Grammar matters - if u want 2 b loved

14th June 2013 at 01:00
If your students loathe lessons about syntax and spelling, explain how `bad' language can be a romantic turn-off

Grammar can arouse heated debate - even among adults who are well- acquainted with its intricate rules. But students may be intrigued to learn it can also be a turn-off.

"Abuse" of the English language has the power to sabotage friendships and even romantic relationships, according to dating website OkCupid. The site looked at 500,000 first contacts between its users and concluded that "netspeak, bad grammar and poor spelling are huge turn-offs" when creating a first impression and developing an online relationship.

Some of the biggest passion killers were "ur", "u", "wat" and "wont", the website concluded. Online suitors also loathed "luv" and "realy". Yet they liked the correct use of apostrophes - something that is often the first thing to be abandoned in text-speak.

"Our negative correlation list is a fool's lexicon," said Christian Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid. "These all make a terrible first impression. In fact . the worst six words you can use in a first message are all stupid slang."

Men, he added, were most likely to use clumsy or offensive language, such as misguided physical compliments.

Grammar is a linguistic minefield. For some it provides clarity and shows finesse but others regard it as the domain of pedants. How do your students feel? How important is language to them? And when would they choose to use it more formally?

When the BBC reported this story on its website it noted that the 17th- century poet John Dryden is said to have popularised the idea that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Centuries later, Winston Churchill, evidently amused by the debate, is said to have commented, "This is something up with which I will not put."

Meanwhile John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University in the US, says that "moral panic" over grammar, which in ancient times was twinned with philosophy as a discipline, has been around since at least AD63.

Of course, there is a serious point to grammar. "The writer who neglects punctuation or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood . for the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid," Edgar Allen Poe wrote.

Arguments about the correct use of grammar are unlikely to go away and students are unlikely to abandon text-speak on their mobile phones. But they may take more interest in the correct use of language if it helps them to write a persuasive Valentine's Day card.

Class questions

  • How does the grammar used by Shakespeare or Chaucer differ from today's? (You could also compare obsolete vocabulary and slang with modern words.)
  • Is there any point to apostrophes? Do we need them or are they just a nuisance?
  • Should native English speakers be taught grammar in more detail, as speakers of other languages are?
  • How many words can you remove from a sentence before it becomes incomprehensible?
  • What is the literary value of a more refined or complicated sentence structure?
    • Modern foreign languages

      A whole new ftbol game

      The use of social media sites in language learning does not have to preclude good grammar - in fact, it can introduce students to words through a familiar medium.

      We begin with a lesson starter of verb conjugation. "Tuiteo, tuiteas, tuitea ." The group soon deduces the words' meaning - tuit (tweet) and tuitear (Twitter) will be included in the 2014 edition of the Royal Spanish Academy's dictionary.

      Next we follow an El Clsico football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona on the Twitter feed of sports daily Marca. Students quickly appreciate the value of the medium: bite-sized chunks of colloquial language prompting immediate intellectual engagement. A yellow card is instructive. "Amarilla? (yellow) That means the noun must be feminine." Then up pops the construction antes de plus infinitive ("before doing something").

      Twitter is a rapid-fire vocabulary builder, multiplying your stock of "ar" verbs in minutes: marcar (mark), salvar (save), ganar (win) and, more unusually, amonestar (to warn or admonish). It is grammar coaching by stealth. Estrella means "star", for example. More exotic is the expressive power of the reflexive verb estrellarse, as Karim Benzema's strike explodes off the side netting. Given a choice, which teacher wouldn't have Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo on their side?

      Dr Heather Martin is head of modern languages at St Faith's Independent Prep School in Cambridge, England


      It's all Greek to me

      Today, the term "grammar" can be used as a generic and derisory way to refer to any aspect of English to which people object. But historically people viewed it very differently. The word grammar derives from the Greek grammatike (tekhne) meaning "(art) of letters" and in ancient times it was often linked to philosophy.

      The first known attempts to study grammar took place in Iron Age India, perhaps as early as the 6th century BC. In the West it emerged as a discipline among Hellenistic scholars from the 3rd century BC. The oldest extant treatise in Greek on the subject is the 2nd century BC Art of Grammar, attributed to Dionysius Thrax. Latin grammar developed by following Greek models, while the Auraicept na n-Eacute;ces, an Irish primer, may have been written as early as the 7th century AD.

      In the Middle Ages, grammar was considered one of the seven liberal arts in Europe, alongside disciplines such as rhetoric and arithmetic. It was not until the latter part of the 18th century that grammar came to be widely understood as a subfield of the emerging field of modern linguistics.

      There has always been a difference between language as it is written and as it is spoken, with the rules of grammar being derived from the way language was used by the upper classes. In this way, it became essential not only for communication but as an indication of the user's standing in society. It would be interesting to get your students to dissect this in historic essays, letters and poems.


      Way with words

      While we live in an age of relentless mass communication - think Facebook and Twitter - some say there has been an equally unstoppable decline in the quality of how we use language.

      It is against this backdrop of emails, texts and tweets that dynamic septuagenarian N.M. Gwynne brings us Gywnne's Grammar, a little book of grammatical treats designed to engage and enthuse even the most reluctant teenager (and which may also show their teachers a thing or two).

      A former businessman who worked in London and Australia before turning to teaching, Gwynne has taught the children of a Silicon Valley millionaire via Skype and instructed students as young as 2 in Latin. His teaching repertoire includes English, Greek, French, arithmetic and history, and in a single day, Gwynne says, he has taught people as far apart geographically as India, Europe and the US.

      But his message is simple: "We cannot think without words.we think in sentences.all our thoughts can only be properly expressed in a complete (for which read grammatically correct) sentence."

      The response to the book has been universally positive. Witty, engaging and highly educational stuff.

      Gwynne's Grammar: the ultimate introduction to grammar and the writing of good English is published by Ebury Press.

      Related resources


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