Grammar Paper


Grammar is usually divided into two areas: morphology (the structure of words) and syntax (the structure of sentences). Once we go beyond the sentence, we move into discourse (see Chapter X, below). In MA TESL programmes, the subject of grammar is broken up in various ways, and some courses mix the grammar itself with how to teach it. In any event, you will be expected to know about:

• Nouns: countable and uncountable nouns; collective nouns; combined nouns and noun chains (eg: a Wibledon tennis ticket price increase proposal); pronouns.
• Adjectives; adjective suffixes; compound adjectives; peripheral adjectives; adjectival phrases.
• Adverbs and adverbials: the function of adverbs; the position and meaning of adverbials.
• Articles.
• Quantifiers (all; no; any; some, each; either; many; more, etc.).
• Comparatives and superlatives.
• Prepositions.
• Verbs: types of verbs; transitive and intransitive verbs; verb tenses; tense and apect; mood and voice; auxiliaries ; conditionals; meaning and use of verb forms; the structure of the verb group.
• Sentence constutuents and word order: parts of the sentence; tree diagrams and constituent structure; the object and the compliment; the noun phrase; the verb phrase; interrogatives; interrogative clauses; the structure of multiple sentences .


Preliminary Reading

You should get to know the various parts of English grammar outlined above, and the course materials that your university provides are the best place to start. If you’re doing a Distance Learning course, you’ll be led through a number of structured activities . A very clear overview is provided by Rob Batestone in his wonderfully instructive and entertaining (and mercifully short!) book, simply entitled Grammar. For a more detailed picture, I recommend Martin Parrott’s Grammar for English Language Teachers. For these and other books mentioned in this chapter, see “Suggestions For Reading” for full reference at the end of this chapter.

Choose a Topic

Once you’ve got a general idea of English grammar (without doing any massive reading!) and you’ve done the mini-tasks required in your particular MA programme, you have to choose a topic for your paper. Popular areas are:

• The difference between the past simple and present perfect tenses.
• The simple present tense.
• The order of adjectives. (Easy to explain, but how do you teach it?)
• Phrasal verbs. (Tricky!)
• Conditionals. (Maybe narrow it down – to first versus second, for example.)
• Reported speech.
• The Passive.
• Questions (Also probably needs narrowing down).
• Adverbs versus adjectives.
• Expressing the future. (There’s no future tense in English.)
• Articles (Very tricky!) .

Choose a grammar topic that you know about, that you think your students have trouble with, and that you have had some success in teaching.

Read in Depth

Now you can start reading in depth. Here we must immediately make a distinction between reference works which scholars refer to and pedagogical grammars. First, the reference works. When you write a paper on some area of grammar, you have to firstly describe the area you’re talking about – the difference between the past simple and present perfect, for example. In such a description, you have to begin by referring to the most widely-accepted references works, and, in grammar, the reference work that you must refer to is Quirk, et. al (1985): this is “The Bible”! So remember: “Must Have” book: Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London: Longman. I strongly recommend you to get a copy: it’s a book you can refer to for the rest or your teaching career. Don’t try to read it cover to cover: it’s only for reference, just consult it on the particular area of the grammar that you’re researching for your paper. Your paper must also refer to a few other reference works; in my opinion, Huddleston (1984), and Greenbaum (1996) are the best. You can refer to other scholarly works like Yule (1997) and Thornbury (1999), for example, but they don’t have quite the same clout.

You should then get familiar with a few pedagogical grammars. In my opinion, the best pedagogical grammar is Swan’s Practical English Usage. Other more or less OK books are Collins’ Cobuild English Grammar, and Hurford’s Grammar: A student’s guide. I don’t like Murphys’ English Grammar In Use at all, in fact, I think it’s terrible, but it’s very popular (“Trusted by over 30 million learners” as his proud publisher claims), and it can be very useful to quote in papers if you want to show how wrong authors can be! Coursebooks also include grammar explanations, and these, too, can be referred to, and you might also look at papers published in journals.

Write an Outline and submit it to your tutor.

Below is an example, submitted to me by Erica Dawson, an MA TESL student at Leicester University. Your tutor will comment on your outline, maybe ask for more detail, suggest that you include other bits, and so on. You should not proceed until you’ve got a clear indication from your tutor that the paper is OK.

Grammar Assignment: 3,000 words.

