Crimes of grammar and other writing misdemeanours


Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

Writing an article like this is just asking for trouble. Already, I can hear one reader asking “Why do you need just?” Another suggesting that like should be replaced by such as. And yet another saying “fancy using a cliché like asking for trouble!”

Another will mutter: “Where’s your evidence?”

My evidence lies in the vehement protestations that I face when going through solutions to an editing test or grammar quiz with on-campus students in my writing courses at The University of Queensland, and no, that’s not deferential capitalisation. It is capital ‘T’.

Confirming evidence lies in the querulous discussion-board posts from dozens of students when they see the answers to quizzes on the English Grammar and Style massive open online course that I designed.

Katie Krueger/Flickr

Further evidence lies in the fervour with which people comment about articles such as the one that you are currently reading. For instance, a 2013 article 10 grammar rules you can forget: How to stop worrying and write proper by the style editor of The Guardian, David Marsh, prompted 956 comments. Marsh loves breaking “real” rules. The title of his recent book is For Who the Bell Tolls. I’d prefer properly to proper and whom to who, but not everybody else would.

Marsh’s 10 forgettable rules are ones that my favourite grammarian, Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls zombie rules: “though dead, they shamble mindlessly on”. A list of zombie rules invariably includes never beginning a sentence with “and”, “but”, or “because”, as well as the strictures that are a hangover from Latin: never split an infinitive and never end a sentence with a preposition. It (should it be they?) couldn’t be done in Latin, but it (they?) can be done in English. Just covering my bases here.

So, what’s my stance on adhering to Standard English? I’m certainly not a grammar Nazi, nor even a grammando, a portmanteau term that first appeared in The New York Times in 2012 that’s hardly any softer. Am I a vigilante, a pedant, a per(s)nickety person? Am I a snoot? Snoot is the acronym that the late David Foster Wallace and his mother — both English teachers — coined from Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or, for those with neither German nor a cache of obsolete words in their vocabulary, Syntax Nudniks of Our Time.

David Foster Wallace
yoosi barzilai Flickr

Foster Wallace reserves snoot for a “really extreme usage fanatic”, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun would have been to find mistakes in the late William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times magazine. Safire was a style maven who wrote articles with intriguing opening lines such as this: “A sinister force for solecism exists on Madison Avenue. It is the work of the copywrongers”.

Growing up with a mother who would stage a “pretend” coughing fit when her children made a grammar error clearly contributed to Foster Wallace’s SNOOTitude. His 50-page essay “Authority and American Usage”, published in 2005, constitutes a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, coverage of English grammar.

I need to be a bit of a snoot because part of my brief as a writing educator is to prepare graduates for their utilitarian need to function as writing workers in a writing-reliant workplace where professional standards are crucial and errors erode credibility. (I see the other part of my brief as fostering a love of language that will provide them with lifelong recreational pleasure.)

How do I teach students to avoid grammar errors, ambiguous syntax, and infelicities and gaucheries in style? In the closing chapter of my new book on effective writing, I list around 80 potential problems in grammar, punctuation, style, and syntax.

My hateful eight

My brief for this article is to highlight eight of these problems. Should I identify ones that peeve me the most or ones that cause most dissonance for readers? What’s the peevishness threshold of readers of The Conversation? Let’s go with mine, for now; they may also be yours. They are in no particular order and they depend on the writing context in which they are set: academic, corporate, creative, or journalistic.

Archaic language: amongst, whilst. Replace them with among and while.

Resistance to the singular “they” Here’s an unbearably tedious example from a book published in 2016 in London: “The four victims each found a small book like this in his or her home, or among his or her possessions, several weeks before the murder occurred in each case”. Replace his or her with their.

In January this year, The American Dialect Society announced the singular “they” as their Word of the Year for 2015, decades after Australia welcomed and widely adopted it.

Placement of modifiers. Modifiers need to have a clear, direct relationship with the word/s that they modify. The title of Rob Lowe’s autobiography should be Stories I Tell Only My Friends, not Stories I Only Tell My Friends. However, I’ll leave Brian Wilson alone with “God only knows what I’d be without you”, though I know that he meant “Only God knows what I’d be without you”.

And how amusing is this commentary, which appeared in The Times on 18 April 2015? “A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilised, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nevertheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel”.

Incorrect pronouns. The irritating genteelism of “They asked Agatha and myself to dinner” and the grammatically incorrect “They asked Agatha and I to dinner”, when in both instances it should be me .

Ambiguity/obfuscation “Few Bordeaux give as much pleasure at this price”. How ethical is that on a bottle of red wine of unidentified origin?

The wrong preposition The rich are very different to you and me. (Change “to” to “from” to make sense.) Not to be mistaken with. (Change “with” to “for”). No qualms with. (Change “with” to “about”.)

Alastair Bennett/Flickr

The wrong word. There are dozens of “confusable” words that a spell checker won’t necessarily help with: “Yes, it is likely that working off campus may effect what you are trying to do”. Ironically, this could be correct, but I know that that wasn’t the writer’s intended message. And how about practice/practise, principal/principle, lead/led, and many more.

Worryingly equivocal language. After the Easter strike some time ago, the CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce, sent out an apologetic letter that included the sentence: “Despite some sensational coverage recently, safety was never an issue … We always respond conservatively to any mechanical or performance issue”. I hoped at the time that that’s not what he meant because I felt far from reassured by the message.

Alert readers will have noticed that I haven’t railed against poorly punctuated sentences. I’ll do that next time. A poorly punctuated sentence cannot be grammatically correct.

The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.

However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.

It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.

So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”

What we know about second language aptitude

Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.

Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.

Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via

In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.

Studying the resting brain

Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.

We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.

To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.

We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.

The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.

As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.

A new brain measure for language aptitude

When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.

Implications for learning a new language

Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via

First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.

Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.

Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.

The Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere


Andrew Linn, University of Westminster

After Brexit, there are various things that some in the EU hope to see and hear less in the future. One is Nigel Farage. Another is the English language.

In the early hours of June 24, as the referendum outcome was becoming clear, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate, tweeted that “English cannot be the third working language of the European parliament”.

This is not the first time that French and German opinion has weighed in against alleged disproportionate use of English in EU business. In 2012, for example, a similar point was made about key eurozone recommendations from the European Commission being published initially “in a language which [as far as the Euro goes] is only spoken by less than 5m Irish”. With the number of native speakers of English in the EU set to drop from 14% to around 1% of the bloc’s total with the departure of the UK, this point just got a bit sharper.

Translation overload

Official EU language policy is multilingualism with equal rights for all languages used in member states. It recommends that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue” – Britain’s abject failure to achieve this should make it skulk away in shame.

The EU recognises 24 “official and working” languages, a number that has mushroomed from the original four (Dutch, French, German and Italian) as more countries have joined. All EU citizens have a right to access EU documents in any of those languages. This calls for a translation team numbering around 2,500, not to mention a further 600 full-time interpreters. In practice most day-to-day business is transacted in either English, French or German and then translated, but it is true that English dominates to a considerable extent.

Lots of work still to do.
Etienne Ansotte/EPA

The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of Britain or even Britain’s membership of the EU. Historically, the expansion of the British empire, the impact of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the US as a world power have embedded English in the language repertoire of speakers across the globe.

