Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

A question of grammar … and of political correctness

May I ask you all for some advice?

Given that singular pronouns in English are gender specific when referring to people, which pronoun should one use when one wants to apply it universally, across both genders? For instance:

Each person is entitled to read whatever he wants.

The traditional grammar books consider this correct, the gender-specific “he” standing for all people, male or female. But many would consider this usage sexist. So we may write, equally correctly:

Each person is entitled to read whatever he or she wants.

Correct, yes, but clumsy. I have used this from time to time, but have not been happy with it.

Some would turn the issue on its head, and write:

Each person is entitled to read whatever she wants.

Once again, this is grammatically correct, as there is no law in grammar, as far as I know, that insists that a pronoun applying universally must be masculine. However, I don’t see that this resolves the issue: we are still applying a gender-specific pronoun to cover both genders, and I can’t see that using the feminine rather than the masculine is necessarily an improvement. Also, I must admit that this sort of usage strikes me as overt point-making, and it tends to jar.

One may, of course, evade the issue altogether by changing to the plural:

People are entitled to read whatever they want.

This will do, but it takes away the emphasis on each individual that may have been intended in the original sentence, rather than on people en masse. The two may mean more or less the same thing, but the nuance is altered.

And sometimes, changing to plural is not possible: if we want to speak of “no person”, then “none” or “nobody” or “no-one” is invariably singular:

No-one needs to justify his taste in reading.

I have, I admit, used “their” instead of “his” on such occasions, and it tends to pass unnoticed. (At least, people are too polite to pointit out.) However, pedant that I am, I notice it, and it bothers me.

So what’s the solution? Should we use the plural whenever we can and avoid the issue? Should we modify existing rules of grammar, and admit “no-one” to be plural? I frankly have no idea, but would be interested to know everyone’s thoughts on this.

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We don’t need no educashun

There’s nothing so stupid that you won’t find some professor, somewhere, saying it.

My attention has been drawn to this article in which Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle, claims that here is no need in our modern world for children to learn spelling and grammar.

“Firstly,” he says, “my phone corrects my spelling so I don’t really need to think about it and, secondly, because I often skip grammar and write in a cryptic way.”

He seems to speak “in a cryptic way” also: anyone have any idea what the bleeding hell he means by “skipping grammar”?

He seems to think that SMS texting language can replace the more traditional forms of written communication, and that this texting language can be used to “write good sentences” and to “convey emotion”. Perhaps. But lack of familiarity with more traditional forms of writing, and ignorance even of the basics of grammar, would mean disaster, one would have thought, in all those very important areas of life where precision of written communication is vital: are we to expect legal documents, say, or medical reports, to be written in textspeak?

And as for our literary heritage, it would become quite incomprehensible. Which, perhaps, wouldn’t cause the good professor to lose much sleep, but would, nonetheless, be quite upsetting for a few old farts like myself, who rather like literature, and feel that our literary heritage ought to be passed on to future generations. But then again, as Prof Mitra says, it would be “a mistake to resist technological change”.

I think Prof Mitra goes a bit wrong, though, in imagining that abbreviating words, doing away with punctuation, and ignoring the rules of syntax in order to communicate in the fewest possible characters, are all new phenomena. For well over a century, and until quite recently, people have been doing just that when sending telegrams. But back then, we didn’t have learned professors telling us that this made unnecessary the learning of spelling or of grammar. Now, that is new.

The rhythms of prose

What kind of lunatic would read a book on grammar for fun? Well, me, I guess. And I can’t be the only one. But this is no ordinary book on grammar: it’s Fowler’s once venerated Modern English Usage.

Since I am acquainted only with the second edition of this book, I don’t know how much of what I enjoy I owe to the brothers Fowler, who published the first edition back in 1906, or to Sir Ernest Gowers, whose revised version appeared in 1965. That the first edition lasted so many decades without any change thought to be required is testament enough for the Fowlers’ achievement. There is, I believe, a third edition now on the market, but this, from what I gather, is a completely re-written version rather than a revised edition. I haven’t, I admit, investigated it: in the first place, the version I have serves my needs admirably; and in the second place, I like so much the charm and the elegance of the second that I would not wish to see it replaced.

Yes, charm and elegance: not qualities one normally associates with grammarians, who seem widely regarded as dry-as-dust pedants – oh, how the Fowlers would warn me against using so trite a simile as “dry as dust”! – and as people whose declared aim it is to fetter us to inflexible rules, smothering any spark of creativity we may have. Don’t these grammarians know that language is changing, and that this simple fact, for fact it is, gives us licence to put together any words we choose in any manner we see fit?

But no, charm and elegance are what I meant. Throughout this textbook, one finds these most un-textbook-like qualities in abundance. Added to this is a deep knowledge and a love of the English language itself. And what better companions could one possibly wish for than those who display wit, charm, erudition, and passion?

The Fowlers – or Sir Ernest Gowers, I cannot tell – effectively write miniature, and sometimes not-so-miniature, essays on various aspects of written English, and, far from being pedantic, they advise us to break the rules when breaking the rules aids clarity, or elegance, or both. Typical is their opening paragraph on the entry on “split infinitives”:

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1)those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.

Each of these five positions is then analysed, with copious illustrative examples showing how injudiciously split infinitives may lead to lack of clarity, and how pedantically undivided infinitives may lead to clumsiness.

This is their approach throughout: the rules are to be applied not slavishly, but judiciously. The purpose of grammar is not to enforce conformity, but to aid both intelligibility and elegance, especially when we are trying to express matters of complexity or of subtlety. And when the rules of grammar evidently do not serve this purpose, they are to be discarded in favour of whatever does. But iconoclasm for its own sake is no more admirable than dogged pedantry.

The advice in this book is not merely on matters of grammar, but also of style: throughout, the authors insist on the qualities of clarity and of elegance. The latter is not something I find too readily in modern prose. I refer here not merely to the Jeffrey Archers and the Dan Browns of this world: such people are all too easy targets to stick the boot into. I refer also to many writers who are highly acclaimed by contemporary literati, and who may even win literary awards, but a mere few paragraphs of whose writing sampled in bookshops make me wonder how people with such tin ears for the rhythms of English prose could even have thought of choosing writing as their careers. But let us stop there before I get on to mentioning names.

The essay in Modern English Usage on the rhythm of English prose is, indeed, among the finest in the volume. Firstly, they explain with the sort of prose I don’t think I’d find in any other textbook, what they mean by “rhythm”:

Rhythmless speech or writing is like a flow of liquid from a pipe or tap; it runs with smooth monotony from when it is turned on to when it is turned off, provided it is clear stuff; if it is turbid, the smooth flow is queerly and abruptly checked from time to time, and then resumed. Rhythmic speech or writing is like the waves of the sea, moving onward with alternating rise and fall, connected yet separate, like but different, suggestive of some law, too complex for analysis or statement, controlling the relations between wave and wave, waves and sea, phrase and phrase, phrases and speech. In other words, live speech, said or written, is rhythmic, and rhythmless speech is at best dead.

There follows a number of hilarious examples of “rhythmless” writing, and for each, there is a lucid explanation of what had gone wrong with the sentence, and what steps may be taken to improve it. But before we go through these examples, we are promised that there will appear, at the end of the article, “a single masterpiece of rhythm”. One wonders why they chose to end this article with this “single masterpiece”: the example chosen was certainly not intended to be exemplary, since even in 1906 no-one would have been expected to write in such a style. I think they chose this “single masterpiece of rhythm” simply because they loved it, and wished to share it with their readers. And it is worth sharing:

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept: and as he went, thus he said: O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!

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.