Monday 9 May 2016

Oh no! Exclamation marks! Call the grammar-police!

I don't usually mention my books on here, but this latest one is in trouble. Look at that. It has an exclamation mark, shamelessly flaunting itself in an inappropriate way, right there on the cover. Can't see that book selling. Or the others in the hugely successful series. It's obviously been put together by a bunch of incompetents who don't know how to write...If you agree, you are probably the Secretary of State for Education.

There is a lot of kerfuffle about the teaching and testing of grammar and creative writing in primary schools at the moment. I posted in March about 'wow' words. Wow-words are just one of many problems. There is also the little issue of the exclamation mark. This innocent line-and-dot combo is going to have to watch its step. It might as well be a teenager in a hoodie hanging around a bus stop after dark, or an Arabic-speaker boarding a plane - it's just asking for trouble if it goes somewhere those in authority consider the 'wrong place'.

According to the curriculum authority, a young writer should gain no credit for exclamations such as these:

"He has to open it!" (Louis Sachar, Holes)

"Look! There's a kingfisher." (C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

"It's stress!" said Ron. "He'd be fine if that stupid great furball left him alone!" (J.K.Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) [actually, that one might actually be about the ! itself: it would be fine if the stupid great furball left it alone]

"There! It's easy - a bit rocky near the middle." (Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen)

"My mummy is very big. Like this!" (Chris Haughton, A Little Bit Lost)

"Let the wild rumpus begin!" (Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are)

'I carried naught but a spear. A spear!' (Tanya Landeman, Apache)

An exclamation mark, apparently, should only be used with a sentence that starts with 'What' or 'How'. After all, what do writers know? Who would you trust to use words effectively - a Carnegie-winner or the Education Secretary?

Children learn by example. We want them to read, and they learn to write through reading. If they read good books, they will come across exclamation marks used properly. Won't they then wonder why the rules for using them don't match use-in-practice? Of course they will. It's not as though exclamation marks are only safe in the hands of grown-ups. It isn't like not letting them drive or drink alcohol or join the army - all things they can do when they are older but are against the rules in primary school. No one is going to be hurt by a sharp exclamation mark.

I'm getting a bit sick of being polite about this. WTF does the government think it's doing? There is no sense to this rule, just as there is no sense to making up grammatical terms, like 'fronted adverb,' insisting children learn them and then testing them on those made-up terms. Grammar is useful, and teaching it appropriately is a good thing. But the key word there is 'appropriately'. (It's an adverb. It goes with the verb 'teaching'. 'Grammar' is a noun, as is 'thing'. And 'good' is an adjective. That's all you need to know to start with. More can follow later if necessary, but if we stuck to teaching just those, at a suitable point (not age 6) that would be enough for most purposes.)

But back to the exclamation marks. This is a made-up rule. The only rule about exclamation marks is pretty simple - use them to show an exclamation.

Help. Is that a noun? Is it a verb? If so, in what form?
Help! Verb, imperative, conveying urgency.

Punctuation adds or clarifies meaning. That's what it's for. It's not there to make dumb rules about.

Today, the Society of Authors publishes a statement from the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group and the Educational Writers Group calling on the government to alter the way children are taught to write. I am chair of EWG and another ABBA blogger, Nicola Morgan, is chair of CWIG. The members of both committees feel strongly about this issue. You can read the statement on the Society's website. Nicola's post about the ridiculous pseudo-names for grammatical parts and constructions is also published today. Please help to spread the word and free children to enjoy writing for pleasure.

Later addition: the statement is reported in today's Guardian (Wednesday).

Anne Rooney
New blog: The Shipwrecked Rhino


Nicola Morgan said...

Well said, Anne! (Note another correct use of exclamation marks which would get no credit in the SPaG test for 7 year olds.) My corresponding piece today is here: I've linked to yours there.

Pippa Goodhart said...

I'm so glad to read the indignation I feel expressed from the point of view of an in depth knowledge of grammar. With a 1960s trendy primary school background I never learnt even what a verb was, and was totally at sea when, in secondary school, we were set to learn French verbs. What the heck where they? So I agree that some basic grammar is helpful. But the attempt to pin every writing move down with rules just stabs the life out of it, missing the point of it entirely! Thank you, Anne.

Joan Lennon said...


Catherine Butler said...

It's not there to make dumb rules about.

"It's not there about which to make dumb rules."

That's better. (N. Morgan)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hey, it's not illegal! Have you received a warning letter or a visit from the police about this? If not, go right on using them, except, perhaps, in newspaper headlines. They don't, I am told.

Stroppy Author said...

(Can I just point out that Catherine means Nicky M, not our own Nicola M.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Glad you cleared that up, Anne!

Sue, the problem is only that children who use them in tests in sentences which begin "what" or how" will be marked as wrong and therefore risk failing their tests. That's what's bonkers and damaging about it. If it was a matter of needing govt permission to use them wherever we wish I don't think we'd be worrying!

Catherine Butler said...

My goodness, I hadn't noticed that fatal ambiguity! Apologies, Nicola.

Penny Dolan said...

Good luck with raising questions about these odd edicts, Nicola Morgan and Anne Rooney!

Lynne Benton said...

Brilliant post, Anne - and Nicola. If only the other N Morgan would take some notice...! (Oops! Or should that be What oops!?)

Saviour Pirotta said...

I love using exclamation marks and have no intention of stopping. So there! [Incidentally, if I'd left out the exclamation mark there, would it not have changed the meaning of the last sentence? Would it not have meant 'so there' as in 'bang on the money'?

C.J.Busby said...

Excellent post and glad to hear about the Soc of A statement. Apparently the SATS Reading Test today had many kids ion tears and even able pupils were unable to finish it. It's all a bloody omnishambles.

Kathryn Evans said...

Who is it that's making up these rules? And does that mean and ! can only ever be used with a ?

Caroline Lawrence said...

I love exclamation points (as we call them in the States...) But I think whichever view you hold they are exempt in conversation. Can anybody find some examples of a respected author using them when not in inverted commas? THAT is the real challenge!

Catherine Butler said...

She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books!

That's from Mansfield Park. Admittedly, one might class it as free indirect discourse.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness, things are worse in your schools than even here! (Exclamation mark included because appropriate) teachers have to jump through hoops here, but never about whether or not to allow points of punctuation.

Katherine Lynas said...

Eugh! I spent a Y2 English lesson today helping children write exclamation sentences that start with how and what, so we could have evidence that they could do it in their books. The class teacher tells them that these are not the only correct ways to use exclamation marks but that we need some sentences starting this way because the government wants us to do.

Don't get me started!