Author Archives: Eva Schmidt

Grammar or vocabulary? A blurry line

 

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This article has been written by Julie Moore, who is an ELT materials developer and lexicographer.

 

Most language learning coursebooks include grammar activities and vocabulary activities. As teachers, we talk about ‘teaching grammar’ and ‘teaching vocabulary’. Grammar and vocabulary are two of the key strands of language learning, yet are they really as separate as we tend to view them? In this post, I’ll look at three ways in which the line between grammar and vocabulary can get blurred and consider whether we should actually be thinking of them more as two ends of a continuum with large areas of overlap in the middle.

Word grammar

If you look in a dictionary, the archetypal vocabulary resource, you’ll find plenty of information about grammar, usually in the form of labels; N-UNCOUNT, V n, usu ADJ n, etc. That’s because individual lexical items – words, phrases, phrasal verbs – typically behave in particular ways; they have grammatical features associated with them. Teaching about these lexico-grammatical features straddles the line between grammar and vocabulary.

So in many coursebooks, you’ll find the topic of countable and uncountable nouns labelled as ‘grammar’, but it’s almost always taught alongside a vocabulary set, often food (bread, pasta, apples, carrots, etc.) That’s because the two can’t be separated; you can’t easily talk about the concept of countable and uncountable nouns, especially at low levels, without looking at specific instances.  So, for example, in the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, an uncountable noun is described as a noun which refers to “general things such as qualities, substances, processes, and topics rather than to individual items or events”, but that explanation only really makes sense because it’s followed by example sentences and a list of common uncountable nouns.

Similarly, you can only understand the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs with reference to specific examples – you always achieve something or provide something, but you just arrive or hesitate. Or when we teach about stative verbs, verbs which describe a state, such as exist, know, belong, we have to explain both which verbs they are – a set of vocabulary – and also how they behave grammatically, i.e. that they aren’t generally used in progressive forms.

Grammar patterns

Why is it that you delay doing something, but you wait to do something? It’s a matter of verb form and sentence structure; when two main verbs occur together, there’s a choice to be made about the form of the second verb. So is this a question of grammar? Well, it feels a bit like grammar, but when it comes down to explaining these types of patterns, you find that actually it’s more about the individual verbs: the vocabulary.

Many of the choices we make about form and structure are actually determined by our choice of vocabulary: particular words are typically used together with particular patterns and structures. This isn’t only true of two verbs that occur together, but also of noun + verb combinations in noun phrases:

his decision to postpone the meeting
an urgent need to recruit more staff
long delays in processing applications

And these patterns aren’t just about verb forms. When words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) are followed by a prepositional phrase, then the choice of preposition is often determined by the individual word it follows:

access to the internet
allergic to cats
increased demand for consumer goods
capable of winning
restrictions on travel
fraught with danger
suspected links with criminal groups
lacking in detail

Clearly, none of these patterns can be taught as a one-off set of ‘rules’; instead they need to be seen as part of ongoing vocabulary development. They need to be highlighted – either individually or in small sets – as part of the process of deepening students’ understanding of vocabulary; going beyond surface meaning and thinking about how words behave in sentences.

Functions

The final area where grammar and vocabulary overlap is when we think about what we want to do with language; functions. If I want to express uncertainty about my plans for the weekend, I could say:

I might go to the cinema on Saturday.
Maybe I’ll go to the cinema on Saturday.
I was thinking of going to the cinema on Saturday.

In each example, I’ve used a different linguistic feature to express roughly the same idea – a modal verb (might), an adverb (maybe), and an expression (be thinking of doing something). And, of course, if I want to ramp up my level of uncertainty further, I can combine them:

I was thinking, I might possibly go to the cinema on Saturday, if there’s nothing else going on.

Which of these features would typically be taught as part of a grammar syllabus and which as vocabulary? When we speak (or write), we use whatever linguistic resources seem to fit best at the time. Sometimes these are grammatical choices, sometimes they’re more down to vocabulary.

This isn’t just the case with modality, although it’s an interesting area which we’ll return to in a future post. All kinds of functions can be fulfilled by either grammatical or lexical choices. If I want to say that two things are similar, I can say:

London is roughly as warm as Beijing in summer.
London is a bit like Beijing in terms of summer temperatures.
The weather in London and Beijing in summer is much the same.

Does it matter how we label language?

So does it really matter whether we label the language and linguistic features we teach as grammar or vocabulary? Well, for the most part, it probably doesn’t – if we teach language in a clear and engaging way, then the heading at the top of the page isn’t massively significant. We tend to label activities as ‘grammar’ or ‘vocabulary’ as a convenient way of categorizing what we do in class. It makes it easier to match lessons up to a syllabus and to keep track of what we’ve covered when it comes to assessment. However, sticking with this traditional grammar-vocabulary split does have some risks. We risk some key features of language being undertaught and falling through the gaps simply because they don’t fit neatly within either the grammar or the vocabulary syllabus. And we don’t want to limit our students’ language choices by labelling a topic or function as either grammar or vocabulary. They need to be able to make linguistic choices based on what they want to express, not on the part of the syllabus we’re teaching. In short, we perhaps need to be a bit more flexible with our linguistic boxes.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

 

Collins COBUILD English Grammar: a functional grammar

 

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This article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

 

Most people who study and use a language are interested in how they can do things with the language – how they can express their feelings and wishes, get attention, influence people, and learn about the world. They are interested in the grammatical structure of the language as a way of getting things done.

 

What is a functional grammar?

A grammar that puts together the patterns of the language and the things you can do with them is called a functional grammar; that is, it is based on the relation between the structure of a language and the various functions that the language performs.

