P is for Pedagogic grammar

24 02 2013

Palmer happy etcHow do you write a pedagogic grammar?  Or, more realistically, how do you judge the worth of one that has already been written?

This is a task I regularly set my MA TESOL students, i.e. to put a teacher’s or learner’s grammar of their choice to the test, and to come up with a set of criteria for evaluating pedagogic grammars in general.

The criteria that result almost always involve issues of accessibility. How easy is it to find what you want? How clearly is it organized and signposted? How clear are the explanations? and so on.

Accessibility is a real issue. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the students who have little or no ELT background find performing even simple research tasks incredibly difficult. Asked to rule on the grammaticality of I’m lovin’ it, for example, one student failed to locate the distinction between stative and dynamic verbs in Parrott (2000), even though these are listed in the index (which, admittedly, is at the front of the book, not the back). Others, using Swan (2005) found what they were looking for but only if they knew what they were looking for: if they didn’t know the relevant grammatical labels they got endlessly sidetracked.Palmer grammar

Even knowing the labels is not necessarily any guarantee of success: in reviewing a recent grammar (Carter et al, 2011), I was directed by the index entry for phrasal verbs to the article on prepositional phrases, only to be told that phrasal verbs are filed under Verbs: multi-word verbs – the equivalent of two clicks on a website. More frustrating still, to answer the question ‘Is I’m loving it grammatical?’, I drew blanks at each of these search words: dynamic, stative, progressive, continuous, aspect, love, like. I finally ran the answer to ground in the entry Present simple or present continuous? (Why, I wonder, is this aspect distinction referenced only for present tenses?)

Palmer participlesApart from being accessible, a pedagogic grammar has to be reliable. That is to say, we need to be able to trust its explanations. This doesn’t mean to say that we have to be told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s a pedagogic grammar, not a linguist’s grammar, after all. But we needn’t have to accept half-truths. Nor untruths.

The accuracy of the grammars that my students choose to evaluate  (including some very dodgy websites) they tend to take on trust. But should they?

For a start, it’s important to know just how prescriptive the grammar is. Many pedagogic grammars are cagey about this, claiming to be purely descriptive. Leech (1989: ix), for example, says, of his own grammar, ‘Where a form is considered right by some native speakers and wrong by others, we point this out without being prescriptive’. However, this ‘pointing out’ often takes the form of a warning, e.g. ‘Be careful about using like instead of as…’

The Cambridge grammar that I reviewed makes its stance very clear: ‘Learners of English should use the standard forms of the language in most situations’ (Carter et al. 2011: 3). This is only to be expected, since this is a pedagogic grammar – one that models the target language for the learner, rather than one that describes its infinite variety for the specialist. Modeling implies some consensus as to what is being modeled, consensus implies norms, and norms imply a degree of prescriptivism, although of the norm-describing, rather than the norm-enforcing, kind, one would hope.palmer connectives

The distinction between norm-describing and norm-enforcing gets dangerously elided, however, when rules are prefaced by ‘we always…’ or ‘we never…’ For instance, in Carter et al. we find (with reference to the aforementioned multi-word verbs): ‘If the object is a personal pronoun (me, you, him, us, etc.), we always put the pronoun before the particle’ (p. 547). Or, ‘We don’t use the continuous form with verbs of mental processes’ (p. 417).  Apart from causing us to wonder who this imperious ‘we’ is, both statements can be refuted by a quick search in a corpus. A little hedging (generally, seldom, etc) would have been both less incriminating and more accurate.

The problem is not so much that these statements are inaccurate (and, admittedly, the counter-examples are few and far between): it’s that they are not explanatory. There is a reason that the pronoun is rarely given end-weight in phrasal verb constructions, and that is because it seldom encodes new information. And the reason that continuous forms are less often used with mental process verbs is that states of knowledge tend not to be dynamic or evolving (a core meaning of progressive aspect) — you either love something or you don’t.  What would it have cost to include explanations like these? Offering an insight into the reasons underlying the rules might better prepare users to deal with ‘exceptions’ (e.g. I’m lovin’ it!), as well as equipping them with the means to fine-tune their meanings in speaking and writing.Palmer prepositions01

But it’s only a pedagogic grammar, you protest.  Language learners don’t want choices; they want rules.  Maybe.  But to my mind ‘pedagogic’ implies something more than simply stating rules (that would be a pedantic grammar, perhaps). Pedagogic implies that the grammar is somehow learning-oriented: a pedagogic grammar is one that the user not only consults, but can learn something from. As Larsen-Freeman (2003, p. 50) puts it, ‘To my way of thinking, it is important  for learners not only to know the rules, but also to know why they exist … what I call the “reasons” underlying the rules’.

As an instance of an explanatory approach, observe how Leech (1989: 394, emphasis added) both mitigates the force of a rule, and takes the time to add a reason:

Verbs not normally taking the Progressive.

Be careful with verbs of the kinds outlined in 3a-3f below. They usually do not have a Progressive form, because they describe a state.

So, my criteria for a pedagogic grammar: accessibility, reliability, and ‘explainability’. What are yours?