Title: Perfective and progressive aspect in the present tense, and an evaluation of its treatment in a reference grammar used by Dutch adult learners.

Why? Dutch adult learners at intermediate level generally demonstrate a greater awareness of aspect in the present tense than in either the past tense, or in expressions of future time. However, they do have a tendency to:

• overuse the progressive aspect

• misuse the perfective aspect

• rarely use the perfective progressive.


1. Intro.

2. My Situation

3. Theoretical discussion of aspect, looking at the problematic nature of the ‘overlap of meaning between tense and aspect’ (Quirk et al. 1985: 167). Also look at Huddleston (1984) and maybe Thornbury (1997).

4. Contrastive analysis, looking at elements of Dutch grammar that can lead to first language interference.

5. Evaluation of students’ reference grammar: Murphy (2004) in terms of its accuracy, clarity etc for Dutch adult learners. This is a grammar reference book that was provided to all intermediate students enrolled at the language school where I used to work.

6. Discussion: Limitations of Murphy; alternatives (coursebook; my own notes; others.)

7. Conclusion.


Write the First Draft

Let’s say that you’ve chosen to write about the present perfect and the past tenses. After introducing the subject and explaining your context, you have to then explain the two tenses: how they’re formed, and how they’re used. You say: “ Quirk (1985) see the essential differences between these two verb forms in the following way:… and on you go, summarising their account, maybe giving a few short quotes. Then you say: “Huddleston (1984) has a slightly different view. In his account, ……. Greenbaum (1996) seems to agree more with…… “. And so on.
Having given a scholarly account of the grammar topic in question, you then give a brief description of how the topic is dealt with in pedagogical grammars. Once you have given both the authoritative and pedagogical accounts of the structure under question, you then give your own summary of what you think are the most salient points.

The next bit of your paper should deal with your own students, and the problems they have with the grammar point in question, most often because of L1 interference, but that might not be the only point you want to make (you might want to talk about written texts, in particular, for example). Finally, you suggest ways that teachers might deal with the problem, and write a Conclusion. Don’t forget a Reference list, and that’s it!

If permitted, Submit the first draft to your tutor Some universities allow this, other don’t.

Write the Final Version of the Paper

Here is where you pay attention to all the details.

• Are you happy with the content?
• Is the text well-organised?
• Is the text well-written? (Remember: in academic writing, less is more!)
• Use a spell checker.
• Check the formatting.
• Don’t forget Table of Contents.
• Check for coherence and cohesion.
• Check in-tect citations and References Section.

Model Paper on Grammar

Here’s an example, with extracts from a paper written by Mel Wise, an MA TESL student at Leicester University, who tackles a tricky question with some aplomb. Note that I have not paid attention here to the formatting of the title page and table of contents: see Chapter 9 for a full discussion of these important matters. I have indicated when the extracts finish by a line of dots.

Title: Phrasal Verbs: the role of the particle, and the learning difficulties faced by Chinese EAP students.

Submitted by: Mel Wise, MA TESL student, Leicester University.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
Phrasal verbs such as ‘give up’ are known to have existed in the English language since the twelfth century (Burchfield, 2000: 594), and there are more than 5000 in current use (McCarthy and O’Dell, 2004:4). In my teaching, I have noticed that the verb particle combination can cause confusion for students and that often use the particle inaccurately, or simply avoid using them, preferring Latinate one word equivalents. For my Chinese EAP students, this causes no immediate problem for their writing needs but does affect their speaking and listening competence. In the first section, this essay will explore syntactic descriptions of the phrasal verb construction, while the second section will look at classifications by syntax. The third sections will focus on the semantic role of the particle and the final section will examine the difficulties that phrasal verbs pose to Chinese EAP students, before concluding that phrasal verbs should be more widely taught by particle, and that EAP students would benefit from more exposure to idiomatic English on their courses.

