O.M.G. like… Oh My Grammar!

A few thoughts on grammar


Is the sentence at the top of the page grammatically correct? Well, it follows the rules about combining words (adjectives + noun + verb + adverb) in the right way, but does it mean anything? Only by a tortuous stretch of the imagination. Something cannot be both colourless and green.

It’s hard to imagine sleeping furiously (unless you are violently tossing and turning in the bed).

Can an idea sleep? I suppose you could have green ideas if you are thinking of green meaning ecological. The only possible meaningful paraphrase I can think of is something along the lines of: dull ecological ideas don’t result in action, despite all the angry talk. But taken literally, Chomsky’s famous sentence is lacking in the second part of a definition of grammar, which is that the correctly combined words should form acceptable units of meaning within a language. The form must have a function.

So, you can be perfectly grammatical but say nothing meaningful.

Have a look at this sentence.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

How about this: Buffalo buffalo, which Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo

Try saying it aloud in different ways. Can you make it make sense?

I thought not, but… if you know that Buffalo is a town in the U.S.A. (accidentally, I was there in 2001 and probably, never want to go back there again) and that a buffalo is an animal, and also that there is a verb “to buffalo” meaning to bamboozle, bewilder or trick someone, then it can make some sort of sense: Buffalos from the town of Buffalo, which other buffalos from the same town bamboozle, bamboozle buffalos from Buffalo (I’m glad I’m not a Buffalo buffalo).

So, you can also say something meaningful, though it may not seem so at first.

People often liken grammar to a skeleton — it is rigid and supports language use (words), much as our bones don’t move, but we can do whatever is physically possible using our muscles. Other common similes for grammar are blueprint, glue, and building blocks. They convey the idea of grammar as either a structure or an adhesive.

Well, whatever your preferred simile, here’s a definition: grammar is a communicative device that is functionally motivated. What grammar we use depends on choice and point of view.

E.G.: “The bill hasn’t been paid yet.” vs “I haven’t paid the bill yet.”

Here the passive would be used to shift responsibility. (somehow I still believe if I ignore bills they will ignore me too — much of a daydreamer, huh?) The fact of the unpaid bill is the same in both sentences.

E.G.: “I lived there…” vs “I was living there…”

They both tell you when; the fact is the same, but the attitude is different.

Grammar can be seen as expressing distance, which can be:

* Psychological: “The boss says we have to work on Saturdays…” vs “The boss said we have to work on Saturdays.”

What’s the difference? Both sentences are relaying the same information. I met with the boss yesterday and that is what they told me. Why would I use the present simple “the boss says” when it’s about a past conversation? Well, the present simple conveys permanence. (The sun is in the sky.) What was said in the past can be negotiated. So, by using the present simple, I am closer to the boss’s wishes (which was not my initial goal anyway).

* Social: “Would you please pass the water.” vs “Chuck the water over, mate.”

Here, the intention is the same — I’m thirsty, give me the water — but I can choose quite different grammatical structures, depending on my relationship with the person I’m talking to.

* Hypothetical: “I wish I were a millionaire. / If you loved me, you would buy me a diamond ring.”

Why in conditionals or wishes do we use tenses one step back? I want to be a millionaire now, so why use the past tense? It’s because there’s a distance from reality… unfortunately.

* Temporal: “Spain beat Germany.” “Spain are the European champions.”

Obviously here the past is used to describe a particular event that is over and the present to say what is true now.

Now, a few thoughts on teaching grammar. The most common ways are:

* Inductive: Write an example “I am standing.”

Explain the rule

Practice applying the rule

The students are given the rule

* Deductive: Demonstrate meaning with examples

Orally produce forms

Grammar is elicited after practice

The students work out the rule

* Task-based: The students pick up regularities intuitively as they did their mother tongue.

What’s your method? Now picture yourself (not in a boat on a river, you are not Lucy and you definitely don’t have diamonds) through the eyes of a student. Would you pay attention to yourself? Existential teaching questions sleep furiously and are definitely of no colour at all. Actually, they are pretty dull.

Finally, we like to think there are grammar rules. We read them in books and pass them on to our students. Here are “rules” that teachers give. What do you think?

Rules: are these true or false?

Some does not occur in negative sentences.

Would is the past of will. (this is one rule… in action, you will find 100 more that totally contradict each other)

Uncountable nouns are singular.

Must is stronger than have to.

Double negatives are wrong.

You can’t use will after if.

I didn’t do it yet is wrong.

It’s a lovely day, isn’t it is a question.

Maybe you agree with most of these statements. Well, none of the rules are true. Check out these sentences and the comments.

I don’t like some food… (for example oysters, but I love fish.)

Would you pass the salt? (This has nothing to do with past time.)

I’d like two teas. (Meaning cups of tea.)

I really must go. (If you used have to, would it make any difference? No!)

I can’t do nothing right. (Double negatives in certain spoken contexts reinforce the power of the utterance. It’s not maths.)

If you will, I will. (OK?)

I haven’t done it yet. (American English is quite happy with the simple past when British English would prefer the present perfect.)

It’s a lovely day, isn’t it. (Question tags are connected with their intonation. In the example, we both know it’s a lovely day. I’m not asking a real question, I want you to affirm me and my opinion. Depending on the way you say it — with a rising or falling intonation — this utterance could be a statement or a question. If I put a question mark, it implies that I’m not sure of the answer.)

Grammar is no holy grail. It is only there to serve meaning and content. Dress it up with rules, limitations and you will execute it forever and ever. Let it flow naturally and maybe you will someday discover colourless green ideas of whatever colour sleep peacefully by your side, while you are behind your screen, writing ELT stuff that is closer to ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEASING than TEACHING. Choose your method. I certainly have!



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Natassa Manitsa

Natassa Manitsa

I love Psychology, ELT, Education in general, Marketing, Communication and somehow I seem to be combining all that. I love Love too. More than anything else :)