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.

A is for Aspect (2)

19 06 2011

In this second short video on the English tense and aspect system, I take  a look at perfect aspect.

A is for Aspect

20 03 2011

Following on from the discussion on backshift, in which I argued that the past tense had less to do with time and more to do with distance, I want to now turn my attention to aspect – or, at least, to the progressive aspect, initially.