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.

B is for Body

12 12 2010

“English is on the up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a long time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now.” (Interview with Nicholas Ostler, Guardian Weekly, 12.11.2010).

This post is not about the dominance of English – I just happen to have chosen that quote because it includes at least two examples of what Mark Johnson calls “the experiential embodied nature of human rationality” (1987, p.100): 1. English is on the up and 2. history is full of languages.

The use of the word up to connote increase, in the sense that MORE IS UP, emerges – according to Johnson – “from a tendency to employ an UP-DOWN orientation in picking out meaningful structures of our experience.  We grasp the structure of verticality repeatedly in thousands of perceptions and activities we experience every day, such as perceiving a tree, our felt sense of standing upright, the activity of climbing stairs…” (p. xiv). Likewise, the idea that history is a container, and hence can be full of languages, is an extension of our own embodied sense of physical containment.  According to Johsnon, “our encounter with containment and boundedness is one of the most pervasive features of our bodily experience” (p.21).

Johnson argues that such experientially-based ‘image schemata’ are integral to meaning and rationality — and, of course, language.  The way that language is, the way we use language, and the way that language is learned, are all structured and shaped by the fact that, as Johnson puts it, “the body is in the mind” (p. xxxviii).

One fairly obvious manifestation of this is the way we choose particles for phrasal verbs.  We fill up the tank, the future is looking up, and children both grow up, and are brought up.  Likewise, notions of boundedness and containment are intrinsic, not only to the semantics of the noun phrase in many languages (think of countable and uncountable nouns), but also to verb aspect (a point I will take up in a future post).

In an article in the latest Applied Linguistics, Dwight Atkinson (2010) explores the way an extended, embodied view of cognition might affect second language acquisition. He suggests that language learning, rather than being an intellectual process of internalization, is a socially-situated, adaptive behaviour, a process “of continuously and progressively fitting oneself to one’s environment, often with the help of guides” (p. 611). Atkinson proposes what he calls ‘the alignment principle’: “Learning is more discovering how to align with the world than extracting knowledge from it” (p.610). To this end, interaction and engagement are key: these are the processes by which we externalise language. “Instead of isolating language in cognitive space, we wear it on our sleeve, so to speak, because it helps us live in the world” (p.617).

from Applied Linguistics, 31/5, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 609

To demonstrate how this might be realised in practice, he traces, in minute detail, the interaction a Japanese schoolgirl has with her aunt, an English teacher, as they work through a homework exercise together: an intricate meshing of language, gesture, gaze, and laughter, inseparable from the experience of learning itself, and bringing to mind these lines of Yeats:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In another recent article that reports the same data, the researchers summarise their point of view:

If  language is intrinsically embodied and embedded, then what does that mean for its acquisition?  Obviously, if language is learned for worldly use, the learning process itself must be use-based.  In this view, language learning is not primarily about squirreling away abstract linguistic competence in an isolated cognitive space,… Rather, language learning is a process of building meaningful ways of participating in socio-material worlds — of constructing flexible, reliable, and therefore survival-enhancing repertoires of ecosocial participation. (Churchill. et al. 2010, p.249).

So, learning is using, and using is learning. That much we know. But what are the implications of a more ’embodied’ view of learning? Is there a case for incorporating more kinaesthetic practices? For reviving Total Physical Response, even? And to what extent, as teachers, are we conscious of the way that ‘body language’ helps in the co-construction of learning?


Atkinson, D. 2010. Extended, embodied cognition and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 31/5, 599-622.

Churchill, E.,  Okada, H.,  Nishino, T., & Atkinson, D.  2010. Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar in second language acquisition.  The Modern Language Journal, 94/2.

Johnson, M. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

P is for Phrasal Verb

29 08 2010

Quiz: which of these are phrasal verbs?

Who let the dogs out?

a. go in (as in She went in the office)
b. take turns (as in We took turns minding the baby)
c. approve of (as in My mother doesn’t approve of him)
d. sit down (as in, erm, Sit down!)
e. let out (as in Who let the dogs out?)

Now read on.

A good while back an ELT author advised me: “If you want to make a few quid, write a book on phrasal verbs”. I never did, but at the time the advice was probably sound. Nowadays, the same advice might be couched: ”If you want to attract punters to your website, provide stuff on phrasal verbs”. A quick check for “phrasal verbs” using Google (never reliable, I know) logged 673,000 results, compared to 322,000 for “present continuous”.

