Topic 12 – Essential elements of morphosyntax of English. Elementary communicative structures. Progressive use of grammatical categories in oral and written communication to enhance production.

Topic 12 – Essential elements of morphosyntax of English. Elementary communicative structures. Progressive use of grammatical categories in oral and written communication to enhance production.

The present essay deals with (i) English morphology and syntax, (ii) basic communicative structures, (iii) and students’ progressive use of grammar in their productions with the aim of improving the communicative skills.

As regards morphology and syntax, they are the two basic branches of grammar. Morphology deals with the study of the forms of words, while syntax is concerned with the way words combine to form sentences. In other words, syntax is grammar at the word level and syntax at the sentence level.


The basic morphological unit is the morpheme, which is defined as the minimal meaningful unit.. Many basic words such as boy, sad, go, to are morphemes in themselves. Other others such as boys, sadness , going can be broken up into different constituent parts or morphemes. The former are called free morphemes and the latter, the –(e)s, -ing, and –ness suffixes are called bound morphemes because they are necessarily bound (ligadas) to a word.

Bound morphemes are related to two types of morphology: inflectional and derivational morphology

Inflectional morphology studies the way in which words vary in order to express grammatical contrast. English inflectional morphology affects nouns, adjectives, and verbs.

As regards nouns, the –(e)s morpheme serves to distinguish singular / plural, although there are irregular nouns such as mice, or teeth. But such irregularities are relatively rare (infrecuentes). Some adjectives have inflectional morphemes er / est which are used to express comparative and superlative degree, as in the brighter / brightest.

Regular verbs have three morphemes: -s, -ed and –ing. The morpheme –s attached to a verb signals the third person singular of the present tense. The –ed morpheme has three different variants in the spoken language. These variant forms of a morpheme are known as allomorphs. Compared with Spanish, there are far fewer verb inflections or verb morphemes in English. Addition of inflectional morphemes may cause changes in the spelling of a word: For example, the change of “y” into “i” in the words happy lady / happier ladies. But there is usually no change of meaning, as is the case with derivational morphology.

Derivational morphology studies the principles governing the construction of new words. There are three chief processes in English by which new words are created: Affixation, conversion and compounding.

Affixation: includes prefixation (adding prefixes) and suffixation (adding suffixes). In prefixation there is usually no change of word-class. For example happy and unhappy are both adjectives; the prefix un- simply changes the meaning, making the base word mean the opposite. Sometimes, however, a prefix changes the word-class. For example, the prefix en- in enlarge turns an adjective into a verb. Suffixes, on the other hand, typically change the word-class of the root word. Some examples: happy (adj) happily (adv) happiness (noun).

In the process of conversion: a word changes its class without any change of form. For example in the sentence “I usually walk though the park when I go for a walk” the first “walk” is a verb, the second is a noun.

Compounding consists in adding one base to another, e.g. blackboard, flowerpot.

Apart from these three major processes, there are other ways of forming new words:

Reduplication: type of compound in which both elements are the same e.g. knock-knock.

Clipping: informal shortenings e.g. flu (influenza), ad (advertisemen).

Blendings: two words merge into one, e.g. smog = smoke + fog.

Acronyms: are formed from initial letters of words. E.g., EU (European Union)

Some English morphemes are used in more than one way. For example, the morpheme –ess is inflectional in the words princess and waitress where it marks a gender distinction, but it is a derivational morpheme in the words whiteness and sadness where it forms a new word, related in meaning but belonging to a different word-class.

Before we move on to syntax, or sentence level, I will briefly mention Quirk ‘s classification of words into two types: open class items and closed class items. The first type refers to a category of words that can grow because more words can be created. They are typically nouns, adjectives and verbs. The second type refers to categories that form “complete sets” and no more can be created. These are typically prepositions (to, with, from, etc), determiners (a, an, the, this, etc), pronouns and modal and auxiliary verbs.

Let us now turn to syntax. Syntax is concerned with the way words combine to form sentences, so we are now concerned with the sentence level of grammar.

According to Quirk and Greenbaum the two basic parts of a sentence are the subject and the predicate:

Subject Predicate

Mary pointed at him.

