The Filipino’s Most Common English Mistake . . .

. . . at least, from an American’s perspective.

Yesterday I spent some time calling campus administrations. I was trying to set up True Love Waits seminars for February. One of the secretaries needed to put me on hold and uttered a phrase that I’ve heard hundreds of times over the last five years: “For a while.”

I remember hearing this expression at fast food restaurants when I first arrived. I was then intrigued by the almost universal acceptance of its use. I’ve heard it from almost everyone—from McDonald’s cashiers to college deans.

Let me explain why this is awkward English (for native English speakers). “For a while” is a prepositional phrase. Here how an American would use the phrase:

I’m going to the mall for a while.
I’ve been here for a while.
I waited for quite a while (implying a longer time).
He’ll be here in just a little while (implying a shorter time).

Correct Alternatives

I’m guessing that my beloved Filipinos think that “for a while” is the English equivalent of sandali lang. It isn’t. Sandali lang is best translated, “just a moment.” Here are some better-sounding alternatives for formally asking someone to wait:

“One moment, please”
“Hold, please.” (for telephone situations)

For informal situations, you could also use these:

“Hang on”
“Just a minute/second”

These phrases may not look any better, but trust me, they sound much better to Americans (and other native English speakers). The missing nouns and/or verbs are automatically added in our minds.

I’ve traveled to other parts of Asia, and I can say that the Filipino’s English is quite superior to that of other Asian countries (at least, the ones I have visited). Hopefully this little tip can help my readers improve even more.

Note: I recognize that each country tends to develop its own peculiar English expressions. This is even true among countries where English our first language (England, USA, etc). My point is not to ridicule Filipinos, but to help you better express yourself to native English speakers.

This article apparently keeps on showing up in other blogs. Please read here or here and get a balanced perspective on this blog before making up your mind about me.

You may also want to read about the “stink train” or when I was mistaken for the most hated American in the Philippines–at least you’ll get a laugh and learn not to take me too seriously.

About Kevin Sanders

"Kuya" Kevin Sanders is a husband, pastor, author, and speaker. Please follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. You may also want to consider subscribing to the RSS feed.
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33 Responses to The Filipino’s Most Common English Mistake . . .

  1. Anonymous says:

    You’ve pointed something out which has always bugged me. But, I’ve learned to consider it as “Filipino English.” As an ESL teacher, I’ve learned,and still learning that language evolves. Right or wrong, this phrase is peculiar to Filipinos. During a trip to India, I was “lost” for a couple of seconds, when asked, “ma’am, for parcel?”…for a moment I had images of FEDEX delivering the sandwich I had just ordered at the counter. This example, may not be grammar related, still it drives home the fact that speakers of English as a second language come up with their own phrases.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Another error I most often see is the overuse of apostrophes. Examples I’ve seen:

    boy’s and girl’s
    accountant’s wanted
    construction works’ in progress
    parking for car’s
    etc…

    You don’t have to look very far to spot this misuse of the apostrophe.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “For a while” is actually short for “Wait, for a while…” If I remember it right, it actually originated during the ’80s when the trying hard bourgeoisie of the time wanted to feel superior over the average pinoys.

  4. kevin says:

    Very interesting. I wish you had left your name in the comment. Maybe I could learn more about Pinoy culture from you :)

  5. Anonymous says:

    thank you…criticism is good when when the intension is to correct us

  6. Oliver says:

    salamat kuya kevin,
    mabuhay ka.
    sana dika magsawa sa pag-aaral ng tagalog. :-)
    be patient narin sa mga comments sayo sa philmug.

  7. Anonymous says:

    kuya kevin..
    how about the song “after the love has gone”
    the lyrics starts at
    “for a while to love is all we could do”
    cguro they’re all use nlang ang msarap lng sa pandinig..
    salamat for the info kuya
    and hindi ko na rin gagamitin yun

  8. kevin says:

    You’ll notice that “for a while” is somehow connected to the thought in the words that follow.

    Thanks for reading!

    Blessings

  9. Anonymous says:

    kahit pa ipasa yan sa madaming tao, i don’t think it will change anything. part na xa ng filipino language eh.

  10. kevin says:

    Maybe that’s true, but it never hurts to try :)

    Thanks for reading!