Palmer auxiliariesCarter, R., McCarthy, M., Mark, G., & O’Keeffe, A. (2011) English Grammar Today: An A-Z of spoken and written grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston: Heinle.

Leech, G. (1989) An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage. London: Edward Arnold.

Parrott, M. (2000) Grammar for English Language Teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage (3rd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Palmer, H.E. (1938) The New Method Grammar, London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Parts of this blog post first appeared in a review of Carter, et al. (2011), in the ELT Journal, 66/2, April 2012.



43 responses

24 02 2013

Dear Scott, I absolutely agree.
As a student, i remember grammar books with exercises, and very few with the rationale behind the rule, which is what makes it all more memorable by the way.
As a teacher, I have found them in some grammar books, and tried to convey them to students. (Maybe the way of writing grammar books has changed in the last 30 years:-),
On the other end, are there always reasons? I sometimes take for granted that there is no reason why, it’s just the way it is.
Or, if you want to find reasons why you should go deeper into linguistic and maybe even anthropology studies, isn’t it?
So maybe there are cases in which is possible and easy to explain why, others in which is not, and if it is, it would be only for ‘technicians’…

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

“Are there always reasons? I sometimes take for granted that there is no reason why, it’s just the way it is.”

Yes, Diana, it’s true that there is ‘motivated’ grammar (i.e. grammar for which there are reasons) and there is arbitrary grammar – it’s like that because that’s the way it is. The third person -s would be an example of the latter. There’s no reason (apart from a historical one) for the third person -s: it fulfills no useful function, and is redundant in virtually all contexts – this may explain why it is so darned difficult to learn!

This is where the distinction between ‘grammar as structure’ and ‘grammar as choice’ can be useful. The third person -s is an example of grammar as structure. To omit it would be ungrammatical (by the standards of prestigious varieties of English, at least). As I wrote in my original review (of Carter et al): ‘Grammar as structure rules out ill-formed sentences such as *I are loving it. Grammar as choice, on the other hand, accepts that I love it and I’m loving it are not only well-formed, but that both can occur, and do occur (the former more often than the latter, for good reason) and that the choice of one or the other has different effects’.

What these effects are can be explained by recourse to the basic meaning of progressive aspect.

24 02 2013
Luan Hanratty (@TEFL101)

Hi Scott,
At the risk of stating the obvious, I think the main issue here is that grammar-heavy (the implication being: semantically-light) approaches do not tend to expedite the skills of fluency as much as more natural and informal ways. Grammatical terminology often serves to confuse people, especially the higher up the chain of nuanced analysis it becomes. Complex grammatical nomenclature can be very redundant for the purposes of language learning and to me, the teacher’s main role is not one of a ‘linguist’. As I commented in ‘R is for Rules’, the grammar syllabus is a passive, outdated, back-to-front approach where meaning plays second fiddle to form. Thus I feel that grammar explanations, when needed, should not stray too far beyond the main parts of speech that the learners are already familiar with.

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

I tend to agree, Luan, that grammar explanations and metalanguage needn’t interfere with the real business of classroom instruction, i.e. to provide opportunities for (scaffolded) language use. But for those who feel the need to (or have been ordered to!) fork out for a grammar reference book, the least they can expect are explanations from which they can learn something. Wouldn’t you agree?

25 02 2013
Tyson Seburn

Yes. I doubt anyone argues that a grammar-based syllabus is neither needed or wanted for any program. However, we cannot deny that preservice teachers (and many of those with years of experience) can use the explanations behind the grammar that comes up in their students’ language uses in class. Knowing why something is the way it is (grammar, etymology, program design even) helps teachers be able to work with it better.

25 02 2013
Tyson Seburn

Btw, I’ve always had an affinity for A Concise Grammar for Language Teachers (TP publications, 2005: http://englishcentral.bookware3000.ca/eSolution/item_detail.php?item=9780953132317&data=concise+grammar).

25 02 2013
Luan Hanratty (@TEFL101)

I hear you, guys. But I’m afraid that the the pedantry inherent in book-based grammar instruction pervades many aspects of teaching. Teachers become impelled to lay down the law regarding grammatical intricacies. It seems proper. I like nothing better than tackling such questions and the students appreciate it. Your teaching looks all nice and scholarly on the outside, but are they really learning? I think no: they are studying. 

Prescribing and explaining usage is necessary but we all have a tendency to dwell on it, which is anally retentive and unproductive. Here are some areas where the quest for accuracy becomes myopic,

– Introducing arcane idioms, phrases and words.
– Offering convoluted and antiquated constructs.
– Over-using hackneyed discourse markers.
– Affirming old fashioned rules e.g. split infinitives or ‘none of us has’.
– Getting tied up about whether to allow omissions of redundant function
– Getting caught up in the minutiae regarding use of prestige words and phrases.
– Nitpicking over US and UK usage.
– Getting confused about stylistic trends, e.g. the ‘fashion’ for dropping adverbs.
– Generally hypercorrecting standard forms.
There are millions of people who have an excellent understanding of English grammar but their communicative ability lags way behind. I see it a lot in China, and here the college entrance exams are written to test this kind of knowledge.

