“Without grammar, little can be conveyed; without lexis, nothing can be conveyed”, David Wilkins

Various teaching practice spring cleanings in the past three years have cleared out a lot of clutter from my grammar teaching and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying I avoid teaching grammar (after all, it’s part of the language; it would be unwise to leave out a whole area of language from its teaching), I definitely avoid aspects of it. 

Spring Cleaning

“Use ‘must’ for an internal obligation and ‘have to’ for an external one”

Disclaimer: These results are two random samples I took from the BNC corpus using ‘I must’ and ‘I have to’ – they are not a fully fledged study into the use of modality. 

I’m not so convinced, I must say (or I have to admit?). Furthermore, I don’t think rules like this help students to make personal decisions on what grammar best expresses their opinion. For instance, make a ‘to do’ list in your head, what’s the most common modal that turns up? I swing between the semi-modals ‘have got to’ and ‘have to’. Now think about if there’s more external than internal obligation for each of these. All answers please include the start and the end of the thought process and send them stamped to 25, languagemoments street, London, UK.

But I think I am safe in saying that I make up part of a large pool of language teachers who have arrived at the same conclusion.

Use present progressive for a future action that has already been arranged and decided and use going to + infinitive for an intention

I know this to be true. I have experienced it to be of little help to students. In my personal opinion, the use of adverbs makes much more difference to the meaning of these two structures.


I’m seeing a film tomorrow

I’m going to see a film tomorrow


I’m hopefully seeing that new film tomorrow

I’m probably going to see that new film tomorrow

Can we say therefore that explicit rule-based atomistic grammar instruction should pack its bags and make way for holistic lexico-grammatical instruction? I am certain that this equips students with the analytical tools to analyse meaning as it occurs in real life; lexicalised and in context.

On that note, it’s worth taking a look at ‘have to’ and ‘must’ again. You’ll see that there are some great chunks in the two extracts from the corpus: I have to say/I really must say/I must admit.

The power of language

Not only does the idea of atomistic rules not chime with me, but also the way in which they are written I believe really disempowers the student. How many times do you hear “I must use/I have to use” in your courses? Does this make your heart sink? It does mine. It sounds like the learner is completely dehumanised in the language learning process; where’s the opinion? What about “I can use present perfect when I do not consider the time period finished, e.g. I’ve seen so much while living in Berlin” – I still live there. Swap musts, have tos, we use, you use for I can use, if I say___, it means I think____.


I’m happy to say that they have very little place, if any, in my classroom. Shouldn’t language be introduced and practised in context? If so, then 12 different contexts, all different from each other, just for the purpose of practising a structure is not entirely conducive to this. What’s more, it’s a focus on form, not meaning. Any chance of focusing on meaning is dealt a serious blow from the constantly changing contexts. That said, I do give them for homework, woe betide me for bowing to student expectations.

I would be fascinated to know of any other grammar-teaching pet-peeves people have. Likewise, if someone wants to completely disagree with me, I’d welcome a bit of a grammar tussle.

Also, watch this space. I feel a number of skeletons coming on.

22 thoughts on “Grammarphobe

  1. Kiri Wood says:

    Re Gap-fills. I see these as I would drilling. It’s not going to help students understand the meaning or use it in any realistic way, but the repetition does build confidence and familiarity with using the form which can help increase fluency and all sorts of other wonders.

    I get stuck on this when teaching ‘going to’ because students usually drop the main verb when it happens to be ‘go’. They’ll quite happily produce ‘I’m going to visit my grandmother’ then ‘I’m going to the cinema.’ I have to ask myself if it really is so important to an elementary student to know the difference between present continuous used for future meaning and ‘going to’. but if you don’t address it, a can of worms can be opened when the ‘mistake’ starts leaking into other areas and the student starts saying ‘I’m going to my grandmother’ or ‘I’m going to television’, then when the formula they are using suddenly becomes obviously wrong in ‘the book’.

    I suppose it comes down to teaching what they need, when they need it. I doubt an elementary student will want to know the finer points of future forms, so being pedantic on using going to +verb, be it go or any other verb, is useful because it gives them a clear formula. So they can focus on getting their heads round what they want to say without worrying about how they’re going to say it. Once they’ve built up the what, they can revisit the how and then the teacher has the tricky job of deconstructing the tried and tested formulas in their head to get them to use alternatives.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Kiri, nice to see your face around these parts, thanks for the comment.

      I agree that gap-fills, like drilling, give students a controlled environment in which they can practice the form of the language, which pays some dividends when fluency, especially getting to grips with some trickier forms such as “would have gone”; with practice they sound less mechanical. My beef is that it is just a focus on form, not on meaning. For me this just doesn’t quite make the grade because it lulls students and teachers into a false sense of security that these activities and techniques are teaching grammar when in fact they only address one component part of it: form.

      It’s often the case that students come to my classes with lots of knowledge, in one form or the other, of future forms. They can recite them on command but find it difficult to use them, or rely upon one, which is where I think the idea of learning future forms more lexically helps out. Here I’m referring to intermediate upwards.


