Why Grammar is Overrated – Part 1


A discussion ensued on my  last blog post about some changes we were implementing at my school.  One of the issues that came up was how to approach grammar teaching.  I’ve been meaning to start a series on this, so here is the first installment.

Assumption:  Grammar-focused lessons, syllabi, and course books are the antithesis of communicative language teaching.

We need to stop deluding ourselves that teaching grammar and then asking the students to partake in an activity that uses the structure is actually communicative.  It is not.  It’s simply grammar instruction with a speaking component.  This series will examine the many incorrect assumptions made about grammar and will take a look at actually applying the CLT approach and teaching communication.

Part 1:  The Argument Against Advanced Grammar

One point that came up in the discussion is teaching “advanced” structures to lower levels.  I think Karenne’s reply aptly sums up my feelings on the subject, mainly that language is “NOT math.”  The picture above is a great example of how grammar can be made overly complex in a classroom.  Will diagraming grammar like above help the students use the language?  Certainly not.  Well the same follows for all the time wasted explaining grammar to students with simpler but still overly complex language.

Understanding and using grammar are two different things.  We want to teach our students to use the language, not to be grammarians.  A very common mistake is to focus on grammar as form rather than grammar as meaning.

Well, here’s the question:  should we teach structures like passives or present perfect or mixed conditionals to lower level learners?  My answer is, in most cases, absolutely, if they are ready for it or it‘s appropriate.

The first critical point that Karenne brings up is that a step by step approach to grammar is nonsense and even insulting to some people’s intelligence.  In an article by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings on Dogme and the coursebook, they state that, “there is no research evidence to suggest that such [grammar] lists match the manner nor the order in which language is learned. It is more probably the case that such language items “emerge” naturally in real language use, through repeated cycles of exposure, attention, output and feedback.”

I would strongly agree.  My main language learning experiences are with Turkish and a bit of Vietnamese.  While Turkish is worlds apart from English, I picked up the structures incredibly fast.  As I lived in Ankara, a city somewhat notorious for cold people, when I first came to Turkey and because I was teaching all the time, I had few opportunities to practice my Turkish.  Yet I downloaded grammar explanations online for most major grammar points and started amassing translations of important words.  Not an ideal way to learn, but it’s all I had.

After a month in the country I had the opportunity to take a vacation to a different city.  On that vacation I made friends with a couple of university students who were studying art.  Neither of them spoke a word of English.  However, I had no problem talking to them.  I had the most difficult time understanding anything they said to me, because I had so little listening practice, but I got my message across with the scarce vocabulary I had available at the time.  The thing I did not have trouble with was expressing passives, future plans, unreal situations, etc.  This is all part of my language that I use every day.   It’s not difficult to understand.  Not only that, my language ability sky-rocketed with two days of practice compared to the small gains I had made in the previous month I had been studying on my own.

This has been my experience throughout learning languages.  I progress slowly or I can’t get something, and then suddenly I get immersed in intensive speaking situations and my fluency shoots up in a very short time.

A very similar story goes for my experience in Vietnam although that was much easier as grammar was much simpler and closer to English.  I would meet people who were shocked that I could make sentences in the past, present, future, and continuous in Vietnamese and they still couldn’t after months of Vietnamese classes.  That’s because I took 10 minutes to look them up online rather than wait until the course thought it was appropriate.  I not only knew these tenses, I used them in my interactions every day at the market.

The idea that our students can’t understand some grammar because it is too “advanced” is ridiculous.  What is difficult is actually learning to take the grammar apart and explain it, but I’ll deal with that in a subsequent post.

Let’s take a look at some “advanced” grammar.  How about passives?  Should we really be able to teach this to beginners? Hmm.  Let’s see… 

I’m married.
Is he tired?
He gets dressed at 6am every day.

Well look at that, 3 passive structures that we teach almost immediately to beginner level students (Ok, you can argue the first two can be viewed as adjectives, but it’s a moot point because functionally the structure and the meaning are the same).

This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions in TEFL.  Obviously if the students can get the above structures, we can teach any other grammatical point in the same way, passives or not.  It’s all about meaning and using the correct language in the correct situation.