2. Multi Word Verbs: Prepositional Verb or Phrasal Verb?
In order to analyse the phrasal verb, it is necessary to distinguish it from the prepositional verb. Thornbury (1997: 243) claims that there are effectively only two types of multi word verb; those with prepositions and those with adverbs. A preposition tends to occur before a noun phrase, for which it provides information about position in space or time, such as on the wall or in the bath. A prepositional verb could be either the combination of a verb and its dependent preposition, such as listen to or rely on, or it could be the free combination of a verb and a preposition of space or time, such as go in the room or walk down the street; either way, prepositional verbs are always transitive (Quirk et al., 1985: 1152; Greenbaum, 1996: 280). This means that in the example:

[The girl] [sat] [on the chair]

“on” would be considered to be part of the noun phrase on the chair rather than part of the verb (Quirk, 1985: 1167; Yule, 2004: 157). In contrast, a phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and adverb; this may also be referred to as a prepositional adverb due to the fact that it is often a preposition functioning as an adverb, in that it does not necessarily need to precede a noun phrase in the same way that a preposition does (Greenbaum, 1996: 282). In phrasal verbs, the adverb, or ‘particle’, combines with the verb to produce a single lexeme (Crystal, 1995: 118):

[The girl] [gave up] [smoking]

Some phrasal verbs are relatively transparent, as in put the glass down; others are more opaque and the meaning may not be clear from the sum of its parts, as in the above example to give up (to quit). There are various distinctions which can be made between a prepositional verb and a phrasal verb (Huddleston, 1984: 204; Yule, 1998:157; Quirk et al. 1985: 1167), which can be summarised as follows:
3. Treatment of Phrasal Verbs in Swan (2005), Bailey (2003), and Thornbury (1997)
4. Learning difficulties faced by Chinese EAP year 1 students
My EAP students are mid to upper intermediate (B1) at entry level. Research indicates that this level of Chinese student in an international university environment is likely to encounter difficulties with phrasal verbs and prepositional phrases for a variety of reasons.

4.1. Prepositional verbs and phrases in Mandarin
Unlike English, prepositional phrases in Mandarin tend to occur before verb phrases (Ross and Ma, 2006: 82):
[Tāmen] [gěi dìdi] [mài le bīngqilín]
[They] [for younger brother] [bought ice-cream]
As well as this, Mandarin also has ‘coverbs’ which, though considered to be verbs, can mostly only function in conjunction with other verbs
4.2. Meaning and metaphor
Mandarin has relatively few directional particles compared to English, and the meaning is usually transparent; likewise, the verbs tend to have a single fixed meaning (Huang, 2009: 156). This sits in sharp contrast with the high number of semi-transparent and figurative phrasal verbs in English, where an already polysemous verb may be also combined with a particle to result in even more meanings (pick – choose / scratch / nibble; pick up – collect; pick out – choose; pick on – bully; pick off; eliminate). It has also been suggested that the acquisition and use of phrasal verbs are higher in advanced learners due to the fact that they have had more exposure to and interaction with native speakers, perhaps through travel abroad (Liao and Fukuya, 2004: 214); the Year 1 intermediate students have not yet studied abroad and only really use English in the classroom are therefore far less likely to take the risk of using them, particularly the more figurative variety (Liao and Fukuya, 2004: 214).

5. Discussion
The question remains whether it actually matters if lower level students avoid phrasal verbs. Certainly, idiomatic phrases and phrasal verbs are considered to be of an informal register inappropriate for academic writing, and as a result EAP course books will generally advise against their use; Jordan (1991: 91) warns students that “phrasal and prepositional verbs are more suitable for an informal style and are therefore inappropriate in academic writing”. Bailey (2003: 107) similarly advises students to use one word synonyms where possible. Though to a certain extent this may be the case for academic writing, the student is still very likely to meet a vast range of phrasal verbs, along with other idiomatic and metaphoric language in lectures and seminars. Research indicates that lecturers use a large amount of metaphoric references in lectures, not only to explain but also to manage their discourse; signpost language used by the lecturer could well include phrases such as: “tomorrow we’ll wrap that up” or “the lecture is very much built around a number of slides” (Littlemore at al. 2011: 3). If an EAP course focuses heavily on academic writing skills which inherently guard against informality (this tends to be the case in my experience) it is quite possible that certain aspects of metaphoric language awareness could be neglected in favour of teaching more formal, ‘academic’ language; this may indirectly limit the student’s linguistic range and compromise understanding in other areas. Indeed, research shows that a significant degree of miscomprehension in lectures results from students’ inability to decode metaphorical references (Littlemore et al. 2011).


