On desiccated pedants, and ageing hippies

I’m coming into this a bit late. In media res, as they say. (Or at least, those who are classically educated say. Or those who, like me, haven’t had the benefits of a classical education, but who nonetheless enjoy showing off by peppering their writing with Latin tags.) A veritable storm is currently raging here in Britain on educational practice, and, until about a couple of days ago, I knew nothing of it. Mea culpa.

Having researched the matter a bit on the internet yesterday, but having had neither the time nor the patience to read through everything that has been written on this fraught matter, it seems to me that, as ever, two opposed sets of stereotypes are emerging, and that each side is seeing the other purely in terms of these stereotypes. And it doesn’t help that people from both sides seem intent upon living up – or down – to these stereotypical images. On one side, we have the dry-as-dust desiccated pedants determined to make the process of learning as unpleasant as possible, reducing education merely to endless learning by rote, and labelling as failures that vast majority of children who, when tested at an impossibly early age, fail to meet requisite pre-determined standards. And on the other side, we have ageing hippies disputing the very concept of correctness (seemingly on the grounds that deeming a child’s response as “incorrect” can but cause irreparable damage to that child’s psyche), and insisting that any learning that isn’t “fun” or “exciting” is not worthy of the name.

So what side am I on? I ask myself. Am I a Desiccated Pedant (DP) or an Ageing Hippy (AH)? I seem to have divided loyalties here: one the one hand, I am, by nature, a cultural conservative (as this earlier post of mine amply testifies), constantly bemoaning “our benighted times” to anyone who will listen – or just to myself when no-one does; but on the other hand, my political sympathies remain strongly on the Left – or, at least, on what passes for the Left in our benighted times.

This whole thing came to my attention by a speech given a few days ago by Education Secretary Michael Gove (DP), in which, amongst other things, he attacked by name children’s writer and poet Michael Rosen (AH). Rosen, in turn, penned a combative response.

(Rosen’s response relates only to that part of Gove’s speech in which he is referenced, but it is worth pointing out that Gove’s story of schoolchildren using Mr Men stories to learn about Nazi Germany has turned out not to be true: apparently, the students in question – they were 15-16 year olds – were exchanging ideas about how best to teach small children about Nazi Germany. Gove has not, to my knowledge, yet apologised for having used evidence that is inaccurate, to put it mildly; and Michael Rosen seems to me therefore perfectly entitled to post on his on Twitter account (@MichaelRosenYes) hostile tweets such as “Why did Gove lie about the Mr Men teacher? He was getting his students to write stories for young children – not teaching the orig. history!” And later: “Children, the person in charge of your school has told a lie about a teacher and Mr Men books. Shall we ask him what he thinks about lying?” It’s all, as I said, got more than a little fraught.)

In the meantime, Toby Young, whom I had previously known as editor of the self-regarding but little read Modern Review and as a self-confessed former cocaine addict (see his introduction to this book, in which he talks about himself rather than about the book), has a go at Rosen for a grammatical error in his piece:

In the course of extolling his own virtues as an educator – he’s the ex-Children’s Laureate and has written over 140 books – [Rosen] writes:

“I have spent thousands of hours in schools in the last 40 years doing writing workshops with children engaging in discussions with them about what kinds of language is appropriate for a particular piece of writing.”

Call me an old pedant, but shouldn’t there be a comma after “children”? And, more importantly, shouldn’t it be “what kinds of language *are* appropriate” not “what kinds of language *is* appropriate”?

In answer to Mr Young’s questions, yes, there should be a comma after “children”, and yes again, that should have been “are” rather than “is”. And while we’re picking on errors, Mr Young’s own piece should have spoken of “two howling errors”, rather than “a howling error” (my italics). However, I am fairly sure even Mr Young knows how to count to two, just as I am fairly sure that Mr Rosen understands basic use of punctuation, and the difference between plural and singular. The errors from both writers are errors of carelessness and of proof-reading rather than of ignorance, and, being myself guilty on several occasions in this blog of carelessness and poor proof-reading, I am prepared to be charitable about these matters, although I know it can be argued that professional writers writing in national newspapers should be held to higher standards than a mere unpaid blogger such as myself. But let’s leave that aside. More serious is a letter to which Mr Young links, signed by a hundred (count ‘em!) academics, addressed to the Guardian and to the Independent, raising concerns about the new national Curriculum proposed by Michael Gove. Incredibly, this letter is riddled with grammatical errors. A few examples will suffice:

This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Dear me!

This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding.

Is it the teachers or the children who will be subjected to “rote learning without understanding”?. From the context, one may infer it’s the children, but this should have been clear from what is written: the reader shouldn’t need to infer.

Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored.

Why the change from the future tense to the present tense?

Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

“…their experiences, lives and activities”, surely? But even leaving that one aside, the sentence is pisspoor for reasons that may be explained without recourse to grammatical technicalities. In very simple mathematical form:

A.X + A.Y = A.(X+Y)

Put into words, we may apply A to X, and then apply A to Y, and then add them together (that’s the left hand side of the equation); or we may add X and Y together first, and then apply A to the combined entity (the right hand side of the equation). The two amount to the same, but the right hand side is more compact and more elegant.

So, to apply this to a simple sentence, I could say “I’d love a whisky, or I’d love a brandy” (left hand side of the equation); or I could say “I’d love a whisky or a brandy” (right hand side of the equation). They mean the same. In this case:

A = “I’d love a…”

X = “a whisky”

Y = “a brandy”

The offending sentence from the letter quoted above has the same simple structure, and this time:

A = “Little account is taken of…”

X = “children’s potential interests and capacities”

Y = “that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”

But while A can easily be applied to X (“Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities”), when you apply A to Y, you get gobbledegook (“Little account is taken of that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”).

In short, it doesn’t take a detailed understanding of grammar to see that this sentence is incorrect: it just takes a basic feel for the language, and for how it works. Those who do not possess even this really have no business pontificating in public on matters of education.

But it is hard to know which is more shocking: that a letter signed by a hundred academics and educationalists should contain basic errors; or that, once these errors have been pointed out, people should write in to the Guardian defending this same letter (one correspondent even describing it as “well written and correct”). For the errors in the academics’ letter are not errors of carelessness, or of proof-reading: these are errors of people who seem neither to know nor to care about even the basics of the language in which they write.

And yes, it matters. The thrust of the various letters in the Guardian defending the academics’ letter seems to be that we know by instinct what is correct and what isn’t, and that this instinct overrides rules; or that language is all about communication, and as long as language communicates, we need not worry about rules; indeed, rules may act a barrier to communication, and certainly act as a barrier to creativity; and so on. The kind of stuff that gives even Ageing Hippyism a bad name.

I am afraid I am enough of a Desiccated Pedant not to be impressed by any of this. Our instinct for language may no doubt be sufficient for our everyday needs (“It’s a sunny day outside”, “My credit card bill is due”, “I fancy a beer”, etc.), but if we wish to express thoughts that are intricate or subtle or precise, we will not be able to do so without an understanding of the intricacies and the subtleties and the precisions of language. Indeed, it’s even worse than that: not only will we not be able to express such thoughts, we won’t be able even to think them. How can I think a subtle thought, or a complex thought, or a precise thought, if I do not possess language of sufficient intricacy, subtlety and precision with which to think them? To deny children the teaching of the intricacies and subtleties and precisions of language – i.e. grammar – is to deny them access not merely to jobs, but to thought itself.

Of course, as Michael Rosen explains so clearly in his article, there is not one single correct grammar, but many. Indeed, he is far from objecting to the teaching of grammar:

Michael Gove wants to position me as someone who is against schools teaching grammar. No, I am someone who thinks that the place for grammar teaching is the secondary school, college and university, and that it should be taught on the basis of the evidence that someone like Professor Debra Myhill has produced. In fact, I am so keen on grammar, I have written a mini-course in grammar and put it up on my blog where it is free for all to read and download.

