Grammar nonsense 3: the use of the word grammar

So the other day, I opened my inbox and found an email encouraging me to celebrate March the 4th, ‘World Grammar Day’. At first, I thought it was some kind of joke. Here we are, with the world going slightly mad, and what is the thing we most need to focus on? More grammar! Because the conflict and disaster we see on the news every day is basically down to people who don’t know the difference between a preposition and an adverb, right?! Or was this some peculiar revenge for our recent posts on grammar nonsense? I looked further and it turned out the email was from Pearson, so the whole thing must be true! They can’t just have made up this idea of World Grammar Day, can they? A little further investigation led me to Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (and a useful grammar book – available from all good book stores), who apparently established National Grammar Day in the US in 2008. So rather than being World Grammar Day, it seems it is actually American and British Grammar Day . . . . and really it is more like ‘Sell My Grammar Books Day’!

Is that grammar?

Now, in fact, it is not the commercial side of this which is annoying – Hugh and I are definitely residing in a glass house there. No, what I find nonsensical here is the use of the word ‘grammar’ itself. When you look at the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar’s blog – somewhat grandly called ‘An online journal’ – the most recent posts refer to:

  • the misuse of distinguished when you hould be using extinguished;
  • a novel ‘we’ have written;
  • the use of apostrophes and various spelling errors.

Look at other similar ‘grammar’ guides and you get things like the difference between reticent and reluctant or hone in and home in. All of which does force one to ask how on earth any of this is actually grammar! It seems deeply ironic that these people are telling us to be more precise with language and yet they repeatedly misuse, or generalise, the very word they believe to be so important and so precise – grammar!


Flexibility of meaning

OK, so if I am going to be consistent in my own beliefs about language, I suppose I can actually accept that this use of grammar is correct. In many ways, of course, it would be better if people were more precise and these said things like:

  • ‘A lot of people have too narrow a vocabulary ’;
  • ‘They don’t know enough language’;
  • ‘They don’t know how to use some words’;
  • ‘They should use language more like me’;
  • ‘Why didn’t they do an English degree?’;
  • ‘Basically, these people are a bit thick! Aren’t they funny!’, etc.

However, I can accept that ‘Their grammar is terrible’ covers all of these bases and that there are plenty of other words and statements which are similarly imprecise / flexible.  I believe the word ‘grammar’ is also used in a similar generalised ways in other languages, so when a student says ‘my grammar is terrible’, they actually mean I don’t know enough language, I should use language more like you (the teacher), etc.


The unfortunate shift from general use to precise use

I accept that people will use ‘grammar’ in this general way as a synonym for ‘language’, but as teachers, we have to understand that this is what it is happening and NOT misinterpret students’ requests for ‘more grammar’ as being a precise use of the word, or as meaning that the student wants / needs more ELT grammar lessons, extra exercises from My Grammar Lab or Raymond Murphy-like pages, or even more and longer grammar explanations.

Instead, we’d do well to bear in mind what the great Michael Swan says, there’s no need to always adopt the same approach to grammar:

‘the role of’grammar’ in language courses is often discussed as if ‘grammar’ were one homogeneous kind of thing. In fact, ‘grammar’ is an umbrella term for a large number of separate or loosely related languagesystems, which are so varied in nature that it is pointless to talk as if theyshould all be approached in the same way. How we integrate the teaching of structure and meaning will depend to a great extent on the particular language items involved.’ page 80 Link.

For example, we could deal with grammar more regularly through the way we tackle vocabulary and by giving longer and better examples to show how words are used – rather than relying on lists of single words.


Can things ever change?

In response to our reported speech post, Michael McCarthy tweeted that he had written a similar debunking in 1998, and yet twenty years later still it features in coursebooks! Given this, you do have to ask how can we actually change things?

Perhaps teachers could talk directly to publishers, examining bodies and policy makers about crazy grammar rules that are perpetuated through books and through exams. I know that publishers often refer to the need to ‘cover’ grammar such as reported speech, but maybe they wouldn’t if more teachers who don’t like this kind of grammar nonsense complained to them about it. If you are a trainer, make sure you tell your trainees it’s nonsense and suggest they skip it in the book. Maybe we should write to examiners like Cambridge and ask for, say, reported speech to be removed as a tested component from their exams. We could also speak out about these issues more. Basically, we need to be speaking more about language full stop at conferences and CPD days.

And as an antidote to ‘World Grammar Day’ and what it represents, perhaps we could also promote more blogs undermining the ‘grammar lords’, such as this one supporting the use of ‘fillers’ – or maybe buy Professor McCarthy’s book – or share vocabulary-based blogs like our Word of the day posts! Please send suggestions.

And don’t forget, that if you’re interested in talking about language and ideas for everyday classroom practice, there are still places on our summer school.

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