But seeking to fully understand every aspect of a language is a very old-fashioned view of cultural and linguistic competence and quite a futile exercise in the end. A more sensible approach obviously is to appreciate diversity by accepting that in language, differences and idiosyncrasies exist and that often, the exceptions make the rules.

I digress, but the point is that there is little room for book-based grammars. They don’t help. They exacerbate teacher-centred explicit instruction. They obscure learning and they belong to the teaching of Latin and Greek.

25 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

I hear you, too, Luan. And I don’t think we’re a million miles apart on this (see, for example, G is for Grammar syllabus). But, irrespective of the degree to which we might teach grammar explicitly, or even base our curriculums on it, as teachers I think we need to know something about it ourselves. It’s part of our expertise, surely. Besides which, it’s endlessly fascinating (in a geeky kind of way).

25 02 2013
Luan Hanratty (@TEFL101)

I absolutely I agree with that. Teachers do need to understand the language and healthy interest in grammar, vocabulary and all things linguistics certainly stand a person in good stead intellectually. That’s why I think that grammars, dictionaries, and other tools are perhaps only properly utilised when one has reached an advanced level in the language, when subtlety and sophistication rather matter more.

26 02 2013
Tyson Seburn

Although I can see your point (perhaps?) that including explanation of grammar structures and metalanguage in teacher training courses then models that explanation and intricacies is a good way to teach students to those teacher trainees, I don’t think learning about the language they natively speak is really the cause of grammar-based teaching. That would be like teaching History but not knowing anything about History itself beyond general common knowledge, some of which is likely incorrect.

It’s important that teacher training courses emphasise the teaching methodologies and approaches they value, reinforcing them in their practicums when trainees seem to get hung up on overexplaining grammar points or designing lessons.

26 02 2013
Luan Hanratty (@TEFL101)

I have a bit of a bone of contention with the history analogy though, Tyson. A language teacher’s priority is in learning how to develop people’s skills. History is not too concerned with skill development. I can see your point though. Of course teachers need to know grammar rules and know how the language works. But beyond grammars and tools there is one thing that there is no substitute for: literature. And I would suggest that a long-term and intensive reading habit gives teachers and learners alike that first-hand and implicit understanding of the language, which goes a long way to making the metalanguage of grammar easier to learn and explain. If a trainee teacher is a well-read person with a broad knowledge of the language as it exists, then they are likely going to grasp grammatical points far quicker than the trainee who has less familiarity, and less facility, with the language.

27 02 2013
Tyson Seburn

Sure, it would be great if all teacher trainees were well-read. But they’re not always.

24 02 2013
Pearson Brown

I have to declare an interest as the author of one of those ‘dodgy’ websites you talk about 🙂

I find it interesting that you have avoided talking about the elephant in the room, Murphy.

Murphy has been an enormous publishing success and has a reputation of being the book that “students buy themselves”. To me, it has never seemed to be a very good book. But I don’t see how any discussion in this area can avoid looking at those sales figures.

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Pearson, I swear your website was not one of the ones my students hit upon 😉

Yes, I didn’t mention Murphy, partly because I was more focused on teachers’ grammars rather than on students’ ones (although I know many a teacher who uses Murphy as their main source for grammar reference). [For those not in the know, Murphy refers to the best-selling English Grammar in Use, by Raymond Murphy, published by Cambridge University Press – I have the 2nd edition of 1994]

The unique selling point of this (much imitated) grammar was that – in its time – it was the first grammar that was written in language that intermediate students could understand. And the elegantly simple double-spread format of explanations and exercises meant that teachers could shamelessly photocopy a lesson without unnecessary faffing.

As for its explanations, well, enough said!

24 02 2013
Marisa Constantinides

Reblogged this on DELTA Course Blog and commented:
This is an opportune blog post as we have been doing language analysis work and discussing theoretical vs pedagogic grammars.

Read Scott Thornbury’s post and comment on the validity of the following statements about various modal verbs taken from a variety of pedagogic grammars

Please add your reflection in a comments below the post.
1/ You also use might have or could have followed by a past participle to say that if a particular thing had happened, then there was a possibility of something else happening.

2/ You use could not have or couldn’t have followed by a past participle to say that it is not possible that someone had the ability to do something.

2/ You use used to be able to to say that something was possible in the past but it is not possible now.

3/ Have to expresses unavoidable necessity as distinct from personal obligation.

4/ Modals do not normally indicate the time when something happens. There are, however, a few exceptions: shall and will often indicate a future event or situation; could is used as the past form of can to express ability; would is used as the past form of will to express the future.

5/ Instead of using modals you can use other words and expressions. For example: be able to is used instead of can, be likely to is used instead of might, and have to is used instead of must.
didn’t need to expresses no obligation and therefore no action — needn’t have
expresses no obligation but the action was performed.
6/ Modal verbs are those verbs in English which show the mood of the main verb. They cannot stand on their own in a sentence because they need another verb which they “colour.” That’s why they are called defective verbs as well (defective = something with a problem or a fault).

