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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Explaining grammar with metaphors

Simon Mumford, UK

When learning English students are faced with the task of remembering a huge number of unfamiliar rules, many of which are full of exceptions and irregularities. However there is much in the world that students are familiar with. I suggest that by linking the unfamilar, i.e. what the language students are learning, to the familiar, objects and processes in the world around them, we can help them learn, by finding metaphors for language points. Here's what I mean.

Metaphors for relative clauses

Omitted relative pronouns and stapling
Write two sentences on the board, one with the relative pronoun as the object of the clause e.g. 'The man that I saw was crying', and the other, the subject, e.g. 'The man that was crying was taken to hospital'. Point out that the first has two pronouns, the personal 'I' and the relative 'that', whereas the second had only the relative pronoun. Now take two pieces of paper and staple them together twice. This represents the first sentence. Staple two more pieces of paper together, just once. This represents the second sentence. Now remove one staple from the first pair of papers and the papers remain connected, but if you remove the staple from the second pair, they become separate. Use this to show that where the relative pronoun refers to an object in the relative clause, the pronoun can be omitted.

Reduced relatives and pencil sharpening.
In the sentence 'The man (who was) killed in the accident was my neighbour', the words in brackets can be removed. By taking out the words we make the sentence better, more economical, efficient and sharper, just as sharpening a pencil removes something to make the pencil more efficient. You could use this metaphor for other situations where words are omitted, eg 'I can swim and (I can) run.'

Non defining (extra information) relative clauses and paper-clips
Clauses that add extra information, i.e. non-defining, need a comma. Defining clauses, where the clause is part of the main sentence, do not. Therefore we could say that the commas are a kind of paperclip, which attach the extra information, just as you need a paperclip to hold an extra piece of paper onto the first one. Emphasise this by writing example sentences on pieces of paper: 'It's a long way to his house, which is deep in the forest.' (written on two strips of paper, clipped together after 'house'. Put the clip on the bottom, where the comma would be.) An example of a defining relative clause is: 'I prefer the house which is deep in the forest.' (One strip of paper)

Some metaphors for spelling and other changes to words.

Doubling consonants and body building
We double the consonant on some words before adding the endings -er, -est, -ed, -ing, e.g. rob-robber, stop-stopped. These are words that end in consonant-vowel-consonant. We could explain to students that because these are usually short (therefore light) words with only single vowels and consonants, they need to put on weight and build themselves up before they are strong enough to carry their new endings, which in some cases are as big as the words themselves! Of course words with double consonants, 'cold-colder', or double vowels, 'Green-greener' already strong enough!

Articles and titles
As a general rule, we use the article 'the' before nouns we are familiar with and 'a' if they have not been mentioned before in a text. We could explain these words as two titles, one for unfamiliar people and one for familiar. For example, a child may refer to an adult as 'Mrs Smith' if he does not know the person, but 'Aunty Mary' to someone he knows. 'A' is the unfamiliar title, 'the' the familiar title. When we meet a word for the second time, or the first time and it is already known to us, we can use the familiar form,v'the'.

Comparatives and family homes
Some comparatives are formed with the addition of the ending 'er' while others add an extra word 'more'. Explain that smaller families can grow by building extensions on their houses e.g. 'small' becomes 'small+er'. However, long words are families that are already crowded because they have two syllables or more (two or more branches of the same family living together!) and they can only grow by building a second house: 'more'.

Metaphors to explain different verb forms and uses.

Question forms and chess moves
There are two main ways of making question forms in English. One is reversing the order of the subject and verb: 'She can swim-Can she swim?' The other is using an auxiliary, 'He likes ice-cream- Does he like ice-cream?' We can draw an analogy with chess. When the king is checked, the player must move it out of check. There are two ways of doing this; moving the king or moving something between the king and the piece attacking it. In the first case, inversion, we change the place of the subject and verb. In the second case we move something in front of the subject, the auxiliary verb. So we can say that in questions, the subject must not be open to attack (i.e. at the beginning of the utterance) and depending on the verb, modal or main, it will be 'protected' in one of these ways.

Irregular verbs and prisons
Explain that while many verbs are regular, others are different because they 'break the law'. So, you can put them in different 'prisons' according to how much they break the law. Low-level offenders are words which double a consonant e.g. 'stop-stopped'. Medium offenders have two different forms e.g. 'hold-held-held'. Maximum security is needed for those with 3 forms e.g. 'eat-ate-eaten', as they cause a lot of trouble. Of course the completely unpredictable, e.g. 'be-was/were-been', need a special psychiatric unit to themselves! This has a serious purpose; it shows that although past forms are usually only classified as regular and irregular, there are degrees of irregularity. You could draw a 'prison' as follows:

Class of prisoner
Danger to learners.

low risk
Regular but double final consonant.
stop stopped stopped
stab stabbed stabbed

medium risk
Irregular with two different forms.
hold held held
get got got

serious offenders
Three different forms. Habitual irregularity!
see saw seen
swim swam swum

psychiatric unit
Warning- very unpredictable behaviour
go went gone
come came come

Non-offenders, just visiting prison!
Completely harmless!
visit visited visited
walk walked walked

Action and state verbs and opening bottles.
The way we open wine and beer bottles can be used as a metaphor for action and state verbs. Opening a wine bottle is a process that you can see. You push the corkscrew into the cork then pull it out. It takes time. On the other hand, a beer bottle is opened in a very short time. The bottle is either in the open or unopened state, there is nothing in between. Similary some verbs are processes or actions, e.g. walk, sit, write, while others are states, e.g. think, love, know.

Present perfect and scissors.
The scissors have two blades. They work by closing down and pressing together to cut through paper. The present perfect similarly connects two times, the past and present. The closing and meeting of the blades represents a time period from the past to present.(one blade represents the past, the other, the present.) The length of this time is not important. It could be a few seconds, as in 'I have just finished dinner.' (a small snip of the scissors) or it could be a long time, eg 'People have spoken English for hundreds of years' (a big chop with the scissors). By contrast, in the past tense, the blades never meet and the present tense is a knife with only one blade.


With metaphors we can give students security by relating language to things they know about, thus getting their attention by focusing on the familiar. We could bring bottle openers, scissors, staplers, chess pieces, pencil sharpeners and paperclips to class to help get the message across. By letting students handle and use these as they are actually using the language, the learning experience could become much more memorable.

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