Tag Archives grammar

Highlights of the week…

By Posted on Location: 2min read
Life before the pandemic. The Netherlands, 2017.

Other than the fence blowing apart, the water dispersing across the kitchen floor and the flashing antics of the oven, I’ve had a reasonably quiet week. Buried in grammar books, my mind remains settled and content. It has problems it can mull over: little things that keep it occupied. And for me at least, immersed in literature, the dullness of reality doesn’t seem so bad. I fear though that the lack of novelty in my life doesn’t make my writing particularly exciting. And that the lack of input results in a regurgitation of the same small thoughts. Despite normally being able to conjure an emotional calamity wherever I place myself – and thereby excuse myself from clear thinking – my moods remain mundane, and I fear my thoughts boring.

Literature fills a gap, but it can’t replace the excitement of screwing up.


It’s not all doom and gloom. Note the dummy variable. If anything, I tend to be an optimist. And these thoughts (about adverbials and complements, relative adjectives or attributional nouns) do make me professionally more competent. There is no doubt that my understanding of the grammatical differences between Spanish and English is helpful to my students. That was an example of a cleft sentence. No doubt I’m also developing a deeper awareness of the prejudice that obnubilates the distinction between how I speak, what my father considers correct, fustian language, beautiful language, clear language and phrasing that compels action…

Bonus points for guessing which of the above words I learnt this week.

My favourite new word is ‘pratfall’, which is American (but let’s not be prejudiced), and ought to be used by football commentators both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Now I’ve written it on the blog I shall wait for my parents to throw it into some dinnertime conversation. Thanks to the pandemic, they are learning grammar whether they like it or not. Accidental language awareness helps too. I was pretty chuffed when a student mistakenly wrote ‘to probe’ meaning ‘to try’ and I suddenly realised the connection between ‘probe’ and the Spanish ‘probar’.

Such highlights I have in my week.

I’m now so cool I’m writing about modal verbs

By Posted on Location: 2min read
obscure grammar
Grammar can sometimes be a bit obscure. Just like the view when you climb, camera in hand, a big hill that supposedly looks over the entire city and the Pacific Ocean. But oh well. We shall keep trying.
La Serena, September 2019.

I often keep a grammar guide in my handbag

It’s a side-effect of my constant war with language.

I mean, sometimes I find myself having coffee and someone asks me an awkward question, like, “What type of word is ‘ought’?”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

It’s a real everyday sort of challenge

As is not always saying ‘like’ remembering I have the letters ‘t’ and ‘h’ somewhere in my mouth, and not greeting people with a friendly ‘How’s thee doing?’.

Of course, until the question is asked, I’ve no idea

When I was asked, in Spain, at one of the outdoor tables in front of the café – the one with the excellent cookies – I blinked. To start, I imagined the ways I use the word ‘ought’ but this didn’t help much.

I tugged out the grammar-guide.

“A modal verb used to convey potential or obligation.”

Grammar guides are problematic because you need to translate them into everyday speech to make their great wisdom usable. I cannot just tell a student that this word conveys potential. Not unless they’re already a bit of a language geek. And if they are, they probably know more than me.

I have to find ways the student can begin to use these modal verbs.

The truth is, a year ago, I had no idea what a modal verb was

When I started learning things like the conditional in Spanish, I didn’t know what it looked like in English. If you don’t know, don’t feel bad. I had to consult my grammar guide and the children’s textbooks to piece it all together.

Unlike English, Spanish has a sweet way of doing the conditional. It’s like my favourite tense, even though it has an ‘r’ in it so I can’t pronounce anything in it. I found that I was using it before I could describe it.

“Me gustaría un café por favor”

In Spanish, you conjugate for every scenario

There are many conjugations to learn. In English, however, you add extra words. These extra words are the modal verbs. They change the mode/tense of the verb. ‘Ought’ is one of them. So is ‘will’.

And if you’re reading this and you speak beautiful received-pronunciation standard English and knew what a modal verb was long before you turned 28, good for you. You probably didn’t need to read all this and you won’t need a grammar-guide in your handbag.

The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway

In a local charity shop I found a pocket-size blue book, printed in 1926, written by a man called Frederic William Westaway and entitled ‘The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology’. The book’s age and the subject, writing for science, immediately made me want it.

The story of my book

On 22 July 1931 my copy of the book was stamped with ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ in green ink. On this occasion it was bought by a C. B. Grimaldi. On the 24 October 1932, the book was again stamped with a ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ stamp. This time in pink ink. Who it was sold to is unknown, but it went for 4/8, whatever that should mean.

The book was also owned by a D. S. Robinson, his or her name is scrawled in blue in on the inside cover.

I know little of the author Frederic William Westaway, but that he was, at one point in his life, one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Secondary Schools.

Grammar and style

Unlike many grammar books, Westaway doesn’t simply give a list of rules to follow. Rules do exist, and they are stated, but the wonder of the book is the use of examples.

The following is an example of careless stopping:

“Rule, Britannia; Britannia rules the waves”.

There should be a comma after the second Britannia, and the indicative should be replaced by another imperative.

[I believe the use of double quotation marks is of its time. My modern copy of Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, first published 1929, states in the introduction that quotation marks have been changed from the original double to single for clarity.]

Many more of Westaway’s examples come from academic papers, journals such as Nature, and daringly even other grammar books.

Each chapter begins with a couple of quotes about either writing or grammar – a number of which are from Shakespeare.

How to be a better writer

Anyway, Westaway’s advice on mastering the art of writing?

He who desires to write correctly must train himself to review with a critical eye what other people have written. To understand exactly what the different words in a sentence mean, what functions they discharge, what relation they bear to one another, and what the sentence as a whole signifies, all these things are indispensable.

To which end my suggestion would be Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose.