Coffee with Michael Swan: all about grammar

(In iT’s for Teachers 101, pp 8–10, September 2006)

iT’s: How do you like your coffee?

MS: Uncountable. please. With a little cream and no sugar, preferably served on an antique silver tray with a lot of cookies.

iT’s: I’m sorry, but in this interview we’re going to have to talk about grammar. Is that all right with you?

MS: No problem – it’s the only thing I can talk about.

iT’s: There are teachers and students who love grammar, and those who hate grammar. Either way, it tends to provoke a strong reaction. Why do you think this is so?

MS: Grammar can tap into all sorts of emotions. Teachers may love grammar because it’s what they’re good at, and because their knowledge of the rules gives them power and status. Some students may overvalue grammar because it gives them hope and a sense of security: ‘All I need is to learn the rules and I’ll be able to speak good English’. Other students may get angry, afraid or impatient because they find grammar boring, or can’t understand it, or can’t see any link between grammar and communication: ‘I don’t want to learn all these rules – I just want to speak’.  Some teachers feel confused and cross because they don’t know how best to teach grammar, or whether it does any good. And for many adults grammar brings back unpleasant childhood memories of being hassled  by teachers or parents for allegedly not speaking their own language properly.

iT’s: Is English grammar difficult?

MS: Well, some is, some isn’t. Word order is pretty easy. There’s no grammatical gender. Learners don’t have to choose from innumerable possible endings for each noun, adjective and verb – as they would if they were learning Russian, for instance. On the other hand, the tense, aspect and modal systems express complex nuances of meaning which can be hard to grasp. Noun compounding is difficult; so are the rules about what kind of structure can follow a verb. For many points, though, we have to ask: difficult for whom? Articles are relatively easy for Spanish speakers (though there are a few problems); for Japanese learners, whose language has no articles at all, the system is a nightmare. Perhaps as a generalisation one can say that English grammar isn’t very difficult in the early stages – you don’t have to master many rules in order to make reasonably correct sentences. But, as with all languages, it’s extremely hard to acquire all the small rules that characterise correct native-speaker usage. (And fortunately, totally unnecessary.)

iT’s:  remember one teacher telling me, “Always have a copy of Swan to hand and you can’t go wrong.” He was referring to ‘Practical English Usage’. You’ve just finished working on a new version of this book. What’s different?

MS: I’m glad my book is useful. I’m disturbed, though, if some people see it as the answer to all their problems – blind faith can lead to disappointment. No book can answer more than a proportion of the questions that arise during language study, and no reference book gets everything right. Work on the third edition has enabled me to correct or improve some sections I wasn’t entirely happy with, and to modify explanations and examples in the light of new corpus data. I’ve also added a number of topics, ranging from affixes, through emails and text messages, to variation and change in English. I’ve put in some lists of common errors. And I’ve polished up the indexing and signposting. Most importantly, I’ve tried to take account of the main changes in English over the last fifteen years or so. These are mostly small, but there are a lot of them, resulting partly from the increasing influence of American English on British and other varieties.

iT’s: Are there any aspects of language use once considered incorrect that are now more acceptable?

MS: Yes, indeed. There are important shifts in the ‘prestige’ balance between spoken and written, informal and formal varieties of English (partly due to the increased use of electronic media for person-to-person communication). So usages and structures which have traditionally been restricted  to informal standard speech (and often wrongly condemned as ‘incorrect’ for that reason) are increasingly finding their way into more formal registers. I’ve always been interested in describing the grammar of spoken language, and I’m pleased that this is now beginning to show up in mainstream grammars (see for instance the excellent treatment in Carter and McCarthy’s recently published Cambridge Grammar of English). This development goes along with a growing realisation that language is variable, not monolithic, and that different varieties, including non-standard dialects, have their own grammatical systems which are just as elaborate as, and no less ‘correct’ than, standard written English.

iT’s: How can a teacher decide if something is “non-standard” but acceptable as opposed to just incorrect?

