COBUILD English Grammar: rethinking the rules

By Penny Hands, senior editor of Collins Grammar in Action

When the new edition of COBUILD English Grammar hit the proverbial and virtual shelves, teachers and students may have been wondering what could be new about a grammar. We all know about new words, which are wheeled out and bandied around at every new edition of a big dictionary, but what does an editor do when she is asked to update a pedagogical grammar?

Firstly, I should tell you a bit about the general approach of the book.

COBUILD English Grammar is a functional grammar. This means that, rather than present learners with a book of rules, completely disassociated from communication, it explains how language works within the context of what people do with language.

So, for example, headings indicate to users that they are going to read about ‘Reporting statements and thoughts’, ‘Expressing future time’, or ‘Linking parts of a conversation together’.

This doesn’t mean that traditional grammatical terminology is dismissed altogether; there are still sections on familiar subjects like ‘Pronouns’, ‘The Passive’, ‘Modals’, and ‘The Present Perfect’. What we have tried to do throughout, though, is to keep in mind that learning grammar is not an end in itself, that it has a function – and that function is to aid communication.

As Nick Ellis puts it in his 2007 article: ‘The wood and the trees’:

‘Language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes.’

(Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.)

The integration of functional aims with traditional grammatical terminology means that whether you want to find out about the form of the past perfect, or to learn more about the function of talking about past experiences or describing people and things, you will be able to retrieve the information you need.

Another feature of COBUILD English Grammar is the use of authentic examples, which have been taken from the Collins Corpus – a 4.5-billion-word database of current English. We have tried to select examples that are vibrant and real, while remaining straightforward enough for learners to process.

The following examples can be found at the section relating to the variety of informal ways in which people express plural ‘you’ in English:

What did y’all eat for breakfast?

‘Listen, you guys,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you everything you want.’

Come on, you two. Let’s go home.

Bye, y’all!

COBUILD English Grammar also identifies and highlights features of English grammar that are typical of spoken communication. Some of these phenomena have been around for a while, and others have been identified in our research as having emerged more recently, as we will see below.

So, to return to the question of how one updates a grammar: as mentioned before, it’s common knowledge that words change their meaning, but it is not always so obvious that grammatical structures change too, if not quite as quickly.

Well, we carried out corpus research on several areas of grammar where we had a hunch that things might have changed, and found some interesting results including the following areas:

–      generic pronouns and determiners

–      stative verbs

–      ‘much’

–      ‘be like’ as a reporting structure

We wanted to choose areas where we felt there’s been a recent change, or where traditional explanations don’t seem to tell the whole story.

For each area of grammar that we selected, we searched for examples of that grammar point in the Collins Corpus. We compared UK and US English, and in some cases spoken and written English, and we also looked at how English has changed over the period in question.

Each to his/her/their own: generic pronouns and determiners

First, let’s consider pronouns and determiners. Look at the following two sets of sentences:

A.

I saw John yesterday. He was with his new girlfriend.

My mum is from New Zealand. She moved to Britain when she was 15.

If you see Mark and Linda, tell them I’ll call later.

Residents are allowed to bring their own furniture.

B.

A person cannot ignore the past but he can choose his future.

Every child needs to feel that she is loved.

If a person eats too much fat, they are more likely to have a heart attack.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

In set A, the pronouns and determiners refer to a particular person or group of people: ‘he’ refers to ‘John’, ‘She’ refers to ‘my mum’, ‘them’ refers to ‘Mark and Linda’, ‘their’ refers to ‘residents’. In set B, on the other hand, the pronouns and determiners refer to a single person whose gender we don’t know: ‘a person’, ‘every child’, ‘a person’, and ‘everyone’. (Note that ‘everyone’ is interesting because it is grammatically singular, although we tend to think of it as referring to a group.)

We wanted to find out which generic pronouns people are more likely to use these days.

Which would you prefer, of the following?

  1. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept them first.’
  2. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept him first.’
  3. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept her first.’
  4. ‘If you want to help somebody, you have to accept him or her first.’

…or anything else? (e.g. ‘her or him’?)

We searched the corpus for cases where the following pronouns and determiners:

  • he, him, his, himself
  • she, her, hers, herself
  • they, them, their, theirs, themselves
  • he or she, his or her, s/he, etc.

…referred back to individual people whose gender we don’t know, such as:

  • someone, anyone, everyone, each, every, a person, etc.

In other words, we were looking for these pronouns and determiners used generically.

We went through every example and manually checked them to see if they were examples of generic pronouns and determiners. That wasn’t always easy, though. For example, would you say that the underlined text here is an example of a generic determiner?

There is one rule that debars anyone who has played first-class cricket as a home player in his native land in the previous 12 months.

