Your thoughts on grammar teaching

What do you think about grammar teaching? Have you got any good experiences to share? Or problems that others might be able to help with?

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14 Responses to Discussion

  1. Andrew Barnicoat says:

    I don’t want to be a pedant and a pest, but I feel it isn’t helpful to describe the participle “Teaching” as a verb. If students believe -ing words to be stand alone verbs it undermines our teaching of the verb being the “engine” of the sentence.

  2. Dick says:

    Thanks Andrew. Even participles and gerunds are verbs, aren’t they, even if they’re (as you say) not stand-alone? At one time, participles were treated as a separate word-class, but that’s hard to justify given that a verb and its participles are basically the same word, and therefore (presumably) belong to the same word-class.

  3. Agneta M-L Svalberg says:

    I don’t think ‘gerund’ is a helpful lable either. It does not help clarify anything. What I think might help learners is becoming aware of how -ing forms are used, as adjectives, nouns or verbs. For me it is about opening up linguistic choices for them, and helping them appreciate the choices that other language users have made, and the effects of those choices.
    By the way, I have discovered that some teachers use the term ‘verb chain’ to describe groups of more than one verb. Perhaps that is a good way of highlighting that,for example, progressive requires BE + -ing.

  4. Dick says:

    True, the *term* ‘gerund’ in itself doesn’t explain anything, but then you don’t get much information out of labels like ‘adjective’. The question, to my mind, is whether the *category* gerund (as recognised by a lot of grammarians) is useful in explaining the choices that you talk about. I think it is, because a gerund offers a different range of choices for expansion from a deverbal noun. For example, “killing” is a noun in (1), but a gerund in (2).
    (1) The killing of moths is illegal.
    (2) Killing moths is illegal.
    In (1), the expansion options are typical for nouns – e.g. adding “of” before the following noun, adjectives, determiners (including “no”), maybe even pluralisation:
    (1a) The secret killing of moths is illegal.
    (1b) Any killing of moths is illegal.
    (1c) No killing of moths is legal.
    (1d) ?All killings of moths are illegal.
    In (2), on the other hand, the options are more typical of verbs – e.g. adding bare nouns as objects, adverbs, auxiliaries and “not”.
    (2a) Secretly killing moths is illegal.
    (2b) Having killed moths puts one in a difficult legal spot.
    (2c) Not killing moths is advisable.
    You could ignore this distinction by calling “killing” simply an ing-form in every case, but then you have no way to explain why the two lots of properties don’t combine; for instance you can’t combine adjectives and bare objects, or adverbs and determiners:
    (3a) *Secret killing moths is illegal.
    (3b) *Any secretly killing of moths is illegal.

    So if you really want to explain choices, you can’t just talk about ing-forms. And I don’t really see why you would want to limit yourself in that way. After all, you wouldn’t try to talk about “ed-forms”, given that -ed can mark either past tenses or past participles, and that past tenses can be marked either by -ed or by some irregular form.

    Of course it’s a pedagogical matter when and how you introduce these categories, but I’m pretty sure you do need to recognise the category that some of us call “gerunds”, even if you use a different term.

    • Agneta M-L Svalberg says:

      I guess the point I was trying to make was that if one instead talks about present participles used as nouns (i.e. deverbal nouns -your example 1) or as verbs (your example 2), then the term ‘gerund’ is not necessary. But you may find it useful.

      What is important for learners, I think, is the noun – verb distinction. From a learner perspective, it is quite neat to discover that -ing forms can be used as either, and how that is done. The tests you showed in your examples (Can it take a determiner? Can it take an object? etc.)are ones that I teach my students to use.

  5. Dick says:

    Fair enough – and I agree that the noun-verb distinction is basic. But is it really helpful to say that “killing” is being used as a verb in, say, “He got rid of the moths by killing them” (where I would describe it as a gerund)? What’s verb-like about its function there? As the object of “by”, it can only be replaced by nouns, not by verbs.

