The Grammar-Teaching Controversy

The question of whether English grammar should be taught to schoolchildren in the English-speaking world has been much debated since the 1960s.  In Britain, the debate led to a virtual cessation of grammar-teaching outside foreign language classrooms in the 1970s and 1980s, until surprise and alarm at the effects eventually brought a reconsideration and a reintroduction of a modified syllabus in the new millenium.  The present British government has recently gone a step further by prescribing a more explicit list of grammar topics for British schoolchildren.  The move has had some support among teachers, but has also caused much anger in both schools and the wider community of educated language users characterised by journalists, literary writers, historians and the like. From my own standpoint as a specialist in Applied Linguistics and a teacher of English to speakers of other languages (where a similar debate has raged, albeit for different reasons), I wish to argue in favour of grammar-teaching in British schools, provided it is done in the right way. I also have some ideas about what exactly should be included in a grammar syllabus for schools. 


Definition of Grammar

First there is a need to define grammar. A fairly standard definition in Linguistics sees grammar as “rules for combining meaningful language elements”.  The reason for the word “elements” is that meaning is not confined to words, but is found in both smaller units (word parts) and larger ones (e.g. phrases). The smaller units include prefixes, suffixes and “roots”, but not usually other letters, phonemes and syllables, since they have no meaning of their own (even though they do follow their own combination rules). Underlying the phrase “rules for combining” is the fact that meaningful elements cannot generally be combined in random ways.  Few people, for example, would add plural-showing -s to the word happy.  Some combinations are compulsory, some occasional.  The use of than compulsorily requires an accompanying comparative adjective or adverb, though the use of one of those does not always require than.  When a combination is occasional, further rules have to state the circumstances in which it can or must occur.  For example, a word like house occasionally has -s at the end, and this occurs when more than one house is being referred to.  Note that rules are considered by most linguists today to be not strictly what must or can be done, but what speakers of the language normally do most or some of the time (i.e. descriptive, not prescriptive). Thus, it is a rule to say that “house is normally combined with -s when the meaning is plural”, and also that “house is never normally combined with -ly”. 

A major ambiguity in the word “grammar” is that it can refer to both the rules that all speakers know unconsciously about their mother tongue and the conscious rules that result from explicit linguistic analysis.  It is, of course, the latter that the grammar-teaching debate is about.  Since both meanings and combinations are involved, studying it must also involve both of these aspects. This point raises the question of the difference between grammar and vocabulary, or between what is the typical content of grammar books (“grammars”) and that of dictionaries. If all words have both a meaning and their own combination rules, why do we need grammars at all? The answer is that grammar has traditionally been felt to involve special kinds of words, as well as word parts, certain kinds of phrase and various longer “structures”. The special words of grammar are hard to define exactly, but very broadly they are whatever is not a noun, verb, adjective, adverb or interjection. They thus include pronouns, conjunctions and many prepositions, along with a few subgroups of verbs (such as “modals” like will, can and must), of adjectives (e.g. words like the, my, this, some and enough) and of adverbs (including negatives like not, intensifiers like quite and connectors like therefore). 

One other point about the definition of grammar is how it differs from that of “syntax”.  Syntax is in fact a subdivision of grammar: it is the rules for combining words and word groups but not word parts. The name for word-part rules on their own is “morphology”; thus, grammar = syntax + morphology. Furthermore, grammar does not have to be equated with specific terminology.  One can learn it without ever becoming familiar with words like “participle”, “subjunctive” and “clause”. These are just labels, whose underlying concepts could, if necessary, be communicated in simpler language.  A grammar teacher might, of course, decide that it would be useful to teach the labels alongside the concepts, whether because such knowledge would make further explanations easier to give, or would give greater access to grammar reference books, but grammar teaching does not of its nature need to include it.  I suspect that the writers of primary school textbooks adopt a compromise path on terminology: avoiding the esoteric but retaining the more basic and frequent terms like “noun”, as well as introducing a few new coinages. 