However, I must confess to reverting to my Desiccated Pedant mode when I read this:

A problem that arises from talking about “correct grammar” is that it suggests that all other ways of speaking or writing are incorrect. This consigns the majority to being in error. Gove might be happy with that way of viewing humanity, but I’m not.

Even if we are to accept that there are alternative grammars all equally valid, it does not follow that there can be nothing that is incorrect. In mathematics, for example, there are many correct ways of solving simultaneous equations; but there are many incorrect ones also that lead to wrong answers. If every mode of speaking or of writing were to be correct, then why bother with teaching grammar in the first place? This applies to any subject: if everything were correct, then why teach anything at all? Isn’t it then merely a case of – as Pirandello put it – right you are if you think you are?

To demonstrate that there is more than one form of Standard English, Michael Rosen gives us the following:

To take one simple example, we can write in modern Standard English: “Do you have any wool?” “Have you got any wool?” “Have you any wool?” All three are acceptable forms of Standard English.

That’s fair enough. But should someone – a child, say, whose first language is not English – say “Do have any wool you got?”, would it not be right to correct the child? Or does Michael Rosen really think that doing so would “consign” the child “to being in error”? For if this child is not corrected, I don’t see we’re doing the child any favour. But if this child is to be corrected, then I don’t really see the validity of Rosen’s point.

Neither am I impressed by the various appeals to “creativity”. I am not even sure what is meant by “creativity” in this context. One cannot, after all, expect someone to be, say, a creative strategist in chess who is ignorant even of the basic moves. Before we even think of creativity, we must provide children material to be creative with. Even a creative genius such as Schubert, even while creating works the quality of which we lesser mortals can but wonder at in awed disbelief, took formal lessons in counterpoint. He did not see these formal lessons as a bar to creativity: quite the opposite.

And sadly, yes, this does mean an element of rote learning. Of course I don’t want to see education as merely a sequence of learning by rote without understanding: no reasonable person, I think, does. But I don’t really see how all rote learning can be avoided. It is not possible to become acquainted with the wonders and the beauties of mathematics without knowing, at the very least, the times tables. And should anyone know of a way of teaching the times tables that does not involve rote learning, I’d be glad to hear it. And so it continues, year after year of boring drudgery, until the beauty of the subject becomes apparent. And similarly with other subjects – both the sciences and the arts: to get to the stage where things get really interesting, one has to trawl through much that is boring and dull. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Under the circumstances, the Ageing Hippy stance of insisting only on that which excites and stimulates children does strike me as misplaced. It robs them of that which, ultimately, enriches.

So on balance, on matters of education, I think I am more of a Desiccated Pedant than an Ageing Hippy. Which is a bit of a shame, as I’d much rather be on Michael Rosen’s side than on Toby Young’s. Best would be if people could move away from their entrenched positions, and consider seriously what the other side is saying, but, as with anything else, that would be too much to hope for.

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35 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carolyn on May 12, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Hi Himadri,

    This has caused a lot of comment on a small messageboard I belong to which developed from the BC Word of Mouth. Michael Rosen used to belong to this and the linguistic experts on this (and the Latin ones) are very scathing of both Mr Gove and Mr Young. They don’t see grammar as unimportant at all, but they do see a lot of silly rules as irrelevant and damaging.

    I must say that I don’t see much wrong at all with the examples you gave from Michael Rosen’s letter. Especially this one: “Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored.” It can’t be that the second sentence should be in the future; that would negate its meaning. The learner IS being ignored in the ideas put forward and this will lead to failure. It isn’t that the learner will be ignored in the future. They are now.

    And again ‘experience, lives and activity’ don’t have to be all plurals either for grammatical reasons or for sense. They all have slightly different connotations in the singular or plural and Michael Rosen should be allowed to use whatever forms he wishes to make his point.

    There are times when language is better for conciseness rather than strict grammar, and I think that is the case with “Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.” You can add ‘or the fact that’ but it never really improves a sentence beyond the strictly grammatical form.

    I am not sure you DO need to teach grammar really, apart from for interest. I suspect, using an example I am a little familiar with, that Maori children were not taught the grammar of their language, but I have never heard criticism that the Maori people couldn’t speak their language. My husband did a long course in ESOL once and the emphasis on really weird grammar was amazing, and I don’t think it can have been truly helpful to the learners. What learners of a foreign language need is to hear the language – people always comment on how much easier it is to learn a language when you live with the people than by book or teacher. And that includes very strongly the grammatical structures it uses. No speaker of English as their first language would ever say “Do have any wool you got?” Not even the youngest of children learning to speak. It’s just not a natural structure in English and you don’t need to learn that by any formal method. It’s not one of Michael Rosen’s different grammar – it’s not a grammar at all in English.

    I don’t think people are saying only things that excite children should be taught (if so we would need to completely change our education system) or that there is no room for some rote learning, but a whole lot of children repeating some 18th century rules is not helpful for education, and certainly not for children’s learning. I recall in my school (a one-teacher one) a child spelt ‘immediately’ wrong one day and every time we came inside for the following week we all had to repeat together i m m e d i a t e l y. I probably already knew it, being a good speller, so what exact use was that to me, and how many of the kids who didn’t know it wouldn’t have learnt it eventually or switched off from it straightaway? It’s a fond memory but useless teaching really.

    You might be interested in this discussion: http://s4.zetaboards.com/Radio4forum/topic/9869684/1/#new

    though it does drift off soon (under, I am sorry to say, my influence) to a discussion of phonetics, pronunciation and the rhotic ‘r’.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, I’ll respond to your points in detail letter, but I’d just like to clarify now that the letter I referred to was not written by Michael Rosen. He’s too good a writer to write something so illiterate.

      It’s also worth pointing out, I think, that Rosen explicitly says that he is for the teaching of grammar. He disagrees with Gove on how and at what stage it should be taught.

      I’ll respond to your other points later. Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

    • Hello Caro,

      Isn’t it strange that we are always disagreeing with each other overjust about everything? Anyone would think we were sworn enemies or something!

      I had a look at that link you gave, and I am glad I don’t contribute to that site: I would get into all sorts of arguments, and it would do my blood pressure no good at all.

      Anyway, let’s first go through the points in the letter, one by one. It’s not Michael Rosen’s letter, as I said earlier: Mr Rosen actually writes very clearly and elegantly – a sure sign that he knows and understands well the rules of grammar. It is therefore greatly puzzling why he appears to want to deny children the opportunity to arrive at a level of understanding of grammar similar to his own. At any rate, he would never write anything so woefully bad as that letter. And, having been reading your posts on various boards over many years, neither would you.

      1. “Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored.”

      You say: “It can’t be that the second sentence should be in the future; that would negate its meaning. The learner IS being ignored in the ideas put forward and this will lead to failure. It isn’t that the learner will be ignored in the future. They are now.”

      I can see what you mean, and if this is so, then the greater charge of poor grammar may be replaced by a somewhat less serious charge of poor style. It is good style to ensure that two sentences next to each other in the same paragraph relate to each other, and that the first sentence leads into the second. Otherwise, the effect is too staccato, too “stop-start”. I’d suggest something here along the following lines:

      “The learner is largely ignored, and, as a consequence, inappropriate demands are made that will lead to failure and to demoralisation.”

      Clear, precise, and minimising the possibility of being misunderstood.

      2. You say: “And again ‘experience, lives and activity’ don’t have to be all plurals either for grammatical reasons or for sense. They all have slightly different connotations in the singular or plural and Michael Rosen should be allowed to use whatever forms he wishes to make his point.”

