I love grammar, so I obviously fall into the camp of those teachers who take the time to give direct attention to grammar structures. I believe in a balanced approach: A certain amount of language can be picked up through regular exposure, but there are times when explicit instruction clarifies doubts. In other words, communication should always be the focus, and learning grammar through meaningful practice is ideal, but sometimes a lack of grammar (or a lack of understanding of grammar) can halt communication, so by taking the time to teach a pattern, communication can then move forward again, ideally with more accuracy.
Does terminology facilitate this process? To a degree, yes. When you give explicit instruction, it helps to name the building blocks you’re using. Basic terms allow students and teachers to talk about grammar with greater ease. Examples include the parts of speech and the larger building blocks of a sentence – phrases and clauses.
However, I believe too much of anything isn’t good. I was recently asked about disguised prepositions, and my first instinct was to double check my understanding. How many times have I read or talked about this concept? Hardly at all. Disguised preposition simply doesn’t have the high frequency as other terms like prepositional phrase or particle. The first red flag went up when I discovered that little is written about disguised prepositions. A second flag went up when I saw inconsistencies in explanations and examples. In this case, I think it’s best to focus on the pattern in question and explain its meaning rather than trying to define the term.
The student asked me to explain disguised prepositions like once a week. The student used this term in his question. Both the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and Merriam Webster Learner’s Dictionary list this use under a as a determiner. The meaning of each or per is implied – or disguised, if you prefer that word. For students, I’d explain that we use [number expression + a + measurement of time] to express frequency: twice a day, seven days a week, several times a year, etc. No preposition is needed because listeners recognize the pattern and the meaning is understood. Does applying a term to this pattern help? In my opinion, not really. Since this student had heard of the term, I confirmed examples and explained what exactly was “disguised.” But for a student asking specifically about once a week, I’d focus only on the meaning of the pattern and not use the term. How often would the term be used in the future?
As students learn more patterns, they’ll likely see connections. Wait a minute doesn’t refer to frequency, but it’s an example of another pattern that can be learned without having a term tagged to it: Can you wait a sec? We waited (for) 20 minutes for our dinner. I’d choose to focus on the verb wait and explain it can be used with and without the preposition for before a measurement of time.
What do you think? Would you teach the term disguised prepositions?