If grammar is about combinations, why do children need to be taught about word classes (“parts of speech” in the traditional terminology that linguists discredited and rejected many decades ago)?  To answer this, if we take again the example of what can be put on the end of house, we find that many other words allow the same endings, but many again do not.  This implies that words can be grouped together according to the grammar rules that they follow, and that it would be useful to have a name for each group of similar words.  This is exactly what each word class is.  Thus the word house is a noun.  Having this name, we can give much more efficient grammar rules than we could without it: “nouns” can be given the -s ending (to express plural meaning) but not usually -ly.  Therefore, word classes are a tool for making and remembering grammar rules.  As a result, grammar study can be divided on the one hand into developing and defining “tools” like this, and on the other into identifying “rules” that involve them. 


Value of Explicit Grammar Study

The importance of grammar study in schools extends to much more than just its ability to improve writing. There is a more general educational value that must not be underestimated.  At least three possible benefits can be identified.  Firstly, grammar study seems likely to improve general thinking skills because among other things it involves concentrating, abstracting, classifying, analysing and making subtle distinctions.  Secondly, foreign language learning should be facilitated.  In my own schooldays, my introduction to Latin (which I went on to study at degree level) was preceded by six weeks of pure English grammar study, the teacher clearly believing that the complexities of Latin needed this.  Much later, when I decided to teach myself Spanish, my extensive experience of grammar in both English and other languages made me fearless about what Spanish had to offer and efficient in coping with it.  Thirdly, explicit grammatical knowledge facilitates further learning about English itself, whether in discussions with similarly-educated peers or in the use of reference books like dictionaries.  These are all surely valuable abilities. 

It is also worth saying that many students actually want to learn grammar.  The idea that grammar is inherently dull is just a British cultural one, similar to the national attitudes to mathematics and foreign language learning. Teacher and teaching competence are all that are required.  Evidence indicating student interest in grammar is visible on this website in numerous comments that appear, and most particularly in exchanges between the author and two readers of Chinese origin at the end of the post 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns. 


Components of a Grammar Syllabus

Once it is recognised that “teaching grammar” involves both tools and rules, there is a decision to be made about which comes first. It is logical, of course, to teach the tools before the rules.  In general, I think this is what the British government wants to happen. However, what must not be obscure to children is the reason why we have both the tools and the rules. Hence it may make sense not to teach all of the tools together at the beginning, but rather to follow up the teaching of each one or small group with useful associated rules targeted at explicit problems that children have with written English. These problems (which might be specified by government agencies or left to teachers to select themselves according to local need) might be introduced first. Take the one that some London children have with distinguishing between as and has, two very different words that they often pronounce the same. Any need for study can be demonstrated by providing situations where the children are not sure about which spelling to choose. The solution to the problem can then be suggested to involve knowing which of the two words is a verb, and this can be followed by general work on verbs, until a rule for choosing has can eventually be given. 

Unfortunately, because grammar is such a large subject, choices have to be made about what to include and exclude from a course. It seems logical to include most of the tools at the expense of many of the rules. This is because unfamiliarity with any particular tool will anyway tend to preclude understanding of a whole range of rules. It is to be hoped that a good knowledge of the tools alongside only a small number of illustrative rules will assist children to discover more rules for themselves over time. The problem then, of course, is to decide which rules are the most important to teach. 

Some rules vary according to who uses them. In Yorkshire, one might hear the dropped in unexpected places, while in London them might be used before a noun (them teachers).  The way to handle these so-called “dialectal” variations has been as great an issue as the question of whether to teach grammar at all.  A common practice has been to teach their equivalents in “Standard English”, thus implying that that form is in some way superior.  Most agree that Standard English is useful to know; the disagreement is over the amount of respect that should be shown to the dialects.  Some say they should be discouraged, others that students should even be schooled in the mechanics of their own dialect. 

