Introductory course in English grammar

Author: Richard Hudson


About a one-term introductory course on English Grammar which teaches BA students to analyse most of the syntactic structure of any sentence in any text; it uses Word Grammar analyses.

Table of contents

A one-term course on English grammar for first-year linguistics students

The course in focus here is a one-term course on English grammar which I give to first-year students taking the UCL BA in Linguistics - a group of about 30 students who I see each week for two hours of whole-group teaching and one hour each in tutorials of 8-10. I can't remember when I started to give this course, but it may have been as long ago as the 1980s. This is a lot of experience, and the course has changed a great deal during these years. I feel it is successful in achieving its rather specific aims.

Aims and content

My main aim is to teach students an analytical system that is 'comprehensive, coherent and correct'. It is comprehensive because it allows them to analyse most parts of every sentence in any freely selected text; inevitably this breadth is bought at the cost of depth of detail. I think this is important because grammarians are notorious for getting hung up on points of detail and losing the wood for the trees. Nevertheless the course is also intellectually coherent because it is based on a cut-down version of Word Grammar (WG), my theory of grammatical structure. I present the minimum of theory, and one of the pedagogic advantages of WG is that this minimum is very small:

  1. words can be classified in terms of both word classes and inflectional features;
  2. words in a sentence are related to each other by asymmetrical dependencies which show that some words modify the meanings of others;
  3. words in a sentence may also be grouped together by coordination.

The students learn a notation which presents these three types of information. Here is a typical example of what they can produce by the end of the course:

A diagram illustrating the three types of notation

The course is 'correct' to the extent that I can support the analyses with evidence, as I try to do at every point. We work through my textbook (Hudson 1998) which tries to help them to work out the underlying grammar for themselves. Most parts of the analysis are uncontroversial, at least among modern linguists, so I help them to see how my analyses translate into those which they are also learning in Neil Smith's course on generative grammar. [see Smith 'Single Hons Lings with Formal Orientation' on this site]A few controversies arise, and the good students start to worry about the relations between phrase structure in Neil Smith's course and my dependency structure.

Progression and assessment

As of 2002, most of our new students know very little grammar, so they are not ready for the relatively advanced theory of grammar (including WG) that we offer them as part of the BA. In any case, a BA in linguistics ought to guarantee a firm grasp of basic linguistic 'content' as well as theory - for example, the ability to do at least a broad phonetic transcription. This course develops the same kind of skill. In both case the skill should be embedded in a clear understanding of the analysis - of where the categories 'come from'.The assessment consists of two parts (weighted equally). The first part tests the analytical skills directly. Each student selects a written text of about 100 words and does a complete grammatical analysis as illustrated in the diagram above. I mark this out of 40, deducting 0.5 marks for each mistake. Most students make about 20 mistakes, which gives them a mark (for this part) around the 2.1/2.2 border; a few gifted students make very few mistakes or none at all.The second part of the assessment is less directly relevant to the grammar teaching, but important for new students. It consists of a short (1500-word) essay on a general topic (grammar in schools or prescriptivism) or a comparison of English and another language. We discuss the essay topics in tutorials, and I give support as needed for the language comparison (which is virtually obligatory for non-English speaking students). I also issue a weekly 'gramble' (grammar grumble) to give practice in writing about grammar; each week's gramble consists of a sentence which in some sense is problematic, so their task is to say as precisely as they can, in about 50 words, what is wrong with it.


Most students find the course challenging and interesting (even if they're not good at the analysis), and most learn to apply the system more or less efficiently. A few students each year seem to be 'grammar-blind', but with some help and a lot of practice even they learn to cope with simpler structures. (Rather surprisingly, these students don't benefit from being able to select their own texts for the assessment, because they wrongly confuse casual style with easy grammar.) At least BA Linguistics students ought to be able to 'see' some of the formal structuring of language, and the only way to teach this ability is to teach it as a practised skill.


Professor hudson retired in 2004 so this course is no longer taught.


Hudson, Richard. 1998. English Grammar. London: Routledge.

Related links

Teaching by Richard Hudson
The web page for all my teaching, including downloadable handouts for this course (UCL The Department of Phonetics and Linguistics):

Word Grammar (UCL The Department of Phonetics and Linguistics)

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from