'Take a "simple" approach to teaching grammar'

A single-clause sentence has no less merit than a multi-clause one, say our grammar columnists – and here's why

Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

teaching grammar

Grammar terms can be a real pain. For one, there are different models of grammar, different frameworks for describing language, each coming with its own set of grammatical terms. For another, the terms themselves can be a little bit unclear. Open a glossary of grammatical terms, such as David Crystal’s excellent A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, and you’ll find a vast array of unusual sounding things: “pied piping”, “heavy noun phrase shift”, “backlooping”, and so on.

Whilst to the theoretical linguist these things are important and interesting (they really are!), what matters when it comes to school teaching is that students can understand and apply these terms as concepts for understanding how language works. With this in mind, let’s look at a particular grammatical framework – the grammatical content of the current national curriculum – and a particular set of terms that have been somewhat misapplied in the past.

The complexity of simpleness

Before the 2014 national curriculum, there was a preferred set of terms for how sentences are constructed: simple, compound and complex. Simple sentences had one clause (i.e., one verb), without any coordination – for example: “Mr Hyde shrank back." Compound sentences had two or more verbs, (i.e., two or more clauses) joined together by a coordinating conjunction – for example: "Mr Hyde shrank back and returned to his house." Complex sentences had two or more verbs (i.e., two or more clauses) joined together by a subordinating conjunction – for example: "Mr Hyde shrank back although he remained waiting in the shadows."

Intuitive though the terms are, there are actually a number of issues with this particular taxonomy. Most of all, it implies that they exist in a hierarchy, with complex sentences somehow “better” than simple ones. That’s clearly nonsense, implying an absolute value judgement based on how many verbs a sentence has. After all, it’s perfectly possible to have a ‘simple’ sentence that is semantically rich:

“A fortnight later, by excellent good fortune, the doctor gave one of his pleasant dinners to some five or six old cronies, all intelligent, reputable men and all judges of good wine.”

Here, we have descriptive, world-building detail focused on the participants and their qualities, expressed through the use of noun phrases, rather than verbs of action or thought. According to old taxonomy, it’s a simple sentence – but semantically and syntactically it’s actually pretty complex.

What might follow from this – and research supports this [1] – is that students can fall into the trap of believing certain grammatical features have intrinsic merit. It’s a bit like thinking along the lines of “adding adjectives in makes it more descriptive”, “avoid simple sentences because they look basic”, or “use complex sentences because they make the writing look fancier”. To us, that’s a bad grammar pedagogy – a formulaic approach to writing that just won’t wash.

Get your clause out

Given the above discussion, you’ll be pleased to hear that simple, compound and complex have been superseded by new terms in the 2014 national curriculum. The new terms are “single-clause” and “multi-clause”. Remember that a clause is simply a group of words which has a verb as its most important word, expressing an action, a state, a process, a question or a command. So, the old “simple” sentences are accounted for by “single-clause” sentences, and “compound/complex” sentences are accounted for by “multi-clause” sentences. It’s a welcome move, both grammatically and pedagogically sensible, as it should help us shift students away from thinking that specific clause structures having intrinsic merit and towards thinking about what’s most important: how different grammatical choices shape meaning.   

Applying this in the classroom

So, how can you incorporate this knowledge into your lessons? Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Take a text that makes extensive use of single-clause sentences. Imagist poetry works particularly well here. Ask students to rewrite it, using multi-clause structures instead. What happens? How does this affect the balance and rhythm of the text?

  • Study the clause structure of newspaper headlines. How do these differ depending on the type of newspaper? Can you think of possible reasons why this might be the case?

Ian Cushing teaches English linguistics at University College London and is a doctoral researcher in applied linguistics at Aston University, working on grammar teaching at secondary school level. 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 actually looks like.

[1] Myhill, D. (2008). Ways of Knowing: Writing with Grammar in Mind. English Teaching: Practice and Critique 4(3): 77-96

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Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

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