Grammar Issue – Ann

Pondering Grammar with Students and Scott Thornbury
– Ann Loseva

Ann Loseva
As I was preparing to write this post I did more “research” than I ever have done. I was looking for lines that I could read and nod in agreement, as well as lines that would make me stop right there and reconsider something. The reason for this acute need for digging in the topic is obvious – I don’t know how to manage grammar in my classes, either in those with a pre-set syllabus to follow or with an emergent one, which describes the majority of classes I give at the moment. The latter being my own voluntary choice, I struggle to make it work. It teaches me lessons I wouldn’t have a chance to learn otherwise, so I strongly recommend taking up the challenge.

I’d like to warn the reader that no well-tried grammar activities or successful methods to teach grammar will be shared in the text below, as much as I would love to see myself doing it. I’ve been buying grammar books for many years, every time sure this one will shed light, these exercises will be exciting, this approach will fit the logics of my class. At the moment, after almost nine years of teaching, I still don’t have my favourite grammar activity that works with all groups of students, and I’m beginning to think it’s hardly possible to have it.

I wanted to write this post in order to make an attempt at figuring out my confusion about teaching grammar. In doing that, I’d like to offer three lines of perspectives on grammar in English teaching and learning: one I gathered from my students, another one coming from myself, and finally, some ideas I’ve picked up from Scott Thornbury’s writing. It’s interesting to see how these will correlate, if at all.


Students on grammar

Grammar is a big word and every new student I get to teach, no matter what their level is, knows the big Grammar word. Interestingly, around a half of these students might not know the longer word – Vocabulary. The Grammar word is forever imprinted, and so are the fears, expectations and preconceived beliefs of its unquestionable superior status.

Students know something about grammar and that’s what I’ve heard them say:

“Don’t worry, my groupmates want more grammar exercises because that’s what they got used to at school, that’s what they know about English.”

“I can’t make myself do any page in this grammar book. I am prejudiced against it.” (A teacher’s side note – as, in fact, against any other type of course book.)

“I like learning about Passive Voice in the process, when I have the need to use it in my sentence and you tell me about it.”

“Let’s revise tenses next time.”

I’m equally puzzled with both kinds of reactions, whether my learners express a wish to do more grammar explicitly or to avoid exercises at all, because looking at a page filled up with gaps to complete makes them sick and remember wasted time of school English. At this point I start wondering just how much their expressed wishes correspond to their needs and abilities that I, as a teacher, should be addressing in the first place. Shouldn’t I know better and stand on the firm ground? As I’m moving on from term to term I’m examining attitudes of students, which are changing as generations of learners change. Attitudes of teachers I know remain the same. Isn’t this stability something I should learn from them?


My recent discoveries

Two months ago I started learning Japanese. It’s especially interesting to look at this experience now as it seems to be the first language I’m learning with sharp awareness of how and why I’m doing it and what the more effective ways to do it could be. There is no coursebook or grammar guide on my desk. It may seem sort of shocking for a teacher, but I’ve decided to try a different approach for now. I’m getting chunks and sentences which are quite beyond my level and then work by myself on figuring them out. From translation I get understanding, then notice patterns. I get them wrong, ask questions, get my answers, and then start all over again. These tiny pieces of Japanese grammar make their first, shy and teasing, appearance and then vanish. I need to point this out – they most often vanish. I can safely say that I only remember now how to say “This/that is …”, “Is this/that …?” or form an of-phrase. I’ve found myself in a new place where I’m learning how language works from chains of discoveries. I’m learning very slowly and with an outstanding irregularity and to this moment have made two major observations from this process:

  • These linguistic discoveries need to go through cycles of repetition, to be re-discovered many times before I might hope for them to sink in.
  • The more I learn, the more confirmed I become in that we desperately need vocabulary if we want to actually produce sentences. It’s the first thing to escape memory, too.


Insights from Scott Thornbury

In chapter 19 ”Do rules help you learn a language?” of his Big Questions in ELT a lot of what is said resonates with how I feel in my contradictions. One of the life examples that Scott makes is constantly present in my teaching. Many learners spend years of studying English going through Present Simple and Present Continuous again and again, from year to year. As university students join my class, they keep making fun of this fact, get sarcastic… and yet many appear to have a “conspicuous lack of success” with these basic forms. What nature do the reasons for that have? I heard some teachers say such learners are “grammatically challenged”, or plain slow. I ignore such voices and keep searching for the real reasons behind the problems.

