Review ~ My Grammar and I

A very readable summary of English grammar for those who speak it but don’t know it
Reviewed for Teflnet by James Taylor
My Grammar and I

My Grammar and I

When it comes to grammar, as far as I can see, there are three types of English teachers. There are those who don’t speak English as first language. These people have battled their way through the language’s quirks, and rules that have so many exceptions that you wonder why they are rules in the first place, until they have reached a point where, while perhaps not being entirely fluent in the language, they have a level of competence whereby they can teach English. The chances are that having studied the language so much themselves, they are able to deal with most of the grammatical queries that come their way.

The second group are the native teachers of a certain age (I’m far too polite a person to suggest what that age could be…), who were educated at a time when grammar was seen as a cornerstone of L1 learning. Maybe they even attended a Grammar school, which suggests that the subject was so highly thought of they even named the whole school after it. This group has the best of both worlds when it comes to grammar teaching, native levels of proficiency matched with an in-depth knowledge of the mechanics of the language.

Finally, we have the native speakers who were not educated in their L1 in the grammar tradition, but rather with literature and with the accent on developing vocabulary and critical skills. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, in fact I would say it is the most appropriate for people learning their own language. The problem comes when anyone who was educated under that system becomes an English language teacher, and faces a student who asks them why they get “on a bus” and not “in” it.

What follows is my confession. As a member of that third group, I am scared of a grammar. A question about a predicate brings me out in a cold sweat. Ask me to create an adverbial clause and I’ll run screaming from the building. And just the thought of a subjunctive is enough to make me catch a taxi to the airport.

Joking aside, this can be a serious problem for many of us who want to be responsible teachers, especially those of us who arrive in the profession via what is often unfortunately referred to as the ‘backpacker’ route. I don’t think that anyone would suggest that a teacher should have a complete mastery of English grammar, but it is desirable for us to at least have a grounding in the basics. If we are aware of the irregularities in our language, then we are better able to deal with these inevitable problems when they arise. I think that’s the least we owe our learners.

So, as a responsible teacher, aware of my duties, I decided that I needed to improve my language awareness. I considered wading through one of Mr Raymond Murphy’s all pervasive volumes, as so many of our students have done, but I decided against it in favour of something I hoped would be more enjoyable, and subsequently more effective.

My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘Me’) is published by Michael O’Mara Books and written by Caroline Taggart and J. A. Wines. It describes itself as “guaranteed to enlighten and entertain” which sounded like exactly what I needed. The concept is “to fill in some of the gaps that the education system may have left you with” so I concluded that this was the book for me.

The approach it takes is to divide the book into five parts: Spelling and Confusables, Parts of Speech, Sentence Structure, Punctuation, and Odds and Sods (or, Elements of Style). Each section is then broken down into further categories. The Punctuation chapter, for example, deals with full stops, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, colons, semicolons, dashes, hyphens, “quotation marks”, apostrophes, possessive apostrophes. Pretty thorough, I’m sure you agree.

It goes through each of these points individually, dealing with them with great clarity. It is patently obvious that the writers were aware that this was a subject matter that could very easily become tedious, descending into a list of confusing rules. They have very effectively avoided this by treating the subject with a light touch and an awareness of the ludicrousness that often accompanies grammar and those who hold it in high esteem. Indeed, from a book that presents itself as “old school”, it has a refreshing lack of deference towards grammar purists, describing how the scholars who formalised the English grammar system in the eighteenth century “imposed an awful lot of Latin rules that didn’t fit too comfortably with English, thereby creating all manner of unnecessary complications.”

Humour is employed liberally throughout the book, also to great effect. Future verb tenses are illustrated with the last words of French grammarian Dominique Bouhours, “I am about to – or I am going to – die. Either is correct.” The importance of misplaced modifiers is exemplified with examples such as “The bride was given away by her father wearing her mother’s wedding dress” and “She was taken to hospital having been bitten by a spider in a bathing suit.” Jokes, humorous footnotes and a generally irreverent tone all contribute to the enjoyment the reader gets from the book, and let’s not underestimate how important that point is. A grammar book that is an enjoyable read for a self-confessed grammarphobe is quite an achievement.

But how effective is it for improving your grammar knowledge? I think the book has helped me a great deal with in my quest to improve this aspect of my teaching. It isn’t a book I would recommend to language learners, but for teachers it’s a great resource. It can easily be dipped in to for a quick explanation, and will give you memorable and well-explained examples that you can use whenever you are caught out by that awkward question. And it even answers the question that forms its title, but I’ll let you discover that answer for yourself.

Reviewed by James Taylor for May 2011
James Taylor has taught English as a foreign language to adults in Brazil, South Korea, Belgium and Costa Rica. He is the current President and a co-founder of BELTA, the Belgian English Language Teachers Association. He can also be found moderating #ELTchat, a twice-weekly discussion on Twitter with teachers from around the world, presenting the #ELTchat podcast, mentoring teachers for iTDi, and blogging. His website is

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