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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Gove’

Does grammar matter?

September 6, 2011 3 comments

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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