Grammar in BE

Tip: Ignore people who tell you that grammar isn’t important in BE.


If you go to BE conferences, read BE articles, or speak to BE teachers you will often come across the idea that ‘grammar isn’t important in Business English’. The argument goes like this: BE students talk mainly to other non-native speakers who won’t notice or mind their mistakes; it’s lexis that carries meaning and communicative competence that helps effective interactions – who ever lost a deal by using the wrong past tense?

There is some truth in this, and I guess that in general BE teachers with work-oriented students devote less time to grammar than GE teachers with exam-oriented students. That’s fine. However I find that students retain a stubborn interest in grammar – if I focus my language feedback too much on lexical development and not enough on grammatical correction they notice and complain, and after a few days ask for ‘more grammar’. I’m talking about in-work, sophisticated learners at Intermediate/Upper Intermediate level who have paid a lot of money to come on the course. Why do BE students continue to like and want grammar? Here are four reasons:

  • Self-image. When asked why they want more grammar a student’s first response is usually in some way connected with their self-image. They want to be seen at being ‘good at English’ in front of colleagues, business contacts etc. and good grammar is a strong marker of an educated person. In their language as much as in English. That’s just the way the world is.
  • Connection to fluency. When I went to Portugal many years ago I spent my first year doing a full-time course in Portuguese Language and Culture for Foreigners at the University of Lisbon. I arrived at Pre-Intermediate level, not Beginner. I am sorry to say we were taught grammar badly. It was enormously frustrating. It was impossible in my head to just string words and chunks together: there were many lexical items that I knew but I couldn’t use fluently because I had to pause and think about the form and syntax before I spoke them. Everyone else, from a great variety of mother tongue backgrounds, had the same experience. Lack of grammar directly impeded fluency. I’m sure that many students have the same experience.
  • Students see grammar and vocabulary and communicative competence as a package. BE students arrive on day one with grammar from school that they can’t yet activate, vocabulary that they use in their daily jobs, some fixed expressions that they have picked up, some functional phrases that translate easily from the mother tongue, and some communicative competence because of who they are (this being largely behavioural) that needs transferring to the medium of English. In 90% of cases, regardless of their Needs Analysis, what they want from the course is simply to ‘put it all together’, smooth the rough edges, and develop greater fluency and confidence. Grammar is one ingredient in all that and students don’t see it as being more or less important – it’s just there. To miss it out is to cut off one leg of the chair.
  • The human mind’s quest for patterns and completion. Why read the last few chapters of a book or stay to the end of a film? Why place another piece in a jigsaw or solve another clue in a crossword puzzle? Why work through a foreign language grammar syllabus and try to get the exercises right? The reasons are similar: we do it for the satisfaction of getting closure, of seeing how the pieces fit together to make a complex whole. We want the story to finally make sense.