For purposes of talking about English grammar on ELL, what reasons favor using the terminology of traditional grammar, and what reasons favor the terminology of books like A Grammar of Contemporary English, by Quirk et al., and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Huddleston and Pullum?

I am not asking which terminology is better for the scientific study of English, for computerized natural-language processing, or other highly sophisticated, scholarly pursuits. I am only asking about common, everyday uses such as:

  • explaining how English grammar lets you express different kinds of meaning, and the different kinds of meaning it lets you express

  • explaining why one sentence is grammatical and another is not

  • explaining why one sentence is hard to understand and another is not (when grammatical differences explain it)

  • explaining what grammatical role a certain word or phrase is playing in a certain sentence

to someone who doesn't yet have much mastery of English, but has enough to read questions and answers on ELL.

Please, let no one take this as an election or a discussion of official policy. I'm asking this question in order to get some insight. May there never be a rule about this! Let every questioner and every answerer choose their approach as they see fit for each individual question or answer. Hopefully, whatever I and others learn from this discussion will help us choose those approaches a little more wisely and helpfully, one question at a time.

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    Well, I've put my contribution in ;) Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 18:00
  • Er, more than two people authored the 2002 CGEL. :)
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 21:12
  • @F.E. Yes, but they didn't get their names put on the official authorship :( Is one of them people you? Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 1:52
  • @Araucaria They do in a way, via et al. Note the difference in who were the authors (contributors?) between the 2005 textbook and the 2002 reference grammar. There's a significant difference between the two books. (Now, imagine in an imaginary world where you might have been -- is that your version of "backshift"? :D -- part of that et al., how would you feel seeing or not seeing that et al. in there?)
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:02
  • @F.E. My copy doesn't have an "et al" anywhere (unfortunately) although on the inside title page it says H&P "in collaboration with ....". The only reason I'm really asking is that I got scolded for using et al when referencing them. It very obviously should be et al ... Does your copy say "et al" anywhere? That would be good ... Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:03
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    @Araucaria Too bad! I was able to sneak in and delete my "erroneous" comment and replace it before your last one! -- I had to do that because I had gone to check too. Amazingly it doesn't have "et al." in it!? Nor on the dust cover! But I could've sworn I had seen it that way. Getting senile, I guess. Then again, I have read the front matter, and am aware of the contributions by the other "minor authors" (even though, for many of the chapters, those "minor authors" were the major contributors. Now I have two naming bones to pick with H&P: their duplicate title (CGEL), and this.
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:07
  • @F.E. I'd have been livid!!!! And upset and righteously angree. [But no, for my, erm , fiction work, backshift is a tense feature that doesn't correspond entirely to time reference but can overlay it, but it doesn't refer to a specific usage of this phenomenon. i.e. could be for reported speech or hypotheticality. It's not the name of a specific usage of the preterite or preterite perfect.] Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:07
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    @Araucaria I'm now wondering on how the other ("minor") authors felt about them being left off as being named authors, especially since some of the major chapters were basically all their own work!
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:09
  • @F.E. Quite. Well, I think I know why you thought that, which is why I thought that too, and why I was a bit peeved about being strung up for it. That is, it's because they have been referenced like that in some reputable academic journals. So you, like me, probably saw it somewhere and have - very sensibly - been using that ref ever since. I don't see why anyone should object apart from that it may prevent other people being able to find references (for example if they look up "Huddleston and Pulum et al" in quotes ... Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:11
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    @Araucaria You know, I think that I might still intentionally keep on using "et al.", as a sign of protest! It just ain't right that only H&P's names are used for that reference book. (I still can't understand why they kept the title the way it is: CGEL. Surely others had told them about that accidental coincidence in names (CGEL). EDIT: Think of all my old posts, them got "et al." in them.
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:15
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    Indeed I copied the authorship straight from the book listing. I was surprised not to see an et al. on H&P, since I know that other authors contributed to some of the chapters.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:17
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    @F.E. They do get mini biographies though. I think it's the editorial thing ... (well, I hope). Anyhow those guys are immortalised in the greatest grammar of English ever written. People will still be studying their words in 500 years time .. (if the earth is still in one piece) Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:21
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    @Araucaria er, so's the name of McCawley -- sNP.
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:22
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    @F.E. Oi! (Well he did predate them by thirty years, so maybe we should cut him some slack!) Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:24
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    @F.E. So, the question is: Did you forget to get your name on the front cover? Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:32

4 Answers 4


For quite some time, there was a lot of confusion about which questions belonged on ELL, and which questions belonged on ELU. Perhaps there still is.

