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Tip #4 - language rules

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Have you ever thought about the rules of language and whether these rules have to be obeyed? There are two basic types of rules in language teaching

  1. Categorical Rules

  2. Conventions

Categorical Rules

These are the rules that should be followed. They typically relate to how words are formed and if you don't follow the rule in an exam, you are likely to lose marks. Some examples of categorical rules include:

  • Starting a sentence with a capital letter

  • Making plurals (e.g. the plural of cat is cats)

  • Using 3rd person s for main verbs (he lives in Zurich)


Most of the rules I teach are actually conventions. This means that speakers have a choice about following the rule or not. If the convention is not followed, the sentence might sound a bit odd but it isn't wrong. Alternatively, speakers might deliberately choose not to follow the convention because they want to be creative with language.

Let's look at some examples of conventions:

  • Don't use past time frames (words like yesterday) with the present perfect

  • Use continuous tenses to talk about background events

  • Wish + would signifies annoyance (I wish he'd turn the music down)

Why is the difference between rules and conventions important?

Teachers try to help learners understand what the different grammar choices signify. Sometimes we do this by using simplified rules. These rules are not 100% categorical rules but conventions to help students get things right most of the time. Sometimes students will come across language that doesn't seem to conform to the rules they've learned. This is actually a good thing! By thinking about why a convention hasn't been followed both student and teacher develop a deeper understanding of language.

Categorical rules such as how to form the present perfect (have/has + past participle) are easy to teach and learn. It's true that students still make mistakes, because they forget to use the past participle or might not know what it is, but they typically understand what they should do.

Conventions are more difficult to grasp because of the flexibility of language. How to use the present perfect is one of the most difficult things for English learners to fully grasp. Many of my advanced students still have problems knowing when to use this tense. They try to use the present perfect in English the way that they would use it in German but unfortunately this strategy doesn't work.

What can I do to learn these conventions and to be able to use the correct forms spontaneously?

This is the million dollar question! 💲💲💲 It takes a long time to learn how to use language authentically. Don't worry about making mistakes - everyone does that. However, if you want to speak more like a native speaker there are lots of things that you can do. Try doing some (or all) of the following:

  • Make sentences using the language you want to learn (target language)

  • Notice how the target language is used in real life

  • Do the practice exercises in a grammar or vocabulary book

  • Try changing the target language and analyse the difference this makes. For example think about the difference between "I've lost my phone" and "I lost my phone".

  • Join a language class to receive feedback from a teacher

To discover more resources that will help you to learn English, read Tip #3

Thinking of trying one of the classes at Kreis 6 English? Contact us and we'll help you find the course that is right for you.


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