MS: These terms cause a lot of confusion. ‘Correct/incorrect’ suggests that a usage must be one or the other, so that one should be able to look in a reference book and find out which. But of course it’s not that simple. There are structures that are found in all varieties of English (e.g. be-passives); structures that are characteristically formal (e.g. non-defining relatives) or informal (e.g. John and me watched a great film last night); structures where usage is divided (some standard speakers use less with plurals, some use fewer); non-standard structures that are widespread in dialects (e.g. multiple negatives); new structures that are mostly used by younger people (e.g. She was like ‘What do you think you’re doing?’); and structures that are not used by any native speakers at all (e.g. *My parents wanted that I study medicine). Only the last kind can reasonably be called ‘incorrect’ without qualification; the others are all correct in their places. It’s perfectly all right for me to say ‘John and me watched a great film last night’, but I couldn’t write in a report ‘In the second quarter of the financial year, my partner and me decided that the company required a further injection of capital.’ My neighbour might say (correctly in his dialect) ‘I ain’t got no experience of them sorts of problems’, but he would be unwise to express himself in the same way in a job application.

   ‘Acceptable’ is a particularly fuzzy notion, which makes little sense unless you define it more closely: acceptable to whom, for what purposes, when? Very incorrect language might not worry the people it is addressed to at all. Conversely, some perfectly correct structures may be unacceptable to examiners or other influential people who have prejudices about particular points of usage (such as teachers, employers, or parents who think their children are destroying the language).

  The best a teacher can do is be reasonably aware of these issues (consulting reliable grammars or usage guides as necessary), and to give learners as much information as is appropriate. At lower levels,  tell learners to use I, not me, in double subjects like John and I. More advanced learners may find it useful to know that John and me is also a possible and correct subject form in informal speech, but that some native speakers (and a fair number of examiners) think it isn’t.

iT’s: Some people argue that standards in English are slipping and that native English speakers aren’t using correct grammar. Do you think this is true?

MS: We are often told that English is in a bad way, whereas half a century or so ago people really know how to use their language properly. Guy Deutscher, in his fascinating book The Unfolding of Language (Heinemann 2005), puts this all in perspective. In 1946, he reports, George Orwell made the same complaint: the language was ‘in a bad way’. A century before, in 1848, August Schleicher said it was sinking fast. In 1780 Sheridan drew attention to the degeneration of English, explaining that seventy years earlier it was ‘spoken in its highest state of perfection’. But in 1712 Jonathan Swift thought the language was ‘extremely imperfect’ and subject to ‘daily Corruptions’ … This happens everywhere all the time. Languages are continually going to the dogs; they just never seem to get there. Cicero, in 46 BC, said that Latin was going seriously downhill compared with the usage of a century earlier, when people spoke correctly. Well, Latin went on declining, to the point where it turned into, for instance,  the language of Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Calderon. Not a bad way to go downhill!

   Languages change, as landscapes do. Grammars, like maps, have to reflect these changes. If there are houses and a reservoir where the map shows fields and woods, what do you do – complain that the landscape is ‘incorrect’, or revise the map?

iT’s: Is it possible to teach a language (to adults) without any reference to grammar – explicitly, that is.

MS: Well, you can teach some parts of the language efficiently without invoking grammar, some parts less efficiently, and some parts perhaps not at all. Grammatical explanation is a valuable tool to be used when needed. To cut wood it’s useful to have an axe, a saw, a chisel, a plane, a knife … You can do without a saw, up to a point, but why try?

iT’s: What are your favourite English grammar books?

MS: For my own purposes, the most valuable resources are without question the two great modern academic grammars of English: the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik (Longman 1985) and the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,  by Huddleston, Pullum and others (CUP 2003). These are remarkable works, and I couldn’t begin to do my job without them.

iT’s: Do you have any golden rules, principles or just plain good advice for teaching grammar?

MS: 1) Prioritise. Time is short and there are lots of other things to do. Concentrate on teaching well what matters most, and don’t worry if you can’t do everything.

2) Perfectionism is disastrous. Teachers who try to root out all their students’ mistakes produce students who never make mistakes because they never say anything. Aim for good enough English, not perfection. Don’t worry if your results aren’t very impressive: they won’t be. Languages are hard to learn and teach.

3) Beware of language-teaching revolutions. They won’t transform everything by magic, and they often subtract as much as they add. Be particularly suspicious of anything called ‘The …… Approach’ or ‘The ………… Method’.

iT’s: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. Hope you enjoyed the coffee. 

MS: The coffee was delicious, as were the cookies. And the antique silver tray is quite exquisite. May I keep it?

iT’s: Errr,yes … by all means (gulp).