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Interview with Raymond Murphy

Raymond MurphyRaymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use is the world’s best-selling grammar book (with sales of over 15 million copies), and has provided millions of students with the tools they need to tackle this thorny area of the English language. Raymond taught EFL for 20 years in Germany and the UK and has concentrated on writing full-time since 1988. His books Essential Grammar in Use, English Grammar in Use, Basic Grammar in Use (US English) and Grammar in Use (US English), have all been published by Cambridge University Press.

This interview was conducted by John Lowe for ELT News in Tokyo on November 3rd 2010.

JL:
Could you tell us something about your career background?
Raymond Murphy:
I started teaching English in language schools in Germany in 1971, and taught there for about 3 years. Then I moved back to the UK, and continued teaching in the UK, again, in a language school in Oxford

I was born in Plymouth, in Devon, but have lived in Oxford since 1976 – so for 34 years. I taught there until 1990, so my teaching career lasted approximately 20 years, and that’s where I wrote the books ‘English Grammar in Use’ and ‘Essential Grammar in Use’. They were written while I was teaching at the Swan School of English in Oxford, and were published in 1985 and 1990.
JL:
Was their publication as a result of accumulated teaching materials you had developed?
Raymond Murphy:
The books developed out of worksheets that I wrote as teaching materials for self-access in the school. Teaching in the UK, of course, you are teaching multilingual classes – people with different language backgrounds, different educational backgrounds and different needs, and I wanted a way of dealing with grammar outside the classroom. So, I started preparing worksheets, covering the topics that students were asking me about. The things that they wanted to know about, which I wasn’t able to cover in the class – so I built up a collection of these worksheets and they were kept in the library at the school – a sort of self-access facility. And so, if a student had a problem with, say, articles or something, they could go to the self-access centre, look up a card index, find an appropriate worksheet, if there was one – and do the exercises attached to it, and then check the answer key which was separate. If there was any problem they didn’t understand – they could get back to the teacher. And as these worksheets proved to be popular, I thought I’d try and get them published.

So I wrote off to three publishers. Two weren’t interested, but Cambridge University Press was, and they published my grammar book. Within a year it began to be pretty successful, and so we decided to produce an elementary version - ‘Essential Grammar in Use,’ which I wrote in the late 80s, while I was still teaching, and that was published in 1990. For various reasons around that time, I gradually withdrew from teaching. This was partly because I could afford to financially, and also for various personal and family reasons that suited me to have the flexibility of working independently from home. And since then, I have been a fulltime writer of new editions and adaptations.
JL:
Your grammar series are a kind of an industry, aren’t they? Did you have an inkling of the success they were going to have when you were writing them?
Raymond Murphy:
Absolutely none, and as I have said before, my main fear in writing the first book was that nobody would buy it anywhere. So when a few thousand copies were sold, I was very relieved.
JL:
Where were the initial sales?
Raymond Murphy:
I remember in 86, it was sold in Italy and then throughout Europe. And as there was a very early Korean translation in about 1990, it was also sold in Korea. It did spread fairly quickly, and then we prepared the American editions which were about 3 years behind the British ones. I learned a lot about American English when working in collaboration with an American writer.
JL:
Did CUP expect such a runaway success with your grammar books?
Raymond Murphy:
I don’t remember exactly what Cambridge’s expectations were. I don’t think I ever asked, how many copies do you expect to sell? They must have been reasonably confident because you don’t take on a project unless you think it’s going to be successful. I do remember a reviewer writing that he thought it would be a best-seller, even though he was very critical of it.
JL:
Have the books always been used for self-access, or have they been used as classroom texts as well?
Raymond Murphy:
I wrote the books for self-study, but they are also used as classroom texts. They could be used in all sorts of ways, but I would say from my point of view that it’s totally up to the user how they use the books. Because once you write something, it’s out of your hands; it’s up to the person who has bought the book to use it in whatever way that seems right for them. So, I don’t have a view on how other people should use the books, only on how I intended them to be used.