      Once again, this is not by Rosen, but leaving that aside…

      We may speak of “our house” even though “our” is plural, and “house” is singular, if everyone included in “our” lives in the same “house”. Similarly, we may speak of “children’s experience” if the children have all had the same experience, or have had experiences sufficiently similar to be generalised as a single experience. However, if their lives are sufficiently different to warrant being expressed in the plural (as it is), it is hard to see how it is possible for their experiences, or their activities, to be sufficiently similar to warrant expression in the singular. For what are our lives if not the sum of our experiences and our activities? If some point is being made in all this, then the point is far from clear to me. Given the woeful quality of the prose in the rest of the letter, sloppiness seems more likely here than any subtle point-making – point-making so subtle, indeed, that the point remains entirely opaque.

      3. You say: “There are times when language is better for conciseness rather than strict grammar, and I think that is the case with “Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.” You can add ‘or the fact that’ but it never really improves a sentence beyond the strictly grammatical form.”

      I certainly wouldn’t add “…or the fact that…” for the simple reason that what follows (“that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”) is not a fact at all, but an unargued assertion, and a most specious one at that. The sentence as it stands reads very awkwardly indeed, and that is a direct consequence of its ungrammatical construction. The sentence is most certainly NOT better for its conciseness. I’d suggest something along the following lines:

      “Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or of the need of young children to relate abstract ideas to their experiences, lives and activities.”

      Once again, clear, concise, understandable. And grammatically correct. Even though what it says is a load of tosh.

      You characterise the proposed National Curriculum as “a lot of silly rules”, and claim this will lead to “a whole lot of children repeating some 18th century rules”. Do you have any evidence for this? Can you provide a link to a detailed critique of the proposals? I am not posing these as rhetorical questions: I really would like to know.

      The issue is not whether or not grammar should be taught: even Michael Rosen is clear that it should. The questions are: What constitutes grammar? How should it be taught? At what stage should it be taught? I am prepared to listen to an informed debate on these questions with an open mind, but I don’t think we’re getting any debate at all: we’re merely getting two entrenched sides sniping at each other, and a lot of personal invective

      The rules of grammar are not to be followed blindly, but they are there to guide us when required. I agree that these rules aren’t important for everyday speech, but when it comes to expression of more complex thoughts that require more complex sentence structures, then they are important. When writing for this blog, say, I have frequently had occasion to refer to grammar textbooks, not to “stifle my creativity”, but quite the opposite – to help structure my sentences more clearly and more elegantly. The idea that rules necessarily stifle creativity is nonsense, and is mere fashionable anti-authority paranoia. Of course we should be prepared to break these rules as and when we see fit, but to do this, we need to know what the rules are in the first place, why they are there, and why we want to break them. Only then can we break them effectively. There is nothing more absurd than ignorance claiming – when caught out – to be independence of thought.

      We have both been on the same books boards now for a long time, and we can both, I’m sure, think of people who are incapable of expressing complex thoughts (or, in many cases, even simple thoughts) because they do not have sufficient grasp of how language works, i.e. of grammar. There have been many occasions when I have been unable to grasp (or even guess at ) what these people are trying to express. And I think they don’t quite know either, since they do not appear to have sufficient mastery of language even to think the thought, let alone to express it.

      I take Michael Rosen’s point that there is no single type of correctness, but I do take issue with him that there can be no incorrectness (which I think is what he is saying). I don’t really care that correcting children is to “consign them to being incorrect”. If the child is incorrect in arithmetic, we correct them: seven times eight does NOT equal 54, as former Education Minister Stephen Byers had thought, and if a child says it does, it is only right to correct that child. So why should we not correct children when they similarly use the English language incorrectly? Does English not require the strict standards we apply to mathematics?

      This is the point behind my deliberately making up a sentence that is so absurdly incorrect. I agree, no native speaker would say such a sentence, but that is not my point. My point is this: Is this sentence correct, or is it incorrect? If it is incorrect (and we can agree that it is), then it follows that certain things, despite what Rosen says, are incorrect. And if this is so, we must decide what falls within the limits of correctness, and what doesn’t. And teach children accordingly.

      As for that letter to the Independent, I did not think it was badly written because it was ungrammatical: it’s the other way round – because it was clearly so badly written, I started to look into where it had gone wrong grammatically. When people start defending writing of such woeful quality as “well-written and correct”, they lose all credibility.

      I’d like to add a final note to say that I have a respect for learning, and for the very many academics who cultivate and propagate erudition. I have absolutely no desire to join in academic-bashing. It seems to me most likely that the academics who signed this letter did so without reading it: they of course did their profession no favours at all by doing so, but I do not want to use that as an excuse to attack the entire profession.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Carolyn on May 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm

        Sorry about attributing the letter to Michael Rosen – comes of reading too quickly and superficially.

        As to what he thinks of grammar and correction, I don’t know much about that. I suspect that he thinks grammar is important but not the type of nitpicking grammar that kids (and adults) are often picked up on. Using ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’ for instance, which is surely just a dumb rule imposed for superiority. It’s not adhered to in the greatest writers, and it doesn’t make sense. If we can manage with ‘more’ and ‘more’ why can’t we manage with the more elegant ‘less’ and ‘less’? I know that David on the board I pointed you to thinks grammar is very important but not the way it has been taught in the past. I suspect Michael Rosen thinks the same. (Much as there is an awful lot to maths than times tables and what I was taught – I do resent now that I wasn’t given a much wider and more interest view of numbers and science. I think I would have liked those subjects much more and got much more out of them if they had been taught with less emphasis on the basic rules – which I didn’t pick up much anyway in the case of science. How does a circuit work?)

        As for my own grammar the vast majority of it has just come from the normal process of acquiring language. I don’t think often of what tense to use (and indeed words like gerundive leave me somewhat uncertain as to their meaning and use) or what structure; I do often wonder whether to bother with certain ‘rules’ when I don’t want to – will people think I am ignorant if I don’t adhere to them, or should I go with what reads and sounds better? (“Whom” is a big culprit here.) I now avoid ‘due to’ in my writing since I don’t understand the rules on its use. It is an adjective apparently (how can that be?) and should only be followed by one word or one contained phrase. Or something. Virtually no one will know that but I still feel constricted by my ignorance here when I shouldn’t be. It really doesn’t matter.

        The other reason that correcting people isn’t particularly helpful is that people don’t seem able to learn from that. I used to go to Toastmasters and one of things we had to talk about was grammar. There a couple of people who always said “I seen” and “I done” – they were told repeatedly (and gently) that this wasn’t the usual phrase but it made not the slightest bit of difference to what they said. I find this a very interesting mistake because there seems no reason for people not to pick up in their early years that others frown on this. It’s not really a class thing in NZ – the people I hear using it include a librarian and a manager of a very successful business. And it seems to be something older people use more than younger ones.

        I think there are very few people (and I am sure Michael Rosen isn’t one of them) who would not want children to be able to differentiate between standard and non-standard English, but equally children shouldn’t be made to feel their non-standard English (ie the English imposed by south-east English speakers who managed to become the leaders of England when it could easily have been another area and Yorkshire English would have been standard) means they are inferior. And I think that happens a lot in England.

        Cheers, Caro.

      • Hello Caro,

        My perception is that the quality of basic literacy, here in the UK at least, is very low. I don’t have the figures with me, and don’t have time to look for them now on the net, but the last time I saw official figures, ever larger proportions of children were leaving school “functionally illiterate”. (If I am wrong in this, I would be happy to be corrected: I promise it won’t harm my confidence, or cause any long-term damage to my self-respect or anything like that.) The quality of writing in the public sphere has declined spectacularly.

        I don’t know whether this decline is a consequence of not teaching grammar in schools, but it remains a possibility. As a statistician, I know that correlation does not necessarily imply causality. But this particular correlation is too salient to be ignored. I do feel strongly that children do need to be taught something of how language is structured (i.e. grammar), and I am open-minded about what constitutes grammar, how it should be taught, etc. I am not interested in rejecting Gove’s proposals simply because they come from Gove; or labelling them as “outdated” or as “nitpicking rules” or whatever without first seeing a detailed critique of them. Gove’s proposals deserve as fair a hearing as any other set of proposals.