If you’ve done any reading around different ways of describing the grammar of a language, you will, no doubt, have come across Halliday’s An Introduction to Functional Grammar, now in its fourth edition, but originally published in 1985. (He’s still going strong, by the way, aged 91.)

In many ways, Halliday’s functional grammar seems to be very well suited to language teaching and learning. Functional grammar is all about language use. It’s about communicative grammar that learners can use in the typical situations that they find themselves in as they go about their daily lives. Moreover, it’s an approach in which grammar is not seen as a set of rules, but rather as a communicative resource.

As Halliday himself says, ‘A functional grammar is essentially a “natural” grammar, in the sense that everything in it can be explained, ultimately, by reference to how language is used.’ (Halliday, 1994, p. xiii).

Anyone who has read Halliday’s seminal work will know that his ‘systemic functional grammar’ is a broad and very rich description of the systems and uses of English grammar – to the point that it is considered by some as being rather too broad and too rich for teaching and learning.

 

Where does COBUILD come in?

This is where Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017) takes up the reins. It has taken the essence of Halliday’s theories and repackaged them so that teachers and learners can get the most benefit from the functional approach. In Collins COBUILD English Grammar, sections are built around functions of language, such as ‘describing people and things’, ‘expressing time’, and ‘reporting what people say and think’. Each of these functions is regularly expressed in English by a particular structure. For example, to describe people and things, we usually use adjectives. Similarly, reporting what people say or think typically involves a reporting verb such as say, followed by a clause beginning with that or a clause with quotation marks around it.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar follows up each major statement (often called a ‘rule’ in other grammars) with a detailed description of the uses surrounding it. The scope of the original function may then be extended. For example, the basic, central function of reporting verbs (Chapter 7) is to state what someone has said, for example:

  • He said he would be back soon.

This can easily be extended to include what someone has written, as in:

  • His mother wrote that he had finally arrived home.

Then it can be widened to include thoughts and feelings:

  • The boys thought he was dead.

From this, we can see that the reporting clause is simply a way of introducing another clause.

Similarly, instead of opting for a traditional treatment of tenses, Collins COBUILD English Grammar concerns itself with ‘expressing time’. This allows for a far more intuitive description of the various functions of different verb forms than any traditional grammar is able to provide. For example, under ‘Expressing future time’, there are sections entitled ‘indicating certainty’, ‘indicating duration’, and ‘planned events’. Structures with will are demonstrated according to function alongside more lexical realizations of future concepts such as be due to, be about to, and be going to:

Certainty:

Don’t worry; Nancy will arrange it.

Duration:

By the end of this week, I will have been working here for exactly a year.

Intention:

Thanks for the offer but Ian is going to take me.

Planned event:

The work is due to start this summer.

Happening soon:

About 385 people are about to lose their jobs.

 

The grammar of social and cultural contexts

A functional grammar is also concerned with how language is used in a range of social and cultural contexts. Collins COBUILD English Grammar adheres to this approach in a variety of ways. For example, the section on plural forms of you explains that you guys and you lot are more frequent in informal English. Similarly, in the section on using generic they and their to refer back to indefinite pronouns (e.g. Someone’s forgotten their coat), readers learn that:

In more formal English, some people prefer to use he, him, his, or himself to refer back to an indefinite pronoun, but many people dislike this use because it suggests that the person being referred to is male:

Everyone has his dream.

And in the section relating to determiners:

In informal spoken English, people sometimes use this and these in front of nouns, even when they are mentioning someone or something for the first time:

At school we had to wear these awful white hats.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar further embraces the concept that grammar is closely related to the situation in which it occurs by focusing on two main contexts in which English is used as a lingua franca throughout the world – business and academic English. Two supplementary sections identify the principal areas of grammar that learners need to master if they wish to communicate effectively in business and academic contexts.

The section on the grammar of business English looks at typical structures used in such contexts as sharing information, negotiating, and giving presentations. The academic English section covers such areas as explaining results, reviewing research, and reporting findings. Extensive cross-referencing allows the user to refer back to the main text, where structures are discussed in greater detail.

 

The grammar of discourse

Finally, functional grammar is concerned with how the various items of language in a text work together as part of a larger system. Collins COBUILD English Grammar goes beyond a focus on ‘well-formed sentences’ to help students use language effectively in a range of discourse contexts. Chapter 10, entitled ‘Making a text hold together’, describes how ‘referring back’ and ‘referring forward’ can create cohesion in a text, and how sentences and different parts of a conversation are linked together. What is not said is considered to be just as important as what is said, and so the section on ‘Leaving words out’ (or ‘ellipsis’) explains how speakers omit words rather than repeat them – another way of creating cohesion within a text.

 

Conventional terminology

Collins COBUILD English Grammar does not, however, throw common sense out with the bathwater. A learner who looks up ‘personal pronouns’ or ‘subordinate clauses’, for example, will find them both in the index and referred to by name in the main text. Students and teachers can still find references to such conventional concepts as tenses, different types of noun (countable, uncountable, compound, abstract, etc.), comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, and the subjunctive.

What is notable about Collins COBUILD English Grammar is (1) the way it organizes the information and (2) its pragmatic approach. It describes how language can be used to write and speak more appropriately and effectively, and provides us with tools for describing how language is used in a wide range of real-life contexts. As a functional grammar, it offers students a way of seeing how meaning and form are related, focusing on language as a resource rather than a set of rules.

 

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.


Halliday, M. (1994). An Introduction to Functional Grammar (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press