Can an ordinary native speaker of English (my brother) explain the rules of English grammar? Transcript available below.
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That’s the question in this interview. I wanted to know how much my brother James knows about the rules of grammar which learners of English study every day. The results are quite revealing.
At the end of the interview I explain the grammar rules which we discuss
Here are the lyrics to James’ rap at the beginning of the episode!
It’s Luke’s English Podcast
We’re sitting in his flat
We’re discussing English
and shit like that
We’re getting educated
because that’s the way we do
so listen up close
because his name is Luke
Here’s the first part of the transcript. The beginning of this transcript was sent in by Bettina from France. Thanks again Bettina 😉
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Uh… say what
Uh… what what what what
It’s Luke’s English Podcast
We’re sitting in his flat
We’re discussing English
and shit like that
We’re getting educated
because that’s the way we do
So listen up close
because his name is Luke
Yeah, we’re learning English
Luke’s English Podcast
Learning some English
Luke’s English podcast
with Luke’s English podcast, yeah
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen and especially you Ladies,
you’re in safe hands, it’s Luke’s English podcast.
This week Luke takes a long slow lingering linguistic look at the English language.
So lay back, run yourself a deep bath and relax to the smoothing sounds of Luke’s English podcast.
Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Luke’s English podcast. In this episode I talk to my brother James, err, about grammar. We have a little grammar discussion in which I ask James to try and answer some questions about English grammar. Now the idea of this episode is that I wanted to show people who are learning English, what most normal English native speakers really know about grammar.
Now my brother is a fairly ordinary Londoner. Um, he works as a graphic designer . Um, he is very good. He did the logo for my podcast, the Luke’s English Podcast logo. He designed that, so he is very good. He went to University, and so he is a normal educated professional Londoner. Umm, but as a native speaker, I wanted to ask him some questions about grammar because often learners of English are really surprised that native speakers don’t really know anything about the rules of grammar even though they speak the language perfectly. So here’s the conversation. I’ll explain some things at the end.
Erm, right, okay, so I’m with my brother Jim, and erm… would you say that you’re, like, an average man on the street?
Luke: You are. Are you on a street now?
James: Erm, I’m very near one. I’m not on a street, no. But I quite often am on the street.
Luke: Okay, so you’re, sort of, typical person
James: I’m the average person, in the world
Luke: You are the most average person in the world
Luke: Is that what your girlfriend says? …he hey… That’s just a joke. Wasn’t very funny. Umm, anyway, so my brother is basically, sort of, the average man on the street. Umm, right, so, how much, kind of, English grammar did you study at school?
James: Don’t really remember to be honest.
Luke: Don’t remember, okay.
James: Probably… a fair amount but I’d say more of it was just picked up in speech than learned, err, in a classroom
Luke: Ok, so you just, you didn’t really study any grammar. We don’t really study grammar at school.
James: Well, we did, but, yeah I’m sure we studied it. I remember that stuff happening. I just don’t know if I was paying any attention
Luke: Ok, so if I asked you for example, what’s the difference between a noun and adjective and a verb? Can you tell me?
James: An adjective is …erm…
Luke: Yeah, an adjective
James: An adjective is a doing word
Luke: A doing word. For example?
James: For example, erm, err, to run.
Luke: To run. So, you’re saying ‘to run’ is an adjective. Ok, I’ll come back to that.
James: Can we delete this?
Luke: No no! This is brilliant! No this is perfect because, the fact is that students don’t know that most English people don’t know…
James: Yeah, but I’m more stupid than most people
Luke: No you’re not more stupid than most people.
James: Most people know this
Luke: No, most people don’t know this. A lot of people don’t know this. I didn’t know this until I started learning to become a teacher.
James: No, an adjective would be, erm, ‘flying’
Luke: No, that’s not… well, ‘flying’ could be an adjective, but, that’s actually…
Luke: Fat is an adjective, yes.
James: Right, yeah
Luke: So, it’s a describing word. Right, what about a noun?
James: A noun is a… a descriptive word like ‘a plant’
Luke: Right, so it’s like the name of a thing, like ‘a plant’, okay. What’s a verb?
