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This chapter outlines a number of issues which are important in grammatical description (though they are often taken for granted) and which can affect readers’ understanding: the depth and refinement of the description, how to distinguish between different uses, and how to recognise and verbalise the concepts of formality and acceptability. Following this there is a consideration of three other important issues based on a research project (METALANG) using a corpus of grammatical description:
personality – e.g. whether to use personal pronouns (we, you) to address the reader, or a passive, and the pros and cons of each;
modality – the use of e.g. modal auxiliaries such as can and adverbs such as generally to indicate some form of hedging on statements, which is very common;
sub-technical vocabulary – e.g. the use of words such as ‘state’, ‘action’, ‘event’ to describe the meaning of verbs.
Then there is a lengthy discussion of different approaches to exemplification, in particular the relative merits of contrived and ‘authentic’ examples. The chapter ends with a comparative analysis of two passages, one scientific and one pedagogic, on the same grammatical area using these criteria.
This and the following three chapters deal with areas of pedagogic grammar that are greatly in need of revision. This chapter deals with the articles a and the and how they are – and should be – treated in pedagogic accounts. It rejects the traditional claim that ‘the first time you mention something use a, the second time the’ – amongst other reasons because the definite article is more common for first mention – and goes on to give a fuller and more accurate examination of these two extremely frequent words – one that is particularly useful for learners whose L1 has no equivalents. Suggestions are given for how to introduce these two very different words, and several creative exercises are offered.
This chapter takes a critical look at practical applications of the issues discussed in the previous chapters, in particular outputs from the pedagogic process (Chapter 2), such as the role of grammar in syllabuses, in rules of thumb, in classroom activities and exercises (criticising in particular the use of mechanical exercises and the value of gap-filling exercises), in techniques of error correction, and in grammatical tests of various types. It finds many problematic areas, which often originate from an imperfect knowledge of English grammar. It also argues for a more motivating, innovative attitude to classroom activities and includes some examples of this.
The chapter begins with a brief discussion of attitudes towards grammar among the various constituencies concerned with it, before going on to establish the relevance of grammar teaching by confronting two trends that in the past fifty years have challenged its relevance: firstly, the movement towards a more communicative approach to language teaching, and secondly, research into second language acquisition (which claimed that what learners learnt was not what teachers taught). While results from the latter initially supported the case against grammar, the modern consensus is that formal instruction can be helpful given the right circumstances. As regards the former, it is pointed out that despite its unpopularity in educational circles, grammar has continued to play a central role in many classrooms. The chapter concludes with a discussion of an area which has not been in dispute: the need for teacher grammatical awareness.
This case study exhibits a classic example of metalinguistic relativity (Chapter 3) where one treatment has become so dominant that it obscures attempts at progress, namely the concept of ‘personal pronoun paradigm’: a table based variously on the categories of person, number and case that is universally familiar to learners and teachers of English. The chapter first describes a number of well-known structural problems with the paradigm, e.g. that you serves as both singular and plural (not to mention a lack of correspondence in other languages). It then goes on to discuss the wider issue of the usage of these pronouns, for example the way we is used ambiguously by politicians. Two issues are focused on, in particular, the use of you for generic reference where it applies not to specific individuals being addressed but generally, as in ‘It’s awful when you can’t remember someone’s name’); and secondly, the use of they with singular reference. This usage is widely employed to avoid specifying gender with all types of antecedent, e.g. ‘This employee … They told us …’. A survey of materials supports the claim that these phenomena are poorly publicised in descriptions and largely ignored in teaching despite their frequency.
In this book I have tried to look at grammar, as it affects the teaching of English as a Foreign and Second Language, from every possible angle, from all kinds of grammatical description, both scientific and pedagogic, from syllabus and material design, from teaching and testing. My aim overall has been to bring all these various enterprises together, to ‘join up the dots’, as I said in the Introduction – a task which has not been attempted before – and to show how they all relate to one another. All the fields that are involved in ‘doing English grammar’ – including some which would not normally be included – have been covered, though in some cases it has only been possible to give partial coverage – the fields are so extensive.
The final case study examines critically an established topic in the grammatical canon: direct and reported speech. The extensive use of rules of ‘backshift’ (e.g. ‘change the past tense to the present’) to support this is rejected as a pedagogic fiction, not only because it is well-known that these ‘rules’ do not always apply. An explanation is offered for cases where tense does appear to ‘change’: to ‘distance’ the speaker from a commitment to the original speaker’s proposition (which explains why the past rarely ‘changes’ to the past perfect – the distance is already there). Beyond this there are grounds for rejecting completely the linking of direct and reported speech. Usually when something is reported it is not the actual text that is reported (with the ordained changes) but the meaning; if the actual words are important and remembered then direct speech will be used. It is therefore wrong to present the two as alternatives, and to expect learners to transform one into the other. Once this is accepted, other areas to do with reporting can be promoted, such as the structures used with reporting verbs (e.g. ‘I explained to him…’).
This chapter deals with a number of basic issues to do with grammar: its scope (which has changed over the centuries), its definition and its relationship to the concept of meaning, the strategies that languages employ in order to express grammatical meaning (e.g. vary the word order), and important distinctions between approaches to it (primary vs secondary, descriptive vs prescriptive, and scientific vs pedagogic). It then focuses on pedagogic grammar and argues that it should be seen primarily as a process, consisting of inputs, a pedagogic filter and outputs. Regarding inputs it discusses the relative value of various theories of grammar, in particular modern traditional grammar; it also puts the case for the inclusion of contrastive and historical information where appropriate.
This chapter investigates the nature and use of terminology in language teaching and asks why many teachers are wary of it. A number of important distinctions are introduced: between terminology (the technical vocabulary) and metalanguage (all language about language), between scientific and pedagogic terminology, and between transparent, opaque and iconic terms. The pros and cons of using terminology in the classroom are then discussed, with a consensus for its limited and appropriate use being proposed. Based on the author’s own research, problems such as the overuse of terminology, its inconsistent use in textbooks, and the proliferation of confusing and synonymous terms are confronted.
The chapter outlines five reasons behind the need for new grammatical descriptions: language change, misconceptions about grammar (often based on incorrect rules of thumb), the discovery of new phenomena, the extension of the scope of grammar, and alternative ways of looking at old problems. Then two problems hampering new descriptions are discussed: metalinguistic relativity (the claim that the current grammatical framework and associated terminology is too rigid and prevents novel insights), and poor transmission – a lack of communication between different constituencies of grammarian. Thus many ‘facts’ about English grammar have been known for some time, but have not reached the pedagogic domain.