  11. maki says:

    wow.
    never thought that phrase was wrong. although i rarely use it, i do wait when somebody says “for a while.”
    im a teenage Christian whom many think God has blessed with a good voice and what we Pinoys call “ouido”, the innate musical sense.
    anyway there’s this song with a really good melody but im having some doubts about its lyrics. im thinking twice about singing it in public…
    the title is “samson” by regina spektor. i don’t even know who she is.
    it kinda embarrasses me to post the lyrics on your blog but if you would be so kind as to google it, i will be very satisfied.

    was that a long comment? n_n sorry.

  12. kevin says:

    I’ve heard that song. Not really sure what your question is.

    I believe the song is just kind of a made-up version of Samson’s story, like “What if he just grew old instead of dying in such a tragic and glorious way?”

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I am very glad i have stumbled upon
    this post of yours regarding
    our most common mistake in English.

    In fact, we have a lot. And it would be very difficult to pin point which one really is the most common mistake.

    We are on the same side of the fence in teaching (or rather sharing) the Standard English.

    I know that some of my fellowmen (who think they are intelligent enough) hate to be corrected, particulary in English. It is considered very offending by many when you say their grammar is wrong.

    Please continue sharing your obervations in our use of the English language.

    –kind regards,
    Robert

  14. kevin says:

    Robert,
    I don’t have a problem conceding that this expression is part of the English that is used here. I think many Filipinos are just unaware that it is awkward for foreigners.

  15. Anonymous says:

    hi kuya!
    watah nice dude u r, mbuhay k po ng ms mhba pang pnahon! i’ve read ur recent blogs about ‘for a while’ thing and i’m kinda impressed ’bout the way u explained things in a very light yet effective way.uhmm, cn u help me find 30 most common errors in english that filipino always commit?gotta hav a report regarding dt stuff and i really believe u’l b ov great help.
    by d way, do u knw wt does Cc in memos and related writings stand for?
    ciao.
    p.s. this is my email just in case ur really in an UTMOST PEAK of helping: emmanuel032883@yahoo.com
    Godspeed!

  16. Teehee! I’ve always known that “for a while” is grammatically wrong… but I was just so used to hearing that phrase, i stopped caring already. ;p Even somebody from our school told us to say “for a while” daw whenever we want to put someone (on the phone) on hold. :D But, hehe, thanks! And I think its cool that you really want to learn our language. Daghang Salamat! (That’s Cebuano for Thank You)

    God bless!

  17. Anonymous says:

    i am a 100% pinoy myself but it always gives me sort of a cringe (just a small and maybe negligible cringe) to hear “grammatically illegal” English sentences/phrases spoken by Filipinos. However, I often don’t say anything because I’m very aware of the offense that even “constructive” criticism can bring about. It is absolutely true that most (if not all) Pinoys get offended and will curse your silently if correct their grammatical mistakes even if you don’t do it openly or with good intentions. They’d think right away that you’re being snooty or a stickler for pointing out an error. My point is simple: Let’s do it the other way around- a foreigner speaking ungrammatical and awfully awkward phrases in Tagalog/Filipino. Wouldn’t we pinoys react somewhat negatively or wouldn’t we have an itch that we can’t help scratching even “gently”? It is called “English” because the language originated in England and Filipino because the language originated in the Philippines. Who else has got the more right to curse grammatical blunders than the “owner” and “speaker” of the language itself? Who else has got more “authority” in audaciously correcting errors in Filipino than Filipinos themselves? I hope everybody gets my point in no time! peace!

  18. Anonymous says:

    I thank you Kevin for actually “wasting” (quoted in good faith; I hope you get what I mean) your time just pointing out errors that most Americans or other native speakers for that matter wouldn’t even give a single second concerning themselves about! jeeezzz! you’re heaven-sent!

  19. Anonymous says:

    i know i have said too much and people would most likely think I’m already blabbering nonsense but I’ve always had this fervent hope in my heart that someday , we filipinos will realize that we learn english not because we DON’T have any language in the Philippines (consider the hundreds of languages/dialects in this country) but because we have to communicate globally, especially with native speakers. Why would we then “recreate” English if our purpose is international communication? tell me guys that your apathy towards or disgust over correction would pay off when you’re already in an actual international communication setting?

  20. Kuya Kevin says:

    Anonymous,

    In defense of my critics, this article did need some corrections in its original form. Some of the criticisms helped me to make it better (whether the critics intended to help or not).

    I will even concede that each country tends to adapt English and develop its own peculiar expressions.

