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Pearson ELT Professional Development

Nick Dawson

Pearson ELT Professional Development
Fifty Shades of Grammar
By Nick Dawson
A Convenient Fiction
I remember in a conversation with Tom MacArthur, the author and
grammarian, he said, The thing about grammar is that it is all an
invention a convenient fiction invented by grammarians for the
convenience of language teachers and learners.
Language does not follow the rules of grammar. Grammar is an
attempt (sometimes good and sometimes bad) to describe the
patterns of language.
What does this mean?
Well, you know about football. Imagine that you were a Martian who
had never seen a game of football and never played it. If you were to
watch 1,000 football games, you would gradually begin to notice that
there seem to be some rules which govern the game. Gradually, you
would begin to understand the purpose of the white lines on the grass.
You would begin to observe the behaviour of the players. You would
notice that when the ball went into the net, some players were happy and
others were angry. But when the ball went into the other net, the players
who had been happy were now angry and the player who had been happy
became angry. You would notice that most players did not pick up the
ball in their hands. Only the two players in the goals picked up the ball.
You would note that the man dressed in black with the whistle seemed to
be in charge.
Grammarians are like the Martian. They try to discover rules in
language like the rules in football. But football has man-made rules
which are written down in a book. Language does not have rules in the
same way.
Zoologists observe the behaviour of animals. They attempt to discover
patterns of behaviour which govern the animals lives. Fifty years ago,
zoologists thought they had begun to understand: lions do this and
penguins do that. They thought that these behaviour patterns applied to
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the whole species. But the reality is they dont. There are selfish lions
and shy lions. There are penguins who like company and others who
prefer to be independent. Like humans, animals have personalities so it is
much more difficult to describe the behaviour patterns of a species.
The Grammar Book
The authors of the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English

collected four corpuses of different genres of English: journalism,
fiction, academic writing and everyday conversation. They used these to
study the different ways in which English was used in each of these
genre. They made some amazing discoveries: journalism rarely uses
future forms, they prefer the present: BELGIAN PM ARRIVES IN
LONDON NEXT TUESDAY. J ournalism rarely uses reported speech,
they prefer direct quotations. In fact, reported speech is seldom used in
journalism, fiction or everyday conversation. Reported speech, or
reported writing is only frequent in academic writing.
The authors of LGSWE noted that in everyday conversation we hardly
ever backshift (changing the verb tenses) when reporting speech. We
rarely use said, the most popular verb for reporting speech is go.
I came in the door and he went Whatyer doing here? so I went I live
here. Its my house.
As Tom MacArthur said, Grammar is a convenient fiction. We treat
grammar books as if they were scientific texts, but they are not.
Scientists observe the physical world and they deduce laws which
explain the patterns which govern the behaviour of objects and energy
systems. But even scientific laws are only temporary. J ust read the
scientific books of 100 years ago. When Albert Einstein proposed the
Theory of Relativity, he overturned the existing scientific laws. In
science, nothing is certain.
So what are we to do?
We need to take grammar off its pedestal. We should stop making our
students lives a misery by insisting on grammatical accuracy. We should
give them opportunities and guidance to be as creative as they can. We
can point out when they might not be understood or be misunderstood

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but we should help them to enjoy communicating even if there are

some mistakes.
In a good ballet class for children, the teacher will spend some time
teaching the formal steps of ballet, but a good teacher will also provide
ten minutes of music for free dancing. Is there enough time for free
dancing in your English lessons?