James: To run, to fly
Luke: To run, to fly, okay. That’s a doing word.
James: To drive
Luke: To drive. Okay, what’s, err, what’s an adverb?
James: Describing the person, a ‘driver’
Luke: No, that’s a noun.
James: Dunno (don’t know)
Luke: An adverb describes a verb, so ‘he drives well’, so ‘well’ is an adjective [adverb].
James: Oh, it’s all coming back to me now.
Luke: But the fact is that most
James: Thing is though I think I speak quite well
Luke: Yeah, well of course you do
James: I generally make myself understood, I just may not know the exact correct definition of everything.
Luke: That’s the thing for native speakers of English. It’s like “well I don’t need to know the rules, because obviously I know that, basically …
James: I’m confident enough that I know the language well enough to speak it well, and to make myself understood and to be clear
Luke: I think that’s…
James: and I speak, I think I speak quite well but I just don’t know the exact definitions of all the words
Luke: Okay, well that’s exactly what English native speakers. That’s their whole attitude, and that’s totally fine, because the fact is they know how to speak English of course, because they were born in an English speaking environment
James: You’d definitely notice if someone got it wrong though
Luke: Yeah, but if you got it wrong, you notice, that’s right, but you just instinctively know what’s right and what’s wrong
James: but it feels like it’s instinctive but I’m sure it was learned
Luke: No, it is instinctive because we don’t learn
James: No, but it’s picked up isn’t it, through practice
Luke: Yeah, it’s picked up through experience of just speaking and, for example, your parents correcting you and things like that. But learners of English have got to learn all these rules, and it’s like, it’s the language of the English language for them, because in order to take apart the language, they use all this other… all these other terms and I often think when I’m teaching that my students know English grammar, like, ten times better than how most native English speakers do, right?
Luke: So, I’ve got here a book, which is called English Grammar In Use by Raymond Murphy and it’s the most popular grammar book for learners of English. It’s sold millions of copies all around the world, it’s a famous book, it’s known as ‘the blue book’, ‘the blue grammar book’
James: and you’re saying it’s basically useless
Luke: No, I’m not saying it’s useless! I’m just saying it’s interesting that most native speakers have got no idea what any of this stuff means. You talk about present continuous tense and third conditionals and things like that
James: Wouldn’t have a clue
Luke: You’ve got no idea, right. What I’m quite curious to do is, another thing is, that in English language classes teachers are always asking students to explain what things mean, right, so they always say things like “what is present perfect and how do we use it?” or “what’s the difference between these two sentences?”, right, and it’s interesting to see what a native speaker, someone who’s already able to speak English perfectly and functionally would answer those questions, because sometimes
James: You’re probably going to get them wrong
Luke: Well, you, it’s, the point is that, a lot of the exercises you do in class are, kind of, unrealistic, and unnatural so even if you were a native speaker you wouldn’t be able to do it, you know?
Luke: So, like, if I said to you what’s the difference between, ‘I painted the house’ and ‘I have painted the house’? What’s the difference in meaning?
James: ‘I painted the house’ implies that you’ve just done it
Luke: You’ve just done it
James: and ‘I have painted the house’ could be any time
Luke: Ok. Couldn’t you say ‘I painted the house last year’?
James: Yeah, you could say that
Luke: Right, so ‘I painted the house’ could be any time
James: But you couldn’t say ‘I have painted the house last year’
Luke: Ah, right. Why not?
James: Because it’s too… it’s, it’s… I don’t know. There’s two levels to it. Once you say ‘I have painted the house’, you’ve already established the fact that you’ve painted it.
James: Err, I don’t know! It just sounds wrong!
Luke: It just sounds wrong, yeah, that’s exactly it. The fact is, ‘I have painted the house’ means, you were right originally, you don’t know when it happened, it’s just that it happened in the past some time, and it’s connected to now, because you’re relating it to your whole experience of your life up to now, so there’s a connection to now, ‘I have done it’, like, I’ve got that experience. ‘I have painted the house’. You can’t say ‘I have painted the house yesterday’, because we just don’t use that tense
James: But you’ve already said, ‘I have painted the house’
Luke: Which implies that there’s no time, or that it’s an unfinished period of time.