Personally, I believe that the answer to the question of which grammar rules to teach can be found by considering what exactly alarmed the British establishment after grammar ceased to be taught in schools.  My subjective impression is that the main concern was what was perceived as the poor quality of school-leavers’ and university graduates’ written English, even in such hallowed precincts of “correct” English as the BBC.  Those who argued that conformity to traditional rules did not matter – or indeed was a way of repressing the less privileged – could not stop a perception that the very art of writing was being damaged, threatening the international reputation of British education and the effectiveness of written communication in high and important places.  Thus it seems to have been written English much more than spoken English that stimulated the return to grammar teaching, and hence it is the written language that ought perhaps to be the focus of such teaching in schools. 

Written English has far fewer dialectal variations than the spoken variety, but at the same time is much more different from it than was previously thought.  An important step towards confirming this was taken in the 1990s at the University of Nottingham, when Professor Ronald Carter and associates carried out the first truly rigorous analysis of spoken English.  Recognising that many easily accessible speakers such as TV newsreaders, stage actors, electioneering politicians and characters in novels actually speak a language created through writing, they determined to record genuinely spontaneous spoken English, and were amazed at what their analyses identified: not just old and new dialectal features, but also a whole new grammar that was fairly consistent across all regions of Britain and even further afield.  Their findings are summarised in Carter & McCarthy’s very useful Cambridge Grammar of English (2006). 

Nor can written English be “picked up” in the same way that spoken English can – it has to be formally studied.  I once tutored a student who had grown up in France with an English mother and French father.  He was, as one would expect, a completely bilingual speaker.  However, his written English was no better than that of his French classmates, whose spoken English was way below his own. The reason was that he had been taught at school to write mostly in French, practising written English only in one subject on the syllabus, the “foreign” language he had chosen to study.  I see something similar with my own grand-daughter, who is attending primary school in Spain.  Her school is so aware that children of English parents will not be able to transfer literacy in Spanish to English that they provide special after-school classes in English reading and writing. 

A further indication of the gulf between spoken and written English is the difficulty an audience experiences when listening to something read aloud rather than spontaneously composed.  If it is read aloud, it is written English, and the difference of that from spoken English is what makes it difficult.  The two types of English are shaped by the different ways in which their audience react to them.  Readers have time to stop and think or re-read when understanding is hard, but listeners do not.  As a result, writers can say something once and move on. Conciseness is valued highly.  Speakers, however, will not be understood if they do the same.  They must (as numerous analyses have shown) lighten their information density and be more repetitive.  Teachers of “oral presentation skills” tend to be very familiar with such specialised expressions as “That’s the second point. Now the third point is …” and “What we have been looking at are …”. 


Some Important Specific Grammar Rules

Before I illustrate rules that could be included in a course on grammar for written English, it is as well to emphasise that teaching grammar for writing is not the same as teaching writing. I see writing as requiring at least three different skill sets: creative, presentational and linguistic.  Creative skills (the least relevant to linguists) essentially involve what to say and the most emotionally effective way to say it.  Presentational skills, on the other hand, kick in after content has been decided, covering such non-linguistic needs as organization, relevance, paragraphing and layout.  Linguistic skills involve control of grammar, punctuation, spelling, capital letters and vocabulary. 

More precisely, in my opinion, language skills are about just grammar and vocabulary. I have found as an English teacher that true understanding of punctuation can only be developed by reference to grammar, concluding as a result that it is indeed a subcategory of grammar.  Full stop usage, for example, is never clear if explained in terms of completeness of thought or statement, because of the subjectivity and vagueness of such terms.  Full stops are about verbs: new verb, new sentence – unless there is a “connective” between them.  So you have to know what a verb is, and a connective too (not my own term, but one that British primary school teachers have had foisted on them, with much resultant confusion). Readers interested in exploring this area further may like to start with the posts within this blog entitled 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors and 30. When to Write a Full Stop.  The former is oine of the most popular of all the posts I have written. 

