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.

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