In the books, there are introductions; the main one for the student and an additional one for the teacher. In the teacher’s introduction there are suggestions how the book might be used in connection with classroom work, as homework or as revision.
JL:
Are you pleased that you have always been associated with grammar books or would you have liked to have written other books as well?
Raymond Murphy:
No, they’re the only books that I ever wanted to write. If I hadn’t been successful, of course, if I was looking around for other ways of making a living then I might well have sort of seriously looked at other possibilities. But there’s nothing inside me saying, oh, I would love to do that – writing another ELT book, no.
JL:
How does it feel to be so well-known?
Raymond Murphy:
Well, I’m well known in a very limited world. It’s not like being really well known. It’s a very limited fame. But to be associated with grammar is ironic because I am not particularly interested in grammar. I am interested in presenting it, or helping people to understand it. Actually I think I might have been good at writing instruction manuals for washing machines or something like that – making things clear and simple. That’s what interests me.

Grammar is interesting so far as it is something that you have to acquire when learning a foreign language, if you are teaching in a conventional way somewhere along the line, it has to be studied to some extent, but I am not madly interested in grammar as a subject.
JL:
Have you ever gone down the academic research route, or is that something that doesn’t interest you?
Raymond Murphy:
I am interested in language, and I am interested in languages - things like etymology, the history of languages. I am not tempted to do an M.A in linguistics but I do like reading books by authors like Steven Pinker. But actually doing research, being an academic has never appealed to me. I like teaching and I enjoy writing, but I have never wanted to get into the academic side of linguistics.
JL:
Do you go to lot of ELT conferences around the world?
Raymond Murphy:
Very few. I do go to events, such as the events that I’m doing in Japan, organized by the publishers. Other people who are more academic might be doing presentations at conferences, but I do relatively little of that; the odd one, yes, but not very often.
JL:
Why is grammar such a controversial topic?
Raymond Murphy:
It’s something to do with the fact that grammar is most obvious bit of knowledge within the language, and it’s a system – and there is a lot of knowledge and cleverness involved. It is controversial, and people do get very upset, even angry about it, arguing whether we should teach grammar or not. And how to teach grammar - natural grammar, discovery grammar, fun grammar, you know, all that sort of stuff.

I certainly don’t get angry with people who say, you shouldn’t teach grammar, although I don’t like fanatics, one way or the other – people who see things in absolute black and white, and my instinct is not to be 100% one way or the other.
JL:
Did you write your grammar books as a reaction to the communicative approach of the 80s?
Raymond Murphy:
When I was teaching, students did ask if I could recommend a grammar book. I think this was partly because grammar wasn’t covered very overtly or clearly in books and students were looking for other materials. So, yes, that’s how it related to the background of times, but it was the demand of students.
JL:
Do your grammar books concentrate solely on ‘form’, and not on ‘meaning’ and ‘use’?
Raymond Murphy:
I just look at a problem area. For example ‘had better’ which is followed by an infinitive without ‘to’ rather than infinitive with ‘to’. Secondly I think what exactly does it mean? Also, how does it overlap with ‘should.’ So, I identify those issues - some to do with ‘form’, some concerned with ‘meaning’ and ‘use’. I am not quite sure what the difference is sometimes, and I think, okay, so, I will show that. Explain is not the right word. So I present the structure, and say ‘look at that’ and ‘notice that’.

I don’t take ‘form’, and ‘meaning’ like some books do. I don’t want to classify things, all the same, anyway. When I focus on the meaning, I ask why is ‘had better’ different from ‘should’, or what exactly does it mean, how can you paraphrase it? For the exercise we practice the form in context, such as “it’s late now, we’d better go”.

I think that’s a valid way to practice as the student can make further examples confirming and adding to the presented examples on the left hand page of the book. And then perhaps add a sentence completion exercise which compares ‘had better’ and ‘should’. Explanations are not always enough, and the example itself is not always enough. Put them together, with exercises to reinforce the structure and the student starts to learn how to use ‘had better’.

My approach is to think ‘what is the student’s problem?’ How can a student use ‘had better?’ Does that make sense?
JL:
Thank you, yes. Do you think it’s important for EFL teachers to know about grammar and grammar rules?
Raymond Murphy:
I think it is. It’s important to know your subject as well as you possibly can. Now, with a language, it’s a bit more complicated, because the aim is not knowing about the language but using the language. It’s about learning the language and acquiring the language. I think a teacher ought to inform him or herself as much as possible, not just about the grammar, but for example, about phonology, which I personally don’t feel 100% confident about at all.

Teachers should know what a past participle is, and yes, they should be aware of terminology, like the third person singular. It gets a bit mad though, I think, once you get into more modern terminology. My favorite hate is things like zero-conditional and zero-article. When do we use the zero-article? What an amazing invention that is! And I think by using terms such as these, that you are just pretending to be an academic and giving yourself a sort of extra mystique.