7/ We use should have/ought to have + past participle when we expected
something to happen and we do not know if it happened. We also use this
structure when we expected something to happen, but it did not happen.

Comments below post please 🙂

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Nice task, Marisa – I’d be interested to know how your students get on.

24 02 2013
Mumtaz Ayub

Hi Scott,

Yes, pedagogic not pedantic. I think what you describe is a mindset more than anything else; a belief that grammar evolves to help convey meaning and has overarching principles which learners need to build into their own meaning systems. I have found that students love such insights, like the one you gave about progressive aspect – reminds me of Dave Willis’ Rules, Patterns, Words – and they help me take learners from meaning to form. The problem is we don’t always see the patterns ourselves; a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. Certainly a worthwhile project and a great idea for a new book…

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Mumtaz, not only do students (or some students at least) appreciate the reasons behind the rules, but I suspect the reasons have mnemonic power. Certainly, the learning of vocabulary can often be enhanced if the etymology of words is explained, and Frank Boers has shown that idioms (such as to toe the line or to take a raincheck) are best remembered when their literal origins are made explicit, so the same may apply to grammar: does it help to know that the going to future derives literally from movement from one place to another? That have in the present perfect (my computer has crashed) shares semantics with have meaning possession: my computer has a virus?

This is where both functional grammar (of the Hallidayan sort), and cognitive grammar (e.g. Langacker) are more useful than a Chomskyan interpretation, in that they explain language in terms of what it has to do, and how it construes reality. Chomskyan grammar, in attempting to explain how grammar is instantiated in the mind, independent of its communicative uses, explains nothing. Likewise, a lot of pedagogic grammar presents grammar as bald facts – factoids, even. Grammar McNuggets, in other words.

24 02 2013
Penny Hands

In response to Diana’s comment above, yes; whether to explain why, and where to just say ‘cos that’s the way it is’ is a good question. When we were updating COBUILD Grammar (2011), we researched the development over the past 20 years of the use of progressive aspect with stative verbs. We weren’t able to replicate the full results of our study, but what we ended up with in the book was this:

‘However, a few of these verbs [i.e. stative verbs] are sometimes used with present and past progressive forms, particularly in informal spoken English. You can use the progressive form with these verbs when you want to emphasize that a state is new or temporary, or when you want to focus on the moment.

Rachel is loving one benefit of the job – the new clothes.
I’m liking grapes these days too.
I’m wanting the film to be deliberately old-fashioned.’

[list of verbs that can be used in this way]

We then went on to say that you can use the progressive form of the present perfect and the past perfect with some stative verbs in both formal and informal contexts, and gave the examples:

I’ve been wanting to speak to you about this for some time.
Then she heard it. The sound she had been hearing in her head for weeks.

Looking back, in light of Scott’s post above, I see that we side-stepped the issue of ‘why’ in the second part of this description. The fact is that I don’t think we knew why it works in this unmarked way with some stative verbs and not with others. In her comment above, Diana suggests that we leave the ‘whys’ to the technicians. I agree that it often takes quite a lot of research and analysis to work out why we do something, but the result is often not at all complex; in fact, it can sometimes be so simple (as in Scott’s point about pronouns with phrasal verbs and end-weight) that it’s hard to believe no-one has thought to mention it before.

Talking of ‘whys’, it occurs to me that the first example (‘Rachel…’) above is really just a case of ‘loving’ being used as an informal synonym for ‘enjoying’. In that sense, this example isn’t really a typical illustration of the newer ‘I’m lovin’ the new hairstyle!’-type usage. Perhaps the MacDonalds slogan ‘I’m lovin’ it’ was not really innovative either, since it can be interpreted to mean ‘I’m loving (= enjoying) life and everything about it at the moment (and MacDonalds embodies that feeling)’. It simply hinted at, and paved the way for, the innovative use.

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the ‘view from the inside’, Penny! I.e. the perspective of a pedagogic grammar writer/editor.

Just two things come to mind:

The fact is that I don’t think we knew why it works in this unmarked way with some stative verbs and not with others.

Yes, it’s well-known that many verbs of perception and cognition are polysemous, hence ‘I think I’ll buy an Audi’ and ‘I’m thinking of buying an Audi’ are not synonymous, nor, ‘Have you seen my daughter?’ and ‘Have you been seeing my daughter?’ Why some verbs ‘go both ways’ and others don’t may have something to do with lexical aspect (an area seldom dealt with even in the ‘best’ grammars). That is to say, ‘thinking’ can be both a non-volitional state and a volitional (i.e. deliberate) process. ‘Believing’, on the other hand, is less deliberative, and hence less likely to occur in the progressive.

With regard to ‘loving’, a quick corpus search found that the progressive use of this verb occurred very many times in the context of the construction ‘loving every minute of it’. Thus:

She went from big business to pro bowling, and she’s loving every minute of it.
And from the smug look on Trish’s face, she’s loving every minute of it.