One of the questions at the end of chapter 19 is this: Are rules that learners have worked out themselves better than rules that they have been given and why?

This makes me turn to Japanese again. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been trying to deduce some patterns in this language. It’s not easy, actually quite painful, and not at all memorable as in rules afterwards. I wonder how quick at grasping these same patterns I’d be if I had them handed over to me, like we as teachers so often do in our own classrooms. I’m left with an uneasy doubt that it makes no big difference in terms of future language use. I can just say that working out a rule by yourself looks more engaging and fun, if you aim for that.

Here are some more of my many puzzles and subsequent struggles within the topic, which some of you could probably connect with:

1) Grammar continuum in a coursebook-less class. I’m learning to organize what we’re learning at every lesson into a kind of a developing syllabus. Grammar is one of the bothersome stumbling blocks.

2) The discrepancy between lexis I teach and forms I want to put this lexis in. I’m questioning dividing grammar and vocabulary instruction as I see it done in my context. While I have to teach within these rules, filling this gap without damaging the general flow is my ongoing mission. I see teaching grammar as coming from emergent needs and so I face difficulties in keeping up with the syllabus.

3) The Careless Teacher puzzle. How sloppy will you allow a student’s speech to be, both in written and spoken production? I fear that I’ve recently been forming for myself a distinction between little grammar and serious grammar. I’ve already tried to give it a thought in my post here. My main point of concern is how my lax approach impacts students and their decisions to choose this or that form, to remember or forget a rule.

Having said all this, I’m no less confused and probably have confused you a bit, too. I’m thinking of this former student of mine. His/her eagerness to communicate a message in English no matter what is impressive, even though grammar is inaccurate. This attitude can be seen as a good sign. However, I wish I could say that this apparent lack of norms in his/her short sentences doesn’t impede the message he/she wants to get across…but it often does. And this is how I keep pondering grammar.



These are just three of several inspiring posts I’ve marked as favourites while sifting through blogs looking for something that spoke along with my tune.


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Grammar Issue – Adam

Adam Simpson

You’re teaching EAP? Forget most of what you know about grammar (kind of!) 
  – Adam Simpson

The name Daniel Horowitz may not be that familiar to you, nor to many in the world of English language teaching. Nevertheless, this man’s writings in the 1980s have had as profound an effect on my teaching as any other individual. Part of the reason he is not well known is that he was sadly taken from us before his time, but also because he was not frightened of rattling the establishment and speaking out against what he knew to be wrong, or at very least ineffective in language teaching. I consider myself fortunate, therefore, to find myself in a working environment where his ideas have come to life.

As the title of this post suggests, Horowitz had certain ideas on what constituted ‘academic English’ and indeed what that meant in terms of grammatical focus. My aim today is to show you how logical and practicable Horowitz’s suggestions are, and yet how they probably aren’t being implemented in a lot of supposedly EAP courses. I feel that it is pertinent at this point to look at the main functional categories that Horowitz suggested comprise academic discourse, and the specific functional objectives that each and every EAP course therefore should aim to teach. If you teach EAP, look at the program you’re involved with and ask questions if you don’t see these things being covered.

Now, let’s look at each of these functional categories and think about what they mean in terms of grammar. Please bear in mind that this is just a brief overview:


Displaying familiarity with a concept

So, what do you need to do to ‘display familiarity’ with something? This might mean defining, exemplifying or giving a physical description. At lower levels, this might mean using the simple present tense and focusing on the use of articles. As learners progress, they might be exposed to defining and non-defining relative clauses.


Expressing similarities and differences

This is as simple as the title suggests: to do this you need to be describe and account for differences, or compare and classify concepts. At lower levels, this might mean using comparative and superlative adjectives, or comparison of nouns (more, less, fewer). As learners progress, they might be required to use adverbials of concession (although, despite (the fact that), in spite of (the fact that), nevertheless), for instance.


