Narrative Grammar

Hear the Lecture


When we try to look at the English grammar "forest" rather than the "trees," research helps by showing that particular items of grammar tend to be clustered together in particular types of communication.  Different types of communication tend to have different grammatical "accents."  One of the easiest to see patterns is that used in story telling.  Narratives tend to feature the use of

  • past tense verbs (mostly simple past but past perfect, past progressive, and sometimes would/could for past time meanings)
  • adverbs with past time reference
  • chronological order (signaled by those adverbials)
  • proper nouns (for the names of people and places)
  • personal pronouns (to refer to those people and places)
In addition, research on narrative structure (see Bardovi-Harlig's work) points out the two major divisions that make up a narrative: (1) a story has a "foreground" that is the basic story and generally uses simple past tense verbs and is in chronological order; but a story also has (2) background which includes all the information that the storyteller thinks you need to have to understand the story--for example, generalizations, descriptions and previous events that influence the events in the story.  The background tends to be more grammatically complex than the foreground with a greater variety of verb types--present tense for generalizations that are still true in the present, past perfect for events that happened prior to the time of the story, and others.

The background tends to be harder for our students to write than the foreground.  For one thing, the grammar is more complicated.  Just as importantly, knowing what your reader doesn't know is a very difficult task for a writer.  We all struggle with that puzzle constantly in our writing. 

Please look at the following collection of narratives.  I selected them to show you a number of things about storytelling:

1. Stories are told for many purposes.  Sometimes they are told to be stories--in novels and other literary forms.  Or in the tradition of oral storytelling. Many times they are given to illustrate principles and to provide examples.  Notice how narratives show up in all types of academic writing.  Even the re-telling of the process through which research was done assumes the shape of a narrative in the samples from textbooks in the social sciences.

2. Stories have the same structure of foreground and background no matter what level of reader (beginner or advanced) they are written for.  So, at all proficiency levels, stories have those same two major parts.

3. Stories have the virtually same grammar no matter what level of reader (beginner or advanced) they are written for.  A lower proficiency level story differs from an advanced proficiency story in vocabulary and length--and of course in background knowledge for the audience since stories about culturally familiar materials are easier to understand the stories about strange new people and events (Carrell).  Whatever is making for differences between lower level and higher level stories, it's not really the basic grammar but something else that makes for higher levels of complexity.  Perhaps in the number of different words used.  But, it's not really the grammar.  All narratives have that same cluster of grammatical features.

Teaching Applications

How can we use narratives to teach grammar?   What can our students learn about English grammar by writing stories, folktales, autobiographies, biographies?  How can story writing change across proficiency levels?  What kinds of stories can beginners write and tell?  How can more advanced students learn to use stories for academic purposes? 

These are important topics for us in our individual classes and in our work on curriculum and materials design.  Joy Reid and I have discussed some applications in our book on grammar in the composition classroom. I look forward to your questions and comments at

Please turn now to read the narrative samples given after the reference section. They are provided to help you see the many uses that narrative is put to....not just in literature but in other disciplinary areas, too.



Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1996). Tense and aspect in (con)text.  In T. Miller (Ed.), Grammar and discourse.  The Journal of TESOL France, 3, 19-33.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1995). A Narrative Perspective on the Development of the TenseAspect System in Second Language Acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition,17, 2, 263-91.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1992). The Telling of a Tale: Discourse Structure and Tense Use in Learners' Narratives. ERIC No.: ED395527.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. and Bergstrom, Anna . (1996). Acquisition of Tense and Aspect in Second Language and Foreign Language Learning: Learner Narratives in ESL and FFL. Canadian Modern Language Review,52, 2,308-30.

Reid, J. and Byrd, P. (1998).  Grammar in the composition classroom.  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Samples of Narratives at Various Levels and for Various Uses


Narrative in Fiction for Experienced (and Probably Adult) Readers 
The First Paragraph of 
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney. The smoke was blue where it left the red of the clay. It trailed in to the blue of the April sky and was no longer blue but gray. The boy Jody watched it, speculating. The fire on the kitchen hearth was dying down. His mother was hanging up pots and pans after the noon dinner. The day was Friday. She would sweep the floor with a broom of ti-ti and after that, if he were lucky, she would scrub it with the corn shucks scrub. If she scrubbed the floor she would not miss him until he had reached the Glen. He stood a minute, balancing the hoe on his shoulder.



Narrative in a Historical Study of the State of Alabama for Experienced Readers 
De Soto Against Tascaluza from Chapter Two "Exploration and Colonization" 
Alabama: The History of a Deep South State

On the morning of October 18, 1540, the entourage entered Mabila, a village located on a plain above a wide river. The town was surrounded by a palisade, and inside were eighty large houses fronting a square. Tascaluza disappeared inside a house, and the Indians began to dance and sing while the Spanish grew more suspicious and uneasy. Suddenly, the Indians attacked, shooting arrows from the houses and forcing the Spanish to flee the village, leaving some of their horses behind. The Indians promptly killed the feared animals. De Soto rallied his men for a counterattack and set fire to the village. The battle, most of it hand-to hand combat, lasted until nightfall. In his manuscript, the Inca claimed 11,000 Indians died; Biedma reported 5,000 killed; and the more reliable Ranjel related that the Spanish found 3,000 Indian bodies without counting the dead inside the burned village. The Gentleman of Elvas reported 2,500 dead. The Indian losses were probably fewer than any of these figures, but by any count they were extensive. Whether Tascaluza died or escaped was not discovered, but his town of Mabila and his Indians were destroyed. 


