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Some thoughts on grammar

1) Grammar and vocabulary
Most teachers tend to make a clear distinction between teaching grammar and teaching vocabulary. There are exceptions, of course. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the heyday of the structuralist approach, it was common in drill work to use the new vocabulary which had just been introduced in the same chapter of the course book. Again, if we present a noun with an irregular plural, or introduce an adjective and tell the class that it forms its comparative by adding "-er" rather than placing "more" in front of it, then we are really dealing with issues of morphology, and traditionally, morphology is part of grammar.

The other classical area of grammar is syntax, and here, few teachers spot the link with vocabulary. Yet it is a fact that certain words keep one another company (He made a desperate attempt to ...) and that certain structures occur with only a limited range of lexical items (If only he had said something earlier / If only he had told me earlier / If only he had asked for help). Looking at the latter example in more detail, one of the main functions of the If only construction is to express regret, and one of the things we most seem to regret in life is the failure of others to tell us about their problems! Accordingly, this construction appears to occur very frequently with verbs of speaking and asking.

One reference grammar which is very good at taking account of this close link between grammar and vocabulary is:

Sinclair, J. et al.,  Collins Cobuild English Grammar, London : Collins, 1990.  

Throughout the grammar, helpful tables are used to indicate the chief lexical exponents of the grammar point under consideration. For example, Chapter 4 deals among other things with negation in English: this is clearly a grammatical topic. But we also need to know, of course, which words are most important in forming negative constructions. On p. 207, we find the following table:

neither nobody nor nowhere

never none not

no noone nothing

Similarly, in Chapter 7, dealing with reported speech, there is a brief but important note on p. 326 telling us that "a few verbs which indicate personal intentions can only be used with a 'to'-infinitive clause". The verbs in question are:

intend mean refuse

long plan want  

We mentioned above that certain words tend to keep one another company: this is the phenomenon known as collocation. One way of checking the most important collocations for a certain word in English is to enter that word as the search term in a concordancing program. There are several good ones which can be used free of charge in the Internet: to use them, first go back to the homepage of this website, scroll down to the bottom and then click on the word 'Concordancers' in the box on the left. A concordance, it should be explained, is a list of all the occurrences of a word in a particular text corpus: in each case, the word is shown with its immediate context, i.e. the five or six words which come before and after it. For example, if I enter the word 'blind' in the excellent concordancer provided free of charge by Hong Kong Polytechnic www.edict.com.hk/concordance and set the program to search the Brown corpus (i.e. the corpus of American English), then displayed on my monitor after just a few seconds will be a concordance consisting of about 50 occurrences. These include:

... the homebound and the blind ...
... the blind and the mean ...
... help for the blind ...

They also include:

... They were blind to the evidence ...
... pretending to be blind to the way ...
... so blind to the world ...

From the first set of examples, we can deduce that the word 'blind' can be preceded by the definite article to give the meaning "blind people"; from the second set, that the preposition which most commonly follows 'blind' is 'to'. In both cases, the concordance has provided us with grammar information about an item of vocabulary.

For a very lively and thought-provoking argument against the traditional divide between grammar and vocabulary, see Michael Lewis, The Lexical Approach, Hove (England): LTP (Language Teaching Publications), 1993.

2) The grammar of speech and the grammar of writing
Traditionally, the grammar "rules" we pass on to our students relate to the written language. The very word 'sentence' can really only apply to writing - after all, the standard definition of a sentence is "a stretch of language which begins with a capital letter, contains a finite verb, and ends with a full stop". A moment's reflection, though, ought to make clear that we rarely use capital letters and full stops when we speak, nor does everything we say necessarily contain a verb with a subject! (Just a brief word of explanation in passing: when they are describing spoken language, linguists do not normally use the term 'sentence', but rather 'utterance' instead. An utterance might consist of just one word - "Help!" - or it might consist of twenty or more words.)

A descriptive gramar which is very good at handling this distinction between spoken and written English is:

Biber, D., S. Conrad and G. Leech,   Longman Student Grammar of
Spoken and Written English, Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999.

This grammar makes copious use of bar charts to present statistical information on the major grammatical differences between spoken and written English. For example, two such graphs on p. 32 tell us that pronouns are four times as common in conversation as they are in academic prose. Again, thinking about it for a minute or two will provide an explanation: very often, when we are speaking, the persons or objects we want to refer to will be in immediate proximity to us, so it suffices just to say "he, she, it", etc.   

Perhaps it might be appropriate here to sound a cautionary note: all we are saying is that the grammar of spoken language is different from that of the written variety. We are not saying that spoken grammar is in some way erroneous or inferior when compared to written grammar!

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