by Michael Swan
I started in ELT as an untrained teacher who knew nothing about English except how to speak it. Coursebooks and grammar practice materials gave some of the basic information that my students and I needed, and this helped a good deal. However, when I corrected the students’ homework, the books often didn’t explain why something was wrong; and the students had an irritating habit of asking questions in class which I couldn't answer. Working out the rules on the spot was generally useless. When I was asked about the difference between one structure and another, I would either produce meaningless phrases like ‘It’s a matter of style / a question of emphasis’, or tell them what turned out on reflection to be lies. In fact, as I slowly came to realise, it's no use trying to analyse language on your feet: your first answer is always wrong. So as I developed a professional conscience, I took to admitting when I didn't know the answer (‘Even your teacher doesn’t know everything’), promising to find out, and hoping that they would forget.
The trouble was that the right kind of book didn’t exist. Learners’ grammars and dictionaries often had nothing to say about the kind of detailed point that lay behind a student’s problem, or they simply addressed it briefly in a footnote, or gave it a line inside a larger entry. There were one or two books around with titles like ‘Common Errors in English’ or ‘A Student's Handbook of Language Problems’, but these were not very comprehensive, not always clear, and often inaccurate. Better explanations could generally be found buried in a larger reference work; but you had to dig for it.
So I started digging. I made notes of my students’ recurrent questions, and spent a good deal of my spare time in libraries, looking through the classical reference grammars and building up a set of clear simple answers. As time went on, I wrote these answers on index cards, and put them in the staffroom of the school where I taught, with an invitation to other teachers to contribute their own knowledge and insights. My aim was above all to produce something different from a standard language manual: not page after page covering the whole of a topic, but single separate answers to single separate questions. Intermediate and advanced students don't generally want to know how gerunds, prepositions or past tenses are used; they want to know why this gerund, this preposition or this past tense can't be used in this situation. It was also important to know about the problems that speakers of particular languages have with English. If a student says ‘My sister is hairdresser’, the information about article use that the student needs depends partly on whether he or she is, say, a Russian or French speaker. So information of this kind also went into the card index.
Time went by, and after 15 years or so in classrooms I moved into full-time writing. How easy it would be, I thought, to turn my card index into a book. Of course, it was not easy at all. But a couple of years later, I did produce a rather messy badly-typed draft, to which, fortunately, Oxford University Press reacted positively, and after substantial revision the book was published in 1980. It was, I believe, the first reasonably comprehensive and properly-researched guide to common problems in English as a foreign language, and it was widely used. A second edition followed, taking into account more recent changes in English, and benefiting considerably from feedback from readers and my own further researches. This weighed about 50% more than the first edition, reflecting my growing discovery that there was, so to speak, more grammar around than I had first thought. The third edition incorporated further improvements, as has the current fourth. This has abandoned the original A–Z organisation, which turned out to be less helpful to users than I had originally supposed. However, it is still essentially the work that I first envisaged, offering single practical answers to single questions, in language as clear as I can manage.
I am delighted that Practical English Usage has helped many teachers and advanced students who, like me when I started out, didn't know how to solve their problems with English. I hope that this new edition will help many more.