Six despised bits of grammar


Teachers and students just love to hate grammar. Over the years that I’ve taught and observed others teaching I think that there are certain grammar points that are more hated than others. Here are six of the most generally despised and despicable grammar points, in my humble opinion.

1 Have got This isn’t hard to explain in terms of what it means, or even really how it’s formed. No, the problem is when you have to teach it. I always hated spending time on have got with beginner students after they had done to be and then come to present simple and have to re-explain yet another way of making negatives and questions. And THEN when the verb have came up in present simple as in have a shower, have a nap it just got more and more complicated! Fortunately, the order of grammar points is changing in many books (including my own) and have got can come later. Beginners can get by perfectly well with a simple have to talk about possession.

2 Present simple Third person s. Again, not hard to explain and not hard to understand (although I did once witness a teacher get in a terrible muddle trying to say why 3rd person singular took an ‘s’ in the present simple; the teacher said it was “because it feels kind of plural but isn’t really plural” – leaving me and the students completely flabbergasted). So why is this hated? Obviously because students keep forgetting it, and you begin to think you could spend half your teaching life simply correcting this point. In fact, this grammar point is so hated that some have suggested we could do away with altogether in an English as a Lingua Franca approach. You know, take it out and stage a public execution. Another explanation given for the constant recurring error is that it’s simply acquired later. But it’s still an important one, that I think we all love to hate.

3 Present perfect. God I sometimes hate the present perfect. It’s pretty rare to find an equivalent in other languages so it makes teaching the meaning and use of this tense often a bit of a problem. And it can be difficult to write material for too if you want to include real people. How many materials writers have done something using a real person to illustrate present perfect and then hope and pray that the person doesn’t go and die or do something horrible?

4 Present perfect continuous. This is the tense that actually prompted this blogpost. Of all the grammar points that are criticized or used to trash grammar, this is the most often quoted. I have no proof, but I also suspect that “bloody” is a pretty strong collocate with present perfect continuous. This is a despised tense because it can be hard to find lots of authentic and natural examples, it’s got all the problems of present perfect plus an –ing form thrown in and finally it’s not even that frequent. Actually I almost feel a bit sorry for the present perfect continuous. Can we all be a little less horrible about it for a while perhaps?

5 Question tags If getting the auxiliary and the negative/affirmative thing right wasn’t hard enough we also have the whole business of the pronunciation of this grammar point and the whole “are you really asking or are you just checking” thing which can easily get spun into a long-winded explanation. I think that this is another one that some have suggested be eliminated from English teaching, replacing it with an all-purpose tag like innit which kind of horrifies me. I don’t think I’ve ever said innit. Ever.

6 Any grammar point the teacher doesn’t understand. Worse than all of these are the grammar points that teachers themselves are unsure of. I saw a teacher literally have a breakdown in our staffroom because she didn’t know anything about what clauses (e.g. I think what you need is a nice cold drink) and it was in the unit of her CAE coursebook that she had to teach that day. For many native English-speaker teachers especially the lack of knowledge of their own grammar is cause for great anxiety and fear. And, as we all know, fear can lead to hatred.

Well, that’s quite enough from me. What do you think? Are there other grammar points you feel are, rightly or wrongly, generally despised, looked down on or kicked about a bit? Post a comment.

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 10:57 am  Comments (30)  
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  1. I think that there is probably a direct relation between the grammar you hate and the learners you teach. (your Spanish learners show through in the list above)

    Here in Spain, the 3rd person ‘s’ seems to be difficult for many learners, but near impossible out here in Extremadura where the local accent drops the final ‘s’ in their own language!

    I imagine that teachers working in Russia hate articles and teachers in Laos the very idea of verb tenses rather than using adverbs.

    But in order to contribute to the list, my vote goes to non defining relative clauses. Now there’s a barrel of laughs lesson!

    • You are probably right Troy about the learners and the grammar. However, the 3rd person s has been flogged all over the world I think! It may be the universal.
      Thanks for the comment too!

