How to avoid teaching grammar as a list of rules

We need to explicitly teach grammar as a meaning-making tool, not a list of rules, say our grammar columnists

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Imagine a glass with some water in it. Language allows us to construe this image in infinitely different ways. 

For example:

  • a thing: fairly vague
  • a glass: less vague
  • a glass with water in it: highlights the glass
  • the water in the glass: highlights the water
  • a half-full glass: profiles the amount of liquid against the glass; metaphorically ‘good’
  • a half-empty glass: profiles the amount of liquid against the glass; metaphorically ‘bad’
  • the ominous crystal liquid waiting patiently in the murderous vessel: highly specific

And so on. 

If you were to ask a pupil to write about the glass, then, they have at their disposal an infinite amount of choices. Because of grammar. 

But how explicitly do we teach grammar as a meaning-making tool, rather than just as a set of rules?

Making grammar choices

Let’s go back to the glass. Using a rather vague noun phrase such as a thing could be brilliant if you wanted to withhold information from your audience, and make them wonder what that thing could be, perhaps to build a sense of tension. 

A full sentence, such as the ominous crystal liquid waiting patiently in the murderous vessel might be just the thing you need, if you wanted to create a vivid image of foreboding and malevolent intent (and weren’t too bothered about winning any literary awards…). 

We can apply this to other areas of grammar, too.

Let’s see how it might work in relation to clause structures. 

(1) The protestors destroyed the shop.

This has the prototypical English word order of Subject (the protestors) > Verb (destroyed) > Object (the shop). 

In this construal, the protestors are what's profiled and highlighted, since they appear in ‘Subject’ position, and are the agent (ie, the instigator). 

As they appear at the beginning of the clause, they stand out in our attention, or we might want to say that they are foregrounded. This choice might be used if we want to assign blame to the protestors by highlighting their role in destroying the shops. 


Alternatively, we could downplay their role and remove them from the clause completely: 

(2) The shop was destroyed.

Here we have exactly the same event being described, but a different construal, and a different choice of grammatical structure – the passive. In the passive version, the shop becomes the ‘Subject’, but this function slot is filled by a patient (ie, the undergoer). 

The passive construction allows us to grammatically remove the agent from the clause, and so downplays any kind of blame or responsibility ascribed to the protestors. 

Note how the grammar of the clause is the choice that creates meaning. 


A kind of ‘meeting point’ between the two would be to include the protestors, but in a preposition phrase:

(3) The shop was destroyed by the protestors.


A further option would be to omit any kind of participant, and simply have something such as:

(4) The destroyed shop.

Classroom options

How might you work this into a lesson?

You could ask students to draw images to represent sentences (1) – (4). Doing this should reveal which participants are ‘present’ or ‘masked’. 

You could ask students to think about motivations for different construals. If we wanted to blame and criticise the protestors, which sentence might we choose, and why?

Or take a piece of writing (just a sentence will do) from a piece of fiction you are studying, and ask your students to ‘reconstrue’ it, using a different set of grammatical choices. How does the new version contrast with the original, in terms of meaning?

Ian Cushing is a teaching fellow in English linguistics at University College London and a doctoral researcher in applied linguistics at Aston University. Mark Brenchley is an associate research fellow at the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. He works on the Growth in Grammar project, which is seeking to understand what grammatical development in student writing looks like

Further reading

Biber, D., Conrad, S., & Leech, G. (2002) Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: England [pp.166-70, chapter 12].

Crystal, D. (2004) Making Sense of Grammar. Harlow: Pearson [Chapters 22, 70-72]

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