As a writer I know that I must select studiously the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, etcetera, and by a careful syntactical arrangement make readers laugh, reflect or riot.

Maya Angelou, Conversations with Maya Angelou

Every human culture has developed a spoken language and, by inference, a system of grammar. No one ever sits us down and teaches us how to speak, we just soak it up from our environment. All children, regardless of their culture, seem to go through very predictable phases of language acquisition: first they learn nouns, then they start to pick up verbs and then start to combine nouns and verbs with articles, prepositions, pronouns and all the other parts of speech into grammatically coherent and complex language.

In fact, children’s ability to intuit previously unheard structures and formulations from minimal grammatical knowledge is remarkable. For instance, when learning English, almost all children infer that the past tense of the verb to go is ‘goed’. But how? No adult ever says this; children independently work out the rule that you add -ed to the end of the verb to indicate that it happened in the past. It’s only later we learn ‘to go’ is an irregular verb and that ‘went’ is the correct formulation.

So, where do the rules of grammar come from? The astonishing fact about language is that it evolves. Its rules are not invented, they’re discovered, by each of us independently as we learn to speak, and by linguists as they attempt to catalogue what ordinary speakers actually do. Crucially, grammar is not (or at least, not just) a list of rules. In everyday usage, ‘grammar’ is associated with the ‘correct use of the standard language’. But linguists use the term to refer to ways in which words are combined to make sentences, and to label the body of statements they write about the language as they attempt to make explicit the implicit knowledge possessed by all native speakers of English.

Understanding the tension between prescription and description lies at the heart of using grammar to make meaning. Without learning some grammatical metalanguage (language about language) students struggle to think about their grammatical choices. Knowing the names of things makes it infinitely easier to think about speak about the significance of these choices. Also, teaching becomes much more straightforward if everyone knows the basics. Instead of having to faff about trying to explain how semi colons work, you can simply say, they’re used to connect independent clauses. Explicit knowledge of grammar enables students to make decisions about their writing knowingly. And, because grammar is primarily concerned with meaning, metalanguage helps us think more analytically and improves our ability to make sense of other people’s use of language, especially in writing.

So, what’s holding us back? There are three problems which need to be resolved for anyone wanting to teach grammar:

  1. Which bits should you teach? There are over 3500 points of English grammar to be learned but how should we select which bits should go into the curriculum?
  2. The rules aren’t always universally followed, because of the effects of language diversity and change. How and when should grammatical variation be handled within a curriculum?
  3. There are often differences of opinion among professional grammarians – let alone teachers – about the best way of describing a particular point of grammar. Should we avoid the awkward bits?

To help us answer these questions, we need to combine the wisdom of two different traditions: prescriptive and descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive and descriptive views can be easily parodied, with prescriptivists seen as blind adherents to outdated norms of formal usage and descriptivists as advocating an ‘anything goes’ position and as condemning all forms of linguistic correction. Rather, we should recognise that we need both accurate descriptions of language that are related to situation, purpose and mode and prescriptions that take account of context, appropriateness and the expression of meaning.

The prescriptive view of grammar is that it’s possible to lay down rules for the correct use of language. There are two problems with the way this view is often implemented. The first is that sometimes the rules do not relate to the actual language use of native speakers. Examples of flawed prescriptive rules include the suggestion that it is wrong to split infinitives (to blithely wander, to boldly go); that it’s incorrect to end a sentence with a dangling preposition (I’ve got some new music to listen to.); that fewer applies only to countable nouns whereas less must be used for non-countable nouns; that you cannot begin a sentence with a conjunction, and so on. The second problem is that rules that might apply to formal, written language tend not to be appropriate for informal or spoken language.

But some prescriptions are correct. For instance, the rule that determiners must precede nouns is non-negotiable. If someone were to write “I’ve finished reading book my,” it would be unambiguously wrong; no native speaker would ever say this. The balance required is to work out which prescriptions reflect how language is actually used and which are based on preference and prejudice.

Many prescriptive grammar rules were based on erroneous models of English, following methods of analysing written texts in Classical languages. The rules that govern English are so different that imposing rules from Latin is either hopelessly confusing or irrelevant. For instance, the injunction against split infinitives arises because the infinitive form of a Latin verb is a single word whereas as in English it is two, the subordinator ‘to’ plus the main verb. Splitting the infinitive in Latin is impossible, doing so in English is common in informal speech. According to corpus studies of spoken language the adverbs ‘always’ and ‘completely’ are used more often to split an infinitive than not.[1] And, there are instances where not splitting an infinitive would lead to absurdity or ambiguity. How would you go about unsplitting the infinitive is this sentence?

Profits are expected to more than double this year.

There are times when not splitting the infinitive may be preferable, but the most important impetus for the decision to split or not to split should be clarity. If we are able to knowingly indulge a stylistic preference, then being aware of grammatical conventions is a form of individual liberty.

The descriptive approach to grammar is the product of research into how people actually use language. Many people believe they speak in the same way as they write but, in fact, no-one does. Descriptivists recognise that formal written language follows different grammatical patterns to informal and spoken language. Neither is seen as being right or wrong; all types of language can be shown to follow predictable and logical rules of use.

When it comes to thinking about grammar in the classroom it’s not enough to get students to identify the subjunctive mood, distinguish between subordinating and co-ordinating conjunctions, or use fronted adverbial phrases, they also have to know how all these things make meaning. This requires learning about how and why grammatical choices are made.

Semantics and pragmatics are central to the study of descriptive grammar. Semantics investigates the ways meaning is conveyed in language and helps students to ask of grammar, What does this mean? What is its effect? Pragmatics is the study of the reasons for, and effects of, our linguistic choices. The aim should always be to ask why choices are made and to explore their consequences. Taken together, these elements help children use grammatical knowledge to make meaning.

Sadly, due to a lack of understanding about how to make this happen in practice, students have, until recently, tended to get neither prescriptive nor descriptive grammar teaching.

Whenever we point out patterns of grammar, students should be taught in a way that allows them to ask what the structures their attention is being drawn to are and what they accomplish. Like our other conceptual lenses, grammar is another facet of English which students should become attuned to noticing. Whenever they notice grammatical choices in the texts they study they should be able to ask three crucial questions:

  • What options were available?
  • Why was this one chosen?
  • What impact does it have on the reader?

Answering these questions allow students to peer into the minds of other writers, explore their decisions and intentions, and reveal much about the words they choose and the order they choose to arrange them. It also allows students to notice their own grammatical choices. If they are aware of a ‘rule’ they can deliberately choose to break or bend it to achieve a particular effect. Creating good grammatical habits means students will have greater mental resources for concentrating on the more interesting aspects of the curriculum.

The extract above is taken from my forthcoming book, Making Meaning in English. If you pre-order here you can get a 20% discount using the code MME20. 

[1] Van Gelderen (2004) Grammaticalization as Economy, pp. 245–246.