G is for Grammar(s)

5 04 2015

Fries grammarThere is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to describe a language. Hence, more than one type of grammar.

It all depends on your point of view. Take this sentence, for example:


Structuralist grammars foreground the way that the basic structure of this sentence (NP + verb to be + V-ed) provides the template for any number of similar sentences, such as This window is closed or Your days are numbered, but not Doorman will return shortly or Your number is up. Grammar, viewed thus, is a system of building blocks. In the words of a leading structuralist, ‘All the structural signals in English are strictly formal matters that can be described in physical terms’ (Fries, 1952: 56). Grammar is matter.

Grammar-as-matter is what a bog-standard computer program might be able to unpack, simply by skimming the surface of a text. The exclusive focus on the formal features of our model sentence (THIS DOOR IS ALARMED), however, might blind the computer to its inherent ambiguity, an ambiguity that has been playfully exploited by graffiti writers, e.g. THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘What startled it?’ or THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘But the window is not bothered’.

chomsky grammarExplaining how one sentence might have two quite different meanings impelled linguists like Chomsky to drill down beneath the surface level of sentences and expose their ‘deep structure’. Thus, the deep structure of the passive THIS DOOR IS ALARMED and its active equivalent SOMEONE ALARMED THIS DOOR is essentially the same.

But Chomsky’s project is more than simply the description of patterns, deep or otherwise. He wants to explain how the rules that generate these patterns are derived from innate and universal cognitive structures. His grammar, therefore, is less an account of linguistic behaviour than a theory of mind. As Chomsky himself put it (1972: 100), ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.’ Grammar is mind.

But, like the structuralist account, Chomsky’s reduction of grammar to a set of mathematical rules tells us nothing about the meaning of our sentence THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. Nor does it explain how it functions in context – how it has the force of a warning, for example (Don’t open this door!). Nor how its elements map on to some objective reality, e.g. how this in THIS DOOR ‘points’ to a specific door. A functionalist grammar, on the other hand, tries to relate the linguistic forms to specific communicative purposes and their contexts, and, more ambitiously, to explain how these purposes and contexts actually determine the way the grammar has evolved. Grammar is not simply a reflection of thought, but is ‘motivated’ by its social and cultural functions. Or, as a leading functionalist grammarian, Michael Halliday, puts it, ‘language is as it is because of what it has to do’ (1978: 19). Grammar is function.

Halliday grammarA not dissimilar, cognitive, view of grammar starts from the premise that, as one scholar puts it, ‘language is rooted in human experience of the physical world’ (Lee 2001: 48). That is to say, grammar is the linguistic realization of the way we physically experience and perceive the world. Thus, the sentence Doorman will return shortly does not mean that the doorman will, literally, be short when he returns. Rather that, because we tend to construe time in terms of physical distance, it makes sense, when we talk about time, to use spatial words like short and long (and back and over). Likewise, our use of grammatical tense, aspect, modality, countability, and so on, all originate in our lived experience. Grammar is perception.

Finally, an emergent view of grammar is one that has, in part, been fuelled by developments in corpus linguistics. Corpora demonstrate that language is both formulaic and subject to constant variation. This tension between stasis and flux means that, over time, certain strings of words (called constructions) become fixed and assume a grammatical, i.e. non-literal, function: they become grammaticised. The English future form going to is a case in point: a verb string that started life meaning the same as walking to, but became a metaphor for futurity, and was eventually reduced, informally, to gonna. According to the emergent view, grammar is ‘the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163). Grammar is routine.

Matter, mind, function, perception, routine: which of these multiple ways of looking at grammar (and this by no means exhausts the number of grammars that have been theorized) best serves the needs of language learners and their teachers? I’ll leave that for you to ponder on.


cognitive grammarReferences

Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent grammar’ in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lee, D. (2001) Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(A version of this post first appeared on the Cambridge English Teaching forum)



19 responses

5 04 2015

The problem with grammar as routine is that a sentence like Chomsky’s ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.’ is not routine at all, it’s nonsense, and the words would never appear together in any corpus, but it is grammatically correct. It follows the rules of how word classes go together. Therefore, although the emergent approach or stimulus-and-response view is maybe the most efficacious grammar for serving teachers and learners as it demonstrates the language as it appears in the real word ex-post, it doesn’t answer the more creative side of how to practice constructing language spontaneously by combining word classes correctly. Corpora can benefit course design but equally good or even better, more creative or less sterile courses can be created without corpora. For example a class using ‘colourless green ideas’ or the poems of Edward Lear may be a lot more effective than drilling a routine but perhaps dull lexical chunk.

