Grammar nonsense 4: relative clauses

This is less a post about the craziness of description and more one about the way grammar is presented and the expectation that grammar should always be practised – and practised in particular ways.


Grammar McNuggets and overprotectiveness

Scott Thornbury has criticised coursebooks (and related teaching) for providing what he calls Grammar McNuggets. The comparison is with the McDonald’s chicken, where the meat is removed of skin and detached from the bone, chopped up and processed so that it no longer looks in any way like a chicken and can be served up in a bite-sized chunk with out mess. Likewise, grammar gets removed from its context or natural environment and is processed in order to illustrate a particular ‘rule’. I can assure you that when writing material, examples definitely do get removed from exercises because they seem to break rules even though they are perfectly natural, while rather unnatural sentences (ones you couldn’t imagine saying) are created to ensure ‘rule fit’ and single answers. Sometimes these changes are requested by the editor. Often they come about because we, the writers, self-censor what we produce – partly because we know what the editor will say, but also (importantly) because we can imagine what the students might say / ask in class. We then think of the inexperienced teacher who might not be able to give an answer and, as a result, may end up tongue-tied and looking foolish. We are probably being overprotective and perhaps we should allow more ambiguity. Could we actually simplify our explanations more as we suggested with stative verbs? Could we sometimes just give examples and no explanation?

Supersize me

Grammar McNuggest is a lovely term that encapsulates what is often wrong with grammar materials and teaching. However, I think one slight problem with the term is that it can also suggest that there is something wrong with small manageable-sized bits of teaching and learning. A McNugget as an individual bit of food is not terribly harmful and could be a tasty bite-sized snack. What is of more concern is when the McNugget is not only the mainstay of your diet, but you also supersize!

How is that reflected in grammar teaching? Well, the first issue is the demand to present and practise grammar in the same kinds of ways – often very artificially. The second – bigger – issue is that as your level increases, it appears the grammar sections in classroom material must also increase or else be more densely packed. Publishers, editors and, dare I say it, some teachers state that you must ‘increase the challenge’ for advanced learners – which seems to mean some kind of man versus food challenge: you can’t eat one small portion of fresh organic chicken nuggets, you must eat a whole barrelfull of the processed stuff with an added pint of a sweet sugary sauce (for the sauce, read: the ‘fun’ communicative activity!).


Supersizing relative clauses

Take relative clauses. We start off by presenting that and who (often first seen at Pre-Intermediate, which seems ridiculously late). We then have that, who, which, where, when, why at Intermediate. Next, we have all of these and insist on forcing students to distinguish between defining and non-defining clauses. Then we have all these things again, with whom and the position prepositions added in; and then we have to include ‘reduced relative clauses’ . . . and so it goes on until the Advanced student either has to deal with two or three pages of grammar notes or all these elements get crammed into one extremely highly processed and standardised page. Seriously, can anyone take such an amount of information in and then apply it? No! But don’t let that stop us from doing it anyway – and then devising some convoluted way to practise it.

Non-defining v defining relative clauses – Grrr

A particular point of annoyance here is the contrasting of defining / non-defining relative clauses. Mea culpa, for I have written exercises on this as it is ‘what the market expects!’ However, increasingly I wonder why so much is made of the difference. And when is not knowing the difference ever a problem? Take this example from an old edition of a well-known coursebook. Students have to say which is more likely to fill the gap – a defining or non-defining clause. For example:

  • The apple tree at the end of our garden …….. needs to be chopped down.
  • People ……. live longer.
  • She married a man …. .
  • Let me introduce you to Peter James ….. .
  • Jane’s the sort of person …… .

As a way of showing the difference, I think it’s actually rather clever. I like it. However, then I think why would someone ONLY say ‘She married a man’ or ‘She’s the sort of person’? Clearly, they wouldn’t, so why even have this in the task? I mean, what’s it really adding? Why not just have the non-defining gaps to show how that can be done and then get suggestions of how to fill them? The reason would be: because it’s too easy and heaven forbid that we make language learning easier! We need challenge! Eating Chicken McNuggets is too convenient – you need to eat them using a spoon held between your toes!

And as if to reiterate the pointlessness of making this distinction, look at that first ‘non-defining’ relative clause. Here’s what the exercise then goes on to add:

The apple tree at the end of our garden, which my grandfather planted 70 years ago, needs to be chopped down.

But, of course, this sentence could equally be arranged as defining relative clause with no difference in meaning!

The apple tree which my grandfather planted 70 years ago at the end of our garden needs to be chopped down.

And then you have to ask what actualy is this sentence? Something you’d write? Or say? If the ideas were part of a conversation, surely it’s more likely it would be something like this:

  • Is that an apple tree at the end of the garden?
  • >Yeah – unfortunately it’s got a disease – we need to cut it down.
  • What a shame.
  • >It is. My grandfather actually planted that 70 years ago.
  • Oh no! Can’t you save it? …

In other words – with no !@*!!@ relative clauses at all!

