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Grammar as a Foreign Language

28 August 2019


What do you do as a lecturer at a UK university when British students hand in essays which, though they may be competently managed in most other respects, are still riddled with the kind of errors that grammar checking programs won’t pick up?

Emigration, early retirement and existential despair all have their merits, of course, but there is another way to solve the grammar problem: teach it as a foreign language.

What is a grammar practice book?

In the world of EFL (English as a Foreign Language), there’s a long tradition of self-study grammar practice books, a few of which have clocked up the kind of global sales that might make the publishers of best-selling psychological thrillers sit up and take notice.

And what makes these books so successful? Essentially, they’re design classics, dividing the English language into its constituent grammatical parts – a hundred or more in some publications, under headings such as ‘verb tenses’, ‘nouns and pronouns’ and ‘adjectives and adverbs’ – and then presenting each item as a convenient double-page spread: accessible explanations and examples on the left-hand side, practice exercises on the right. The English language, done and dusted.

Well, not quite. Even the authors of such books would agree that language for communication can’t simply be ‘atomised’, learnt and reassembled. No, these publications are more like lay-bys on the road to learning, places where you take a few moments to check your relative pronouns or your conjunctions, before getting back behind the wheel. Manuals for the glove compartment, rather than language courses.

A grammar practice book for native speakers?

So when a fellow EFL author pushed open the door to my university office, spluttering in shock at the errors he had come across in a sample of undergraduate essays written by native speakers of English, I mopped his brow, poured him a cup of coffee and, instead of saying, ‘What can you do, short of reforming the secondary school system?’, we thought of the grammar manual.

Couldn’t something that has no more than a minor role in foreign language learning be exactly what the doctor ordered for British students – fluent in other respects – and the grammatical errors they were making in their academic writing?

Inviting a third EFL author to join us, we then began a trawl through the seas of student writing, tagging errors until we had a catch of around sixty types, organising them not within the categories of verbs, nouns and adjectives, but under such headings as ‘key punctuation’, ‘producing good sentences’, and ‘using the right words’.

The mistakes that native speakers make

Native-speaker errors, as we discovered, are rather different from the mistakes that foreign students make. A Portuguese student might produce ‘should to go’, but she’s unlikely to write ‘should of gone’, a mistake that derives from a fairly successful rendering of the sound of the English that you speak.

‘Comma splicing’ (using a comma between two complete sentences) and ‘spaghetti writing(tangled syntax) are other native favourites, as in the following examples:

‘Graphic design can be seen in many places in modern life, it extends well beyond the world of advertising.’

‘Political blogs are a good example of how online journalism can have a significant influence even though only a small number of people read them, they are often key decision-makers.’

In punctuation, it’s often the addition of unnecessary marks that frustrates the reader: ‘The Vietnam War and it’s repercussions’, for example, or ‘There are experts who say that: housing is the most important inner-city issue.’ And in spelling, it’s the mistakes, of course, that elude the spell checker: ‘Only three years have past since the disaster occurred.’

The list continues, but there is some good news. What we discovered in the writing and trialling of our book was just how amenable these native errors were to a straightforward ‘foreign language approach’ of presenting the rules, exemplifying them, and then offering immediate practice.

Time to stop spluttering, in other words, and start explaining.


Improve Your Grammar’ by Mark Harrison, Vanessa Jakeman and Ken Paterson is published by Macmillan Study Skills.