Expressing cause and effect relationships

So, how might we express cause and effect relationships? This might mean having to identify historical causes and contributory factors, or indicate goals and express results.  At lower levels, this might mean using specific verbs (is caused by, result from, contribute to). As learners progress, they might start to learn other expressions (as a result of, because of, as, since, because, due to therefore, thus, so, as a consequence of, for this reason, the more … the more, owing to) and noun complement clauses with ‘the fact + that-clause’ (e.g. ‘The fact that Prozac is so powerful undermines the power of psychotherapy’).


Displaying familiarity with a process

So, what do you need to do to ‘display familiarity’ with a process? This requires the learner to be able to describe a scientific process, or narrate a historical process. At lower levels, learners might encounter the passive voice (made (of), given, taken, used (for), known (as), defined (as), related (to), associated (with), composed (of), linked (to/with), based (on)) and sequencing meta-discourse (first (of all), next, finally, at the same time, the first/next/final step/stage, after/before that). As learners progress, they might be exposed to other structures such as ‘Having’ + participle (-ed) phrase + clause (e.g. Having completed the research, we can now determine…).


Displaying familiarity with argumentation

So, how do we ‘display familiarity’ with argumentation? This might mean emphasizing a point, evaluating ideas, or paraphrasing and summarizing an argument. At lower levels, this can involve using expressing obligation with modal verbs (present and future: have to, don’t have to, must, should, allowed to, need to). At higher levels learners might be exposed to structures such as noun complement clauses (N + that-clause + evaluation) with head nouns (idea, assumption, assertion, realization, discovery, proposition, recognition, evidence, proof, sign, indication, (e.g. the assumption that the population was evenly distributed is not a good one here)).


Using an academic style

What does it mean to use an academic style? This might require being concise, precise and objective. At lower levels, this might mean avoiding repetition through the use of synonyms, pronouns (personal, possessive and reflexive). As learners move on in their studies, they might be exposed to participle clauses including reduced relative clauses, for instance.


Is it really so different?

Hopefully, none of the examples I’ve given will appear to be dramatically different from what you might traditionally consider to be ‘grammar’. Therein lies the problem with academic grammar: it is both very similar to what we might teach in a general English course and yet with sometimes drastic differences in emphasis.


If you’re familiar with the progression we see in many course books, you might have noticed that I didn’t mention the present continuous or the present perfect in my examples. That’s because they are noticeably less important to the academic world than they are in everyday life. I mention these as they are particular stalwarts of many a grammar syllabus, and exactly the kind of things that Horowitz would have told you to downplay in your teaching (and which consequently made his suggestions seem so difficult to accept).

Your biggest challenge, and one I hope you’ll take up if you teach EAP, is to think about what your learners really need and don’t be afraid to focus more on things such as the passive voice and simple tenses and less on the present continuous or the present perfect. While this is merely a brief introduction to academic grammar, I’d be happy to discuss this in more detail with anyone interested.


Suggested reading

The Contribution of Daniel Horowitz by Ann M. Johns – JALT Publications (available by clicking here


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Grammar Issue – Arzu

Arzu Baloglu

Grammar: tedious or fun?  –  Arzu Baloglu


Teaching grammar is a subject I’ve been struggling ever since  since I started teaching.When I first started teaching English, I thought the most convenient way to teach the language was to write grammar rules and a few example sentences on the board and make students write them down in their notebooks , later do some drilling, oral repetition and lots of worksheet exercises and finally end the lessons. It was that easy, because I had been taught in this way and other colleagues had been teaching in this very teacher centered way.

In my first years of teaching. it was the easiest way for me because the classes I taught were crowded and there were class management issues I had to handle.  Also, there was no support or mentoring from the experienced colleagues in my school. I was all alone, dependent on the coursebooks and grammar woksheets. That is, teaching only grammar with lots of repetition made me not only feel more secure but also helped me manage the students,because they were already accustomed to this kind of learning.

Yes it was the most manageable way but not the correct way. I wasn’t satisfied at all. This repetition and monotony bored me much more than the students. There must have been other ways of teaching and I had to find them. Besides,I wasn’t sure if the students were really learning.

