Thinking about Grammar

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Does grammar make you nervous?  Do you wonder if you know enough to be able to help your students with their grammar?  Let’s take pronouns, for example.   Can you explain when to use  who or whomYou and I  or  You and me?  You can Google these issues fairly easily and find helpful explanations, or you can find good ESL grammar exercises and worksheets online, or you can use a good textbook. 

The bigger question is what grammar should we teach? 

Two terms used in the field of Linguistics are prescriptive and descriptive.  A prescriptive grammarian teaches the ‘right’ way to do things.  A descriptive grammarian observes the way things are done in ‘real language’.  Should our students be taught to speak ‘correctly’ or ‘naturally’?

Real Language

Someone could easily ask “But what IS real language?  Whose language is it?”  Teen-speak is almost always different from the norm.  Should we teach that variety?  What about CBC-speak?  Just in the last week in the national news broadcasts, I heard “Troops are laying low” (instead of lying), and “The man that …” (instead of who), and, referring to the same man, “They said …” (instead of he said).  Sometimes I talk back to the radio or TV and ‘correct’ the grammar, and other times I remind myself that these are ways 21st-century Canadian English is naturally changing. By the way, have you also noticed that many people no longer distinguish the difference between the verbs bring and take? These are not errors, but variations, which are more and more accepted. 

In addition, most native speakers actually use a variety of forms of language and automatically vary their grammar, vocabulary, intonation, and even rhythm.  One small example: I very rarely use the word whom in speech, but always use it as prescribed when needed in more formal writing.  A larger example: My grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation differ when I’m speaking to a large group or chatting with my kids.  The ideal practice in ESL would be for us to teach our students both to recognize and to master all these various degrees of formality which depend on situations, target audiences, and language format. But is this practical? 


What should we do?  I recommend that you help students achieve the standard, semi-formal grammar of everyday language (unless you’re teaching a class in academic writing).  Go ahead and teach who and whom, but also teach your students how these forms are commonly used today.  Teach the grammatical rules but don’t prescribe the older, ‘correct’ forms without also mentioning the generally accepted variations in form that are frequently heard.  Don’t label these variations as errors but as examples of how English is developing, as do all languages. 

Asking your students the following questions will help them understand.

Regarding language change:

How has your first language altered since the time of your grandparents?

Do you use different words?  Different sentence structures?

Different pronunciation?

Regarding formality:

Does your first language have various forms that you use when talking to people of different social groups?

Even if there are not any distinct words that are altered, would you speak to a king the same way you would to your best friend? 

Language is always changing and naturally has many levels of formality.  Teaching these two concepts as part of our grammar lessons will help our students learn how to communicate effectively. 

On Another Note

Do you realize that there are similar arguments for differences in pronunciation?  Should we teach our students to say been as bean, or bin?  Or February with the first ‘r’ or not?  Or comfortable with 4 syllables or 3?  What do YOU do?

Carol Blake OCELT graduated with a Masters degree in Linguistics and a TESL certificate from the University of Toronto in 1982.  For the last 35+ years, she has been involved in teaching various aspects of English and language learning in first language, second language, and foreign language situations.  Currently, she lives and teaches in Kitchener.


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