The Teacher’s Guide to Grammar

by Deborah Cameron (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 240pp, £11.69 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 19 921448 8.

Reviewed by Melanie Thomson

Buy this book

Although this book is primarily written for teachers – especially those studying for their PGCE or new to the role of English 'co-ordinator' – I highly recommend it to SfEP m.


Born in the 1960s and schooled in the '70s, my own grasp of 'grammar' is weak. The only reason I know anything much at all about 'grammar' is from studying foreign languages at school! That doesn't mean I can't spot an errant apostrophe at 60 paces, but it does mean that I sometimes lack the intellectual tools to be able to explain why a word, phrase or sentence is incorrect and in need of editing.

Sharp-eyed editors may already be wondering why I've put the 'air quotes' around 'grammar'. The reason is that I want to make a distinction between the popular perception of 'grammar' as 'rules for using a language correctly' and Cameron's (more useful) definition: the rules of grammar 'are not a set of instructions specifying how language ought to be used, but generalizations describing how people who know a language actually do use it in practice.'

Descriptive v prescriptive

Cameron argues that this descriptive approach to grammar (as opposed to the rule-bound 'prescriptive' one) is particularly valuable to teachers because it helps them to identify why students are making errors and thence pinpoint the best way to help them.

But I reckon the descriptive approach is equally valuable for editors, proofreaders and writers, because our role (in my opinion) is not to 'correct mistakes' but to help convey meaning. This doesn't mean that we can ignore misspellings, dangling participles and the like – errors get in the way of 'meaning'.

A political issue

I have learned a great deal from Cameron's book:

  • why no one has come up with a satisfactory alternative to s/he
  • that an 'inflected' language is to do with word endings, not tone of voice
  • why historical events have created a hierarchy of words in English
  • why it's OK to sometimes write 'where's my keys' (pace recent SfEPLine correspondents!)
  • why some people get very hot under the collar about the tone of language used in emails.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book (and topical for me) is the realisation that grammar is a political issue. And I don't just mean in terms of the National Curriculum. Cameron's discussions about the use of 'register' and 'standard English' have helped me to further appreciate the need for sensitivity and context-based writing/editing.

Chatty and intellectual

Cameron herself slips effortlessly from one register to another, from a chatty style discussing 'factoids' and examples from Viz to a highly intellectual analysis of the structure of language. The lighter tones that pepper the text prevent this short book from being heavy going

Add to that a very useful 'Further reading' section and an excellent 'Glossary', and I can only conclude with two words: BUY IT!

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