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How to demystify grammar

Andrew Rossiter discusses how to get over our hang-ups about teaching grammar

Last week I heard from an old friend, an experienced teacher who has taught EFL in different parts of the world, now teaching Spanish in a London school, where she works part time. She related an anecdote that made me sit up: “When we were helping the kids with their Spanish homework, one student said, ‘We’re so lucky that English doesn’t have things like nouns, verbs and adjectives like Spanish has.’ Sadly, this was a reflection of the standard of language teaching in local schools!”

It reminded me of another anecdote, related by a former student of mine, a French woman who had been taken on by a large UK company. “It’s incredible,” she wrote to me after a few months, “Everyone here comes and asks me, a French speaker, to check their writing. It seems like I’m the only one who’s ever studied English grammar…!”

Do we in the UK, and more generally in English-speaking countries, have a hang-up about grammar? Apparently, yes. School education in the UK places great emphasis on the development of independent learning skills, on enquiry and critical thinking, and learning grammar is not an essential part of that paradigm.

This may explain why the UK is a creative nation with some of the world’s best universities. But many learners need rules, and the downplaying of grammar in UK schools is a self-perpetuating problem; wherever and in whatever context they are teaching, language teachers who had little formal grammar training at school themselves are less likely to stress its importance in their own teaching.

While grammar is not quite so excluded from the school curriculum in the UK today1 as a few years ago, clearly it is not as important in the UK as it is in many other countries. Yet without the help of explicit grammar, learning any language, in particular a foreign language, surely becomes more difficult than it need be.

Mastering any language is like learning to be a good driver. To communicate effectively in a language it is essential to understand the rules and apply them. Children may learn their native language through ‘immersion’; they may reach a stage where they absorb the rules of grammar without actually learning them – or as my first quote above showed, without even knowing that they exist.

Learning an additional language is very different, especially when this is done in a language class. Students do not have the time or opportunity to just ‘acquire’ the rules and principles of grammar by listening to fluent speakers.

I believe that teachers who ignore the importance of explicit grammar are making their job harder than it need be. Grammar is the framework on which the tapestry of language is woven, and the first stage of teaching English grammar is to ensure that students realise that it actually exists and that there are rules and standards.

Rossiter’s book fills a gap in the market

Mapping the way to grammar skills

Compared to many other languages, much of the basic grammar of English is simple; there are few word endings to master, word order plays a vital role, and it is easy to express basic ideas without ever having consciously learned any rules – which is one of the reasons why language education in the UK puts less stress on grammar.

But using English beyond the needs of basic communication calls for more than intuition and word order: it requires knowing how to communicate with precision, without ambiguity, and in a form that others can understand. And this is a skill that cannot be properly mastered until a learner has at least a basic understanding of grammar.

If learning a language is like learning to drive a car, a grammar book is like a map; we can get by without a map on the roads we know close to home but for anything more adventurous a map is a great help… as long as we know how to read it. It can even help us in areas that we think we already know quite well. (Don’t look for the language equivalent of a satnav; there isn’t one.)

Murphy’s English Grammar in Use and Essential English Grammar in Use, the world’s best-selling grammar books, sold over 30 million copies worldwide between them in the thirty years up to 2015. That sounds like a lot of sales, but actually it is only 1 million a year for a market which, according to the British Council2 will number two billion learners by 2020.

“I was fortunate enough to begin my education at a time when grammar was 
still part of the school curriculum, taught from an early age; but since 
then things have changed.”

Practice grammars or ‘student grammars’ like Murphy’s, or those by Eastwood, Biber, Alexander and others, often available in different levels, make up the bulk of the ELT grammar book market; but rather than reference books, these tend to be grammatically-themed workbooks where the practice element takes precedence over the explanation of grammar. They are popular with students and teachers, and in most cases well suited to their target market.

At the other end of the scale come the (figuratively and literally) heavyweight grammars aimed at a very different category of reader. The classics from Crystal, Huddlestone, Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech et al, sometimes weighing in at over 1800 pages, analyse the English language as a linguistic system, and by and large are written by linguists for linguists; they do not address the needs of more than a very small minority of EFL teachers, and an even smaller minority of their students.

Between the two groups there is not a lot. Swan’s Practical English Usage differs from the other heavyweights inasmuch as the author was a practising ELT professional rather than a professor of linguistics; but it too is heavy – 768 pages in the 2016 edition, and is an A-Z encyclopaedia of English, not a thematic grammar. Parrot’s Grammar for English Language Teachers is a lengthy book for teachers, not students. Some of the ‘heavyweights’ have given rise to lighter ‘student’ versions, but like the tomes they are derived from, these require an understanding of linguistics.