The typical phrasal verb site will offer some kind of definition and categorisation of types, a list of phrasal verbs (seldom if ever selected and organized in terms of frequency), and some rudimentary exercises, almost always of the gap-fill type. Sadly, the explanations are seldom reliable, or even (for a learner) intelligible. As often as not, a phrasal verb is defined as “a verb plus preposition, whose meaning is idiomatic”, theoretically excluding combinations of the type sit down and let out (as in Who let the dogs out?) where down and out are not – technically – prepositions (more on that below), and nor are the meanings idiomatic. And when exactly does an idiom become an idiom: is let out in I let the dress out a phrasal verb, but in Who let the dogs out not?

On the other hand, the lists of examples often include items that, however you stretch the definiton, can hardly be classified as phrasal verbs. Two websites consulted more or less at random supplied go in (example: She went in the office), make room for, and take turns as all being phrasal verbs. This suggests that any verb followed by a prepositional phrase (like look out (the window)), or any idiomatic expression that contains a verb (like make do with something) qualifies as a phrasal verb. That – it seems to me – is stretching the category to breaking point.

This is not to underestimate the problems of definition. About the only thing grammars agree on is that phrasal verbs consist of more than one part. What the ‘other’ part is – or should be called – is still somewhat disputed. Most grammars now hide behind the somewhat meaningless term ‘particle’ but there’s no escaping the fact that many (most?) particles can behave like prepositions, in some contexts, and like adverbs, in others. When they behave like adverbs – i.e. when they don’t have any noun phrase complementation – they’re said to be phrasal verbs. Hence, the difference between:

a. She looked up the chimney.
b. She looked up the word. (Or: She looked the word up.)

In the case of (b) look up passes all the tests, both syntactic and prosodic, of ‘phrasal verb-ness’. The problem (or one of them) comes with particles with no complementation but which nevertheless have prepositional meaning:

c. She looked up.

And then, what about those particles that are only ever prepositions, but which seem somehow more attached to the verb than a simple prepositional phrase? So, take after is considered a phrasal verb:

d. She takes after her father.

But not run after:

e. She ran after her father.

And where does that leave verbs with dependent prepositions? Such as

f. She depends on her father.

The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy, 2006) is happy to include approve of , depend on and cope with in its (prepositional) phrasal verbs, but I’m not so sure.

Well, you can read more about this in An A-Z of ELT. But what I’m particularly interested in is the ‘rule’ whereby separable phrasal verbs don’t allow a choice if the object is a pronoun. So:

g. She put up the picture.
h. She put the picture up.
i. She put it up.

But not

j. She put up it.

I’d often wondered why this was the case, and whether, as stated in the Cambridge Grammar, this is always the case. Then, when I was researching the notion of end-weight – i.e. the principle that new information goes at the end of the clause (see P is for Passive) – I understood why. The pronoun – because it usually has back-reference – seldom ever encodes new information, hence it feels uncomfortable stranded at the end of a sentence. But there are sometimes contexts when the pronoun does introduce new – or at least contrasting – information. Take this (invented) example:

k. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick up me?

Because of the principle of end-weight, this sounds just as natural as

l. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick me up?

Some examples I found in the the Corpus of Contemporary American English include:

1. you know, I didn’t pick out the leaders. They picked out me.
2. a process of elimination that weeds out all but the best drivers. It won’t weed out me, however

And these examples, because the object is a compound, are easily explainable:

3. Those pillars couldn’t hold up me or you, ” the contractor had told her
4. suddenly, I let out a huge fart, which woke up me, my boyfriend, and his mom.
5. Scandinavian airline SAS bought out him and some associates for $ 30 million.

These are less easily explained, however:

6. The crowd applauds. I pick up him by the throat with one hand, grab the stake with the other,
7. And I think it’s a worthy debate to have, but a lot of people want to put down him for saying that.
8. And someone had somehow found out that he was gay and broke into his apartment, beat up him, stole all his money
9. ROS: We cheer up him –; find out what’s the matter GUIL: Exactly…
(That last one comes from the British National Corpus and is from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)
10. Sylvia had rung up me about booking for a meal (also from the BNC)

Any theories?