LINGUIST List 7.445

Sat Mar 23 1996

Sum: Teaching English Grammar

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Deborah D K Ruuskanen, Re: Summary of Teaching English Grammar /Textbooks

Message 1: Re: Summary of Teaching English Grammar /Textbooks

Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 14:21:32 +0200
From: Deborah D K Ruuskanen <>
Subject: Re: Summary of Teaching English Grammar /Textbooks
Re: Teaching English Grammar / English Grammar Textbooks
Summary of Survey of Teaching of English Grammar in Universities:
Prescriptive and Descriptive and Magical

First let me thank all of you who took the time to respond. Your input
was greatly appreciated. I sincerely hope I have thanked you all in
person, I tried to reply at once to all msgs. Thanks to (in
alphabetical order):

Attardo, Salvatore
Balhorn, Mark
Behne, Dawn M.
Burt, Susan Meredith
Connolly, Leo A.
Hillman, Louis B.
Karttunen, Francis
Kilpatrick, Paul
Liz McKeown
Martin, Stefan E.
Scott, Charles
Wagner, Joanne Zoller
Yates, Robert

Since I used the reply function, I lost the email addresses for all
those who did not include it in their signatures or on a "from" line. I
have their affiliations for anyone who is interested.

In particular I would like to thank Joanne Zoller Wagner, who sent me a
summary of her MA TESOL thesis (her doctoral dissertation), which was a
description of "The Status of English Grammar Instruction in Master's
Programs in TESOL in the U.S." The dissertation is available from UMI
Dissertation Services, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor MI 48103, USA (UMI
number 9543889).
Special thanks also to Stefan Martin, who very kindly sent me a copy of
his syllabus and an interesting and pertinent article, which discusses
grammar as an example of "magical thinking", the assumption that
students will learn only what we teach and only because we teach:

Hartwell, Patrick (1985) "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of
Grammar", in: College English, Vol. 47 No. 2, February 1985. p. 105-

The textbooks which were recommended are listed at the end of this
message. Many respondents remarked that students tended to criticize
the textbooks because they did NOT give the rules the students needed to
memorize to "have all they needed to be able to teach grammar" (a
grammar course seems to be required for teachers in many states of the
USA): because the students did not want to criticize the teacher, they
(bitterly) criticized the text.


The overwhelming overall consensus was that WHAT grammar you teach
depends upon the perceived student's needs, and the reason, i.e. WHY you
are teaching grammar. This is very gratifying (value judgement) because
this is the line I took in our committee: our students do not need
"rules", they know the rules. What they need is to learn how to apply
the rules, in other words, what to say or write to whom, for what
purposes, under what circumstances. Further, the tendency of students
(and not just students) to want the "20 or 200 magic rules" that will
enable you to always speak and write "correct" English, seems to be the
tendency of students everywhere, native speakers of English as well as
learners of EFL. In fact, the previous name of our grammar course
translates out as "correct" English grammar, and was taught as a
prescriptive course, thus encouraging this tendency. Unfortunately, the
matriculation examination for secondary school leavers, used as the
basis for university acceptance, also emphasises the "only one right
answer" syndrome among Finnish students. So it was also gratifying to
see such comments as "prescriptive grammar is a dinosaur". 

Regarding the choice between prescriptive versus descriptive grammar,
again the overriding criterium was student's perceived needs. However,
if the grammar course was being given as part of a linguistics syllabus,
then the majority of the replies emphasized descriptive grammar as being
essential and thought prescriptive grammar should be presented as just
one other system among many. Again, who says what to whom, where, under
what circumstances, was what should be taught, particularly in regard to
spoken English. The need to raise student consciousness regarding what
grammar *is*, i.e. how we define it, was also emphasized.

On the problem of native speakers of English not being the best persons
to teach English grammar to EFL learners, the comments reflected
attitudes to cultural relativity more than to teaching. Overall, there
were a substantial number who felt that IF the contrastive elements were
being emphasized, then the non-native speaker of English would probably
be more familiar with learner's problems vis-a-vis grammar. However,
native speakers of English who had lived a considerable period of time
in the other language culture would probably be just as knowledgeable.
The main criteria here were seen as the teacher's basic training, length
of experience in teaching, and knowledge of the subject. I must say
that in regard to paradigms the Finnish teachers are much better than
myself, particularly in being able to produce verbs in response to tense
and aspect labels (Quick! what is the past perfect progressive third
person feminine singular of "to swim"?)

What was finally thrashed out in our committee was that our teaching of
grammar to the students of other faculties (required to take a certain
number of hours of "language" - most of them choose English) would
emphasize prescriptive rules, always including the pragmatics of the
utterance. For our own English language majors, all of whom have
studied English since the age of ten and most of whom have spent a year
in an English speaking country (usually Austrailia or the USA), we
decided that: prescriptive rules would be reviewed on an ad hoc basis as
the need arose in courses of academic writing, translation, and any
course which requires substantial amounts of written English to be
produced by the students. Style guides and handbooks will be
recommended, depending on the discipline involved.