Likewise ‘want’ in the progressive seems to occur very often with the semi-fixed phrase I’ve been wanting to meet you

Which suggests to me that these forms may start life (or end life?) as parts of larger constructions that are idiomatic – in the sense that they are (semi-)fixed and have a relatively narrow range, pragmatically and stylistically. If that makes sense.

24 02 2013

I love (I’m loving!) your example sentence because it’s one I’ve used for a few years now to encourage students to explore how grammar choices are a means to express concepts, not a set of pedantic rules that have to be memorized and followed slavishly. Learners need to understand that forms have a meaning, and when we say ‘don’t use this tense for that idea’ we are often just really saying that real life cases where that form accurately describes a situation are rare or non-existant. We can say, for example, ‘he has been smoking 5 cigarettes’ which students are told is wrong, but they need to know it’s because it would mean all 5 at once, which is rarely if ever what they were trying to say. Too many students are told (or want) to just memorize the cases without understanding the meaning behind them.

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Colette – and your comment about ‘grammar choices’ anticipated by response to Diana (above) about ‘grammar as choice’. Dave Willis’s book (referred to by Mumtaz) thoroughly explores this hugely interesting topic.

24 02 2013
T Bestwick

I agree one of the key features should be the accessibility of the material. As a Diploma student, I’m currently trudging my way through Parrott (2010) who I must say has written a fairly comprehensive guide. However, I was having problems with complements and came across a book on our resources shelf called “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire” (Karen Gordon, 1998). It was an amusing read with innovative examples, but I found it incredibly difficult to read as a reference book as the language she used to explain language was completely beyond me!

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Teresa – I should have mentioned that one aspect of the accessibility factor is the use (or non-use) of metalanguage. It would be impossible to write a grammar without some use of grammatical terminology, but ideally this should be kept to a minimum and should also be clearly glossed somewhere.

24 02 2013

Grammar as a choice: yes, help the learner to make informed choices. And also, if a grammar states “we always do it like this”, that implies that to do it another way is incorrect. I think there’s another subtle (or not-so-subtle?) problem with this. That is, learners (including native speakers who learned “the correct way” in school) may, consciously or unconsciously, stratify others according to the form they use.

Accessibility, reliability, explainability … and in electrons? I would love to see an online grammar from a credible source that:

– has smart phone and tablet apps
– has varying levels of detail (a free version with the basics, add-ons available for purchase.)
– is dynamically updated, since grammar is a moving target (offer subscriptions?)
– is tied in to corpus tools (one of those add-ons)
– not only has example sentences but links to the original text, if available
– could have spoken examples when it’s spoken grammar
– includes the reasons or history behind some forms (when known)
– is associated with a blog (or blogs) that fields common questions, highlights interesting new forms, discusses newly-discovered reasons behind forms, links to other grammar-related news and information out there.

In short, paper publications are static, which is compatible with a prescriptive approach. But an electronic publication can flow with the language. It would also promote language awareness, because it would be less of a book and more of an invitation to a community of people who like “language watching”.

Some dictionary/thesaurus sites that are moving in this direction are


Are there any other student-friendly sites like this? Please share?

24 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Kathy – and yes, to reiterate your plea: please share (any online grammar sources that meet at least some of Kathy’s very neatly articulated criteria).

I have to say that most online grammar resources don’t go anywhere near this. For a start, a lot of them are written for native speakers and are more ‘style guides’ than pedagogic grammars, so they are largely very prescriptive. The ones that are written for EFL/ESL students tend to be very amateurish, with unreliable rules, improbable examples, and very mechanical exercises – Murphy lookalikes without the rigorous editorial supervision that usually goes into print grammars. A good test is to look at the treatment of articles, or of the passive, or of phrasal verbs (all topics I have written about on this blog, incidentally).

24 02 2013
Emilia Siravo

Dear Scott,
I love waking up on Sunday to the smell of coffee and to your new blog entries! Thanks for the very interesting read.

While reading, I was reminded of ‘Grammar McNuggets’ a terms you coined and defined as, “(grammar) artificially packaged into bite-sized chunks for the purposes of teaching.” (in G is for Grammar McNuggets, September 18th 2010)

As a child, no matter how delicious and wholesome my parents’ home cooking was, had I had a choice I probably would have eaten McNuggets instead of what they prepared for dinner. Only now (with a bit more maturity and consciousness for good food) can I appreciate my parents’ refusal to let me eat ‘junk food.’ As a teacher, I find that many students (especially those at beginner/ low intermediary levels (A1-B1 CEFR)) want, dare I say prefer, Grammar McNuggets because they are quick, simple and many times hit the spot. Unfortunately, just like the ‘real’ McNuggets, in the long term Grammar McNuggets may be rather detrimental to our students’ language health.
My issue is, how can we ‘sell’ the idea of wholesome, holistic and maybe ‘slower’ teaching (which may be necessary if we don’t want to be prescriptive) to our students (especially those at lower language levels) who might prefer (or even need) the ‘quick and easy’ (or what they think to be the quick and easy) approach?

