Phil|Accent Trainer
Professional Teacher
Are YOU a NON-BINARY language learner?
An all-too-common question format on these pages goes like this: “Which of my two sentences is grammatically correct?” (Or, more typically, “*Witch* of my 2 sentences is *grammarly* correct?”). Over five years of experience on this forum tells me that the answer is more likely “neither”, or, “either” — depending on the context. The fact is that grammar is for communication, so different grammar structures will be chosen based on the intended meaning. If a “rule” held true all the time, it would be fairly irrelevant for communication. For example, if it were always correct to say “the dog ran” instead of “a dog ran”, the choice of article wouldn’t communicate anything, would it? From my perspective, this false belief that there is one and only one grammatically correct structure — one that will work regardless of context — is symptomatic of an attitude that does not facilitate learning. And believe me, when it comes to learning, attitude is everything. I love answering interesting grammar questions, but the fact is that it is beyond the scope of this forum to help learners with their attitude. For one thing, the learners’ belief that they’ve narrowed it down to just two options is extremely limiting, and shows that such learners don’t really understand that grammar is for communication.

For another thing, both options may well be correct. Unfortunately, since the learners haven’t provided any context or given us any idea of their intended meaning, it’s impossible to know which sentence is appropriate. Do learners really expect some kind soul to write a long treatise on the grammar points in question, explaining every possible nuance of meaning in all possible contexts? Will this really benefit the learners? More often than not, a quick look at their previous questions shows that they’ve never even acknowledged corrections with so much as a “thanks”. And when such learners continue time after time to use the (non-)word “grammarly”, it casts doubt on whether they will benefit from reading the essay carefully and painstakingly written by a well-meaning corrector.

Anyhow, my advice to learners is that they leave this binary mindset behind, and become aware of the beauty and magical possibilities of using grammar to express their ideas and communicate with people.

What about you? What parts do you agree with? Disagree with?
Apr 27, 2019 6:10 PM
Comments · 29


We need more context to answer your question.

April 28, 2019
A very enjoyable post, thanks to everybody. I just wanted to affirm my appreciation for learner errors and how I love the creativity of some language learners in finding a strategic way to express an idea and communicate.
For example, one of my students recently referred to 'her foot fingers' since she didn't know the word for toes. That's vocabulary, and not a grammatical error at all, but I love this sort of thinking.

Re: grammatical errors - they're so useful. We learn from our errors, keep them, record them (don't erase them), review and remember.

April 28, 2019

Please tell me! Which is the best way to learn a language??




April 28, 2019
Phil, I wholeheartedly agree with your view on the role of grammar.

Just one note: I have written a number of such threatises and mostly for myself. Not in order to help the learner (indeed, only a few of them can benefit from this, maybe people who study linguistics) but as a researcher. I want to know how my lnaguage works, and analyzing learners' questions and mistakes is more interesting than grammar books:)
(though very quickly I was at the stage where grammar descriptions were nothing less than exciting too)

I would love to use this occasion to wholeheartedly (again:)) thank dear learners for their beautiful mistakes. I learned from them a way more than they ever learned from me. I'm a terrible teacher. I don't need "thank you". Just make more mistakes and make them creatively!
April 27, 2019
Big thumbs up. I completely agree. Often it's neither or either or depends on the context. 
April 27, 2019
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Phil|Accent Trainer
Language Skills
Catalan, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish
Learning Language
Chinese (Cantonese), Hebrew