How about present perfect?  Well, have you got some more time?  A present perfect sentence most course books teach within the first few weeks.  Why then do we wait until later to introduce this tense?  Well, we could say there is no present perfect in many languages so it’s more difficult.  Well, Turkish also doesn’t have a commonly used verb for “have” anyway either.  Of course this use of present perfect is a bit simpler to comprehend, but you get my point.

Then we move on to mixed conditionals.  What thel is a mixed conditional anyway?  The only reason it’s “mixed” is that because somewhere down the line someone came up with the less than brilliant idea that there were only 4 types of standard conditionals in English.  What egghead sitting in an office decided this I don’t know.  Mixed conditionals are only difficult because our students have been told for years that there are only 4 types.  Now you are mixing them?  How about just not putting constraints on them in the first place?

I tell my students, if they ever ask, there are two main categories of conditionals, ones that deal with real situations and ones that deal with unreal.  That’s the only point to even worry about.  As for conditional types, anything goes.

Once the student is ready, they’ll attempt a sentence like, “If rain, I (hand motion for grab) umbrella.”  Why would I not give the student the correct language he wants to use?  What can possibly be more important than what the student is trying to say? I don’t need to create a context, the student already has it.  He just needs the correct forms, “If it rains, I’ll take an umbrella.”

Now say the same level student comes out with the sentence, “If I rich, I buy very nice house.”  Again, the student has the context, give them the language they need to say it.  They’ve got it in their own language already.  Do you want to clarify it for the rest of the class?  Ok.

Teacher:  So Mehmet, are you rich?

Mehmet:  No teacher.

Teacher: Do you have a nice house?

Mehmet:  No

Teacher:  So this is real or not?

Mehmet:  No real.

Teacher:  Ok then, say, “If I was rich, I’d buy a very nice house.”

There, you just taught 2nd conditional to a low level class.

Will they remember it right away?  Probably not.  Should you spend lots of time on it and drill it?  Again, I’d say probably not, it depends on the nature of the conversation or activity taking place.  But now the students have been introduced and, when they are ready or when they see it again, they’ll be much more prepared.

Were a few of your students a bit lost?  Ask for a quick translation and move on.  You’re not going to waste time trying to explain something unless you really think your students are ready to use it or it’s appropriate for the activity.  Once you really want to or need to dig into this kind of language, then really bring the points home, but if it’s just something that came up in class (which is the best way to introduce language anyway), quickly get students on the same page with a few well chosen concept check questions or a translation and move on.

We know that grammar knowledge does not equal acquisition.  No matter how much you teach the students about the grammar, it will not translate over to proficiency and fluency, so why do it?  Most students have had years of grammar instruction and it has not worked for the vast majority of students as we can see quite clearly by looking at our students.  Why then do we continue to give grammar instructionwhen it so obviously hasn’t been working?

Present a topic very briefly, I usually say under 5 minutes like in the example above and then just give the students tons of practice opportunities in the form of conversations and tasks.  Will everyone get it immediately?  No.  Is that ok?  Most definitely.  They will see it again and again, and – this is very important – when they are ready, they will pick it up.

This isn’t just theory.  This is something I have seen work in my classes time and time and time again.  For all the trouble Turkish students have with present perfect I can honestly say that my elementary students start to use it naturally without even realizing they’re using it after a while.  Why?  Because we don’t focus on the grammar.  We just do lots of activities with excellent context that provide them language use opportunities.

I would argue that the only thing that should limit explicit grammar teaching, if it is explicitly taught at all, is size and whether it’s in the mother tongue or not.  Obviously for a student that can barely get out “I live in Istanbul,” we’re not going to introduce “If I get a new job, I’ll move.”  However, the student is hardly going to attempt saying something like that if he’s not ready for it.  It should never be a problem.

Obviously beginners have less ability to keep long sentences in their head or to manipulate a lot of variables.  It makes sense to teach present simple and future before introducing the 1st conditional because the conditional builds on the previous two.  In the same way, students need to have a critical mass of vocabulary before dictionary use can be really effective.  However, grammar that depends on other grammar is in the minority in the language, so this is rarely a problem.

The other constraint is the L1. It’s always much easier to learn something that is already present in your L1.  I’ve been told Chinese does not have language for imaginary situations in the past, so 3rd conditional will be a struggle.  Turkish students don’t have anything like the present perfect, so it’s more difficult for them to pick up.  It doesn’t mean we can’t introduce it early on, it just means the students will need to spend more time working on it to acquire it.

