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A good reference?

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Joined: 26 Nov 2004
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Location: New Mexico

PostPosted: Fri Nov 26, 2004 7:01 pm    Post subject: A good reference? Reply with quote

I was wondering if anyone could suggest a good reference book on English grammar, more for myself than for my students. I haven't had any formal TEFL training, and my teaching experience has been conversational. I'm going to Brazil in February to teach "for real" and I think I need to study my grammar!
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Joined: 26 Oct 2004
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Location: UK > China > Japan > UK again

PostPosted: Sat Nov 27, 2004 8:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It's been said so often that it's almost a cliche, but it is nevertheless very true: "If you only have one grammar book, make sure it is Michael Swan's Practical English Usage".

Despite his immense knowledge and usually perceptive analyses, however, I sometimes feel that he says things that are not quite true or that complicate matters unnecessarily, and he can at times sound a little prescriptive rather than entirely descriptive (that is, usages that he marks as wrong or ungrammatical can seem fine to me). I can't give you specific examples because I didnt take my copy with me the last time I left the UK! (I know that contradicts the advice in the very first sentence above, but I have bought this book FOUR TIMES over the years I've been abroad, and might well buy it again one day, so I feel I am familar enough with it to dish it a bit). Somehow managing without it though, because...

I don't have my nose stuck in just grammar books anymore - I now often prefer to check a dictionary instead (these have a lot of grammatical information in them, and reinforce and make very visible and obvious any grammatical "rules" - should be more "observations" I think! - through sheer force of example(s)).

So, I would strongly recommend you buy an advanced learner's dictionary (with accompanying CD-ROM) and install the CD-ROM onto your computer before you leave, or take the CD-ROM with you (if you don't have a computer and can't afford the luggage space/weight that the paper dictionary would take up). I wrote quite a detailed post about the general benefits of learner dictionaries for Dave's, the links are here:

Getting back to the grammar books, great though the Swan is (it's a joy to browse due to its very extensive index and cross references), it is in A-Z format, so it may be hard for you to get an "overall" view of English grammar or discern any authorial viewpoint regarding possible pedagogical implications. For these reasons, you might want to consider getting a more complete grammar instead of a "grammar dictionary" like Swan's. Swan himself in the introductory matter of PEU recommends John Eastwood's The Oxford Guide to English Grammar (it has a similar font and general feel to Swan, and should prove dependable for a teacher at any stage in their career; it is, in fact, probably my favourite grammar book at the moment. Do a search for "Eastwood" on the forums to find the other comments I've made about it).

The COBUILD English Grammar is very good, but I don't think it provides quite the same "teacher-centred and friendly" guidance as the two above Oxford books...but you should definitely try to check it out.

There are more "detailed" grammatical descriptions of the language available (e.g. the corpus-based Longman grammars by Leech et al), and books covering "Systemic-Functional" approaches etc, but I would be wary of getting into stuff like that because it can start to assume you want to learn and adopt a particular grammatical metalanguage; certainly, there is a danger of terminological overload for little appreciable short-term gain, and just because you don't use a consistent metalanguage doesn't mean you are incapable of understanding the concepts behind it at whatever isolated and pressing point in time, does it! If you really do want to get to grips with fancy terms, however, Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner's Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar is EXCELLENT and very affordable. Wink Tom MacArthur's The Oxford Companion to the English Language is also well worth a look.

At the other extreme, there are the grammar practice books such as your Murphy's, and Azar's etc that are probably more for students than teachers. You will want to become familar with these simply because some of your students might be using them, or you want to set exercises for homework, but I don't think you should depend on them to inform your teaching much less your thinking too much (unless you really are pressed for time and need a "dummies' " overview quickly). I suppose they will show you what your average student should be expected to know after studying grammar explicitly, no more and no less. Cool Alternatives to Murphy's books would be the COBUILD Student's Grammar (with exercises), or Swan and Walter's How English Works (I prefer this to their lower-level The Good Grammar Book).

Finally, a few books about grammar that go beyond the "What is grammar?" kind of questions you may be sick and tired of by now, and go some way to providing decent answers are:

Michael Lewis, The English Verb. More loved than loathed by teachers, it seems, this really is a book that every teacher should read in the first few years of their careers. It's a slim volume, so consider packing it and saving it for (a) rainy day(s). (If you feel that Lewis is too discursive, Leech gets down to nitty-gritty intricacies in his Meaning and the English Verb, Third Edition).

