A-Z of Sri Lankan English, Colombo, Language, Media and Communications

A-Z of Sri Lankan English: F is for for

Before reading on, try this short test. Which of the following sentences do you consider to be grammatically correct?

1. They have over a thousand visitors for a month.
2. They get angry for the slightest thing.
3. Can you give this for Mohan?
4. We couldn’t sleep for the racket.
5. That was my third bath for the day.
6. I woke for the sound of the alarm.
7. He gave me a book for my birthday.
8. This area floods even for the slightest rain.
9. The A level exam has been put off for June.
10. They ripen quickly for the sun.

Despite being couched in prescriptive terms (“grammatically correct”), there is no clearcut answer to the exercise. The sentences focus on the use of the preposition for. You will probably agree that no. 7 is correct, and that no. 3 is wrong (it should be: Can you give this to Mohan?). The others might cause more thought or disagreement. My own response is that they are all perfectly acceptable in a Sri Lankan context – certainly in speaking, and arguably in writing as well. They are commonly used in Sri Lankan English, and there is no ambiguity in the meaning they convey.

But these sentences might be considered errors in British or American English, a fact which is useful for Sri Lankan speakers of English to be aware of, especially if they are planning to study in the UK or another English-speaking country, or if they are sitting for an international English exam such as IELTS. It is this kind of awareness (and the ability to adapt one’s language according to the context) which characterises the language competency of a native or near-native speaker of English.

Of course, many speakers of standard Sri Lankan English would no doubt use the “standard British/American” version of these sentences (see below), and would almost certainly recognise them as being correct, even if they would (consciously or subconsciously) choose the ““Sri Lankan English” version in colloquial situations.

The standard British or American versions of the sentences (omitting nos. 3 and 7) would require the use of a much wider range of prepositions:

1. They have over a thousand visitors a month (or per month, or every month).
2. They get angry at the slightest thing.
4. We couldn’t sleep because of/due to the racket.
5. That was my third bath of the day.
6. I woke at/to the sound of the alarm.
8. This area floods even with the slightest rain.
9. The A level exam has been put off until June.
10. They ripen quickly in the sun.

A general observation from these examples is that the preposition for tends to be used more frequently and more flexibly in SLE than in so-called “standard” English. One possible reason for this is the influence of Sinhala and Tamil – both of which manage with around 4 common case endings (-ge, -ta, -e, -eng in Sinhala) which cover most of the common uses of at least 8 prepositions in English (in, on, at, of, to, for, from, by). This arguably makes SLE a more user-friendly variety of English, by doing away with some of the complexities of the English preposition system, but without necessarily compromising on clarity of meaning.

A-Z Sri Lankan English

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.