Tackling bad English


About 10 years ago, I moved to Spain to teach English. I came to the country without a word of Spanish so, as a complete novice, I looked for points of comparison between English and Spanish to give myself a route into the language.

Being in a football-mad country and a football fan myself, football seemed like the easiest way to assimilate myself into Spanish culture. I found that it didn’t take much in the way of vocabulary (combined with some wild gesticulating) to get a point across about how good or bad a player or match was. This meant I could hold my half of a conversation semi-coherently within a controlled environment – a bar where everyone was watching football on telly – that acted as a safe haven for me to attempt my faltering language acquisition. But although I could follow the conversations around me up to a point, the subtleties of the football commentary on Spanish TV were often lost on me.

Not so with English football commentary, where the subtleties of the English language often appear lost on the commentators. A source of irritation when I watch a game on TV is the way commentators and more often, their co-commentary sidekicks, ride roughshod over the English language without even looking back at the linguistic carnage that lays in their wake. Alongside the idiomatic phrases that are in standard use in football, the basics of the language are often wilfully neglected.

Here are a few gems of sports English you’ll often hear commentators use:

1) The consistent overuse and misuse of the expression to be fair:
“To be fair, the lad has mistimed the tackle and should be sent off.”
“To be fair, the referee has had a bad game and it’s no wonder the manager is angry.”
I think you mean to be honest.

2) Adjectives used in place of adverbs:
“The lads done brilliant.”
Don’t you mean The lads were brilliant or The lads played brilliantly?

3) The frequent mixing up of the literal and figurative:
In a situation where one team looks almost certain to score, the commentator says something like, “They’re quite literally knocking on the door …”
Literally? Is there a door on the pitch? No.

4) The invention of entirely new expressions never heard before in any other context:
“He couldn’t quite grow enough,” meaning “He tried to reach for the ball with his head but it was too high for him.”

The next time you watch a football match, listen out for some of these expressions. You could even turn it into a game – football commentator cliché bingo – that I found online. Take a set of sporting clichés (such as the ones listed below) and put them on a bingo card. Each time one of the phrases on your card is uttered, tick that box. As soon as you have a line of ticked boxes, straight or diagonal, you can shout

Giving 110%
Clash of the titans
The greatest … ever
Terrible puns based on players’ names, such as “Suzuki’s run out of petrol”
Fresh legs
Early doors
In the zone
Last chance saloon
They can play a bit
Mixed metaphors involving impossible images, such as “treading on dangerous water”
Both teams have set out their stalls
Any use of “literally” to mean “figuratively”


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