Unlike Latin, which outlived the Roman empire as the lingua franca of medieval and renaissance Europe, English of course has native speakers (who may be unfairly advantaged), but it is those who have learned English as a foreign language – “Euro-English” or “English as a lingua franca” – who now constitute the majority of users.

According to the 2012 Special Eurobarometer on Europeans and their Languages, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the member states where it is not an official language. Across Europe, 38% of people speak English well enough as a foreign language to have a conversation, compared to 12% speaking French and 11% in German.

The report also found that 67% of Europeans consider English the most useful foreign language, and that the numbers favouring German (17%) or French (16%) have declined. As a result, 79% of Europeans want their children to learn English, compared to 20% for French and German.

Too much invested in English

Huge sums have been invested in English teaching by both national governments and private enterprise. As the demand for learning English has increased, so has the supply. English language learning worldwide was estimated to be worth US$63.3 billion (£47.5 billion) in 2012, and it is expected that this market will rise to US$193.2 billion (£145.6 billion) by 2017. The value of English for speakers of other languages is not going to diminish any time soon. There is simply too much invested in it.

Speakers of English as a second language outnumber first-language English speakers by 2:1 both in Europe and globally. For many Europeans, and especially those employed in the EU, English is a useful piece in a toolbox of languages to be pressed into service when needed – a point which was evident in a recent project on whether the use of English in Europe was an opportunity or a threat. So in the majority of cases using English has precisely nothing to do with the UK or Britishness. The EU needs practical solutions and English provides one.

English is unchallenged as the lingua franca of Europe. It has even been suggested that in some countries of northern Europe it has become a second rather than a foreign language. Jan Paternotte, D66 party leader in Amsterdam, has proposed that English should be decreed the official second language of that city.

English has not always held its current privileged status. French and German have both functioned as common languages for high-profile fields such as philosophy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy, not to mention Church Slavonic, Russian, Portuguese and other languages in different times and places.

We can assume that English will not maintain its privileged position forever. Who benefits now, however, are not the predominantly monolingual British, but European anglocrats whose multilingualism provides them with a key to international education and employment.

Much about the EU may be about to change, but right now an anti-English language policy so dramatically out of step with practice would simply make the post-Brexit hangover more painful.

The Conversation

Andrew Linn, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is the spelling bee success of Indian-Americans a legacy of British colonialism?

Shalini Shankar, Northwestern University

When spellers win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, audiences always want to know their secret. Yet this question seems to be asked far more in recent years in response to an Indian-American winning streak.

South Asian-American spellers have excelled at the National Spelling Bee for nine years in a row, with 2014, 2015 and now 2016 featuring Indian-American co-champions as well.

This year’s winners – Jairam Hathwar from Painted Post, New York and Nihar Janga from Austin, Texas – present a familiar combination of co-champions. Jairam is the younger brother of 2013 co-champion Sriram, who also dueled with a Texan to ultimately share the trophy.

As a topic of intense speculation on broadcast and social media, the wins have elicited comments that range from curiosity to bafflement and at times outright racism. This curiosity is different from past speculation about “whether home-schooled spellers have an advantage.

The range of responses offers a moment to consider some of the factors underlying the Indian-American success at the bee, as well as how spelling as a sport has changed. Immediately following the 2016 bee, for instance, much of the coverage has focused on the exceedingly high level of competition and drama that characterized the 25-round championship battle that ultimately resulted in a tie.

Since 2013, I have been conducting research on competitive spelling at regional and national bees with officials, spellers and their families, and media producers.

My interviews and observations reveal the changing nature of spelling as a “brain sport” and the rigorous regimens of preparation that competitive spellers engage in year-round. Being an “elite speller” is a major childhood commitment that has intensified as the bee has become more competitive in recent years.

Let’s first look at history

South Asian-American spelling success is connected to the history of this ethnic community’s immigration to the United States.

For instance, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act solicited highly trained immigrants to meet America’s need for scientists, engineers and medical professionals and opened the door to skilled immigration from Asia and other regions. In subsequent decades, skilled migration from South Asia continued alongside the sponsorship of family members.

Today, along with smaller, older communities of Punjabi Sikhs and other South Asian ethnic groups primarily on the West Coast, South Asian-Americans constitute a diverse population that features a disproportionately high professional class, although with differences of class, languages, ethnicities and nationalities – differences that are often overlooked in favor of a narrative of Indian-American educational and professional success.

The question is, what gives the community an edge?

For upwardly mobile South Asian-Americans, success is in part due to moving from one socially and economically advantageous societal position in the subcontinent to another in the United States.

Moreover, the English-speaking abilities of most educated South Asian-Americans clearly give them an edge over immigrants from other countries. My research indicates that fluency developed in English-medium schools – a legacy of British colonialism – makes them ideal spelling interlocutors for their children, despite their variety of British spelling. Members of this population with elite educational qualifications have likewise emphasized the importance of academic achievement with their children.

Also important here are the strong family and community networks that offer social support and economic opportunities. Community-building has not only been important for individuals and families, but also for advertisers and marketers that target Asian-American ethnic communities.

What explains the success?

Over the past few years spelling bees have been established exclusively for children of South Asian parentage.

Speller #238 Akash Vukoti from San Angelo, Texas, the only six-year-old speller at the 2016 bee, interviewed by ESPN’s Kaylee Hartung.
Shalini Shankar, CC BY

For instance, the North South Foundation holds a range of educational contests, such as spelling bees, math contests, geography bees and essay writing, among others, whose proceeds contribute to promoting literacy efforts in India. The South Asian Spelling Bee, partnering with the insurance company Metlife, offers a highly competitive bee as well.

Taken together, this “minor league” circuit gives South Asian-American spellers far more opportunities to compete, as well as a longer “bee season” to train and practice.

This is particularly helpful because, as past champions confirm, ongoing practice and training are the key to winning.

Invested families

Another factor to note here is the parental ability to dedicate time to education and extracurricular activities. Predictably, families with greater socioeconomic means are able to devote more resources and time.

These parents are as invested in spelling bees and academic competitions as families with star athletes or musicians might be in their children’s matches or performances. As several parents explained to me, spelling bees are the “brain sports” equivalent of travel soccer or Little League.

Of the 30 families I interviewed, the majority had a stay-at-home parent (usually the mother) dedicated to working with children on all activities, including spelling. In dual-income households, spelling training occurred on weeknights and weekends.

Like elite spellers of any race or ethnicity, South Asian-American spellers I spoke with studied word lists daily if possible, logging in several hours on weekends with parents or paid coaches to help them develop strategies and quiz them on words.

A few parents have been so invested in helping their children prepare that they have now started training and tutoring other aspiring spellers as well.

Like any national championship, the pressure on all spellers at a competition on the scale of the National Spelling Bee is intense. South Asian-American children are already subject to living up to the model minority stereotype and feel no reprieve here.

This is especially important to consider when South Asian-American spellers come from lower socioeconomic classes, but nonetheless succeed at spelling bees.

Among the 2015 finalists, for instance, one was the son of motel owners and a crowd favorite, as I observed. He had competed in the bee several times, and his older sister was also a speller, having made it to nationals once. Remarkably, they prepared for competitions by themselves, with no stay-at-home parent or paid coach.

Another 2015 semifinalist was featured in a broadcast segment living in the crowded immigrant neighborhood of Flushing, New York. When I visited this three-time National Spelling Bee participant in 2014, I realized that she lived in the very same apartment complex that my family did in the 1970s. This Queens neighborhood continues to be a receiving area for Indian-Americans who may not have the economic means to live in wealthier sections of New York City or its suburbs.