You also mentioned, “The problem is not so much that these statements are inaccurate (and, admittedly, the counter-examples are few and far between): it’s that they are not explanatory. There is a reason that the pronoun is rarely given end-weight in phrasal verb constructions, and that is because it seldom encodes new information. And the reason that continuous forms are less often used with mental process verbs is that states of knowledge tend not to be dynamic or evolving (a core meaning of progressive aspect) — you either love something or you don’t. ”

These reasons may be true in English, but they might not necessarily translate to learners’ L1. For example, some languages (like German) do not have a present continuous (progressive) form but rather use context words / time expressions to describe aspect. So, here explanations for dynamic vs. static verbs might not help learners because the rationale (and concept) might not exist in their L1. What would you suggest in these situations?

Thanks again, emilia

25 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

“Here explanations for dynamic vs. static verbs might not help learners because the rationale (and concept) might not exist in their L1”

Agreed, Emilia, but if the concepts don’t exist in their L1, maybe that’s all the more reason to explain them – or, at least, to illustrate them. For example, the fact that Spanish has two verbs (ser and estar) that translate English ‘to be’, and that these represent two different kinds of states is something that I, as a learner, need to know – it’s not something that transfers naturally form my L1 . I could, of course, pick it up by trial and error (and even knowing the ‘rule’ doesn’t protect me 100% from making mistakes) but some explicit instruction might cut corners.

Every language divides up the world slightly differently, and learning a second language is – to a large extent – learning these new divisions.

26 02 2013

Dear Scott,

I always enjoy reading your Blog A-Z of ELT. One can find abundant, relevant topics of interest to ELT professionals whatsoever their stage and experience.

Today, while reading your response to Emilia Siravo, I’ve noticed you have mentioned “… the fact that Spanish has two verbs (ser and estar) that translate English “to be”…”. My point is this: why did you forget to mention Portuguese language once those verbs specifically exist in our mother tongue, either? Sincerely, I’d like to know why you’ve privileged that language in detriment of the other. Despite knowing you live in Barcelona…

Best wishes from Portugal and…


26 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Maria, for that polite reminder of my linguistic ‘myopia’. I of course should have acknowledged that this distinction (‘ser’ and ‘estar’) is common to both Portuguese and Catalan, and probably Galician. Also Valenciano and Aranese. I hope there is no one else I have inadvertently offended!

27 02 2013

Dear Scott,

Thanks very much for having accepted my query/remark.No offence at all from you! Simply, now I am sure everyone recognizes that fair inclusion regarding the example you had pointed out before.

Best wishes,


25 02 2013

So, my criteria for a pedagogic grammar: accessibility, reliability, and ‘explainability’. What are yours?

That’s a good set of criteria. I would add portability: a pedagogic grammar shouldn’t be too bulky or hard to carry about. Kathy’s ideas appeal in this regard. After all, teachers (and possibly learners) are often grammaring on the go, and it seems only natural to have access to a reliable resource that is as dynamic as Kathy describes.

Any pedagogic grammar that uses words (and grammar) to describe grammar (and words) will always be at the mercy of its maker’s mental lexicon, socio-cultural bias, etc. And I wonder if a pedagogic lexico-grammar might serve us better than a grammar alone, especially when the link between grammar and lexis seems as arbitrary as the separation of waves and particles in physics.

But that could be my lack of understanding both language and physics. 🙂


25 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

I wonder if a pedagogic lexico-grammar might serve us better than a grammar alone

Agreed, Rob, and to a certain extent, grammars are moving in that direction, with more and more information on individual words, especially the function words. I would like to see a (pedagogic) construction grammar, though (see C is for Construction) – and one that uses corpus data to select the most frequent and most generative constructions. Does anyone know of one?

25 02 2013

Are there good books to read? Or any which you recommend? I’ve read Parrot’s book and regularly consult Swan but I’d like to understand more of the whys of grammar. Or am I missing the point here and this book doesn’t exist, yet? 🙂

25 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Jo, read Dave Willis’s (very readable) Rules, Patterns and Words (Cambridge, 2003) – it’s been mentioned one or two times here already. As for grammars, I’m actually a big fan of the Collins COBUILD Grammar that Penny referred to earlier.

25 02 2013
Scott C

The English Verb by Michael Lewis had a big effect on the way I think about tenses. By no means a pedagogic grammar but a very interesting read.

26 02 2013

Thanks Scott and Scott for the recommendation!

25 02 2013
Jeremy Harmer

Hello Scott,

just wanted to remind you (and your readers) of Michael Swan’s ‘Design criteria for pedagogic language rules’ 1994 originally published ‘Grammar and theLanguage Teacher’ edited by Bygate, Tomkyn and Williams (Pearson/Prenticce Hall) and republished in Swan, M (2012) ‘Thinking about Language Teaching. OUP.

Swan comes up with 6 criteria for a good pedagogic rule: 1 Truth, 2 Demarcation (an explanation should show the limits of use of a form) , 3 clarity, 4 simplicity, 5 conceptual parsimony (an explanation must make use of the conceptual framework available to the learner….one should aim for minimum intervention), 6 relevance (a rule should answer the question a learner is asking). Etc.

