The Effle page

Effle is grammatical English which could never be uttered because it has little meaning and could never be put into a sensible context. There is lots of Effle in textbooks of English for foreign learners and in sets of exercises.

The playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote a complete play in Effle, The Bald Prima Donna, the product of his experience of learning English from a textbook in 1950. He actually wrote the play in French, but it shows its origins clearly when translated back into English. [Click here for a short extract.] Julian Dakin wrote trenchantly about meaningless drills and the tum-te-tum effect, which leads teachers to think that learners are intentionally producing correct sentences, whereas the learners might just as well be saying "tum-te-tum". [Click here for "The case of the amnesiac siblings".]

Perhaps the most famous Effle sentence was one first used by Edward Sapir in a discussion of grammar and picked up by Pit Corder to illustrate the concept (though he didn't use the term Effle):

The farmer kills the duckling.
The following have been seen in textbooks and commercial courses:
This is a pencil. This is a boy. Peter is a boy. Peter is not a pencil.
A hat is not food.
A man has a dog.
Is this my finger or your finger?
A tailor sews with a needle.
He's not very good so I can't marry him.
One praises a pupil when he works hard.
You can't go to a restaurant if you don't have money.
Shall I leave without paying?
These are the people's lunches.
Ouch! O, foolish bee!
I walk / thou walkest / he walks / we walk / you walk / they walk
(From a 1950s book still in use in the Middle East in the 1980s)
and I have come across the following in a draft of an exercise on the passive:
Her food is eaten by her.
Why does Effle matter? After all, you may think, it is correct English and it will not do any harm; sentences with a similar structure are used to convey meaning in real life, so if learners are learning the patterns of these sentences they are learning something useful. But Effle does harm the learning process, since it severs the link between what we say and what we mean. Language use and language learning needs to be a continuous effort to understand meaning and to convey meaning. As soon as we encourage or force learners to say what they do not mean, we break links that will be all the harder to mend afterwards.

I remember a leson in which the teacher was practising short answers with Yes. "Are you a girl? she asked the first pupil. "Yes, I am." "Good. Are you in school?" she went on to the next child. "Yes, I am." "Good." She came to the third. "Are you sick?" she asked. "No, I not sick, " was the rather puzzled answer. "Wrong," screamed the teacher. "You must say Yes I am."


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From The Bald Prima Donna, a pseudo-play in one act by Eugene Ionesco, translated by Donald Watson, published by Samuel French, 1958, p. 7.

MARY: I am the maid. I have just spent a very pleasant afternoon. I went to the pictures with a man and saw a film with some women. When we came out of the cinema we went and drank some brandy and some milk, and afterwards we read the newspaper.

MRS. SMITH: I hope you spent a pleasant afternoon. I hope you went to the pictures with a man and drank some brandy and some milk.

Mr. SMITH: And the newspaper.

MARY: Your guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin are waiting at the door. They were waiting for me. They were afraid to come in on their own. They were meant to be dining with you this evening.

MRS. SMITH: Ah yes. We were expecting them. And we were hungry. As they showed no sign of coming, we went and dined without them. We'd had nothing to eat all day long. You shouldn't have gone off like that, Mary.

MARY: But you gave me your permission.

MR. SMITH: We didn't do it on purpose.


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From The language laboratory and language learning by Julian Dakin, Longman, 1973, page 33.

The case of the amnesiac siblings

There once came into my hands the manuscript of a proposed primary school course for foreign learners. The course was described by the author as being structural, situational, contextual, and logical. Each lesson began with a conversation between two English children. In the first conversation they find out each other's names by the simple expedient of asking:
What is your name?
When they next meet in Lesson 2, having meanwhile forgotten, they play the Rumpelstiltskin game:
Is your name John? No, it isn't.
Is your name Henry? No, it isn't.
Is your name Sebastian?
etc.
Failing to guess aright, they eventually resort to the direct question form of Lesson 1. In Lesson 3 they have again been overcome by a loss of memory. They repeat the guessing game until some dim stirring of recollection prompts the right suggestion and the gratifying answer: "Yes, it is." In Lessons 4 and 5 they change the subject. The conversation runs on the following lines:
Is that a bag? Yes it is.
Is it a book? No, it isn't.
Is it a table? No, it isn't.
What is it? It's a bag.
In Lesson 6 it turns out that the boy and the girl are brother and sister.

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Page last updated 14 January, 2014.