Basically, these types of embedded non-defining relative clauses are fairly uncommon in conversation (though there are other types we’ll look at in grammar curiosities next time). And even if they were common, they wouldn’t obviously be any different to a defining relative clause because there would be no commas. Ah, but there is phonology! There is that subtle change in pace and tone, isn’t there? And so we have students trying to listen and distinguish between the following and say how many daughters the person has:

  • My daughter, who lives in Paris, has a dog.
  • My daughter who lives in Paris has a dog.

But what kind of mad person really talks like this? When someone is talking about their daughter having a dog (for example), who would casually throw into the middle of that statement that she, say, lives in Paris? Answers to us on a post card of the Eiffel Tower (or, failing that, via the comment box below)! Why do we do this? Because we must differentiate and challenge and because we must practise!

Dog Bordo Barbara De Bordeaux Dogue De Bordeaux

Standardised communicative practice

Practice generally has to be of two kinds – one where the form / structure is manipulated in some way or is discussed, and secondly one where it is practised ‘communicatively’ whilst at the same time allowing plenty of opportunities to generate the grammar. In and of themselves, I don’t mind either of these things: there seems to be good evidence that drawing attention to a structure/form/pattern helps students on the journey towards uptake – even if, as some argue, this is merely speeding up the journey – rather than changing the route. I think trying to use new language and to integrate it with what you know already is also a fundamental part of learning. However, not all grammar lends itself to a sustained communicative production, which is why either unnatural contexts, conversations and tasks are created to squeeze them in or we fall back on what have become almost standards. Step forward, defining words and the general knowledge quiz:

  • What do you call a person who writes these grammar practice tasks yet complains about it in his blog? (A hypocrite)
  • What’s the name of the book that he wrote? (Outcomes Pre-intermediate – Unit 14)!

In my defence, I would say neither defining words nor quizzes are especially bad ways to practise English. I mean, defining is at least something students might do to ask someone for a word in English (even if Google might be more successful!). However, as a teacher and learner, I think relative clauses are so much more than this. They are so useful, so varied and so ubiquitous that reducing them to this kind of practice and one focus in five coursebook levels is actually really underplaying their value.

Grammar olives

I think most grammar teaching could be reduced to smaller, more regular bits integrated with vocabulary, but I’m beginning to think this is particularly true of grammar such as relative clauses. This kind of teaching might come through correction/improvement of students’ English after some genuine communication. At other times, we might give mini-presentations of typical relative clause chunks with limited examples of how they can be changed to help do a specific task. I see this as something packaged and ‘snacky’, but at the same time closer to nature – a grammar olive perhaps – or a grammar orange segment, if you prefer something sweeter!

In our next post, it’s time for some grammar curiosities. It can’t all be misery and bah humbug! So we’ll be looking at some of those grammar olives for relative clauses. In the meantime, if you have any ideas for a good context or practice of relative clauses, let us know.

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8 Responses

  1. Matt Byrski says:

    Thank you for this post. Food for thought and it’s no McNuggets. The example with the daughter who lives in Paris and has a dog reminded me of a TED Talk by Ken Robinson where he says:
    When my son was four in England — Actually, he was four everywhere, to be honest.
    If we’re being strict about it, wherever he went, he was four that year. He was in the Nativity play. Do you remember the story?

    If you wish to have a peek at the thing, you will find it here (generally, I like using TED talks as a way of exposing students to ideas and language – so does Paul Dummet, I guess):
    I know this is not exactly about using relative clauses but shows how weird such juxtapositions might be (being somewhere, being at a particular age or living somewhere and owning a dog) and how books resort to such means not to be funny but ,actually, to teach some ‘serious grammar’.
    The second thing in your post – a suggestion to practise relative clauses by defining words and having general knowledge quizzes (oops! have I just missed an opportunity to use them clauses again???) – made me realise that I need to use this approach more often but not necessarily because of relative clauses but because my Polish students (irrespective of their level) keep saying ‘How do you call…?’ which is a result of L1 interference.
    So, once again, thanks heaps.

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for the comment. It is a good joke by Ken Robinson. In terms of the defining words task, it is OK, but my greater point is that there are many more opportunities to ‘practise’ this kind of grammar, which I will post about next time.

  2. […] Scott Thornbury has criticised coursebooks (and related teaching) for providing what he calls Grammar McNuggets. The comparison is with the McDonald’s chicken, where the meat is removed of skin and detached from the bone, chopped up and processed so that it no longer looks in any way like a chicken and can be served up in a bite-sized chunk with out mess.Read more!!!! […]

  3. Julia Shtromberg says:


    Thank you for this article!

    I think there might be a typo in the “Supersizing relative clauses” paragraph:

    “But don’t let that stop us from doing it anyway – and then devising some CONVULTED way to practise it.”

    Shouldn’t it be “convoluted”?


  4. […] Lexical lab made some great points about this in one of their posts. Take this for example: […]

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