And is this an example of a deliberately generic use of ‘she’?

I mean steal a baby to give it away don’t be crazy why did they whoever left it on our doorstep maybe she‘ll come back for it like Carmella did…

We felt that the answer to these questions was ‘no’. In the end, we decided to discard such examples, because we felt that they weren’t really examples of generic ‘he’ or ‘she’ – rather, they were cases where the speaker/writer was thinking about a person of a particular gender – because most cricketers are men, and most people who leave babies on doorsteps are women.

As you can see from the chart below, we found that generic they (or them, their, themselves) is much more frequent than either the masculine form he (or him, his, himself), or a gender-neutral alternative such as he or she. Generic they is becoming more frequent, and is found in both spoken and written English. We haven’t included generic she on the graph, because it hardly occurs at all in the Collins Corpus.

generic he, he/she they

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Generic they is used in fairly informal language:

‘When somebody feels good, they’re healthy, they work harder and they’re more focused.’

But it’s also used in formal language:

‘The retention piece allows an individual to transfer a portion of their benefit or all of their benefit at different points in their career….’

Also, it’s even used even when the gender is known, for example:

  • ‘I talked to somebody else in line, and they said it would be many, many hours.’

(Even though we don’t know the gender of ‘somebody’, the speaker presumably does.)

And, even more strikingly:

  • ‘Ask the young mothers and no one will say they regret having their baby.’
  • ‘And if someone has an abnormal mammography, it does not mean they have breast cancer’

These kinds of examples show the extent to which generic they has spread, so that it’s used even when it isn’t necessary to be gender-neutral.

We make it clear in the grammar that, when you want to refer to an indefinite pronoun like anyone or someone, or a noun phrase like each child or a person, the most natural way to do that, even in formal English, is with generic ‘they’.

We’re lovin’ it: stative verbs

Now, let’s turn to the work we did on stative verbs. Firstly, what is a stative verb?

Simply put, a stative verb is a verb that describes a state, that you can use in simple forms, but not in progressive forms.

Verbs that are typically listed as stative verbs include those relating to lasting emotions (e.g. love, like, hate, want), mental states (know, think, imagine, remember, forget), senses (see, hear, smell) and permanent states (belong, own, possess, fit, keep)].

Yet we found lots of examples in the corpus like the following:

  • But hang on a tick, I’m forgetting my manners.
  • Nobody is imagining that the Conservatives can win.
  • I‘m wanting the film to be deliberately old-fashioned.
  • I‘m loving midnight blue eye shadow.

Forget, imagine, prefer, want, love are all traditionally ‘stative verbs’ in these senses, yet here we find them – quite frequently, and naturally – in the progressive. So we searched the corpus to find out how frequent these uses are, and whether they’ve become more frequent. We examined about 30 so-called ‘stative verbs’, but here we’ll just look at two of the most frequent ones: love and want.

As you can see in this graph, progressive love has become a lot more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in UK English:

Progressive 'love'

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A lot of the examples are of the sense ‘enjoy’, which is fairly uncontroversial and has been in use for a while:

I’m loving my football so much at the moment I can’t wait for the next game to come along. (UK 90–94)

Now Jessica is four months old and Gillian is loving every minute of motherhood. (UK 90–94)

More recently, though, we find examples of the sense ‘like very much’, especially in articles about fashion and popular culture:

  • Kids 2 and 3 years old are loving our album. (US 05–09)
  • …a model and artist who looked particularly cool in colourful striped socks and a pair of Converse – a look we’re loving. (UK 05–09)

Another interesting verb is want. Do the following examples seem acceptable to you?

We’ve been wanting to come for three years. It was worth the wait. (UK 05–09)

Everyone knew that Bob Rubin had been wanting to resign for months. (UK 95–99)

You want to get married, you want kids, next thing you’ll be wanting Tupperware. (US 95–99)

What about this?

My sponsors have invested a lot of money in it, and I think they’re wanting to capitalize on it. (US 05–09)

We were wanting a price of $35 million and didn’t get it.

What’s the difference between the first set and the second? It seems that want is quite acceptable in the examples shown in the first set. They show want in the present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive and the future progressive. It is the present and past progressive forms, shown in the second set, that are marked.

So we examined these in more detail. We found that these forms have become more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in US English.

Progressive 'want'

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It soon became apparent that the situation with stative verbs is not as straightforward as it might seem.

We wanted to capture this in the grammar, while not being excessively complex, so while we do give the general rule about certain verbs not being used in the progressive, and list these in the reference section, we also show that with some verbs (forget, guess, imagine, lack, like, love, remember and want) – you actually can use them in the progressive form, especially in informal language.

We also show that with some verbs – such as want and hear – you can use them in perfect and future progressive forms, even in formal texts.  

