The Grammar of EAP

EAP teachers often discuss whether or not grammar has a role in an EAP course. They often talk as if EAP is simply about vocabulary, texts, strategies, referencing etc, forgetting that without grammar, there is nothing to hold the vocabulary items together within the texts.

Grammar is an important part of ESP/EAP as, ultimately, all that exists is words on the page or sounds in the air. These words are constructed from parts and inflect (morphology) and occur in sequences (syntax). Like all registers of English, ESP/EAP uses prepositions, articles, adverbs etc.  So it is obvious that grammar is an important component of any EAP course.

The important question, though, is: which aspects of grammar are relevant for EAP?  The grammatical forms that are used in academic English differ in their distributions from other registers, and need to be studied carefully. There are several textbooks on the market with titles such as “The Grammar of EAP” or “EAP Grammar”.  However, it is often the case that these books are simply versions of old-fashioned grammar books with serious, typically written, examples. I think we can do better than that.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, Pauline Robinson’s (1991, pp. 2-5) features, which are usually thought of as being typical defining characteristics of ESP courses, include the following:.

Often there is a very clearly specified period for the ESP course. Most EAP students are undertaking fixed term courses in preparation for a particular task – such as an essay, dissertation or conference presentation – or an academic course or they are studying English for a short time every week along with their academic courses or jobs.

For that reason, a short EAP course cannot attempt to cover the whole – whatever that means – grammar of English, so we have to ensure that any grammar we focus on has direct relevance to our students’ needs.

A good starting point is Biber, Johansson, Leech & Finegan (1992). Here are some grammatical items that they consider important in EAP:

Adjectives & Adjectival Groups

Adjectives are words such as “beautiful”, “ugly”, “new” or “old”. They usually denote qualities or have a descriptive meaning. The most typical position for an adjective is between a determiner and a noun. Typical forms of adjective endings are: “-able/-ible”, “-ish/-like”, “-ful/-less”, “-ous” or “-y”. Adjectives may display inflection for degree: “-er” & “-est”. They have two main functions: as modifiers of nouns in nominal groups, and as Head of an adjectival group. An adjectival group is typically a group with an adjective as its Head. That adjective is likely to be modified either before the adjective (pre-modification) or after the adjective (post-modification or qualification) or both. For example, in the adjectival group “very difficult indeed”, “difficult” is an adjective in the head position. It is pre-modified by “very” and post-modified or qualified by “indeed”. Adjectives and adjectival groups are commonly used in academic texts (Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan, 1999, p. 506).

Aspect

Aspect refers to the way an action denoted by a verb should be viewed with respect to time. Perfective aspect is realised by “have” + past participle of a verb. Progressive aspect is realised by “be” + present participle of a verb. According to Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 461) verbs in their simple form account for 94% of verb use in academic texts; progressive aspect for 2% and perfective aspect for 6%. On a short course, it would not seem to be an efficient use of time to concentrate on these forms.

Modal Verb

A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb. Its function is to modulate the meaning of the verb. They have grammatical functions, helping to form complex verbal groups. Examples are “can”, “may”, might”, “must”. According to Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 456) modal verbs account for 15% of verb use in academic texts. It is therefore important to teach them from an early stage.

Nominal Group

A nominal group is typically a group with a noun as its Head. That noun is likely to be modified either before the noun (pre-modification) or after the noun (post-modification or qualification) or both. A typical structure is dmhq – determiner, modifier, head & qualifier. Written academic language uses nouns and nominal groups to a much greater extent than other word classes (Biber, 2006, p. 48, 137). It would therefore seem sensible for EAP teaching to concentrate on nouns and building nominal groups rather than verbs and verbal groups. Nominal groups include nominalisation.

Nominalisation

The process of forming a noun from some other word class. e.g. red + ness = redness. EAP uses a large number of nominalisations.

Noun

Nouns are words such as “Henry”, “England”, “letter”, “laughter” & “beauty”. They are defined partly by their form and partly by their position or function.There are several word endings that indicate that a word is a noun. Typical examples are “-ity”, “-ment”, “-ness”, “-tion”, & “-hood”. They usually change their form (inflect) for plural:- “-s”, “-es”.

