Hong Kong Baptist University - Alumni Affairs Office Home   |   HKBU       中文
The BUddy Post
What's Up

Grammatical Correctness and Practice of English

Contributed by Dr. Lu Danhuai, Associate Professor of Language Centre, HKBU

Echoing Prof. Robinson’s column (February issue of 2013 BUddy Post), I’d like to share my views about practice in English.

To my observation as a teacher, one of the reasons Hong Kong students do not practice using English is precisely that they are concerned about grammatical correctness. In other words, they want to ensure they are able to produce correct English sentences all the time.

But what is correct English? The idea seems to prevail among students of English that correct English is nothing but grammatical English. This is not true. An expression may be perfectly grammatical and yet incorrect. It is incorrect often because it is unidiomatic, and it is unidiomatic often because it contains a word or a phrase that is not used by its native speakers. In a language, it is usage that governs grammar and idiom. By usage it means the customs and habits followed by those who use the language as their mother tongue. Without constant practice it would be a dream to know enough about usage.

Don’t think of grammatical correctness all the time. It will reduce your courage of using English. Grammar and idiom do not always agree. What is grammatical is not necessarily idiomatic; what is idiomatic is not necessarily grammatical. To give a few illustrations: I is a student is neither grammatical nor idiomatic; We know what each other wants is grammatical but unidiomatic (We each/Each of us know/knows what the other wants is idiomatic); Who do you take me for? is idiomatic but ungrammatical (Whom do you take me for? is grammatical); I am a student is both grammatical and idiomatic. So, grammatical correctness is not a universal panacea for using English. Something ungrammatical may also be acceptable and useful.

When grammar and idiom do not agree, follow idiom. But one cannot be aware of idiom through grammar books. One cannot gain a profound awareness of idiom without constant and abundant practice. Errors may occur in the process; but they help one improve the knowledge and skills of English and they gradually make one proficient in using idiomatic English. So it is important to be more concerned about using English whenever and wherever possible rather than worrying about grammatical correctness only. The important thing for you to keep in mind is that as English is not your mother tongue, you are likely to produce sentences that are quite grammatical, but for different reasons unidiomatic, and therefore “incorrect” in some sense. So in daily communication grammatical correctness should not cast a shadow on the use of English. By trial and error we can progressively upgrade our English. Suffice it to say that whether you can get rid of fear by expressing what you have in mind is far more important than whether your expression is grammatical or idiomatic. We cannot look upon the study of grammar as all or nearly all that we have to do in learning English. Important as it is, grammar is not everything. Don’t content yourself with knowing the rules of grammar. To know a rule is one thing; to keep it is another. If you don’t often practice using English, you may break even the elementary rules when you do not take due care. By careful and constant practice, and by this alone, you may learn to keep the rules almost unconsciously, so that it would be hardly possible for you to break any of them. What the whole question boils down to is a matter of habit. Careful and constant practice may facilitate the formation of the habit of using correct English with so little conscious effort that you could hardly use incorrect English. In Hong Kong there are plenty of opportunities of using English in communication, say, email, WhatsApp, texting messages, course assignments, office paperwork, business communication, etc. As long as one is determined to practice English, one may find such opportunities from time to time. The crux of the matter is your willingness, namely, you should make yourself a willing user of English.




Back to The BUddy Post Jun 2014
Home   |   HKBU   |   Contact Us   |   Unsubscribe