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

5 ways to make your use of English language more interesting

5 ways interesting englishIf you feel like you repeat yourself a lot, and that everything you can say has already been said, every word has already been heard, there are a few simple tricks that you can use to spruce up your use of the English. Life hacks, as the children are calling them these days. These tricks can be applied at all levels of learning, to ensure that you get new reactions to the things you say – and to make sure people are really listening to you. Or just to amuse yourself. So, here’s how to make English more exciting: Continue reading

What a lovely pile of books

printed booksIt’s a splendid the feeling, as an author, of seeing a pile of your books in print. Even more so when you know all those printed books are going to (hopefully…) good homes. Even when you plan on giving them all away.

This is a bundle of printed copies of my new book, The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide – a short reference that covers the aspects of English, for English learners. With colourful pictures and examples. It’s a specialised book, for foreign students reaching towards fluency (and for the eminently curious) – but I think its nice matt cover and fantastic artwork would make it desirable on any bookshelf. Maybe I’m biased, though.

I did a print run of these books specifically to be given away – each of these copies will be offered as part of upcoming promotions over the next few months. If you’re interested in being in with a chance of winning yourself a copy, be sure to follow me on Goodreads for updates, or (important if you’re really interested in the world of learning English language!) join my English Lessons Brighton mailing list. Fun times ahead!

A Time to Curse: When is it appropriate to use swearwords in creative writing?

swearwords in creative writingA while back, I took all of my most complete manuscripts and, for curiosities’ sake, tallied up the number of swearwords in each. I made an interesting discovery – that the new novels seemed to have increasingly higher number of swearwords, and, rather surprisingly, my most light-hearted and least violent novel had the second highest total. As I am now re-editing that novel, Gun City Bohemian, for publication, I thought it a prudent time to step back and ask why these patterns emerged – and to muse on appropriate levels of swearing in creative writing in general. Continue reading

The language of cons – an etymology

con man etymologyCon artists and their elaborate cons are rife in fiction and film for obvious reasons. Tales of trickery and the sort of guile it takes to pull off a good con are clear fodder for suave characters, a bit of danger and a good old-fashioned twist in a story. And they’re rich in interesting vocabulary that is, of course, always exciting to pick apart. If you’re into that sort of thing. Part of what makes the language of cons so interesting is that a lot of it has filtered out of criminal, underground and travelling circus slang. Which are areas whose origins aren’t normally well documented. Continue reading

An English grammar guide of 100 pages just to tell time…

english grammarGrammar is a fun loving thing. Not everyone may think so, but starting out pondering over when to use each tense and discovering a year later you’ve just about decided on how best to explain constitutes a fascinating journey for me. It was around a year ago that I started writing a short English grammar guide for foreign students, which should have been around 14 pages long. Now I’m about to release it as a resolute eBook, at some 114 pages, and feel that, if only for having more time, it could’ve been so much longer…

Continue reading

Pronunciation of English vowels

Write right: homonyms, homographs, homophones and more word meanings.English vowel sounds: there are 20 ways to pronounce them and only five letters for writing them. So learning or teaching the pronunciation of English vowels requires a detailed table of spelling rules and examples. Continuing to teach English around Brighton, I produce handouts for the English language that don’t appear to have been catered for. I couldn’t find a complete summary or explanation of vowel pronunciation online. Pronunciation explanations or exercises are usually very basic, for young learners or beginners, and rarely show all the different sounds in a table. When I taught in the UAE the only useful resource we had was a book containing this information, and I believe it helped learners a lot. So I have reproduced the idea here, either for learners to study or as a point of reference for teachers.

Continue reading

Common grammar mistakes in screenplay writing

Screenwriting, common grammar mistakes in screenwriting, scriptwriting etc.Editing and reviewing scripts, I’ve come across a number of common grammar mistakes that are worth flagging. A good script can be greatly hindered by these errors: even with a solid story, clumsy writing can lessen the integrity of the project and turn off potential investors. Some of these mistakes can change the meaning of what you write. Some are a matter of style. With so many scripts out there, readers are looking for an excuse to reject yours, though, and any one of these points could give them that excuse. However, they are all mistakes that can be avoided with some careful attention and editing. Continue reading

Write right: homonyms, homophones, homographs and more word meanings

Write right: homonyms, homographs, homophones and more word meanings.Write Right Now contains two homophones – two words with the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings. One of those homophones is also a homonym – a word that could mean more than one thing, spelt the same way and pronounced the same way. My sister site Copywrite Now  uses a cunning mixture of homonym and homophone depending on the way you split up the words. I imagine most people can see what I’ve done with the two titles, but this kind of wordplay is possible because the English language is frankly a bit of a mess for clashes in words’ spelling, pronunciation and meaning. It’s a frequent difficulty for new learners and native speakers alike, and I doubt most people have given it a second thought since school, so I’m gonna don my teacher cap and explain a little about the mechanics of these ridiculous words.

Continue reading