The grammar course qua grammar course will be a descriptive course,
introducing such odd concepts as "noun phrase" and discussing the
differences between lexical and function words. The functional approach
is going to be used because that is the background of the teacher (me). 
No one textbook will be used, I am going to make my own exercises and
handouts. Several books will be recommended, one or two for each
lecture. Reading assignments will come from these textbooks. Dialects
will be mentioned, using taped selections. There will be heavy emphasis
on syntax, with the reasons for the differences in syntax between
Finnish (non-Indo-European) and English being discussed. Students will
be encouraged to look at what the grammar *does* and where *meaning* is
encoded by the grammar - for example, there is no future *tense* in
Finnish because Finnish is a heavily nominalized language, and the
concept of *future* is encoded elsewhere than in the verb. We will
also emphasize the function of *prepositions*, because Finnish has
*post-positions*: students will be encouraged to think of other possible
lables for English *prepositions*. There will also be a very brief
introduction to literary stylistics, as many of our students are
interested in the linguistic analysis of literature. The overall
purpose of the course will be to raise grammatical consciousness, an
awareness of the communicative functions of grammar, and the ability to
distinguish between different grammatical systems. There is still heavy
resistance to this approach on the part of some members of staff, but
most of the teachers agree with it. Again my thanks to all who replied,
not least for supplying me with support for my arguments. I would also
like to thank Mona Baker, UMIST UK, for first raising my grammatical

LIST OF RECOMMENDED TEXTBOOKS: aphabetical by author. Most teachers also
put together packets of handouts and exercises that they produced
themselves. I would appreciate anyone supplying me with the missing
bibliographical information.

BUTT, D., FAHEY, R., SPINKS, S. AND YALLOP, C. (1995) Using Functional
Grammar: An explorer's guide. National Centre for English Language
Teaching and Research, Macquarie University. ISBN 1-86408-044-2. (my
choice for basic text)
DELAHUNTY & GARVEY (????) Language, Grammar and Communication. McGraw
Hill -- good discussion of the prescriptive/descriptive differences,
covers the major language usage issues.
DIXON, RMW (1991) A New Approach to English Grammar, on Semantic
Principles. OUP, Oxford.
GIVON, T. (1993) English Grammar: A Function-Based Approach. Vols.
I&II. John Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
GREENBAUM & QUIRK (????) A Student's Grammar of the English Language.
GREENBAUM (????) A College Grammar of English. Longman. 
HUDDLESTON, R. (1988) English Grammar: an outline. CUP Cambridge. (a
short descriptive overview)
JACKSON, Howard (1990) Grammar and Meaning: A Semantic Approach to
English Grammar. Longman ISBN 0-582-02875-2 (Learning about Language
KAPLAN, Jeffrey (????) English Grammar: Priciples and Facts. Prentice
Hall. also listed as simply "English Grammar", which I assume is the
same text. (mentioned four times)
KLAMMER & SCHULTZ (1995) Analyzing English Grammar, 2nd edition. 
Allyn&Bacon (mentioned three times)
KOLLN, Martha (????) Understanding English Grammar. Macmillan.
(mentioned three times)
LEECH & SVARTVIK (1994) A Communicative Grammar of English, 2nd ed.
MILROY, James and Leslie (????) Authority in Language: Investigating
Language Prescription and Standardization.
MORENBERG (????) Doing Grammar. OUP, Oxford.
QUIRK & GREENBAUM (1973) A University Grammar of English. Longman.
RADDEN, Guenter (due mid-1996) (working title) A Cognitive Grammar of
English. to appear in the new John Benjamins series CLiP (Cognitive
Linguistics in Practice). Details from Benjamins (I await this with
SEDLEY (????) Anatomy of English. St. Martin's.
THOMAS (????) Beginning Syntax. Blackwell. -- basic, tree structures,
generative but without the theory or any movement or levels
WARDHAUGH, Ronald (1995) Understanding English Grammar: A linguistic
approach. Blackwell. Oxford UK. ISBN-0-631-19641-2 ISBN 0-631-19642-0
(pbk.) (lots of very good examples, good exercises, generative 

NUNBERG, Geoff (1983) "Grammar Wars" The Atlantic Monthly: December.
Pinker, Steven (????) "It speaks for itself" NewYorkTimes (NYT) article
PULLUM (????) 4"Here Come the Linguistic Fascists"
SANBORN (1986) "Grammar: Good wine before its time" English Journal:
VAVRA (1987) "Grammar and Syntax: The student's perspective" English
Journal: October

RECOMMENDED HANDBOOKS (security blankets)
The Bedford Handbook for Writers
The Harbrace College Handbook
Rediscover Grammar with David Crystal ( a quick review with cartoons)
St. Martin's Handbook
Deborah D. Kela Ruuskanen \ You cannot teach a Man anything,
Leankuja 1, FIN-01420 Vantaa \ you can only help him find it \ within himself. Galileo
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