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Grammar Teaching and The Problem of Terminology

Grammar Teaching and The Problem of Terminology

“What’s in a word?” Shakespeare once asked. And his answer: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  In other words, don’t get hung up about terminology: the word itself is not important; what matters is what it refers to.

What then about Grammar? Not just the word grammar itself, but the terms that we as teachers use to explain it to our students, as we must, or we as students use to remember how a language works.

In the English-speaking countries, people have been arguing about the teaching of grammar for well over half a century… and there’s still no consensus. There have been those who have suggested that the teaching of grammar is pointless, most significantly Stephen Krashen who rose to celebrity status in the 1970s. Krashen still has his disciples, specially among a generation of teachers who trained at a time when Krashen was the fashion and the iconoclastic figure to follow; but fortunately the idea that somehow learners will just acquire language skills without any grammar, has been largely laid to rest since the start of the 2000s.

The question uppermost today is not “Do we need to teach grammar?”, but “How do we best teach grammar?” This is now a field of research for teams in education and linguistics departments in many universities, among them UCL in London, which has been home to the Survey of English Usage since Randolph Quirk brought fledgeling research project there in 1960. Yet as a current UCL team member Dominic Wyse has admitted, no convincing answer involving modern linguistics has yet been found.

Grammar or linguistics?

In a recent paper (Linguistics and Grammar, time for a Divorce ? – EL Gazette April 2023) I argued that the problem with “grammar” – and hence with people’s perceptions of it and their attitude to its place in the classroom – is that the term grammar has become confused with linguistics, while the two terms ought to refer to quite different domains.  Linguistics is the theoretical study of language and how it works. Grammar is, or should provide, a practical framework to demonstrate how a language is used (descriptive grammar) or should be used (prescriptive grammar); yet the two have become fatally entangled, to the point that the major English reference grammars of today are the work of theoretical linguists, not of language teaching practitioners. There are exceptions of course, notably Michael Swan.

The entanglement of linguistics with grammar may seem especially worrying when even someone like Dick Hudson, emeritus professor of linguistics at UCL, could write that “the overwhelming majority of linguists simply do not see any link between their research and school-level education.”  Hudson wrote that back in 2004, and the situation has evolved since then; but when I put it to him this year (2023) that linguistics and grammar needed to be pulled apart, he disagreed with me “profoundly” .

Whether one agrees with Hudson or not, the question of how best to teach grammar is one that needs solutions. There is a school of thought that maintains that teaching grammar is somehow elitist, and that even at university, lecturers and research supervisors should pay little attention to grammatical errors in their students’ writing. 

Failing to teach grammar is elitist 

My reaction is to turn this argument on its head and state most frankly that it is not the teaching of grammar that is elitist (the idea being that only the best and most elite students will understand it), but it is failing to teach grammar that is elitist. When teachers fail to teach grammar, or fail in their teaching of it, the best students will be able to develop their literacy skills by “acquisition” (as Krashen proposed); but the less linguistically-alert students will struggle even more. The whole idea that teaching grammar is elitist is fundamentally flawed, and in most educational contexts it will be divisive, exacerbating divisions and condemning the less able students to failure instead of helping them to understand what their linguistically “elite” peers may be able to “acquire” without any formal teaching.

Having now identified two related problems, firstly the need to find better ways to teach grammar, and secondly the fact that some teachers and academics consider the teaching of grammar to be elitist, we now need to confront the two problems and see if there is not a common core, and if so what is it, and how do we address it?

Terminology is the problem

It is only when one confronts the two problems that their common core starts to become apparent;  and it is – in a word – terminology. Grammar is perceived as difficult to teach on account of the confusions surrounding the linguistic terminology involved, and even the varying terms used in different teaching resources. Its teaching has therefore been deemed as elitist by some, because of the perceived complexity of this terminology. 

Linguists and linguistics

Let’s begin with the term linguist itself, which is symptomatic of the problems. Etymological resources show that this word has been in use since the 17th century to refer to a person who is skilled in languages, notably foreign languages. People studying the workings of a single language, such as its grammar, were in the past known as philologists or grammarians. It was only in the twentieth century, following the emergence of linguistics, that the word linguist took on a new meaning as a specialist in linguistics. So today we have the confusing situation where a linguist can be one of two quite different things; there is just a small group of people in the middle who are linguists in both senses of the word. While there is an alternative word to describe practitioners of linguistics, linguistician, it is little used.

Linguistics has its own jargon

Linguistics, as an academic research discipline, has its own extensive metalanguage or jargon. The online Glossary of linguistic terms by Prof. Chris Pountain of Queen Mary University, London, lists 349 entries, and it is far from complete (among omissions are declarative and ditransitive… just in the d’s – and even semiotics is absent). There are hundreds of words in the jargon of linguistics, and clearly if language teachers and school teachers imagine that they need to understand all this terminology in order to understand “grammar”, and explain it to their students, they are in for a hard time. 