To connect back to my last post.  Stop worrying about what the book and the syllabus say and start worrying about what language your students need and are ready for.

What are your thoughts?  Are structures like passives, perfect tenses, and wishes really any different from present tenses or possession?  Is it really that difficult for an adult who may have a master’s degree and run a company to make a sentence with two pieces instead of one (i.e. I go vs. I am going).  Do some classes focus too much on grammar?  Are complex analytical explanations useful to students?  I’ll be interested to hear what others have to say.

Related Reading:

Why Grammar is Overrated Part 2

Why Grammar is Overrated Part 3

Dogme and the Coursebook


  • By Donald H Taylor, February 26, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    I agree that we shouldn’t begin with grammar, but as a tool for understanding, I wouldn’t under rate its importance either. When I was learning Turkish in Istanbul, Lewis’ Turkish Grammar was my bible – even though most of what I did was self-taught. It often helped me decipher what I read in the papers and solved conundrums for me. You’re right, however, that I never began with Lewis, nor was it was my only reference tool. Other crucial tools – a good general dictionary and an idiomatic dictionary were also essential.

  • By Adam, February 26, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    I’m currently part of a task group looking into some of the issues you’ve mentioned here. Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    Oh, here’s one for you (based on a question we’ve had to pose ourselves): What is grammar?

  • By turklis1, February 26, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    Hi Donald, I think being able to reference the grammar is important. But often you can look at something in a couple minutes and figure it out rather than have a teacher explain it to you for an hour. That’s why I recommend a brief look rather than long explanations.

    Also, using it is so much more useful. I remember for example that I had the hardest time pronouncing ö or figuring out things like how olsun was used, yet I just started talking to people and I would wake up one day and realize I was using them. There’s a point where things just “click” and it has little to do with an analytical understanding of the grammar in my opinion. Adults often obsess over analytical understanding of a language, but it’s not so important. With enough comprehensive input and use you’ll figure it out.

    Hi Adam – I’ve been meaning to comment on a post or two of yours and just haven’t gotten around to it. I will though :) Like in many of my opinions on ELT, I follow Thornbury. There is an excellent video of his over on Henrick Oprea’s Doing Some Thinking (http://hoprea.wordpress.com/). It’s worth watching the whole thing. For me, there is no real difference between grammar and lexis. It’s simply probabalistic collocations that have occurred through use. This is why highlighting first conditional may hold some benefit. It’s a language collocation that happens more often than other conditionals. How useful would teaching the present subjunctive be to lower levels? Not much because it’s not used with high frequency.

  • By Adam, February 26, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

    One thing that we’ve read and we like comes from ‘New perspectives on grammar teaching in second language classrooms, Hinkel, E. and Fotos, S. (ed)’, in particular the chapter by Rod Ellis which states the case for teaching grammar and makes some recommendations. Here’s a brief summary:

    1. don’t teach grammar to beginners – they don’t have a lexical base from which to make generalisations, so it’s a waste of time.

    2. grammar teaching input should increase as students get to higher levels

    3. there’s no point in trying to get students to ‘master’ a grammatical structure (for various reasons); a more realistic and still helpful aim is to teach them explicit rules and hope that the awareness thus raised will help them acquire grammar more effectively.

    4. we can’t teach ‘all’ the grammar of a language, so we should focus on areas/structures we know our students have problems with.

  • By turklis1, February 26, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    I really like all the points except 2. If we can teach lower levels without the grammar input, why teach the upper levels with it? Obviously it was successful previously without. What’s the added benefit? I think being able to identify their own problem areas and help with self-monitoring may be two. It’s also obviously a useful skill for many of the terrible exams in Turkey, but I’m not sure I see much increased benefit in terms of general English capability. What do you think?

  • By Benet, February 26, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    Interesting points made. I generally agree, but I’d like to add a couple of things. The fact that all the examples given here are based on verb grammar rather than on the grammar of nouns reflects the fact that coursebooks generally ignore the noun phrase because (as Dave Willis – e.g. Rules, Patterns and Words – points out) the noun phrase is so much more complicated. But if students want to progress to more complex language that’s what they need. Secondly, another point raised by Dave Willis (in the Lexical Syllabus) is that passives are actually easier to teach as a kind of adjectival form. It’s also quite important to point out the contextual features that lead to the use of passive rather than active forms (i.e. wanting to keep to the same theme or topic) – this is what Thornbury shows us in Uncovering Grammar, but he’s really borrowing from Rutherford’s brilliant book (Second Language Grammar 1987).
    Dave Willis also points out that separating the conditional (and reported speech for that matter) as if it’s somehow a ‘different’ structure and doesn’t fit into the underlying system of English is artificial and unhelpful. Think about it – the use of present forms with ‘if’ is really no different from those with words like ‘when’, ‘as soon as’ etc. Why separate them out? In conclusion, Dave says, the aim should be to get students to build a system, not focus on artificial rules.