James: Or just… it just doesn’t work, I don’t know why
Luke: But you can say, “I have painted the house today”, but you can’t say “I have painted the house yesterday”
James: ‘I have painted the house today’, would you say that?
Luke: At the end of the day, ‘so what have you done today?’, oh well…
James: You’d say ‘I painted the house’
Luke: Ok at the end of the day
James: Or ‘I’ve been painting the house’
Luke: But at lunchtime, “what have you done?”
James: Oh, I’ve painted the house
Luke: yeah, exactly
James: What have you been doing this morning? – I painted the house. I don’t know if you’d say ‘I’ve’
Luke: Well if it was finished you would
James: “well, I’ve come in, I’ve picked up the paint brush”
Luke: NO, that’s, that’s
James: I’ve run in, I’ve grabbed the ladder, I’ve put it up against the wall and I’ve painted the house.
Luke: That’s what native speakers say as an error. That’s what footballers do. They say things like, “Well, yeah, I’ve got the ball”… what they should say is “I got the ball outside the penalty box, right, I passed it to Wayne Rooney, he passed it back to me, I beat the defender and I shot and I scored. But what they’d say is “Well, I’ve got the ball outside the penalty box, and I’ve passed it to Wayne Rooney and he’s passed it back to me, and I’ve looked up, and I’ve seen the open goal, and I’ve shot and I’ve scored”, so all this weird present perfect, but it’s kind of wrong isn’t it.
Luke: They’re actually speaking completely incorrectly
James: Because he’s kind of talking about the present and the past at the same time. “I’ve picked up the ball, passed it to Rooney. You know, I’ve collected the ball and passed it to Rooney”
Luke: So he’s talking about, it’s like, it happened just now, it’s like, in the moment
James: But he’s using “I’ve”
Luke: “I’ve” to, sort of, create that link to ‘now’ somehow
James: It’s like he’s running through it in his head.
Luke: It’s kind of like…
James: This isn’t going to be any use to anyone
Luke: It is. No, it is it is, it’s exactly
James: No-one’s going to listen to this
Luke: No, it’s not true, it’s not true. People will be interested to hear this
James: If you’re listening to this, I’m very sorry
Luke: No, people will be interested to hear about how a native speaker understands,
James: or doesn’t
Luke: or doesn’t understand grammar. Just let me ask you two more things and then we’ll call it a day. Right, er, another one is, what’s the difference between ‘for’ and ‘since’. That’s a question that students ask all the time. What’s the difference between ‘for’ and ‘since’?
James: In what context?
Luke: So, ‘I have done something for…’ and ‘I have done something since…’
Luke: For, yeah, f-o-r. “i’ve been doing something for…”
James: 10 years
Luke: Yeah, I’ve been doing something for 10 years. I’ve been doing something since…
James: 1990… 2000
Luke: Yeah, since 2000, so what’s the difference between ‘for’ and ‘since’?
James: …erm… well you say ‘for’ when you’re about to describe the length of time that you have spent doing something. ‘Since’ sets the date that you started.
Luke: Yeah, exactly, yeah. Perfect. Yeah, you’re quite good.
James: That blew your theory out of the water
Luke: No no, it’s just interesting. I don’t have a theory. Right, here’s another one, ok. This is a classic one. What’s the difference between saying, okay this is conditionals. What’s the difference between saying “If I…” now you’ll get this because this is easy… “If I had bought a lottery ticket, I would have won the lottery” and “If I bought a lottery ticket, I would win the lottery” What’s the difference.
James: One’s talking about the past and one’s talking about the future.
Luke: Right, okay, yes, spot on. Nailed it. Yeah. Okay, I need to give you a really difficult one. Erm, hmm, I’ll go to the back of the book. Ok, prepositions, right? Let’s go for, what do you want? Let’s have adjective + preposition, which is, prepositions are the thing that learners have the most difficulty with, and they’re little words like ‘of’ ‘to’ ‘at’ ‘in’, stuff like that
James: Ok, go on, first question
Luke: So, you’ve just got to complete the sentence, erm, hmm,
LUKE: Erm, hmm, wait a minute. Right, wait a second
JAMES: I think you should edit this down.