        One may use the rules of grammar if they are useful (and often they are), or one may break them if they do not serve one’s expressive ends. But this should be done from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. Yes, I know, language changes over time, and if it changes because there are new expressive needs that the existing grammar cannot cope with, then that’s fine. But if it changes simply because we’re ignorant and don’t know any better, then the expressive range of language diminishes. I have encountered too many instances of mere ignorance parading as rebelliousness and as freedom of thought, and I really am not impressed.
        Sorry to keep banging on about that letter, but it was a disgrace, and those who have put their name to that letter, as well as those who defend it, no longer, in my view, have further credibility in this matter.

        Too much I think is made of the class issue. In my experience, the speech of the average middle-class person is not more correct or more expressive than that of the average working-class person. Children of all classes should be taught what is correct and what isn’t, and, given that the demarcation line between the two is sometimes vague, what is borderline. There is absolutely nothing wrong with speaking in dialect, or even writing in dialect: the traditional Border ballads are, for instance, written in dialect, and they’re wonderful. But dialects differ, and if people speaking in different dialects need to communicate effectively with each other, they need a common understanding of a Standard English. We do no-one of any class any favours at all by pretending otherwise. “I done…” may be fine in certain dialects. It isn’t a question of telling them that “I done…” is necessarily wrong, or that the dialect they speak is not correct. But it is important to tell them that in Standard English, “I did” is correct, and ”I done” isn’t. Why is everyone making such a fuss about this?

        As for mathematics, there is indeed far more to mathematics than the times tables, but one has to drudge through an awful lot of dull stuff and rote-learning before one can get to the interesting bits. It’s the same in all subjects. As a consequence, learning in early stages is often dull. It can’t be helped. You don’t go to school to have fun: you go to theme parks for that.

        (Speaking for myself, I’d like to learn French properly, but I do know that before I go on to the interesting stuff like reading Flaubert or Baudelaire, I’ll have to go through a lot of dull stuff first. Can’t be helped, I’m afraid.)

        Cheers for now,
        Himadri

      • And as for this “less/fewer” business – absolutely! Let’s do away with it! What purpose does such a rule serve!

        But why stop there? “The houses was big.” That’s OK, isn’t it? I mean, language is for communication, and everyone knows what it means. Why make silly rules about singular and plural forms? Just dumb rules introduced for superiority.

        And don’t get me started on ths I/me business. Who cares if it’s passive or active or whatever. “Elaine and me played chess” is just fine. “Uncle gave John and I presents.” “Me likes a good thriller.” We all know what these sentences mean, and language is all about communication, right?

        Down with pedantry, says I, or say me, or whatever, it doesn’t matter, and neither do rules for sentence construction, or anything at all really, which is not important. All dumb rules imposed on we to make we feel inferior.

      • Posted by Carolyn on May 14, 2013 at 12:42 am

        By the way, Himadri, as regards “Isn’t it strange that we are always disagreeing with each other over just about everything?” my husband would say that is just because I am perverse and awkward. I naturally prefer to think it is because I am independently-minded!

  2. To demonstrate that there is more than one form of Standard English, Michael Rosen gives us the following:

    To take one simple example, we can write in modern Standard English: “Do you have any wool?” “Have you got any wool?” “Have you any wool?” All three are acceptable forms of Standard English.

    I can’t believe a writer has actually used such a specious argument. The only problem with Rosen’s point is that, according to SE, they’re all considered ‘correct grammar,’ meaning that, yes, there is only way of writing. Everything else is wrong, if it doesn’t followed accepted grammar rules. What’s so hard for Rosen to understand?

    Reply

    • Hello Miguel,
      I think I do actually take Rosen’s point that, even within Standard English, there are different ways to be correct. Where I take issue with him is his conclusion – which seems to be that nothing is incorrect.

      To take the example Nancy gives in her comment, “I haven’t got no pencil” may be perfectly correct within teh context of certain dialects. But Standard English it ain’t.

      And neither, obviously, was that last sentence. But I am using that sentence in the full knowledge that it isn’t Standard English. I cannot see whatis so very damaging abouttelling a child that “I haven’t got no pencil” is incorrect in Standard English. If a child thinks 7×8=54, it is the teacher’s duty to correct that child. Why should “I haven’t got no pencil” not similarly be corrected?

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. I come late to the controversy. It strikes me is that what is being overlooked here is the social-class issue in teaching grammar. If a child says “I haven’t got no pencil” we correct him not because we don’t understand his problem, but because the word choice and order mark him as “uneducated.” Many grammars may exist in a language, but they signal different social facts.

    Reply

    • Hello,
      If you’re late to this debate you’reonly one day later than I am!

      I think it’s this social aspect, which you identify, that has made this such a fraught matter. The underlying thought amongst many seems to be “If children from an underprivileged background speaks in a certain way, then who are we to tell these children they are wrong,and impose our own values on them?” While I can understand, and to some extent even sympathise, with this, I think it’s wrong-headed. “I haven’t got no pencil” may be fine within certain social contexts, but it isn’t Standard English, and there is no point pretending it is, and even less point in not educating children from under-privileged backgrounds on this matter. Not to educate a child (which involves correcting the child when the child is wrong) is to do the child a great disfavour, regardless of the child’s background.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. I am no expert in the education of children, but…

    children neither learn English grammar at school, nor by rote. They learn it by listening to people speaking around them (their immediate family), by experimentation and by being told what is right or wrong. If the people around them speak standard English, then by the time they go to school they will have largely learned standard English grammar and so not need to be taught it. If the people around them do not speak standard English, then they will be forced to learn standard English grammar at school, which I imagine is more problematic. Hence, the whole class issue – middle-class children are already at an advantage when they arrive at school.

    I am reading and enjoying J.M. Synge at the moment. It is written in very non-standard English. Here is a typical sentence:

    “We’re to find out if it’s Michael’s they are, some time herself will be down looking by the sea.”

    I have a particular fondness for literature written in non-standard English, or written with peculiar grammar. It was why I enjoy reading Middle English so much.

    Most of the English grammar I remember being taught at school has since turned out to be incorrect (split infinitives, not starting sentences with “because”, not ending sentences with prepositions).

    Reply

    • Hello obooki, I don’t disagree with any of that at all. I love the plays of Synge also. One of my favourite novels, Huckleberry Finn, is written entirely in non-standard English, and it is very expressive, and often very beautiful. (Of course, both Twain and Synge knew Standard English, and knew it well.) But when a hundred academics put their name to a formal letter addressed to national newspapers, I do expect it to be written correctly in Standard English. The flaws in their grammar were not instances of their deliberately flouting the laws of grammar for greater elegance or for greater expressiveness: I’d have had no problem with that at all. Each error in that letter made the prose clumsier and less expressive. It is not the fact of its being ungrammatical that rendered it pisspoor: rather, it’s the obviously pisspoor nature of the writing that urged me to look into its grammatical construction.

      Much grammar is, indeed, wrong, as you say – or, to put it more mildly, not helpful. I often break these laws myself: as you may have noticed, I am quite fond of starting sentences with “and”. But there is also much grammar that is very useful. Before starting on this blog, I have been on various internet boards and fora (the same ones as Caro), and have seen many examples of people unable to express even simple thoughts – let alone complex thoughts – because they have no idea how language works – i.e. they have absolutely no grasp of grammar. The quality of literacy I observe generally seems to me pretty poor, and a judicious teaching of grammar would not, I think, be out of place. (Rosen himself is for the teaching of grammar, as he makes clear.) But yes, we certainly need to re-examine our grammatical rules.

      But I don’t know that we can dispense completely with the concept of grammar: if everything were to be correct ( as Rosen seems to suggest), teaching would become a superfluous activity.

