Why Teaching Grammar Rules Can Be Dangerous

dangers grammar rulesI read a post on Facebook earlier, protesting the fact that children in the UK are being made to learn rules for fronted adverbials as part of the curriculum. Not a concept, I’d wager, most English speaking adults are that familiar with. I expect most English speakers don’t really know what an adverbial is, in fact, because why would you? As native speakers we adopt most of the supposed rules of language by learning from example, not by dissecting them or learning rules as rote. In fact, learning rules by rote, especially when those rules may actually cover rather flexible or complicated points, can be harmful to language learning in the long run.

It’s a poignant topic for me as I’ve recently released a book about sentence structure, explaining the topic for foreign learners. For adult learners, this sort of full understanding of structure and patterns is an accessible way to learn, but even from this perspective the concept of adverbial position is a hazy area involving issues of style – not something that’s easy to simplify as a rule. If the aim is to get someone to speak on a functional level, a simplified rule is fine – but a simple rule is a dangerous thing if your aim is to become fluent (which, at a higher level, increasingly requires bending the rules). It’s a problem for the Advanced adult learners I teach who have, without fail, been taught certain dogmatic grammatical “rules” when starting out and have a lot of difficulty trying to adapt to occasions when these rules are inaccurate.

When is a grammar rule not a rule?

I’m not one to dismiss learning grammar – the rules are very important and an understanding of grammar can be incredibly useful. If you break fundamental rules, your language becomes unclear or incorrect. There are rules that are always true, for example using the correct verb form to show a tense. Get this wrong and you will present a different meaning, leading to misunderstandings:

  • I went to the park yesterday.
  • I go to the park yesterday.

Then there are “rules” that aren’t actually rules at all, but patterns. Issues of style, where some people will say it one way and some say it another. An example, and a fairly complex area of teaching English to foreign learners, is the subject of adverb position. With the following two sentences, depending on where you’re from in the world you’re likely to have a strong preference for one structure or the other:

  • I mostly have learned from mistakes.
  • I have mostly learned from my mistakes.

Though one might be clearly correct, or incorrect, to an Englishman, it won’t necessarily be true for an American. What you consider to be a grammatical rule is actually subject to variation – not just based on where you’re from but in many cases depending on how you want to frame what you’re trying to say. This is a matter of style or opinion, not a fundamental grammar rule that is right or wrong. No one can tell you that it should be one way or another. And while these can be very interesting and important to learn, no one should teach you that it must always be used in a certain way.

Seeing those sentences above, two people without being instilled with grammar “rules”, may argue “That just doesn’t sound right to me.” and might agree to disagree. Give someone a little (incomplete) knowledge like “adverbs come after auxiliary verbs”, though, and the argument becomes “You’re wrong and this is why so you must bow to my superior knowledge!” Perhaps leading to fisticuffs. Not saying people should stay ignorant to avoid conflict, but with teaching rules comes a lot of responsibility that might not be considered if you simply segue them into a curriculum…

The Difficulty with Adverbs

Adverbs and adverbials (covering adverb functions represented by other words and phrases) can modify a lot of different parts of a sentence. Simplified, adjectives describe nouns (that is, things, e.g. a fat cat), adverbs describe almost everything else (such as actions, describing words, other adverbs and so on). That means they have a massive range of uses and fit into sentences in a very varied way.

Roughly speaking, there are four types of adverbs that have slightly different rules for how they fit into a sentence, when they describe manner, frequency, place and time. They can fit into a clause in front, middle and end position (with the middle position creating further opportunity for flexibility). In my book Word Order in English Sentences, I’ve taken 6 pages to introduce how to apply these ideas in their most basic way. And even these “rules” must be qualified with the fact that in many situations there is no clear reason to use one position over another, “rules” dotted with words like can, normally, often and usually. When to use certain patterns can be roughly explained, for example that a time placed at the front of the sentence adds emphasis, but it won’t always be true. Without context, there is really no difference here:

  • Every day, she goes to the gym
  • She goes to the gym every day.