LUKE: Yeah, okay, right, here we go. I’ll give you a sentence. You’ve got to put the prepositions in the right place, in the gap, okay?
I was delighted ….. the present you gave me. I was delighted … the present you gave me.
JAMES: ‘ with ‘
LUKE: Yes, well done. Brilliant.
JAMES: I don’t know why ? But…
LUKE: I’ve just had an idea whenever you get anything right, I’m gonna do this (ping!), okay? Right, so here’s the next one.
JAMES: This is bad.
LUKE: It was very nice … you, to do my shopping for me. Thank you very much.
JAMES: ‘ of ‘ but I don’t know why it’s ‘ of ‘. I couldn’t tell you the rules behind that. I just know that’s what it is.
LUKE: Why are you always so rude … your parents? Can’t you be nice … them.
JAMES: ‘ to ‘
LUKE: ‘ to ‘ yes, well done !
JAMES: Can you not do that? (referring to the BING)
LUKE: Okay, hmm, but why is it nice to, be nice to the parents?
JAMES: Well, because they brought you up and I dunno, bought you stuff at christmas
LUKE: No, I’m meaning, why do you use the word ‘to’? Nice, be nice to your parents.
JAMES: Because, you’re sort of, I don’t know.
JAMES: You’re giving some kind to them. You’re kind of, just doing something for their benefit, I suppose or something towards them. Something towards them. A big nice towards them. Now, it’s that
your parents, I couldn’t tell you.
LUKE: You’ve to look up, to look toward them.
JAMES: I couldn’t tell you.
LUKE: The fact is, it’s just impossible to create a rule about it. In fact, you’ve just got to learn that some words go with other words. Just got know it’s ‘ be nice to someone ‘ . You’ve just to learn ‘nice to’. So,
you have to see words existing together in little partnerships.
JAMES: Well, learn how they work together.
LUKE: Yeah, that’s it. It’s just learning two words together. Not just one on its own. So, that’s it. That’s the end of the experiment. Have you learnt anything from this, from this experience?
JAMES: No, no.
JAMES: Hm, I just hope that you get something out of this. You know making me look stupid basically.
LUKE: No, I think you got quite a few questions right. Didn’t you?
JAMES: Hhhh yeah,
LUKE: Okay, well, congratulations anyway. I’m gonna give you a certificate now which just shows that you’ve, two certificates, want to show that you completed the course.
JAMES: So, I’ll keep the certificate. Can I have this bit of chewing gum?
LUKE: Yeah, you can have the chewing gum.
JAMES: Sorry, thanks.
LUKE: Hmm, and the second certificate is just something I like to give to all the guests that I have on a program. It’s a little certificate just proving that you’d appeared on, on an episode of Luke’s English
Podcast. So thanks very much for coming and I hope to see you soon.
JAMES: Thanks very much. Luke’s English Podcast is brought to you by Wrigley chewing gum and Castllero del Diablo wine.
Okay folks, what I would now like to do is just explain some of the grammar points that I spoke to my brother about during that conversation. I asked him some questions about a few areas of grammar to see if he could answer them and I think you can see there that the point is, I guess, that native speakers surprisingly don’t understand or don’t really know the rules of grammar. They don’t know terms like ‘present perfect’ or even words like ‘adjectives’ or ‘nouns’. They don’t really know what those terms mean. So when you’re studying all that stuff at school, you’re in a way more articulate than they are, because you know how to describe the language and native speakers don’t know how to do that. That’s quite interesting but native speakers know, umm, what’s right and what’s wrong by instinct. They just sort of, they learn it as children without thinking about it and then when they get older they know that something is wrong but they don’t know why it’s wrong, they just know it’s wrong. It’s the same for you when you’re learning your language as a child.
Umm, what does that tell us about learning English? Well you could say, that it, some people might say it means that learners of English shouldn’t worry about learning the rules of grammar. That instead they should just try to listen to a lot of English, to read a lot of English and by doing that ,erm, see and hear the language so much that they just learn what’s right and wrong, just by frequency. So they know for example that people will say things, just because they have heard it said so many times before and they know what’s right and wrong just because they have heard and read the language a lot and they’ve started to learn, started to get a sense of all the patterns that you find in English.
Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s a good way to learn or maybe learners of English should study the rules or at least study the patterns and do practice exercises in order to understand what’s right and what’s wrong. I think it’s a combination of both. That you need to study the language , you need to test yourself with it , you need to do exercises but also you need to combine that with high exposure to lots of listening and lots of reading and so the more you see of the language , the more you start to develop a feel for it. Hum, that’s my opinion, um, but nevertheless, um, some of the things that I discussed with my brother there, I think I should just clarify for you, anyway.
Um, so the first thing I asked him was, what’s the difference between a noun, an adjective and a verb and he couldn’t really answer the question, but as you may know, a noun is a word which is used to give something a name. We use things like, you know, a table, a chair, a cat, those are all nouns. They can be plural or singular. Three cats for example.
They can be countable or uncountable. If they’re countable you can, you can count them. For example three, you know, tables. A table is a countable noun because you can say one, two or three tables but a word like sugar isn’t countable, instead we just say some sugar. So it’s like a mass of tiny little granules of sugar that together makes something uncountable. They can also be abstract, for example the names of things you can’t actually touch or feel. Umm, so concepts like ‘love’ is a noun. Umm, it’s also a verb but you could say ‘all you need is love’ and in that sentence it’s a noun. It’s an abstract one there and it’s uncountable. That’s nouns. Obviously there’re, nouns can be very complex, they can be larger, kind of phrases you could say like a noun phrase like for example, hum, let’s see, umm, like mobile phone technology is a kind of noun phrase and you can use that as the start of a sentence. Mobile phone technology is developing very quickly, right? So nouns can also be sometimes a number of words together.
Umm, right, the next one is a adjective. Well, an adjective is a word we use to describe a noun. Umm, it’s used to describe a noun, so we would say for example, the food was delicious, right? So delicious describes the food. How was the food ? It was delicious. You could also say delicious food. Like that, of course. Umm, so that’s an adjective.
Umm, and then the next one was a verb and the verb is the doing word. These are words we use to express sort of actions, um, so like play, eat, go, for example. Those are verbs, um, and we also have little verb phrases, which are things like phrasal verbs and that’s a verb in combination with other words and phrasal verbs are difficult because, well, somme of them are easy and some of them are difficult . The easy ones are easy to understand because the meaning is very similar to the original verb. So, if you’re talking about, um, oh, let’s see, hmm, ‘ go on’ , like ‘ go on’, meaning continue. I’s fairly clear what that means because go, we know what ‘ go’ means. ‘ Go on ‘ just means go and don’t stop going, continue. That’s fairly easy but some of them are difficult like if you take the expression ‘give up’. ‘ Give up ‘ umm, meaning to quit. Hum, that’s not quite so easy because the verb ‘ give’ you know, we think, well, ‘ give’ . Give someone a birthday present but in this sentence ‘give up’ has a completely different meaning to give which makes it very difficult and the fact is as learners of English you just have to learn phrasal verbs. You just have to try and learn them because they are all unique words with their own meanings, just a combination of a few words. So that’s, umm, that was the first thing I asked my brother. The next thing was about ‘present perfect’ and ‘past simple’.
So we know the ‘present perfect’. One of the, actually this is one of the most common bits of grammar that you study when you’re learning English. Present perfect of course is like ‘ have’ plus a past participle or ‘ has’ plus a past participle, like I have lived in Japan for example. Umm, she has eaten a pizza, right? And ‘past simple’ obviously everyone knows. I lived in Japan, she ate a pizza, for example. Umm, so the difference, well that’s quite a big one and it’s something that everyone is studying. So the difference between ‘past simple’ and ‘present perfect’ basically we use, we use ‘past simple’ to talk about a finished action in the past but the time period is important and we tend to, with ‘past simple’ express a kind of distance from the act. So there is a distance in time basically, which means that the action
happened in a finished time period. I lived, erm, well let’s say, umm, I ate, no, I drank a coffee. It’s pretty, probably suggests that you that you drank a coffee yesterday or you drank a coffee last week or you drank a coffee, umm, during breakfast, right? So it’s like in a finished time. ‘Present perfect’ is used to describe finished actions which happened in an unfinished time. So there’s a connection to now. That’s the most important thing. So, basically you might say for example, I have drunk three cups of coffee today. Umm, today is not finished, so you can say, I have drunk three cups of coffee today. Hum, so the time period is always connected to now. It’s a bit more complicated than that but that’s is all basic difference.
