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:
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:
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.