It’s a broad subject that can take a lot of theory to cover, and even then the theory doesn’t fully translate to practice because there are exceptions and specific rules for different adverbs and situations, and people adopt their own usages depending on regional styles and emphases.

Yet the real kicker to all this is that few native English speakers know the basics of these rules or patterns, for the very simple reason that this level of understanding is only useful if you need to explain it to someone. If you grow up speaking English, you don’t need to understand what an adverb is, or where it should go, to be able to say:

  • Fortunately, I can speak English.

If you make mistakes, you notice and correct them by adapting to common usage, not by looking them up in a rulebook. Likewise for more complex adverb phrases and clauses. On the other hand, knowing what an adverb is and where it should be placed can have a negative effect and make your use of English less effective, as you’re led to believe that something is incorrect if it doesn’t fit the rules as you understand them. To use a rather simplistic example, someone who’s been drilled into using an adverb in a specific position might see the sentence:

  • I can speak English, fortunately.

…and protest That’s incorrect! That adverb should be in the front position! Why? Because you’ve been told there’s a rule, when there isn’t. There’s a pattern, a style, a choice.

On a more basic level, it can lead to learned mistakes. When I teach foreign learners grammar, I’m careful to make note of the “rules” that can be bent. I’ve had TEFL teachers tell me this can be harmful, because it makes the language more difficult to learn in the early stages and people want rules they can stick to. The problem is, when you’re faced with someone at an Advanced stage of learning, trying to become a fluent speaker, and they keep repeating the same mistake because they’re using a rule that native speakers don’t use themselves, it becomes incredibly difficult to correct that.

Ours is not a language that sticks to the rules, so focusing on rules in a dogmatic way at an early level creates barriers later in life. It leads to people making mistakes as they try to fit a certain pattern. It creates adults who argue about grammar in a way that depends on what they were once taught, not based on what is practical, popular or accepted. It can create people who think they are right about something that does not have a right or wrong answer, and that’s a very dangerous thing.

Word Order in English Sentences: Out Now

word order booksIf you’ve ever wanted to brush up on the basics of fitting a sentence together, my latest grammar guide, Word Order in English Sentences, will help. Updated from one of my earlier works, published on my English learning site, I’ve now made this expanded grammar guide available in electronic and print formats. Though designed as a guide for foreign students of English, it has a practical application for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how sentences fit together.  Continue reading

Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico

love of seven dollsI chanced upon this book going through my mother’s old collection, and always being intrigued by something short and purportedly fantastical (with a context of carnivals, no less) I gave it a whirl. Not already being familiar with Paul Gallico, I was immediately impressed by the standard of writing and drawn into the enchanting (if now antiquated) world of Love of Seven Dolls – a tale of a suicidal girl finding a reason to go on through a puppet show with a life of its own, travelling across 1950s France. What follows, though, is a remarkable book that turns incredibly dark and does not fully (or in some cases even partly) resolve its negatives, yet somehow remains enchanting. Making it a pretty fascinating read. Continue reading

The Faergrowe Principle Wins Silver at 2015 AURA Screenwriter Awards

silver screenwriting awardThe 2015 AURA Screenwriter Award winners were announced on 1st January, which made for a pleasant New Year discovery to see my script, The Faergrowe Principle, received the Silver Award for Feature Screenplay. It was up against a large range of projects so it’s a great result.

The Faergrowe Principle is a screenplay I wrote mid-2015, a dystopian/sci-fi thriller with a grim tale of faded friendship. In a world that barely survived a global war, scientist Allison Heartridge searches for lost friend who helped develop the sustainable food supply society now survives on. With the help of a battle-weary mercenary, she follows the trail of the Church of the Ascension, a cult that had taken her friend in and had since been violently suppressed. The journey takes her beyond the comforts of New Oak City to the chaotic wastelands of Matterfoss, where she discovers a devastating connection between her missing friend, the Substance Engine they created together, and their mutual old flame, Laine Faergrowe – the leader of the free world.