      I take your point about middle-class children having an advantage when they arrive at school over working-class children. Or children from immigrant backgrounds, some of whom have had little or no exposure to the English language. Indeed, I was such a child myself some 48 years ago: I was admitted to a primary school in Stockport, having spent the first five years and more of my life in my native India, and not knowing a word of English. I am grateful that the teaching staff took the trouble to teach me Standard English: they would certainly have let me down badly had they not done so, or had they left me merely to the often non-Standard English I was picking up in the playground.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

      • I thought the letter had the feel about it of something which had been entirely constructed by committee and compromise, even down to the structure of individual sentences – hence its occasional weird grammar. Or, perhaps better, something which has been generated by some kind of algorithm. It’s the lack of flow in the letter which I find startling, as if it’s just a collection of non-sequiturs.

      • I get the feeling that the signatories puttheir names to the letter without reading it first. I doubt very much whether they would write in such a manner themselves.

        And yes, it does seem computer-generated – a bit like the products of Sokal’s postmodernism machine, gathering together various ready-made phrases and buzzwords and sticking them together any old how. At no point is there anything resembling argument. It would all be funny if we could stand back from it, and say, Puck-like, “Lord! What fools thesemortals be!”

  5. Posted by alan on May 14, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    I am making an attempt, as an adult, to learn a foreign language. This language has been taught using a methodology that relies on not using any of my native language, yet the form of teaching has still managed to present a lot of technical grammar. This has been fascinating for me, because like many of those who misguidedly criticise the teaching of grammar, I have also been a victim of the English educational system.
    The main benefit of learning grammar, from my point of view, is both in the learning of foreign languages and in the teaching of English to children. When teaching English to children we develop a common framework of language that allows at least some sharing of minds. Without that sharing of minds how can civil society, government, laws and courts function?
    Down the pub you can speak how you like, but in the public space of a shared discourse we need something else, and we owe it to our children not to deny them that out of some perverse inverted snobbery and a knee jerk assumption that one’s political enemy must always be wrong.

    Reply

    • Posted by Carolyn on May 14, 2013 at 9:44 pm

      “I am making an attempt, as an adult, to learn a foreign language. This language has been taught using a methodology that relies on not using any of my native language, yet the form of teaching has still managed to present a lot of technical grammar.”

      How did it do that without any English being used, Alan? Or whatever language you started from. I went to Maori classes once where it was all done in Maori (at least for the first few lessons). They couldn’t teach it through grammar because none of us had the words for any grammatical terms. I was in a befuddled state as the tutor held a cuisonnaire stick and said, “te rakau pango”, “te rakau kikorangi” “te rakau ma”. It was only when he held up one and said, ‘te rakau kowhai’ that it clicked with me that he was showing colours – a kowhai is a yellow-flowered plant. And from there we learnt further. But we only learn the grammar (ie the adjective comes after the noun, though I am not sure that is absolute) through the words, not through any discussion of it.

      Reply

      • Posted by alan on May 15, 2013 at 11:07 pm

        Carolyn,
        OK, it’s a European language with a lot of cognates, but still, the grammar is different. The grammar was introduced little by little with pictures, diagrams and repetition. After months and years one can start to use more abstract constructions.
        Back to the main rant: I’m not a linguist but I do know that language has real world consequences in Engineering and Medicine as well as Law. Away from the role of language as art, language is used to make life and death decisions, and those decisions have to be made. I feel more comfortable in a world where some people aspire to precision in language, whether or not in some abstract, relativistic sense that is strictly impossible. Somehow we do seem to be able to construct a complex technology, medicine and set of laws that appear to have some success. I’m not sure that it would be so successful if decisions were always made in such a way as to avoid damaging someone’s self-esteem.

    • Hello Alan, I agree fully with everything you say. Absolutely, we need, as you say, a common framework of language, whatever other dialect we may happen to speak. And for the very reasons you mention. And yes, there’s an awful lot of inverted snobbery on this matter. For all the invective directed at Gove, I have yet to see a detailed critique of his proposals. Speaks volumes, I think.

      Reply

      • Posted by Chris Jennings on May 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm

        Here’s a critique of the KS2 test by linguist David Crystal on his blog:

        http://david-crystal.blogspot.co.uk/

        See Sun 5th May entry.

      • Thank you very much for that link. What David Crystal says makes perfect sense, and is well argued and lucidly presented. This is precisely the sort of thing I was looking for, and makes a most welcome and refreshing change from the invective and the unargued assertions that have generally been par for the course from both sides on this matter.
        Best wishes,
        Himadri

  6. Posted by Carolyn on May 14, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    “And as for this “less/fewer” business – absolutely! Let’s do away with it! What purpose does such a rule serve!

    But why stop there? “The houses was big.” That’s OK, isn’t it? I mean, language is for communication, and everyone knows what it means. Why make silly rules about singular and plural forms? Just dumb rules introduced for superiority.”

    I don’t see where to reply to this at the proper place. I am very reluctant to pull you up on this, Himadri, but if you are really arguing similarities here, it seems to show a lack of knowledge of what grammar really is. The first less/fewer is merely an imposed rule, imposed fairly recently at that. We got on fine without it till a couple of hundred years ago.

    The plural/singular thing is completely entwined in the English language (and most other languages too); children don’t have to learn it artificially – it’s there in the structure of the language from the start. Some very early speakers may make some mistakes like that – usually when English doesn’t conform to its usual forms, but they don’t need ‘correction’ to change; it comes naturally. Nobody ‘taught’ me to say “I love you’ instead of “I loves you”; it’s just the form our language comes in. Nobody has made a rule, silly or otherwise. This has evolved, not been imposed.

    There’s a huge difference between what is the centuries old structure of language and what are new rules or words added to it. We can add ‘no splitting infinitives’ ‘no ending sentences with a preposition’ or words like ‘television’ ‘bytes’ ‘elephants’ and it makes no difference to the structure of the language at all. But you can’t do the same with plurals and tenses. They are a functional part of English, not an add-on. Artificial rules are add-ons.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro,

      I think we’re on unsure ground if we start speaking of “imposed rules” and rules that are “completely entwined in the English language”. How do you distinguish between the two? Language is, after all, a completely man-made, and hence artificial, construct, insofar as none of us is born with it. Many linguists believe we are born with an instinct for language, but of course, no-one is born with the ability of speech. So all rules of grammar are artificial. So what precisely are your criteria for distinguishing between that which is part of the natural structure of the language, and that which is artificially imposed?

      You say that the “more/fewer” rule had been “imposed fairly recently”. Really? I have an electronic edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and I did searches on the words “fewer” and “less”. There were hundreds of search results on those two words. Now, as you know, Shakespeare’s grammar was highly irregular: he lived in an age before English grammar had been formalised, i.e. before anyone had a chance to “impose” any rules. And yet, he consistently uses “fewer” when referring to discrete entities, and “less” when referring to continuous entities. For instance:

      Or less than a just pound … (“The Merchant of Venice”, IV, i)

      The fewer men, the greater share of honour (“Henry V”, IV, III)

      So it seems to me that this distinction existed before any of those nasty bad grammarians had a chance to impose this silly rule on us.

      PS There is no distinction between singular and plural in Bengali. I’m reliably informed it doesn’t exist in Russian either. Completely artificial construct.

      Reply

      • Caro,

        I rather agree with Himadri that language is not a natural thing, but artificial. No one comes preloaded with language. Nonetheless, your efforts to try to explain the learning process as a natural activity are consistent with modern constructivism which is what the gentle academics in the letter to the Independent are proposing. Constructivists believe that learning is a nautural process that needs little external involvement (almost to the point of saying that teachers should be seen and not heard). Although, both here in the states and in England, constructivism is the dominant educational philosophy, quite a number of educationalists (myself included) have our doubts that it is sufficient. (I thought the letter that Himadri took such exception to one of the poorest statements of constructivism I have seen.) Perhaps part of the education process has a natural quality that flows from the child’s interests, but even John Dewey, who was one of the major founders of what has become constructivism, did not believe that teachers should be passive, or that grammar or other subjects could simply be absorbed in the home.

