Thirty years of grammar with Raymond Murphy #2 – Going global

Raymond Murphy

In part two of our exclusive interview with Raymond Murphy, we continue to take a behind the scenes look at the history of the blue book that has helped millions of people learn English.

RM: Shortly after the British editions of English Grammar in Use were published, Cambridge University Press decided to publish an American English version. It’s not that American and British grammar is very different, because it isn’t. (I should emphasis that I’m talking about standard British English and standard American English.) So if you compare those two, there are very, very few differences in grammar. Most of them are quite small, and they’re not complete. They’re things which maybe an American would say more than a British person, but they still work in both forms of the language.

There are a few things, like in British English we use “Shall I” and “Shall we”. I think that’s unusual in American, to use “shall” in those situations. “Needn’t”, too – “You needn’t do something” – Americans find that a bit strange, a bit odd or unusual. There are also smaller, specific things. In British English, we’d say: “He’s ill; he’s in hospital.” In American English, it would be: “He’s in THE hospital.” Even though you may not be thinking about a particular hospital. Whereas in British English, in that situation, we’d say “He’s in hospital.”

And there are lots of other, smaller differences like that. But that really wasn’t the main reason to have an American edition. The main reason is because the main differences between British and American English are to do with vocabulary, with idiom, with style. An American reading my British text would find it very British. And someone who wanted to learn American English might be disappointed that they were getting British English. I should say also, of course, that I didn’t do this personally. We had an American adapter, Will Smalzer, and he went through the text and changed all the things that needed changing. So “shop” became “store”. Anything that sounded British was changed to something that sounded American. And then I read through that, and we worked together to make sure that we produced a version that we both found was right, and that’s how the American editions were produced.

There are two types of bilingual versions. There are adaptations, where the content actually changes. And there are simple translations where it’s just translated, so everything’s the same except certain bits are in a different language. The adaptations are mainly for Essential Grammar in Use, the lower level. In the adaptations, the content changes, so maybe some units are not the same in the international edition as they are in, say, the Italian edition, or the German edition, or the French edition. Certain changes were made in accordance with the needs of people from that particular language group.

So if you’re writing a book for international learners, then for example, in my books there is a unit comparing “a” and “the”: the indefinite and definite articles – “a car” and “the car”. If a first language doesn’t have articles, then that’s a valid thing to do. But if your first language is German or French, for example – most Western European languages, anyway – you already have this difference between a definite and indefinite article. You’ve already learned that difference. Of course, they don’t work in 100% the same way, but the basic difference between “a” and “the”, you don’t have to teach that to a German-speaking learner or a French-speaking learner. Whereas with someone who is Japanese, or is Turkish, or is Russian, that’s a different story. So that unit – “a” and “the” – you won’t find in the Italian edition. But you will find other things which are not in the international edition.

The others are translations. The first translation of any translated edition was Icelandic, very soon after the book was published. It was for schools. The book was adopted in schools in Iceland, and they wanted a translated version. Translations are useful for learners because it’s quite hard reading a book – a grammar reference book – in the language that you’re actually learning. It’s quite a challenge. You know, I’ve got German grammars and French grammars at home, but they’re in English, and they’re written for speakers of English. With the higher-level book, English Grammar in Use, I think that’s okay for most learners. They manage, because it’s written quite simply.

With Essential Grammar in Use, the lower level, although it’s written in a very simple style and there are not too many words on the page, it’s still quite a challenge. I find it a challenge if I’m learning Turkish or something and I have to read a text in Turkish: oh, that’s hard. So if a student can do it, that’s great, because it’s another experience of using the language you’re learning. But if you can’t, or you want to focus on the task of learning the language or learning about the grammar in this case, it’s a good idea to have translated versions.

We’ll be back next week with more from Raymond Murphy. You can find out more about English Grammar in Use here. 

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