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Exploring language change

collins cobuild grammarThis article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar

When a new edition of a grammar is launched, teachers and students may well wonder what can be new about a grammar. We all know about new words, which grab the headlines at every new edition of a big dictionary, but what does an editor do when she is asked to update a pedagogical grammar, taking account of developments that have occurred in the language over the past 20-or-so years?

First, let’s look at why grammar changes and where, in the case of English at least, changes might come from.

Swan (2016) identifies eight reasons why the grammar of a language can change:

  1. Communicative need: despite modern English having only one form of the pronoun you for both singular and plural use, people still feel the need to distinguish between singular and plural. More about this later.
  2. Influence from other varieties: modern British English is constantly being influenced by American English, as well as the dialects of immigrants who settle in the UK, as can be seen in the rise of all-purpose question tags such as right? and innit.
  3. Languages simplify themselves: an example of this is the move away from the use of the past perfect, e.g. When I read over my essay again, I realized I made a mistake.
  4. Small distinctions are confused or disappear, as in those between less and fewer (e.g. There were less people there than last year) and who and whom (e.g. Who do you work for?).
  5. New forms and uses spread, as in what has become known as ‘quotative like’ (I was like, ‘What?’).
  6. ‘Outlawed’ forms become respectable again: people seem to be becoming more tolerant of uses that were, until recently, considered grammatically wrong. Examples of this type of thing are splitting infinitives, starting a sentence with a conjunction, and ending one with a preposition.
  7. ‘Mistakes’ become part of the language: in an earlier blogpost, we examined the grey area between mistakes and nonstandard English. Utterances such as Me and Amy went to the park, which might have been considered as mistakes until only recently, are now being gradually (and often grudgingly) accepted into the spoken language as they are used by increasing numbers of younger people.
  8. Phonetically weak forms disappear: particularly in spoken English, unstressed words and syllables gradually disappear over time, giving utterances like You gonna be long in there? or Gotta go now.

A ninth reason that I would add to Swan’s list is sociocultural change. This can be demonstrated by the fact that for many years, it was perfectly acceptable to refer back to an indefinite pronoun such as someone with a masculine pronoun (he, him) or a possessive determiner (his), as in Everyone should do his best. However, many people are no longer comfortable using a masculine form to refer to people in general – they feel that language should be less male-biased – and this has led to a sharp increase in the use of generic they/their.

As a first step then, when we were planning the latest edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar, we identified several areas of the language where we had observed that things seemed to have changed. A team of researchers then used the Collins Corpus to trace their development over the past 20 years, with some interesting results.

We wanted to choose areas where we felt there had been a recent change, or where traditional explanations didn’t seem to tell the whole story. Here are the topics we selected:

1.   generic pronouns and determiners
2.   stative verbs used with progressive aspect
3.   unmodified much in affirmative statements
4.   be like as a reporting structure
5.   plural forms of you
6.   all-purpose question tags

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 spoken and written English, and we also looked at how English has changed over the period in question. Paragraphs in bold below denote extracts from the latest edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

The results were fascinating:

1. Generic pronouns and determiners: 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.

Generic they is also used in formal language, and it is even sometimes used when the gender is known (‘Ask the young mothers and no one will say they regret having their baby.’)

2. Stative verbs used with progressive aspect: despite the accepted ‘rule’ that stative verbs do not appear in progressive forms, we found lots of examples in the Collins Corpus where they occurred quite frequently and naturally in the progressive, and we’re not just talking about the famous I’m lovin’ it slogan. For example, we found verbs like want (as in I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this for a while) and forgetting (as in Oops, I’m forgetting my manners!), rolling naturally off people’s tongues.

          You can use the present perfect progressive or past perfect progressive with                         some stative verbs in both formal and informal contexts.

          I’ve been wanting to speak to you about this for some time.
          John has been keeping birds for about three years now.
          Then she heard it. The sound she had been hearing in her head for weeks.

