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Mar 9, 2015
Andrew Walkley

4 Language is patterned

We have already see that one problem with the grammar + words view of language is that words are difficult to define, but the same could equally said of grammar on its own. In the case of Pinker’s book, Words and Rules, grammar is very narrowly defined as basically the rules of morphology (adding -ed or -s etc). Interestingly, he concludes that irregular past forms are words, whereas ELT would classify these as grammar. Similarly, in the sentence I was galumphing down the road and I suddenly flawned I’d left my keys at home, ELT tends to focus on the tense and aspect of past simple, continuous or past perfect, but less on the patterns that would allow us to understand the meaning of galumphing or flawned. Some linguists argue that general meanings of verbs become linked to their syntactic patterns. Similarly, ELT tends to see Have you been to Paris? as an example of the pattern Have you x-ed [something]? but we could equally see it as Have you been to [place]? – less generative in some ways, but then again perhaps easier to deal with for a low-level student and perhaps the way it’s more frequently processed by native speakers given it’s an irregular past participle.

We might also see patterns in exchanges. Again, ELT acknowledges this in some ways – sometimes describing it as ‘grammar’, sometimes ‘functions’.

A: Do you like apples?

B: Yes, I do. / No, I don’t.

A: Would you like an apple?

B: Yes, please / No, thanks

However, if we look beyond the simple yes / no answer, there are patterns of how we might respond, for example we might typically give a reason for saying no and we’d suggest you are more likely to add a reason after a ‘no’ response than a yes.

A: Do you like apples?

B: Not really. They set my teeth on edge.

A: Would you like an apple?

B: No, thanks. I’ve just had one / I’m not hungry / I’m fine for the moment / I don’t really like apples

The pattern may be completed by something fairly infrequent (as in the first example), but may often be filled by one of a variety of formulaic phrases, some of which could apply to other offers of food.

The fact of patterning is not by any means new, but we would argue that it is underplayed in materials and training. Some of the problem may have (unintentionally) come from those who have done most to promote the idea of lexical phrases. Nattinger and DeCarrico, for example, categorise a variety of different patterns and Lewis picked up on this in the Lexical Approach and follow-up books. The result is descriptions followed by arguments about what kind of pattern something is is it a fixed or semi fixed phrase, an idiom or a chunk, a strong or a weak collocation? – which creates uncertainty among both teacher and student. Yet the whole point is, as Nattinger argues, that they are actually all the same kind of thing. And, we might add, that there’s a lot more patterning that we could draw attention to than is currently the case in ELT materials.


Seeing grammar more broadly as patterns, suggests a somewhat different way of syllabusing a course (something for another series of posts). However, even when working within a traditional grammar + words syllabus, we might draw attention to and teach more patterns. For example:

  • You might teach some patterns including ‘above level grammar’ such as Have you been to + [place] before the tense grammar is analysed.
  • You might draw attention to verbal patterns and collocations (such as X down the road) within work on tenses or vocabulary. For example as we discuss here.
  • You might elicit or show patterns of responses beyond the mathematical grammar of auxiliaries. Just ask for students ideas. Translate, if necessary.
  • You might keep an eye out and highlight other lexical patterns within the texts students read.
  • Follow our chunks of the day – or better still create one for your students as ours is admittedly pretty random

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