Teacher’s Introduction to Real Grammar
On this site, we look at English grammar in terms of big ideas or core grammatical concepts, and the meanings they add.
As an English teacher I have seen many students have difficulty with traditional grammar rules. Many students have trouble remembering and applying usage rules. So, instead of providing them with more rules – and many exceptions to these rules, we can present the key ideas behind grammatical structures as manageable pieces of language that we put together to communicate.
Having students use their own judgement and choose which grammatical structures they use is essential for them to develop their ability to produce language. Instead of focusing on grammar rules, students focus their attention on grammatical concepts and choices. This encourages them think about why people use English the way they do and develop a sense of how the language works.
Presenting tenses as concepts avoids exceptions by helping students see the reason why a speaker may choose to use them. This choice is motivated by meaning. Understanding these choices and the meanings they contribute gives students more flexibility and they develop grammatical knowledge that they can use in a wide range of situations.
- It is simpler – understanding 4 key grammatical concepts allows us to make 16 sentence structures and understand all their uses (even the unusual ones that are often classified as exceptions!)
- It helps students understand extended uses – students can apply the grammar to other situations they find themselves in that aren’t covered by traditional rules.
- It gives students flexibility – students understand that there are different ways of saying things and make choices based on what communicates the intended meaning more effectively.
The approach offered here considers the key areas that many explanations of grammar neglect. Considering these key points helps us address grammar more directly for a clearer view of how it works.
- There are two sides of grammar:
– rules we conform to
– choices that give us freedom to create
- Meaning is central to communication
There are two sides of grammar:
We have rules that we conform to. We use the same basic forms that the listener expects. This makes it easier for them to follow. Many of these rules happen 100% of the time, it is not a choice, we just need to follow convention and do it. (For example – word order, third person ‘s’ (I eat, she eats), verb forms, plural forms of nouns). It is good for students to become familiar with these patterns, the traditional “just practice” approach seems to work well here.
We have choices that give us freedom to create. When we communicate, we have an idea in our head. Our goal is to share this idea with others. There are many ways this can be done, and we choose which way we think is the most appropriate. There are many choices we make when we use language, such as: tense choices, modal verbs, articles, prepositions. And these areas are often challenging for students. Which isn’t helped by the fact that many parts of the language that are choices are often presented as rules in traditional usage-rule grammar books. However, presenting grammatical concepts and having students make their own choices is something that we can easily integrate into our classes.
Communication is a priority in the modern English language classroom. When we speak or write, we choose to use English tenses and verb forms because of the meaning they contribute. The choice provides the listener or reader with information that helps them understand what the speaker or writer means. We can all learn more about grammar by seeing why a speaker chooses to use a grammatical structure and the meaning it contributes. By viewing English tenses this way, we don’t think of grammar as what is the “correct” way, but see grammar as choices that provide us with opportunities to communicate with more clarity.
There are a few problems with the standard approach that is often taken to English grammar, causing the notoriously confusing mess of rules and exceptions.
- Using the wrong framework
– Why do traditional resources get it so wrong?
– Forgetting the future tense
- Rules where rules don’t belong – Prescribing rules to connect form and use (neglecting meaning)
English grammar has no future tense. There are two basic tenses: present and past. This is well documented in numerous linguistic resources.
“[W]e do not recognise a future tense for English.”
– Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press.
Once we look at English from this perspective many of the exceptions simply disappear.
The first English grammar books were written in the 16th century. These books were written based on the rules of Latin grammar. Back then, English was often compared with Latin, as Latin was the language of educated people. This Latin-based grammar became the norm and many resources today still attempt to use this structure to explain how English works. When the wrong structure is used, things don’t quite fit, and this is why many explanations of English grammar fall short and have so many exceptions.
“Making English grammar conform to Latin rules is like asking people to play baseball using the rules of football. It is a patent absurdity. But once this insane notion became established, grammarians found themselves having to draw up ever more complicated and circular arguments to accommodate the inconsistencies.”
English tenses can be difficult for students. One of the main reasons for this is because the way they are presented in textbooks doesn’t reflect how people use English in real life. It is common knowledge among linguists that English doesn’t have a future tense, but students studying ESL and EFL are still presented with a distorted (past, present, future) three-tense view. Even though speakers often think about time in terms of past, present and future; the English language is not structured this way, so usage rules that attempt to fit English into this structure have far too many exceptions and make things difficult for students who truly want to communicate using English.
