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Never before have I written an essay with such a short title. There ought to be so little to say. The word stop is clear, concise, unambiguous.

I have been a driving instructor for nine years. I have been a native English speaker for 56 years. I believe that the language I use to my pupils is clear, concise, unambiguous. Most of my pupils have been native English speakers for at least 17 years. Most of them are not stupid.

Then why do my pupils so often misunderstand the word stop?

Stop or slow?

Early in the first lesson with a new learner, I teach the pupil how to stop. We practise stopping by the side of the road, and we practise it several times. I explain that, for the first few lessons, every time we come to a give‐way line, we will stop. I mention that stop means stop completely. I show the pupil a give‐way line, and I draw a diagram. We approach our first give‐way line. I remind the pupil that we are to stop at the give‐way line. I say, “Clutch down, and brake until the car stops.” The pupil slows, but then drives through the give‐way line without stopping.

Pupils are allowed to make mistakes, and the above scenario is normal. I explain to the pupil that he slowed down but did not quite stop. (I will refer to the pupil throughout as “he” without distinguishing gender.)

I ask him to make sure he stops at the next give‐way line. He does not. We swap seats so that I can demonstrate. I stop at a give‐way line.

Suddenly it dawns on him. “Ah, you mean stop completely!” Yes, I confirm. Stop means stop completely. If you haven’t stopped completely, then you haven’t stopped at all.

Stop or brake?

Many pupils, when pulling in to stop by the side of the road, will press the clutch pedal far too soon. I will explain to such a pupil that he should press the clutch pedal about a car length before he stops, and not earlier. Quite often I have to explain that by a car length I mean the length of a car, or about 4 metres. Commonly a pupil will respond to this teaching by pressing the clutch earlier still. I then ask him, “If you are pulling in to stop, when should you press the clutch?” As often as not this elicits the answer, “About a car length before I brake.” “No,” I explain. “About a car length before you stop. Look ahead, choose a place to stop, brake gradually with the aim of stopping at that place, and press the clutch about a car length before you reach that place.” It may then take many practices with talk‐through, many lamp posts used as targets, many demonstrations, and many practices with the dual controls and split responsibility (I brake, you press the clutch: or vice versa) before the pupil appears to grasp the concept. And I’m not fussy about how long a car is. With a given pupil, the distance between pressing the clutch and stopping may fluctuate between 25 metres and 10 centimetres. It is extremes like that that I have to help the pupil to correct.

Stop or roll?

The pupil is now more advanced. We have practised emergency stops on more than one occasion. We approach a roundabout, and we correctly stop before entering it as there is traffic coming round the roundabout. The pupil does not realise he is on a gentle down slope, he absentmindedly comes off the footbrake, and the car rolls slowly forwards towards the path of traffic coming round the roundabout. I give the standard emergency call of Stop! in a loud voice. The pupil does not respond immediately, and I brake very firmly, jolting the car to a stop. As there is no traffic behind us, we can afford the time to have an immediate discussion on the matter. Typically it will develop along the following lines.

“Remember Stop! means stop the car: it doesn’t mean stop what you are doing.”

“We weren’t moving.”

“Yes, we were: we were moving slowly forwards onto the roundabout.”

“But I wasn’t doing anything.”

“The car was rolling down the slope.”

“We’re not on a slope.”

“We’re on a gentle slope.”

“Why did the car roll down the slope?”

“Because it’s on wheels. Cars roll down slopes. So if you are on a slope, and you don’t want the car to roll, then you must prevent it rolling, normally with either the footbrake or the handbrake.”

“Why did the car jolt?”

“I stopped the car by braking very firmly, to avoid danger.”

“But we weren’t moving…”

Stop or secure?

In two of the above three scenarios, the pupil considers that the car has stopped when it hasn’t. But the converse situation can happen also. The mis­understanding revealed in the following dialogue has transpired several times over the years.

“Having stopped, you should have moved off in first gear.”

“But I didn’t stop.”

“You did, and you tried to move off in second gear, and that’s why you stalled.”

“But I didn’t put the handbrake on.”

Then I have to explain to the pupil that, indeed, if he stops, he ought in certain circumstances to apply the handbrake: but that is not part of what is meant by stopping. He didn’t use the handbrake, and perhaps he ought to have used it: but he did stop. He brought the car to a complete halt; it was stationary; its speed was zero; it was not moving. He stopped.

And finally… Stop or steer?

All of the above situations have arisen several times in my nine years as a driving instructor. This final one is new. It happened today, and it prompted this essay.

My pupil, a native English speaker, was learning the parallel parking exercise: reversing to park on the left behind a parked car. I teach my pupils to regard the exercise as being in four parts. While they are learning the method, I teach them to stop after each part, to gather their thoughts.

Figure 1
The one‐o’clock position

“In Part 2, you reverse slowly with one turn of left steering, until the two cars are in the one‐o’clock position – when they are like the hands of a clock at one o’clock.” I illustrate the one‐o’clock position with a diagram (Figure 1). “When you reach the one‐o’clock position, straighten the wheels,” – I gesture with the steering wheel – “and then stop. Notice I say straighten the wheels and then stop: not stop and then straighten the wheels. Straighten the wheels before you stop, while the car is still moving slowly.”

I give these instructions first as a brief‌ing with the car at rest. Then I take the driver’s seat and demonstrate the whole exercise, with a running commentary in which I again highlight the straightening of the wheels before stopping.

Today, after the brief‌ing and the demonstration, I was talking my pupil through the exercise for the first time. I’ll call him Bill. As we reached the one‐o’clock position I said, “Now straighten the wheels and then stop.” Bill stopped. I said, “Well, you’ve stopped, but I wanted you to straighten the wheels before you stopped. As a second best we’ll straighten them now, but it’s not best to turn the steering wheel when the car is stationary: it scrapes the tyres on the ground.” I leaned over and straightened the wheels. We completed the exercise.

Talking him through the exercise for the second time, I said, “Now, this time, remember to straighten the wheels before you stop.” He stopped without straightening the wheels. I pointed out to him what he had done.

We swapped seats and I demonstrated Part 2 again. He assured me that he understood. I asked him what he would do the next time before stopping, and he properly told me that he would straighten the wheels.

Third time lucky? Before we started Part 2, I again asked him what he would do before stopping at the end of Part 2. He properly told me that he would straighten the wheels. We reached the one‐o’clock position on the move. I said, “Now straighten the wheels.” He stopped.

“Bill,” I said, “you stopped!” I try to speak in an even tone, but I dare say my voice may by now have been betraying a certain bewilderment.

Bill looks blank.

“What were you going to do before you stopped?”

Bill looks blank.

“Bill, you were going to straighten the wheels before you stopped.”

I am still laughing at what Bill said next.

“But I only stopped so that I could straighten the wheels.”

I have been a native English speaker for 56 years. Four years from now I shall have been a native English speaker for 60 years. Then I will retire.

Eric P Smith
8 June 2005