        How do we learn grammar then? Well, the first thing I would suggest is that one of the reasons constructivism seems to be falling short is that it is built on the notion that one tool is sufficient. Why not use all the tools available to us? So, how do we learn grammar? We listen, we take part in conversations, we engage with family, friends, teachers, and fellow students, we read, we write, we listen to corrections, we note the corrections that the teacher makes to papers we have written, we study, we work through difficult grammatical problems, etc.

        Now is a teacher’s correction an inherently oppressive action? It can be oppressive, but it does not have to be. Good teachers learn how to provide correction without demolishing a child’s sense of self-worth. In other words, this issue of class-based grammar need not lead us to an absolute condition of no correction at all, but it should inform how we correct, what we correct, how we teach and what we teach and when.

        Are some of the rules of grammar silly? Yes. But the examples I’m seeing here are not particularly persuasive one way or the other. The truth is that the grammatical rules have been changing all along, and they will contiue to do so. But even the expert arbiters don’t get to call the shots — the language evolves seperate from our individual capacities to control it. (I once had someone, an English barrister of all things, ask me, this was all too many years ago, if my university professors corrected my American English to proper English — I wanted to share Fowler with her; Fowler, by the way, states clearly that there are quite as many bad rules in English English as in American English.)

        The bottomline for me, Caro, is that every conmplex problem can be boiled down to a simple, easy to implement, and terribly obvious solution. And almost inevitably that solution is grossly less (or is it fewer?) than adequate, and often creates more problems than it resolves. To the extent that you want to do away with grammar rules and grammatical education, I think your solution falls into that category.

  7. Posted by Carolyn on May 16, 2013 at 1:55 am

    “I think we’re on unsure ground if we start speaking of “imposed rules” and rules that are “completely entwined in the English language”. How do you distinguish between the two?”

    Hello Himardi, Mark and others,

    One way is to check if people use the construction to any degree or not. The sentence you wrote: “Do have any wool you got?” has, I feel relatively confident in saying, never been used in the history of native English speech, and if it’s ever been used in writing it would be by an avant-garde writer making some point or other. So that construction just doesn’t occur. And people don’t need to correct children and tell them whatever that rule is – I have no idea what it is. It comes naturally to me and to you and to the two-year child speaking. You internalise that at a very young age.

    Mark said, “The truth is that the grammatical rules have been changing all along, and they will continue to do so.” Yes, the ‘rules’ that people impose change – I suspect that in a hundred years or so, ‘fewer’ will be seen as old-fashioned and weird, and comma use continues to evolve (people used a lot more commas fifty years ago than they do now), but the real grammatical structure of our language doesn’t change. In 100 years, in 1000 years Himadri’s sentence won’t be used. It might, if there are huge changes, in 20,000 years. Teaching how our language is structured, how it goes together, how it compares with other languages – that is what should be taught. Then words like gerund might have some point – even words like ablative. But the little grammar test I did (where I got 8 out of 10, disagreeing with one, and not having the vocabulary of grammar thoroughly imbued in me (when I went to school ‘modifiers’ wasn’t a word used) lost me two points. And others I couldn’t care less about, and nor should they. In that article David Crystal said there was an over-emphasis on the names of parts, and I agree. I have a son who still find it hard to understand the difference between a verb and a noun (doing words and naming words aren’t very helpful explanations) but he can write clear, well-structured, grammatical pieces. (Not always spelt very well until he checks them thoroughly.) Factual pieces on soil structure and how farmers should use the soil, etc. Detailed, informative and correct. He doesn’t actually need to know how to define a noun to know how to use it.

    Himadri gave the example “Elaine and me played chess” to mock a lack of grammatical correctness. That would be an unusual construction but “Me and Elaine played chess” is pretty close to standard spoken English now (maybe it always has been). I probably wouldn’t write that and often I would said Malcolm and I, but sometimes I say quite happily “Me and Malcolm”. (Really “Me ‘n’ Malcolm”.) Never “I and Malcolm”, which while grammatically correct is just wrong in English. And everyone knows not to say “ I and Dad”.

    Earlier today on a board I wrote “I think it was he/him.” Normally I would say and write ‘him’ and would consider that correct but all this talk on grammar…I didn’t want to be taken as ignorant – and nor did I want to be taken as pompous. (I think modern grammarians do talk of how this is grammatically correct, but I haven’t got the linguistic training to understand it easily. Rules taught in my youth, however useless, are easier.)

    And speaking of easier, Himadri, the reason I write generally grammatically is because it takes not much thought. I haven’t the imagination to write differently from how I always have done. I have learnt some things over the years, taking more notice of phrasing and where to put commas, not just blindly following rules for that. (I did a spell-check on this and there was just one typo – it comes naturally to me and always did. Not so for everyone.)

    Reply

  8. Posted by Carolyn on May 16, 2013 at 2:00 am

    But I added the greeting and now I see I have put the r and d round the wrong way in Himadri – sorry about that.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro,
      Please don’t worry about mistyping my name: it’s not an easy name to type, and I don’t get too precious on these matters. Indeed, I have been known to mistype it myself!

      I am sorry if I was a bit flippant with my admittedly heavy-handed parody of poor grammar. It was intended partly as a joke, and also to demonstrate that correctness is an important and valid concept, and that it matters. But more on that later.

      There are many points you raise on which I take issue. Indeed, it probably won’t surprise you to know that I take issue on just about all of them! But I’ll try to keep this post focussed, and pick out what I think are the most salient points: otherwise we’d be going off at all sorts of tangents. I’ll also try to stick to evidence that is equally available to us both, for, of course, if we are to talk about your son, say, I am at a bit of a disadvantage as I don’t know him personally!

      1. If you remember, we initially disagreed because you felt that grammar need not be taught. Here is what you said:

      I am not sure you DO need to teach grammar really, apart from for interest.

      I really don’t think you’d find a single reputable linguist who would agree with you on that. Michael Rosen doesn’t. Indeed, he describes himself as “keen on grammar”:

      Michael Gove wants to position me as someone who is against schools teaching grammar. No, I am someone who thinks that the place for grammar teaching is the secondary school, college and university, and that it should be taught on the basis of the evidence that someone like Professor Debra Myhill has produced. In fact, I am so keen on grammar, I have written a mini-course in grammar and put it up on my blog where it is free for all to read and download.

      David Crystal doesn’t either:

      Several questions are of the type ‘circle all the X in the sentence below’. Q16 Circle all the adverbs… Q23 Circle the connectives… Q42 Circle the preposition… Q44 Circle the article… This is how grammar was taught before the 1960s. The approach used to be called (after the Henry Reed poem) ‘naming of parts’ … The right question, in their (and my) view was not: ‘Circle all the passives in the paragraph’ – end of story – but ‘Identify the passives and say why they are there’ – beginning of story.

      David Crystal’s proposed question tests understanding rather than merely the ability to categorise. The point that Gove sees as “end of story”, David Crystal sees as “beginning of story”: his idea of teaching grammar starts where Gove’s stops. David Crystal is, in short, proposing here a teaching and a testing of grammar that go further than those proposed by Gove, and are more demanding, not less.

      The question is not whether or not grammar should be taught. That question has been answered, and the answer is, resoundingly, “yes, it should”. The question is how it should be taught, and at what stage. And I am happy to listen carefully to what people like David Crystal or Michael Rosen have to say. The only point where I parted company with Rosen was in his contention – if I read him right – that nothing is “incorrect”, and that children should not therefore be corrected on anything.

      (You’ll note, by the way, that “read him right” is ungrammatical: but I’ll stick to it, just to demonstrate that I am not really too much of a Desiccated Pedant!)

