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English Grammar School

What is English grammar?

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In simple terms we could define a specific grammar as the set of rules for constructing words, phrases and sentences in a particular language. So, native-speakers of English would recognise she is a fire-fighter as being grammatically fine, while she are a fire-fighter would not be acceptable.

The example just given is normally called a sentence, but in the definition above I was careful to include phrases and words too since these are affected by the grammar of a language. For example, in English the phrase the honest politician sounds OK, but the politicianhonest does not. As for words, we would accept taken as being ‘good’ English, but we would reject taked, except perhaps from a child who has yet to learn this particular rule.

We could take this idea one step further and isolate even smaller chunks of language that might be counted as ‘grammar’. Most of us would recognise that -ed tacked on to the end of a word can be used to indicate the past tense of a regular verb (he walked, for example), or that -s is used for making regular plurals. The addition of these grammatical units may even affect the spelling and pronunciation of the words they are tacked on to. Try pronouncing the plural nouns carpets, tables and listen for the different sounds of the -s at the end. In the first case, the -s sounds rather like a hissing snake. In the second, it’s more like an enraged fly! This is even more obvious with house - houses.

All of the above refer to what is called the form of the language, but, of course, we use the grammar of a language to convey and understand meaning, and without this we would find it difficult to communicate effectively. Knowing how to add endings to a verb to make a new tense is not much use if you don’t understand what difference this makes to the meaning. It is not very hard to explain to a non-native English speaker that adding an -s on to the end of a noun means that we are talking about more than one of that item. But how would you explain when to use the Present Perfect (for example, he has arrived) to a non-native English speaker? Clearly there are levels of difficulty not only in mastering the forms of a language, but also in working out how and when to use these forms.

Teaching and learning grammar

If you live in a country where English is the main language used, you may have discovered that many approaches to teaching English in schools tend to sideline the structure of the language. In fact, your first meeting with the notion of grammar is more likely to have been when you were studying a foreign language. This is not, of course, the same as learning the grammar of English, as languages differ in the way they work and in the terms we use to talk about them. For example, English nouns do not have a grammatical gender, while German divides its nouns into three categories masculine, feminine and neuter.

Consequently, if you are a native speaker of English, you may find that your knowledge of how English works is at best sketchy. This can be a particular problem for teachers of English as a foreign language because their students may sometimes know more about English grammar than an inexperienced teacher. This should not be too surprising since English language students study the structure of English in some detail. However, without the necessary background, the teacher will be at a disadvantage and may even find him/herself in an awkward situation when trying to explain a specific point of grammar.

Teachers of English need to have a good command of the grammar of English simply because our students expect to learn Standard English that will serve them in most situations. We need to remember that they are likely to be speaking to non-native as much as native speakers of English. This is not therefore a question of overly pedantic insistence on correct English, rather the emphasis is on a more pragmatic approach that ensures the English they use is not going to confuse the person they are writing or speaking to. Grammatical accuracy has recently become more important due to the rise in learners of English who need to communicate in writing. Currently, an increasing number of learners require English for Academic and Occupational Purposes (essay, dissertations and reports for example) to be as close to native-speaker competence as possible, so accuracy is a major consideration for them.

Examples of sentences with (less than) obvious errors!

  1. If he would have realized what was going on, he would have told me.
  2. She tends to do most of her shopping on the Internet these days, so she don't often buy much from supermarkets and malls.
  3. I don't think I haven't hardly seen him since he separated from his wife.
  4. If there had been less mistakes in the essay that he handed in, I would have given him a much better mark.
  5. The general feeling was that the repair should of been carried out with more attention to detail.
  6. The majority of the audience has came away with a much deeper understanding of the problems faced by the police in controlling gun crime.
  7. None of the guests present at the dinner remember the exact time that John left.
  8. The wide range of processors that is now available make it very difficult to choose a PC that you can be certain is going to suit your needs.
  9. One thing we can be sure of is the determination of the board to implement it’s latest policies on restructuring.
  10. Having drunk so much alcohol, the car weaved its way down the street and eventually crashed into a fence.

