He Had Had Good Grammar, Had he?

What does it really mean to be grammatically correct? Is it important? People often tell you that you shouldn’t get bogged down in grammar when learning a language, and should aim for real communication. And I agree about that whole communication thing, but you still need good fundamental grammar to do so. Grammar and natural use of English don’t have to be enemies.

 Earlier this week, while teaching the past perfect simple, my students came across the always slightly confusing situation of figuring out if it’s possible to say something like I had had breakfast before I left the house. Once they’ve figured out that, even though even though it sounds strange to see the same word repeated consecutively in a sentence, it’s grammatically correct, it’s usually a short step to them realising it’s much better to say I’d had breakfast before I left the house.

And then when they’re really confident, they might realise that it’s best to say I had breakfast before I left the house, because the word before tells us which action happened first, so we take the simpler route of using the past simple (I had) to refer to both actions, rather than use the cumbersome, not-often used past perfect simple (I had had) to refer to the earlier action. This gap between the dry grammar rules, and the English native speakers actually use, is a major source of frustration for students. They spend so long learning in class, and studying at home, and then they listen to native speakers and find that we’re not so careful about following the same grammar rules their teacher tells them to follow. Why keep learning “proper” English if the people who are fluent in it never use it?

And this can be a frustration for teachers too. Because we don’t learn grammar when we’re young, we often only really start getting a grasp of some of its finer points when we have to teach them for the first time. On Friday afternoon we look at the chapter for the next week, and see that we have to teach the past perfect simple for the first time. We read the explanation in the book, and it seems to make sense. Ok, when we’re talking about two actions in the past, we use the past perfect simple to refer to the earlier one, and the past simple for the later action. It seems logical, but it doesn’t feel intuitive. Not yet, because this is the first time we’ve really consciously thought about this grammar point, and even though we know we’ve often used this tense correctly in our daily lives, we haven’t quite figured out the details of how we actually use it in normal conversation, and how to communicate this.

So we go into class and give our students banal example sentences like I had had breakfast before I left the house, or (one I know I’ve used), I had done my homework before I went out (of course I had!)  They get the basic point across, but they’re not going to set the students’ imagination on fire, or give them a sense of when we specifically we use the past perfect simple (because most people wouldn’t actually use the past perfect simple in the above two sentences).

Better something like this. Tell the students a story about your day yesterday:

I was walking home, texting my friend, when I bumped into somebody on the footpath. I almost fell over, but I was ok. I decided to wait till I got home to finish sending the message though. Only, when I got to my front door, it wouldn’t open! I reached into my pocket, then the other, but both were empty… I’d lost my keys! How!?

Now compare that with this:

I was walking home, texting my friend, when I bumped into somebody on the footpath. I almost fell over, but I was ok. Little did I know however, that when I almost fell over, my keys fell out of my pocket. But because I hadn’t noticed, I kept on walking. I decided to wait till I got home to finish sending the message. When I got to my front door, it wouldn’t open, of course!

While neither version is the most riveting anecdote you’ll ever hear (hopefully), at the least the first has some dramatic tension and suspense: Why can’t I open the door!? Where are the keys!? This is all because I chose to hold back the part about my keys falling out of my pocket so that the listener knows about it at the same time story me realises it. It’s a simple but effective technique storytelling technique. And to achieve it, I need to jump back in time in the story, and I have to use the past perfect simple to do so. So now we see that this abstract, inscrutable tense actually has a practical function: making a story more interesting! And when students hear people use it that way, it’ll reinforce their knowledge of this.

It’s easy to say that though, but for relatively new teachers it’s often difficult to think of grammar in that way. And for teachers who are non-native speakers, teaching in students’ home countries it’s difficult, because they probably had to learn grammar in an artificial abstract way too, and they don’t have the privilege of having access to a lifetime’s worth of fluent English to analyse.

This also of course goes for any other language. If you’re learning another language, and struggling with the grammar, try to think of it this way. What’s the practical function of the particular grammar form you’re trying to learn? What real-life situation would a native speaker use it in? Grammar can seem like it’s difficult to wrap your head around, and something you don’t really need to learn, but thinking of it this way helps you to realise it’s a vital, and evolving aspect of language.

12 thoughts on “He Had Had Good Grammar, Had he?

    • I think it certainly can be, though some people can be quite intelligent in some ways but lack the knack for picking up on patterns in language. I think it can definitely be a sign of lack of reading though. One of the best ways to be exposed to correct grammar is through reading. Great for developing one’s vocabulary too.

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  1. English is my third language and in hindsight I have to thank all my teachers for those annoying grammar tests. I believe that as a non-native speaker you will not get a feeling for another language or feel safe using it unless you first learn the grammar in all its complexity.

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    • That’s true, I’ve met so many students who say they don’t want to learn grammar, they need just need to learn vocabulary and practise speaking. But then they only communicate in the present simple and don’t use complex forms. The problem is that many people don’t see the practical importance of grammar in communication, and it takes a good teacher to show them that.

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  2. The best thing that happened to me in Grade 13 was having an English teacher who gave us a grammar test every Friday on a chapter in our grammar textbook. If you didn’t get an ‘A’, you had to retake it until you did. Thank you, Mr. Paquette–you made me appreciate the importance of being articulate!

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  3. I worry about my grammar when I write, which is by ear. I know I make many mistakes, and coming across stupid is a HUGE fear of mine….never went to school. I’ve been in the company of some preening academics who boast over their education. I’d always try to be light and funny saying…while you were at Yale, I was in Paris doing coke. It’s kind of true, being a model since I was 17. Of course now at 62, it’s not so cute…but I’m digressing.

    I’d like to improve my grammar. Can you recommend a book perhaps? Have I asked you this already…if so, my hormones and I apologize.

    I love that you’re so smart. 🙂

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    • I’m not sure I’m so smart, but thank you 😊. I think the best book for learning grammar is “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” by Lynne Truss. She’s got a really dry English wit but also explains things in a really clear way. She’s a bit more focused on punctuation, but covers most over the practical elements of using English. And writing by ear is probably the best way, as I can guarantee the vast majority of your grammar is good, because we pick it up in childhood from what everyone else uses. And if you do get something wrong occasionally, I don’t think it’s important as long as you’re understood. I much prefer someone speaking their natural way to someone using 5-dollar words and coming across as pretentious 😊.

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