6. Conclusion



Suggested Reading
***** Excellent **** Very Good *** OK ** Not Good * Bad ??? Beats me

Top Suggestions for the Module

A. Overview of grammar
***** Parrott, M. 2005. Grammar for English Language Teachers. Cambridge: CUP. An excellent book which divides the grammar up very well and gives clear examples, exercises and a key. Worth having your own copy.

**** Batestone, R. 1994. Grammar. Oxford: OUP. One of my favorite books: entertaining, informative, brilliant in its conception. Highly recommended, but not essential.

B. Reference Works
***** Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London: Longman. A required part of your bookshelf: get it! It’s very dense and often difficult, but you need it. Treat it as you would a dictionary.

***** Huddleston, R. 1984. Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Great book. More acessible than Quirk et al., but not exactly pool-side reading. Important to refer to in your paper, so you probably need access to it.

***** Greenbaum, S. 1996. The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford: OUP. Greenbaum is, of course, a co-author of the Quirk, et al., work. This is easier, but still quite tedious in parts. Important to refer to in your paper, so, again, you probably need access to it.

*** Chalker, S. and Weiner, E. (eds.) 1993. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Good to have, but not essential for an MA TESL, although it would be good to have nearby while writing you paper.

I should also mention:

??? Halliday, M. A. K. 1994. An Introduction to Functional Grammar, London: Edward Arnold. I gave up after 10 pages when I tried to read this book as a lad, and I’ve never had the guts to go back to it. But many of my MA and doctoral students say that he’s the man. If you want to get really serious about grammar, then this a must.

**** Bloor, T. and Bloor M. 2004. The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach. London: Edward Arnold. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read reviews and colleagues and students say it’s very, ahem, approachable.

C. Pedagogical Grammars

***** Swan, M. 2005. Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Simply the best: Michael is the acknowledged master. A reference book that you really should have on your bookshelf.
*** Collins. 2004. Cobuild English Grammar , London: Collins. This was the result of all the great work the Cobuild did with concordancers: “Real English” was what they claimed to uncover, but it all went rather flat some years ago. Worth a look.

*** Hurford, J. R. 1994. Grammar: A student’s guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This explains “one hundred basic grammatical terms”. Rather strangely organised, but quite good at exlaining the main contrasts and interrelationships between the terms. Again, worth a look.

* Murphy, R. 2005. English Grammar In Use. Cambridge: CUP. Can the 6 million people who bought it be wrong? I think so; in my opinion it’s turgid, boring, oversimplified pap. Jealousy, no doubt.

D. Articles
**** Dirven, R. 1990. Pedagogical Grammar. Language Teaching, 23/1: 1-18. Very interesting, and good to refer to.

**** Meziani, A. 1988. The English tense system: a pedagogic analysis. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 26/4: 281-294. This is a “State of the Art” article, and, again very interesting and very quotable.

E. Books for Teachers
***** Ur, P. 1992 Grammar Practice Activities: A Practical Guide for Teachers. Cambridge: CUP. Still very good after all these years.

***** Thornbury, S. 1999. How to Teach Grammar. Harlow: Longman. Excellent. Scott is a great writer, and a clever, modern dude. He takes a basically task-based approach. Fresh, intelligent, very good stuff.

***** Yule, G. 1998. Explaining English Grammar. Oxford: OUP. Now here is a really clever dude. George Yule describes how the peculiarities and idiosyncracies of nine difficult areas of English grammar can be explained to students. The areas include articles, tense and aspect, modals, conditionals, prepositions and particles, indirect objects, infinitives and gerunds, relative clauses, and direct and indirect speech. Very good to refer to.

** Celce-Murcia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D. 2004. The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course. In my opinion it’s an awful, boring, laborious, tedious overkill. But lots of teachers love it.

2 thoughts on “Grammar Paper

  1. I’m just deciding on my topic for this essay and as I teach young learners I feel a bit limited to what is relevant. Articles especially because they have none in Korean seems to be a good topic to tackle. I was just wondering why you think it’s really tricky?


    1. Hi cupcake…

      The use of the definite, indefinite, and “zero” articles is generally recognised to be one of the most difficult areas of English grammar. Rather than attempt to give you a resume, I refer you to Swan, M. (2005) “Practical English Usage”, pages 64 to 72. Swan finishes his discussion of articles on page 72 with a section called “articles: golden rules”., which seem to me to sum up very well the 3 basic errors made by L2 learners. .


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