The Predicate has a close relationship with what is being dealt with, what the sentence is about, and it generally implies that something new is being told about a subject which may have previously appeared in another sentence.

Apart from the basic division into subject + predicate, we can distinguish five elements in the sentence from a syntactical point of view. They are:

Subject (S) – Verb (V) – Complement (C) – Object (O) – Adverbial (A)

I will very briefly explain these constituent parts of the sentence

The subject , unlike Spanish, is always present in English except with an imperative verb, and in one case –the present tense, third person singular- the subject shows number agreement with its verb.

The verb may be transitive or intransitive. In the case of a transitive verb with two objects, one direct and one indirect, there are rules regarding their order depending on whether the objects are nouns or pronouns. We can see this by comparing: He gave the girl the apple (ID + DO) and He gave it to her (DO + ID)

The complement may be subject complement (She looked happy) or object complement (I find him funny)

The adverbial is often an adverb, as in: He left the room quietly but it can also be a prepositional phrase, as in : He left the room in a mess

Not all sentences contain the five sentence elements mentioned, although a typical sentence contains at least two constituents: a subject and a verb.

On the other hand, a sentence may be complex. Compex sentences contain a main clause and one or several subordinate clause. The main types of subordinate clause are:

Nominal or noun-clauses: E.g., I know what you’re thinking. Noun-clauses perform the syntactic roles that are typical of nouns. In the example given the noun-clause –what you’re thinking– is the object of the verb.

Adjectival or relative clauses: E.g., The boy, who was honest, gave the money back. Relative clause are introduced by the relative pronoun who, which, that, whom and whose, and are either defining or non-defining.

Adverbial clauses may express:

Time : The roof leaks when it rains

Reason : I stayed home because it was raining

Purpose : She wore a mask so nobody would recognise her

Condition : I’ll buy you an ice cream if you behave well.

Simple sentences may be classified into four major syntactic types: statements, commands, questions, and exclamations.

  • statements are also referred to as declarative sentences or declaratives. The usual function of statements is to convey information. E.g. Mary and Mike are getting married next November
  • commands : These are also referred to as imperative sentences or imperatives. The subject of a command is usually left out, but it is understood as the second person pronoun “you”.

Shut the gate. Be quiet! are examples of commands.
A gentler or more polite form of the command begins with “let’s”:    Let’s have a party.

Commands are common in instructions: E.g., Rub the fat into the flour. Add a small pinch of salt. Mix in the water, and work to a smooth dough, etc in a recipe.

  • questions are also referred to as interrogative sentences or interrogatives. There are two main types of question:
    1. Yes/no questions . These sentences expect “yes” or “no” for an answer.

Is your brother still at school? Does it ever snow in Christchurch?
Would you like some tea?

    1. Wh… questions . These sentences begin with a Wh word: what, which, when, who, why, where, how. They cannot be answered with yes or no.

Why is your shirt dirty? What do you think about casinos?

Tag questions may be seen as another type of yes/no questions . E.g. : You don’t want me to have to call your parents, do you?

  • exclamations are also referred to as exclamative sentences or exclamatives Theu are normally are used to express strong feelings. They can begin with “what” or “how”:

What a naughty dog he is! How well everyone played!

Elementary communicative structures and progressive use of grammatical categories in oral and written productions.

At the stage of Primary Education, children have not yet acquired the capacity of abstraction. For them to learn a foreign language will be to communicate with other people for different aims. We must take advantage of this and give priority to the content of messages, to the situations and to the activities where the language is present and the language is used, making the learning of grammar something “hidden”.

Interaction will make possible that in particular moments specific needs of certain structures, either new or more complex ones, arise. Then, first of all, the student will be able to use non linguistic resources and when these are not sufficient, the pupils can ask their teacher so that he can give them the appropriate mechanisms. It is the teacher’s duty to design a series of activities progressively demanding more complex linguistic uses.

The teacher may go through the following phases:

In written production: copying short messages and lists, writing daily sentences for dictation…

In oral production: describing family and friends, referring to age, size, weight, hair colour, etc…

The place of grammar in language teaching and learning.

These are the aspects of the teaching and learning of grammar categories:







Perception and recognition of the spoken form of the grammar categories.