  • By turklis1, February 26, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    I’ve always found that odd as well that noun phrases and clauses are so rarely focused on. Even if you do see it in a course book, they usually portray many noun clauses as reductions of some sort (i.e. He told me I should go -> He told me to go or Do you want something that you can eat – > Do you want something to eat.) I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that we speak more often in clauses or phrases and early ELT focused on written language more. I never thought about it before, but I would bet that that plays a major role in the story.

    Funny you should mention passives as an adjectival form. I’ve always thought they were more of an adjective structure than a verb structure, but I’m not a grammarian and thought I might get called out for saying something like that. It’s nice to know my intuitions were correct.

    I agree on the ‘if’ thing too. I think one of the main points of CLT is that we shouldn’t separate things out. We always need a text whether it is written or spoken and language can be focused on when we want to take a closer look, but it should never really be presented as something in isolation. I would agree with you and Dave on this.

    Thanks a lot for your contribution Benet. Very informed and it drew my attention to some really useful points.

  • By Adam, February 27, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    I blame Latin.

  • By turklis1, February 27, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    Oh, duh on my part. I’m sure that’s a big reason.

  • By Sputnik, February 28, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    A very enjoyable post. You got me thinking about my own students and how, for some of them, grammar is like medicine – they don’t like or look forward to it but they feel unwell if they don’t have it, and not just in passing, but a big dose of it. It’s like they are not just learning a language, but (re-)learning how to learn a language. Still, I am in the same boat there.

  • By turklis1, February 28, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    Haha, I love that analogy. It’s perfect. It is like that. They simply feel uncomfortable if it’s not there, like there is no progress without grammar.

  • By Anne Hodgson, February 28, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    Hi Nick,
    I’m totally with you on the teaching front. I too teach emergent language and don’t confuse the issue with all sorts of bookish terminology. I generally present two sentences and have students compare them for differences in meaning, which leads to interesting conversations. I’m currently writing an upper intermediate online grammar course where I’m taking that way out of the “interactive exercises are such a bore – oh, and it’s grammar? oh, ugh!” dilemma.

  • By turklis1, February 28, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    Hi Anne, yes I feel bookish terminology is not that effective. If you really want that knowledge, pick it up in your L1. I really like the comparing language items approach as well.

    Well, even if we don’t explicitly teach grammar seems we can’t get away from it. We still blog about it or write course books :) What ever shall we do?

  • By Leslie Burns, March 1, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    Hi, Nick

    Nice blog. I found it through some random rabbit-holing around the Net and I’m glad I did. I’ll be back! :)

    Extremely good post, too! There are a LOT of things that I agree with very strongly, and some things (or inferences) that I don’t.

    I started writing a simple response, but it has just snowballed out of control!

    And as if this comment itself isn’t freakin’ long enough, one innocuous side-comment I made when typing this response ended up swallowing a big chunk of my weekend! It’s Monday after work now and I’m at 10 pages and counting (on the sidepoint, that is!), without any clear end in sight just yet.

    I very much look forward to Part II of this article and I’ll let you know when I’ve finished what this post inspired; you may like it. Anyway, on with the show…


    * I positively HATE structural syllabuses (I know it’s “syllabi,” but saying it makes me feel too pretentious, frankly. Kind of like saying “The data are…” as pedantic professors love to bully their students into writing. So… back to the point!). I’ve railed against them for years – to no avail as of yet! LOL! (They won’t be going anywhere any time soon, I’m afraid. Even the most *ahem* “cutting edge” books, focusing on “natural English” are still straight-jacketed by structural syllabuses.)

    And I’ve been telling my students and trainees for as long as I’ve been hating on structural syllabuses the exact same thing one of your other readers, Karenne, says: “Language is not mathematics!”

