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First steps in English grammar

JohnbaldJohn Bald on the way to teach grammar

As promised last week, these are the key elements of grammar that we need to know, understand and be able to apply as we write. This is not the only way to teach these points, but it has worked well with people aged from nine upwards, is consistent with both traditional grammar and modern linguistics, and uses plain English wherever possible. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that the following is all that a person will ever need to know.

1. When we speak, we group words together using natural pauses. When we write, we group them together using marks on paper known as punctuation. The most important group is the sentence.

2. All sentences start with a capital letter and finish with a full stop. London. (Dickens, Bleak House) is a sentence.

3. Very nearly all sentences contain a verb. Most verbs "do" things, but some of the most common verbs do not. This picture is valuable. My shirt has a hole in it. The French call these "verbs of state" and the Chinese, who usually leave them out in their own language, "linking verbs".

4. Nearly all sentences have a subject

Marley was dead, to begin with.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

This causes confusion for older children with the common term "topic" and needs to be taught and practised carefully. Once they understand verb, children quickly learn to identify subject by applying the questions Who? or What? To the verb.

Teaching note - subject is a much more important term than object, and should be clearly established first. Many perfectly accurate sentences do not contain an object, but subject is almost universal in sentences other than requests or commands.

5. If, as we write, we repeat or change the subject, we need to consider inserting either a link word or strong punctuation. Strong punctuation is . ! ? : ; or, with acknowledgements to Miss Austen, a dash. Sometimes we use a starter word and do not then need a link word.

Teaching notes Linguistic and traditional terminology for the above includes conjunction, connective, and subordinator. With older children, I explain these terms in passing, as they may have heard them, but do not believe they add anything to the plain English. The most frequent starter words relate to time.

6. Most sentences, like most meals, are two or three courses. Starter and main course, main and dessert, starter main and dessert (main course, main clause). We may have cheese, cheese and coffee, or choose to dine like the Prince Regent and write like Proust. Most modern writers, from Dickens to J K Rowling, write in sentences of two to three parts, and only write very long or very short sentences for a particular effect.

7. We group sentences on related topics into paragraphs, usually taking care to put our main point in the first sentence and using others to add detail or discuss the point. We arrange paragraphs to give shape to our writing and make our argument in the most powerful or persuasive way.

8. All human activity takes place in a framework of time. This is reflected in language by signpost words, such as Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow, and by varying the form of verbs. The normal grammatical word for these verb forms is tense , a word that is made by adding e to the old French tens, which means, surprisingly enough, time. Children need to learn to use these different forms of verbs to indicate time, and, later, to indicate degrees of certainty.

I prefer to talk about time rather than tense, as that is what the whole business depends on.

9. Once children or older students understand verb, their knowledge should be extended to other categories of word, which should be explained. The French call nouns names, which is logical, and the term proper can be explained in terms of property - my name, your name etc. Pronouns save time. Ad words - adjectives and adverbs - have a slight variation in  form that adds clarity. Variations on link-words, including relative pronouns, and other ways of extending a sentence without using a finite verb - eg part-verbs (participles) and verb names (infinitives) are added as the person is in a position to understand them.

10. Finally, I repeat that this is an introduction rather than a reduction, and that there is plenty more to be learned. I offer it as a "courteous translation" (Bruner) of adult terms into a form children can easily understand. Point 5 is crucial, as it puts the person in a position to make a choice about when to finish one sentence and start the next, rather than taking a guess. People who have benefited from this approach have included a music degree student whose essay grade improved from a failing D- to AB, a substantial number of GCSE students, particularly those on pre-nursing courses, and a young man who recently passed his entrance test to a leading private school. Put first things first, and we can explore the full complexity of English with understanding .

Next week, history, and satchels.


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