Everyone who teaches English to speakers of other languages has come across the ‘Victorian medicine’ attitude towards grammar: if it tastes bad, it’s good for you. If you're not enjoying it, it's improving the mind. Most adult students will tell you they hate learning grammar, but you can still count on their rapt attention if you go into teacher-centred talk and chalk mode on, say, narrative tenses or modal verbs. You might have difficulty keeping people focussed on the liveliest of reading texts, but ditch it in favour of a disquisition on count and mass determiners, and they will be writing notes like fury. The value of this kind of activity is probably very limited, as teaching explicit grammar 'rules' hardly ever translates into improved spontaneous output. This is not to say you should never go into heavy grammar mode – of course you should, sometimes. You didn't get your TEFL Diploma for nothing, after all. But so much English language teaching around the world elevates the memorising of grammar rules into a virtue in itself. It’s like valuing the Highway Code booklet above the ability to drive well. There are some whacky ideas about ‘good grammar’ out there.
In a private language school in Athens where I went to observe a trainee teacher do her stuff, I overheard the following exchange between the secretary and a teenage boy:
She: Simple present
He: Simple past
She: Present perfect
He: Past perfect
She: Past perfect
He: No change
It sounds like some linguistic version of the game Mornington Crescent* but in fact she was catechising the boy on the changes that verbs undergo in reported speech:
‘I am ill’ > He said he was ill
‘I was ill’ > He said he had been ill
What a waste of time. In true Greek language school fashion, the kid had done as he was told and memorised a whole list of changes from this tense to that. All this ignores the following considerations:
Such changes depend on context, not on mechanical application of so-called rules.
We don’t, in conversation, provide line-by-line accounts of past conversations with all the tenses meticulously back-shifted, but instead give a summary of what was said.
More important than tense changes are the reporting verbs, because they are attitudinal. The kid would have been much better off learning say, tell, warn, advise, recommend, suggest, and so on, and the patterns that follow them.
None of the international language exams ever requires candidates to produce specific tenses in response to prompts for that tense.
Piling on grammar rules without accompanying clarification of meaning is pretty common in Greek language schools. Actual quote from a Greek teacher to her class, circa 2003: ‘δεν μας ενδιαφέρει τι σημαίνει, μας ενδιαφέρει να το κάνετε σωστά!’ (‘We don’t care what it means, we just care about you getting it right!’) No recognition that you can’t really get it right unless you first know what it means.
Moaning about slipping standards in one's native language has been a pastime of the middle aged and elderly for centuries, and amateur language fanciers have some eccentric remedies. My niece’s Latin teacher forbade her students, for the duration of her lessons, to use the contracted forms of English auxiliary verbs, on the grounds that it’s, can’t, won’t and hasn’t and so on are lazy and degenerate, and that to use it is, cannot, will not and has not instead is to show respect, backbone, grit and spunk. Now, we all know intuitively that it is and it’s don’t - sorry, do not - mean exactly the same thing. If you look out of the window and announce as an opening gambit in an exchange ‘it is raining’, you will sound very over-emphatic and stuffed-shirt. If however you use the full form in response to an opener, that’s different:
‘Take an umbrella in case it rains’
‘It is raining – where have I put it?’
Here the full form means ‘what you suggested is indeed the case’. If someone says ‘don’t bother lugging your umbrella, it isn’t raining’ and you reply ‘it is raining’ you are contradicting the first speaker. If you have to say to your kids for the umpteenth time ‘It is raining! You can’t play out!’ you are really laying it on the line. So, full forms show us there’s a subtext, of confirmation, contradiction or strong assertion, which contracted forms do not convey. Far from defending ‘the Queen’s English’ the batty Latin lady was denying her students choice from a whole range of shades of meaning. Fortunately, none of them took a blind bit of notice of her.
Still, I’m as grumpy about young people as the next middle-aged male. Passing by an open classroom door a couple of years ago, I overheard the 22 year lady teacher addressing her students in this wise: ‘aykay, say, tomorray, yeah, we’re sord of like gaying to London? Say you’ve godda be here like rarely-rarely early?’ I had to restrain myself from going in there and bawling her out. ‘You cannot ‘sort of’ go to London, you either go or you do not! And stand up straight!’ The rising intonation on declarative sentences, the use of creaky voice (aka 'glottal fry' - brill name, that) so prevalent among young women nowadays, the flattening of the RP diphthong in ‘go’ to one almost like that of ‘gay’, the lexically empty use of like and sort of… Jesus. The woman has just demonstrated everything I loathe about modern usage in two sentences.
But…but…language changes, pronunciation shifts, and there isn’t a thing anyone can do about it. We might deplore the padding of sentences with the meaningless verbiage of ‘like’ and ‘sort of’, which sort of, like, tones down the assertiveness of an utterance, but let’s be consistent. Listening to colleagues in meetings making steeples of their fingers and intoning ‘I feel the introduction to the course ought perhaps to be more… gradual, if you like’ I wonder why they think young people are vaguer and sloppier than they are themselves. If you like, as it were, perhaps, I feel – aren’t these just the older generation’s likes and sort ofs, for more formal situations? Creaky voice to signal ‘it’s OK, I’m not threatening, I’m nice’ is not new, and I suppose I have to admit, grudgingly, that it might simply be a sign of people just being nice, although it still pisses me off. Also, this whole bag of verbal and supra-segmental tics is a tool kit for sounding homey and just-folks, and it can be ditched by anyone who decides to do so should a more formal style be called for.
So we gotta stop like getting involved an givin kids evils, and look at the plank we got in our own eye, innit.
* Game on BBC Radio comedy show in which participants take turns to name stations of the London Underground. Someone will say ‘Tower Hill’ and the next player ‘Morden’. This move will be greeted with appreciative noises, as if great skill had been exercised. After a series of moves, a player will shout ‘Mornington Crescent!’ thereby winning the round. The point of the game is that there is absolutely no point.