      2. I do not accept that there exists a distinction between “imposed rules” and rules that are “completely entwined in the English language”. We may be born with an instinct for language, but not with an instinct for the specific form that language takes. If the instinct for the form that language takes were also to be innate, all languages would have similar grammars. I agree with Mark that language itself is a purely artificial construct – or, to use your highly charged terminology, “imposed”.

      3. On distinguishing between “imposed rules” and rules that are “completely entwined in the English language” (which I think is a false dichotomy: see point 2 above), you say: “One way is to check if people use the construction to any degree or not. The sentence you wrote: ‘Do have any wool you got?’ has, I feel relatively confident in saying, never been used in the history of native English speech, and if it’s ever been used in writing it would be by an avant-garde writer making some point or other. So that construction just doesn’t occur.”

      As I explained earlier, I deliberately made up an extreme example to demonstrate that “incorrectness” is not an illusory concept. I accept no native speaker would say anything like this. But we cannot, I think, deem something to be correct Standard English merely because it is widely used.

      4. You are saying that “what comes naturally” is sufficient. If this is so, teaching grammar obviously becomes superfluous, as all that needs to be known is already known without teaching. I think you’ll find very few supporters, if any, of that view amongst linguists. As I keep repeating, both Michael Rosen and David Crystal are for the teaching of grammar.

      5. Yes, of course the rules of grammar change – though they do not change perhaps quite as radically and as quickly as some appear to think. But that is not a reason for not teaching grammar. Our understanding of the sciences changes as well: what is taught in science classes now is different from what had been taught a hundred years ago, or from what will be taught a hundred years hence. This is not an argument for not teaching the sciences.

      6. You say: “But the little grammar test I did (where I got 8 out of 10, disagreeing with one, and not having the vocabulary of grammar thoroughly imbued in me (when I went to school ‘modifiers’ wasn’t a word used) lost me two points. And others I couldn’t care less about, and nor should they.”

      That you don’t care seems fair enough, but your insistence that others shouldn’t care does strike me as a bit dictatorial. If you look at David Crystal’s excellent blog (and my thanks to Mr Jennings above for introducing me to it), he frequently writes at some length on finer points of grammatical construction. He would not do so if he thought these things weren’t worth writing about. He obviously cares, and with good reason.

      7. “In that article David Crystal said there was an over-emphasis on the names of parts, and I agree.”

      David Crystal is proposing a teaching of grammar that is more demanding, not less.

      8. You say: “Himadri gave the example “Elaine and me played chess” to mock a lack of grammatical correctness. That would be an unusual construction but “Me and Elaine played chess” is pretty close to standard spoken English now (maybe it always has been).”

      “Me and Elaine played chess” is not correct Standard English, and never has been, irrespective of usage.

      9. I have agreed with you that we do not need to know grammar for everyday usage, but if teaching were to restrict itself merely to what most people need just to get through their lives, we’d end up not teaching very much at all.

      Alan has made the very important point that we need a common understanding of how language works (i.e. the grammar of language) for society even to function. As Alan says, there are many areas in our civic lives (Alan has listed some of these) where precision of expression, often of very abstruse matters, is vitally important. And for this, you need understanding of grammar – an understanding beyond what may be “picked up naturally”. It is undoubtedly true that there are limits to the precision that language can achieve, but without an understanding of grammar beyond what may be picked up naturally, we won’t even get close to these limits.

      10. We cannot rely merely on “what comes naturally” to determine correctness (which, as I have tried to demonstrate, is not an illusory concept), as “what comes naturally” in language is acquired rather than innate, and incorrectness can be acquired just as well as correctness. Unless, of course, you are saying that “whatever is widely used is correct”, as I think you are. But this cannot not be so when it comes to Standard English, which, if it is to be fit for purpose, must be consistent with rules that are commonly understood, and capable of expressing with precision ideas, thoughts and concepts that may be complex and abstruse.

      11. And this is why we need Standard English. It is to give us, as Alan says, the ability to communicate precisely in various important areas of life where precision of expression matters. Also, I think, to enable us to express, to understand, and even, I’d argue, to think complex thoughts. As I reported on this blog, I read the first volume recently of Anthony Kenny’s History of Western Philosophy, and, even at a level suitable for laymen, many of the thoughts and ideas presented would have been incomprehensible without a reasonable grasp of grammar. Like Alan, I have suffered from the misguided notion that grammar need not be taught, and what grammar I have picked up has been, as a consequence, through my own often haphazard efforts. Because of this, I found Kenny’s book difficult. Had my knowledge of grammar been at an even more basic level than it is now, it would have been completely beyond me.

      This is what I meant when I said that if we don’t teach children grammar, we deny them access to thought itself. Without grammar, not only would we be incapable of understanding or expressing complex thoughts – we would be incapable even of thinking them. Relying purely on “what comes naturally” is not anywhere near enough. As Mark says, there are so many different tools for learning and understanding language: why restrict ourselves only to one?

      12. And finally:
      I had referred to certain people we have encountered over the years on internet boards we have frequented who appear incapable of expressing or absorbing even very simple ideas because they do not have sufficient grasp of language. For obvious reasons, I do not wish to name names. But anyone who seriously thinks grammar need not be taught should be sentenced to read through the Collected Posts of such people – without remission, and without time off for good behaviour! As they say (though not in Standard English) – that’ll learn you!

      Reply

  9. Posted by Carolyn on May 16, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    I haven’t really time to answer all this, Himadri – we are away for a day soon, and I have a few other things to do before then. I know that David Crystal, Michael Rosen and the lingistic experts on my messageboard think grammar is hugely important and interesting – just not the prescriptive rules of it. I have at least one of Crystal’s books, though it is not specifically about grammar, more the whole of the English language. I wasn’t totally serious re not teaching grammar. Though I do sometimes wonder about the point of most of our teaching, which seems to me focused on teaching to people who are going to go further in the subject instead of, as well, teaching interesting ideas about a subject to those of us who aren’t. Why should I find books on astrophysics and genetics – neither subjects that were even touched on in my studies – so much more interesting than the other parts of science? It’s partly because the books on these consider things more widely than drawing the parts of flowers or learing about circuits. I don’t have even the basics of these subjects – certainly not from being officially taught them – but can still enjoy accounts of the scientists involved and the track that science has made. I can’t understand why these more philosophical aspects of learning (and that includes grammar) can’t be taught to bright students.

    Following on from the discussion of grammar, the linguist on that board said, with regard to relative clauses, and, after discussion which I can’t totally understand without a lot of studying because I don’t have the vocabulary (restrictive and non-restrictive clauses weren’t words taught to me and I haven’t read much linguistics in adult life), said: “For my taste a perfect illustration of how modern descriptive grammar can be fascinating and enlightening — where traditional prescriptive grammar is dull and obscurants. To say nothing of being stupid and wrong.” [How do I put italics here – yesterday I thought writing it on Word and then transferring would keep the italics but it didn’t.]

    I have never said language is instinctive (though it is in one sense, but not, of course the actual words); I have said some structures are embedded in English and are never used wrongly, and don’t need to be taught, because no one gets them wrong. And that’s the difference between rules in grammar and universal usage in grammar. They can still be studied for how they are used, of course, just as we can study how a traction engine works or why one plant has a different structure from another. (It doesn’t make one wrong!)

    “Our understanding of the sciences changes as well: what is taught in science classes now is different from what had been taught a hundred years ago, or from what will be taught a hundred years hence. This is not an argument for not teaching the sciences.” It’s an argument for not trying to teach science from the basis of what was taught 50 years ago, though. Which seems to be what Mr Gove wants with English. (I only go from snippets of what I see from him or from what people say. Mr Gove’s statements are not widely published in NZ newspapers, if at all.)