Having searched for some class activities, attended some seminars, and learned from some great educators, I decided to try some class activities with my students.The result was excellent. Students both enjoyed and were engaged, and I was pleased with the result. Therefore ,in every lesson plan I made I tried including some games, songs, and puzzles so that I could make the lessons more efficient. Although it was more fun and useful to include some engaging activities while teaching grammar and students definitely enjoyed the lessons, some of my colleagues didn’t see the point and thought I was not a very good teacher. because I wasn’t teaching the grammar rules to students properly. According to the majority of teachers here (in Turkey), grammar is the most important aspect of the language and a great deal of attention must be given to it. I can remember once that a colleague of mine complained to the administration that I wasn’t qualified enough to teach grammar because I hadn’t made the students copy the rules in their notebooks. Maybe it’s true that I’m not good at teaching grammar. On the other hand, I know that I am happier now  by not teaching grammar only.

I have been teaching grammar for a long time now. Honestly,I find teaching other language skills such as writing, speaking, and listening easier and more enjoyable. And also I’m still learning to teach grammar more effectively. Even though I haven’t found the effective method yet, I have some class activities, songs and web tools that foster students’ learning, engagement and motivation in classes. I’ve been compiling them from various sources such as other educators’ blog posts, teachers’ book resources, and the seminars , workshops and webinars I’ve attended. Here are some of the activities I use frequently in classes.

The first one is the well-known ‘Find someone who….’activity. You can adapt it into various grammar structures and also it requires students’ participation, which makes them practise what they learn. They simply need to walk around class and ask their classmates some questions and fill in the handout. Here are my handouts. Feel free to use and adapt them.

The next one works best when practising ‘Relative Clauses’. It’s an activity I first found in one of the teachers resource boks I have. Divide the class into groups of four or five and hand out some cards on which some object, people or place names are written. Students must write three definitions for these names and only one of them must be true. The other groups must find the correct definition. This activity is very competitive and fun. You can also try this activity by giving students a list of words and get them to search their meanings and write their definitions in their own words. If you want to use tech, students can look up  their meanings on their mobile phones or tablets as well .You can check out my handout here.

The other one is a fun activity which I’ve learned from a colleague. You can use it when teaching any language point. Write a sentence in big fonts on a piece of paper and cut all the elements of the sentence. Mix them and give to a student and ask him/her to put them in the  correct order to make a sentence in one minute. While he/she tries to put them  into the correct order, another student always utters something nonsense  (la,la,la or blah,blah,) to distract him/her. You can also make this activity more competitive by dividing the students into teams.

In addition , songs can be one of the most impactful ways to teach vocabulary and grammar . Moreover, they can be used as warmers or fillers .You can use the song ‘Tom’s Diner’  to practise ‘present continuous tense’,’My baby shot me down’ for ‘simple past tense’ and ‘would’ and ‘If I were a boy’  to teach ‘the conditionals’.Here is one of  the song lyrics .

We cannot ignore the fact that grammar is necessary. On the other hand, our aim shouldn’t be to teach grammar rules only .Instead, we can make the lessons more attractive through some meaningful class activities. As you get to know your students you can adapt and blend the activities into their needs and learning processes. Frankly, I haven’t found the most effective way yet and I don’t know if there is one but at least I’m trying to do my best to facilitate learning. You can try to break the boredom of the grammar lessons as well as creating such an engaging and student-centered atmosphere by avoiding repetition and routines .

If you seel some useful ideas, iTDi is one of the perfect places where you can find lots of help and mentoring to develop your teaching skills. It has helped me a lot and I’ve been learning lots of new ideas from colleagues  all over the world. Please don’t hesitate to join in and connect with the great educators here.


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Grammar Issue – Alexandra

Alexandra Chistyakova

Grammar Is …  – Alexandra Chistyakova

Grammar is boring. No one enjoys grammar: neither learners, nor teachers. Fluency is more important than accuracy. Why is I need to study grammar if everyone can understands me good?

These and many other assumptions about grammar can be heard every time and then. Grammar seems to be an ugly duckling of the foreign language teaching and learning.

However, it has never been so for me, especially, since the time I started learning English consciously and then teaching it. Actually, I could never relate to the notorious dispute on what is more important: accuracy or fluency. I have always been convinced that accuracy and fluency are equally important.

Moreover, throughout my teaching practice I’ve had numerous examples of both schoolchildren and adults expressing the wish to study English grammar more thoroughly. Thanks to these examples, I can say with certainty that there is a really high demand among learners for the good grammar instruction.