What’s so special about much?

Next, we looked at much. What’s so special about much? Well, the usual rule given in pedagogical grammars is that you use much with uncountable nouns and many with countable nouns. Some grammars also point out that they are not usually used in positive sentences.

Let’s look at some examples. Do the following all seem acceptable?

MANY                                                                        MUCH

How many biscuits do we have?                             How much time do we have?                         Take as many biscuits as you want.                       Take as much time as you want.                   We don’t have many biscuits.                                 We don’t have much time.

We have many biscuits.                                          We have much time.

Native speakers may feel that both ‘We have many biscuits’ and ‘We have much time’ are unnatural, or they may feel that ‘We have many biscuits’ is OK, but ‘We have much time’ is not, or that it depends on register.

We were interested in much because, to a greater extent than many, it seems to be restricted mainly to questions and negatives, and to cases where it is modified by an adverb, e.g. too much, as much, so much. Unmodified statements such as ‘We have much time’, ‘I have much work to do’ seem incorrect, and we wanted to find out how frequent they are. As you can see from this graph, they have indeed become much less frequent over the past 20 years.

Positive unmodified 'much'

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We also found that assertive unmodified much tends to be used with nouns in a restricted set of semantic fields, especially:

  • discussion (much talk/discussion/debate/argument)
  • thought (much speculation/deliberation/doubt)
  • study (much research/study)
  • attention (much attention/interest)
  • excitement (much excitement/laughter/fun/fanfare).

Examples include:

After much speculation that he was killed, intelligence agencies now believe that Saddam survived.

The Israeli team’s findings have caused much excitement among medical experts.

So, the new edition of COBUILD English Grammar makes it clear that much is usually used in questions and negatives or with a modifier, but that you can, in more formal English, use it in positive statements, especially with the set of nouns listed above.

And we were like, ‘What?’: reporting speech and thoughts

Finally, we were interested in the fairly new use of be like as a reporting verb. Here are some examples with be like used to report speech and thought. Is there anything about be like that’s different from other reporting structures like say and ask?

  • We saw that and we were like ‘Oh my god!’
  • At first, I was like, no, what are you talking about?
  • They look at you like you’re mental and it’s like, “Chill out, what’s your problem?”

Here are our thoughts on the matter:

1. It is less formal than conventional ways of reporting speech.

2. You can’t use it with an adverb (‘We were like angrily ‘Oh my God!’)I

3. It has to go before the quote (‘Oh my God!’, we were like’)

4. You can use it with ‘it’.

As you can see from the graph below, we found that be like has become a lot more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in American English. The most common usage is in the first person (I was like or We were like), but we also found that the second most frequent usage is with it. ‘It was like…’ or ‘It’s like…’ is often used to sum up a general feeling or situation, for example:

When I was a teenager, that song came on the radio and it was like, Oh, my God! (UK 05–09)

So I get back in the bus, quarter of an hour passes and it’s like, Where’s Graham? (UK 90–94)

This was an interesting finding, as it applies only to be like, and not to other reporting verbs (You couldn’t say, for example ‘It said, Where’s Graham?’ or ‘It went, Where’s Graham?’)

'be like' as reporting structure

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Academic and Business English supplements

In the course of our preparation for this new edition, teachers and learners told us that a useful extension of our functional approach would be to focus on two main contexts in which English is used as a lingua franca throughout the world: Academic and Business English.

As a result, two new supplementary sections have been added. These identify the principal areas of grammar that learners need to master if they wish to communicate effectively in business and academic contexts.

The Academic English section covers such areas as the grammar involved in reporting findings, ordering and connecting your message, and expressing degrees of certainty.

Reporting illustration

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The section on the grammar of Business English looks at typical structures used in such contexts as sharing information, negotiating and giving presentations.

Presenting illustration

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Extensive cross-referencing allows the user to refer back to the main text, where structures are discussed in greater detail.

If you’re looking for an up-to-date pedagogical grammar that is not only based on meticulous research into real English as it is spoken now, but that also shows you how English grammar functions to create meaning in authentic everyday situations, I would recommend this user-friendly and often entertaining reference book.

 

About Penny Hands:

Penny Hands is a freelance ELT writer and editor with 20 years’ experience in publishing. She began her career teaching general and business English in Europe and in the UK and, after gaining a Masters degree in Applied Linguistics from Edinburgh University, began working as an ELT dictionary editor and lexicographer. Since becoming freelance, she has maintained a keen interest in lexis and grammar. Corpus linguistics plays a large part in her work, contributing to a wide range of language reference titles including dictionaries, grammars and usage guides. More recently, she was Senior Editor for Collins Grammar in Action – a grammar course for young learners – and Collins Exploring English – a literature-based English course for primary schools in India.