Trapped in a dichotomy – some more thoughts on grammar and coursebooks

The thought-provoking discussion that arose in the comment section of my previous post got me thinking a little deeper about grammar. One of the conclusions I drew was that the grammar rules one comes across in coursebooks are usually oversimplifications and they may prevent our students from seeing the bigger picture.

Another observation I made was that whenever I think of English as a foreign language, I tend to visualize two separate boxes – the GRAMMAR BANK and the VOCABULARY BANK. Is it because I was taught that way or because my teacher/ L2 learner brain simply works that way? One way or another, this dichotomy will probably be perpetuated in the ELT world as long as coursebooks have vocabulary builder sections separate from grammar reference pages.


Those of you who are familiar with my previous post may remember that I addressed the grammatical correctness of the following sentence:

I’m loving it.

I really liked Eddie Estry’s comment:

“I’m loving it” is perfectly permissible because the semantic value of “love” in this situation equates to “really enjoy”. Of course, when referring to the state of being in love, such an utterance as, “I’m loving you” would not be permissible.

How could I have overlooked the fact that it’s the meaning of the verb love – not only its preference for a particular verb tense – that has actually shifted? So while not long ago we were taught that to love means *to like something/someone very much* and that it is one of the state verbs, it’s now become synonymous with to enjoy. And as we can use the verb enjoy in the present progressive without breaking any grammatical rules, it’s not surprising that the verb love is also acceptable in the progressive form.

Here’s another interesting comment made by Tim Julian:

I think the point about the public signs doesn’t invalidate the general must / have to distinction though. In a sense the sign “embodies” the authority that put it there, so in that sense it is an obligation imposed by the speaker.

I thought: the verbs must and have to behave differently from a grammatical point of view, such as in questions, and I think this should be made clear to our students right from the start. But do we really need to discuss the slightly controversial semantic distinction in the grammar reference section of the book? I doubt that the difference is really worth mentioning at a pre-intermediate level, but I also have a hunch that when something is included in a grammar section of a coursebook, it somehow becomes a RULE. And rules can be threatening because they are tested on exams.

What also crossed my mind when I looked the new edition of my coursebook (which I then compared against the earlier one) was that grammar sections are probably the safest parts to copy and paste. I mean, unlike texts or images, grammar reference pages don’t need to be updated from edition to edition, right? May this be one of the reasons for the lack of flexibility?

To conclude this post, the interconnectedness of grammar and lexicon was beautifully illustrated in two posts by Mark Makino I recently read (here and here). Mark shares some exciting conclusions of his action research regarding dangling participles. It’s probably a well-known fact that dangling participles tend to cause misunderstandings so they are better to be avoided, especially in academic writing. What I didn’t know was that there are some examples of dangling participles, such as judging from, having said that, moving on, knowing (somebody), which are now acceptable since they have become common idioms or set phrases used consistently the same way. In other words, the fact that these originally frowned-upon structures have become lexicalized, they have become perfectly acceptable for grammatical authorities as well.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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3 Responses to Trapped in a dichotomy – some more thoughts on grammar and coursebooks

  1. M. Makino says:

    Sometimes languages can be like religions – the nitty-gritty incongruities are best seen in the context of the rules that they serve as exceptions to, and the best way to internalize the rules is long, hegemonic, unquestioning exposure. I suppose the grammar charts that dominate introductory texts are analogous to pamphlet-sized summaries of religions that are handed out at train stations.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Interesting viewpoint. I’d go on to say that just like pamphlet-sized summaries of religions are probably not of much use to those who actually want to practice a religion, grammar charts probably serve best to those who are interested in how a language is structured but they are pretty redundant to those who want to learn/acquire it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • M. Makino says:

        Yes, I suppose a difference is that at least someone thinks the grammar charts are true and helpful (my guess is that publishers include these at this point mostly because people expect them), while no one thinks pamphlets have any purpose besides getting people in the door.

        Liked by 1 person

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