  2. phil wade says:

    I’ve abandoned grammar boxes because they are a no win situation. Yes, some very neatly provide very concise explanations and some practice but there are always so many things they don’t say. Just look at A-Z of Grammar and then compare it to your standard grammar boxes in a book and you’ll see the differences. Tenses are just the beginning really but they still take up most books and even examiner speaking check lists.

    I won’t even mention Will/Going to. That is a minefield that sucks your will to live.

    With customer service students I’m always in the ‘have to/must/could/would’ territory. In fact, apart from a rather dull grammar group class I don’t have any students who actually want grammar. They do want to be able to speak though and learn the grammatically correct phrases they need to get their work done. I’d also say that’s true for the grammar class but they have to attend.

    I read about some new study that has finally proven that planned and formal grammar teaching works better than incidental or ad-hoc.Hmmm. Well, they should attend my 2 hour one, they may change their tune.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Phil,

      I was just wondering about this study you mentioned. Does it talk about the short-term or long-term effects of formal grammar teaching? Unfortunately, many of us don’t have the opportunity to see what our students will be like in a couple of years. Those lucky ones probably get a bonus reflection on the way their students learned.

      As with any difficult-to-grasp concept, if lower-order thinking skills dominate the learning process then it’s a perceivable outcome that a learner’s understanding will be fairly basic. Employ the higher order skills.

      I’ve just started teaching intensive courses in my new job and there’s a grammar class every day for an hour and a half, which has forced me to consider how I teach grammar. Now, I have a preference, which is incidental with clarification and practice, but I also mix in some ‘formal’ grammar teaching (funny, I imagine everyone in dinner suits sitting around a table smoking cigars and drinking brandy learning grammar when I write that).


      • phil wade says:

        How did you know that? Only Cubans and Scottish Whiskey mind you. I should apply to teach English at the gents club. Imagine that! “Ok, Sir Cattleprod the 3rd, can you make me some sentences with could please?” “By jove, erm, yes, you there boy, could you pass me another tumbler and some of the good stuff?”.

        The more I speak to business people the more I hear about their societies. Now, if you have all the big wigs at say, the Freemasons I wonder if they’d like English classes? Forget the image, just imagine giving group classes to the highest business and political people in society in a relaxed social environment. That would be fantastic and over cigars and whiskey. Sign me up now!

  3. mrchrisjwilson says:

    I’ve always thought of the difference between “have to” and “must” as something you don’t want to/believe in and something you believe in. It’s clearly still not perfect but in the case of the list you go through the annoying things you know you “have to do” and then come across the one thing that is urgent and you realise you “must” do it. Still, ads more to the murkiness of the whole subject really and still doesn’t seem correct!

    Wasn’t there a #eltchat recently about why grammar is wonderful and should be taught explicitly (that’s right with naked models) Didn’t attend or read the summary (yet) but sounds the sort of thing a Grammarphobe would/should/could/must (that’s for you phil) be interested in.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks for commenting, Chris.

      I sometimes think of mother telling me to do something “Dale you must get that sorted out” – seems much stronger to me, but then again there’s the context around it of a loving mother nagging a stubborn child, or adult. Again, I’m not convinced that the modals per se carry so much meaning and that a lot of the ambiguity is cleared up by the lexis with which it’s used. Consider: “you absolutely must/you really must/you kind of have to/you really have to/you probably have to/you’ll have to then there’s a bit less ambiguity.

      There was indeed an ELTchat ont his topic, here’s the link

  4. DaveDodgson says:

    I also focus on grammar less and less these days. This is partly because the programme I teach on demands a focus on skills and ‘language in use’ and partly because I’ve experienced a similar thing to Dale with grammar ‘rules’ that break themselves far too often.

    Either way, the approach I encourage from my students is to use whatever form/modal/tense seems appropriate. Obvious errors (like “I’ve been there yesterday”) are corrected of course but, as long as the meaning is clear, I don’t address ‘differences’ between things like “Sorry – I must/have to go” or “I think it will/is going to be hot today”.

    • phil wade says:

      I’ll go with Dave there. I’ve had so many grammar exercises end up in chaos due to will/going to, must/have to too.

      For me, most of my students don’t want an English course i.e. following a book to get from pre-int to int. They want speaking or to pass a test or to be able to manage in English if using it in their job. I think a lot of people are like this too so it doesn’t really lend itself to long grammar lessons. I did see a guy doing a ‘grammar chat’ in a TOEIC lesson not so long ago. The bloke probably failed the test. I prepped a guy for TOEFL and did a short Prof grammar test, he got 100% at the test but producing varied grammar and understanding some of it in listening were a different matter.

  5. Wanisa Ali says:

    I think from my experience to teach grammar you have to connect between structure and cohesion to enable students to write correctly and to speak fluently .

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi, Wanisa, thanks for commenting. Would you say that means that we need to focus more on grammar and discourse and leave the isolated sentences on the bottom shelf of the staff-room bookshelf?


