Grammar and Christmas
Many Americans experience surprise (or disappointment) when they wake up on Christmas Day.
They might be surprised or disappointed by a family member's actions. They might be happy or unhappy about a Christmas gift.
Imagine a child expects to get an Xbox or PlayStation for Christmas. On Christmas morning, they quickly open their gift .... Inside is an English grammar book.
They might feel disappointed.
The Everyday Grammar team would prefer the new English grammar book. But if you are like most young people, you would probably rather have a new videogame system.
Today, we are going to explore those feelings – feelings of surprise and disappointment. In other words, we are going to explore how speakers show that reality was better or worse than their expectations.
Many languages use words to express expectation. Speakers also use words to express how events are not happening as expected. This idea is known as "counter expectation."*
Do not worry about the term. Just remember that it means that speakers use words to show that reality is going against (or countering) their expectations.
English has many words that serve this purpose. Three of the most common are the words "even," "still," and "actually." You will often hear them in casual, everyday speech.
Speakers use these words to show surprise or disappointment. The pitch of their voice tells you what they mean.
Let's study examples of each word.
Speakers often use the word "even" to show disappointment or surprise.
Imagine a young child that expects a phone call from a family member – perhaps an uncle or grandparent. The phone call never comes. The child might say the following:
"What's wrong with him? He didn't even call me on Christmas day."
Here, the child is expressing disappointment. She could have expressed the same idea in a much longer statement, such as: "I was expecting him to call on Christmas Day, but I didn't hear from him. Why didn't he give me a call?"
"Even" highlights the child's disappointment because it emphasizes that the family member did not try to call.
"Even" does not always have a sad meaning. It can have a happy meaning too.
Imagine a man named Ted. Ted is a forgetful man. He forgets to send letters or gifts to his parents.
Ted's parents might have the following talk after they get a Christmas letter from him:
"Did you see Ted's letter?
Yeah – he even sent us a gift!"
Here, the word "even" shows a pleasant surprise. Ted's mother did not expect a gift from him. By saying "he even sent us a gift" she is suggesting that Ted has gone beyond her expectations.
Americans sometimes use "still" for showing how reality does not quite meet their expectations.
Consider this example, from the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. At the end of the film, Ferris says the following lines. A different speaker might say similar lines after a lengthy, tiring, and disagreeable family Christmas party:
You're still here? It's over! Go home. Go!"
In the film, you can see the surprised look on Ferris' face. When he says, "You're still here," you can tell he did not expect people to still be around. He is a little disappointed.
Now, imagine a different situation. A family is having a Christmas dinner. They are looking for one family member, Uncle Bob. They wonder if he left without saying goodbye.
"-Have you seen Uncle Bob?
-No. Did he leave? Wait! There he is! He's still here!"
The way the final speaker says "still" shows that she is surprised to learn he was still at the dinner. She expected otherwise.
A third common word that shows surprise or disappointment is "actually."
"Actually" suggests something is true – even when it differs from what might have been thought or expected.
Remember Uncle Bob? Bob has always been a nice guy.
Imagine Uncle Bob sees a Christmas present he likes, and then runs away with it. A speaker might say:
"I can't believe it! Uncle Bob actually stole her Christmas gift."
Here, the speaker uses "actually" to emphasize the unexpectedness of a happening – Uncle Bob stealing the present. She does not sound very happy!
Speakers can use "actually" to show positive feelings, too.
Think back to our character Ted – the guy who always forgets to give gifts for Christmas.
His parents could have shown their surprise at receiving a gift from Ted by saying the following:
"Ted actually gave us a gift!"
Here, the word "actually" shows that they are pleasantly surprised at this strange happening: Ted remembered Christmas!
What can you do?
The next time you are listening to an English speaker, try to find examples of words that show "counter expectation." Is the speaker expressing surprise or disappointment? How does the speaker change the pitch of their voice?
By answering these questions, you will start to learn how English speakers communicate emotions in subtle ways.
-"Excuse me, John, are you still recording your show?"
-"You're still recording? We have to go to the Christmas party!"
-"Oh no! I had actually forgotten about that! And that's Everyday Grammar."
I'm John Russell.
I'm Anna Mateo.
And I'm Ashley Thompson.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
*John McWhorter. Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally). Picador. 2016 pgs. 37-41