Hum, to be honest, if I was to explain ‘present perfect’ and ‘past simple’, I’d need to record a completely new podcast and I could do that. So, I might, I might do that.. ‘Past simple’ and ‘present perfect’.
The next one was about 2nd and 3rd conditionals. So we know the 2nd conditional would be for example, umm, let’s see. Err, if I bought a lottery ticket, I would win the lottery. Not a very good example because, it’s not definite that you’d win, so, if I?
Okay, let’s say, if I, if I went outside, I, no, no, no … Okay, if I studied hard, I would pass the exam. So, you’re talking about the future but you use past tense like studied, if I studied, now, we’re not talking about the past , we’re talking about the future. And we know, it’s the future because we’ve said’ if’ . So ‘ if ‘ plus a ‘past tense’ is actually used to describe a kind of unreal future. So you use the past tense not to create distance in time but to create distance in reality. In this sense it’s an unreal or hypothetical future because you don’t think it’s realistic. So, if I studied hard, I would pass the exam but I’m not going to study hard because I don’t want to, right? So compare that with the 1st conditional. If I study hard, I will pass the exam. Umm, ‘present tense’ after ‘ if ‘ , still talking about the future but here we think it’s a realistic future. So, there’s no distance from reality. We think it’s real and it’s followed by ‘ will ‘. Umm, if I study hard, I will pass the exam. So, that’s it, it’s like a definite future with its definite future consequence!
The 3rd conditional talks about the past and there we use ‘had’ plus a ‘past participle’ in the ‘if clause’, in the second clause we have ‘would have’ and a ‘past participle’. So, let’s say, the exam was last week and I failed, you could say, ‘ If I had studied for the exam, I would have passed, right? The fact is, I didn’t study and I didn’t pass but if I had studied, now here we’re using ‘ had studied’ and that’s like, it looks like past perfect, but it’s not actually past perfect, it just looks like it, but it’s used to create distance from reality in this sense, in the past. Umm, so we go from ‘past simple’ I didn’t study, we go one tense back to what looks like ‘past perfect ‘. ‘If I had studied’ and then in the second part ‘I would have passed ‘. Again to refer to a past consequence.
It’s all very complicated and to be honest rather boring but you kind of have to learn it. Again, I could do a completely separate podcast all about conditionals because it’s such a big topic.
The last thing I talked about with my brother was ‘prepositions’ and if you’re learning English you’ll know about prepositions. They’re very, very difficult. They are the little words that we use to connect nouns and verbs and adjectives together and you find the prepositions are linked to other words and there isn’t really a decent set of rules to explain these links. The fact is, you just have to learn them. You just have to learn that we say ‘to be nice to someone’ right? ‘Nice to’ those words go together. You’ve just to learn that you have to remember it and there’re lots of combinations of verbs and prepositions, nouns and propositions and adjectives and prepositions and there are so many lists, really that, it’s just a case of noticing them and then try to remember them. Umm, what you should do, is realize that prepositions are linked to other words and then see these word combinations as separate units of meaning that you should learn. So, you don’t just learn the word for example ‘consist’ but you learn the expression ‘consist of’ right? Okay, so a hamburger , a Big Mac consists of bread, salad, beef and cheese for example. Umm, so, ‘consists of’. Those words always go together.
Umm, so that’s basically it. Those are the things I’d discussed with my brother. I expect, if you’re a learner of English, you understood the rules of grammar a little bit better than my brother did. Umm, in which case you should feel quite good about yourself. Um, remember you’re, you’re learning the grammar of the English language and you’re learning the grammar actually better than most native speakers. So, well done you.
Umm that’s the end of this podcast, I hope you found it interesting. That’s all for me . Bye, bye, bye, bye, bye…