One day, as I wrestled with this in my mind, I realized that maybe it's not the question that determines the best place to ask, but rather the kind of answer that is sought. If the O.P. is looking for what I sometimes call a John Lawler answer, then the better place to ask might be ELU. John Lawler knows his stuff, and often leaves answers like:

Either an unmarked infinitive (an infinitive without a to complementizer), or a marked infinitive with to will work.

Every English verb is has its own rules for what kinds of Object Complement clauses it permits, requires, or forbids.

In my mind, that sort of answer might be a bit overwhelming for the English learner, if someone is just looking for a native speaker to help shed some light on something.

In short, asking on ELL is like asking your friends in a pub; asking on ELU is like asking a professor in a university's English department.

Maybe not everyone agrees with that distinction, but, when I'm answering questions here on ELU, I usually assume the O.P. is confused by our very confusing language, and just asking for a little help from a native speaker.

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with either Quirk or Huddleston and Pullum, and I'm reaching the point where I can't really skirt your question any longer. I will say that many of my answers tend to avoid technical language jargon in favor of a clear explanation, and that's gotten me a few "Nice Answer" badges.

In my mind, one of the benefits of having a separate Stack Exchange community that caters to learners is that the answers here are often written in a way that helps a learner understand.

Therefore, I'd recommend going with whichever terminology seems most straightforward and learner-friendly – if you opt to use any formal terminology at all.

As a footnote, I'm not saying that all terminology should be avoided – and I'd like to thank our many regulars who do such a good job of using terminology to provide clear and helpful answers.


Oh, dear. Since I'm pretty much the guy that set the pace for Modernism around here (in the NASCAR sense, we've got real muscle cars on the track now), I guess I gotta put up some sorta defense.

It’s going to be pretty much the opposite of Araucaria’s answer: long on generality, short on chapter and verse. To tell the truth, I’m not really competent to answer. I’m not an EFL teacher, or even an English teacher. I’m not a grammarian; I did some linguistics back in the dark ages when historical and comparative were getting swept away by the structuralists, but I'm not a Real Linguist like, say, Araucaria or F.E. I’m not even a Modernist. I'm a LitCrit guy, reared on traditional grammar and ancien-regime foreign language study, and for me English is a literature on the one hand and a tool on the other. I always found the Received Account of English adequate to my modest needs, and never had any reason to examine my grammatical toolkit—until I got to ELU about two and a half years ago, and I noticed a couple-three interesting things.

One was that ELLs were getting really short shrift. Partly that was because the site was going through a rough spot when a raft of pretty poor questions were swamping the good ones, a sort of philological Gresham’s Law, and a lot of frontline users were getting tired of it. But ELLs were often treated with a brusqueness little short of flat rudeness: their questions were getting canned left and right for being NARQ or GR or, especially, ‘too basic’. And I didn’t much like it; I felt like these folks deserved a hearing; and I climbed on the ELL bandwagon.

I also didn’t much like it because it was obvious to me that a lot of those questions were very real and very tough. The second thing I noticed was that ELL questions were being closed as ‘too basic’ not because they were too easy but because they were too fundamental: so fundamental, in fact, that most people couldn’t even see there was a real question there. It was like asking a fish about water.

Now: I could see what the questions were; but the third thing I noticed was that in a lot of cases I couldn’t answer them. I could handle the style questions and the etymology questions and the HEL questions, but there were some questions for which the only answer the Received Account provided was basically just a restatement of the question in Latin or Greek. That’s sort of embarrassing for a professional writer.

But there was one guy at ELU, a retired linguistics professor, who could answer those questions—or at least who provided answers that seemed to answer them, and certainly did open entirely new and exciting perspectives on my language. I became something of a John Lawler groupie: I followed the links to his old answers, I looked up the class notes on his website, I read (very slowly and painfully) the books he recommended. Here are a few topics that I found to be central to the way my language works that the grammar I grew up on had virtually nothing useful to say about:

  • Aspect and Aktionsart
  • Implicature
  • Information Packaging
  • Modality
  • Phonetics
  • Polarity
  • Pragmatics
  • Tense Alignment

By the time ELL opened up, I had answers to a few of the really tough questions that came up, and I’d gotten far enough into the field to know where to look if I didn’t.