Many possible explanations

The point is that the reasons that Indian-American spellers are succeeding at the bee are not easily reducible to one answer.

South Asian-Americans, like other Asian immigrants, comprise varying class backgrounds and immigration histories. Yet it is noteworthy that even within this range of South Asian-American spellers, it is children of Indian-American immigrants from professional backgrounds who tend to become champions.

Speller #73 Tara Ganguly from Bloomington, Indiana in Round Two of the 2016 National Spelling Bee.
Shalini Shankar, CC BY

The time and resources Indian-American families devote to this brain sport, as I have observed, appear to be raising this competition into previously unseen levels of difficulty.

This can take a toll on elite spellers, who have to invest far more time studying spelling than in the past. With more difficult words appearing in earlier rounds of competition, spelling preparation can take up much of their time outside of school.

Nonetheless, they emphasize the perseverance they develop from competitive spelling. They learn to handle increasing levels of pressure, and alongside this, what they identify as important life skills of focus, poise and concentration.

Ultimately, what makes Indian-American children successful at spelling is the same as children of any other ethnicity. They come from families who believe in the value of education and also have the financial means to support their children through every stage of their schooling. And, they are highly intelligent individuals who devote their childhood to the study of American English.

Are they American?

Some comments on social media, however, seem to discount these factors and years of intense preparation to instead focus on race and ethnicity as sole factors for spelling success.

In a refreshing shift in tone, this year’s topics also included the ferocity of Janga’s competition style and the inspiration he drew from his football hero Dez Bryant.

Nonetheless, such comments, directed toward nonwhite children when they win this distinctly American contest, do push us to reflect: what does it mean to be an American now?

In alleging that only “Americans” should win this contest, Twitter racists ignore that these spellers too have been born and raised in the United States. Recent winners hail from suburban or small towns in upstate New York, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. They express regional pride in these locations by mentioning regional sports teams and other distinctive features in their on-air profiles.

With their American-accented English and distinctly American comportment, it is merely their skin color and names that set them apart from a white mainstream.

Like generations of white Americans and European immigrants, Indian-American parents spend countless hours preparing word lists, quizzing their children and creating ways for their children to learn. They encourage their children in whatever they are good at, including spelling.

As a result, they have elevated this American contest to a new level of competition. Clearly, this is an apt moment to expand our definition of what it means to be an American.

This is an updated version of an article first published on June 4, 2015.

The Conversation

Shalini Shankar, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Could early music training help babies learn language?


Christina Zhao, University of Washington

Growing up in China, I started playing piano when I was nine years old and learning English when I was 12. Later, when I was a college student, it struck me how similar language and music are to each other.

Language and music both require rhythm; otherwise they don’t make any sense. They’re also both built from smaller units – syllables and musical beats. And the process of mastering them is remarkably similar, including precise movements, repetitive practice and focused attention. I also noticed that my musician peers were particularly good at learning new languages.

All of this made me wonder if music shapes how the brain perceives sounds other than musical notes. And if so, could learning music help us learn languages?

Music experience and speech

Music training early in life (before the age of seven) can have a wide range of benefits beyond musical ability.

For instance, school-age children (six to eight years old) who participated in two years of musical classes four hours each week showed better brain responses to consonants compared with their peers who started one year later. This suggests that music experience helped children hear speech sounds.

Music may have a range of benefits.
Breezy Baldwin, CC BY

But what about babies who aren’t talking yet? Can music training this early give babies a boost in the steps it takes to learn language?

The first year of life is the best time in the lifespan to learn speech sounds; yet no studies have looked at whether musical experience during infancy can improve speech learning.

I sought to answer this question with Patricia K. Kuhl, an expert in early childhood learning. We set out to study whether musical experience at nine months of age can help infants learn speech.

Nine months is within the peak period for infants’ speech sound learning. During this time, they’re learning to pay attention to the differences among the different speech sounds that they hear in their environment. Being able to differentiate these sounds is key for learning to speak later. A better ability to tell speech sounds apart at this age is associated with producing more words at 30 months of age.

Here is how we did our study

In our study, we randomly put 47 nine-month-old infants in either a musical group or a control group and completed 12 15-minute-long sessions of activities designed for that group.

Babies in the music group sat with their parents, who guided them through the sessions by tapping out beats in time with the music with the goal of helping them learn a difficult musical rhythm.

Here is a short video demonstration of what a music session looked like.

Infants in the control group played with toy cars, blocks and other objects that required coordinated movements in social play, but without music.

After the sessions, we measured the babies’ brains responses to musical and speech rhythms using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging technique.

New music and speech sounds were presented in rhythmic sequences, but the rhythms were occasionally disrupted by skipping a beat.

These rhythmic disruptions help us measure how well the babies’ brains were honed to rhythms. The brain gives a specific response pattern when detecting an unexpected change. A bigger response indicates that the baby was following rhythms better.

Babies in the music group had stronger brain responses to both music and speech sounds compared with babies in the control group. This shows that musical experience, as early as nine month of age, improved infants’ ability to process both musical and speech rhythms.

These skills are important building blocks for learning to speak.

Other benefits from music experience

Language is just one example of a skill that can be improved through music training. Music can help with social-emotional development, too. An earlier study by researchers Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and Ariel Knafo-Noam showed that pairs of eight-year-olds who didn’t know each other reported feeling more close and connected with one another after a short exercise of tapping out beats in sync with each other.

Music helps children bond better.
Boy image via

Another researcher, Laura Cirelli, showed that 14-month-old babies were more likely to show helping behaviors toward an adult after the babies had been bounced in sync with the adult who was also moving rhythmically.

There are many more exciting questions that remain to be answered as researchers continue to study the effects of music experience on early development.

For instance, does the music experience need to be in a social setting? Could babies get the benefits of music from simply listening to music? And, how much experience do babies need over time to sustain this language-boosting benefit?

Music is an essential part of being human. It has existed in human cultures for thousands of years, and it is one of the most fun and powerful ways for people to connect with each other. Through scientific research, I hope we can continue to reveal how music experience influences brain development and language learning of babies.

The Conversation

Christina Zhao, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A teacher’s spelling doesn’t necessarily affect their teaching

Teachers don’t have to have perfect spelling to teach kids how to spell.

Teachers don’t have to have perfect spelling to teach kids how to spell.

Stewart Riddle, University of Southern Queensland

According to recent media reports, a new study shows an alarming number of aspiring teachers have lower literacy levels than the school students they will be teaching.

This coincides with a series of articles in The Australian last week on a report by the NSW government into universities preparing teachers for the teaching of reading.

The argument is compelling: kids (allegedly) can’t read or write, so it’s the teachers’ fault. Teachers themselves have poor literacy skills, so it must be the universities’ fault. The argument is followed by a call for a return to the basics, which will supposedly take education back to some fabled time when everything was better.

This tired old argument has been recycled for decades. Bronwyn Williams, a Professor of English, wryly notes:

Every generation, upon reaching middle age, finds itself compelled to look at the literacy practices of young people and lament at how poor the work produced today is compared to that of idyllic days gone by.

Despite the best endeavours of conservative think tanks and tabloid commentators to create a moral panic, there is no literacy crisis in Australia.

The argument that beginning teachers’ literacy levels has any meaningful impact on their own students’ literacy is not supported by evidence.

