Why Grammar is Overrated – Part 2


In my last post I argued against viewing many structures as advanced, especially when they exist in the students’ L1.  While I think my main point of considering many structures as somehow advanced and difficult for students to be nonsense is well-founded, I do stand corrected on two grammar points I used as examples.

Looking deeper into the matter, there is a difference between adjectival passives (or pseudo-passives as one commenter called them) and actual passives.  A sentence like “he is married” is an example of a past participle adjective rather than a true passive as “married” serves a predicative function in the sentence.

Compare “He was married in 1990, but now he is divorced” with “He was married by a priest in 1990.”  There is a slight difference in the meaning I think.

On the “have got” end, I do still think it originally comes from one of the ways in which we use present perfect today, but it has lost that nuance.  It merely has a similarity of form rather than a similarity of meaning.  Compare “I’ve got the car for 5 days” with “I’ve had the car for 5 days.”  The first implies the length of time I will have it while the 2nd implies the length of time I have had it.  It follows then that the meanings are not exactly analogous.

These two examples lead very well into my second reason for thinking grammar is incredibly overrated in the classroom.

Reason #2:  If it confuses us, how could it possibly help the students?

In the simple definition I use in teaching, grammar is simply the structure of the language.  For instance, in English we use subject + verb + object, the past tense is used to talk about finished actions in the past and we make it with S + V2 + O, etc.

Does this really help our students for them to know this?  Does it make sense to them?  My contention is that it doesn’t help them nearly as much as the importance we place on it seems to indicate.

Let’s face it, how many of you knew what an SVO language was before becoming an English teacher?   If you walked into a Turkish language classroom and someone told you that Turkish is an SOV language, would that have meant anything to you before becoming a teacher?  My guess is no.  So why do we teach it to the students?

Do we ever teach that “to give” is a ditransitive verb?  How about that “I wish I were…” and “If I were you…” are past subjunctive structures, or what about even the basic difference between an object and a complement?  I’m betting that almost no one has taught ditransitive verbs, done a lesson on the past subjunctive, or a lesson on objects vs. complements.  Yet our students use these structures all the time and, of course, native speakers use them as well.

Let’s do an experiment.  For those who don’t know, a ditransitive verb is a verb that takes two objects such as “to give.”  For example, “please give me the ball.”  “The ball” and “me” are the dual objects.  Now, take a minute and think of some other examples of ditransitive verbs…

Not so easy is it?  What if I asked you how to determine if a verb is ditransitive or not before seeing it in use?  The fact is, we can’t.

Now do the same with the past subjunctive.  The past subjunctive can be used for counter-factual information, hypothetical situations, wishes, suggestions, or doubt.  Besides the examples given above, please take a minute to think of some other sentences using the past subjunctive…

Again, I’m willing to bet most readers were unable to come up with any.  Why then do we ask students to do things like this?

What I’m betting you could do was come up with a whole lot of sentences using the previously given examples.  You could probably think of a hundred sentences with give, or if I were you, or I wish I were.  Using language with examples that emerge from the class is what is worth teaching – not sweeping categorical rules.  We want information like this to become chunked in our students brains and then recalled in situations similar to what we saw in class, on tv, in a book, etc.

I used the grammar points above because I’d bet that most teachers aren’t familiar with them and it gives us a good feel of what learners are going through.

Moreover, the teacher often has to figure out the rule before class or review it.  I often see experienced teachers walk into a class and bungle up passives, conditionals, or present perfect.  If we actually have trouble understanding how it works, what makes us think that passing on this knowledge to the students will help them?

How often have I seen a teacher give a rule and then ask students to make sentences with it?  It’s not easy, especially if the student is put on the spot in front of the whole class.  Just think, if we can’t quickly do it ourselves in our own language, how can we expect students to do it?

If we have taught complements vs. objects, ditransitive verbs, and subjunctive moods to our students all this time without knowing what they are, what’s to say we can’t do the same exact thing for every other grammar point?

How many of our students ever run through the long lists of grammar rules while speaking?  Well, we can easily spot the ones that do because they take ages to produce a single sentence and it comes out in little pieces.

I think this is really where ideas like teaching students to chunk language and learning through context come into play.  Students are given opportunities to use language in certain situations and then the teacher helps lead them to the most appropriate language.  Through lots of usage opportunities and comprehensible input, the language will chunk and, more importantly, it will start to sound correct to the student’s ear.

