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Does grammar matter?


So Michael Gove, Education Secretary and champion of academies, is arguing that the current crop of school exams are too easy and wants us to go back to ‘proper’ education, including a more rigorous focus on grammar. An excerpt from the Conservative Blog perhaps gives some insight into the level of zeal with which his proposals are being greeted among the Conservative faithful, but here’s a quote from the man himself on why school pupils need more grammar instruction:

Thousands of children – including some of our very brightest – leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar, incapable of writing a clear and accurate letter. And it’s not surprising when the last government explicitly removed the requirement to award a set number of marks for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in examinations.

The basic building blocks of English were demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning. Under this Government we will insist that our exams, once more, take proper account of the need to spell, punctuate and write a grammatical sentence.

I have a number of concerns with the proposals, the main one being that grammar instruction is somehow seen as a ‘magic bullet’ to curing poor argumentation, expression, and clarity. The idea is that ‘knowing grammar’ will make a pupil be able to write at a far higher standard than they would be able to without grammar instruction. While I admire the sentiment, I question the rhetoric. Pupils are not all of a sudden going to become the next generation of Shakespeare simply because they’re able to distinguish between proper usage of ‘less than’ and ‘fewer than’, nor are their arguments going to be more persuasive because they don’t split their infinitives. Pupils’ insights won’t necessarily be better since skills of interpretation, analysis and synthesis are (in my opinion) independent of knowing when to use ‘less’ as opposed to ‘fewer’.

The other issue I have with the proposal is that it will continue to blur the lines between ‘non-standard’ grammar and ‘incorrect’ grammar. In such rarified prescriptive circles, no distinction is made between an ‘error’ which is different from the standard form, and an error which impedes mutual communication and meaning. In the world of the prescriptivist, ‘I done it’ is just as wrong/bad/abominable/hang-worthy as ‘I it done’. Such crude lack of distinction will further erode any confidence non-standard speakers of English will have in their respective varieties because they’ll have been brain-washed into thinking their speech is ‘wrong’.

Lastly, what is ‘wrong’ is often simply a matter of opinion (backed up by various political, cultural and economic prestige associated with the ‘right’ way of saying something). To give an example of this, The Times included a grammar quiz in one of their columns today. One of the questions was whether the following sentence was correct or incorrect:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

I said it was correct. I was wrong. My error derived from the fact that this statement is an incorrect rendering of the original “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. Apparently, biblical scripture is immune from alteration. Problem is that grammatically, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE ORIGINAL SENTENCE… What is going to end up happening is that teachers with a bee in their bonnet about their own ‘pet grammar likes/dislikes’ will not be prepared to countenance anything that goes against their views.

As I said, I fully support the intention to make pupils write better, to be more critical about their own usage and be able to talk about language in a sensible and structured way, but we also need to have the appropriate level of ‘grammatical flexibility’ in teaching these ‘standards’.

P.S. I’d love to link to the quiz, but since The Times sits behind a paywall, you’re going to have to either 1) pay for it yourself (£1 for 30 days access) or 2) wait and see if it comes off pay-per-view.

– The Social Linguist

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  1. Phil
    September 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Slightly off-topic, but I’ve noticed a marked improvement in students’ writing over the past few years. This doesn’t seem to be correlated to any general increase in prior achievement in public examinations; if anything, the improvements I’ve seen recently have been from students with lower entry grades to university than those whose writing I saw when I started teaching at Essex in 2006.

    More generally, however, it is simply untrue that the state education system has somehow deteriorated in terms of its ability to produce literate young people. Like much Conservative thinking, Gove’s description of how the teaching of grammar was destroyed by evil liberals is at best rose-tinted half-truth, and at worst a complete rewriting of history. If there really was any Golden Age of grammar teaching, then this was almost certainly, in England at least, confined to selective grammar schools where it was intended that most pupils should be entered for O-level examinations. In this system, it really *was* the case that significant numbers of pupils ended their formal education functionally, or in many cases completely, illiterate. The GCSE, which let us not forget was introduced by a Conservative government, was a radical shift from the bipartite system of O-level/CSE that it replaced; the weighting given to spelling, grammar etc., however, was nothing more than a token gesture, so Gove’s suggestion that its removal was somehow a great betrayal is rather hollow.

    Pointing out the inconsistencies in a Conservative argument should not, however, blind us to the fact that the erosion in the teaching of descriptive language structure (which is not the same as prescriptive grammar) in schools has actually been harmful for those who would benefit most from the insight it would bring to their writing. I believe that it is in this area that we, as linguists, have most to contribute. You made the interesting, and completely accurate, point that, for prescriptivists, there is no difference between ‘I done it’ and ‘I it done’, but I think the most crucial distinction to be made is between your example of ‘less/fewer than’ and ‘I done it’. ‘Errors’ in the former are much more widespread in writing than in the latter which should suggest to us that there is greater potential for this to be a change in progress. As Julia Snell quite rightly claimed in her recent interview with Stephen Fry, we live in a standard language culture. The right and wrongs of such a situation are much less pressing than the inequality of access to opportunity that many our young people face. At the risk of sounding like an evil prescriptivist, I believe that a teacher would be failing in her/his duty by not correcting something like ‘I done it’ in a piece of writing. And when I say ‘correcting’, I perhaps mean that the students should be made aware that not everyone considers such a structure to be appropriate in that particular modality. It’s crucial, however, that, as you say, the teaching of language structure does not become a free-for-all where teachers’ personal preferences are imposed in a context-free environment. It is this very ignorance of language structure, endemic even amongst many in the teaching profession, which allows prescriptivist views of language to flourish. If you don’t know how and why ‘I done it’ is structurally different from ‘I did it’, then it’s much easier to call upon other resources, such as social and cultural stereotypes, to evaluate

    In short, we need more knowledge of linguistics filtering through to pre-University educational sectors. A-level English Language contains much less linguistics than it used to do, and the secondary sector is very much a linguistics-free zone. The education sectors in continental Europe are not afraid of embedding language structure into their school curricula and we would be wise to follow their lead.

  2. September 6, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Wow, Phil. Just… wow! That’s a blog post in its own right, and thanks for taking the time to write it. I’ll need a bit of time to digest what you’ve said, but suffice to say that I agree with you 🙂

  1. September 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm

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