7 04 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Luan. Yes, the argument that a generative grammar accounts for creativity, whereas a corpus-based grammar does not, is fairly well-rehearsed. In fact, Hoey devotes two chapters in his book Lexical Priming (2005) to argue that his theory that speakers are ‘primed’ through repeated exposure to lexical, grammatical and discoursal regularities can ‘account not only for what is natural but also for what is possible’ (i.e. novelty and creativity). More recently, Patrick Hanks, in Lexical Analysis: Norms and exploitations (2013) takes a similar line to argue for a ‘double-helix’ theory of language: ‘the set of rules that govern normal, conventional use of words [i.e. norms] is intertwined with a second-order set of rules that govern the ways in which these norms can be exploited and that contribute very largely to the phenomenon of language change’ [and, it follows, creativity] (p. 411). Elsewhere, he writes ‘an exploitation is a deliberate departure from an established pattern of normal word use, either to talk about something unusual or in order to say old things in a new , interesting, or unusual way. The exploitation of norms plays a central role in linguistic creativity’ (p. 250). Thus, an ’emergent grammar’ of this type is a probabilistic one, where there are statistically probable (or prototypical) ways of expressing an idea, but this doesn’t rule out other ‘possible’ ways.

7 04 2015

that idea of ‘norms and exploitations’ sounds like the difference between use and usage…

5 04 2015

Just to limit “grammar” to verb forms for the moment, since discovering it (and I’ve come pretty late to it at that) I’ve found Michael Lewis’s explanation of “tense” in The English Verb fascinating and applicable to the classroom. (Is his a “cognitive” explanation as you’ve described it here? It seems to explain verb form “meanings” in terms perception—proximity, distance, retrospection. I don’t know.) My students seem to enjoy this different way of looking at verb forms as it moots a lot of the confusing description (a là “use the past simple tense to talk about present unreal situations”) in favor of something more parsimonious.
However, while I find this idea extremely compelling, not knowing it has not prevented millions from learning English! I have lots of proof that my students are enjoying my classes—my approach to grammar included (at least that’s what they claim!)—but I have none that will demonstrate that my way of discussing grammar actually leads to better or more efficient learning than however e.g. a coursebook might describe it.
If I could conclude by quoting you Scott (from “Why is English Grammar so difficult (not)”): “…it could be argued that any rule-based instruction—however accurate the rules—is a waste of time, and that the only way to learn the verb system is through exposure, attempts at use, and feedback. But that’s another story.” I would bet my paycheck (because that’s really what’s at risk here, isn’t it?) that, in terms of classroom practice, this is probably the best answer to all those grammar theories introduced in the post.

7 04 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Kyle – yes, Lewis’s The English Verb caused me (and a whole generation of teachers and trainers) to radically re-evaluate the ‘received wisdoms’ about verb grammar, and, as you correctly assume, is closely aligned to a cognitive perspective. In fact, Lewis draws on some previous grammarians, particularly Martin Joos (The English Verb, 1964) and R.A. Close (English as a Foreign Language, 1962), both of which are worth revisiting.

And thanks for recycling my own suspicions about the value of rule-based instruction. In a recent book (Exploring language pedagogy through SLA research, Routledge, 2014) Ellis and Shintani tend to both agree and disagree. The research – to their way of thinking at least – seems to argue that, while ‘a grammatical syllabus is incompatible with how implicit knowledge of an L2 is acquired’ (p. 112), there is value in explicit instruction, but only on those features that learners have partially acquired. So: exposure, use and feedback first, then some upfront grammar teaching to sort out the mess!

8 04 2015

Scott, would you agree that your playful comment on a summary of Ellis and Sintani’s 2014 position that : “There is value in explicit instruction, but only on those features that learners have partially acquired. ” [ “So: exposure, use and feedback first, then some up front grammar teaching to sort out the mess!”] could be modified to mean something like ” to sort out those recalcitrant bits of language where explicit attention might help some learn ers to conform to appropriate social usage.”

Having written the above, I find myself thinking of a classic example of recalcitrance – learners worldwide who are resistant to acquiring the habit of using /s/ or /z/ to mark the 3rd.person singular of verbs in the Present Simple. I am not aware of anyone who has found a method that works.

I suppose though I am only making a very obvious point here – that only very rarely indeed is learning going to be complete, with or without explicit attention to grammar.

5 04 2015

Dear Scott,

What a challenging question to ponder on, really! In case of FLA it is more or less clear (at least in my mind 🙂 ) – it starts with the perception of the form (visual, sound, motor through inner and/or outer rehearsal of articulation) and making sense (understanding function) of what things are around (3-D movie) and later on what is happening (4-D movie with time aspect added) in the process of getting in touch (interacting) with the world around. No mind at this stage, just three layers of different kinds of neurons (Luria A. R.) responsible for processing the data. Those neurons are only predispositioned to become a human mind through interaction with other humans. While being processed the language gets broken into meaningful parts which allows the child to manipulate them and construct their own utterances. These meaningful parts are gradually reassembled into routines (emergent stabilities). But unlike the computer, our mind is able to act creatively, its main operations being metonymy and metaphor. Therefore the frequency factor for detecting routines is not as important, one meaningful blueprint might be enough for internalizing a pattern (routine).