3. Unmodified much in affirmative statements: 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 (*We have many biscuits. *We have much time.)

We were interested in much because, to an even 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, so much. Unmodified statements such as *We have much time and *I have much work to do seem incorrect, and we wanted to find out how frequent they are. We found that this usage had indeed fallen out of use over the last 20 years, but we also found that assertive, unmodified much does occur, naturally and abundantly, with certain nouns in a restricted set of semantic fields:

  • 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).

          In more formal English, much can be used in affirmative statements without
          an adverb. This usage is most common with abstract nouns, particularly those 
          relating to discussion, debate and research.

          The subject of company and annual accounts is generating much debate among
          accountants and analysts.
          The team’s findings have caused much excitement among medical experts.
          After much speculation, intelligence agencies now believe that he survived.

4. be like as a reporting verb: we were interested in this fairly new use, as in At first, I was like,no, what are you talking about? Our corpus research showed us 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!

          Another reporting structure that is used in informal spoken English is be like. Be
          
like can represent either speech or thought. In writing, be like is usually followed
          by a comma. The quote is sometimes in quotation marks, and sometimes not.

          He got a call from Oprah, and he was like, ‘Of course I’ll go on your show.’
          He‘s like, ‘It’s boring! I hate chess!’ And I‘m like, ‘Please teach me!’
          The minute I met him, I was like, he’s perfect. 

          As with other reporting verbs, you can use be like with a noun or a person pronoun:
          for example, you can say She was like, …, The doctor was like, … or Jane was like, …,
          followed by the thing that she/the doctor/Jane said or thought.

          Unlike other reporting verbs, you can also use be like after the pronoun it. This
          structure is often used to present a mixture of speech and thought, or a general
          situation. For example, if you say It was like, Oh wow! it is possible that nobody
          actually said or thought Oh wow! Rather, the sentence gives us an idea of the
          situation and means something like It was amazing/surprising.

          So I get back in the bus, quarter of an hour passes and it’s like, Where’s Graham?
          When that happened it was like, Oh, no, not again.
          Be like always comes before the reported clause.

5. Plural forms of you: as mentioned earlier, you doubles up as both singular and plural second person pronoun in modern English, and mostly, it does quite a good job. However, people do sometimes need to make the distinction, and we were keen to find out more about how they do this. We looked at both lexicalized forms: you guys, you two, you both and you all, and more synthesized forms: yous, youse, youz, ye, yinz, y’all, and found that all types were alive and kicking, particularly on social media sites. The only form that had taken a downturn in UK English was you all, counterbalanced by a steep rise in the use of you guys.

          Some varieties and dialects of English have developed particular forms of
          plural you. In American English, particularly Southern American English, y’all is                     sometimes used, especially in speech.

          What did y’all eat for breakfast?
          I want to thank y’all.

          In some dialects of British and American English, yous and youse are used as plural               forms: I know what some of yous might be thinking. 

6. All-purpose question tags: this is one of the developments we’ve looked at for the latest edition, in particular question tags associated with other varieties of English (US, and increasingly UK, English, … right? and multicultural British English innit). We found a huge rise in the use of innit in British English, and these findings, alongside other emerging forms, have been translated into the new edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

          In informal spoken English, you can use a one-word all-purpose question tag such               as right? or eh?

          You’re American, right?
          He’s a lawyer, right?
          Let’s talk about something else, eh?
          Not good, eh?

          In some varieties of English, particularly those spoken in India, Singapore and                       Malaysia, isn’t it? is used as an all-purpose question tag.

          We’ve seen that film already, isn’t it? 
          They’re arriving tomorrow, isn’t it?

          Informal multicultural British English uses the common all-purpose question tag                 innit (a shortened form of isn’t it), both with and without a rising question mark.

          It makes you think though, innit?
          It’s all just a bit of fun, innit?
          So eventually he gave me the sack, innit.

Have you noticed any developments in the grammar of English since you started learning or teaching it? To what extent do you think these new forms should be taught?