    Boy, it makes me crazy… all that chopping the language up into tiiiiiiny little pieces, EXPLAINING it using esoteric “rules” and presentations lacking any kind of context, and then expecting students to magically reassemble it into a working system. Pffftt!

    Those Raymond Murphy books, for example? I LOATHE THEM. Total shite which reinforce most of what I hate about the majority of grammar “teaching.”

    Regarding your question as to whether we should teach what are considered more “complex” structures to lower levels, I MOSTLY agree that you should teach it when they need it. What we should be doing at lower levels is giving students MASSIVE vocab-pattern input along with the opportunities to apply it, ideally in a personalised way.

    Now, this will, of course, require more complex structures at times, but I think we need to be discerning in our judgement as to whether or not to “push” a particular structure just because a student appears to need it at that time. Sometimes, the structural complexity might actually hinder the communication and/or getting the student to apply the vocab in a personalised way.

    Having said that, your example with Memhet and the house he’d buy if he were rich is a good one. And there was a terrific (albeit easy to miss) comment in the post somewhere (that I 100% agree with!) suggesting that teachers patronise their learners when they “refuse” to teach more complex STRUCTURES simply because the syllabus dictates that the students are “not yet ready for it.” People who, as you point out, may be quite capable of running large organisations; who manage hundreds of people; and who make all sorts of complicated calculations and tough decisions all day, every day.

    Generally, it’s not a problem with CONCEPTS so I agree with what it appears you’re advocating: simply providing the correct structural component at a perfect time for the learner to contextualise and personalise its usage. Your rain/umbrella example illustrates this very succinctly. I’d just reitterate the point about trying to maintain the balancing act between servicing this good learning opportunity whilst not patronising the learners, and being judicious; “choosing your battles,” or “choosing the time to strike,” if you will.

    Again, I second your advice to perhaps not spend too much time on it and to not worry if they don’t remember it right away (they probably won’t). I agree that something quick and easy like this can go a long way to helping students NOTICE the language at a later date. And we all know the critical importance of “noticing.”

    Further down you advise against hitting up the learner who can hardly get out “I live in Istanbul” with something, by comparison, more structurally complex as “If I get a new job, I’ll move.” I don’t agree with what you say next, though: That learners who aren’t capable of the simpler sentence won’t attempt to communicate ideas such as the one about the job. They will. And this is where you have to apply your professional judgement. Just letting it slide might actually be the best thing under the circumstances. A simple response that indicates you’ve understood the intended meaning might be enough before focusing on what the student ACTUALLY needs more right now.

    I also agree with your initial comment that a lot of what are billed as communicative activities are “simply grammar instruction with a speaking component.” I’ve been using a particular expression for this for some time now: “Grammar activities masquerading as speaking activities”! :)

    I also strongly agree with you when you say “a very common mistake is to focus on grammar as form rather than grammar as meaning.” Hallelujah, brother! Amen to that. Have I mentioned Murphy yet? And how much I hate those books? The overwhelming majority of grammar “teaching” starts with form. It’s ghastly. How on Earth are students ever to learn this stuff if we start there? Another long-standing rant of mine that one. Sheesh! Don’t get me started! Ha ha!

    I don’t agree with you regarding your example of “three passive structures,” however. Nor “[H]ave you got some more time?” as an example of Present Perfect. I can, of course, see where you’re going with it: You’re making a parallel with the FORM and I agree that – in terms of syntax and morphology – lower level learners can handle this kind of thing no problem at all!

    But the MEANING is not the same and, as I think we agree, we have to always start with Meaning before Form. I see the relationship with a kind of “passive-concept” in these two examples (“I’m married” and “Is he tired?”), but I don’t think that it’s useful to try and treat this as “the Passive Voice.” It’s not clear to me whether you’re saying these ARE examples of the Passive Voice or you’re just making a parallel with what are described in some grammars as “pseudo-passives.” And I don’t agree that “He gets dressed…” is passive in any way. That’s just straight-up lexis as far as I can see.

    Regarding the first two examples (“I’m married”/”I’m tired”), I think it’s truer to the pragmatic meaning to see them as descriptors of the person’s state, i.e. as adjectives. Sure, it could be argued that “I’m engaged,” “I’m married, “I’m divorced” are all passive-type ideas because they require some official decree (from some external and unimportant-to-specify external person and/or body) which changes one’s status and [blah blah blah explanation here]. But what about “I’m single”?