    • Agneta M-L Svalberg says:

      Well – it would be modified by an adverb (by killing them efficiently). Also – ‘killing’ can’t be replaced by a noun, ‘killing them’ can.I’d call ‘killing a non-finite verb in this context, which makes ‘killing them’ a clause. Clauses can take the place of NPs/Noun Groups. That analysis – it seems to me – also explains the parallelism ‘Not killing moths seems silly’ ‘For them not to kill moths seems silly’, i.e. non-finite clauses albeit of different kinds in both.

      My perspective may come from looking at it from a language use rather than theory internal perspective – and I may well be missing important angles on this issue.

  6. Dick says:

    Yes, I agree that “killing” is a verb in the clause “killing them”. But saying that “killing” is a gerund means that it’s also a verb, so the clause it heads is used wherever a noun-phrase can be used – which is not true of infinitival or participial clauses. That’s why you can say “by killing them” but not *”by to kill them” or *”by killed them”.

    I don’t think our different analyses have anything to do with different perspectives. We’re both using exactly the same kinds of evidence and arguments, and I’m as keen as anyone else on throwing light on language use.

  7. Robert Cavender says:

    It’s beginning to, Agnetta. I’ve just been looking at a WJEC site in which there is an activity on analysing variations in language use here
    In the news headline “The Slambash Wangs of a Compo Gormer”, (translated as ‘the fighting fantasies of a comprehensive nerd)’slambash’ (fighting)is described as a verbal noun. However, in what sense could ‘fighting’ be said to be behaving adjectivally, premodifying ‘wangs’ (fantasies)? How should we describe the premodifying words in phrases such as ‘fighting talk’ ‘whispering grass’ ‘talking heads’?

    • Agneta M-L Svalberg says:

      I think ‘fighting talk’/’fighting spirit’ might be different from ‘fighting fantasies’. Probably the first two have the structure of ‘red socks’ while the latter is like ‘table tennis'(notice the stress on table).

      I would say that in ‘fighting talk’/ ‘fighting spirit’, ‘fighting’ is an adjective, i.e. it is used as an adjective. It is not much like an adjective in that it is not gradable – ?’very fighting talk’ but it does fit in the ‘slot’ between determiner and noun, e.g. ‘his fighting talk’. It seems to me that it describes the character of the talk/spirit. I can’t see any reason to consider it a noun. Noun + Noun is,of course, a possible structure – as in’table tennis’ – but’fighting talk’ or ‘fighting spirit’ as I understand it is not a compound, e.g. it does not have the stress pattern of a compound.

      Just to complicate things, I am not sure what ‘fighting fantasies’ mean. If they are fantasies about fighting, and said with the stress on ‘fighting’then it would be a noun + noun compound, and ‘fighting’ hence a noun.

      By the same token, ‘whispering grass’ Adj + N
      but ‘whispering gallery’ N + N, with stress on ‘whispering’. Notice ‘softly whispering grass’ is ok but not *’softly whispering gallery’.


      • Agneta M-L Svalberg says:

        I got a bit carried away at the end! The final example was irrelevant rubbish.Delete.Hope the rest makes sense.

  8. Dick says:

    I agree with your diagnosis, Agneta, but there’s an easier way to think about examples with ‘V-ing N’. If it means the same as ‘N that V-s’, V-ing is a participle; e.g. ‘talking head’ means ‘head that talks’ and ‘whispering grass’ means ‘grass that whispers’. But if it means the same as ‘N P V-ing’, V-ing is a ‘verbal noun’ (i.e. either a noun or a gerund); e.g. ‘fighting talk’ means ‘talk about fighting’ (and ‘dining room’ means ‘room for dining’).


    • Agneta M-L Svalberg says:

      Thanks Dick. I like the ‘N that V-s’ versus ‘N P V-ing’ contrast. I agree that it’s an easier way to talk about it. Very useful & my students will benefit.

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