    By the way David Crystal wouldn’t have cared about the examples in the grammar quiz I did, either. At least he might have cared, but only to be exasperated. They did have some oddities in their “Which of these is correct/incorrect?” It’s here so I think you will be able to see for yourself: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22512744 and the discussion about it here with people who understand a lot more about grammar than I do: http://s4.zetaboards.com/Radio4forum/topic/9881319/1/#new

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro,
      I get the sense that our little discussion here is approaching an end. I do appreciate you have other things to do than enter into long and detailed debate. But if we agree that grammar is important and that it needs to be taught, and that certain grammatical constructions are correct and others aren’t, then perhaps we don’t diverge too widely on these matters.

      If I may very briefly respond to some of your concerns:

      There is a famous story – possibly apocryphal, but it deserves to be true – that when asked by a king whether there was an easy way to learn mathematics, Euclid replied: “There is no royal road to geometry.” That is true, I think, for all subjects. If one wants really to learn a subject – i.e. to learn it methodically – then one has to go through an awful lot of plain hard graft before one can go on to the more exciting and interesting parts. This is true for grammar as well as for mathematics. One certainly hopes that there will be more to education than prescriptive teaching, but, even with the best will in the world, at least some element of prescriptive teaching cannot be avoided. Sadly, there is no royal road to grammar either.

      I am of a generation that wasn’t taught grammar at school, and I do feel I was short-changed in that respect. And I feel it matters. The purpose of teaching grammar is that, irrespective of what dialect we may happen to speak amongst friends and family, we have a common understanding of how to use language to communicate effectively with others speaking the same language, especially in areas of complexity where precision and clarity are required. For everyday purposes, understanding the rules of grammar is, I agree, perhaps not necessary. But for anything that goes beyond the everyday, it is. At work, for instance, I have, over the years, come across a great many official work-related documents that are not clear because the writer, though well-educated in other respects, does not have sufficient understanding of grammar to communicate clearly matters of any complexity.

      And even on simple, everyday matters, the quality of English I see generally around the net is appalling. Increasing numbers of people are leaving school who are, by the government’s own reckoning, “functionally illiterate”. We have now enjoyed generations of universal education, and this simply isn’t acceptable.
      This is why I think it important to teach grammar. I haven’t been taught grammar at school, although I have tried my best to pick up at least some aspects of it since; and our teenage daughter, despite having gained an A* grade for her GCSE in English language last year, has not been taught any grammar either. (She also has an A for her GCSE in English literature, although what passed for teaching English literature at her school was a bad joke: but I’ll save that particular rant for later.) I agree with you that it is inappropriate to teach now grammar as it had been, say, 50 years ago (although I don’t think grammar has changed very radically within these 50 years); but better that than not teach grammar at all. Gove’s proposals may be flawed, but at least he recognises the importance of teaching grammar: previous Ministers for Education seemingly didn’t.

      I’m afraid I still take issue with you on this:

      “I have never said language is instinctive (though it is in one sense, but not, of course the actual words); I have said some structures are embedded in English and are never used wrongly, and don’t need to be taught, because no one gets them wrong. And that’s the difference between rules in grammar and universal usage in grammar.”

      There may well be structures “embedded in English” that are never (or, at least, rarely) used wrongly; but there are also structures equally embedded in English that are a bit less apparent, and which many people often do get wrong. And yes, these should be taught; and where there is wrong usage, the teacher should correct.

      More generally, all grammar is a purely artificial concept – i.e. it is all made up.

      Going back to anecdotal evidence once again, there have been many instances over the years where the English teacher has marked our daughter’s essay, given a big tick and some gushingly encouraging comment (“Excellent!”, “Very good!”, “Keep up the good work!”, etc.), but has failed even to identify, let alone correct, often glaring grammatical errors. And this is not just a single teacher: this has been fairly consistent over the years. Is this sort of thing doing our children any favours? I don’t think so.

      Do enjoy your day away,
      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  10. Posted by Carolyn on May 20, 2013 at 5:16 am

    We did, thanks – a play, a big book sale, scrambled eggs and mushrooms for breakfast, a seafood platter for dinner, and a new frying pan – what could be better?

    But you’re right – I have got rather busy (not so busy that I can’t waste time on a few computer card games, but busy all the same), and we are away again next week for a few days. It’s amazing how much there is to do when you are going to be away for a week.

    I don’t know about doing kids a favour by not correcting their grammar. I am not sure what grammar my kids were taught; their teacher was an older woman, so brought up when grammar was taught fairly automatically, but there were new ideas around. And I’m not sure they weren’t better. My son who never picked up what nouns and verbs were, even though he was taught this from birth more or less (which is another point – people have their own strengths and interests and can just ignore some teachings), was nevertheless much happier writing long and interesting letters than my other two boys. They were always worried about getting it right, with the result they preferred not to write at all, and there were tears when thank-you letters were required. They do write now, though my oldest son, an English teacher, doesn’t waste too much paper on writing.

    I have just been doing a sort of proof-read for a friend and there are a lot of things that are not too clear grammatically, and also I find I just don’t know them, apart from by instinct. After I had put a semi-colon where he had put a comma following ‘however’ several times, I checked if my instincts were right and they were, but I am still a little unclear about why. Any why, if you use them in a clause after a semi-colon, it is not considered quite right by everyone to start a sentence with ‘however’. And there are two differing uses of however, though with a similar meaning: “I liked the story, however bad the writing,” and “I liked the story; however the writing was poor.”

    And I don’t understand ” due to” – grammarians say it is an adjective but that doesn’t make sense to me. Should only be used after ‘to be’ apparently. I didn’t correct that since I don’t see anything wrong with it. And I think I saw it was a 20th C construct.

    And then there’s that awkward business of two phrases, one in the singular and one in the plural. “The worst thing in my house is/are the thousands of books cluttering up the place.” In the phrase my friend used (not that example) I changed ‘was’ to ‘wear’ even though I feel perhaps grammatically ‘was’ was more correct; I just didn’t think it sounded right.

    Where did you learn your grammar, if it wasn’t at school, and it wasn’t just picked up as most of us do? (I might say the most mind-bogglingly boring lectures I ever had at university or perhaps teachers’ college was by a man teaching us some new form of looking at grammar or linguistics or something. It was just dreadful. I can’t remember a thing about it, except that. I think it might not be an easy subject to teach.)

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

  11. Posted by alan on August 4, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    More of the same

    Reply

    • What can one say?

      Everyone now – “We don’t need no educashun…”

      I wonder if I really am too far off the mark in thinking that at the root of this sort of thing is a real and deep-rooted hatred of our cultural heritage.

      Reply

  12. Posted by alan on August 4, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    This man has a Physics background and therefore a mathematical background. I’ll admit that at one time I didn’t understand the value of grammar, but I put that down to ignorance due to the English educational system and arrogance due to my having a leaning towards science and not realising then how language helps form higher thought.
    I doubt that an Indian of his generation would not have been taught English Grammar. Perhaps the problem is a mixture of arrogance due to his mathematical leanings, only seeing that as an important domain for precision and perhaps never having seen the legal and safety consequences of poor written and verbal communication.

    Reply

    • As you say, an understanding of grammar is indispensable in writing where precision is required – legal, medical, etc. It is important also in literature: to communicate emotions, feelings, thoughts, states of mind, etc. through language, having a good grasp of language is a prerequisite. Indeed, without at least a reasonable grasp of language, literature is closed to us even as readers. And that, I guess, is the state of affairs this professor chappie (who has a Bengali name, by the way) would like to see. Who knows? – one can only conjecture about his motives.

      Reply

    • It is hard to know what Prof Mitra’s motives are, but have you seen some of the responses? I hae only looked at the first two of the 19 pages, and someone sneers: “Sugata Mitra – that’s a good British name, isn’t it?” Someone else says: “Sugata Mitra. Says it all really.” To which another responds “Ditto”.
      Just in case we thought good old fashioned racism was a thing of the past…

      Reply

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