  2. Great list here Linsday. I agree with your list. I think it’s pretty universal. I’ll add phrasal verbs. Students obsess over these, but it is not a difficult piece of grammar and they hardly warrant the attention that we devote to them.

    I also love the pic of the Hulk 🙂

    • Hulk rules this blog! And you’re right about phrasal verbs, students do tend to agonize over them.

  3. I have to agree with you about question tags not least because they are so bitty and annoying to fit into a normal lesson. Has anyone found a way of teaching them without going crazy or beginning to nurtute homicidal tendencies towards the less gifted member of the class?

    However I generally enjoy teaching grammar and both my students and I love that “Yes!” moment when the penny does drop. I especially love teaching the conditionals for some reason…

    • I’m afraid I can’t help with the question tag rage Catherine. They are a bit bitty and annoying to fit any more than one into a piece of material without it sounding quite awkward.

      But, I do agree with you about the “YES” moments. Those are great, aren’t they?

  4. I do so despise subject vs object questions and so do most of my trainees I think 🙂

    I have seen so many teachers get their own and their students’ ….ahem… in a right twist, it’s unbelievable…

  5. For me it has to be the future continuous. I’m fine on the ‘At 6 o’clock I’ll be …ing’ type. But it’s that ‘in the normal course of things’ business that I find impossible. There seem to me all sorts of other times that we use it (when we could quite easily do without) and I’ve never come up with or found a decent explanation of why. I’ll be checking back here later to see if anyone can help 😉

    • Maybe the thing to do there is to focus on the progressive aspect of the verb? I think I’d focus more there, just as I would focus more on the perfect aspect of the future perfect. Try to show the similarities between these and their present and past equivalents?

  6. I have got (gotten?) thoroughly sick of trying to teach the articles to speakers of languages that don’t have them at all. Turkish and Russian are two that come to mind immediately. As a result, I have taken the quick way out, and don’t use articles myself anymore … (oh, if only!!)

  7. Reported speech drives me mad sometimes. Not only are there lots of rules to remember but they often don’t seem to reflect reality. This idea that you should move back a tense when using reported speech is nonsense. There are lots of times when people use reported speech in the present simple or report a story in past simple rather than past perfect. Also, those stupid transformation exercises that many coursebooks have seem like a waste of time to me. How often do people actually report what was said word for word?

  8. I love the Present Perfect Continuous.

    It is, in fact, dear Lindsay, the most eloquent of forms…

    I’ve been writing and speaking in the Present Perfect Continuous for pretty much as long as I can remember, it’s been popping up in my blog posts – it’s got that sneaky way, it has, of just barging on in, blending time in a continuum, encapsulating both the present and past yet remaining true to its core and momentary timeliness… I can’t think of another tense I have more loved teaching…

    but the rest of the list, I’ll give you kudos for.

    • Well it’s good to see SOMEONE standing up for the poor ppcont! 🙂

  9. This is why I don’t teach grammar. Besides, by the time the students get to me after high school in Japan, they have had grammar up to the brim! I’ll help them fix it, and use it, but I don’t “teach” it. It’s not the grammar’s fault, it’s the way we approach it that’s to blame!

    (But I will add, either of the past perfects are despicable. Absolutely useless, the pair of them, but by the time we get to the higher level textbooks we have to teach them because we have used up everything else. Exposes the tyranny of the syllabus for what it is….. sorry!)

  10. […] Clandfield has a new Six Things post, Six despised bits of grammar. This is one of my favourite blogs at the moment. Who’d think that these short lists would […]

  11. I don’t mind the grammar – it’s the words I hate. There are millions of them.
    At least the grammar ends.

  12. Apropos of the picture, I think the Incredible Hulk could probably use a little help with point number two.

    I mean if he’s gonna refer to himself in 3rd person, he needs to get that -s in there. Maybe some simple re-phrasing in feedback could set him down the right path.