You only need to know grammar rules if you talk about grammar. So, the first thing is that when you talk about grammar, you reduce terminology usage as much as possible. So, I wouldn’t use terms like ‘continuous’ and ‘simple’, and ‘gerund’ in the classroom if I was teaching – certainly not gerund.
JL:
Do you think that grammar learning is more organic – growing a garden rather than a building a wall?
Raymond Murphy:
We’ve been talking largely about artificial learning, and we haven’t really talked about natural learning yet. So, everything we have talked about is artificial anyway, in that we are not really harnessing our language learning powers at all. Yes, surely learning is organic. I think with students, at some point natural learning cuts in, and they continue to learn grammar, or vocabulary or pronunciation without actively studying it, or being taught it. Once natural learning cuts in, which I think, it does in most people’s situations even though there’s a form or base for it, then that becomes the real learning. It’s knowing about things – how they work, which can be useful, but then you’ve got to get into the real business of learning, which we can do even as adults. If people have enough practice and enough exposure, they will learn.
JL:
So do you think that people learn languages in different ways, and your grammar books are just one of the tools that people use to learn English?
Raymond Murphy:
Yes, I mean you could even say it isn’t actually a direct tool either. It’s something essentially on the side of the main learning process because the main learning process has got to be connected with using the language and doing things – so, speaking and listening, primarily, and lots of communicative activity. If you are learning naturally, not in a formal way, you’d be doing that all the time, and that’s for me that is real learning.

I don’t know if anyone has really ever learnt a language just by formal study. They might say they have, but I imagine it’s the informal bit, the natural bits that take over. That’s the real learning part and I see the grammar book, dictionary, reference book as slightly to the side of real learning.

I like to use the analogy of a lay-by. When you are driving, you get off the road for a bit – the main road of learning and onto the lay-by, to do your bit of grammar, whatever it is, and say, “so that how it works!” “I had never quite understood ‘had better’ even though I’d heard it many times”. So, you look at that up, and you add to your natural learning a little drop of formal learning, and that’s how it should work, and how it’s intended to work.
JL:
How do you sequence the grammar structures in your books? By frequency of use? Difficulty?
Raymond Murphy:
No, it’s an arbitrary grammatical organization - verbs, articles, adjectives, prepositions. So, that’s how it is divided up. It could have been nouns at the beginning and verbs halfway. I chose verbs at beginning because I figured that most people have most problems with verbs, so I put them at the beginning, as it felt the right thing to do.

Secondly, there is no progression in the book. Unit 1 isn’t necessarily easier than unit 58. So, unit 58 might be a very basic thing, for example, comparison of adjectives, or something you would learn quite early. Whereas a unit long before that would be the past perfect continuous – which you probably haven’t learnt at all. So, it’s not at all progressive, and one of the main problems I’ve had when talking to teachers and students – is that they sometimes think the units are progressive. There are little bits of progression, like three or four units together might represent a progression where a couple of subjects are very complicated - a particular topic, like present perfect, or something such as articles. But generally speaking, that isn’t the idea. If the student says, I don’t understand ‘had better,’ they look up the index contents, and go to the ‘had better’ unit.

So, a student should be jumping around the book in a not dissimilar way that you jump around a dictionary, which is organized from A to Z. This is another arbitrary classification of language terms.
JL:
Can I ask you about the grammar differences between British and American English? Did you need an American editor or co-writer – I mean how different are the grammar systems?
Raymond Murphy:
They’re not very different really. The differences between British English and American English have very much to do, I think, with pronunciation, vocabulary and style. The nitty-gritty of grammar, if you are talking about standard British and standard American, is not so different. Things like ‘have’ - ‘I have something, ‘I have a car’ rather than ‘I have got a car’, but ‘have got a car’ works in American English – ‘I have a car’ works in British English. So, I think the British are not using ‘have got’ as much as we used to – it’s one of those things – changing a bit probably with American influence – I think I tend to say ‘do you have’ rather than ‘have you got’, for example.

The present perfect is a bit funny and very difficult to explain. The present perfect, ‘I have lost my book,’ or something – single action present perfect. In American English, they tend to use the past simple – whereas in British English we use the present perfect. So, there are some things like that. They tend to be differences of emphasis rather than anything seriously different.