 

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

 

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References:

Swan, M. (2016) Practical English Usage Oxford University Press

Futurity

collins cobuild grammar

 

This article has been written by Damian Williams, who is an ELT author and teacher trainer.

 

Very early on in my teaching career, I remember addressing a class of Russian teenagers with the statement, ‘Will is the future tense in English.’ It was only later as I started developing as a teacher and gaining greater insight into the grammatical system of English that I started to see that there’s much more to will than meets the eye. Consider the following examples:

               A: Where’s Ben?
               B: Oh, it’s 4 p.m., he’ll be in the pub.

Or:

               I sent her the documents two weeks ago, so she’ll have received them by last Friday.

In the examples above we can see that will refers to the present (first example), and the past (second example). So what’s going on here? Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017) has this to say on futurity in English:

                It is not possible to talk with as much certainty about the future as it is about the                           present or past. Any reference you make to future events is therefore usually an                             expression of what you think might happen or what you intend to happen.

In fact there is no future tense in English, per se. What we have instead is a myriad of different ways of describing the future, depending on how we view the events. In our earlier post on modality and conditionals, we described all modals as allowing us to add our attitude to what we’re saying. Will is a modal, and when we add it to a sentence, what we’re saying is that from everything we know about the situation, we see the event as inevitable. In this sense, it’s a way of making predictions about inevitable outcomes, and that’s exactly what’s happening in the two examples above. But this doesn’t make it a future tense.

This perception of will as a future tense often gets carried over into what are described as the future progressive and the future perfect ‘tenses’. But as we saw in an earlier post, what we’re really describing here is aspect rather than tense. Consider this example:

               This time next year I’ll be studying for my finals.

Here, we’re using will as a modal to show what we think of as the inevitable outcome of being in our penultimate year of university, coupled with the progressive aspect to show this will be in progress at a particular point in the future.

Now consider this example:

               By the time she’s 40 she’ll have been a teacher for 15 years.

Here, we’re again using the modal will, but this time along with the perfect aspect to show an action that’s true now and will continue up to that point.

There are various other ways of talking about the future in English, such as using the present simple to describe events we have no control over (e.g. I’m 27 next year). We also use be going to to describe plans/intentions (e.g. I’m going to start a band this summer), the present progressive to describe arrangements (e.g. I’m having dinner with an old friend tomorrow), be to for formal arrangements and instructions (e.g. The President is to announce a new tax on property), and be due to and be about to for events we expect to happen soon (e.g. The train’s about to leave).

And those are just the grammatical ways of expressing future time. We can also express future events lexically; certain verbs, for example, have a future meaning (e.g. promise, expect, hope, etc.). These verbs are usually followed by an infinitive. Collins COBUILD English Grammar also gives us ways of making our references to the future more vague (e.g. by adding an adverbial phrase such as one of these days, sometime, sooner or later).

The way in which we talk about the future does not depend only on how we perceive the event, but also on how we want it to be perceived. For example, if I’m at my in-laws and I want to watch the football, I could say, ‘I’m going to watch the football’. However, I don’t want it to be seen as a plan or intention, so I might instead go for something like, ‘I’ll just see what’s on TV … Oh look, it’s the football!’

Consider the following exchanges, too:

1
A:          Hi Damian, would you like to come to my English grammar party on Saturday night?
B:          Oh, I’m sorry, I’m going to watch a movie that night.

2
A:          Hi Damian, would you like to come to my English grammar party on Saturday night?
B:          Oh, I’m sorry, I’m watching a movie that night.

Consider which is likely to get a response of Don’t do that. Come to the party instead! and which is likely to elicit Oh, OK then. Have fun!. Most likely, conversation 1 will get the first response and conversation 2 will get the second, as the response in conversation 2 sounds like a firmer arrangement.