Spelling as well is not a separate category, but just an aspect of vocabulary.  There is now a recognition that to “know” vocabulary one must know lots of things about words besides their meanings: pronunciation, grammatical class, connotation, register, common word partners, and so on (Nation, 2001, p. 29).  Spelling is just another of these word-specific properties.  Finally, the rules for using capital letters seem to come partly under grammar and partly under vocabulary.  Using a capital at the start of a sentence depends on knowing grammatically what a sentence is, but knowledge of when a noun is a “proper” one and hence in need of a capital seems to depend primarily on the meaning of the noun: whether or not it is somebody’s name, or a placename, or a day of the week, or a month of the year, a job title in a specific institution, or whatever (see 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns). 

A syllabus of grammar rules (alongside the one for grammar tools) in British schools might be created by identifying firstly rules that are both specific to, and indispensable in, writing, and secondly the rules that are most frequently broken in writing by British school students. In many cases the two will overlap, since the former, unlikely by definition to be familiar to novice writers, will tend to produce errors. Punctuation rules are an obvious example.  Others are the convention of avoiding back-referring pronouns at the start of a new paragraph, and the difference between conjunctions (e.g. but, although) and the more writing-specific connectors (e.g. however and therefore). The catalogue of common writing errors would perhaps acknowledge to some extent the more legitimate regular concerns of letter-writers in The Times, like “dangling” participles (examined under 75. How to Avoid “Dangling” Participles), but not once-erroneous practices that are now so common as to be the norm, such as using amount of rather than number of before a plural noun (81. Tricky Word Contrasts [2]). 

I have one further suggestion – assuming that it has not already become normal practice in schools.  Much contemporary confusion about grammar in writing is linked to the efforts of computer word-processor designers to provide grammar-checking assistance.  Most writers know that computer grammar-checkers are far from perfect.  Although computers now show more awareness of modern linguistic insights into the real working of English, they still often mislead by either asserting correct English to be wrong or failing to pick up errors (see 68. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong).  Some common writing confusions in Britain are a direct result of this, notably over the use and non-use of commas with the relative pronouns who, whom, which and that (as explained in the post 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas).  My proposal is that more should be done in schools to discourage unquestioning acceptance of what the computer says.  This need not involve much more than analysing each instance of green underlining that occurs in a chosen piece of writing, in order to establish and where necessary inculcate the relevant grammar rule.  I am sure that such a process would throw up instances of incorrect correcting of the original, which could then be analysed in order to show how word processors can go wrong, and how important it is to read the rules they present with both care and caution.  My experience is that finding fault with something as authoritative as a computer word-processor has its own peculiar motivational merit.



CARTER, R. and McCARTHY, M. (2006).  Cambridge Grammar of English.  Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 

NATION, I. (2001).   Learning Vocabulary in Another Language.  Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 



  1. Popular and vernacular spoken English affect accepted correct usage. Without continued grammar instruction, it is only a matter of time before me, him, her, us and them become accepted subject pronouns. Lack of grammar instruction has produced acceptance of relatively recent changes in subject and verb agreement such as .. ‘the company are…’, my family are…’. Acceptance of popular usage without regard to grammar norms has caused misuse of subject and objective pronouns – “Please join my husband and I for dinner tonight”. Unfortunately, many university level English instructors consider this sentence to be incorrect – ‘please join my husband and me for dinner tonight’. . In the absence of grammar instruction, words such as neither, either, none and each have become plural in number.

    • Thanks for commenting. I would want to distinguish here between new grammar usages that are widespread and those that are not. This is because I am a follower of the “descriptive” approach to grammar, and hence believe that widespread usages should not be condemned. However, I agree with what I think you are saying, that grammar courses ought to present most newer grammar usages and explain how they differ from their predecessors. My aim would be to make the students aware of the negative effect that even the more common newer usages might have on some people and in some situations, so that they themselves could decide whether to adopt them. I would not expect or want grammar teaching to stop new English usages developing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.