Comprehension of what the spoken grammar category means in context.


Production of well-formed examples in speech.

Use of the grammar categories to convey meanings in speech.


Perception and recognition of the written form.

Comprehension of what the written grammar categories means in context


Production of well-formed examples in writing.

Use of grammar categories to convey meanings in writing.

Rule learning: induction and explanation. Grammar rules may be acquired in two ways:

(1) Through induction or self-discovery: We present our pupils with relevant language data and they, first, abstract a rule based on the presented data, and secondly, develop a basis for its application.

(2) Through explanation. Learning through explanation requires two essentials:

– basic knowledge of the language of the explanation

– cognitive development in the learner

The formal learning of grammar is not our objective when teaching English to our pupils. We want our pupils to use grammar categories to improve their communicative competence. We can do this using, for example, songs and stories, which can introduce our pupils to the grammatical patterns of English in a natural and authentic way.

The organization of grammar teaching. We can distinguish three stages:

presentation: the aim is to get the learners to perceive the grammar categories in both speech and writing and to take it into short term memory.

controlled practice: the aim is to cause the learners to transfer what they know from short-term to long-term memory preparing them to use them for communication.

production stage: production or comprehension of meaning for some non-linguistic purpose, for some real-life purpose.

There are some principles which definitely contribute to successful grammar learning and teaching:

1 Prelearning: familiarize learners with the material, not to introduce it.

2 Volume and repetition: Language structures are easily forgotten so our pupils need initial volume to absorb them and follow-up repetition to maintain their knowledge.

3 Success-orientation.

4 Heterogeneity: The exercises have different levels of proficiency.

5 Teacher assistance: We must support and assist our pupils in the production of acceptable responses rather that correct or assess them.

6 Interest: A well-designed activity must be interesting to our pupils.

The myth that grammar is boring is derived from the impression that grammar can only be taught through repetition and other rote drills. Teaching grammar does not mean asking students to repeat models in a mindless way, and it does not mean memorizing rules. Such activities can be boring and do not necessarily teach grammar. This does not mean there is no place for drills, but drills should be used in a meaningful and purposeful way. For example, to practice past-tense yes/no sentences in English, the teacher may ask her students to close their eyes while she changes five things about herself. She takes off one shoe, takes off her watch, puts on her glasses, puts on her sweater, and takes off her ring. Students are then asked to pose questions to figure out the changes she has made. Students may ask, “Did you take off a shoe?” or “Did you put on a sweater?” This kind of activity can be fun and, more importantly, engages students in a way that requires them to think and not just provide mechanical responses. Teaching grammar in a way that engages students may require creativity, but the teaching need not and should not be boring.

A partir de aqui no es necesario.

Grammar is often misunderstood in the language teaching field. The misconception lies in the view that grammar is a collection of arbitrary rules about static structures in the language. Further questionable claims are that the structures do not have to be taught, learners will acquire them on their own, or if the structures are taught, the lessons that ensue will be boring. Consequently, communicative and proficiency-based teaching approaches sometimes unduly limit grammar instruction. Of the many claims about grammar that deserve to be called myths, this digest will challenge ten.

1. Grammar is acquired naturally; it need not be taught.

It is true that some learners acquire second language grammar naturally without instruction. For example, there are immigrants to the United States who acquire proficiency in English on their own. This is especially true of young immigrants. However, this is not true for all learners. Among the same immigrant groups are learners who may achieve a degree of proficiency, but whose English is far from accurate. A more important question may be whether it is possible with instruction to help learners who cannot achieve accuracy in English on their own.

It is also true that learning particular grammatical distinctions requires a great deal of time even for the most skilled learners. Carol Chomsky (1969) showed that native English speakers were still in the process of acquiring certain grammatical structures in English well into adolescence. Thus, another important question is whether it is possible to accelerate students’ natural learning of grammar through instruction. Research findings can be brought to bear on this question from a variety of sources (see Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). Pienemann (1984) demonstrated that subjects who received grammar instruction progressed to the next stage after a two-week period, a passage normally taking several months in untutored development. While the number of subjects studied was admittedly small, the finding, if corroborated, provides evidence of the efficacy of teaching over leaving acquisition to run its natural course.