The screenplay takes its rich backstory from an unpublished novel I wrote a few years ago, set years before the events of this feature. It’s a gritty future created by two super-powers that, in trying to kill each other, effectively damned themselves. A future that asks questions of what becomes of the leftovers in such a conflict; the footsoldiers who knew nothing but fighting, and the engineers who created both the instruments of destruction and survival. Beneath its grand setting are simple human stories – the relationships that keep people going, and the morality of survival.

Receiving an award for this screenplay now is a boon as it’s a project I’m still working to improve. The next step is to complete it’s next stage of edits and submit it to more festivals!

A brilliant example of writing characters in screenplays – “The Thing”

the thing screenplay character buildingBill Lancaster’s screenplay for “The Thing” is a great read for a  number of reasons – one that struck me immediately, though, is the quiet brilliance of the first page. As a method for introducing a cast of characters, it’s at the same time somewhat unconventional and widely applicable. Unconventional because it presents the characters all at once as a list, rather than in-line as they appear (as the usual convention would have it) – but widely applicable because the characters are built so fully in so few words. If you haven’t read it, click the image to enlarge it. Continue reading

The parable of the man with an elephant’s head

elephant head storyI had what felt like a terribly profound dream the other night, concerning a couple who were walking in a valley as dusk was approaching. They had been out for a long time, and were growing tired, eager to get home before dark. The valley had steep, high sides, hedging them in, and their trail was chased by shadows. The woman started to grow anxious, convinced that someone was following them and that they should hurry. Looking back, they could both see that, for sure, a figure was walking behind them, a short distance away. The man brushed off her fears, though, saying that there were bound to be others enjoying such a beautiful walk; they had no right to believe this walk was meant just for them. Continue reading

How to use bridging words effectively

conjunctions bridging therefore thusThe following is adapted from a guide on my English Lessons site, as it’s something I think is relevant to writers everywhere. Something I invariably find when editing writing, particularly non-fiction such as reports, essays and general academic texts, is the over-use of bridging words, adverbs typically used as conjunctions or to connect ideas across sentences and paragraphs. It’s a widespread problem – when I edit my own writing I find a large number of these words. Expressions like thus, hence, however, therefore, as such, moreover, indeed and many more are useful to connect different ideas in writing – but must be used sparingly, otherwise they sound run the risk of becoming repetitive and redundant. Continue reading

Pauline Williams, in Loving Memory

lavenderPauline Williams was loved by all who knew her, because she so easily and so deeply loved others. She was a dedicated mother to myself and my four siblings and a mother figure to countless others. She was a hero who gave everything to everyone and took nothing for herself. My mother was a perfect, and rare, example of a person whose love was strengthened, and never diminished, by being shared with every person she met. Weeks after she moved down to Worthing, she told us she already had over 60 friends. She wasn’t sure of any of their names yet, but that she considered them all friends so quickly was testament to how quick she was to hold people dear.

She knew, cared for and was loved by more people than I think we could ever count, yet she was too humble to ask for anything for herself. She never set out to find fame, fortune or popularity, she merely set out to share and care, and live life fully, and through that simple principle she found genuine and lasting fortune in love. Every person that knew her could not help but feel how special she was, and would never forget her. It is telling that at the time of her death so many people have sent their condolences not as a measure of general sadness, but as notes of personal loss, without fail citing how she had made a lasting impression – even with those she met for the briefest of times. And in every impression the same qualities shone through; of love, of caring and of her spritely, lively nature.

As a mother, she dedicated her life to us, spending decades painstakingly cooking and cleaning and caring for us. She never forgot a birthday, for our entire extended family, and could always be counted on to send care packages to anyone who was not in direct touch. Not just for us, her actual children, but for anyone she had encountered that she felt needed a little extra love. She opened the doors of our home and her heart to any and all; our childhood home was a social hub, and as we reached adulthood, and I was frequently away, I found that whenever I returned someone new was living there. With all the attention that one of her actual children would enjoy. When other children grew frustrated with their families and ran away, for however small or large a slight they perceived in their own homes, in Pauline they found an unquestioningly caring surrogate mother. Like the perfect matriarch of a Dickensian miracle or a Disney fairy tale, she was always there, if anyone should need her.

whole family

A fraction of the people who loved her, our extended family.