I have always been impressed by those….


25 02 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jeremy, for reminding me of Michael Swan’s very nicely elaborated criteria. Coming from someone who has written (or co-written) so many excellent grammars, they are worth paying attention to. Nevertheless, he doesn’t have a criterion which approximates to my ‘explainability’ one, does he? Certainly, the rule he gives in ‘The Good Grammar Book’ (co-written with Catherine Walter, OUP 2001, p. 28) for ‘non-progressive verbs’ does not explain why such verbs do not lend themselves to progressive aspect: ‘Some verbs are normally used in simple tenses, not progressive, even if we mean “just now”‘.

On the other hand, I love this bit in his article: ‘Effective grammar teaching … focuses on the specific problems (real and potential) of specific learners. This will necessarily mean giving a somewhat fragmentary and partial account of the grammar of the target language, rather than working through a “complete” grammar syllabus giving “complete” rules. There is nothing at all wrong with this, though the approach may look messy and unsystematic: the grammar classroom is no place for people with completion neuroses’.

Geeks be warned!

25 02 2013

Hello everyone!
Amazing discussion! Penny Ur’s “There is nothing so practical as good theory” (2001) does not really focus on pedagogic rules as Swan’s article does but at the end she introduces Rod Ellis’ concept of “aesthetic appeal” (1997, p. 103). I think this could be indeed applied to grammar rules. I’m not getting at aspects such as layout, design and typography (though they do definitively play a role as Scott mentioned about Murphy’s book). Rather, I guess it could be applied to the “appeal” factor. Some grammars (I’m thinking, for example, of “About Language” and the a hair / some hair distinction) make grammar visible and even beautiful… “expressed in pleasing and compelling metaphor[s]” (Ur, 2001, p. 38). I guess this is not the main thing but it is “and additional ‘bonus'” (ibid.)

26 02 2013

Reblogged this on TEFL in Spain and commented:
For the grammarians among you, this is a fascinating read – and some of the readers’ comments are suitably incisive.

3 03 2013
osnacantab Dennis Newson

Scott Thornbury Blog Pedagogic grammar

I admit to an adherence to the unfashionable view that “grammar” seen as a central ingredient in the process of language learning and central to the drawing up of foreign language syllabuses and the writing of course books is detrimental to the language learning process.

Some of my reasons emerge when making comments on the last A-Z piece, Pedagogic Grammars. And I thought that A-Z is the best forum on the internet which may contain people who can convincingly shoot down my arguments.

Scott reports asking MA TESOL students to name their favourite grammar and say why and, going on from there, to work out criteria for all pedagogic grammars.

1. It would be interesting to extend that questionnaire to naming recommendable grammars for other groups of learners, too. Surely there is a need in a general discussion to distinguish between grammars for teachers and grammars for learners at various stages. Comparing such grammars would throw light on what service these books are intended to offer and how they contribute to learning at each level.
2. The implication of this attention to grammars is the assumption that using a grammar, i.e. consulting a reference book, is a necessary, a routine part of learning a language for all learners under all circumstances. I question this.

Scott further reports that subsequent discussion always involves accessibility – how easy it is to find what you want in a given grammar and how is it organised.

3. The Implication here is that by checking up on explanations a contribution will be made to language learning. What contribution? Is learning a language learning facts about it? Will consulting a grammar lead to an improvement in performance of some significant kind – either of improved listening with understanding, or enhanced comprehension in reading a text, or improved effectiveness in communicating in speech or writing ?

Scott also writes: “Asked to rule on the grammaticality of I’m lovin’ it, for example, one student failed to locate the distinction between stative and dynamic verbs in Parrott (2000), even though these are listed in the index (which, admittedly, is at the front of the book, not the back.’’)

This quote makes it quite clear, doesn’t it, that what is actually being discussed here is not the role of grammar in language learning. This is an academic, linguistic exercise, interesting in itself, but only as part of a high level, academic teacher training course. Would teachers of children in the kindergarten or primary schools, for example, be required to rule on grammaticality? And would grammaticality be much of an issue for groups of learners such as waiters, taxi drivers, souvenir sellers, museum guides, air traffic controllers, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and all kinds of folk (or their teachers if they have them) whose interest in English is not academic?

Scott continues:
“Apart from being accessible, a pedagogic grammar has to be reliable. That is to say, we need to be able to trust its explanations. This doesn’t mean to say that we have to be told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s a pedagogic grammar, not a linguist’s grammar, after all. But we needn’t have to accept half-truths. Nor untruths.”
Which grammars of English could be recommended to teachers and teachers in training and which grammar for various stages of learners of English?

Surely the best way to avoid half-truths and untruths is to suggest the two most complete grammars that have been published – abridgement, simplification and re-presenting others’ work can lead to distortion. Rules need to be complete to be right. “Grammar lite” is not a good idea.