Of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, particularly for students from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds and those for whom English is a further language. However, buying into the rhetoric of crisis and moral panic is unhelpful and will not improve outcomes.

Teaching literacy is rocket science

Teaching children to read and write is complex work. Any attempt to narrow the focus to a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.

A mix of methods is needed to assist children in tackling the demands of literacy, which includes developing: grapho-phonic knowledge (understanding the relationship between print and sounds); phonemic awareness (being able to identify sounds that make meaning); the semantics and pragmatics of reading comprehension; fluency; vocabulary development; as well as controlling the syntactic and grammatical conventions of language.

Teaching reading is like rocket science, actually.

The Four Resources Model, which brought together the very best in literacy research is widely used as a literacy framework in schools and teacher education courses.

Learning the alphabet and how to put these letters together to make words is necessary, but insufficient. Students also need to engage meaningfully in text production and making meaning from the text, along with learning to appreciate and understand the social and cultural practices that are undertaken through reading and writing.

The complexity of literacy needs to be reflected in the training that teachers undertake, and highlights the importance of making connections between theory and practice.

Reading between the lines

One of the things we teach students when learning to read is inferential comprehension – reading between the lines. It is interesting to apply this technique to the treatment of literacy research and education policy in the media.

The research study in question presents a rather different picture from how it has been portrayed in the media. First, it deals specifically with secondary teachers. Second, it deals with one university and a narrowly defined literacy test. It would be like getting one school to sit the NAPLAN tests and then claiming it is representative of everywhere.

Dr Brian Moon, who conducted the study, explains:

No representation is made here as to the general validity of the results in relation to students at other Australian universities.

Interestingly, the paper also refers to earlier studies from the 1980s on low literacy levels of student teachers and comments on how little has changed over the intervening decades.

Literacy and numeracy testing of teaching graduates is on the cards, with NSW committed to a test program by 2016. What effect this may have is anyone’s guess.

It is assumed that teaching graduates who are better spellers will be better teachers, but there is little evidence to suggest this is actually the case.

Having a firm grasp of the basics is important, but it is only the very beginning of what a teacher needs to be able to do.

We know that good teachers need to be many things and have qualities well beyond those of proficient language use.

I was a teacher for seven years and do you know what I did when I didn’t know how to spell a word or what it meant? I grabbed a dictionary and used the opportunity to build it into the lesson.

Teaching is not about knowing everything but rather how to provide meaningful, contextualised and appropriate learning experiences for young people. And yes, sometimes not knowing can actually be useful.

The Conversation

Stewart Riddle, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Learning a language? Sleep on it and you’ll get the grammar

Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway and Jakke Tamminen, Royal Holloway

In 2006, former US president George Bush supported his embattled defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the words: “But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” This quotation quickly entered the folklore of political humour. But to psychology researchers, it revealed something fundamental about human language.

At that time, most Americans had not encountered the word decider. While this is a common word in some parts of the world, it refers to the part of a game that determines the winner. So how did people understand what it meant? They understood it because across all of the words that people know, the suffix –er often transforms a verb into a person (as in teacher, builder, dancer). Thus, a decider must be someone who decides.

The ability to extract general principles from a small number of examples is fundamental to language and literacy. In teaching children how to read, teachers introduce sets of words like chin, church, chest, chess, chop, to convey information about how to pronounce particular letters. This general knowledge might then be applied to new words like chick. In later years of primary school, children develop general knowledge about the functions of affixes. Through exposure to relevant sets of words like uncertain, unknown, unhappy, children become able to use affixes like -un in new contexts.

What’s a dunklomb?

In new research published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, we investigated the brain processes responsible for acquiring this type of general knowledge. We trained adults on a fictitious language, in which groups of individual words were bound together by a rule that was not disclosed to participants. For example, participants learned:

• a clinglomb is a small device used by cat burglars to cling to skyscrapers

• a dunklomb is the gadget used by royalty to dunk biscuits in tea politely

• a skimlomb is a professional tool which is used to skim cream off milk

• a weighlomb is the official scale used to weigh boxers before an important match

Our interest was not whether people could learn the individual words, but whether they could uncover the rule – in this case, the function of –lomb. We tested this by examining people’s understanding of untrained words like teachlomb when they were presented in sentences.

The remarkable power of sleep

Our key finding was that participants could apply their understanding of the rule (that –lomb refers to some kind of tool) to untrained words such as teachlomb. But this was the case only if participants were tested some days after training. Participants showed no such ability immediately after training.

In later experiments, we mixed words that conformed to the rule with examples of words that violated it – for example, that a mournlomb is “the cost of organising a wake to mourn a loved one”. This word is an exception because -lomb is supposed to refer to a tool. Crucially, the introduction of exceptions abolished people’s learning of the rule being taught. However, people did learn the rule if we inserted a period of overnight sleep between training on the rule-based examples and the exceptions.

Our findings fit neatly into dual-mechanism theories of memory. These theories argue that rapid learning of individual episodes is followed by a slower process of integrating that knowledge into long-term memory. The claim is that these processes rely on different brain structures optimised for fast and slow learning. Critically, these theories suggest that sleep may be a necessary component of the second, slower process.

Research in adults and children has shown that the brain continues to process new memories during sleep, allowing them to become stronger, more resistant to interference – and better integrated with existing knowledge. Our findings advance these theories by showing that sleep may also be necessary for discovering regular patterns across individual episodes and encoding these in the brain.

Helping children understand patterns

A way through the gobbledigook.

This research has clear messages for the teaching of language and literacy. Our work suggests that if teachers want to convey some general linguistic principle, then they must structure the information in a way that promotes learning. If a teacher is trying to illustrate use of the suffix –ing, for example, then presenting a child with a spelling list including the words standing, jumping, swimming, kicking, dancing, talking, nothing would be unlikely to facilitate learning.

For one, the letters –ing do not function as a suffix in the word nothing (noth is not a verb). And although the spelling alterations present in swimming and dancing are highly systematic, these items appear to be exceptions in the list presented. Our research suggests that lists that include such exceptions may disrupt a child’s learning of the pattern.

Most generally, our work adds to a growing body of research implicating overnight sleep in aspects of language learning. It suggests that key aspects of learning arise after classroom instruction – and thus reinforces the importance of proper sleep behaviour in children.

Kathy Rastle is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Royal Holloway and Jakke Tamminen is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Language Differences – Why Are British English and American English Different?

“America and England are two nations divided by a common language.”
Winston Churchill

Why Do Britons and Americans Spell Words Differently?

The first question is why are British and American spellings different for certain words?

Noah Webster

The first answer is to blame Noah Webster, of Webster’s Dictionary fame. He believed it was important for America, a new and revolutionary nation, to assert its cultural independence from Britain through language. He wrote the first American spelling, grammar, and reading schoolbooks and the first American dictionary. He was also an ardent advocate of spelling reform and thought words should be spelled more like they sound.

Many years before he published his well-known American Dictionary of the English Language, he published a much smaller, more radical dictionary he called a Compendious Dictionary that included spellings such as w-i-m-m-e-n for “women” and t-u-n-g for “tongue.” That dictionary was skewered and he dialed down the spelling reform in his final masterpiece. Yet still, Noah Webster, his affection for spelling reform, and the success of his final dictionary in 1828 are the reasons Americans spell words such as “favor” without a “u” (1), “theater” with an “-er” instead of an “-re” at the end, “sulfur” with an “f” and not a “ph” in the middle, and “aluminium” as “aluminum (2).”

