Thursday, 16 May 2013

There's No One Quite Like Grammar - John Dougherty

What "were" they "thinking"?
I’m not quite a grammar geek, but I’m certainly a bit of a pedant. It matters to me that my subjects and verbs agree, that my tenses are correct, that my possessives are properly punctuated. Misplaced apostrophes irritate and amuse me in equal measure. I’m angered more than is reasonable by the fact that even in broadsheets people write “lead” when they mean “led”. As for signs like this one (see photo), the less said the better.

I do think these things matter, and certainly they matter in my own writing, because it’s important to me that people understand what I write. When I write about somebody doing something to somebody else, the reader should be able to tell who did what to whom without having to read the sentence three times. 

What differentiates me from the likes of Toby Young is that I don’t think there is always only one correct grammar for every sentence; I don’t think being grammatically correct confers any kind of moral superiority; and I don’t think being able to spot a grammatical error, real or imagined, in someone else’s expression of an argument means that you can ignore its content.

Toby Young, in case you don’t know, is the poster-boy for Michael Gove’s free schools scheme, and last week he wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph’s blog entitled Are all Michael Gove’s critics illiterate?

Clearly, the answer to that question is “no”, although Young would have us believe otherwise. He rests his case on two points: firstly, that the one hundred academics who wrote an open letter criticising Gove’s new National Curriculum are such thickos that they won the inaugural Bad Grammar award, an award which seems to have been made up by Toby Young and some like-minded chums specifically so they could give it to some critics of Michael Gove; and secondly, that Michael Rosen, in responding to Gove’s blatant misrepresentation of his position on the teaching of grammar, at one point missed out a comma and wrote “is” instead of “are”.

I think it’s telling that Young’s article conflates “not always following the rules of grammar as I understand and venerate them” - and perhaps even “making the odd mistake” - with “being illiterate”. This is the damaging corollary of this sort of mindless pedantry, and it makes having a proper and sensible discussion about the teaching of grammar practically impossible. If the response to “Actually I don’t think that teaching grammar at this level to such young children is appropriate” is “Look! Look! You missed out a comma! That means you’re stupid and I don’t have to listen to you! Yah boo sucks!” then debate is futile.

Grammar is not a set of rules, but a set of descriptions. Language did not arrive with a manual of instructions; rather, at some point in history somebody - or a number of somebodies - decided to work out and set down the rules which had evolved as the language developed. And if those rules had evolved up until that point, it makes no sense to say that they have now stopped evolving - or that their role is now not to describe how language works, but to police it.

This is why it makes no sense, for instance, to say - as one of Young’s fellow judges did - that the sentence “Much of [Gove’s curriculum] demands too much too young” is “simply not English”. It is. It is perfectly comprehensible, and it is a nonsense to say otherwise.

Just to reiterate: I think grammar is important, and I think that it is important to teach good grammar. But I believe that the best way to teach good grammar is to expose children to as much well-written and well-spoken English as possible, for as long as possible, so that when you finally come to describe to them what grammar is, their heads are already full of it. It is not to cram their heads full of concepts like “adverbial clause” and then test them on those concepts.

Of course, Toby Young and his friends may feel differently; and they may even have good reasons for doing so. But as long as their response to criticism is to point and jeer, we will never know what those reasons may be.

John's website is at
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8 

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree 
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig


Pippa Goodhart said...

An important point, made extremely well. Thank you, John.

John Lepsky said...

Good post. I like it. It was interesting to read it. Great thank's author for sharing…

Stroppy Author said...

What Pippa said. :-)
And readers absorb grammar as they read. So let the kids read, and half the work will be done.