Learners looking for a quick and easy-to-learn ‘future tense’ in English may initially be disappointed. But once they have an understanding of the ways the language can be manipulated, they will have at their disposal a wealth of ways to express themselves. Being in possession of all the available options also gives them access to a much more expressive and malleable area of language than they would get with a hard-and-fast tense with strict rules. After all, why have water when you can have fresh juice?

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

Modality and conditionals

collins cobuild grammarThis article has been written by Damian Williams, who is an ELT author and teacher trainer.

Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?

Sun Tzu

 The quote above, attributed to an ancient Chinese military strategist, is often used in leadership training to encourage people to act on their ideas and see them through to completion. But we’re interested in it for another reason: the language it contains, namely modals and a conditional sentence. In this blogpost we’re going to discuss each of these areas of language in turn.

Modality

Consider the following statements:

1  Mr Wilkins is the oldest person in the village.

2  Mr Wilkins must be the oldest person in the village.

How many people are referred to (either explicitly or implicitly) in each statement? The correct answer is one person in statement 1, and two people in statement 2. If we rephrase statement 2, it reads something like:

From everything I know about the people in the village, I’m certain Mr Wilkins is the oldest person in the village.

Or even just:

I’m certain Mr Wilkins is the oldest person in the village.

As you can see, there are now two people explicitly referred to in the statement: ‘I’ and ‘Mr Wilkins’. This example is taken from Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017), which states that:

Modals are mainly used when you want to show your attitude towards what you
are saying, or when you are concerned about the effect of what you are saying on                       the person to whom you are speaking or writing.

This is what all modals share – the fact that they allow us to express our attitude to the facts. Each modal does this in a different way, but in effect every time we use a modal it’s the same as saying I think it’s that … . For example:

It might rain later. = I think it’s possible that it will rain later.

You should eat fewer carbs. = I think it’s a good idea that you eat fewer carbs.

England will win the World Cup. = I think it’s inevitable that England is going to win.

This allows us to understand why some modals and ‘semi-modals’ behave the way they do. For example, must is a modal, i.e. it allows us to say I think it’s obligatory that … . Have to, on the other hand, is not a modal. If we use this to talk about an obligation, it’s seen as more of a fact. Compare these examples:

Helmets must be worn at all times.

You have to eat or you die.

The first statement describes an obligation created and enforced by people – if you don’t, then they will punish you. The second statement describes an obligation created and enforced by nobody, it’s just a fact of life.

In their positive forms, they have fairly similar meanings. But when we look at the negatives, the difference becomes clearer.

You mustn’t use your mobile in the library.

You don’t have to wear smart clothes if you don’t want to.

In the first statement, there is a negative obligation, created by people. In the second statement, there is no obligation. This is why have to is not a modal – its negative form subtracts its meaning rather than negating it.

Another ‘semi modal’ is need, which works both as a modal and as a verb. We can see the difference in the same way when we look at its negative form:

There’s nobody here – we needn’t have arrived so early!

We didn’t need to arrive early so we got there at 9.

In the first statement, need is acting like a modal: we’re saying that we only realized the lack of necessity when we said this sentence (or From everything I now know about the situation, I think it’s unnecessary…). In the second statement, need acts like an ordinary verb, and so, as was the case with don’t have to, the negative form subtracts its meaning rather than negating it.

Another important aspect of modals is how they refer to time, which we discussed in our previous post: tense and aspect. According to Lewis (1986:52):

… modality allows the speaker to introduce a personal interpretation of the non-factual and non-temporal elements of the event.

In other words, modals allow us to express our attitude at the time of speaking. This is important as it helps us understand why modals don’t have past forms. Of course could and would are often used as the ‘past’ forms of can and should, but in fact these behave more like remote forms (see our previous post).

When we use modals to refer to past events, we use the perfect aspect to show that we are expressing our opinion now, referring to a past event. The perfect aspect allows us to link these times:

You could have told me you weren’t coming! = I think (now) it was possible for you to have told me in the past (and it’s annoying me now!)

