How can I use grammar correctly when speaking English?


Advanced English Grammar Course

Today I want to answer a question that is important for everyone who is studying English and that is this: many of my students say, “I study grammar a lot and I understand it in theory. I can even  complete the exercises, but when it comes to speaking, I just can’t think of the grammar in the moment and it all goes out of my head, or it takes too long to think about the grammar when I’m speaking. So how can I actually use grammar correctly when speaking English?”

This is a great question! It’s true that when you’re speaking there’s really no time to think about grammar rules and to analyze the sentence by thinking, “OK I need to put this in the past participle” or “let me think of the correct preposition here.” There’s no time when you’re in the middle of a conversation; you can’t pause and wait and do all that thinking before speaking, so you need to use your grammar pretty quickly.

But what if the grammar just doesn’t come to mind? What tends to happen is that you either freeze or pause a lot. I hear a lot of students with these long pauses in the middle of their sentences as they’re thinking carefully about their grammar.

Another thing that can happen is you might lose your confidence and become afraid to speak at all because you’re worried about making a grammar mistake.

I don’t want that to happen to you – I want you to be able to speak more easily and comfortably. So how can you put grammar into practice when you’re speaking?

The first step is to consciously and deliberately practice the grammar.

A lot of students just study and study and read and read lots of lessons on the present perfect tense, for example, but they never try to make their own examples. So they might understand the present perfect tense in theory, or recognize the present perfect when they read it, but they haven’t practiced creating or producing the present perfect.

Instead, every time you study grammar, don’t just passively read or passively watch. After you’ve finished, after you’ve learned something about grammar, then actively put that grammar into practice. For example, try to write ten sentences using that structure you’ve just learned.

I did this when I learned my second language, which is Portuguese. Portuguese has a lot of irregular verbs, and they were hard to remember. So what I did is I took each verb and I wrote it on the top of a page in my notebook, and then I just wrote lots of sentences, each one trying to use that verb in a different way over and over. This type of active practice helped me remember the forms of the irregular verbs much better, because I was actually using them.

When I went through English teacher training, we would have our students do this frequently. We had something called “structured practice” where we’d ask our students to create their own sentences using the grammar from the lesson.

Later, we’d have free speaking practice. When the students used the grammar deliberately in the structured practice, then those grammar structures or verb tenses would come to their minds much more easily during the spontaneous speaking. The structured practice creates a pattern in your mind so that the grammar comes naturally when you’re talking.

Think about your native language – in your native language, you don’t have to think about the grammar rules; you just know them. It’s because of all that practice you had over the years, not only hearing other people use the grammar, but also using it yourself and getting corrected on it as a child. You have years and years of that experience and practice in your native language, and that’s why you don’t have to think about grammar rules.

The same thing is possible for you in English – you just need to do the conscious and deliberate practice in order to get those patterns into your mind, and then it’ll come out naturally in English, too!

If you’re doubting me that it will come out naturally in English, just think about phrases that you already know really well in English, like “My name is” and then your name. You’ve probably said this thousands of times, and you don’t have to think about whether to use “is” or “are” or “my” or “mine” – it just comes out naturally because of how many times you’ve said it.

Or when someone says “thank you” and you automatically say “you’re welcome” – again, you don’t have to stop and think about what tense the verb is in, or whether to use welcome or welcoming or welcomed; you just say “you’re welcome” – it has become automatic because you’ve practiced it enough.

With enough time and practice, I promise that even these more complicated structures and grammar rules will become more natural to you as well. I know because I’ve seen it in my advanced students. It’s hard, especially when you’re at the intermediate or pre-intermediate level, it feels like it’s never going to get better – but keep going, because it will get better.

Finally, I want to remind you that spoken English does not perfectly follow grammar rules a lot of the time – especially sentence structure. The sentence structure of spoken English is often quite fluid; we speak in run-on sentences (that means sentences that are too long if we were to write them down) or sentence fragments, which would be too short in written English. We start sentences with the word “but” and end them with a preposition – these are things you’re not supposed to do in more formal written English, but again, speaking is more flexible.

A lot of students put pressure on themselves to make their spoken English grammatically perfect, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect. The goal of spoken English is to communicate, and you can communicate successfully even if it’s not perfect to the last detail.

So don’t let that obsession with making your grammar perfect stop you from speaking. You should just speak – and if there’s a misunderstanding, then try to clarify it and try to find out from the other person what the correct phrase is, but don’t let it stop you from speaking.

I really hope that you keep deliberately practicing your grammar like I mentioned, and it will come out more naturally with time. If you want to get help in doing this deliberate practice and having a teacher correct your mistakes, come check out our Advanced English Grammar Course, where you have the option of doing writing tasks with teacher feedback.

Thanks for watching and I hope this video was helpful!

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