The Third Person Singular -s or: let’s talk about priorities

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Recently I was shocked – if not really surprised – to hear that not much seems to have changed in some English classes of (German) schools. I learned about a fifth grader who was not doing very well in English. I asked what his problem seems to be and was told that he had made a lot of mistakes in his last test. Naturally, my next question was: well, what kind of mistakes, and was totally astonished as to the prime nature of his failure.He had regularly forgotten the -s at the end of verbs when they occur in third person singular. In case you have forgotten yourself: this little appendix you have to add when saying (or rather writing) things like He rides a bike, She sings in a band, The little puppy dog sleeps a lot...and the like.

Why did this upset me so much?  Am I one of these teachers who believes grammar mistakes are not important as long as you get your message across? Well, maybe a little, but that’s not my problem here.  It has something to do with one of my most important principles of language teaching: the principle of meaningfulness. ( I also believe failing to add the -s on all verbs shows a certain consistency and should be counted as only one mistake.)

Grammar or language structure is of essential significance for the way any given language orders its meaning and meaning relationships between words and phrases. As such, in English, for instance, word order is of utmost importance. Change the order of noun phrases in a sentence and the meaning changes completely: agent and recipient (or receiver) of an action are reversed.

Spiders eat flies.

Flies eat spiders.

(Forget for the moment that the probability of the second is low, I just didn’t want to use my favorite cat chases dog example again)

However, I don’t believe the little third person singular -s is an essential part of English grammar. I have heard native speakers use it quite differently at times, it seems rather flexible as to its application and – guess what – it carries no meaning whatsoever.

And because it carries NO MEANING WHATSOEVER (I can’t stop emphasizing the fact), children growing up with English aquire this little regularity of the language quite late in their language development. The fifth grader in his first year of English, however, is tested and evaluated on this minor little, totally unimportant and insignificant remnant item of English, risking not only to ruin his future relationship to the English language, but possibly having consequences for his whole future school education when one bad thing leads to another.

The third person singular -s, despite it’s insignificance, does not deserve that devilish role. It never meant any harm and would probably have long gone, if teachers of English (and writers of course books) would have let it.

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