So in the classroom we may assume that the depth of interaction with the language is a way to predict how successful the intake will be, whether these inner latent meaning potentials get to interact with outer linguistic resources or not. If there is a match, then even colorless green ideas will awaken the brain and get internalised.
Language as matter is optional and it is a subject of linguistic studies, an exciting science on its own.

A language unit for a lesson is an utterance which is a kind of bridge between the student’s inner mind and the outer world.

And I totally agree with Luan, the author of the first comment – materials based on the latest data from corpus linguistics can be as boring as a traditional grammar rule. Corpora are just to verify that what is offered to the student corresponds to the existing contemporary stabilities.

Thank you for reading this. Does it make sense?

7 04 2015
Scott Thornbury

Yes, it does, Svetlana – although I realise I don’t know enough about Luria. But I do know that Bakhtin had quite a lot to say about the way that ‘all utterances are inherently dialogic: they have, at the same, time a history and a present … It is the dynamic tension between the past and the present that gives shape to one’s individual voice’. (Hall,Vitanova and Marchenkova, 2005, Dialogue with Bakhtin on second and foreign language learning, Routledge, p.,3).

Am I making the right connections?

5 04 2015

I realise I’m a cracked recording repeating what I’ve written on this forum several times. But at the risk of publicising my own limitations I find myself driven to ask – isn’t it a fact that whích ever kind of descriptive grammar you opt for there is no indication that language description will have anything to say about how languages are learned. Dennis

7 04 2015
Scott Thornbury

Indeed, Dennis – and this is what is known as ‘the linguistic fallacy’ – that the way a language is described offers a blueprint, or road map, for its acquisition. Elsewhere I’ve used the metaphor of making an omelette: if you look at an omelette and assume it was made by putting lots of little bits of omelette together, you will end up with a pretty inedible object. That is to say, the process cannot always be inferred from the product. A grammatical syllabus bears no relation to how grammar is internalized in the mind, and therefore, arguably, how it is acquired.

5 04 2015

It is a really challenging question! I would probably agree with he most of the earlier mentioned ideas because they sound quite sensible. However, whether it is one of these ideas or all, grammar is an essential point in mastering a FL.

7 04 2015
Glenys Hanson


I very much agree with what Dennis wrote that “there is no indication that language description will have anything to say about how languages are learned”. You seem to agree with him too and refer to the “linguistic fallacy”. Could you point me to somewhere where this is discussed at greater length?

A brief internet search just led to references to logical fallacies.


8 04 2015
Scott Thornbury

Hi Glenys – I first encountered the term ‘linguistic fallacy’ in a paper by Peter Skehan, where he glosses it as the belief “that there is a straightforward relationship between how grammatical systems are described, and how they should be used practically.” (Skehan 1994: 181). (But I can’t locate the reference, I’m sorry), But earlier, Rutherford had said ‘theories of grammar … are not theories of language acquisition, and it is acquisition, after all, that grammatical C-R [consciousness-raising] must be made to serve’ [Rutherford Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching 1987 p. 17). More recently, in their book Complex systems and applied linguistics, Larsen-Freeman and Cameron make the same point: “It … does not follow that grammars that are descriptively adequate are psychologically real” (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron, 2008, p. 113).

8 04 2015
Glenys Hanson

Thanks very much, Scott. Just what I needed to complete a blog post on Phrasal Verbs.
Would the book be Grammar and the Language Classroom (1994). Peter Skehan? Doesn’t seem available on the Internet.
Looking for it led me to your article Paying lip service to CLT. I don’t agree with all of it but I enjoyed the read.

8 04 2015
Scott Thornbury

This is the Skehan reference:

Skehan, P. 1994 ‘Second language acquisition strategies, interlanguage development and task-based learning’, in Bygate, M., Tonkyn, A., & Williams, E. (eds.) Grammar and the language teacher. London: Prentice Hall. A good read, if you can get hold of it.

9 04 2015
Glenys Hanson

Thanks, Scott.

5 05 2015
J.J. Almagro

Hi, Scott and everyone. I just found out you were back to blogging.
This post makes me wonder about what a grammar book would look like if we took the ‘grammar is identity’ sociocognitive path…

22 04 2017

To acquire a foreign language, learners need to learn its grammar. If they understand grammar, they will be able to express about themselves and communicate with native speakers properly. Teachers in many countries have used the deductive or inductive approach. Recently, the inductive approach has been preferred by many foreign language teachers. They believe it is the best way to teach grammar because it is like the way that native speakers use. But do you think the inductive approach could help non-native speakers especially beginners to understand a foreign language grammar?

22 04 2017

Of course competent teachers of a language will try to remain informed of the insights that linguists give them into the structure of the language being studied and how one uses its systems to mean what one wants to mean. But there are those who argue that concentration on the teaching of grammar is by no means the way to enable learners to learn to communicate meaningfully. Indeed, it can be a block to learning. Studying the complex structure of a modern car engine is necessary for students of car engineering and fascinating. But it is of absolutely no use whatsoever in learning how to drive a car. Ditto for using a language communicatively.


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