A Separated Population

There are some word differences we can’t lay at Webster’s feet. For example, “while” and “whilst” mean the same thing, but as far as we can tell, nobody really knows why “whilst” survived in Britain but withered in America. According to World Wide Words (3), “whilst” is considered more formal than “while,” even in Britain. So if I had to guess, I’d say “whilst” probably fell out of favour in America because we are a less formal nation, and geographic separation of the two populations also let the language change differently in the two countries, but really, we are just making things up at this point. If anyone has a better answer, please post it in the comments.

Why Do Britons and Americans Use Single and Double Quotation Marks Differently?

On to a difference where I at least have a hint of an answer.

In America, they use double quotation marks to enclose a quotation, and single quotation marks if they need to enclose another quotation inside the first quotation. In British English, it’s the opposite. Single quotation marks are used for everyday purposes such as enclosing a stand-alone quotation (4, 5).

In 1908, an influential British style guide called The King’s English, stated that “The prevailing [metho is to use double marks for most purposes, and single ones for quotations within quotations.” So to spell it out for you, the author, Fowler, was saying that at the time the British did it the same way we do it now in America. But Fowler went on to advocate for single quotations marks, saying it is more logical to use them for regular quotations, and to reserve double quotation marks for quotations within quotations (6). He didn’t explain why he thought it was more logical; he just said it was. Given that the British method now follows Fowler’s stated preference, we presume that Fowler is the reason the British now use single quotation marks where Americans primarily use double quotation marks–that he was influential enough to make that change happen.

Typesetters Quotations Versus Logical Quotations

There’s another difference in how Americans and Britons treat quotation marks. In the U.S. they put periods and commas inside quotation marks, and in Britain we usually put periods and commas outside quotation marks.

The reason for this difference begins with the introduction of movable type. Before typesetting, nobody paid too much attention to where they put periods and commas relative to quotation marks, but periods and commas became a problem with the advent of typesetting because they were so tiny. Printers found that the periods and commas were more stable when they were placed inside closing quotation marks, so that’s the way they started doing it (7, 8).

Again, our British friend Fowler seems to have made the difference in his book The King’s English. (9) Typesetting technology had advanced to the point where it wasn’t necessary to shield periods and commas anymore, and he argued for what he considered a more logical system of letting the context of the sentence determine where the period and comma should go. The British seem to have taken his suggestion to heart and Americans seem to have ignored it.

Because of these origins, it is sometimes said the British use logical quotations and Americans use typesetters quotations.

Pronunciation Differences

Finally, you may be wondering why there are pronunciation differences between British and American speakers of English (not to mention Canadians, Australians, and others).  The general idea is that regional and national pride and changing ideas about what sounded like “proper” speech, at least to some degree, played a role in changing the British sounding speech of the American colonists to what we hear today in America. It’s far too complex to cover here, so I’ll refer you to a PBS show called “Do You Speak American?” which talks about regional dialects too (10).

Accents vary greatly between regions of the US even within states or cities. For example, in the south a toboggan is a winter hat, but in the north it is a sled. Imagine the fun of asking a southerner to go down a hill on their toboggan.

Below is a list of some common American terms and phrases that you may encounter and their British translations.


American British
French Fries Chips
Potato Chips Crisps
Eggplant Aubergine
Zucchini Courgette
Pickle Gherkin
Sausage Bangers
Silverware Cutlery
Take Out or To Go* Take Away
Dessert Pudding
Or-ay-gah-no Oregano

* Take out or To Go boxes, also known as “doggie bags”, are very common in the US. At almost any kind of restaurant, you can ask for a box to take home the food you did not eat.


American British
Pants Trousers
Sweater, Sweatshirt Jumper
Overalls Dungarees
Sneakers Trainers
Underwear Pants
Costume Party Fancy Dress

Around the House

American British
Apartment Flat
Bathroom/Restroom Toilet*, WC, Loo
Trash, Garbage Rubbish, Litter
Elevator Lift
First Floor (etc.) Ground Floor (etc.)
Al-oo-min-um Aluminium

*Toilet carries a crude connotation and is not commonly used in the US.


American British
January 2, 2011 2 January 2011
1/2/2011 2/1/2011
Soccer Football
Football American football
Bucks Quid
Sick (adj.) Ill
Flashlight Torch
Gas Petrol
Thanks Cheers
Hot Fit, attractive
Eraser Rubber
Zip Code Postal Code
Sidewalk Pavement


One of the common greetings in the UK is to say to someone, “Hey, you alright?” or “Hey, you ok?” These terms are not socially used in America and can be perceived as asking whether there is something wrong with their health or suggesting that there is an obvious reason why they may not be ok. Instead try “What’s going on?” or a simple “How are you?”

Conversation Style

Americans have the tendency to exaggerate much more than the British, using numerous superlatives and vivid descriptions even in an average situation. Many Americans also tend to be highly positive and downplay negative things. This may be confusing because, in an effort to be polite, an American may not tell you directly their opinions.

Body Language

Beyond vocabulary differences are differences in body language. Body language contributes to conversation and interaction as much as verbal communication. Generally speaking, Americans prefer a greater amount of personal space during conversation; one arm’s length is a good estimate. They tend to shake hands (firmly) with people they meet. That said, some Americans can be more touchy-feely than Brits and may be inclined to hug you as a greeting (maybe before you feel close enough to them to merit hugging!)

It is common for Americans to maintain direct eye contact with the speaker and to smile during the conversation, as this is indicative of attentiveness and an interest in the conversation. Many also “speak with their hands,” expressing themselves through a wide range of gestures.

Top 10 ESL English Grammar Mistakes and How to Overcome Them

So, you want to speak English well?

You can start by learning common English idioms.

You can also start speaking naturally by learning some English slang.

But before you do all that, it’s important to make sure that you’re not making basic English grammar mistakes.

Let’s discuss some common English grammar mistakes for ESL learners, and how to overcome them. Once you understand the grammatical rules behind these top 10 ESL English grammar mistakes, you’ll be more likely to use these structures correctly in the future.

May vs. Might

Deciding when to use “may” rather than “might” can be tricky because the difference between these two verbs is quite small.  They both indicate that something is possible, but “might” suggests slightly more uncertainty than “may”.

“I might take a trip to India next year” means that maybe you will go to India, but maybe you won’t. “I may have a slice of cake after dinner” expresses slightly more certainty that you’re going to eat that cake.

Even more confusing is the rule that “may” becomes “might” in the past tense. So, in the present tense, you would say “he may eat the last piece of cake”, but in the past, this sentence becomes “he might have eaten the last piece of cake”.

Fewer vs. Less

This mistake is difficult for both English-language learners and native-English speakers1.

Both “fewer” and “less” describe the opposite of more, but you need to look at the noun in order to decide which word to use. “Fewer” is used for countable nouns, like books, cars, people or cups. Basically, if a number can come before the noun, like 2 books, 10 cars, 100 people, or 5 cups, then the noun is countable.

“Less”, on the other hand, is used for uncountable nouns, like love, water, electricity, or science. If you can’t make the noun plural, then it’s an uncountable noun. For example, you would say “this parking lot is too crowded. I wish there were fewer cars”, but “I wish you would turn off the lights, so we could use less electricity”.

