Possibility, probability and (Raymond) Murphy’s Law: dodging stray grammar bullets

If Murphy’s Law didn’t already exist, it’d be the perfect name to describe the correlation between how much a teacher knows about language, how confident they are of their own grasp of grammar, and the likelihood that at some point in the lesson they’ll go off on one and start lecturing at great – and confusing – length about an obscure point they have only the most tenuous grip on. The fact is that at the first whiff of grammar, many students suddenly spark into life and start scattering the unwitting teacher with stray grammar bullets that only years of painful experience really help you dodge. Of course, the axiom that states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong is not irrelevant here, but it’s actually more Raymond Murphy’s Law that teachers so often inadvertently bring into play in the classroom.

I know because I’ve been there! And lived to tell the tale. I was reminded of my former selves just yesterday when a brief piece of reformulation of something a student had been trying to say in response to a question in the coursebook asking what advice people would give to a guy they’d heard moaning about his new job. As students were talking, I wrote up on the board what they were trying to say and during my round-up elicited words like SHUT from HE SHOULD JUST S…….. UP AND PUT UP WITH IT,  STICK from HE SHOULD JUST STICK WITH IT and WAY from HE MIGHT BE ABLE TO WORK HIS WAY UP IN THE COMPANY. The board ended up looking like this:

Grammar Blog Post 1

As students were writing down what had ended up on the board, one student said she wasn’t sure about MIGHT BE ABLE TO. I explained that it meant maybe he can – and that it we often used it after modal verbs like MIGHT and SHOULD, so we say things like I CAN’T DO IT TODAY, BUT I SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO IT SOMETIME NEXT WEEK. This seemed to satisfy her, but then Raymond Murhpy’s Law kicked in and the questions came pouring forth:

“But be able to is also for the present, yes? That’s what my last teacher told me”

“And for the past. I wasn’t able to. I was able to.”

“Yes, And I am able to, like I am able to read.”

At which point I stopped the frenzy and said something along the lines of BE ABLE TO being possible in the present, but not really used much as CAN is much more common. You’d never tell anyone you can read, though, let alone that you were able to. The only thing you might say about reading is that someone CAN’T read – or that you couldn’t read the whole of a particular book – in the past – because it was too long or too boring. It’s much much more common to use CAN and CAN also refers to the future sometimes as well. I then wrote up on the board: I CAN’T MEET YOU TODAY OR TOMORROW, BUT I CAN DO SATURDAY. One student asked if COULD was also possible here, at which point other students shouted out “No! No! COULD is past”. I set them straight on this and said COULD was perfectly possible too, and was basically the same as CAN in this context – maybe a little less certain. One student asked if I’M ABLE TO or I WILL BE ABLE TO DO SATURDAY was OK. I said it was possible, but sounded weird and CAN / COULD were much more likely. I then wrote up an example using SHOULD BE ABLE TO as well, and we ended up with a board like this:

Grammar blog post 2

Students noted down what had gone up and we moved on.

The brief little episode did provide food for thought, though, and prompted a reflection on how earlier versions of myself might’ve handled this.

Both CELTA and DELTA instilled in me the belief that it was meanings and forms that were the most important things a teacher could make clear to students when tackling grammar. The whole trinity of meaning, form or pronunciation – or MFP for short (an acronym that for someone like me, who’s spent far too much of his life trawling second-hand record stores and charity shops, always recalled . . . with a chuckle . . . the Music For Pleasure label logo!!) – was pretty much all I considered when it came to handling anything grammatical for maybe the first six or seven years of my teaching career.


This, coupled with the obsession with the Present-Practise-Produce approach to grammar that these courses instilled in me meant that any incident such as the one I describe above would have once sparked major anxiety. “They still don’t get be able to”, I would’ve fretted. “I’d better build in a whole hour-long slot on it tomorrow – and give them a page on it from Murphy’s as homework.” Or else I may well have simply told them that yes, it can be used in the present. And the past. And then have written a few bizarre examples up, or perhaps simply have written up WAS / WERE ABLE TO + VERB, AM / IS / ARE ABLE TO + VERB, WILL BE ABLE TO + VERB and left it at that.

The single biggest thing that has improved my grammar teaching – and quite possibly my teaching in general (certainly the vocabulary part of what I do, for sure) – is getting my head round something I first read in The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis: teach the probable, not the possible. Sure, tons of things MIGHT be said, but are they USUALLY? Yes, of course, be able to CAN be used in the present, but certainly not in the context the students presented it to me in . . . and generally only in fairly specific kinds of genres / contexts, none of which had particular pertinence here. Narrow things down to particulars. Focus on what’s typical. Give clear, concise explanations and examples. Move on. You’ll pass this way again sooner or later anyway, and accuracy comes in dribs and drabs. It seems fairly clear, also, that it depends more on the accretional impact of examples – or on priming, if you prefer – than on any particularly sophisticated grasp of the subtleties of rules.

