Grammar can be taught through jokes. And poems. And rail announcements. Ronald Carter explains.
Here is a joke told by the comedian Billy Connolly: I was walking down the street one day and I met a guy who had a dog on a lead.
"Does your dog bite," I said?
"No," he said.
So I bent down and stroked the dog. It bit my hand, right on the knuckle.
"I thought you said your dog doesn't bite," I said.
"It's not my dog," he said.
In just a few lines of Connolly's joke, these grammatical usages can be found: the simple past (said) contrasting with the past continuous tense (was walking) for narration; differences between definite (the) and indefinite (a) articles, the order in which they are used in texts and why; the uses of "your" as a general pronoun and as a personal pronoun; the function of the demonstrative "there" when compared with "here".
Armed with such an analysis, students can go on to compose their own joke and analyse it. Soon they should be able to explain grammatically and textually these lines from the film Airplane!: Stewardess: Please put your seatbelts on. There's a problem in the cabin.
Passenger: What is it?
Stewardess: It's a little room in the front of the plane where the pilot sits but don't worry about that now.
For the past decade, debates have been raging around national curriculum Orders in England and Wales. Meantime, post-16 English language work in schools, colleges and universities has quietly made advances in the development of formal language study.
Many of the new pedagogies have been linked to the latestA-levels in English language. the approaches of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, in particular, indicate how new theories can be integrated with teaching. Teachers remain, though, at times uneasily aware that the connection between knowing about grammar and knowing how to use it is complex and needs further research.
In current research, grammar study is linked to interpreting and constructing texts. Texts rather than isolated sentences are placed at the centre, so that students learn to be conscious of how grammar works and to use grammatical structures for different purposes.
Grammar in a joke functions differently from the grammar in a public notice. The grammatical choices available in a formal letter are correspondingly different from the grammatical choices open to us in texts such as letters to friends.
English teachers have always felt more comfortable with texts than sentences; after all, most English degrees are concerned almost exclusively with text study. And if the aim is to encourage pupils towards more proficient use of English, it is the ability to put clauses and sentences together and to engage with complete texts which marks proficiency. Knowledge of grammar within sentences is by no means sufficient either for using English or understanding how it is used. The boundaries of the clause and the sentence have to be crossed. For example, D H Lawrence's poem "Gloire de Dijon" begins: When she rises in the morning I linger to watch her; She spreads the bath-cloth underneath the window And the sunbeams catch her Glistening white on the shoulders...
The poem contains grammatical ambiguities which cross beyond sentence boundaries: the personal pronoun "she" can refer to the sun or a woman, "white" is used as both noun and adjective, subtle use of the simple present tense ("rises", "spreads", "catch") conveys recurrent and enduring actions.
You don't have to use works of literature. Students' own texts can be useful. Classroom discussion of their work can draw out how grammatical choices produce different effects. For example, two groups of key stage 4 pupils wrote quite different texts: We arrived at the station.
It was crowded and noisy.
We seemed to wait for ages.
The train arrived over 50 minutes late.
The train was a 125 express.
The train was bound for Newcastle.
We arrived at the crowded and noisy station and seemed to wait ages for the Newcastle-bound 125 express train, which was over 50 minutes late.
One text is not more correct than the other but the ordering of clauses produces different communicative effects. The first does not signal one piece of information as more significant than others. It reads as a series of flat, objective statements in the manner of a Hemingway short story. The second, ending with "which was over 50 minutes late", promotes the lateness over the destination of the train. Since this final clause is, however, subordinate, it carries less weight than the main clause describing the arrival at the station.
Final clauses are strong, main clauses stronger, final main clauses strongest.
Awareness of clause-patterning reveals the different effects produced when information is relegated to a subordinate clause, followed by a main clause. For example: "Although the Prime Minister accepted some criticisms of the plan, he reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the project," is much more positive than: "The Prime Minister reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the project, although he accepted some criticism of the plan."
Comparison of styles is one of the most valuable classroom strategies. Grammar is not a list of terms, it is a range of choices and strategies for communication. In the classroom, the many varied relationships between knowing about and knowing how to use grammar need to be explored in reading and writing texts.
Ronald Carter is professor of modern English language in the school of English studies, University of Nottingham, and the author of'Investigating English Discourse: language, literacy, literature' (Routledge).