    But here’s my point: this phrase is often spoken to foreigners. This means most Filipinos think it is the American English equivalent of sandali lang, which it isn’t.

    Salamat po!

  21. cheran24 says:

    You are truly right about this mistake kuya kevin and thank you for making us aware of it but could I add something…
    I hope you would not mind if I will correct one of your translations of “sandali lang” for telephone conversation. Instead of “hold, please,” it should be “hold on, please.”
    God bless!

  22. Kuya Kevin says:

    I think either one would work (“hold, please” or “hold on, please”) for the telephone. Seems I’ve heard both in the States.

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

  23. Anonymous says:

    I’d have to agree with “for a while” actually being one of the native english speakers phrase, but like you just mentioned on here,

    “He’ll be here in just a little while (implying a shorter time).”

    I think that’s what the people at mc’donalds meant to say or at least intentded to say.

    “Sige po, wait for a while” Although they left out the “little”, I’m sure that’s pretty much what they mean. So I don’t think it’s a common Filipino english mistake.

    Another comment on here said it’s probably the “Filipino English” term. Meaning to say that English does evolve…well, doesn’t everything in this world? I would have to say most commmon english mistakes “WE” filipino commit would be like this:

    ex:
    Can you tell me where are you?

    When in fact, it should be:
    Can you tell me where you are?

    ex:
    There are you are!

    When it should be:
    There you are!

    or how about this one, my all time favorite:

    ex:
    What are friends are for?

    HAHAHH! ^_^’ never fails to make me laugh!

  24. teegee says:

    aha.. it made me laugh. we do have something that we need to say but i think its not what burst into our mouths. Filipinos are really hilarious. :)

    missgiftsphilippines
    gifts philippines

  25. Ginny says:

    Hi, Kevin! Can’t call you Kuya, because I am a 66 year-old retired English teacher, and perhaps you can can call me Lola Ginny. (My dad was an American WW2 soldier)
    This is regarding the use of “For a while’. You must understand, that a language is influenced by the country’s environment or seasons. There’s no winter or autumn in the Philippines, hence no need to hurry and scurry for food before winter comes. LOL. That also explains the Filipino sense of time. You make a appointment with a Filipino at 1 pm and that to him, may mean anytime from 1:01 to 1:59 pm. That’s why the seasons have a lot to do with not only the people’s attitude but also with the language. Therefore “A while” can take a long, long time!
    By the way, it may interest you to know that the word “Bwisit” (bad luck)is a corruption of the word Bullshit which the Pinoys heard from the American colonizers.

  26. Thanks for stopping by, Ginny :)

  27. Vj says:

    Hello Kevin this is vj. I’m a third year high school student. I just want to ask you something. Is it hard to learn English? My point is that I have been studying English since grade school but I still commit mistakes particularly in speaking. Could you give me some tips on how to improve my english skills?

    Thanks and Blessing to you. :)

  28. Kevin says:

    VJ,
    You are already pretty good in English–I can tell by your writing. There’s one major think you have to do to get even better: PRACTICE. Practice speaking as often as you can. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. The more you make mistakes the more you’ll keep learning.

  29. Vj says:

    Thank you very much Kuya Kevin for the complement and the advice! I really appreciated it. :)
    I will do practice speaking in English as often as I can.

    God bless kuya!

  30. Anthony Ivan says:

    wow,,, hi kuya kevin… im from UDM arroceros….. never thought that “for a while” is not so good to hear,,, and there is a better, to say SAndali lang in english,,, i like it….. PAGPALAIN KA NI LORD!!!

  31. Kevin says:

    Salamat, Anthony.

  32. diemwrites says:

    Hello Kuya Kevin! I just started reading your blog. I found out about it after reading your book, ‘Basta Lovelife’, which an ate from my dorm lent me.

    Thank you for writing this post! I have always been bothered by the phrase ‘for a while’ but I could never seem to put my finger on the reason why. I always thought that it was just another unexplainable pet peeve, something I naturally disliked, but this post proves that I’m more sane than I thought. Thank you, again. :D

  33. holline says:

    Actually you will learn a lot about our Filipino culture from one of the funniest artist I know, He is a Canadian/Filipino. He speaks English well and learned so much about his roots. His name is Mikey Bustos. Search his you tube videos and you’ll see.He will talk about a lot of mistakes we have, but still he’s proud to be Pinoy..

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