This is always a goal in my classes.  I don’t care if the students know the rules much, I want them to be able to say, “well, this just doesn’t sound right.  It should be this way” because they’ve had so many learning opportunities inside and outside my class that he language comes naturally.

What do you think?  Does teaching grammar rules have a positive impact on student learning?

Related Articles:

Why Grammar is Overrated – Part 1

Why Grammar is Overrated – Part 3

Steven Pinker on Language & Thought – A good video showing how grammar talk can be extremely complex and almost useless in a language teaching environment.

In Other News:

I did a guest post over on Barbara Sakamoto’s Teaching Village on different ways of using a text in class for her Stuff All Teachers Should Know Series.

I’m also doing a number of workshops at conferences this year.  Last weekend I did a workshop on storytelling over at Cevre Koleji that went incredibly well although I was rushed into giving it in 25 minutes.

I will also be presenting at TESOL Greece next week, Gelisim College in Turkey, BETA Bulgaria (2 workshops), and the 3rd International ELT conference in Cyprus.

If anyone else will be at these conferences I would love to meet up.  Shoot me a message.


  • By Nicky, March 11, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    >>”If you walked into a Turkish language classroom and someone told you that Turkish is an SOV language, would that have meant anything to you before becoming a teacher?”

    No, but if somebody had told me it was a S.O.B. language, it sure would have, har har har…

    I actually agree with you here, for me the main value of knowing and using this type of jargon-heavy grammar explanations in class is to just kind of shut up those annoying students who insist on asking “Why? Why? Why?” for everything little thing and won’t take “Because I said so” for an answer. You just say the word “ditransitive” and their eyes glaze over before you know it.

  • By Leslie Burns, March 19, 2010 @ 6:16 am

    Hi, Nick

    I see you’ve been busy since my last visit. Hope the TESOL Greece conference went well.

    Good follow-up to the previous article.

    I started writing a comment, but (as usual! LOL!) it got way out of hand so I’ve published it on the “discussion” section of my own blog rather than pop another thousand-word response into your comment form here.

    My comment

    All the best,

    P.S. That video about the Easter Bunny is pretty funny stuff. I’ll be forwarding it to a couple of friends whom I know’ll get a kick out of it. (No pun intended!) Nice one, mate.

  • By turklis1, March 19, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    Thanks for the continued additons to the discusson. Yeah, I saw that bunny video and said, “Somehow I have to use this in a lesson.” :)

  • By Lynne Hutchinson, March 21, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I really do wish some of the French teachers of EFL would read your article, it might save me an awful lot of time in business school classrooms and in professional business English classrooms too!

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen eyebrows shoot up when I announce that if anyone in the room has come for grammar lessons, then the door is over there.

    Getting students to understand WHY we use different structures, i.e. what the function is seems a much more valid approach than going into the meanders of a totally abstract grammatical explanation (even if the teacher CAN do it, I still don’t think it’s a good idea). And compared to the effort French students have to put into getting word and sentence stress in the right place (for those of you who don’t speak French, it is a syllable-timed language and does not have a word-stress system) so their utterances are actually understandable, grammar seems such a waste of time.

    Thanks to Leslie for giving us the link to your website – it’s nice to be able to bounce ones ideas, especially when they don’t usually go in the same direction as most of my colleagues’ :-(

    Looking forward to reading any follow-up.

  • By turklis1, March 21, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    Hi Lynne, good to know this is an issue in the foreign language teaching world and not just EFL :)

    I think one of the big issues is the way people are educated to teach foreign languages. It seems to me that the universities are terrible at this, otherwise why do so many come out obsessing over grammar that just simply doesn’t help the students?

    I love the anecdote about showing students the door. I’ve had so many fights with beginning students about why we’re not teaching them loads of grammar.

  • By Mohammed Rhalmi, April 6, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Although most teachers would argue about the explicit vs implicit teaching of grammar, I’d like to point out that providing enough input containig targeted structures is an excellent idea. Building on this input to raise students awareness of the structures, explore inductively the ways structures are built and actually use them communicatively, is another step that can be considered.Finnally with more advanced students, more explanation may be introduced, especially for studenst who are required to pass an exam.

  • By turklis1, April 6, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    I would agree on all those points Mohammed. For most exams, sadly, grammar is a big part of them. I have to say that I’m lucky to teach at a school where students come to learn to communicate in English, not to pass government exams. Otherwise I’d be teaching grammar in Turkish rather than English in English.

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