Embedding Grammar: Developing Subject Specialists in English.

I was never taught grammar at school. By grammar, I mean taking apart and being able to identify the different parts of sentences to understand how and why the written word in English is constructed in the way it is. I think it was assumed that because we were native speakers we didn’t need the knowledge of the names and functions of different parts of the language because we had it ingrained.

But surely this goes against the aim of English teaching; it certainly goes against the way I see the aim of English teaching. Any subject’s goal is to create a new generation of subject specialists, and to do that the future specialists need to have the vocabulary and understanding of the subject’s object of study, which in English is the English language. If we don’t explicitly ensure that our students have this knowledge and understanding, we deny them the opportunity to become the very thing we are paid to encourage them to be.

I recently listened to a series of lectures by Professor Michael Drout, in which he entertainingly espouses the beauty of grammar, the importance of understanding it and the joy of playing with it. He also bemoans the serious lack of understanding that people, and even undergraduate English students, have of it. He thinks that a lot of the problem is that most of us are scared of grammar for a number of historical reasons.

The first is the sheer complexity of the English language, and in particular the numbers of rules there are, coupled with the fact that there are usually more exceptions to the rules than otherwise. But he clearly explains how each of these exceptions is down to the unique and complicated history of the language. Whereas many languages had a fairly straightforward, organic development, the English language is actually layered by the many invasions of the British Isles (he uses the metaphor of a road that centuries ago was a deer track in a forest, and then became a hunter’s path, followed by a bridleway, a B road and then a motorway. All the other incarnations are still contained within, or just under, the latest embodiment of the route). Although it shares it roots, like all Indo-European languages, with the language of a tribe living in the Kyrgyzstani area of Southern Russia, it has a series of layers which were laid down one on top of the other, beginning with British Celtic, the ancestor of Cornish, Welsh  and Gaelic, which was mainly stamped out by the Roman Invasion. After the Romans left, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to migrate to this fertile land left empty by the Romans. This is the true ancestor of English, and many of our words still go back to this time. Then we have the Viking invasions, which introduced many Norse words, followed by the Norman Conquest. This already eclectic mix was added to with the growth of the British Empire and so, we effectively have at least five different grammatically and linguistically distinct systems working together, thus explaining the bewildering variety of rules and exceptions in English.

The second reason he thinks we’re scared of it is because, historically, the British Education System taught students the rules, without explaining the reasons for the rules. And if students didn’t memorise these rules they were beaten. The worst thing here is that many of the rules (like the prohibition of the split infinitive) were actually nothing to do with English and were in fact taken from Latin, the rationale being that the more English grammar could be made to fit with Latin, the better it would be. So in our collective cultural memories we still have the image of the militant, violent grammar teacher, flogging innocent children to within an inch of their lives for failing to remember the correct inflection of some obscure verb conjugation.

I had first-hand experience of the shortcomings a lack of grammatical education causes. When I left university I decided to go and be a TEFL teacher in Spain. Before this, I thought it would be a good idea to try and learn Spanish and so I went and spent three months living in Barcelona (it was only when I arrived that I discovered that Barcelona wasn’t really Spain and that the Spanish spoken there was very different to the Castilian of the south). I enrolled in a month-long intensive Spanish course and ended up in a class with two other English people and another 15 people from a variety of European countries, including Germany, Holland and Norway. As the course went on I realised that the English students were at a serious disadvantage; the other students talked comfortably to the teacher about various word classes and their position in sentences, about direct and indirect objects and about different participles and verb-tense agreements. But to us this was a whole new language, and because we didn’t have the tools (i.e. knowledge and vocabulary) to talk about these aspects of language, we fell behind very quickly.