The examples and details of the way she touched others’ lives are no doubt wider and deeper than I could present here and I myself know only a fraction of what she did in her roles as a devoted wife, an attentive aunt, sister and daughter, a devout Christian, a teacher, a nurse, an active member of various communities and a friend to all. None of us can ever know the full extent of the good she did. They may have often been little things, like an unsolicited letter in the post, but her actions had the greatest power to warm hearts and provide genuine comfort.

Her capacity for compassion and care was only part of what made her so special, though. She was full of life, with a wicked sense of humour and an uncontainable fun side. She disrupted serious classes with her cheeky antics. She turned a family barbecue into a carnival of colour and activity. She was creative for creativity’s sake, writing without readers and working tirelessly on her beautifully conceived garden. She made every holiday an experience, transforming our house into a glittering masterpiece at Christmas and striking terror into our hearts with her cackling witch character at Halloween.

Mum down the pub.

Mum down the pub.

My mother lived every day of her life to the full. She was one of the most active people I know, who found multitudes of ways to keep so busy. From tai chi to tap dance, from choir singing and church activities to reiki and orchid societies, from volunteer work and hosting coffee mornings with friends to calling and writing to everyone she knew. Behind all of which she was running a household, cooking meals, maintaining a glorious garden and looking after herds of pets. A day in her life was so full of variety and so productive that it shames those of us who can happily spend a day in front of a computer.

When she became ill, she did not want to cause a fuss for herself, and struggled with cancer long before any of us realised how serious it was. After her chemo and operation, she was up and about, getting on with her life. Even in her last days, in the hospice, we turned up to find her cheekily wandering around the halls when by all rights she should have been bedridden. She fought long and hard against the illness, so hard that we had time to gather our whole family to be with her at the end. Even in her final week she found the strength to wait for the right moment to pass on, not on the many occasions when we sat with her alone, in sad reflection, but at the one time when we were all finally in the room together. With music playing, and everyone laughing.


To know her was to love her, and her memory will inspire all of us to do better with our lives. Through the widespread and lasting impact of her spirit, I know for certain that, whatever feelings anyone has about the afterlife, my mother will live on. She will be felt, forever, in the love that she gave us all. She will be felt forever in everything that any of us achieves thanks to her support, and that support will never wain for as long as we remember her. Though her body is finally laid to rest, a rest she has long deserved, my mother’s spirit will continue to grow and spread. If every day we try to live a little more as she did, in the strength of her memory, then her love will outlast us all.

One Scene of Bad Dialogue to Stand for them All

true detective bad dialogueEver had a conversation with a friend where you’re recalling a fond, or not so fond, memory, and one of you describes everything that happened detail by detail as though giving a police report? To which the second person might respond, “I was there, why are you telling me this?” The second season of True Detective offered this up in abundance, as one person after another tried to fill in backstory holes in a desperate attempt to get us to care about the characters’ eventual demises. A lot of people have complained about a lot of failings of the show, but it’s the way characters talked to each other that bothered me most. And in the season finale there was one scene, I felt, that summed it up perfectly.  Continue reading

Using Grammar in the Art of Editing

grammar for editing sentencesCorrect English sentences are formed of some basic rules that start simple but allow a lot room for manoeuvre. Especially true of more complex, longer sentences, we have many options to rearrange what has been written, and to explore varieties in word order. This is useful if you want to restate something, to add some variety, or to add emphasis to particular points – all options when you want to present the same information, just a little…different. I decided to produce an article exploring basic word order in a more advanced way, originally aimed at foreign learners – but I think this has a place here, too, to show how a solid grasp of the fundamentals of English word order can offer a lot of room for creativity. So, here I’ve demonstrated how a single example sentence can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Over and over again… Continue reading