Word of the day: bugbear

A bugbear is a pet hate – a small thing that annoys you and that you probably moan about to other people. In less polite terms, we might say that a bugbear is something that gets on your tits (strangely, a phrase that seems to be said more often by men than by women!) or that pisses you off! The opposite might be a delight or a curiosity that appeals to you. One of my own personal bugbears is one of the dominant myths about lexical teaching: the idea that as lexical teachers, we’re obviously not interested in grammar and don’t believe it has a role in learning. This is complete and utter nonsense! It’s just that as lexically-minded teachers, we see grammar on the one hand as coming out of vocabulary teaching and the examples we give, and on the other hand, we believe that when you’re setting out to teach grammar, you need to recognise the limits that vocabulary and real usage place on the grammar ‘rules’ you teach. A real understanding of these restrictions and of how grammar and vocabulary work together are what might be termed ‘accuracy’. This can, I think, only be acquired over a long period of time from plenty of exposure to natural examples and from practice in different contexts. However, teachers can help students along the road to accuracy in a number of ways: firstly, by teaching them some useful chunks (including those containing grammatical structures which they may not yet have mastered) that they can use in the same way as they’d use items of vocabulary; secondly, we can help by resisting the urge to respond to student mistakes by giving more detailed explanations and setting more massed mechanical exercises; thirdly, when we do do practice exercises, we can make sure that they reflect likely usage; and finally, we can recycle grammar more frequently by giving fuller examples when we teach vocabulary.


This wish to ground grammar teaching in natural-sounding examples can make you more sensitive about the rather forced examples and repeated half-truths often found in ELT, much of which seems to get passed down from teacher to teacher and from writer to writer. And often, it’s not just the examples, but also the way grammar is presented and practised too. In response to this, we are going to start a series on grammar. Most of the posts will be exploring our grammar bugbears – the nonsense which has frustrated us over the years: it’s good to get these things off your chest! Some will be grammar curiosities: aspects of traditional ELT grammar or of common patterns that don’t seem to get taught much (or at all). We’re not sure how long the series will run for, but we will be featuring it from time to time in place of our words of the day.

We’ll be kicking off tomorrow with a biggie: reported speech. I’ll leave you to anticipate whether this might be grammar nonsense or grammar curiosity, but in the meantime do you have any particular bugbears or delights? Any examples that spring to mind when you think of grammar nonsense or grammar curiosities?

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