Narrative Used to Illustrate an Observation About Human Aging for Experienced Readers 
from "Patterns of Aging: Does Everything Go Downhill?" 
The Longevity Factor: The New Reality of Long Careers and 
How It Can Lead to Richer Lives

Several of the Long Careers Study participants had relatives whose lives followed this pattern. Interviewee Ollie Thompson told about his grandmother, who at 103 could thread a needle without glasses and did all her own housework. One day, for no particular reason, she called Thompson's mother and told her to bring all the grandchildren over for dinner, because she felt a bit weak. She took everyone out to a movie and then for ice cream afterward; then the group caught a bus back to her house and had dinner. After dinner she told Thompson's mother, Martha, that she was tired and thought she would turn in. Martha went upstairs to her bedroom with her, tucked her into bed, and returned to the living room. An hour later, Martha went up to check and her and found she was dead. "She wasn't sick at all," Thompson remembers. "She just slept away."



Narrative Used to Present a Case Study for Further Discussion of Principles Being Discussed in a Chapter from "Integrity in Action" for Experienced Readers 
"Beyond the Blame Game" 
Adult ADD: A Reader-Friendly Guide to Identifying, Understanding, and Treating Adult Attention Deficit Disorder

Diane had a problem. Her ADD symptoms were affecting her work and she was on the verge of being fired. Her greatest difficulty was in prioritizing her tasks; she tended to major on the minors. 

Through counseling, she determined to make a last-ditch effort to communicate with her boss about her problems. She did not make demands but suggested certain ways the boss could help her be a better worker. (Her counselor helped her devise these ideas.) 

First, she asked if she could meet with the boss for a few minutes at the start of each day to go over her list of things to do. The boss would identify the most important projects for her to tackle. Diane asked for "time spacing" on her monthly reports-intermediate deadlines in mid-month. Previously, she had waited until the last minute to prepare these, but now she asked her boss to hold her accountable to those earlier deadlines. 

Diane also asked for a flex-time arrangement. She knew she had to be there for most of the working day, but she got her best work done when no one else was around. The boss agreed to let her come to work an hour-and-a-half late and stay an hour-and a-half late, so she could have that prime time at the end of her working day. In fact, the boss agreed to all her suggestions. He had to spend a few extra minutes with her, but he got a much more effective employee out of this arrangement.



Narrative Used to Make a Point About the History Behind Current Economic Policy for Experienced Readers
from "Why Does an American Need a Swiss Bank Account?" 
How to Open a Swiss Bank Account: Everything You Need to Know to Open and Use a
Swiss Bank Account, to Protect Your Money from Inflation and Assure Complete Privacy

Until 1971, the dollar was a hard currency, "as good as gold." On August 15 of that year, President Nixon decreed that, "temporarily," the United States would no longer convert dollars into gold for the central banks of other nations. Since these central banks were the only holders who could still exchange dollars for bullion, gold backing for the dollar was thus, for all practical purposes, eliminated. 

Mr. Nixon, in effect, declared to the world that the United States was insolvent. We would no longer honor the claims against our national gold reserves that our dollars represented. We couldn't because there wasn't enough gold in the Treasury's vaults to redeem even the dollars held by foreigners.



Narrative Used to Give Evidence to Support a Theory: 
An Example from a Psychology Textbook Used in Introductory Undergraduate Courses 
from "Thinking and Language" 

One American prisoner of war returned home from North Vietnam 80 pounds lighter after several years in a jungle camp. One of his first desires was to play golf. To the astonishment of his fellow officers, given his time away from the game and his emaciated condition, he played superbly. They wondered how. The pilot replied that every day of his imprisonment he imagined himself playing 18 holes, carefully choosing his clubs and playing the ball under varying conditions.



Narrative in Accounting Textbook Used in Introductory Undergraduate Courses 
to Give Examples 
from "Receivables" 
Intermediate Accounting

In 1938, McKesson & Robbins, Inc., reported total assets of $87 million. Of that amount, $9 million represented fictitious accounts receivable. Certain company officials had responded to the desire to increase assets and revenue by making false entries for sales. 

The most notorious accounting scandal of the 1970s was the Equity Funding case. Between 1964 and 1973, Equity Funding created $85 million of bogus revenue by falsely recording loans receivable from insurance customers. As the fraud deepened and the need for extra reported revenue increased, Equity Funding also began to create insurance policies for nonexistent customers. Overall, revenue was overstated by more than $140 million during the fraud period. 

