What your grammar teacher never told you… but should have

Many people who claim to ‘know a lot’ about grammar actually misunderstand how grammar works. And it is the resulting misapplication in teaching that is partially responsible for creating students who may hold considerable passive (albeit often very confused) grammatical ‘knowledge’ but have difficulty actually communicating.


Analyzes paralyzes


Have you ever heard the phrase ‘analyzes paralyzes’? I first heard it when practicing golf – which I think serves here as a helpful analogy.


Even those of you who’ve never played a round in your lives are likely aware that the mechanics of the golf swing are minutely nuanced. But, if you are conscious of all that minutiae while you take your shot, you’re liable to cause your ball to skitter away pathetically.


But why, if you’ve tried to follow each and every nuance of muscle movement, would this happen? Because the fluid, continuous motion of the swing is much more than the conscious accumulation of a thousand tiny muscle twitches. And, the same holds true for grammar.


…management takes priority over …mechanics


Many, if not most, teachers confuse grammar with sentence syntax. The notion underlying this approach is that if a learner understands – and masters – the smaller units, then these ‘rules’ can gradually be applied to larger units of text, sentences attached to further sentences — the most fundamental of bottom-up approaches. In fact, for many, ‘grammar’ is pretty much reducible to the ‘correct’ use of verb tenses.


But there’s a problem here. Let’s return to that golf swing again. No matter how well-versed one may be in the mechanics of the move, the reality is that you rarely make the exact same swing twice. The distance you are from the hole will affect your swing. The angle, the wind, the type of turf will also force you to adjust. The lie of the ball – above or below your feet, downhill or uphill – will not only determine your swing plane, but your club selection. When actually playing golf, and not just hitting on the practice range, course and shot management take priority over swing mechanics.


In other words, it is awareness of the macro-features of the golf environment that will determine the smaller choices you make, and not the other way round. Likewise with grammar. 


Which is correct, ‘I have been to France’ or ‘I went to France’?


It is primarily our broader communicative goals and purposes that determine what grammatical choices we will/should make. My oldest, and favourite, example of this was a question from a student who asked me: ‘Mike, which is correct, I have been to France or I went to France?’


As any astute English speaker will realize, any notion of ‘correctness’ here depends upon what the speaker wishes to communicate. Doe she/he want to add details of their visit? If so, the ‘went to’ is preferred. Is it a simple statement of having an experience? Then the former is the better choice. ‘How long have you been in Japan?’ Vs. ‘How long were you in Japan’? Same thing. Any notion of ‘correctness’ will depend upon where the person being asked is residing now.


There is nothing in the internal structure of these sentences that indicates their inherent correctness or incorrectness. It is the macrostructure that dictates the micro-structure, not vice-versa.


The macro and the micro


Some of you may have heard of the famous linguist Michael Halliday, who developed a comprehensive ‘functional grammar’ which utilizes such an approach. In Halliday’s model (using a very abbreviated version here), grammatical choices are based upon three overriding (or ‘meta’) functions: the ideational (the type of information being conveyed), the textual (how the content is made cohesive or coherent), and the interpersonal (the nature of the relationship between the participants).


Therefore, instead of focusing upon syntactical notions such as ‘grammatical subject’, macro-structural functions such as ‘head/topic, theme/rheme, new/given’ determine what is or is not appropriate. Once again, this represents a top-down view of grammar, wherein the macro-communicative functions and environment dictate (or explain) the micro-structural choices made.


So, what’s the uptake of all this? Well, it means that teaching grammar as sentence-level syntax, that bottom-up piecemeal approach, might be helpful for developing passive skills such as reading or translation, but it doesn’t work very well at all when it comes to productive skills, particularly those carried out in real-time.


Hence the results that we see in so many English classrooms in places like Japan…



A few people have contacted me offline asking that if we shouldn’t teach or even think of grammar in the traditional sentence-based, bottom-up, manner, how exactly should we approach our lessons. After all, we certainly aren’t going to teach Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar to learners (there is no pedagogical grammar). The solution, it seems to me, is to have lessons revolve around themes, topics or specific skills, in which certain structural forms and relationships naturally suggest themselves. Over time, one might reasonably expect learners to come to grasp these underlying rules by themselves — precisely through their association with specific types of content.


Here is a recent ETJ online presentation that I performed on this very topic, which should provide several clear examples.





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