    –“Aha, I see what you’re saying, so…when Hulk is maaad, Hulk smashES.”

    • Very good point there. I’ll let you, ahem, correct the Hulk on his inflections and syntax though…

  13. Hello,

    I”ve always found that students have difficulties, not really with understanding the conditionals, but using them, particularly the third conditional and its confusing use of the past perfect tense.

    Also, as you quite rightly mentioned, when a teacher is unsure about certain grammar points the students will immediately pick up on these ‘shady’ areas and feel inclined to completely ignore them… this happened to me when I first started teaching, it was a nightmare situation!

    • Hi there

      I admit that there are lots of “bits” to the third conditional. I guess for me that one never posed so much of a problem, as I felt the concept checking was quite straightforward (“did he do X? did she/he do Y?”) As for the avoidance-strategy to problematic bits of grammar I could not agree with you more. I’ve seen it happen loads of times.

  14. I do agree with Nick: phrasal verbs. Why do we teach them to Spanish students if they can use the corresponding latin synonyms? Besides, when they get used to the most frequent ones, they eventually find out any phrasal verb can have many other non-related meanings. A fiasco.

  15. Hi, great post! It usually takes ages for us, Poles, to grasp the idea of Present Perfect. What’s so “perfect” about it? 😉 And even when we do grasp it on the theoretical level, we still avoid using it just to be on the safe side. Another thing is the use of past simple to express hypothetical present and past perfect for hypothetical past (in conditionals, wish sentences, etc). What I’ve found to be really helpful here is translating a short text packed with the structures into Polish (student A) and then re-translating the Polish translation into English (student B). I hope I’ve made it clear enough. What the task does is help the students to focus on the differences between the languages and see that grammatical structures, not only words, also bear meaning.

    • I agree that translation can be helpful in times. And I am also at a loss why it’s called a “perfect” tense when as you point out it’s not exactly perfect in the other sense of the word.

  16. My most-hated grammar point is the Causative Form. It is very rarely used in everyday language and students have a really hard time grasping it, mainly because as a grammar phenomenon it does not exist (as far as I know) in any other language. Excellent blogpost once again, Lindsay! Vicky

    • Thanks Vicky!

  17. Point six captures the difficulty and often absurdity of “academic English” in more advanced ESL classes. My personal pet peeve is when the curriculum calls for extensive attention to relative clauses and unreal conditionals. How often do native speakers have to tell apart “which” vs “that” in relative clauses?

  18. I personally blame the Brits for all that emphasis on question tags. And I don’t think you’ll start using them less any time soon, will you? (Or the one in which the affirmative tagged verb stays affirmative because the main verb is negative…LET ME OUT OF HERE!)

    And happy holidays…

  19. Am still reeling from the shock that you’ve never said “innit”, or “int’it”, or “ennit” or any of the other regional variations of “isn’t it”. I think you must be one of the very few people who pronounce words in their entirety! Not sure whether to be impressed, or intimidated.

    • Ah, Clare please do not be intimidated or impressed or anything else. Of course I don’t pronounce all words in their entirety. I use regular contractions, plus things like doncha, and didja, and wanna and many other shortened forms very common in spoken English. However, innit to me sounds more British and not as common in the North American variety (of course fellow North Americans can correct me if I am wrong) which is what I speak. The other thing I had understood was that innit was being proposed as an all-purpose tag, as in “He’s smart, innit?” or similar. That, to me, does sound strange and more “marked” and frankly I don’t think I would put it into a syllabus as something students have to know beyond a receptive level.

      But again, I may be proven wrong by the English as a lingua franca people. We’ll see! Thanks for dropping by, and I hope not to have you reeling from shock at future posts.

      • Ah – the penny drops! I didn’t realise you were north American.

        I’ve also heard “innit” used as a kind of “default” tag in and around London. I’m not sure if non-native English speakers are that fazed by it, given the other challenges of understanding idiomatic London speech at full speed.

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