RATIONALE FOR “Grammar Practice for Professional Writing”

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This advanced grammar practice book (available on Amazon Kindle – click here for North American purchase details) resulted from a need to design and teach open workshops on expository writing to international students at a British university.  The book aims to meet a learner need that is hardly covered by most current grammar materials.  The target learners are adults who have been learning English as a secondary language for some considerable time, who are already at or close to the common entry level for English-medium further or higher academic study (IELTS 6.0 or equivalent), but who still wish or need to improve their use of grammar in academic or professional writing.  Their most usual source of motivation will be either their own anxieties about their use of English for this purpose, or feedback from others, such as tutors or close professional colleagues, who are familiar with their written output.  Such learners are numerous in the educational and professional worlds, and respond positively to courses and materials that seek to meet their specific needs. 

Learners of this kind do not greatly need a standard revision of mainstream grammatical topics like articles and tenses.  They are likely to have already had this more than once in numerous grammar courses at school and after, and to have already reached the point of maximum benefit from it, so that demotivation is likely to be the main outcome of any further repetition. Part of the problem here is that the information and practice still needed by learners will, if included at all in a standard grammar book, be either unhelpfully buried in a mass of less relevant other data, or not particularly highlighted as requiring special attention.  Any alternative course must therefore filter out what is not needed from the mainstream, and supplement what remains with relevant content that students are not likely to have met before. 

Most existing English grammar practice books follow the standard syllabus.  Their consequent unsuitability for the type of learner described above is apparent to any tutor who has been faced with student requests for a “good grammar book” capable of addressing more than a very small percentage of the common errors made by “non-native” English speakers in academic and professional writing.  The difficulty of making suitable recommendations has been a major stimulus for both the choice of topics in this book and the desire to make them available to a wider audience. 

Existing publications in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) have had slightly more success in dealing with this problem, but they have certainly not provided a full answer.  EAP grammar topics tend to be either established general grammar ones selected on the basis of their importance in academic writing (e.g. comparative adjectives as a means of “contrasting”), or newer observations about English grammar gleaned from the study of the restricted corpuses that make up “academic English” (e.g. use of anaphoric this).  The first of these topic types is subject to the same criticism as mainstream English topics, since they are indeed mainstream English topics, merely repackaged with appropriate carrier content.  The second type of topic is more promising, but unfortunately would produce a rather limited syllabus if presented in isolation, since the number of grammar topics that are recognised as more important for general (and specific) EAP than for general English is still relatively small. 

The main syllabus in this book is derived from common grammar problems observed in the academic or professional output of writers whose first language is not English.  A few other key EAP topics are also included.  However, in those fairly frequent instances when a learner problem results from poor control of a mainstream topic like “articles” that the learners have studied before, every effort is made to avoid the above-rejected standard recycling of such topics.  In many cases, the problem is analysed to see which aspect of the broader grammatical topic is giving trouble, and the materials then focus on only that aspect, emphasising the common error that it gives rise to.  To take one example, English article usage is definitely a problem for speakers of most of the world’s languages, but again and again there appear to be two particular rules, among the many for articles, that give problems: the need to avoid the with plural and uncountable all-referring nouns, and the necessity of an article (or, occasionally, other determiner) with singular countable nouns.  If learners can be made aware of these two common pitfalls, and led to apply the rules consciously, errors with articles are likely to diminish dramatically. 

Occasionally a mainstream topic cannot be narrowed down to a central learner problem, and in these cases the supplementary strategy of seeking a novel perspective is adopted.  Cleft sentences, for example, in Unit 19 are dealt with not as an isolated and esoteric strategy for achieving emphasis, but as one of many resources available to writers for indicating the information value of words in a text.  Indirect questions (Unit 10) are presented not as an aspect of indirect speech, but as a resource for achieving written formality. 

It will, of course, be legitimately asked how such insights into professional writers’ grammar problems have been acquired.  Where is the research that clearly establishes such needs?  The primary basis for the selection of this book’s grammar topics is personal experience: less tangible than formal research but nonetheless very valuable.  The author has worked continuously as an EAP lecturer in universities in Africa and Britain for 33 years.  Over this period, exposure to different learner groups has provided familiarity with the specific English problems of speakers of a wide range of other first languages, including Mandarin, Arabic, French, Malay, German, Spanish, Greek, Polish, and Bantu and Nilotic African languages.  Furthermore, giving individual tutorials in the very international environment of a modern London university has added insights into most of the other major languages of the world, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, Iran, Japan, West Africa, and the Portuguese-speaking countries.  Constant exposure to the English grammatical weaknesses of such a wide range of learners, many informally noted down, analysed using insights from modern Applied Linguistics, and subsequently verified through further exposure, has provided a strong intuitive appreciation of common grammatical errors in academic writing and their likely reasons – information not easily found in standard grammar books. 

One reason why grammar books deal with so few of the common grammar errors found in advanced learners’ professional writing is the very definition of grammar that is commonly followed.  Conscious or not, the tendency of standard grammars is to include only rules that apply to large numbers of words, or to words that are grammatical rather than lexical items.  The English tenses are an example of such “broad” grammar, since they apply to the vast majority of the very large word class we call verbs.  Yet, if we recognise with the help of the “lexical” approach to language syllabus design that practically every word in the English lexicon has associated grammatical rules, we quickly realise that there are many grammar rules that are important in expository writing but apply to only small numbers of words – single words even.  Common examples of such “narrow” grammar rules might be the preposition typically required after reason for not of – or the need to use a plural noun after one of, rather than a singular. Standard grammars tend to leave rules like this to dictionaries.  This book sees them as important, not only because some of them are undeniably important in professional writing, but also because they are likely to be of interest to learners who are looking for something new after years of broad grammar study, and who are especially prone to errors with narrow grammar on account of the large number of lexical items that their advanced competence will already have equipped them with. 

The book is divided into 20 units of roughly equal length, each translatable into a workshop lasting 90 minutes or more.  The units are fairly free-standing, apart from the first two, which aim to lay some groundwork in terms of grammar-learning strategies and useful terminology.  Topics may thus be sampled in practically any order as seen fit.  Most units deal with a particular grammatical structure, but the last few have a more functional orientation.  Each unit begins with a summary of key points, and is then divided into a small number of sections containing up to ten “tasks” overall.  Grammatical explanations are interspersed with the tasks.  An effort has been made to control the length of these explanations, one strategy being to make pedagogical points through the tasks wherever possible.  A key to the exercises is provided at the back of the book, in order both to resolve uncertainties and to facilitate independent study.  There is also an index that attempts to list all of the grammar rules presented in the book.  Its aim is not only to fulfil the normal signposting function of indexes, through which already-recognised grammar problems can be chased up, but also to help learners to identify previously-unrecognised weaknesses in their writing, which can then be worked on in the relevant places.

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