“[W]e have no more business with a future tense in our language, than we have with the whole system of Latin moods and tenses”
– Joseph Priestley(1761) , The Rudiments of English Grammar
It is time to move away from this confusing collection of traditional Latin-based rules. Let’s look at English tenses from the perspective of how English works: based on native speaker intuition, linguistic theory and real-world use.
In English, we use the same sentence patterns for talking about both the present and future. We know if we are talking about the present or future because of the context, or we can say when to make it clear.
|present / general statement||Future statement|
|She plays tennis.||She plays tennis on Tuesday.|
|She will play tennis whenever she has a free afternoon. She loves it.||She will play tennis on Tuesday.|
|She’s playing tennis now.||She’s playing tennis on Tuesday.|
|She’ll be playing tennis now.||She’ll be playing tennis on Tuesday.|
|She’s finished playing tennis now.||Call me back after she’s finished playing tennis.|
|She’ll have finished playing tennis by now.||She’ll have finished playing tennis by the time we get there.|
|She’s been playing for two hours now.||She’s been playing for one hour. She wants us to give her a drink when she’s been playing for two hours.|
|She will have been playing for two hours now.||At 4:00, she will have been playing for two hours.|
Some of these structures are more useful when talking about the present, and some are more useful when talking about the future, but they can all be used to talk about the present or future.
If you’ve taught or studied English you have probably read about twelve or so “tenses” that are very useful structures for students to learn:
- the present simple
- the present progressive (also known as the present continuous)
- the present perfect
- the present perfect progressive (also known as the present perfect continuous)
- the past simple
- the past progressive (also known as the past continuous)
- the past perfect
- the past perfect progressive (also known as the past perfect continuous)
- the future simple
- the future progressive (also known as the future continuous)
- the future perfect
- the future perfect progressive (also known as the future perfect continuous)
If we look at this list, we can find patterns. Instead of trying to remember rules for each structure in isolation, think of English grammar as a system and understand the underlying grammatical concepts and what they mean. The same few words keep popping up: present, past, future, simple, progressive, perfect. These can be summed up as four core parts that can be added to our sentences:
- The two tenses: present and past
- Progressive (continuous) aspect: be doing
- Perfect aspect: have done
- Modality (“future” sentences using will). This includes the English modal verbs: will/would, can/could, shall/should, may/might, and must.
Instead of trying to divide these patterns up into structures for present, and structures for future; it is better to see the big picture and understand why we use each part and the meaning it adds.
Rules are very useful for the parts of grammar that we conform to, such as using the third person ‘s’ (I eat, she eats). However, a lot of the grammar we use doesn’t follow a rule, it doesn’t happen the same every time. Speakers have choices. Sometimes they may choose to use the present tense, sometimes they might choose the past tense because either of the core grammatical concepts applies to the situation.
Here’s a simple example:
after a phone call from my mother, I can say to my wife:
“Mom says hello.”
“Mom said hello.”
Either tense fits this situation. We can’t use a rule to say that only the present tense or past tense must be used. There is a difference in meaning, but both basically mean the same thing in this context. Instead of thinking about what is correct, we can consider what these tenses mean and why they can be used.
“Mom says hello.” – the message is being passed on in the present.
“Mom said hello.” – she said it in the past.
It all depends on how the speaker is viewing the situation. And by viewing situations the way an expert speaker does, learners can use the language more naturally and meaningfully.
Rather than a usage-rule based approach that requires students to remember and apply individual rules relating to what to say in every possible situation, another way to approach English grammar is to think about the core meaning of grammatical concepts and discover the ways this meaning can be utilized in a wide range of situations.
English tenses make more sense when we start with the right framework and understand that the use of tense is a choice made by the speaker. People don’t always make the same choices, so trying to apply rules is only going to create exceptions. Here you’ll find a guide to English tenses that:
- is based on English framework
- explains grammatical concepts and their core meanings
- presents English tenses as a connected system
- helps you understand the choices made by an English speaker
- is accurate (no exceptions)
- is clear
- is simple
We strive to present English grammar as simply and accurately as possible. This information has been researched through corpus data, real-life English by a range of highly proficient speakers and feedback from EFL and ESL students. If you find any examples of authentic English that you feel might be an exception to the information contained in this guide, please contact us. Let’s make English grammar simple, practical and logical for all students.