephoning practice. The final one, exacerbated by its hobgoblinesque veering of register, suggests the injudicious use of an electronic translator.

Anyway, if there are clues and patterns to be teased out, and a taxonomy of hobgoblins to be established, where should we situate the following examples? And, perhaps on a more serious note, how should we give feedback to these learners without exposing them to the titters of their classmates?

“From my work in this company I was able to enlarge my knowledge of international organisations. During the six months I also experienced some personal enlargement.”

“A lot of people in the media have said that Vladimir Putin is looking younger because he is becoming sugary on his face.”

“We are trying to reduce the total number of blue-colour workers in our production plant.”

That last one may conjure up the image of a factory that employs Smurfs, but we must banish such frivolous thoughts while we are giving feedback and focusing on the clarity of vowels. In worse cases, a hobgoblin may be stalking even the very best-intentioned and sincerest of messages. Recently I was off work with the flu, and when I got back to my office I found an email waiting for me. It was from my students:

“We are glad you are feeling better, and sincerely hope that your influence has gone.”

Many of the hobgoblins in my ever-expanding collection have been harvested from language notes taken in class, and from written examples in essays and reports, and from student CVs that I have been asked to check. Occasionally one will pop up during a direct spoken exchange; these are easier to smite on the spot.

“I will not be able to come to class next week as I will be going to Hollywood with my family.”

“You’re going to Hollywood?”

“Yes, in Majorca.”

Finally, for now at least, one that I experienced a long time ago that shows me how a hobgoblin can remain long after other memories of the teaching and learning have faded. Like a bug left on your hard disk. About twenty years ago I was teaching a group of bank managers from Perm (Russia) and at the end of the course the leader of the group extended me a kind invitation to his country:

“Tom, you must visit us, welcome to Perm.”

“That’s very kind, thank you.”

“Really, you will enjoy it. You can ski. And you can go in the forest and shoot Eccles.”

So it is then, that armed with a straight face we continue in our struggle against this impish interference. If you have a hobgoblin or two that you’d like to share, please add them in the ‘comments’ section below. Who knows, maybe together we can create the ultimate Hobgoblin Archive.

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7 Responses to The hobgoblins are back! Or rather, they never went away

  1. Stephanie says:

    Initial Pubic Offering

    This is one of my own hobgoblins, fresh from a class I’ve just given. It comes from writing on the board and speaking at the same time. Fortunately, the students didn’t ask me to explain “pubic”.

    • Aha, an example of the Teacher-Induced Hobgoblin™ (TIH), and a salutary reminder that we titter at student hobgoblinalia at out peril. One can only hope that your students didn’t copy it faithfully into their language study files. Next time you are revising business acronyms with them you could write up IPO on the board and check it out.

      I’m reminded of a sketch from a while back, in which an ELT teacher (so often the butt of TV comic humour, for some reason) instructs the class that he is going to read out a list of key words that they must repeat. They nod enthusiastically. He then drops his list on the floor and hisses ‘Oh shit!’

      ‘OH SHIT!’ hiss the class.

      ‘No no, not yet!’ he cries.

      ‘NO NO NOT YET!’ cry the class.

      And so on. The awesome power of the teacher-fronted lesson versus the hobgoblin. I’ve never been able to find this particular sketch on YouTube, which makes me wonder now whether it was in fact one of my own lessons!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Hotgoblin hot off the press:

    Instructions to an ‘assessment centre’ task: “Make a house out of 4 shits of paper.”

  3. Stephanie says:

    Hey, I meant hobgoblin!

  4. Stephanie says:

    And don’t forget Grauniads – those impish creatures that insinuate themselves into Guardian articles.

    “Steinbrück said (…) his party would ensure greater “social justice” by ushering in a national minimum age as well as higher taxes.” (The Guardian, 2 September 2013)

  5. Stephanie says:

    And here’s another one from a business student’s essay:

    “In my job I spend a lot of time huggling with creditors.”

  6. Stephanie says:

    In an email from another of my students: “Very funny story. I rarely laughed.”

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