Six tired examples for teaching grammar


Have you ever eaten sushi? for Present Perfect being one of them!

"Have you ever eaten sushi?" for Present Perfect being one of them!

On one of my earlier postings, Scott Thornbury made a comment about certain sentences reoccurring in coursebooks. He was referring to example sentences that illustrate a particular grammar point, examples that are used or overused and have become quite tired. It got me thinking, and one of the first things I asked several teachers on Twitter was for the top overused sentences for teaching grammar. The responses came thick and fast… here are six of my favourites in no particular order.

1. Look, black clouds. It’s going to rain.

Used for teaching: “going to” to talk about a future event for which we have present evidence. The sentence Thornbury suggested could be “reduced to lawn manure” along with the book that contains it (!) 

2. I can / can’t dance. 

Used for teaching: modal verb can for ability. Submitted by Jamie Keddie of along with a video from Youtube of course to illustrate it. I agree, but feel that I can/can’t sing is also pretty heavily used.

3. While I was having breakfast, the phone rang.

Used for teaching: past continuous and past simple. God, we English teachers are always doing things when the phone rings! While I was having a shower the phone rang also feels pretty frequent. Submitted by Burcu Akyol from Turkey, who also has her own EFL blog for teachers.

4.  I’ve lost my keys so I can’t get in. 

Used for teaching: present perfect to talk about something with relevance NOW.  Submitted by Peter Travis at Splendid Speaking.

5. You mustn’t walk on the grass.

Used for teaching: mustn’t for (negative) obligation. Submitted by Mark Lloyd of The Speaking Cyclist. Mark adds that after this sentence you hear the teacher’s voice say something like: Is it OK to walk on the grass? Is it possible? No? Good. A delightfully English target sentence in my opinion.

6. If I won a million dollars (or insert other currency here) I would buy a house (or other expensive thing).

Used for teaching: second conditional. This one I felt just HAD to go in there. The second conditional is so often associated with wishing for large sums of money or winning the lottery. Maybe it’s because us English teachers are always broke!

So, there you have it. Next time you need to illustrate one of these grammar points, give these poor examples a break! They’ve been at it for a good thirty years or more! Feel free to suggest others below too.

And yes, you may have noticed that I am on Twitter now. If you want to take part in this kind of scintillating debate with me and other educators around the world then follow me at

Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 1:03 pm  Comments (12)  
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  1. Here’s another one that nearly made the list, because it’s so good. I could only have six in the original list, but wanted to add another here.

    “If I hadn’t drunk so much, I wouldn’t have this hangover.”

    Used for teaching: mixed conditionals. Submitted by Nick Bilbrough, author of Dialogue Activities. While this sentence might get a lot of use by teachers, I certainly don’t think it would feature in a modern international coursebook (alcohol being kept rather on the quiet in those books). Nick mentions that although he has heard this being used as a target sentence, he doesn’t actually think he’s heard it said in real life. Neither have I actually… (but substitute YOU for I, then it sounds frightening authentic… my wife has said it to me a few times at least)

  2. If it rains,you will get wet-didn’t make the list?
    There is a pen/book on the table-I get sick of that faster than the students.

    • You are right, of course. Those are two examples so tired they are exhausted! Can’t believe I forgot the pen on the table… maybe on its way out in this digital age? There is a laptop on the table will be the digital natives’ choice in the future?

  3. We also talk about the weather a lot, as in:
    I think it probably will/might/may/probably won’t rain tomorrow.

  4. The all-time favourite must be “My tailor is rich”, often cited (in the Spanish press) as the prototypical English sentence. I actually found a copy of the book that it first appears in (as far as I know): El Inglés sin Esfuerzo, by A. Chérel, Paris: Assimil, 1958. (There are also German and French versions). “My tailor is rich” is the first example in the first lesson, hence its fame, no doubt. (The second example – “My tailor is not rich” – suggests a tragic turn of events).

  5. “My postilion has been struck by lightning” must be up there too, although I think it’s been dropped from the new edition of Headway…..

    Read the views of David Crystal (and others) on ‘postilion sentences’ here:

  6. “The philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen” is another much quoted example, allegedly translated into or from Greek, by Henry Sweet as a schoolboy, and recollected many years later (1899). It forms part of the title of a paper by Guy Cook (Applied Linguistics, 2001) where he makes the case for “invented sentences” as opposed to “attested examples”, arguing that corpus-derived examples are not necessarily any less bizarre.

  7. I can still remember from 20 years back, when I had the misfortune to do the Inlingua method course, that “What’s this?” – “It’s a pen.” and “Where’s the pen?” – “It’s on the table.” was presented to us as some sort of divine formula for teaching vocab, as you could substitute any noun for pen (or table, I guess), or even wave the item about (realia was heavily encouraged) – which made enquiring as to its whereabouts rather superfluous, I felt.

    Substitution drills they were called, although most Inlingua ‘teachers’ I knew referred to them, for some strange reason, as ‘prostitution drills’. Perhaps it was the feeling that you were leading somebody on and conning them out of their cash that lead to the analogy?

  8. “My hovercraft is full of eels”?

    TEFLtastic blog-

    • And my nipples are exploding with delight!

  9. I love these. It is tempting to fall back on the stuff you`ve used before, without thinking about whether it actually makes sense or not – in the context, in modern life, in “real” English.
    For some reason, I got fixated on “camping” when teaching “will” vs “be going to”. I think I must have picked it up from a textbook early in my career, and just run with it. “I`m going camping this weekend” “Really? I’ll come too!”

    I hate camping. Every time I’ve been my tent has been flooded.

    I don`t tend to teach expicit grammar lessons much these days, but one must always be watchful of relying on the tried and trusted to get through a lesson….

  10. […] Six Tired Examples for Teaching Grammar […]

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