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Grammars of English

Cover of

A good old English grammar.

An English Grammar – as a countable noun – is a book which explains the grammar of the English language.

Compare this to grammar – as a non-countable noun – which is the set of rules which explain how language is used.

Thus we can say a grammar is full of grammar.

Choosing a Grammar

Every TEFL teacher should have a grammar but with hundreds on the market (some of them very dull and not that good) it’s worth thinking about which one you should use.

First off, what do you want it for? As a TEFL teacher you probably want a good, simple, understandable, grammar which you can use to prepare lessons and answer awkward questions from your students.

If that’s the case then look no further than a free online resource such as the ICAL Grammar Guide. It explains the terms you’re likely to come across teaching and offers hints and tips on how to teach them. It will give you 99% of the information you need as a TEFL teacher.

But if you’re looking for something which you can actually hold in your hand (tablets and smarphones notwithstanding) here are a few points to bear in mind.

  • Grammar changes slowly so books written ten or twenty years ago are still valuable in helping you to understand the basics; there’s no need to go and buy the latest grammar because chances are there’s not a lot in there which wasn’t in an earlier edition.
  • There are different grammars for different people: as a TEFL teacher you need something fairly straightforward which doesn’t go into all the nuances of English: explanations you give to your students should be as simple as possible so a simple grammar book will be fine for almost all eventualities and if there is something extremely awkward then an online search will find the answer

So rather than buy online, get down to your local bookshop and flick through a few grammar books. Choose one which you can understand with plenty of examples.

You will probably also find grammars written for EFL students as well. Good ones contain not only basic grammar rules but also plenty of “typical” mistakes non-native speakers make with explanations of why that happens and how to remedy it.

See the links below for lists of recommended grammars.

History of Grammar Books

In 1534 William Lily wrote his famous grammar of Latin, Rudimenta Grammatices. Less than ten years later in 1542 Henry VIII decided that Lily’s grammar should be used in schools to teach Latin (and in one form or another it remained in popular use until well into the 19th Century).

Meanwhile, in 1586 William Bullokar wrote what is generally accepted to be the first English grammar which he modeled extensively on Lily’s Latin grammar. His book was written in English but before long the Latin scholars had taken over and for the next 100 years they wrote English grammar books in Latin, trying to force English grammar under the yoke of Latin grammar. During this time Latin and Ancient Greek scholars argued and counter-argued as to what the rules of English really were.

These grammars were mainly used in education, but with increasing international trade and exploration from Britain, grammars were increasingly sought for use by foreign non-English speakers who wanted to learn the language to converse with English traders. Grammars were then aimed towards the average person rather than the educated elite and reference to Latin was forgotten as they became easier to read and understand with titles such as, A Grammar of the English Language, In a Series of Letters: Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in General, but more especially for the use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys.

At this time grammars tended very much to be prescriptive, that is they told the reader how to speak good English; they contained rules which must be followed no matter how counter-intuitive they seemed. But then change began. During the 19th Century there was a more systematic study of language and grammar books began to take on a descriptive flavor. They just reported how most people used language rather than tell them how to use language as before.

Of course the great leap of the 20th Century was in computerized analysis of language which suddenly allowed grammarians to have millions of examples of language use at their fingertips; in addition with great global communication these examples were no longer just from a few privileged sources such as The Times newspaper or the great canon of literature but instead the whole gamut of language from Facebook to obscure scientific journals.

Useful Links

Descriptive vs Prescriptive Grammars – the difference between describing how people use language and telling them how to use it

Choosing a Good Dictionary – how to choose a good dictionary

The ICAL Grammar Guide – a free comprehensive online grammar of English for TEFL teachers

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