Could, Should, or Would

These 3 similar-sounding verbs also cause problems for many English-language learners.

“Should” is used to give advice” (“That shirt looks great on you. I think youshould buy it” or “You should get vaccinations before traveling overseas”).

“Would” is used to describe unlikely or unreal situations (“I would love to go to Italy, but I don’t have enough money” or “She would come to the party if she didn’t have to wake up early tomorrow”). “Would “ can also be used to make polite offers (“Would you like some tea?”)

Lastly, “could” can be used in 3 different ways: 1) to describe a past ability (“When I was younger, I could run twice as fast”), 2) to describe possibilities in the future (“If we work really hard, I think we could save up enough money for a vacation this year”), and 3) to make polite requests (“Could I have a cup of tea?”)

Since vs. For

The words “since” and “for” are both used when you’re talking about time.

The difference is that “for” is used with a period or duration of time, while “since” is used with a point or exact moment in time. “For” can be used with all tenses, but “since” is most often used with perfect tenses. That means “for” comes before time expressions like “30 minutes”, “6 months” and “10 years”, while “since” comes before time expressions like “Monday”, “January” or “2009”.  You could say, “he jogs for 1 hour everyday” or “he has lived in Bangkok for 10 years”.  Using “since” you would say “he’s been jogging since 7am”, or “he has lived in Bangkok since 2003”.

Bring vs. Take

“Bring” and “take” have almost the same meaning, but they imply different directions. Their relationship is similar to the one between the verbs “come” and “go”.

“Bring” suggests movement towards the speaker, making it similar to “come”: You ask people to bring things to the place where you already are. For example, you could say “bring that book over here”, or “please bring a snack to the party”.

“Take”, on the other hand, suggests movement away from the speaker, making it similar to “go”: You take things to the place where you are going. You could say “don’t forget to take your book to school”, or “please take me home”.

Adjective Order

If you’re using more than one adjective to describe a noun, keep in mind that these adjectives need to go in a certain order in the sentence. This is the reason why “it’s a big red car” is correct, but “it’s a red big car” sounds wrong.

The normal adjective order is: 1) quantity or number 2) quality or opinion 3) size 4) shape 5) age 6) colour 8) nationality 9) material. Of course, it’s unusual to use more than 3 adjectives to describe one noun, so you’ll rarely need to use all of these at once.

Me vs. Myself

Deciding when to use “me” and when to use “myself” is another common mistake that both native-English speakers and English-language learners make. Many native English-speakers make the mistake of saying “myself” when they should say “me”, because they think “myself” sounds more polite. This is wrong!

“Me” is an object pronoun, so it refers to the person that the action of the verb is being done to. For example, you could say “my parents want me to help with the chores more”, or “please call me if you have any questions”.

“Myself”, however, is a reflexive pronoun, like himself, itself or themselves. It’s generally only used in the same sentence as “I”. For example, you could say “I gave myself a break from studying today”, or “I cleaned the entire house bymyself”. Use “myself” when you are doing the action to “you”.

There, Their, or They’re

All three words are pronounced the same, but they’re used in different ways.

“There” can be used to specify a place (“The book is over there on the table”), or it can be used with the verb “to be” to indicate the existence of something (“There are 5 cafes on this street”).

“Their” is a possessive adjective, like my, your, or his (“that’s their house”).

Lastly, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”, so it is the subject “they” plus the verb “are”. For example, you could say “they’re going to play soccer with us tonight”.

Its vs. It’s

Just as many people confuse “there”, “their” and “they’re”, many also confuse “it’s” and “its” because both words are pronounced the same way, yet have a different meaning. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”, so it is the subject “it” plus the verb “is”. For example, you could say “it’s really cold outside today”. “Its”, on the other hand, is the possessive form of “it” (“this city is known for its amazing pasta”).

A vs. The

Many languages don’t use definite and indefinite articles, and if you’re not used to distinguishing between the two, it can be a difficult concept to master.

When you’re talking about one thing in a general way, use the indefinite article “a”; but if you’re talking about something everyone in the conversation is familiar with (or the writer and reader if you’re writing), then use “the”. For example, if I say “let’s watch a movie”, I’m suggesting that we watch anymovie. We don’t know which movie we’re going to watch yet – I just want to watch something, anything. However, if I say “let’s watch the movie”, I’m referring to a specific movie that you and I have already talked about watching together.

Credit to  and

The New Essential Grammar in Use Fourth edition plus Mr Raymond Murphy Interview

           essgram-slider image_43852

The world’s best-selling grammar series for learners of English. Essential Grammar in Use Fourth edition is a self-study reference and practice book for elementary-level learners (A1-B1), used by millions of people around the world. With clear examples and easy-to-follow exercises, it is perfect for independent study, covering all the areas of grammar you will need at this level. This edition includes an eBook which has the same grammar explanations and exercises found in the printed book, plus other great features. You can listen to all of the example sentences from the book, record your answers to exercises, highlight text, bookmark pages and add your own personal notes.

Essential Grammar in Use Fourth edition retains all the key features of clarity and ease-of-use that have made the book so popular with learners and teachers alike.

A fresh new design, with revised and updated examples, makes the book even more accessible. For the first time the printed book is also being made available with an eBook version, ideal for learners who want the flexibility of studying with both print and digital content.

Designed to be flexible, the Fourth edition, is available both with and without answers, making it ideal for self-study, but also suitable for reinforcement work in the classroom.

Buy this book now from BEBC


Watch this video for more information on Essential Grammar in Use Fourth edition

Interview with Raymond Murphy

Raymond MurphyRaymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use is the world’s best-selling grammar book (with sales of over 15 million copies), and has provided millions of students with the tools they need to tackle this thorny area of the English language. Raymond taught EFL for 20 years in Germany and the UK and has concentrated on writing full-time since 1988. His books Essential Grammar in Use, English Grammar in Use, Basic Grammar in Use (US English) and Grammar in Use (US English), have all been published by Cambridge University Press.

This interview was conducted by John Lowe for ELT News in Tokyo on November 3rd 2010.

Could you tell us something about your career background?
Raymond Murphy:

I started teaching English in language schools in Germany in 1971, and taught there for about 3 years. Then I moved back to the UK, and continued teaching in the UK, again, in a language school in Oxford

I was born in Plymouth, in Devon, but have lived in Oxford since 1976 – so for 34 years. I taught there until 1990, so my teaching career lasted approximately 20 years, and that’s where I wrote the books ‘English Grammar in Use’ and ‘Essential Grammar in Use’. They were written while I was teaching at the Swan School of English in Oxford, and were published in 1985 and 1990.

Was their publication as a result of accumulated teaching materials you had developed?
Raymond Murphy:

The books developed out of worksheets that I wrote as teaching materials for self-access in the school. Teaching in the UK, of course, you are teaching multilingual classes – people with different language backgrounds, different educational backgrounds and different needs, and I wanted a way of dealing with grammar outside the classroom. So, I started preparing worksheets, covering the topics that students were asking me about. The things that they wanted to know about, which I wasn’t able to cover in the class – so I built up a collection of these worksheets and they were kept in the library at the school – a sort of self-access facility. And so, if a student had a problem with, say, articles or something, they could go to the self-access centre, look up a card index, find an appropriate worksheet, if there was one – and do the exercises attached to it, and then check the answer key which was separate. If there was any problem they didn’t understand – they could get back to the teacher. And as these worksheets proved to be popular, I thought I’d try and get them published.