I am much more aware of these differences now, but I certainly wasn’t when the first American edition was done. My first visit to the States was actually when the American edition of the book was being prepared. So it was adapted by an American writer – no, I couldn’t have done it without assistance. I still discover differences, but it’s not so much the grammar, more the vocabulary and the style.
JL:
Everywhere you go you hear that standards of grammar are in decline. Does research bear this out?
Raymond Murphy:
I don’t think so. I am talking here very anecdotally. I like to eavesdrop and listen to people talking, if I am on a bus, or in a café, if I am by myself, I like to listen, especially to younger people because I don’t have that much contact with younger people, and the language has changed. Younger people do speak considerably differently to the older generation. Again, it’s pronunciation that tends to change rather than grammar. I find when I listen to grammar, I think ‘is that in my book?’

And of course, there are things like using ‘them’ rather than ‘those’ or ‘you was’ rather than ‘you were’. But I think that’s always been the case and isn’t just a recent thing.
JL:
But does that suddenly become Standard English if these examples are in widespread use? Would you put that in the fourth edition?
Raymond Murphy:
Yes. I mean – an example of that is the use of ‘like’ as a conjunction. When I first wrote the book, I presented a distinction between ‘as’ and ‘like’. For example, ‘I do it like this’, but ‘do it as I’ve showed you’. So, that’s how I presented. I didn’t say it was wrong to use ‘like’ in the second sentence, but that’s how I presented it. That was in 1980 and people were already using ‘like’ as a conjunction, ‘do it like showed you’. But I felt at that time that you could call that non-standard. I certainly don’t feel that now and certainly this is one of the educating factors of doing the American edition as they were absolutely clear that it wasn’t wrong.

Anyway, in the current editions of my book, that is an alternative. So you can say ‘like I say’ or ‘as I say’; ‘like you said,’ ‘as you said’.

So, that’s an example of how I have changed a particular thing. ‘Less’ and ‘fewer’ is another one. It doesn’t actually feature in the book, so I don’t have to change anything, but that’s something that has changed. I don’t mean the usage has changed, but some people say ‘less cars’, ‘less tables’, ‘less people’.
JL:
So, ‘Grammar in Use’ is not static, it’s constantly evolving.
Raymond Murphy:
It’s one of the convenient things with the new edition. With grammar, I have to say there isn’t too much change, but, nevertheless, if there is, then I certainly look at things that I have said, and if I feel that it’s too black and white, it isn’t that way anymore, then I will try and find a way of dealing with it.
JL:
Do you speak any foreign languages?
Raymond Murphy:
German was the language I have learnt the best, sort of middle to high intermediate level, I would say. Others, I have dabbled in, and at present, I am learning Thai.
JL:
Oh really.
Raymond Murphy:
Yes - using the natural approach. In the last 2 years, I have spent a total of 5 weeks in Bangkok, not all in one go. I am going there next week actually.

I go to AUA - a large language school. They have courses in English teaching, business mainly, but they also have a Thai language program in which they use the natural approach, so we don’t speak for 800 hours.
JL:
That’s interesting. The ‘Grammar in Use’ guru uses a natural approach to learn a language, with grammar on the side.
Raymond Murphy:
Well, there isn’t too much grammar at the beginning that you need in Thai, but it’s informed me a lot on just how to think about learning. So, it’s just listening at this stage – speaking later – just the same as with children. So, you don’t rush things. You wait till you are ready.
JL:
Why did you choose to study Thai?
Raymond Murphy:
I wanted to try an Asian language and I’d been to Thailand twice and liked it. The obvious choice would have been to study Chinese but I thought Thai would be easier if I wanted to read and write. It’s still interesting with a different alphabet but at least it’s a phonetic alphabet and also easy to get around.
JL:
Raymond Murphy, thank you very much for giving ELTNEWS.com so much of your time.
Raymond Murphy:
Thank you.



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Comments

I love Raymond M

I have your Essential english grammar.and other books.
It is wornder .Escellent book to practice english.I am a teacher. I suggested this book to many teachers.I prepare worksheets to teach my students.

I want Raymond murphy's contact address/e-mail/phone etc.
Please send me .

I would like to make contact with Ray Murphy. We were great friends when we both lived in Plymouth and grew up together. I moved away with my family and unfortunately lost contact. Could you pass my email address to Ray.

Regards

Pete O'Sullivan


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