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Understanding the Reasons for Grammar, Not Just Learning the Rules

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: going beyond the rules of grammar.

RS: Diane Larsen-Freeman is director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan. She believes grammar is better understood when people understand the reasons behind the rules.

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "So, for example, there's a rule that says with active verbs you can use the -ing, the present participle, as in 'I am speaking about grammar.' But if you have a stative verb, a so-called stative verb, you can't use the -ing, so you can't say 'I am knowing about grammar.'

"Now that's a rule, and it works more or less. But it works less -- the less part comes in when you have verbs that have both active and stative meanings. So a verb like weigh -- w-e-i-g-h -- you can't say 'I am weighing a hundred pounds,' but you can say 'I am weighing the meat at the scale' because it's an action as opposed to a state."

AA: "Where you would say 'I weigh a hundred pounds.'"

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "That's right, you say 'I weigh a hundred pounds' but 'I am weighing the meat that I'm going to buy.'"

RS: "You can also say 'I weigh the meat.'"

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "You wouldn't say that in the moment. You would say 'I weigh the meat every time to make sure I get the proper portion.' You wouldn't say it in the moment."

AA: "Right, it would be for a continual process."

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "That's what the -ing signals. And my point is that the -ing is not incompatible with certain verbs as long as you use the active meaning. But it can help you go beyond. For example, 'want' is a stative verb, so in theory I can't say 'I am wanting a new car' or 'I am wanting a new bicycle.'

"However, if I use it with the present perfect progressive -- 'I've been wanting a new bicycle for some time' -- it becomes more acceptable because the -ing suggests a process. And if I use the present perfect progressive, then I'm talking about a span of time, a duration of time.

"Or you can even do things like, if there's a change of state -- for example, I can say something like 'I'm loving my English class more and more these days.' And if I go 'more and more,' I've indicated there's a change of state and then the -ing works."

RS: "How do you go, as a teacher of English as a foreign or second language, how do you go about teaching these concepts?"

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "Well, you see, if you lecture about reasons, then it becomes very static knowledge, just as if you lecture about rules. I think you have to set up situations where the meaning and the use of these forms is transparent, is clear to learners.

"So I'm a firm believer that grammar is not only about structure. In fact, I talk about the three dimensions of grammar. Structure, or form, is one of them. But grammar structures also have a meaning, as we just indicated with the -ing. And they have a use, an appropriateness of use."

AA: "So now as we get close to the start of another school year, and you've got -- you're director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan --


AA: "And as you say, you tell us it's the oldest in the country?"

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "It is the oldest, it was established -- we just had our sixty-fifth anniversary a few weeks ago, the oldest English language teaching and research institute."

AA: "What's basically the first challenge that the teachers tend to face with a new group of students [as] you're trying to introduce them to American English?"

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "Well, there are a lot of challenges, but relevant to what I was just saying, one of the first challenges is that students come in filled with rules. And, again, the rules can be helpful. But then they encounter spoken American English that doesn't necessarily conform to the rules and they are confused by that.

"And one of our jobs is to help them see how what speakers do is an extension of the rules or a creation beyond the rules. Language is constantly changing, it's not something static."

RS: "And what are your suggestions for those students that are marching through the door, what is your advice for those students?"

DIANE LARSEN-FREEMAN: "Be open. Listen carefully. Make notes when something sounds strange, ask your teacher about it. If you don't have a teacher, make notes yourself -- see if you can detect the patterns. You know, being able to see the patterns, to see the reasons, certainly facilitates the learning process. It makes it easier."

AA: Diane Larsen-Freeman is the director the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And you can find lots of ideas for learning and teaching English at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.