    That’s why I think “married” carries more of a descriptive function here. Same goes for “tired”; it’s describing someone’s state. Yeah, something TIRES that person, sure. But there is no verb “to happy” in English –> “I’m happy.” And there IS a verb “to sleep” in English, but in “I’m sleepy,” nothing “SLEEPS” me — like that thing which got Bill Murray good in Ghostbusters!

    As for the “Have you got some more time…” example, the meaning here is NOT that which is conveyed by the “have done” structure in any way. It is simply a variant of “have s/t” which students need to learn. I know you know that, Nick. And you pose the question at the end “Is it any different?” Well, yes, it is. The MEANING is different even though the FORM isn’t. And Meaning, in my opinion, trumps Form. “Have you got time?” and “Have you done time?” have wildly different meanings. Just like homographs.

    On that note, in the comments you say that you don’t see any difference between grammar and lexis. I do. I’m a BIG, BIG, BIG advocate of teaching lexis over grammar, but they ARE different things. In fact, what I’ve been wrestling with this weekend (the 10 page + monster I mentioned earlier) is in reply to Adam’s question. Separating what is TRULY grammar from what’s lexical patterns, collocations, phrases, etc. didn’t prove super-difficult, but laying out my argument in a cogent way is. I agree with the “probabalistic collocation” bit regarding Form, but Grammar is part of the system of Meaning and is more than simply collocations of structural (and other) elements. [More on that when I've finished it.]


    Dude, OMG! Sorry about this MAMMOTH reply! Holy smokes! I do love this stuff, though, and I tend to get a bit carried away at times! :)

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post, one which has already generated some excellent discussion. As I said at the outset, I eagerly await the arrival of Part II.

    Best regards,

    P.S. @Benet… AWESOME reply! The best blog comment I’ve read in a long time. I must look up what Willis says about the passive/adjectival notions once again. And, yes, the key thing that’s sorely lacking from the usual “teaching” of the Passive Voice is a consideration of Topicality and Coherence within a TEXT. Thanks for the reference to Rutherford, too; I’ll be on that like a rat up a drainpipe!

  • By turklis1, March 2, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    Thanks so much for stopping by Leslie. You have really brought a lot to the table and I’m glad to see I struck a chord :) You’ll have to send me a copy of your 10 page essay when you finish :)

    I’m glad that you agree with the majority of what I wrote. Working in Turkey, everything is so grammar focused I often wonder if it’s like this all over the world. It’s great to see you and all the other commentors and I are on the same page and that we’re not the only ones.

    I can’t say I agree with you on all the grammar issues though. I’ll take them one at a time. I’m also not a grammar expert, so I’d love to hear the opinions of any linguists around. I’m a bit unsure of my case for point 2 especially.

    1) Are grammar and lexis similar?
    Yes. Take for example
    You make me sick.
    You make me ill.
    You make me disgusted.
    Which one would you say? While all are grammatically correct and have the same meaning, the first one sounds the best. This is because the grammar is chosen in the same way that lexis is chosen.
    Another example. My friend’s roommate is Indian and often says things like “I am going to the store to purchase some milk. Since I am going I was wondering if you would also like me to purchase you something as well?” Well, these are fabulous sentences with flawless grammar, it’s not correct for this context. “Hey man, I’m goin to the store. Do you need anything?” would be much more appropriate.
    Last example: We often use when + past simple and while + past continuous. However, I saw your old roommate when I was coming over here the other day is fine. There is no grammatical rule that says we have to use a certain tense with when or while, it’s simply become probabalistic.

    2) Passives
    Passives are constructed with be + past participle or get + past participle. “Get” implies a process or change while “be” is more static. Compare
    I was hit by a car.
    I got hit by a car.
    I hope he will be sentenced to at least 5 years in prison.
    I hope he gets sentenced to at least 5 years in prisons.
    We were married by the old man.
    We got married by the old man.

    With he is married or he is tired the confusion comes from the fact that we use “be” as a copular verb linking the complement to the subject and as an auxiliary verb for passive voice. Compare
    They are married.
    The priest married them.
    He was bored.
    The book bored him.