Despite the price I would always recommend:

Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Douglas Biber et al Longman 1999, ISBN 058223725 – 4

And the older:

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language Randolph Quirk et al, Longman 1985 ISBN: 0 582 51734 6

Generally speaking , I would not recommend a grammar to most learners of English. To do so would be to support the harmfully erroneous idea that studying grammar rules and explanations and doing grammar exercises is an essential or effective part of language learning.

For middle and advanced learners who demanded the title of an appropriate grammar book I’d recommend a book like Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage ,Oxford, 1995 ISBN 0 19 431197 X) to be read secretly under their bedclothes with a torch.

In a key half sentence Scott writes: “ a pedagogic grammar is one that the user not only consults, but can learn something from.”

What is this something? Is it a real contribution to language learning, a strategy for turning knowledge into language performance, or merely a fact about the language?

Finally, let me quote from Scott’s criticism of Carter.

“Offering an insight into the reasons underlying the rules might better prepare users to deal with ‘exceptions’ (e.g. I’m lovin’ it!), as well as equipping them with the means to fine-tune their meanings in speaking and writing. “

How many learners of a foreign language, I wonder, make progress in the foreign language of their choice by such high-level cogitations? Is this kind of ruminative, intellectual academic analytical thought really the way that many advanced learners fine tune meaning in speaking and writing?

But despite my remarks , it has to be conceded that the world over there are teachers, learners, their parents, school inspectors, university lecturers, ministry of education officials who accept an explicit study of grammar is essential for all foreign language learners in all circumstances. Personally, I do not look for academic, scientific proof in this area. I am content with convincing insights and intuitions, detailed accounts by classroom teachers of teaching experience with specified groups, and learners’ own accounts of their individual language learning. I peresonally suspect that effective learning of a foreign language has more to do with motivation, curiosity, the right sort of support by the teacher blessed with sympathy for the pupils and intuition into how they individually learn along with the teacher’s own enthusiasm for using the language – all of these rather than systematic attention to and drilling in the grammar. But it is is probably the statistical norm to assume that to satisfactorily learn a foreign language that learfning and teaching must be scholastic, and grammar-driven like the traditional way of learning classical Greek and Latin.

I would really like to know: What is the key, published research, the research canon that supports the widespread assumption that to learn a foreign language you have to learn its grammar?

9 03 2013

I find Dennis Newson’s comments refreshing, well-considered and, may I say, very well-expressed. There is a kind of (naturally, carefully-qualified) assumption in Scott’s original posting that a good pedagogical grammar would be an important aid to SLA. As Dennis suggests, there is no evidence in all the research done in SLA that this is the case. Neither is there any evidence that “learning grammar”, if by that we mean studying the sort of stuff you’ll find in a book on grammar about the L2, will lead to communicative competence. Further, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that extensive reading, or working as a waiter in a bar where the target language is normally spoken for a year, for example, give much better results than learning grammar.

There is no research canon that supports the claim that to learn a foreign language you have to learn its grammar. There is a common view, a canon or paradigm we can call it (challenged tho it is, and rightly so) that learning a foreign language is a cognitive process which involves the development of an interlanguage. This interlanguage development can certainly be helped, in many cases, by learning grammar; i.e. by learners either reading bits of pedagogical grammar or having them explained by teachers. But it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. Some of the best speakers of English as an L2 don’t have “declarative knowledge” of (can’t articulate) the difference between a past participle and an adverb.

It’s interesting that Bachman’s (1990) components of language competence contains grammatical competence, but deliberately avoids metaliguistic awareness: he echoes Widdowson’s (1989) view that “useage” is less important than “use”, that knowledge of the linguistic system is of less importance (if the goal is communicative competence) than the abilty to use knowledge of the rules for communicative purposes. Both Bachman and Widdowson stress the limited part that learning grammar has on interlanguage development.

Then there’s Schmidt and Noticing. Schmidt’s influential paper on the role of consciousness in second language learning argues that “subliminal language learning is impossible”, and that “noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input into intake.” (Schmidt, 1990: 130). But Schmidt is careful. Schmidt proposes that intake be defined as “that part of the input which the learner notices … whether the learner notices a form in linguistic input because he or she was deliberately attending to form, or purely inadvertently. If noticed, it becomes intake”. (Schmidt, 1990: 139).

How do second language learners generalise from instances and go on to form hypotheses about the L2? Does such learning depend on unconscious processes of induction and abstraction or does it depend on learning grammar? While those such as White (1987, cited in Schmidt, 1990: 145) who take a Chomskian approach to SLA argue that the process is unconscious, a number of cognitive psychologists cited by Schmidt argue that there is no learning without awareness. Schmidt judges the question of implicit second language learning to be the most difficult “because it cannot be separated from questions concerning the plausibility of linguistic theories.” (Schmidt, 1990: 149) What Schmidt sees no reason to accept is the null hypothesis which claims that, as he puts it, “understanding is epiphenomenal to learning, or that most second language learning is implicit.” (Schmidt, 1990: 149) Fair enough, but this is a long way from supporting the view that grammar learning is necessary.

Bachman, L. (1990) Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schmidt, R. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129-58
Widdowson, H. (1989) Knowledge of language and ability for use. Applied Linguistics, 10,2, 128-137.

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