Who Needs Grammar Anyway?

by Derek Neal

I’m a bit surprised to see that all my previous columns for this website are about language in some way. I didn’t set out for this to be the case, but a clear pattern has emerged, although through no design of my own. When planning this Monday’s column, I decided that I should give into the impulse to explore language in more detail by thinking about my own job as an ESL teacher. One of the interesting things about being a language teacher, especially for an American, is that you finally become aware of the rules governing the language you use. In American school, much to the surprise of students from other countries, we don’t study grammar. In terms of my own public-school experience, I can’t recall ever discussing things such as verb tenses, relative pronouns, clauses, or phrases.

There may be some logic to this. When you start teaching ESL, you might think that to help students learn to speak it is useful to explain what, say, the simple past and the present perfect are, going through their definitions and the various rules when each tense is used. In other words, you might think it’s useful to start with theory and then move into practice. Attempting this method will quickly teach you that this is not, in fact, a good idea. I still think back and shudder about the time I attempted to draw a timeline on the whiteboard to explain the past tenses used in English, with the result being that I’d not only confused the students, but also myself. In addition, I displayed my terrible drawing skills.

It’s much better to avoid mention of the verb tenses altogether and to simply ask students a pair of subtly different questions. For example, “What did you do yesterday?” and “Where have you travelled in your life?” As students begin to respond to these questions, they will start to notice a difference in the way the questions are constructed and in how they respond to each question. They might say, “I went to school yesterday” or “I played video game with my friends” in response to the first question; for the second question, they might say, “I’ve been to Canada, France, and China,” or “I’ve visited a lot of countries.” At this point, the students’ attention can be drawn to the fact that different verb tenses have been used to respond to the first question and the second question. For the first, students used one verb (went, played), while for the second, students used two verbs (have been, have visited). This is because the first example refers to a finished time (yesterday), whereas the second question refers to an unfinished time period (your life). From this example the difference between the use of the simple past (finished time period) and present perfect (unfinished time period) can be seen.

Of course, students might mess up, too. They might say “I’ve gone to school yesterday,” which immediately strikes a native speaker’s ear as odd but might not register as strange to the student. They could say “I visited Canada,” to which a native speaker would feel inclined to ask, “When?” as the finished time period is implied by the verb tense used. By simply adding in a helping verb to say “I’ve visited Canada,” the natural follow up question would be something like “What did you think of Canada?” or “How was it?” because the time aspect of this statement has not been called into question. If a student persists in using the simple past while the time period remains unspecified (explicitly or implicitly), it will begin to sound as if they’re referring to a past life—notice how a statement like “Derek has visited many countries” sounds like something you might read in my bio, while “Derek visited a lot of countries” sounds like something you could read in my obituary.

The way English plays with time is one of the most difficult aspects for language learners to master, but also one of the most rewarding once they grasp its intricacies. When I used to teach stockbrokers in downtown Montreal, I would tell them to be aware of the implications in the verb tenses they used. If their boss asked them about an upcoming project or presentation and they responded, “I’ll work on it tomorrow,” this use of “will” for the future tense implied that they hadn’t thought about the project beforehand, and that they were just making the decision now to work on it since their boss had reminded them. But if they responded, “I’m going to work on it tomorrow,” there was an indication that they had already thought about the project and had decided that tomorrow would be the best time to work on it. The boss’s email was not the impetus for them to get to work; they had already made plans and didn’t need the boss’s reminder.

Think about it: if someone asks you what your plans for the weekend are, you might say “I’m going to the movies,” or “I’m going to stay in and write my 3QD essay.” Both of these answers imply a sense of forethought and some level of planning. If you respond instead by saying you have no plans, and then your friend asks you to go the movies, you could say “Sure, I’ll go to the movies.” You use “will” because you’ve decided about your future at this moment. If you use our first example (I’m going to the movies) to respond to your friend, they will think you already have plans with other people, not that you’re accepting their invitation. What if your plans are uncertain? If you have two job offers, you can say “Maybe I’ll take this one, or maybe I’ll take that one—I haven’t decided, yet.” But once you’ve made up your mind, you’ll start saying “I’m taking this offer” or “I’m going to take this offer,” not “I’ll take this offer.” The latter option sounds like what you might say at dinner, when the server asks which entrée you’d like, and you opt for the steak over the pasta (good choice).

But I digress. To return to my initial point, native speakers don’t have to think about these rules when deciding which verb tense to use—they just say what feels natural. Sometimes, this means they “break the rules,” although there’s often an explanation for why a speaker will say something that could be deemed incorrect. The classic McDonald’s slogan “I’m loving it” is grammatically wrong because a verb that describes a state rather than an action, in this case, love, can’t be used in a continuous tense (indicated here by -ing). This is why we say “I have some money in my pocket” instead of “I’m having some money in my pocket.” To love falls into this category of stative verb, but doesn’t something about “I’m loving it” just seem to make sense? Perhaps it’s because it refers to eating, which is an action, or maybe it’s because using the continuous tense emphasizes the present experience of something. It could simply be because I’ve heard it so many times, and if a word is used in a certain way over a long enough period of time and by enough people, it will become acceptable. Whatever the case may be, it works.

But how to teach this to someone who has not been immersed in the language for years and thus cannot grasp it intuitively? I suppose the answer may lie in the anecdote Stanley Fish recounts at the beginning of his 1987 article in The Yale Law Journal, titled “Dennis Martinez and the Uses of Theory.” Fish tells how a sports journalist sees a baseball pitcher, Dennis Martinez, talking with his manager, Earl Weaver, before a game. The journalist thinks they must be discussing the intricacies of that night’s strategy, and looking for a scoop, he asks Martinez what he and Weaver had been speaking about. Martinez relays that Weaver said, “Throw strikes and keep ‘em off the bases.” This is much to the disappointment of the journalist, but it’s what Martinez says next to the journalist that Fish admires the most: “What else could he say?”

So, in lieu of “some set of directions or an articulated method or formula or rule or piece of instruction” (what Fish imagines the journalist expected to hear), to learn a language or to teach a language it may be better to simply remember: “Throw strikes and keep ‘em off the bases.”