So I wrote off to three publishers. Two weren’t interested, but Cambridge University Press was, and they published my grammar book. Within a year it began to be pretty successful, and so we decided to produce an elementary version – ‘Essential Grammar in Use,’ which I wrote in the late 80s, while I was still teaching, and that was published in 1990. For various reasons around that time, I gradually withdrew from teaching. This was partly because I could afford to financially, and also for various personal and family reasons that suited me to have the flexibility of working independently from home. And since then, I have been a fulltime writer of new editions and adaptations.

Your grammar series are a kind of an industry, aren’t they? Did you have an inkling of the success they were going to have when you were writing them?
Raymond Murphy:
Absolutely none, and as I have said before, my main fear in writing the first book was that nobody would buy it anywhere. So when a few thousand copies were sold, I was very relieved.
Where were the initial sales?
Raymond Murphy:
I remember in 86, it was sold in Italy and then throughout Europe. And as there was a very early Korean translation in about 1990, it was also sold in Korea. It did spread fairly quickly, and then we prepared the American editions which were about 3 years behind the British ones. I learned a lot about American English when working in collaboration with an American writer.
Did CUP expect such a runaway success with your grammar books?
Raymond Murphy:
I don’t remember exactly what Cambridge’s expectations were. I don’t think I ever asked, how many copies do you expect to sell? They must have been reasonably confident because you don’t take on a project unless you think it’s going to be successful. I do remember a reviewer writing that he thought it would be a best-seller, even though he was very critical of it.
Have the books always been used for self-access, or have they been used as classroom texts as well?
Raymond Murphy:

9780521189392 English Grammar in Use

I wrote the books for self-study, but they are also used as classroom texts. They could be used in all sorts of ways, but I would say from my point of view that it’s totally up to the user how they use the books. Because once you write something, it’s out of your hands; it’s up to the person who has bought the book to use it in whatever way that seems right for them. So, I don’t have a view on how other people should use the books, only on how I intended them to be used.

In the books, there are introductions; the main one for the student and an additional one for the teacher. In the teacher’s introduction there are suggestions how the book might be used in connection with classroom work, as homework or as revision.

Are you pleased that you have always been associated with grammar books or would you have liked to have written other books as well?
Raymond Murphy:
No, they’re the only books that I ever wanted to write. If I hadn’t been successful, of course, if I was looking around for other ways of making a living then I might well have sort of seriously looked at other possibilities. But there’s nothing inside me saying, oh, I would love to do that – writing another ELT book, no.
How does it feel to be so well-known?
Raymond Murphy:

Well, I’m well known in a very limited world. It’s not like being really well known. It’s a very limited fame. But to be associated with grammar is ironic because I am not particularly interested in grammar. I am interested in presenting it, or helping people to understand it. Actually I think I might have been good at writing instruction manuals for washing machines or something like that – making things clear and simple. That’s what interests me.

Grammar is interesting so far as it is something that you have to acquire when learning a foreign language, if you are teaching in a conventional way somewhere along the line, it has to be studied to some extent, but I am not madly interested in grammar as a subject.

Have you ever gone down the academic research route, or is that something that doesn’t interest you?
Raymond Murphy:
I am interested in language, and I am interested in languages – things like etymology, the history of languages. I am not tempted to do an M.A in linguistics but I do like reading books by authors like Steven Pinker. But actually doing research, being an academic has never appealed to me. I like teaching and I enjoy writing, but I have never wanted to get into the academic side of linguistics.
Do you go to lot of ELT conferences around the world?
Raymond Murphy:
Very few. I do go to events, such as the events that I’m doing in Japan, organized by the publishers. Other people who are more academic might be doing presentations at conferences, but I do relatively little of that; the odd one, yes, but not very often.
Why is grammar such a controversial topic?
Raymond Murphy:

It’s something to do with the fact that grammar is most obvious bit of knowledge within the language, and it’s a system – and there is a lot of knowledge and cleverness involved. It is controversial, and people do get very upset, even angry about it, arguing whether we should teach grammar or not. And how to teach grammar – natural grammar, discovery grammar, fun grammar, you know, all that sort of stuff.

I certainly don’t get angry with people who say, you shouldn’t teach grammar, although I don’t like fanatics, one way or the other – people who see things in absolute black and white, and my instinct is not to be 100% one way or the other.

Did you write your grammar books as a reaction to the communicative approach of the 80s?
Raymond Murphy:
When I was teaching, students did ask if I could recommend a grammar book. I think this was partly because grammar wasn’t covered very overtly or clearly in books and students were looking for other materials. So, yes, that’s how it related to the background of times, but it was the demand of students.
Do your grammar books concentrate solely on ‘form’, and not on ‘meaning’ and ‘use’?
Raymond Murphy:

I just look at a problem area. For example ‘had better’ which is followed by an infinitive without ‘to’ rather than infinitive with ‘to’. Secondly I think what exactly does it mean? Also, how does it overlap with ‘should.’ So, I identify those issues – some to do with ‘form’, some concerned with ‘meaning’ and ‘use’. I am not quite sure what the difference is sometimes, and I think, okay, so, I will show that. Explain is not the right word. So I present the structure, and say ‘look at that’ and ‘notice that’.

I don’t take ‘form’, and ‘meaning’ like some books do. I don’t want to classify things, all the same, anyway. When I focus on the meaning, I ask why is ‘had better’ different from ‘should’, or what exactly does it mean, how can you paraphrase it? For the exercise we practice the form in context, such as “it’s late now, we’d better go”.

I think that’s a valid way to practice as the student can make further examples confirming and adding to the presented examples on the left hand page of the book. And then perhaps add a sentence completion exercise which compares ‘had better’ and ‘should’. Explanations are not always enough, and the example itself is not always enough. Put them together, with exercises to reinforce the structure and the student starts to learn how to use ‘had better’.

My approach is to think ‘what is the student’s problem?’ How can a student use ‘had better?’ Does that make sense?

Thank you, yes. Do you think it’s important for EFL teachers to know about grammar and grammar rules?
Raymond Murphy:

I think it is. It’s important to know your subject as well as you possibly can. Now, with a language, it’s a bit more complicated, because the aim is not knowing about the language but using the language. It’s about learning the language and acquiring the language. I think a teacher ought to inform him or herself as much as possible, not just about the grammar, but for example, about phonology, which I personally don’t feel 100% confident about at all.

Teachers should know what a past participle is, and yes, they should be aware of terminology, like the third person singular. It gets a bit mad though, I think, once you get into more modern terminology. My favorite hate is things like zero-conditional and zero-article. When do we use the zero-article? What an amazing invention that is! And I think by using terms such as these, that you are just pretending to be an academic and giving yourself a sort of extra mystique.

You only need to know grammar rules if you talk about grammar. So, the first thing is that when you talk about grammar, you reduce terminology usage as much as possible. So, I wouldn’t use terms like ‘continuous’ and ‘simple’, and ‘gerund’ in the classroom if I was teaching – certainly not gerund.

