Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review: The Awful English Grammar

"If I looked like Mr. Bean, I would cry myself to sleep every night."
"Too true."
"This is an example of the second conditional."
"It is?"
"Yes, it is. We use the second conditional when we're talking about a situation in the present that is plainly untrue or very unlikely."  

I have written before about how much I love bookshops and how important I think it is to shop locally rather than always using the convenience of Amazon. This week I took the bus to Nagold to have coffee with an English teacher friend of mine who had just returned from the US with students, and since I had an hour to kill before my bus back, I treated myself to a wee peek in the bookstore. I left the store with four new books and had finished one before the afternoon was over.

The Awful English Grammar/Die schreckliche englische Grammatik, by Jeremy Taylor, is a bilingual book with the English text on the left-hand pages and the German text on the right. I added the book to Goodreads, and you can read my description and review of it there. The book is a conversation between a British guy (Barry Buggins) who wants to teach English in Germany but realizes he doesn't know how to teach English despite being a native speaker, and a teacher trainer (Mr. Sully) who helps him prepare to teach.

I find this to be a brilliant book for anyone who teaches English to German speakers, a German speaker who wants to brush up on her English, and English-speaking expats living in German-speaking countries. Since Goodreads doesn't allow half-stars, I gave it four because of a few glitches I would consider mistakes: 2-3 typos, an incident of "There's a bunch of students...", and the translation of "No, really" as "Nicht unbedingt" (not really). Those are minor, but in a book about language, I'd rather there were no mistakes. And yes, I realize that is pedantic.

The conversations are mildly amusing at times, realistic in that they get off topic briefly now and then, and enlightening. The teacher's explanations are simple and easy to follow, and I like the way he leads Barry to his own understanding by asking "checking questions" and making mistakes Germans commonly make, getting Barry to correct him. Then they discuss why something is correct or incorrect.

The genius of this book is in its bilingualism. I have taught German to many Americans who are not experts in their native language. For a student of German reading this book, when he comes to a complicated construction ["If I had known how difficult English grammar was I wouldn't have taken this bloody course."], he can look on the right-hand page and find that sentence in German [Hätte ich gewusst, wie schwierig die englische Grammatik ist, dann hätte ich diesen verdammten Kurs niemals belegt."] That construction is called "third conditional," by the way, which is something a TEFL teacher (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) needs to know!

Yeah, I'm one of those who highlights and makes notes in my books.
M calls this "vandalizing," but please don't judge me. It's how I learn.
The grammar topics covered in the book are:
  • verb tenses: forms of future, present and past
  • conditionals, or the subjunctive mood
  • prepositions (only a few because they'd require a whole book)
  • countable vs. uncountable nouns
  • mistakes commonly made in English by German speakers 
Lastly, the two characters use idioms throughout the book that are interpreted very well, which language learners can adopt. Idioms are fun! "You're pulling my leg!" Every native English speaker knows what that means, but a learner of English would picture the action literally. The German equivalent is (this was new to me) "Willst du mir einen Bären aufbinden?" An English speaker learning German would see that as "Do you want to untie a bear on me?" 

Both characters are British, so there are several moments where American readers will wonder. Here's one example where Barry corrects a "mistake" Mr. Sully makes:

  "Does [your sister] go to school on the weekend?"
  "You mean AT the weekend!"

Americans say "on the weekend" and Brits say "at the weekend."

If you are an English speaker learning German, a German speaker learning English, or a native English speaker considering teaching English to Germans, I encourage you to read this book. It doesn't take long - I read the English half in a few hours with interruptions - and it's a fun read for a linguaphile.

I even learned some things I didn't know before. For instance, English is one of the few languages with two forms of the present tense (p. 60). Can you name them or give examples? I also learned how to explain the subtle difference in meaning between "I work at McDonald's" and "I am working at McDonald's," which is something I'd never thought about before. 

"I think you'll find [German learners of English] are very smart people, and many new English teachers get eaten for breakfast by German students who know a lot more about English than their English teachers." ~Mr. Sully (p. 198)


  1. Ooh, thanks for this review. I just taught the present continuous and the simple present tenses this week, so I enjoyed the example. Thanks to your review, I'm thinking about ordering this book as it fits into so many current interests right now.

    Btw, thanks for tagging me in recent posts. I've been a bit AWOL recently with work, volunteering, and clubs, so there hasn't been much blogging from me but reading your blog is always a pleasure.

    1. I knew that English has the two forms, but not that it's one of only a few languages that do - I found that interesting! And it's the reason my students in Wisconsin always wanted to write "Ich bin gehen..." There have been a few times when someone has asked me about "present continuous," but I was not confident what that was or how to explain when to use it. This book actually helped!

      I understand - I've been focusing on other things as well. I look for new posts from you and read them, though I don't often comment. Need to work on that!

  2. No worries on lack of commenting on my blog as it's mostly just been silly observations lately. :) I took the telc B2 test last year and I really should write about it as it was quite an experience and people tend to look for entries about others' experiences with it. I'm starting to prepare for the C1 DaF test so I'll be reading your blog about it, too, as it's a huge step from B2.