Indeed, it is quite understandable that anyone imagining that learning grammar involves mastering hundreds of terms from the vocabulary of linguistics, should consider this to be elitist. It is elitist; much of the vocabulary of linguistics and many of the concepts of linguistics have nothing to do with the needs of teaching grammar in the classroom. 

Grammar can be explained using about 30 terms

Teaching grammar does not require a huge metalanguage, but it does require the use of specific terminology. Like any other discipline, grammar can be approached at different levels – all of them far easier to apprehend than the more complex field of linguistics. The essential principals of English grammar, those that describe the most commonly used structures of the English language, can be explained using about thirty terms, which teachers will need to introduce slowly, as the need arises. Other terms will be introduced as needed.

Take the word ditransitive, which refers to a key structure in English. It’s a little-used term, but a useful one and furthermore one that can be easily learned by students who already know the word transitive. Using the word ditransitive, the teacher has a single term to explain how a verb like give or tell can be followed by an object in the passive, while most transitive verbs cannot. Explaining I was given a book without using the term ditransitive is liable to be far more long-winded and confusing than by using the term.

In situations below C2 EFL or A level English language, there is rarely any benefit to be gained, and much confusion to be generated, from mentioning linguistic concepts like surface structure and deep structure, or telling students that there are only two tenses in English. That could be considered elitist, and is the kind of grammar teaching that not just Krashen, but many experienced teachers, will want to avoid. 

As with any explanation, the fewer terms used to explain grammar, the fewer terms students need to become familiar with, so the more likely they are to understand those that the teacher uses, and thus understand the explanations. This is even more true when teachers make their explanations as simple as possible, avoiding abstractions in favour of clear short definitions and examples to illustrate them.

The upside of brevity is that short explanations are easier to understand, and even to learn; the downside is that short explanations may not take account of all situations. For a student working for an MA in linguistics, brief definitions will frequently be inadequate; for language learners in an EFL class or pupils in middle school, this should not normally be a consideration. Short explanations of grammar are not just quite sufficient in most teaching situations, they are also likely to help more students achieve a better understanding of the points in hand.

Not long ago I came across a social media post in which a teacher explained how learners often struggle with “compound modifiers” , as in the expression a ten dollar bill…. with many students adding an s to dollar in this case, i.e. a ten-dollars bill.

How do we therefore explain to students that no s is necessary in this context? Do we need to explain that ten-dollar is an “attributive compound modifier?” Do we even need to mention the term “compound modifier”? 

We do not. We can for instance keep to simple terms, and explain that words which come before nouns – to describe them – generally behave like (or as) adjectives, and that adjectives in English are invariable. This is not a complex rule. There is no basic difference between the way one uses the word good  in the expression two good books, and the way one uses ten-dollar  in two ten-dollar bills. Both are “adjectives” in the broad sense of the term (we could use the more technically correct term epithets, but that would mean more terminology to master); and as long as the learner knows that adjectives in English are invariable, it should not be too difficult for them to remember why we have to say a fifty pound note, and not a fifty pounds note.

If we just teach students that we say a fifty pound note, not a fifty pounds note, the best of them will be able extrapolate, think outside the box, and acquire the rule to apply in other cases. If we explain the rule using terms like compound modifier, many students will switch off; but if we help students understand why, not just that, we say a fifty pound note, we develop their comprehension and expression skills – which is a key to successful teaching.

This is just one example, and the same principles can be applied in the explanation of many other points of grammar.


To conclude, I’d like to list half a dozen points about grammar and the teaching of grammar that teachers will do well to bear in mind.

1. Teaching grammar is not an optional extra. Grammar is the architecture of language, and without grammar skills speakers or writers cannot progress to anything more sophisticated than basic communication.

2. Grammar is as essential for the development of a learner’s literacy skills, as learning about division and multiplication is for the development of numeracy. And who would ever question the teaching of multiplication and division, even at an early age?

3. The basic grammar and syntax of English are fairly straightforward, since English  does not have all the multiple grammatical endings of “synthetic” languages like Spanish or Russian or Arabic.

4. Except at advanced levels, the rules and principles of English grammar can be explained using a fairly limited list of terms. 

5. For the successful teaching of grammar, it is vital that the teacher fully understands the terminology, and is able to explain grammar in simple terms, so that students too do not just learn about grammar, but understand what they learn. Grammar that is just learned is grammar that is easily forgotten; grammar understood has a much longer shelf life.

6. Perhaps the most important thing of all to remember if grammar is to be taught successfully, is for the teacher to be positive about it, not negative. Using  complex terminology will demotivate many students; using simple terminology encourages understanding and motivation – and that is what successful teaching is all about.

Check out Andrew’s book: A Descriptive Grammar of English

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