With regard to whether instruction can help learners acquire grammar they would not have learned on their own, some research, although not unequivocal, points to the value of form-focused instruction to improve learners’ accuracy over what normally transpires when there is no focus on form (see Larsen-Freeman, 1995).

2. Grammar is a collection of meaningless forms.

This myth may have arisen because many people associate the term grammar with verb paradigms and rules about linguistic form. However, grammar is not unidimensional and not meaningless; it embodies the three dimensions of morphosyntax (form), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (use). As can be seen in the pie chart in Figure 1, these dimensions are interdependent; a change in one results in change in another. Despite their interdependence, however, they each offer a unique perspective on grammar. Consider the passive voice in English. It clearly has form. It is composed minimally of a form of the “be” verb and the past participle. Sometimes it has the preposition “by” before the agent in the predicate: (1) “The bank was robbed by the same gang that hijacked the armored car.” That the passive can occur only when the main verb is transitive is also part of its formal description.

The passive has a grammatical meaning. It is a focus construction, which confers a different status on the receiver or recipient of an action than it would receive in the active voice. For example, the bank in sentence (1) is differently focused than it would be in the active sentence: (2) “The same gang robbed the bank.”

When or why do we use the passive? When the receiver of the action is the theme or topic, when we do not know who the agent is, when we wish to deliberately conceal the identity of the agent, when the agent is obvious and easily derivable from the context, when the agent is redundant, and so on.

[Graphic Omitted]

To use the English passive voice accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately, English as a second language students must master all three dimensions. This is true of any grammatical structure.

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3. Grammar consists of arbitrary rules.

While there is some synchronic arbitrariness to grammar, not all of what is deemed arbitrary is so. If one adopts a broad enough perspective, it is possible to see why things are the way they are. Consider the following sentences: (3) “There is the book missing.” (4) “There is a book missing.

Grammar books will say that sentence (3) is ungrammatical because sentences with existential “there” almost always take an indefinite noun phrase in the predicate. Why? The reason is not arbitrary. There is used to introduce new information, and the preferred position for new information is toward the end of a sentence. A noun phrase that contains new information is marked by the use of the indefinite article,”a” or “an,” if it is a singular common noun, as in sentence.

4. Grammar is boring.

This myth is derived from the impression that grammar can only be taught through repetition and other rote drills. Teaching grammar does not mean asking students to repeat models in a mindless way, and it does not mean memorizing rules. Such activities can be boring and do not necessarily teach grammar. This does not mean there is no place for drills, but drills should be used in a meaningful and purposeful way. For example, to practice past-tense yes/no sentences in English, the teacher may ask her students to close their eyes while she changes five things about herself. She takes off one shoe, takes off her watch, puts on her glasses, puts on her sweater, and takes off her ring. Students are then asked to pose questions to figure out the changes she has made. Students may ask, “Did you take off a shoe?” or “Did you put on a sweater?” This kind of activity can be fun and, more importantly, engages students in a way that requires them to think and not just provide mechanical responses. Teaching grammar in a way that engages students may require creativity, but the teaching need not and should not be boring.

5. Students have different learning styles. Not all students can learn grammar.

Research shows that some people have a more analytical learning style than others. According to Hatch (1974), some learners approach the language learning task as “rule formers.” Such learners are accurate but halting users of the target language. Others are what Hatch calls “data gatherers,” fluent but inaccurate producers of the target language. This observation by itself does not address whether or not all students can learn grammar. While it may be true that learners approach language learning differently, there has been no research to show that some students are incapable of learning grammar. Students have different strengths and weaknesses. It is clear that all students can learn grammar as is evident from their mastery of their first language. As grammar is no different from anything else, it is likely that students will learn at different rates.

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6. Grammar structures are learned one at a time.

This myth is demonstrably untrue. Teachers may teach one grammar structure at a time, and students may focus on one at a time, but students do not master one at a time before going on to learn another. There is a constant interaction between new interlanguage forms and old. Students may give the appearance of having learned the present tense, for example, but when the present progressive is introduced, often their mastery vanishes and their performance declines. This backsliding continues until the grammar they have internalized is restructured to reflect the distinct uses of the two tenses. We know that the learning curve for grammatical structures is not a smoothly ascending linear one, but rather is characterized by peaks and valleys, backslidings and restructurings.