And what I found, I shared. It may sometime be over a lot of users’ heads, but hey, that’s the beauty of SE: if a questioner doesn’t get anything out of my answer, she can turn to somebody else’s—yours, for instance. And I think the Modernist approach is of particular value to ELLs because it looks at the language the way ELLs do, from the outside. Traditional grammar has worked in Anglo classrooms for four hundred years mostly because it handwaves the very issues that NNSs find most perplexing. Here’s a quote from a really very sound pre-WWI school grammar that does not differ in any respect except a certain cheerful frankness from what I was taught fifty years later:

To the Teacher: A complete discussion of the uses of English tense is impossible here, nor would it be desirable; for the tenses and their uses are, for the most part, learned unconsciously from conversation and reading.

Exactly. Traditional grammar teaches the skeleton by inference, to students who already know the silhouette from long experience with the flesh. That, I suggest, is why the ELU folks had so much trouble with the ELL questions: grammar’s just an armature for them. But the ELL has to learn from the bones out, with only a few patches of skin and hair hinting at the underlying structure.

I’m still basically a traditionalist. There’s a lot I dislike about the Neo-neos: their ideologically-driven contempt for the written dialect (my dialect), their tiresome demonizing of the “prescriptivist” strawman, their blithe dismissal of history, their sectarianism. I love reading the Mustache Petes, the Jonsons and Lowths and Murrays and Sweets, because I see them fighting the same fight as I’m fighting, struggling to get a grasp on the language without adequate tools. And I try to maintain the alignment between my new sumpsimus and the old mumpsimus.

But when push comes to shove, I’ll go where the answers are. I use Modernist grammars because I have to …

For the time being. The next project is moving on to the Post-Modernists, the Construction and Functional and Word grammars. If I find out anything interesting I’ll let you know.

  • I'll give the short version of this answer, if you don't mind: Thank goodness you're here, Stoney! This place would be much worse off without you. This was a very interesting read – although no "defense" was ever needed. Diversity of talents and perspectives is much needed around here.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 11:45

The background of the question

The Original Poster's question may seem to be about complicated metalanguage on ELL, this is an important question which is addressed in J.R.'s post. However, as I currently understand the OP's concerns, this is not actually what this question is about. It will probably be most helpful to readers here to explain how the question came to be asked and to illustrate my answer here with reference to that particular issue. So this question arose out of considering what is the most helpful way to present items like "after" and "before" to learners.

This is not merely related to the complexity of the meta-vocabulary, it also relates to the complexity of the grammatical analysis of such items. Now in terms of complexity of both vocabulary and conceptual analysis "modern grammar" wins hands down here and traditional grammar puts in a particularly poor show. In order to explain these items, so-called traditional grammar uses the following parts of speech:

  • preposition
  • subordinating conjunction
  • adverb

This can be compared with modern grammar, which uses the following parts of speech:

  • preposition

Yes, that's right, there's only one. Now, it's clear that one category is easier to deal with conceptually than three. There is also only one third of the meta-language needed, so we can immediately dispense with a lot of unnecessary extra vocabulary in the presentation of these particular items.

What actually happens to students

Here is what actually happens when language students learn theses items in a "traditional grammar" framework. As soon as they are presented with the items before and after, they are able to use them and understand them in the following types of sentence:

  • I'll meet you after the concert finishes.
  • I'll meet you after the concert.
  • I'll meet you after.

This is because, unsurprisingly, there are parallel items in most learners languages and, let's face it, if you can understand after in one of these sentences you can understand them in all three. Now, this is what happens next when teachers, higher level students, and those learners who undertake the academic study of English as a language start to do any further study of these items. They are told that after in the first example is a subordinating conjunction, after in the second is a preposition and after in the third is an adverb. Unfortunately, this tends to give the people who can get to grips with this a little frisson of excitement. They have more metalanguage and are now in a clique of people who are able to differentiate between items that seem to everybody else to be exactly the same thing. How enlightened we have become.