Grammar Is Important

Fortunately, there are a lot of learners who never question the importance of grammar. Unfortunately, there are those who doubt it. If the latter is the case, I like to give my students the following situation to consider. I say to them:

“Just imagine this: a brilliant idea comes to your mind and you immediately want to share it with your English friends. There is no time to consult a dictionary or a textbook: you are dying of how much you want to share your idea right now! And here you go! You put your idea into words; you quickly select some phrases, words, structures – you are wrapping your idea, like a gift, with the language – and then send it off to your friends. You are anticipating their joy and surprise at your idea!


But if you weren’t careful with the wrapping, the gift your friends receive could be surprising indeed. But will it be joyful? It could rightfully be rather puzzling: instead of a beautifully wrapped gift that can easily be opened by simply pulling a colourful ribbon, they might receive an ugly trunk with an unfriendly-looking heavy lock in front. And now, if your friends really wish to unlock your message and discover your brilliant idea, they have to strain their every nerve and struggle to find the appropriate key to your “trunk”.

What a laborious and tedious task! Do you expect your friends to enjoy the process of unlocking your idea? Do you think they will be looking forward to communicating with you more in the future? Was it possible to avoid this awkward situation and make communication pleasant and smooth?

Surely, this could have been done: Grammar is the key! Correct grammar unlocks messages easily.”

Usually, this story is enough to persuade my students to study grammar better. Only stubborn or naughty students continue denying the necessity of grammar for them. How to persuade such students or if at all there is the need to persuade such students is a different story which has nothing to do with the grammar itself.


Grammar Is Fun

But is grammar really that tedious? Or perhaps, it’s the way it is taught that is boring? In fact, grammar itself presents no limits to imagination, creativity and fun. To quote from Shakespeare: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. So why not to make grammar engaging and meaningful to our students?!  Even grammar drills can be turned into a fun and interesting activity.

For example, one of my favourite activities on extensive practice of interrogative forms, past and present tenses is the “With your back to the class” activity which I borrowed from Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games (Cambridge,2006). This activity is suitable for students of elementary to intermediate levels.

In the activity, the teacher has a short story with an unusual ending. The teacher writes two or three key words from the story on the board for the students to restore the story by asking Yes/No questions to the teacher. However, all communication between students and the teacher goes on silently: the questions are written on the board and the teacher puts his/her answers on the board too. But the teacher gives answers only to the questions which are grammatically correct.  If a question is grammatically incorrect, the teacher draws a question mark on the board, and students need to work together to find the mistake and correct the question.

At first, all this writing and the close focus on grammar forms might seem boring and off-putting, but as soon as students get the idea and receive the first answers they get engaged and enthusiastic about solving the mystery. Moreover, they become eager to find what is wrong with the question and spot the mistake. So while being highly grammar-focused, this activity is both meaningful and fun.


Grammar Is Useful

Teaching grammar can bring students to a better understanding of how the language works. Thanks to studying the grammatical framework of a language, students can see the language as a single whole. They can see how many different linguistic features are intertwined and interdependent. Through teaching grammar, teachers can raise students’ linguistic consciousness and understanding of how grammatical errors can influence a message and a communicative act in general. For this purpose, teachers can exploit learners’ mother tongue, for instance. Teachers can imitate a similar grammar error in the learners’ language to vividly illustrate how absurd, funny or even inappropriate a sentence might sound to native speakers. So, grammar can change students’ attitude to their language studies and to the language itself.

All in all, teaching grammar is important, fun and useful. But to make it so is the teacher’s task, which sometimes requires creative and even artistic efforts from the teacher. Teaching is an art. Teaching grammar is rightfully so, too.


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Grammar Issue – Rose

Rose Bard

Grammar: From Knowing About It To Knowing How To Use It – Rose Bard

I used to think that presenting was the most difficult part of the lesson and I strived to make it as clear and interesting as possible when it came to grammar points. Then, once students had a lot of controlled practice, I thought they would naturally be able to use it on their own. But once they encountered the grammar point in a new situation, or context was not made clear enough for them, they wouldn’t know what they would need to use. So as you can see, focus mostly used to be on grammar and getting it right. At some point I started wondering why I couldn’t give my students more freedom to say what THEY wanted to say and help them reshape what they knew or thought they knew about how the words were put together to form sentences, paragraphs and texts.