Knowing these things are teaching with them ever present in the mind has allowed me not only to enjoy my teaching far more, and to feel less bogged down by pointless rambling meta-linguistic waffle, but also to feel I’m actually helping more – both by giving simple, easy-to-digest examples, but also by warning students off random friendly fire, by encouraging them to lay down arms and reduce the paranoia. And by doing this Murhpy’s Law can finally be thwarted.


23 responses

  1. Hi Hugh,

    I like this post – we’ve all been there. Also much of our jobs is untying the knots other teachers have put our students in.

    But I also love how a reformulation can give a lesson a new life and purpose if handled well. I still clearly remember a truly inspirational talk you did at a BC conference in Glasgow some years ago where you talked about a lesson that took off after a Chinese student came rushing in saying “The underground is so crowdy – I want to die” and ended with a lady giving an account of when she and her family in Latin America thought they were going to die (I may have got the details mangled over the years).

    These little incidents can give our lessons life or they can just as easily turn them into a mastermind quiz when even the end of the lesson gives no respite -“I’ve started so I’ll finish…”

    I teach in China and a student came to my class saying “Sorry I’m late, my boss gave me a phone” which led to a nice little lesson about different ways to describe phone calls – I had to take a call” etc. That was good and helpful – but on the other hand another student asked me last week to explain the difference between ‘The China market’ and ‘The Chinese market’ – where Murphy’s law kicked in.


    Sent from my iPad

    1. The china market – the trade in things made FROM china, the thin hard clay substance that plates, cups, and so on are made from.
      The Chinese market – trade inside the PRC!

      Though maybe Murhphy’s Law should be expanded to include vocabulary rambling as well, eh!

      Anyhows, many thanks for reading and for the kind words.
      Very nice to know you still remember the BC talk in Glasgow.
      Maybe I should grind a blog post out of that Somali / Chinese student story!
      Great to hear that from that tiny seed you’ve grown to the stage where you’re doing great reformulated slots based on similar starting points. Hats off.

      I also totally hear you on the amount of untying of previously mangled knots other teachers have forced on students.
      There’s a decent series of blog posts to be done on THINGS I WISH TEACHERS WOULD STOP TELLING STUDENTS!
      Will is the future tense, for instance, springs to mind!
      Followed by a weird one that came up in my class yesterday, when I corrected a Spanish student who said HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN SPAIN?
      “But my last teacher told me, for example, that you CAN say HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN A FOOTBALL MATCH?”
      Unpicking this kind of nonsense is frustrating, though as I said helped greatly by simply focusing on the probable!
      “Yeah, you CAN say that, but it sounds weird. It means HAVE YOU EVER PLAYED IN A FOOTBALL MATCH – as opposed to going to watch one. It’s a very odd question, though, and not one anyone would ever really asked. You’d just say DO YOU EVER PLAY FOOTBALL or maybe even just DO YOU DO MUCH SPORT? DO YOU EVER PLAY FOOTBALL AT ALL? The point I was making, though, about GO TO remains true!”

      1. Might also want to credit the story;-) when you write it up!

  2. My two favourite parts of that post are “teach the probable, not the possible” and “pointless rambling meta-linguistic waffle”.

    Your ability to write posts that combine discussion of language teaching and musical references have reached new heights with ‘mfp’. Can we make requests like a radio show?


    1. Thanks Kevin. Glad you enjoyed it!
      You can try your luck with requests if you’re keen!

  3. […] a sense, this post follows very hot on the heels from the one I managed to finish yesterday about teaching the probable rather than just the possible, and tackles similar issues. As such, please excuse me the repetition (though of course as anyone […]

  4. […] If Murphy's Law didn't already exist, it'd be the perfect name to describe the correlation between how much a teacher knows about language, how confident they are of their own grasp of grammar, and…  […]

  5. Just wanted to chime in on this idea: “There’s a decent series of blog posts to be done on THINGS I WISH TEACHERS WOULD STOP TELLING STUDENTS!”
    You quoted a student as quoting another teacher, but we have to remember, before we diss our colleagues (tempting though it might be), that the students may have simply mis-heard, or heard something they wanted to hear and so on and so forth.
    Teaching kids, I often hear stuff like, “But the teacher said…” and, in most cases, I am 90% sure that it *cannot be true* that the teacher really said what they claim he or she said.
    And, as a parent, I hear it from my own kids – lately we had a garbled story related to us by one of our two daughters: the music teacher wanted them to do a test again because the teacher thought the class average was too low – and the average grade was a B.
    Me and my fella said, “Funny…” and I asked the parent representative to follow this up. Of course, the teacher had never said anything of the sort and my dear darling twelve-year-old had got it totally a*se over t*t.
    We do have to bear this in mind when we hear students quoting previous teachers and try to respond diplomatically.

    1. A good point well made Amanda, and of course it’s wise to bear this in mind.
      My intention wasn’t really – or to be more honest perhaps, wasn’t TOTALLY – to diss what this particular colleague may or may not have told the class.
      It was more just to vent spleen at the kins of things that students in general do still get told.
      The advantage of doing a post like THINGS I WISH TEACHERS WOULD STOP TELLING STUDENTS is that if you’re not doing any of these things, you have nothing to fear!