We may now want to ask what we have achieved by learning this distinction. It seems that what we now know is that subordinating conjunctions take clauses, prepositions take nouns and adverbs occur on their own. The problem is that no learner is ever confused about whether after or before can occur in these situations or not. Additionally, if you take any type of similar word which can only occur in one or two of these situations, learners are rarely confused about this either.

The consequences

In our yearning to pass on our secret, kabbalistic understanding of the difference in category of words that look and smell exactly the same, we have assigned them to different parts of speech. This has consequences because different parts of speech have different syntactic and distributional properties, which are quite often taught to learners. So when we assign a word to a particular part of speech, learners should expect that those words share the properties of other words in that class. This means, for example that the word outside should share the properties of adverbs when it is not followed by a noun. So a smart student is going to understand from the fact that outside is an adverb that the following generalisations should hold:

  • you can't use them after the verb BE
  • you can't use them after a noun to add more information for that noun
  • you can modify them using other adverbs like very
  • you can't modify them using the specialised adverb straight and right

Unfortunately for our learner, none of this is the case. "Outside" displays none of the distinguishing syntactic properties of adverbs at all. In fact it retains all of the syntactic properties of preposition phrases - properties which are the very opposite of the properties described above. This is demonstrated in the examples below.

Adverbs as complements of BE

  • *She was happily (ungrammatical)
  • *The elephant was locally. (ungrammatical)
  • *The assassin was viciously. (ungrammatical)
  • The assassin was outside

Preposition Phrases as complements of BE

  • She was behind the sofa.
  • She was in the cupboard.
  • She was outside the building.
  • She was outside.

Also, adverbs can't usually modify noun phrases. Prepositions and preposition phrases can:

Adverbs modifying nouns

  • *the beautifully woman (ungrammatical)
  • *the woman beautifully (ungrammatical)
  • the woman outside

Preposition Phrases modifying nouns

  • my friends back at home
  • the man in the shop
  • the man of the moment
  • the man outside the building
  • the man outside

In addition, adverbs can usually be modified by the adverb very, prepositions usually cannot:

Adverbs modified by very

  • He danced very beautifully.
  • She'll be here very soon.
  • My baboon ate very loudly.
  • *The assassin was very outside. (ungrammatical)

Prepositions modified by very

  • She was very in trouble. (ungrammatical)
  • He was very back. (ungrammatical)
  • My elephant was very behind the door. (ungrammatical)
  • He was very outside the building. (ungrammatical)
  • He was very outside. (ungrammatical)

Lastly, most prepositions and preposition phrases can be modified by the special adverbs straight and right. Adverbs cannot usually be modified by straight or right:

Adverbs modified by straight or right

  • *She lived right locally. (ungrammatical)
  • *I'll be there right soon. (ungrammatical)
  • *She shouted straight dramatically. (ungrammatical)
  • She stood right outside.

Prepositions modified by straight or right

  • She went straight into the building.
  • My elephant jumped right over the table.
  • Walk straight onto the platform.
  • She's right back at home.
  • He's right outside the door.
  • He's right outside.

Now, in terms of modern grammar the teaching of these words is easy. Words like before, after and outside are prepositions regardless of what complement they take. You only have to learn one piece of meta-language: preposition. Furthermore, you can sit back and relax, because these words have the same syntactic properties all the time. Simple. What was that? They take different complements? Yes, different verbs take different types of complement, different nouns take different types of complement, and prepositions take different types of complement too. With "modern grammar" it's very simple and elegant. There is one category and this can tell you an awful lot about the properties of the word; knowledge that is useful for learners. With the traditional story it's complicated, confusing and misleading and students cannot use this information productively. There's also much more metalanguage.

The original Poster's question

So with regard to this particular area, at least, it seems that "modern grammar" is more suitable than traditional grammar for the purposes of:

  • explaining how English grammar lets you express different kinds of meaning, and the different kinds of meaning it lets you express

  • explaining why one sentence is grammatical and another is not

  • explaining why one sentence is hard to understand and another is not (when grammatical differences explain it)

  • explaining what grammatical role a certain word or phrase is playing in a certain sentence

References: All of this info can be found in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, Huddleston and Pullum, 2005.