As I learned English living in London and Arabic while living in Egypt, it was hard for me to follow that line of teaching as the way I learned languages while living abroad was different from the way I was trained to teach. Not because I had never received any formal instructions. I had. One of the first things I did was to buy a dictionary and a grammar book when I got to England. I used to wake up, have coffee and work on my grammar book on my own. I would translate word by word and fill the gaps of the exercise, then check the answer key. I would also ask people around me to teach me how to pronounce  words and sentences. I wanted to communicate to others, so I’d take any chance for that. Later on, I joined a language school. The same happened in Egypt. I had books and I counted on people around me to help me communicate.


EFL Context of Learning

In the classroom most of the interaction between teacher/students and students/students can be artificial and dull if it exists around grammar points only. Even if we make students spend a lot of time practicing grammar, and it is disconnected from what they would rather be learning to attend their needs of communication in the outside world, it would have little effect on their outcomes. By talking to my teens, I have discovered that they do a number of things outside the classroom related to English. Some of them like playing video games, chatting with other players, watching TV series, online surfing and listening to music. Some totally avoid doing it in English because they can’t deal with authentic language. And it is not uncommon for those who actually are in contact with English outside the class on a regular basis to bring their own doubts about the language and topics from outside the class , but most of the time we are so busy with our lesson plan to listen to them and use their knowledge of the world outside as a resource/material in our classes. Those moments could be great moments for learning how language works through conversation, by allowing them to bring their own subjects related to English usage.

Who has never heard about a phrase or word they heard from the movie, game or song which they were eager to talk about?

Instead of planning grammar lessons nowadays, what I do is create opportunities, or take every opportunity for language to emerge naturally and work from there. I also know that every learner is in a different point of the journey and they are the only ones able to make sense of the grammar they are learning. If you want to have a bit more control of what students produce and work from there, I would suggest using digital devices to record oral interactions and notebooks to record anything they write.

The purpose of audio recording is registering language that can be used in different tasks and for different purposes. Here is one example of how I use it with mixed-levels groups.

Once, I invited a student to have a conversation with me about the trip to an amusement park (they had been to one in the week before – it was a school trip) while the rest of the group just watched us talking. The most confident student accepted the invitation and took the hot seat. I informed the student that our conversation was going to be recorded and would be used later in a task. I tried really hard not to let the grammar police take over me and carried out the conversation as natural as possible. After the conversation, I asked the students to recall what their classmate had said about the trip. I didn’t ask them any questions. They recalled information and I wrote on the board. I wrote everyone’s contribution and then they discussed in pairs what they could notice about the sentences on the board. Back to the board we focused on form (simple past), quickly reviewed regular/irregular forms and answered any doubts they had about language and they took notes in their notebooks. The next step was to erase the sentences off the board and request them to write down the questions this time. Once they were finished, I elicited the questions and wrote again on the board making the modifications needed to make them correct. All contributions were accepted. They were not allowed to correct the sentences in their notebooks at that point. Just to listen to everyone’s contribution. Then, the next stage was for them to compare the corrected version on the board with their own, make corrections and add the contributions from others in their notebooks. Then it was time to listen to the recording and check the questions that were really asked during the interview.


Notebooks: Keeping a Record

Nowadays notebooks are an essential part of my classes. Whenever there is a speaking activity where students have to discuss a topic, add their opinions, tell an anecdote, I ask them to write it down in their notebooks first. When they write down they use more language and make more mistakes, but it is also the moment when I will walk around or they will come to my desk and we will discuss language and how it works. There are times, depending on the activity, when I will ask students to use my feedback rubric to guide them in self-discovering. I’ll try to make them think of what they already know to help them rewrite their sentences or discuss a word/phrase that they want to use but which might not be the best choice for that context. Using the notebook means to personalize learning for each student.

I really believe that language learning has to be also a personal journey even when they are studying in a group. There should be enough space in the class for each one of them to be seen as individuals with their own needs and knowledge. Students should also know that they can contribute to each other’s learning by creating the right atmosphere to become better users of the language.


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