Number one for English language teachers

Little words, big grammar

Type: Reference material

Adrian Tennant explains that the 'little words' (those that make up approximately 50% of written and spoken language and grammar) are extremely important. It's a case of little words, BIG grammar.

Introduction

In his book Natural Grammar, Scott Thornbury has taken one hundred of the most common words of English and examined the patterns they form or take. As he says in his introduction, ‘words have grammar’. He goes on to quote Professor John Sinclair who said, ‘Learners would do well to learn the common words of the language very thoroughly, because they carry the main patterns of the language’.

There are at least three things (and probably more) that are of interest from these statements and observations. The first is that grammar doesn’t exist on its own. In fact, grammar is, in its simplest form, patterns formed by the way in which words combine. Therefore, by looking at, and for, these patterns we (both teachers and students) may well learn more about language than by looking at ‘abstract’ rules. The second thing is that if the top 200 words make up approximately 50% of all written and spoken language they must also make up approximately 50% of all written and spoken grammar.

The third thing is that we often overlook these little words. These words are usually not ‘content’ words. In speech they are often unstressed and, quite frequently, contain a schwa sound. However, these little words, regardless of their size, are extremely important. It is a case of ‘little words, big grammar’.

About: quantity and time

With the increased availability of corpora and the development of sophisticated ‘tools’ with which to process data, we have a means to examine ‘real’ language and extrapolate ‘rules’ and patterns.

For example, if we look at the word ‘about’ we will find that the most frequent use is as an adverb used for showing that you are...

Guessing an amount:

… 11 rooms and two suites, charges about $150 a night and is not the …

… the Tories have slumped by about 30%, according to figures from …

… in a five-bedroom house worth about $300,000, and they have a large …

Each of the two cabins is about 10ft long by 7ft across, with a solid …

… grated parmesan cheese adds only about 2g of extra fat per rounded …

… home town of Yekaterinburg, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow, said …

… to three miles away, caused about 60 worried residents to ring the …

 Giving an approximate time:

… by two prison officers at about 10 a.m. No one noticed anything …

… its cargo and returned empty about 7.35 a.m. Poor weather and fog cause

… fruits of which you will see in about 12 months.


About as a preposition + noun (or noun phrase)

… Smith in The Literary Review it is about a middle-aged …

… has certainly not changed his mind about devolution.

… have simply changed; that concern about environmental issues such as …

… relevant to our lives. They are about hydrogen bombs, permanent waves, …

… naughtiness, this is really a show about innocence. Nobody can gaze …

The seriousness of purpose about Liverpool's football commands …

It's no good blathering on about Michael Atherton's captaincy or …

… considerable concern and media outrage about the killing of civilians …

But he never said anything about escaping. We had no idea what was …


Words preceding about

We will notice that ‘about’ can be preceded by a verb:

… 11 rooms and two suites, charges about $150 a night and is not the …

… to three miles away, caused about 60 worried residents to ring the …

or a noun:

… naughtiness, this is really a show about innocence. Nobody can gaze …

or a preposition:

… by two prison officers at about 10am. No one noticed anything …

… fruits of which you will see in about 12 months.

… the Tories have slumped by about 30%, according to figures from …

and sometimes as part of a phrasal verb:

It's no good blathering on about Michael Atherton's captaincy or …

Of course, these are not all the features of the word ‘about’ but simply a selection. However, it is interesting to note that the structure ‘to be about to’ with future reference only appears in four examples from 2000 in the sample I obtained from the British National Corpus. If we consider the importance given to this structure and use in coursebooks, then this comes as a bit of a surprise.


Activities

It is quite easy then to create activities designed to practise the grammar of a particular word. Some possible activities with ‘about’ could be:

  1. Inserting the word in the correct place in a sentence or text: In this text, eight examples of about have been removed. Can you put them back in?
Last year I heard people going on a really good place for a holiday. It was located an hour away from a large town, but so few people knew it that it was really quiet – just the kind of place to relax and unwind. I thought to myself that it was time I took a break.
Finally, after a week I managed to buy a ticket. After arriving I went trying to learn as much as I could the place. I had a fantastic time and now I’m thinking going back again next year.
  1. Putting the words into the correct order:

    1. 9/ at/ it/ starts/ o’clock/ about/ think/ I
    2. about/ a/ for/ ticket/ costs/ it/ £100
    3. good/ no/ about/ things/ worrying/ is/ it
    4. in/ you/ see/ four/ about/ I’ll/ hours
    5. a/ story/ dog/ is/ a/ the/ boy/ and/ about
    6. him/ ?/ can/ about/ you/ me/ What/ tell
    7. 10 a.m./ about/ at/ by/ discovered/ escape/ officers/ prison/ the/ two/
    was

  2. Matching each sentence to its meaning:

    1. about a middle-aged
    2. at about 10 a.m.
    3. going on about
    4. running about


    a. approximately
    b. continuing
    c. concerning a particular subject
    d. moving


Answer key

Last year, I heard people going on about a really good place for a holiday. It was located about an hour away from a large town, but so few people knew about it that it was really quiet – just the kind of place to relax and unwind. I thought to myself that it was about time I took a break.
Finally, after about a week I managed to buy a ticket. After arriving I went about trying to learn as much as I could about the place. I had a fantastic time and now I’m thinking about going back again next year.

1. I think it starts at about 9 o’clock.
2. It costs about £100 for a ticket.
3. It is no good worrying about things.
4. I’ll see you in about four hours.
5. The story is about a boy and a dog.
6. What can you tell me about him?
7. The escape was discovered by two prison officers at about 10 a.m.

1 c, 2 a, 3 b, 4 d


Conclusion

Instead of looking at grammar as a set of abstract rules and then examining how words fit into these patterns, we may well be better off starting from words and looking at the grammar they generate. By doing this we may well avoid the typical problem of only taking one meaning or use of a word and being guilty of oversimplification. Of course, it is still possible to overlook uses and meanings, and still worth being careful, but it may be less of an issue. Another major benefit is that we will invariably be looking at the most frequently used patterns simply from the fact that we will be concentrating on both the ‘building blocks’ of the language and on the ‘core’ of the language. Again it is worth drawing attention to the fact that what we are faced with is ‘little words, big grammar’.

 

Sources and further reading


  1. British National Corpus
  2. MED (Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners)

Thornbury, S. ‘Big words, small grammar’, English Teaching Professional, 31 (2004), 10–11.

Thornbury, S. Natural Grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Fantastic, we're glad you've found it so helpful!

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  • This is a very interesting way of looking at grammar. Thank you. I do wonder how we as teachers can incorporate this into our lesson planning. Is it best to present these words one lesson at at time, or if for example you are teaching an advanced class, to present all of these meanings at once so that the students can see for themselves the differences in meaning? Again, thanks for the article. It has opened my eyes up to how we approach grammar in the classroom.

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