7. Grammar has to do only with sentence-level and subsentence-level phenomena.

Grammar does operate at the sentence level and governs the syntax or word orders that are permissible in the language. It also works at the subsentence level to govern such things as number and person agreement between subject and verb in a sentence. However, grammar rules also apply at the suprasentential or discourse level. For example, not every choice between the use of the past and the present perfect tense can be explained at the sentence level. Often, the speaker’s choice to use one or the other can only be understood by examining the discourse context. Similarly, use of the definite article with a particular noun phrase after the noun phrase has been introduced in a text is a discourse-governed phenomenon. It would be a mistake to teach students grammar only at the sentence and subsentence levels. Much of the apparent arbitrariness of grammar disappears when it is viewed from a discourse-level perspective.

8. Grammar and vocabulary are areas of knowledge. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are the four skills.

While grammar can be thought of as static knowledge, it can also be considered a process. Language teachers would not be content if their students could recite all the rules of grammar but not be able to apply them. The goal is for students to be able to use grammar in an unselfconscious fashion to achieve their communicative ends. As with any skill, achieving this goal takes practice.

What sort of practice is warranted? Ellis (1993) postulates that structural syllabi work better to facilitate intake than to teach learners to produce grammatical items correctly. He suggests that grammar teaching should focus on consciousness raising rather than on the practice of accurate production. In support of this assertion is VanPatten and Cardierno’s (1993) finding that students’ experience with processing input data is more effective than giving students a grammatical explanation followed by output practice.

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9. Grammars provide the rules/explanations for all the structures in a language.

Explaining why things are the way they are is an ongoing quest. Because languages evolve, linguists’ descriptions can never be complete for all time; they have to accommodate the changing nature of language. For example, most grammar books make clear the fact that progressive aspect is not used with stative verbs; therefore, the following would be ungrammatical: (5) “I am wanting a new car.” For some English speakers, the sentence is not ungrammatical, and even those who find it so would be more inclined to accept progressive aspect when it co-occurs with perfective aspect, as in : (6) “I have been wanting a new car” (for some time now).

The point is, languages change, and any textbook rule should be seen as subject to change and non-categorical. Just as grammar learning is a process–witness the persistent instability of inter-languages–so grammar itself. There is little static about either.

10. “I don’t know enough to teach grammar.”

Teachers often say this when they have opted to teach one of the other language skills, or when they choose to teach a low-proficiency class. While it is true that teachers can only teach what they know, teachers who articulate the above often know more than they think they do. The pie chart introduced earlier can be a useful tool for teachers to collect what they know about form, meaning, and use of a particular grammar structure. What they don’t know will become apparent from the gaps on the chart and the gaps will nominate themselves as items for the teacher’s agenda for further study. After all, what better way to learn something than to teach it?


If the goals of language instruction include teaching students to use grammar accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately, then a compelling case can be made for teaching grammar. Instead of viewing grammar as a static system of arbitrary rules, it should be seen as a rational, dynamic system that is comprised of structures characterized by the three dimensions of form, meaning, and use.


Chomsky, C. (1969). Linguistics and philosophy. In S. Hook (Ed.), “Language and philosophy.” New York: New York University Press.

Ellis, R. (1993). The structural syllabus and second language acquisition. “TESOL Quarterly,” 27, 91-113.

Hatch, E. (1974). Second language learning–universals? “Working Papers on Bilingualism,” 3, 1-17.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Long, M. (1991). “An introduction to second language acquisition and research.” London: Longman. Larsen-Freeman, D. (1995). On the teaching and learning of grammar: Challenging the myths. In F. Eckman et al. (Eds.), “Second language acquisition theory and pedagogy.” Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pienemann, M. (1984). Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. “Studies in Second Language Acquisition,” 6, 186-214.

VanPatten, B., & Cadierno, T. (1993). Explicit instruction and input processing. “Studies in Second Language Acquisition,” 15, 225-44.


Larsen-Freeman, D. (Series Director). (1993; 1997). “Grammar dimensions: Form, meaning, and use. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.