  6. […] Dellar has a great post on (Raymond) Murphy’s law, a slightly more grammar/lexical specific law what is able to occur in Language […]

  7. A note on the probable/possible issue: Ever noticed that maps cannot really show the territory as it is? A sphere cannot be shown on a plane. Thus the person making the map is always distorting. I think people that write grammars do that to language. I have followed road maps that suggest a right turn off a bridge. Or the famous GPS accidents when the computer says 20 meters left and you are over the cliff. In real life there are very probable paths that everybody takes. Like highways. So, I guess the simple present is the interstate that gathers 80% of all traffic. It gets you anywhere. Too bad that we get side tracked on some overgrown cow path. Wouldn’t it be interesting to produce grammar text that had a physical feature indicating probability: something like super large print for the most common language features and relegating obscure stuff to small print.

    1. Hi Thomas –
      Thanks for taking the time to post.

      I think that whether we’re taking a more grammatical or a more lexical slant, we have to accept that teaching inevitably involves a degree of distortion, as we’re breaking down wholes into more digestible blocks. The issue then really becomes trying to ensure as minimal a distortion as possible, and generally a lexical slant – even to grammar – works better than a purely structural grammatical one.

      Not sure, by the way, that I buy the metaphor in its entirety. If the main highway is the present simple, then what’s the past perfect continuous? Some little-trod dirt track way off in the boondocks?

      If you do ever get round to working out some text that visually encodes frequency of structure, by having vast text for present simple and the like, do let me know, though!!

      1. Hi there,
        Wordle clouds show type font according to frequency. Also, I can’t find the web page but I remember having seen maps that translate various aspects into size. For example, recasting the globe under the aspect internet connection would shrink all of Africa to a tenth (or whatever) of its actual size. The road map grammar textbook might be a rather interesting concept. Think of the ****approach in some dictionaries. A rather simple attempt at showing “importance” of an entry. Imagine Nat Geo’s The Roadatlas to English Grammar. It would get the message across fairly elegantly. You would not plan your trip from NY to LA on a hiking trail.

        And yes, the past perfect continuous would be the dark back alley with a grammar thug lurking behind the dumpster.

      2. Wordle clouds also have a habit of bugging the hell out of me as they’ve become the most pointlessly overused accessory in talks at ELT conferences! They only work in terms of highlighting the most frequent words – rather than structures, chunks, etc. – in a body of text as well, so not really the same as what’s suggested above. I’d be happy to never see one ever again personally.

      3. Well, sure. Poor use can ruin any great idea.

      4. Given the constraints of the device, I personally suspect that there’s little else that Wordle really offers.
        It just strikes me as a gimmick that folk use to enliven otherwise dull Powerpoints and that the craze for its use will pass in a year or two.
        That said, I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong, so if you do know of any more interesting or innovative uses, do spill the beans.

  8. […] Great quote: 'Teach the probable, not the possible. Sure, tons of things MIGHT be said, but are they USUALLY? Yes, of course, be able to CAN be used in the present, but certainly not in the context the students presented it to me in .'  […]

  9. Hi Hugh. This is probably my favorite post so far. `Teach the probable, not the possible’ is the best bit of teaching advice I’ve heard for a while. Thanks.

    1. Hi Mark –
      Glad it struck a chord with you.
      It’s one of those rare axioms you can actually teach by, and I wish I could claim that I’d thought of it, but I didn’t.
      I merely borrowed it from Michael Lewis many moons ago.
      Of course, its entirely possible that he in turn borrowed it from somewhere else!!!
      Good to know it still has the power to resonate, though.

  10. Good read about the trials and tribulations of dealing with that never-ending grammar question blitz students sometimesthrow at us. Reminds me of that 80’s song “One thing leads to another”!

    A good reminder about The Lexical Approach book. This post is a good prompt to pick it back up and read over it again. Leo Selivan also just wrote a piece for The Guardian on the importance of lexis vs. grammar. If I find the link, I’ll come back and share it, but you can (could? 😉 probably google it.

    1. One thing leads to another indeed!
      The influence of the questions teachers ask students on the questions that students ask teachers should not be underestimated!
      The more grammar focused we are, the more grammar obsessed they become, but a change in our own mindsets can lead to a change in theirs as well, thank God.
      Otherwise, I would’ve got bored of teaching long, long ago as grammar questions are either easy to answer – or else pointless and hair-splitting and of no real utility, whereas ones about words and collocations and chunks and usage are far, far more challenging and interesting and give one more to chew on.

      As for the Lexical Approach, I often it basically taught me everything I know.
      It’s just that I’ve taken twenty years to unpack it all!

      Incidentally, we’re putting on a one-day conference in London to honour the 20th anniversary of the book.
      Details here:


      Spread the word.

    1. Thanks for that.
      I did actually see it the day it came out, but good to have the link up here for others.

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