So, what I want for my students, whether they’re in year 7 or 11, is the ability to be able to speak comfortably and confidently about the various grammatical elements so that they can move beyond this point in order to understand how the language works, and why certain word and grammar choices affect the reader in the way they do. To aid this, I’ve made a display in my room that shows the word classes and their functions, and I’m currently working on one that demonstrates how a tree diagram shows how sentences are made up of word classes, phrases and clauses. Yesterday, I spent a full lesson with a year 10 group playing about with a single sentence: Lazily, the old wizened pedlar sat at the edge of the water, gazing longingly at the distant, blue horizon. We looked at how changing certain word types changed the meaning of the whole sentence. For example, if we replaced the first adverbial with “crazily” or “furiously”, how would this change the mental image we had of what the pedlar was doing? What if we changed the preposition, for example with “on” or “under”? What I think the students began to understand was that developing an understanding of the way language works (the underlying grammar) allows students to actually have fun with the language because they can play with it. It’s like mastering the rules of any game; football, snap or chess. If you don’t know the rules and have the basic skills, it just looks like a horrible, confusing mess. But once you have the basic skills and knowledge of the rules then you can compete in the game and really start to enjoy participating. There was a lot of laughter in the lesson yesterday, particularly when thinking about the substitution of prepositions with other prepositions. Consider the phrase “Lipa jumped over the wall”. Try changing “over” to “through” or “into”. The whole meaning of the sentence is changed. And it’s not that this focus on grammar is hard to think about, it’s just that we don’t think about it explicitly often enough. This is in fact the basis of most comedy; good comedians take our basic cultural pre-programming and play with it by substituting words with unexpected ones that have the same grammatical function. The new unexpected meaning catches us out and the new, surprising mental image makes us laugh.

Hopefully then, when my new year 11s are sitting their exams next June, they will be able to write confidently about how an author’s particular choice of modal verb or adverbial phrase causes the reader to react in certain ways, and will be able to manipulate their own choices in their writing in an objective, “meta-linguistic” way. I suppose really, if I take the selfish, cynical perspective, I just want classes full of expert linguists with whom I can spend our lessons doing interesting and exciting things with language. Let’s see how it pans out.


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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

7 responses to “Embedding Grammar: Developing Subject Specialists in English.”

  1. manyanaed says :

    Which parts of grammar do you not need your students to know?

  2. Paul Murdoch says :

    In Latin, an infinitive is a single word. How can it be split?
    And your idea that English grammar developed with a bias toward Latin norms is highly questionable.

    • andywarner78 says :

      That’s exactly the point. Because it couldn’t be split in Latin, English scholars in the 18th century decided it shouldn’t be split in English. And the Latin bias isn’t my idea; I took it from the work of Professor Michael Drout. But it makes complete sense when you think about it.

  3. Jill Berry says :

    Thanks for this. I taught English for thirty years (as formal grammar teaching went in and out of fashion!) and it is something I still have mixed feelings about.

    I also went to a ‘grammar school’ in the 1970s where we WERE taught things like clause analysis. It was pretty dry stuff, though, and I still think I learnt more about the technicalities of language in my Latin, French and German lessons.

    I’d say the key phrase above is “developing an understanding of the way language works (the underlying grammar) allows students to actually have fun with the language because they can play with it”. It can be enjoyable, fascinating and compelling – or it can be dull and mechanistic. I’ve known both as a learner, and if I’m honest I think sometimes I’ve fallen into the trap of not always engaging students sufficiently as an English language teacher. I’m all for understanding language rules and having the terminology to discuss and analyse (and then to be able to talk knowledgeably about what you’re doing in your own manipulation of language) but I do think teachers have to be prepared to work hard to communicate their own enthusiasm and enjoyment for how language works.

    Thanks again, Andy.

    • andywarner78 says :

      You’re absolutely right. Which is why we shouldn’t have whole lessons on dry grammar, but rather drop it into what we’re already doing. “Hang on a minute; why the heck did this author choose this modal verb/phrasal verb/extended metaphor/simile etc? Can you think of a better one? How could another adverbial improve our mental image here?” You get the idea. Thanks for the reply. It’s nice to get feedback!

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