Will and would have a habit of changing places in Sri Lankan English. Sometimes will is used where standard British or American English would prefer would (“I knew the car will be there”), and sometimes it’s the other way round (“We would inform you as soon as we hear”).

The former (will for would) tends to happen in reported speech where the main verb is in the past tense (“He said he will be late”), and in conditional sentences where the verb in the if clause is in the past tense (“She’ll come if you asked her”). In both cases, the sequence of tenses in standard grammar means that an English teacher is likely to underline the word will with a red pen. But the following quotes from contemporary fiction suggest that the “error” is a common one:

  • … and I knew the paddy field will soon come into view … (Bringing Tony Home, by Tissa Abeysekara, page 44)
  • It will kill me, he said, if I didn’t make up my mind to take it out. (Shrapnel, by Neil Fernandopulle, page 108)
  • I remember how he swore that he will never go back to fight. (Sam’s Story, by Elmo Jayawardena, page 147)
  • “I never believed that such a situation will ever come about in this country.” (Out of the Darkness, translated by Vijita Fernando, page 140)
  • “If they also started personal vendettas, when will this war ever end?” (The Road from Elephant Pass, by Nihal de Silva, page 116)
  • “… it’ll be nice if you said something nice about me.” (Learning to Fly, by Shehani Gomes, page 165)
  • “I will be very frightened if I were you.” (The Moon in the Water, by Ameena Hussein, page 223)
  • “You told me you’ll send the vehicle at 3.30 sharp.” (The Mirror of Paradise, by Asghar Hussein, page 93)

The use of would for will is equally common. The examples below are all from written contexts, unlike many grammatical features of SLE which tend to be more characteristic of the colloquial language. In standard British/American English, the use of would in these examples suggests an element of doubt which is not there in SLE.

  • The memorial service would be held on June 25th.
  • This is to inform you that this email address would not be valid from next week.
  • The promotion period would be from 17 March to 10 April.
  • We believe that the President would give an ear to what we say.
  • If we do not hear from you by 5th April we would presume that you will not be available.

And the same applies to can and could. Can is used instead of could (“An important letter can arrive this week”), and vice versa (“Application forms could be obtained from the secretary”). In the latter case, to a speaker of British or American English, the use of could either places it in the past (… until they ran out), or it suggests an unspoken conditional clause (… if only she knew where they were!). This can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings in cases such as the slogans “Cancer could be prevented” and “Daily Mirror: News you could trust”, both of which imply an element of doubt not intended by the advertiser.

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A-Z of Sri Lankan English is“an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip“into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on“Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.

  • Thilak Gunaratne

    I have come across your web page rather casually. And I think it’s a great job for the simple reason I don’t believe in mixing Sinhala/Tamil with English, possibly to impress others.
    The greatest damage done by those who do so is in confusing and corrupting the young fellows who are keen to learn good English.
    But then, publishing the page alone won’t have much of an impact on using good English in this country. If you can go public and perhaps shame those who do so, it may have a more positive impact.
    Maybe I sound a bit too rough.

    Thilak Gunaratne

  • Thilak Gunaratne

    I have just found a ‘glaring’ error in you write-up about Groundview right at the bottom of this page.

    ‘Free media at it’s very best!’ instead of “Free media at its very best!.” This may be inadvertent over here in your page but it’s too common even in the corporate sector. If you do agree, please correct it.

    Thilak

    • Thanks – will be fixed in new avatar, due around April this year.