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    my gawd that is tltr. Is there a précis?
    – user6951
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 18:39
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    @δοῦλος Sorry, very true. Yes: modern grammar usually has a simpler more elegant story to tell. Traditional grammar is actually more complicated for students. So where modern grammar has prepositions, traditional grammar has prepositions, subordinating conjunctions and adverbs. Unfortunately, the traditional account is bad for students because, for example, these words don't behave like adverbs in any way. Modern grammar = less meta language and clearer understanding. Traditional grammar = more categories, more meta language, less useful info. Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 18:43
  • +1, nice post! :)
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 20:30
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    It's a good thing that you wrote this post--so that I don't have to!
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 20:53
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    Another tidbit that might be helpful for this thread: traditional grammar allows a preposition to have an interrogative clause, but not a declarative clause, as its complement. For instance: "We can't agree [on whether we should call in the police]" and "He left [after you promised to help], where "on" is considered a preposition in the first and "after" a subordinating conjunction in the latter, in a traditional grammar framework. Now that's a mess! (CGEL pages 599-600)
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 21:02
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    Perhaps a better pair of examples, CGEL page 600, [6.iv]: "He left [after he saw her]" and "It depends [on whether he saw her]", where traditional grammar would consider "after" to be a subordinating conjunction and "on" a preposition, even though both have a clause as their complement. Now, that has gotta be confusing to a student!
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 21:07
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    And can't we all just wait until the conversation gets to traditional grammar's usage of "noun-y" stuff like "noun-y clauses", and also "adjective-y" stuff like "adjective-y clauses", and a whole bunch of stuff like that. Now that's also gotta be real confusing to a student: Is a "noun-y" something a noun or not a noun?! Is a gerund a noun-y something, or is it a noun, or is it a verb, or is it its own part-of-speech?! :D
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 21:17
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    @F.E. Ah, but you could do a second post pointing all that stuff out! I thought mine was probably too long as it was. I don't think it would be wise to put any more in there! :) Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:30
  • Yanno, one of these days someone's gonna be talking all authoritatively about "present subjunctive" and "past subjunctive" as if them animals are real, and if I had a bad day, then I might end up taking it out on them! Poor souls! :D
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 8:20

Two things that might favour the use of traditional grammar (or of a particular grammatical framework), especially where the questioner has implied adherence to traditional grammar (or to a particular framework) in their question:

  • The usual teaching framework for EFL/ESL, or the framework taught to the questioner, might be much closer to traditional grammar than to Huddleston & Pullum.
  • The grammatical terminology that the questioner learnt for their native language (if they were taught such terminology) might be much closer to traditional grammar than to Huddleston & Pullum - though this depends on the language, and for mother tongues that are far removed from (or even unrelated to) English genealogically (e.g. Mandarin), it might not be a relevant factor at all. For example, perhaps the traditional definition of "preposition" is applied almost identically to quite a few other languages, and perhaps that is even truer of "auxiliary verb" (the NICE criteria as a definition of an auxiliary arguably work well for English, but why not keep the traditional definition and then simply say that the NICE criteria apply to auxiliaries plus two lexical verbs, "be" and "have"?).

I am putting forward the above arguments as a tentative counterweight to some of the arguments in favour of cutting-edge terminology. However, I am by no means a hardcore traditionalist and I incorporate some "modern" grammar into my own explanations a fair bit of the time.

What I do find a bit objectionable is the kind of answer or comment where a contributor outright says to an OP, "Be is always an auxiliary" or "After" is always a preposition" or "There is no such thing as a noun clause". Now, if they prefixed it with "I would argue that..." or "There is a very strong argument that...", it wouldn't be so bad. But sometimes you see people just outright announcing that the terminology of the OP is incorrect (as though a matter of indisputable fact) (btw, Bas Aarts' Oxford Grammar clearly incorporates a lot of H&P's thinking but doesn't define "auxiliary" the way they do; the term "traditional grammar" is convenient, but in reality not everything or everyone that disagrees with H&P on one subject or another is traditional). I don't believe there is a future tense, but I think we have to be a bit careful when communicating that to questioners. We shouldn't just rubbish everything they've ever been taught, but should say something more like "most linguists would argue there is no future tense in a strict sense of the term". Even then, it may often be better to ignore a questioner's use of the term "future tense" and simply answer the substantive part of the question.

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