We should’ve brought more money. = I think now that it would have been a good idea to bring more money.

Another area in which time plays an important role is exemplified by the original quote from Sun Tzu: conditional clauses.

Conditionals

Conditionals are often taught as one of four forms:

Zero conditional: present condition, present result; the situation is certain.

If you heat ice, it melts.

First conditional: present/future condition, future result; the situation is likely.

If she gets here on time, we’ll start as planned.

Second conditional: present/future condition, present/future result; the situation is hypothetical.

If Jack did more exercise, he’d lose weight.

Third conditional: past condition, past result; the situation is hypothetical.

If my parents hadn’t met, I wouldn’t have been born.

With this in mind, consider which type of conditionals these are:

If Sally would make more of an effort, she’d have more friends.

If he’s arrived, I’ll speak to him.

If you were going to speak to me like that, I’d tell you to stop.

If Tony hadn’t asked for a place, he wasn’t going to get one at all.

While they don’t fit the ‘rules’ above very nicely, these are all perfectly acceptable sentences. Perhaps more useful is to look at the function of conditional clauses in general terms. Collins COBUILD English Grammar states:

When you want to talk about a possible situation and its consequences, you use a conditional clause.

It then goes on to make the distinction between situations that sometimes exist or existed, situations that you know do not exist and situations that may exist in the future.

This is a useful distinction to make in terms of how we teach conditional clauses – those which talk about real possibilities and those which discuss hypothetical reasons. This then allows us to open up even more language, such as:

A:         I wish it was Saturday.

B:         Why?

A:         Because if it was Saturday, I’d be lying on the beach right now.

The forms I wish + past tense and If + past tense are often taught separately, but in real life they often co-occur in this way, with the latter clause providing further details, and extending the discourse.

Of course, if we have also introduced the idea of remote forms to our students (see our previous post), then we are already halfway there in understanding how these hypothetical clauses are used.

Both modals and conditionals are rather grey areas which can be difficult to fully understand. However, by keeping in mind that all modals have a common function, and by not getting too dragged down with questions of form when we look at conditionals, we can begin to shed more light on these areas of language.

 

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

 

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References:

Lewis, M. 1986 The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning LTP

 

Further reading:

Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., Quirk, R. and Svartvik, J. 1985 A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language Longman

Grammar and register


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

Our last post focused on the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive approach to grammar. A descriptive grammar, such as the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, describes the language which people actually use, and draws from that a set of norms for usage. These norms, in turn, are used to help learners use English in a way that will, hopefully, come across as normal and natural.

While it doesn’t make judgments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ grammar, a descriptive grammar does, however, still need to draw distinctions about what is typical in different contexts and what is therefore generally considered appropriate. Language which is perfectly normal in everyday conversation or in social media chat, for example, may be inappropriate or even unacceptable in an academic essay or a business report.  The idea that different types of language are typically used in different contexts is known as register.

Spoken vs written language:

Perhaps the most obvious distinction to make is between spoken and written language. As corpus linguists have begun to study the grammar of not just written texts but of spoken, conversational English as well, a number of important differences have become apparent in the way we use language when we speak and when we write. Carter and McCarthy (2015) highlight two broad differences:

  1. They explain that some of the established grammatical features found in writing need to be rethought when it comes to speaking. For example, whereas written language has clear sentences, spoken language tends to be instead structured around turns, where each turn may or may not consist of what we’d conventionally think of as a complete sentence.
  2. They point out the existence of small words or phrases in spoken language which stand on their own and function independently of grammatical structures, for example, well, anyway, fine, and great.

Consider the following dialogue between two students in a university library. What do you notice about the structure of the turns? Could any of them be considered fully-formed sentences?

A: You finished yet?shutterstock_521796607
B: Nearly.
A: Want to go and grab a coffee?
B: When I get to the end of this bit, maybe.
A: Okay, fine.
B: You go. I’ll be there in a bit.