With regard to their position, nouns frequently follow determiners “a”, “the”, “this”, “that” and their main function is head of a nominal group. Nouns are often classified into common nouns, proper nouns and pronouns.

Written academic language uses nouns to a much greater extent than other word classes (Biber, 2006, p. 48).

It would therefore seem sensible for EAP teaching to concentrate on nouns and building nominal groups rather than verbs.

 Passive Voice

A passive sentence has the basic form “The fish was eaten.” It includes a passive verb. According to Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 477) verbs in their simple form account for 25% of verb use in academic texts. The short passive (without “by …” ) is much more common than the long passive with “by …”). It is therefore important to teach passive forms from an early stage.Some verbs in academic texts occur mostly in the passive form.

Perfective Aspect

Aspect refers to the way an action denoted by a verb should be viewed with respect to time. Perfective aspect is realised by “have” + past participle of a verb. Progressive aspect is realised by “be” + present participle of a verb. According to Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 461) verbs in their simple form account for 94% of verb use in academic texts; progressive aspect for 2% and perfective aspect for 6%. On a short course, it would not seem to be an efficient use of time to concentrate on these forms.

Plural

In English nouns and verbs can be described as singular or plural, depending on the number of things being referred to. For example “cat” is singular, “cats” is plural. Plural nouns are common in academic writing (Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan, 1999, p. 291-292).

Post-Modification

A group consists of one or more words, a head word which is modified either before the head word (pre-modification) or after the head word (post-modification or qualification) or both. Typical post-modifiers are:

  • relative clause – students who have no previous experience
  • to-clauses – the solution to the problem of inflation, the question to be debated
  • ing-clauses – a brake consisting of a drum divided into twelve compartments
  • ed-clauses – canoes preserved by a hard plaster, a brake consisting of a drum divided into twelve  compartments, the curve shown
  • prepositional phrase – we need to bring to the box a special tool with a ready-compressed spring
  • adverb (phrase) – the road back, the people outside
  • adjective (phrase) – varieties common in India, the festival proper, something different

According to Biber, Johansonn, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 606), nominal groups with post-modifiers are common in written texts. The most common post-modifiers in academic texts are prepositional phrases, followed by relative clauses.

 Pre-Modification

A group consists of one or more words, a head word which is modified either before the head word (pre-modification) or after the head word (post-modification or qualification) or both. Typical pre-modifiers are:

  • adjective – the constitutional aspects
  • ed-participle – a balanced budget, from the confused events of 19-24 August, the emitted light
  • ing-participle – growing problem, one striking feature of the years 1929-31, existing structures
  • noun – market forces, cabinet appointments

According to Biber, Johansonn, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 589), nominal groups with pre-modifiers are three to four times more common in written texts than in conversation. Adjectives and nouns are the most common pre-modifiers in academic texts.

Post-modifiers can be either restrictive or non-restictive. Overall, restrictive post-modifiers are more common (85%)in acdemic texts.

 Progressive Aspect

Aspect refers to the way an action denoted by a verb should be viewed with respect to time. Perfective aspect is realised by “have” + past participle of a verb. Progressive aspect is realised by “be” + present participle of a verb. According to Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 461) verbs in their simple form account for 94% of verb use in academic texts; progressive aspect for 2% and perfective aspect for 6%. On a short course, it would not seem to be an efficient use of time to concentrate on these forms.

Tense

Tense is an inflection of the verb that relates to time. English has two tenses: present (eat) and past (ate). According to Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan (1999, p. 456) verbs in the present tense account for 70% of verb use in academic texts and verbs in the past tense for 15% of verb use in academic texts. It is therefore important to teach them from an early stage. See Aspect.

References

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S. & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Longman.

Robinson, P. (1991). ESP today: A practitioner’s guide. London: Prentice Hall.

One thought on “The Grammar of EAP

  1. Dear Andy,
    I have read this and your other article ‘Teaching EAP at Low Levels’ with interest as I am currently teaching EAP at Sheffield Hallam University where I am also researching an MA dissertation on this general area. I would very much like to cite what you have said in a forthcoming reading group so I would be grateful if you could supply your full name for referencing purposes.
    I hope to hear from you.

    Yours

    Rob Young

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