In the late 20th century there were a couple of compact and far lighter grammar reference books accessible to teachers and students, by Coe and Eastwood & Makin, but both are long out of print – leaving a gap which I have tried to fill with my Descriptive Grammar of English, a grammar reference book for teachers and learners with no background in linguistics. As Coe and Eastwood showed, it is quite possible to produce a concise and accessible grammar of English in under 250 pages.

The need for grammar

I have tried to discover a list of the grammar skills required for the Cambridge C1 Advanced English test, but this does not seem to exist. The word grammar barely gets a mention in relation to this exam, beyond the fact that the exam tests students’ knowledge of it. By contrast, for the French equivalent, the DALF C1 exam, several websites list the grammar that candidates need to master.

Somewhere in the UK / Anglophone approach to grammar, there remains a cultural antipathy, the idea that grammar is either a skill that students will acquire automatically ‘by practice’ (true up to a point), or else that grammar is something too elitist to trouble anyone but professional linguists and grammarians.

I was fortunate enough to begin my education at a time when grammar was still part of the school curriculum, taught from an early age; but since then things have changed. Grammar as an academic discipline was subsumed into linguistics, and there was a general and justified consensus that linguistics was not something that needed teaching to language learners.

Yet one only needs to hear the voices raised in recent years to lament the poor writing skills of so many otherwise well- educated people in the UK and North America, to realise that grammar is not actually an optional extra that language students, in whatever context, can choose to ignore. Understanding the basics of grammar is a vital skill for anyone wanting to use English beyond the basic level of simple communication. This is worth remembering by those teaching English as a native language; for those teaching English to speakers of other languages, it is even more important.


  1. The official UK government guidelines for KS2 English include modal verb, relative pronoun and relative clause as vocabulary that pupils should acquire and understand in year 5, though curiously subject and object are not to be learned until year 6. Clearly, as the opening lines of this article show, the message is not getting through to all.
  2. The English Effect, British Council 2013. files/english-effect-report-v2.pdf

Grammar reference as a teacher and student resource

By definition, reference books are not for teaching with; they are for referring to, so to the question, “Can I use a grammar book to teach with?” the answer is normally, “No!” But to a slightly different question, “Can a grammar book help me with my teaching?”, the answer for most teachers will be, “Yes, certainly!”

While some students never want to learn any rules, others want and indeed need rules, so a teacher who can explain the rules will have more success than one who cannot.

Take the eternal question of -ing words, which have an annoying habit of confusing students and tying teachers up in knots. Look at these two sentences, which could confuse any student:

  1. Careful driving could save your life.
  2. Driving carefully could save your life.

Why do we use careful in the first one and carefully in the second? The answer is

that driving in the first sentence is used as a verbal noun, so it’s qualified by an adjective. In the second it’s used as a gerund, so it can’t be qualified by an adjective. Without using ‘grammar’ this distinction, which in this case is neither functional nor contextual, is pretty well impossible to make.

For their own advantage and for that of their students, teachers need to have access to a grammar book that can explain English grammar in simple terms, without confounding students with complex linguistic explanations and vocabulary that they will not understand even in their own language. Here is a simple explanation of -ing words taken from The Descriptive Grammar of English. Most students should understand this – maybe with a teacher’s help. Of course, whether they remember it or not is a different matter.

  1. The gerund is a verb form ending in -ing which is used as if it were a noun. Since it is a verb, it can not be qualified by an adjective, nor preceded by an article, but, like other forms of the verb, it can be modified by an adverb and take a complement.
  2. A verbal noun is a noun formed from a verb; some verbal nouns end in -ing. Verbal nouns, like other nouns, can take a determiner, and be qualified by adjectives.
  3. A participle is an adjective or part of a participial phrase qualifying a noun or a pronoun. The present participle, ending in -ing, is also used in the progressive aspect of verb tenses.

This example assumes that students know what adverbs, adjectives, nouns and verbs are; but that’s grammar.

Even very experienced teachers may have trouble distinguishing between a gerund and a verbal noun … and explaining it to a student. In this situation, having an easily understandable grammar reference book as an instantly accessible resource is not just useful; it may be vital.

Image courtesy of LINGUAPRESS
Andrew Rossiter
Andrew Rossiter
Andrew was senior lecturer in English and head of Applied Languages at the university in Besançon, France. He today runs the website, a rich resource of open-access reading and grammar resources for EFL / ESL teachers and students.
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