  6. Andrew Walkley says:

    I have to say I have definitely abandoned have to and must distinctions. I couldn’t agree more that it’s a difference without a distinction and basically we’d be better off focusing on must as in ‘you must be fed up’ where have to is not possible and in all other cases don’t worry about it and say they have the same meaning. I should probably also abandon will and going to, but I do find the excessive use of will a bit irritating. However, I don’t understand the generalised complaint about gap-fills or that they are all focused on form. Surely, it entirely depends on a) the type of gap-fill and b) what you then do with it as a teacher. If students are asked to choose the correct form to fill in (between two tenses or many), then isn’t it a test of meaning. And if they have to choose the correct word and the correct form, even more so! As you point out, neither is it decontextualised – it just might be several different contexts. Doesn’t that give the opportunity for a richer language experience? For example, yesterday in class we did a short exercise on imperatives – it was a translation exercise, but it could just as easily have been a gap-fill. The imperatives included:
    Take a seat.
    Have a good time.
    Don’t worry.
    + some others I’ve forgotten. I then got the students to think what was said before and after the imperative to create short dialogues (of all different contexts). It seemed quite meaningful to me. I’ve also just written about another gap-fill, which was form focused, but became I think quite meaningful This is the link if you’re interested:
    I think coursebooks and grammar exercises often have lots of good language – you just sometimes need to winkle it out like the meat in a lobster (not that I like lobster, but you know what I mean!)

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Andrew.

      Great to see you getting involved in the debate. Yes, you’re right, success depends on the implementation and a teacher’s ability to get the most out of the material used.

      It seems beside the point that this type of activity contains lots of good language if the main aim of the exercise is not fulfilled. Especially if learners believe that the completion of such an exercise will improve their understand of X or Y grammar point. Furthermore, As it seems from your post, the exercise combines collocation and grammar on the topic of free-time(ish) activities, so at least there is an underlying lexical set involved. Was the aim to manipulate past simple forms or the collocations?

      I fear you may have misunderstood me on the point of ‘meaningful’ versus ‘meaning’. I believe that grammar-focused gap-fills don’t engage students enough in meaning and the whole exercise becomes more of a manipulation of form. Thus, I ask myself, is this the best tool I have to achieve my aim? To add to that, if context is not built up through discourse and remains on a sentence level, how can learners a) have practice with language how they will find in the real world and b) identify larger grammatical patterns that exist on a text level.

      I would advocate a grammaring activity of a text which contains a specific set of reoccurring patterns, then students can see the lobster in the sea of fish in which we find them.


  7. Ana García Álvarez de Perea says:

    Teaching grammar to students that barely know grammar categories is quite difficult. It’s much more easy for my students to focus on conversations that have those structures and learn them in context. afterwards we practice them with several exercises on the form independently and when they are used to them separately, I put them together in new conversations or sentence making or even gap-filling exercises. Congratulations for your great blog!

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thank you for your comment, Ana.

      I think your sentiments have a lot in common with the idea of creating more context for students to notice and deduce information about grammar. Sadly, I’m not so sure the ELT publishing world has moved away from sentence level communication, (yet).

      Let’s say your students have trouble with form, which mine did the other day with the third conditional. It had emerged in conversation and everyone was clear of the meaning, in that case, a gap-fill focused their attention on the form and was the right tool to use.

      Thank you for stopping by!


  8. Lexical Leo says:

    I’ve always found this must/have to distinction a bit murky and always advised students: when in doubt use have (got) to. I agree with Andrew that must for sympathising with a speaker: it must be annoying, it must’ve been hard is much more useful but unfortunately not featured in the mainstream ELT materials as prominently as the dubious external / internal obligation.
    A great post, Dale, I must admit 🙂

    • dalecoulter says:

      I agree here Leo, must takes on a life of its own when taught for sympathising or even positive feedback “that must have been amazing!” I’ve seen it in some mainstream ELT materials, so there’s still hope for us!

      Interesting to consider on external obligation ‘are required to, are not allowed to, are not permitted, are requested to’ seem more external to me and both must and have to seem internal or even middle ground.

      Thanks for commenting, sorry about the delay on the response.


  9. mrchrisjwilson says:

    Changing the discussion a bit but still staying on the Must/have to topic. How do your students react to that? I’ve found students really don’t like to just be told “their the same.” or “they’re basically the same but a tiny bit different and it doesn’t really matter right now, maybe when you’re X level… etc etc”
    May might springs to mind as another one. Perhaps it is useful to “suggest” an imprecise and rubbish definition for those students who don’t like ambiguity (though they usually notice the “exception” when the teacher speaks)


    • dalecoulter says:

      It’s a good point. It’s basically the same doesn’t render their doubt on the usage any easier to confront. I advise my learners that they have two forms to choose from so it means they can use it for more variety and avoid repeating the same word over and over again.

      Some tell me that must seems more personal, in which case we discuss the softening devices for obligation and how this might change according to the person to whom you’re speaking.

      I might start at the imprecise definition but follow it up with a more passionate variation-of-two-similar-forms explanation. Does that hold though?

  10. mrchrisjwilson says:

    Certainly does,
    I like the “personalising” touch. “Which do you prefer to say? Why not try switching between the two to keep interest.” I think it could help some students. Having said that I’m directly thinking of the two or three students who just wouldn’t accept that they were “the same,” “Basically the same.” and then got completely confused by a more detailed explanation. Maybe It was just the explanation!

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