Do you think that grammar learning is more organic – growing a garden rather than a building a wall?
Raymond Murphy:
We’ve been talking largely about artificial learning, and we haven’t really talked about natural learning yet. So, everything we have talked about is artificial anyway, in that we are not really harnessing our language learning powers at all. Yes, surely learning is organic. I think with students, at some point natural learning cuts in, and they continue to learn grammar, or vocabulary or pronunciation without actively studying it, or being taught it. Once natural learning cuts in, which I think, it does in most people’s situations even though there’s a form or base for it, then that becomes the real learning. It’s knowing about things – how they work, which can be useful, but then you’ve got to get into the real business of learning, which we can do even as adults. If people have enough practice and enough exposure, they will learn.
So do you think that people learn languages in different ways, and your grammar books are just one of the tools that people use to learn English?
Raymond Murphy:

Yes, I mean you could even say it isn’t actually a direct tool either. It’s something essentially on the side of the main learning process because the main learning process has got to be connected with using the language and doing things – so, speaking and listening, primarily, and lots of communicative activity. If you are learning naturally, not in a formal way, you’d be doing that all the time, and that’s for me that is real learning.

I don’t know if anyone has really ever learnt a language just by formal study. They might say they have, but I imagine it’s the informal bit, the natural bits that take over. That’s the real learning part and I see the grammar book, dictionary, reference book as slightly to the side of real learning.

I like to use the analogy of a lay-by. When you are driving, you get off the road for a bit – the main road of learning and onto the lay-by, to do your bit of grammar, whatever it is, and say, “so that how it works!” “I had never quite understood ‘had better’ even though I’d heard it many times”. So, you look at that up, and you add to your natural learning a little drop of formal learning, and that’s how it should work, and how it’s intended to work.

How do you sequence the grammar structures in your books? By frequency of use? Difficulty?
Raymond Murphy:

No, it’s an arbitrary grammatical organization – verbs, articles, adjectives, prepositions. So, that’s how it is divided up. It could have been nouns at the beginning and verbs halfway. I chose verbs at beginning because I figured that most people have most problems with verbs, so I put them at the beginning, as it felt the right thing to do.

Secondly, there is no progression in the book. Unit 1 isn’t necessarily easier than unit 58. So, unit 58 might be a very basic thing, for example, comparison of adjectives, or something you would learn quite early. Whereas a unit long before that would be the past perfect continuous – which you probably haven’t learnt at all. So, it’s not at all progressive, and one of the main problems I’ve had when talking to teachers and students – is that they sometimes think the units are progressive. There are little bits of progression, like three or four units together might represent a progression where a couple of subjects are very complicated – a particular topic, like present perfect, or something such as articles. But generally speaking, that isn’t the idea. If the student says, I don’t understand ‘had better,’ they look up the index contents, and go to the ‘had better’ unit.

So, a student should be jumping around the book in a not dissimilar way that you jump around a dictionary, which is organized from A to Z. This is another arbitrary classification of language terms.

Can I ask you about the grammar differences between British and American English? Did you need an American editor or co-writer – I mean how different are the grammar systems?
Raymond Murphy:

They’re not very different really. The differences between British English and American English have very much to do, I think, with pronunciation, vocabulary and style. The nitty-gritty of grammar, if you are talking about standard British and standard American, is not so different. Things like ‘have’ – ‘I have something, ‘I have a car’ rather than ‘I have got a car’, but ‘have got a car’ works in American English – ‘I have a car’ works in British English. So, I think the British are not using ‘have got’ as much as we used to – it’s one of those things – changing a bit probably with American influence – I think I tend to say ‘do you have’ rather than ‘have you got’, for example.

The present perfect is a bit funny and very difficult to explain. The present perfect, ‘I have lost my book,’ or something – single action present perfect. In American English, they tend to use the past simple – whereas in British English we use the present perfect. So, there are some things like that. They tend to be differences of emphasis rather than anything seriously different.

I am much more aware of these differences now, but I certainly wasn’t when the first American edition was done. My first visit to the States was actually when the American edition of the book was being prepared. So it was adapted by an American writer – no, I couldn’t have done it without assistance. I still discover differences, but it’s not so much the grammar, more the vocabulary and the style.

Everywhere you go you hear that standards of grammar are in decline. Does research bear this out?
Raymond Murphy:

I don’t think so. I am talking here very anecdotally. I like to eavesdrop and listen to people talking, if I am on a bus, or in a café, if I am by myself, I like to listen, especially to younger people because I don’t have that much contact with younger people, and the language has changed. Younger people do speak considerably differently to the older generation. Again, it’s pronunciation that tends to change rather than grammar. I find when I listen to grammar, I think ‘is that in my book?’

And of course, there are things like using ‘them’ rather than ‘those’ or ‘you was’ rather than ‘you were’. But I think that’s always been the case and isn’t just a recent thing.

But does that suddenly become Standard English if these examples are in widespread use? Would you put that in the fourth edition?
Raymond Murphy:

Yes. I mean – an example of that is the use of ‘like’ as a conjunction. When I first wrote the book, I presented a distinction between ‘as’ and ‘like’. For example, ‘I do it like this’, but ‘do it as I’ve showed you’. So, that’s how I presented. I didn’t say it was wrong to use ‘like’ in the second sentence, but that’s how I presented it. That was in 1980 and people were already using ‘like’ as a conjunction, ‘do it like showed you’. But I felt at that time that you could call that non-standard. I certainly don’t feel that now and certainly this is one of the educating factors of doing the American edition as they were absolutely clear that it wasn’t wrong.

Anyway, in the current editions of my book, that is an alternative. So you can say ‘like I say’ or ‘as I say’; ‘like you said,’ ‘as you said’.

So, that’s an example of how I have changed a particular thing. ‘Less’ and ‘fewer’ is another one. It doesn’t actually feature in the book, so I don’t have to change anything, but that’s something that has changed. I don’t mean the usage has changed, but some people say ‘less cars’, ‘less tables’, ‘less people’.

So, ‘Grammar in Use’ is not static, it’s constantly evolving.
Raymond Murphy:
It’s one of the convenient things with the new edition. With grammar, I have to say there isn’t too much change, but, nevertheless, if there is, then I certainly look at things that I have said, and if I feel that it’s too black and white, it isn’t that way anymore, then I will try and find a way of dealing with it.
Do you speak any foreign languages?
Raymond Murphy:
German was the language I have learnt the best, sort of middle to high intermediate level, I would say. Others, I have dabbled in, and at present, I am learning Thai.
Oh really.
Raymond Murphy:

Yes – using the natural approach. In the last 2 years, I have spent a total of 5 weeks in Bangkok, not all in one go. I am going there next week actually.

I go to AUA – a large language school. They have courses in English teaching, business mainly, but they also have a Thai language program in which they use the natural approach, so we don’t speak for 800 hours.

That’s interesting. The ‘Grammar in Use’ guru uses a natural approach to learn a language, with grammar on the side.
Raymond Murphy:
Well, there isn’t too much grammar at the beginning that you need in Thai, but it’s informed me a lot on just how to think about learning. So, it’s just listening at this stage – speaking later – just the same as with children. So, you don’t rush things. You wait till you are ready.
Why did you choose to study Thai?
Raymond Murphy:
I wanted to try an Asian language and I’d been to Thailand twice and liked it. The obvious choice would have been to study Chinese but I thought Thai would be easier if I wanted to read and write. It’s still interesting with a different alphabet but at least it’s a phonetic alphabet and also easy to get around.
Raymond Murphy, thank you very much for giving so much of your time.
Raymond Murphy:
Thank you.
This interview was conducted by John Lowe for ELT News in Tokyo on November 3rd 2010.