Celce-Murcia, M and Larsen-Freeman, D, The Grammar Book, Second Edition. Some people on Dave's have knocked this, but I think it is a wonderful book, and a very affordable way to get an overview of how discourse factors affect grammatical choices. The only drawback is that it is big and heavy. An impressive, hefty tome.

Penny Ur, Grammar Practice Activities. I've included this straight after The Grammar Book because I think it demonstrates how superficial a lot of supposedly "communicative" activities can become when divorced from any serious analysis of real data (The Grammar Book also has some duff activities in it, but at least it has analysis aplenty so you can start imagining better activities yourself. If you really must take an "activity" kind of book, at least make sure it's something like George Yule's Explaining English Grammar, which kind of strikes a happy medium between the Ur and The Grammar Book).

Lastly, one really nice, affordable book that could fulfil many roles for you, and may consequently be just what you're looking for, is Martin Parrott's Grammar for English Language Teachers.

Scott Thornbury seems to be the "discovery" methods guru man nowadays (replacing Tomlinson and Bolitho, and Tony Lynch to my mind), and has attracted quite a following. I didn't have time to check out his About Language, but I am sure it would be pretty interesting (if you like this kind of approach).
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 28, 2004 10:01 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I find Collins Cobuild English Grammar (I have the 1990 edition) easier to understand than Swan (I have the 1995 edition).

It has the benefit of being taken from The Bank of English - a Corpus of the most used English terms in English (British and American and international) - with words in the corpus taken from newspapers, magazines, books, TV, radio, and real life-conversation. I therefore (I believe) Cobuild gives a more accurate picture of the way grammar IS USED today i.e. descriptive not prescriptive.

Navigation of Swan is based on an alphabetical index (sometimes grammatical terminology sometimes the word or phrase you need) at the back or a List of entries (a particular word) at the front - for someone who (a few years ago now) was teaching without having learnt grammar at school and therefore lacking the terminology I found this very frustrating.

Cobuild on the other hand not only has the index at the back but also has a functional table of contents at the front. The book is split into 10 main areas
Chapter 1) Referring to people and things - nouns Pronouns & determiners
Chapter 2) Giving information about people and things - adjectives, possessives, quantifiers, numbers, qualifiers
Chapter 3) Making a message - transivity, complementation, phrase
Chapter 4) Varying the message - mood, negation, modality
Chapter 5) Expressing time - Verb tenses, adjuncts of time
Chapter 6) Expressing manner & place - adjuncts, manner, place
Chapter 7) Reporting what people say & think
Chapter Cool Combining messages - subordination & coordination
Chapter 9) Making texts - Cohesion, Ellipsis
Chapter 10) The structure of information

Just quickly flicking, to the first terminology page in each book has thrown up an example of the different styles

Adjective -
Swan: a word like green, hungry, impossible, which is used when we describe people, things, events etc. Adjectives are used in connection with nouns and pronouns, a green apple; she's hungry.
Cobuild: a word used to tell you more about a thing, such as its appearance, colour, size or other qualities e.g. a pretty blue dress.

Hope this helps in your selection

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 28, 2004 12:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good points there about the COBUILD, Helen, I did rather mention it "only in passing" (i.e. give its clarity short shrift), even though it is a book that I have found very useful and have bought several times also; and it was probably silly of me to say it is isn't more "teacher-centred or friendly" than Swan (especially for teachers who are total novices - but then, using and getting to grips with any grammar book is going to be a "learning" experience for a novice!).

What I should probably have instead said was that Swan is a book in which you can find at least a glimmering of an answer to almost every (student) question, if you are prepared to dig a bit. I'm not sure which of the two books an experienced teacher would still be wanting to refer to after several years (it seems I made the decision to not bring either with me this time, and am not sure if I want to buy yet more copies of them!). Cool

One thing I really like about the Eastwood are the summaries that he provides at the beginning of each chapter (very useful for zeroing in quickly on the section you need):

Introduction to adjectives (Adjectves are words like short, old, cheap, happy, nice, electric. Most adjectives express quality; they tell us what something is like).

The position of adjectives (An adjective can come before a noun: a cheap shirt. It can also be a complement after be. This shirt is cheap).

Adjectives used in one position only (...)
Adjectives after nouns and pronouns (...)
The order of adjectives (...)
Amusing and amused, interesting and interested (...)
The + adjective (...)
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 17, 2005 11:31 am    Post subject: this is a quick reply Reply with quote

this is a quick reply
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