    I would agree with you that these words are more descriptive and better seen as adjectives because we wouldn’t say he’s married by someone, so conceiving it as an adjective is a bit more appropriate, but it really goes back to what Adam said that the line between adjectives and passives is quite thin. This issue also becomes very clear in Turkish. To marry is evlendirmek and to be married is evlenmek. To tire is yormak while to be tired is yorulmak. Passives are most often formed with the addition of “n” after vowels or “ul” after consonants. However, it is also possible to use adjectives in a few cases, so tired could be yorgun. To say, “I’m tired” I could either say yorgunum or yoruldum. The meaning is the same, but there is a grammatical distinction between using a verb and an adjective. We don’t notice this grammatical distinction in English because of how we use “be,” but just because we say “he is happy” doesn’t mean “he is tired” is the same grammar construction, as is made much clearer in Turkish. Anyway, you’re right that leaning towards the adjective side is probably better, but I don’t think it makes a difference in the way we should teach it.

    In the end, the point is that either construction is simple to understand. The problem is the way we think because of the way grammar syllabuses :) have been presented. “He is married” is no more difficult to understand than “the book was written”, yet we often think it is. I would argue against that. They are constructed that way for the same reasons and have the same meaning. It’s exactly what I’m talking about. We teach “he is married” without a second thought. We should do the same for everything. “The book was written by her” should be taught in the same way – in context by relating it to the students.

    3) “Have got” is definitely a present perfect meaning. Present perfect is very commonly used for an action/state that started in the past with continuing time. “I have got a car” means I acquired a car in the past and the time of my ownership has yet to finish. Compare
    Einstein lived in Germany.
    I’ve lived in Germany. (I’m not in Germany now, but my life, i.e. my time, continues)
    I lived in the Czech for a year. (I no longer live in the Czech. “for a year” is finished time)
    I’ve lived in Turkey for a year. (My time in Turkey is not finished. “for a year” is unfinished time)
    I’ve played tennis twice this week. (This week continues)
    I played tennis twice last week

    Again, we’re just using faulty logic when we assume that the meaning is different in this case. Actually present perfect is used here in the same way it is often used. Yet, we don’t explain this nuance in meaning to the students and they pick up the meaning very quickly. The same can be done with present perfect in general. Teach the structure in context and the students will get it. Understanding a grammar concept like when to use present perfect is no different from understanding the concept of how to express possession. We’ve just come to believe it is more difficult because it’s taught at a later stage.

    4) Will students try to express complex ideas at low levels?

    Yes, you’re right that they will try. It’s just my position that they don’t have the linguistic resources to get there in English. Since they don’t have the resources, they can’t begin to formulate it and you don’t have anything to build on to help them. This is where knowing the student’s L1 is so valuable. You know that if they break into L1 it’s because they are being lazy or it’s because they don’t have the resources to express what they want. If it’s the former, I’ll make the student repeat it in English and help them construct the sentences if they are unsure. If it’s the latter you just have to let it go. I strongly agree with you that this is where your professional judgment comes into play. Teaching is all about making choices after all.

    That’s all I’ve got. Again, I think you really brought a lot to the discussion. I’m glad to meet someone that hates Murphy’s books or explicit grammar teaching as much as I do. I’ll see you back for part 2 :)

  • By turklis1, March 2, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Looking this up on wikipedia, there is a distinction made between stative passives and adjectival passives (which are apparently not true passives). In the cases we are discussing with he is tired and he is married I would conclude that you were right and the past participle is being used predicatively. Damn! :)

  • By Leslie Burns, March 2, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    Heya, Nick

    Who’dathunk you’d be so darn competitive! ;)

    I think I mentioned “pseudo-passives” in my previous post. Haven’t checked out that link yet. Does it mention that?

    Anyway, I was very happy to read your response, above, when I got in from work this evening… and then I spent the best part of 2 hours (more, I think!) writing a response to your response to my response to your article. [Note to self: Get a life!]

    Rather than try to squeeze a 3000 word article into this comments section, though, you’ve inspired me to create a new section on my site titled “Robust Discussion” and I’ve posted my response there:


    Warning! I haven’t really proofread it, though. I had a quick skim over it while eating my pizza, but I’ve also got the new Breaking Benjamin album in the CD player and a cold beer in my other hand… and brainy no worky any more today, I’m afraid. So take it as-is, my friend!

    All the best,

  • By turklis1, March 2, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Enjoying the dialogue. THanks Leslie.

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