Only the final turn here contains what we’d conventionally recognise as a fully-formed sentence. So why is this ‘looser’ approach to grammar acceptable in speech but not necessarily in writing? A lot comes down to shared understanding and context. When you’re talking to someone face-to-face, you rely a lot on the shared context (i.e. you and your listener are in the same place, at the same time, looking at the same surroundings) and your shared understanding – about each other and why you’re there. This means that there’s a lot that can remain unsaid, and this is what Carter and McCarthy (2015) term ‘situational ellipsis’. In writing, we generally have to be more explicit because we don’t share the same immediate context as our reader. That means we have to fill the ‘information gap’ between us, especially if our potential audience is unknown. We have to spell things out clearly to make sure our reader understands our message; we can’t judge by their expression whether they’ve understood or whether they look a bit puzzled, and they can’t signal understanding or ask for clarification.

Audience and purpose:

The register you choose, whether in speech or writing, also depends very much on your audience and purpose. Imagine, for example, that you witness a minor car accident in the street and you react in the following three ways.

  1. You take a picture and post it on social media with a comment.
  2. You tell your family about what happened when you get home.
  3. One of the drivers takes your contact details and some time later you receive a letter from her insurance company asking you to write a report of what you saw.

shutterstock_20978257

In each of the three situations, how might your language differ in terms of …
– the amount of detail you include?
– vocabulary?
– grammar?

Which of the following examples do you think might be used in each context? Which grammatical features give you a clue?

At 8.30 on the morning of 25 January 2017, I was walking along Clifton Road.
Nasty smash on Clifton Rd … no one hurt, but road blocked & loads of traffic backing up.
The guy was going way too fast, he was never going to stop.
The black vehicle may have been travelling above the speed limit.

The very careful, formalized order of the time adverbials in the first example signals a (semi)legal register. This is how police reports typically describe the time of events and it’s a form that lay people who find themselves in a legal context, such as writing a statement to an insurance company, tend to adopt. As well as it just being ‘the norm’, we use this type of language because we understand the need to be clear and accurate, and to provide as much detail as possible in this particular context; we recognize the purpose of the communication as well as the audience.

In the second and third examples, we see instances of slightly more informal grammatical forms – loads of … and way too + qualitative adjective – which are typical of speech or informal writing, such as on social media. Whereas in the final example, the use of may have to express possibility is a slightly more formal choice than might have or could have. Collins COBUILD English Grammar includes many more examples of grammatical features typically used more in formal or informal registers.

Specialized registers:

As well as the broad register categories of spoken and written or formal and informal, certain features are typical of a more specialized register. We’ve already seen an example of a legal register; some other features most usually found in specialized contexts include:

  • Literary: Her pale face grew paler yet. (yet after a comparative adjective)
  • Old-fashioned or very formal: It is my decision, is it not? (an uncontracted negative tag)
  • Technical: non-ferrous metals such as copper, lead and aluminium (a normally uncountable (mass) noun being used in the plural form to refer to different types of a substance)
  • Academic: a clear demonstration of the brain mechanisms at work (a long noun phrase) 

What happens if you break the rules?

Throughout this post, I’ve been using lots of hedging language – typically, usually, tend to – because I’ve been describing tendencies rather than hard-and-fast rules. Of course, speakers break them all time. But what happens when we get a mismatch in register? The text below is from a television advert (for totaljobs.com). It’s delivered by a primary school teacher addressing a group of five-year-olds:

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

The effect here is humorous because the use of typically legal language sticks out as marked in the context. This is fine if you’re aiming for humour, but less good if you’re a learner who inadvertently uses linguistic features that don’t match the communicative context. In the classroom, we tend to mention register in relation to vocabulary (children vs. kids, thank you vs. cheers), but if we’re going to help our students avoid embarrassing faux pas, then it’s something to bring up in relation to grammar too.

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


References:
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (2015) ‘Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?’ Applied Linguistics

Grammar or vocabulary? A blurry line


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.