A much-publicized fraud of the 1980s involved ZZZZ Best, a carpet-cleaning concern started by young entrepreneur Barry Minkow. ZZZZ Best enhanced reported results by reporting revenue and receivable from imaginary fire-damage restoration jobs.


Narrative Fiction Written for Young Readers (By an Award Winning Author) 
from The China Year

Henri's life had been pretty average before she went to China-average, that is, for a New York City kid. She lived in a loft apartment with her mother, who was a painter and potter, and her father, a college professor. She was in the eighth grade at Intermediate School 104, and she had a best friend named Tillie and a summer boyfriend in the Poconos named Walt. 

All that disappeared the year her father got an exchange appointment to teach English literature at Peking University, Beijing, China. Her second life began in Beijing, where they lived in a two-room apartment and she had a Chinese friend named Minyuan and no other friend at all except Caitlin, aged six. Perhaps most important, Henrietta had no school, only lesson assignments by mail from a correspondence school in Massachusetts. She had no one to talk to about school or boyfriends or anything, no telephone to talk on, no place to hang out and munch chips or pizza.



Narrative in the History of Science for Young Readers 
from "Gregor Joann Mendel: The Mystery of Heredity" 
Break-Throughs in Science

In 1900 three strangers met at a crossroads of research. Each, without knowledge of the other two, had worked out the rules that govern inheritance of physical characteristics by living things. The three were Hugo de Vries of Holland, Carl Correns of Germany, and Erich Tschermak of Austria-Hungary. 

Each made ready to announce his discovery to the world. In preparation, each looked through previous issues of various scientific journals, to check earlier work in the field. Each, to his astonishment, found an amazing paper by someone named Gregor Johann Mendel in a 35-year-old copy of an obscure publication. Mendel, in 1865, had observed all the phenomena that the three scientists were preparing to report in 1900. 

Each made the same decision. With the honesty that is one of the glories of scientific history, each abandoned his own claims and called attention to Mendel's discovery. Each man advanced his own work only as confirmation.



Narrative in a History of Greeks in the US Written for Young Readers 
From "West of Atlantis" 
The Greeks in America

The first sizable settlement of Greeks in America took place in 1767, under rather unusual circumstances. Florida had become a British colony in 1763. An enterprising Scottish doctor named Andrew Turnbull obtained permission from the governor of Florida to work 20,000 acres of uncultivated land near St. Augustine. Under the terms of his contract with the government, Turnbull was to bring only Protestants to Florida. (The Orthodox Greek Christians qualified.) 

Turnbull's wife was the daughter of a Greek general from Smyrna, and Turnbull himself was familiar with the Mediterranean area. He collected, as settlers to work his land, destitute and desperate people from Greece, Italy, Corsica, and Majorca. To induce them to come with him, he described Florida as a paradise and promised to make them landowners. He agreed to supply them with passage, food, and clothing for three years-and return passage if they wanted to leave after six months' trial. In addition, he agreed to give each family 50 acres of land and an additional 25 acres for each child in the family. He brought about 1,400 men, women, and children to the settlement, which he named New Smyrna in honor of his wife's home. 

The voyage was terribly hard and many of the colonists died at sea, but even worse conditions awaited them in Florida. Instead of working in vineyards and olive groves as they had been led to expect, they found themselves cultivating cotton in swampy, malaria-infested bottomlands and being harassed by hostile Native Americans. Furthermore, their work was directed by English overseers who knew none of the languages spoken by the colonists and who treated them cruelly.



Narrative to Provide Multicultural Reading Materials for Young Readers 
from "Dustin Nguyen" 
Contemporary American Success Stories: Famous People of Asian Ancestry

Though his father had been a television producer when he lived in Vietnam and his mother had been a dancer and an actress, neither one was happy when their son, Xuan Tri (Dustin) decided to become an actor here in the United States. They thought Dustin should be an engineer and they worked hard to pay for his college. In fact, they went on paying for his college tuition for more than a year after he had dropped out because they thought he was still in school. When they found out he had been taking acting lessons and auditioning for TV roles, they were very angry and disappointed. 



Narrative Grammar in a History Book for Young Readers 
from "Cotton-Picking Days" 
Martha McLeod Bethune

Mary Jane, the fifteenth child of seventeen, was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina. Looking into her new daughter's open eyes, Patsy McLeon, an ex-slave, thought, "She will show us the way out." 

Neither Patsy nor Mary's father, Samuel, had a surname until Samuel chose McLeod, his ex-master's family name. 

Tall and muscular, Samuel was a kind, skillful carpenter and farmer, who also worked well with leather and tin. Patsy cooked nearby in the big McIntosh house. Small and lithe, she walked with the queenly grace of her royal African ancestors. Her smile lit Samuel's heart. 

When Samuel asked McLeod for permission to marry Patsy, his master agreed. But first Samuel had to earn the money to buy her. So after doing a normal day's work, he labored for other farmers, and, in two years, the loving couple celebrated their wedding.