Commentary

  1. If he would have realized what was going on, he would have…

    If he had realized…

    The usual pattern for this grammatical item (the so-called third conditional) is:

    if + Past Perfect, would have + Past Participle

    Many learners of English frequently make this mistake.

  2. She tends to do most of her shopping on the Internet these days, so she don’t often buy much from supermarkets and malls…

    she doesn't often buy much...

    When using she/he/it in the Present Simple tense an –s is added to the end of the basic verb stem as with she knows, he refuses. So when making negatives and questions, we should add this –(e)s to the auxiliary verb do.

  3. I don’t think I haven’t hardly seen him since he separated from his wife…

    I have hardly seen him…

    This is an example of what is often called a double negativehardly and not. While it never really causes any misunderstandings (except perhaps for those people who insist on applying mathematical rules and claiming that two negatives equal a positive), to be absolutely correct a single negative is all that is needed.

  4. If there had been less mistakes in the essay that he handed in, I would have given him a much better mark.

    If there had been fewer mistakes...

    Less is gradually becoming more acceptable in everyday spoken English (and in written signs in supermarkets where 9 items or less can often be seen at checkouts), but this should really be reserved only for mass or uncountable nouns like water, traffic and confusion, while fewer is used for countable nouns.

  5. The general feeling was that the repair should of been carried out with more attention to detail.

    the repair should have been carried out…

    This kind of mistake is a carry-over from the spoken language where have and of are pronounced in an identical way by most native speakers in utterances where contrastive stress is not being used. Try saying the following examples at normal speed, many people have visited this site and the interference of the government. You should find that you are giving have and of the same pronunciation. When native speakers who are unaware of the grammatical rules governing past modals like should have are being more ‘careful’ in their speech, they often pronounce the have as of and this can then get carried over into their written English.

  6. The majority of the audience has came away with a much deeper understanding of the problems faced by the police in controlling gun crime.

    the audience has come away…

    The tense used in this example is called the Present Perfect and is made by combining have/has with the past participle of the verb. The speaker in the example has chosen (chose!?) to use the past tense form instead (infinitive – come, past tense – came, past participle – come). This is a fairly common native speaker error that you will find occurring in all English-speaking countries.

  7. None of the guests present at the dinner remember the exact time that John left.

    None of the guests present at the dinner remembers...

    The problem here lies in understanding that none of the guests is the head noun. The answer is none, not the guests since this is part of the prepositional phrase of the guests, making it subordinate to the main noun of the phrase. None is singular in number and therefore requires an –­s on the end of the Present Simple verb remember.

  8. The wide range of processors that is now available make it very difficult to choose a PC that you can be certain is going to suit your needs.

    The wide range of processors that is now available makes

    The answer to this one is the same as the preceding example. Range is the head noun and so needs an –s on the end of the verb. Most speakers in normal speech will chose the verb without the –s simply because the noun nearest to the verb, processors, is plural. It could also be claimed that it is the processors that the speakers wants to emphasise so the use of make can be considered correct.

  9. One thing we can be sure of is the determination of the board to implement it’s latest policies on restructuring.

    … the determination of the board to implement its latest policies...

    This is a very common written mistake (there is of course no difference in the pronunciation of the two words) and many native speakers are confused as to when they should use an apostrophe. It is very easy to find scores of examples in shop names and signs alone. It’s is, of course, the contracted form of it is; so if you cannot replace the its in your sentence with it is, then you should not use the apostrophe. Its is the possessive form of it (compare with he – his, she – her) i.e. the thing belonging to it.

  10. Having drunk so much alcohol, the car weaved its way down the street and eventually crashed into a fence…

    ...the driver of the car weaved his way...

    As the above example stands, it is the car that has been doing the drinking rather than the driver, although, of course, the logic of the situation would indicate to the listener that the driver of the car was drunk. The rule for this kind of sentence (with verb+­ing or having + past participle) is that the subject of both clauses must be the same, so Having drunk so much alcohol, the customer fell asleep at the bar would be correct.

Further Detailed English grammar notes with examples.

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