grammar is not the enemy

I'm saddened these days by a lot of things going on in the UK, particularly regarding the current government's treatment of education and healthcare. But, you know, I'm not a Conservative or even a conservative, so it's not surprising I'm not too happy with them. What's moving me to write today is the sadness I feel about aspects of the reaction to what's happening in education.
Spot Lynne's (BrE) barnet in the picture

A bit of background: the Tory  (BrE) government/(AmE) administration has made and continues to make many changes to schools and education in England. (The other countries of the UK can do their own thing—and as far as I can tell, they're being more sensible.) The changes include a lot more testing of spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) with more specific and more daunting requirements on grammar at earlier ages. To give a comparison, the National Curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 4-11) mentions grammar (or grammatical) 35 times in 2015, compared with 6 times in 2010.

SPAG testing is just one aspect of sweeping changes to education in England under Secretaries of State for Education Michael Gove (2010-2014) and Nicky Morgan (2014-present), but it is an aspect that has been the focus of much attention and anger.

Our family took part today in the Let Our Kids Be Kids school strike protesting against the year-2 SATs* tests, because we do believe that the current policies are making a mockery of education by focusing on standardi{s/z}ed testing, particularly at (BrE) infant-school level. There is no evidence basis for any of the changes that are being made to education—in fact, all the education research I've seen says that formal education shouldn't start till age 7, that homework doesn't belong in primary years, that academi{s/z}ation does not necessarily help ailing schools (and that it's likely to kill rural primaries), and so on and so forth.

But what worries me sometimes in the rhetoric of the anti-testing movement is anti-grammar sentiments—separate from the anti-testing or anti-early-schooling sentiments. I've seen a lot of "down with grammar!" messages, often alongside "learning should be fun!" The implicit—and sometimes made explicit—message is that grammar takes the joy out of language. Fun and joy, as far as I'm concerned, are more about teaching than about subject matter. I want to take a moment to say "up with grammar!"  

To borrow an analogy from a friend, not wanting your child to learn about grammar [by which I mean: describing how sentences and words are structured] is like not wanting your child to learn about molecules and atoms. Yes, you can happily interact with matter without knowing that it is made up of elements, which are made up of atoms, and that those can combine with others to make all sorts of wonderful things. Not being able to explain the chemistry and physics involved will not stop you from making or enjoying a milkshake. But do you really not want to have a clue that there is more to the world than meets the eye? I've found it very useful to know what I learned at school about matter—even though I grew up and had to discover that there might not be any such thing as electrons. All the same, having a basic knowledge of a model of how matter works makes it easier for me to understand the science I hear about in the news. It helps me understand a little bit better when I read about new medical treatments. It also points out to me how little I know, and makes me a bit more curious about the things I don't know. It helped me learn about the scientific method and encouraged me to wonder at the scales of the universe.

Learning about how language works is like that. Learning about it can lead you to appreciate it more and to be less prejudiced about it, and if you go further with it, you might be able do a lot of things with that knowledge. Speech and language therapists can use it. Teachers can use it. Editors can use it. Cognitive psychologists can use it. Computer programmers and software designers can use it. Having a theory of what language is and how it works — what sentence is, what a word is — has lots of applications and can open up all sorts of other areas for investigation.

As Bas Aarts (of University College London's Survey of English Usage) explains in his response to being a scapegoat for anti-grammarism, any grammatical exercise is a test of a particular model of the grammar of the language. At university level, our students compare models. But we don't present more than one at school level, generally—not for language, not for physics, not (generally) for evolution. A problem in grammar teaching/learning sometimes is that several different models are available and no one's pointed that out, and so concepts from one are mixed up with concepts from another and things stop making sense.

What can you do by learning a single model of a grammar in school? Well, you can have conversations about your language, about other languages, about your writing, about whatever you're reading. Students' lack of metalanguage for talking about language and writing is something I've complained about elsewhere.

Does that need to happen in the early years of school? No. And it doesn't need to be tested in pressure-filled rote ways. But if you are not confident in your (or your school staff's) knowledge of grammar and you don't have the resources (including TIME) to get that knowledge and confidence up, then teaching-to-a-test is what ends up happening.

As I've written about before, grammar teaching has never been very strong in the UK. I don't want to repeat everything I wrote at that blog post (relying a lot on Dick Hudson and John Walmsley's research), so I do recommend clicking on that link. This has left us with a situation where everyone involved in the discussion has different half-developed ideas of what grammar means and which models are relevant. And in that situation, it's really easy to see why people are anti-grammar. Grammar in that case seems like hocus-pocus that's used as a means to keep some kids back. That may be the meaning of the SATs test, but it's not the meaning of grammar.

The only grammar/language teaching to trainee teachers at my UK university was for those who were upgrading themselves from classroom assistant to teacher. (And that programme has since been cancel[l]ed.) It was just assumed that people who had studied literature and had university degrees would be able to teach what an adverb is, should the curriculum ask for grammar. And perhaps back in the day when many of our teachers were trained, there was no inkling of an idea that grammar would be taught at primary level. (Foreign language was made compulsory at primary level in 2010. Many current teachers would not have started their careers with that in mind either.)

In the US, the nature of grammar teaching will vary more as there is more state-by-state variation in curricula. (There is now a national 'Common Core' that is like the UK National Curriculum—but it specifies much less than the National Curriciulum does and the statements about grammar are more about "using standard grammar" than analy{s/z}ing sentences [link is PDF].)  I've just checked the website of the Texan university where I last taught in the US (in 1999) and Modern English Grammar is still on the requirements for a Bachelor of Science in Education (English) for middle-school (AmE) grades upward—though now they're allowing people to substitute Introduction to Linguistics for it. (I used to teach both of those—and loved them.) In the US university-level grammar (not linguistics, but grammar) textbooks are big business. In the UK, I've not found a real equivalent to the grammar textbooks we taught with in the US. Again, my older post on grammar teaching covers other aspects of this.

My dream would be for kids to be able to learn about language by using observation, experimentation, discovery, categorization. All that good stuff. Learning how to think, not what to think. The ultimate transferable skill. And while many are working hard to make sure schools have access to the training and confidence to incorporate more linguistic discovery into their work, it seems like an impossible ask at a time when teachers are under an incredible amount of pressure from a government that likes to serve its educational reform with budget cuts.

Another good way to learn about grammar is by learning a language other than your own. Our experience teaching linguistics at university level is the exchange students can out-grammar all our UK-educated home students, because they've had to do metalinguistic thinking—thinking about languages—before. You don't need to learn the language by learning grammar—but being faced with the fact that your language does things differently from others gives insight into what grammar is.

In the meantime, here's a video of the strike rally that we attended today, from the Channel 4 news. The reporter is trying to be clever (I eventually figured out) by naming grammatical constructions he's about to say.  It's fair to say, he didn't study much grammar either. (Best bit: when causal connective turns into casual connective. I'm thinking like could be added to the grammar tests as a casual connective.)

But even though I'm slightly taking the mickey out of that reporter, I do think it's not really fair when people pick on grown-ups' inability to answer the test questions. If schools only taught facts and theories that you'd remember as an adult, schooling would be very short indeed. What's important is not whether decades-later-me can explain what an electron is or what the French and Indian War was about or how to tell a preposition from a subordinating construction (ok, maybe I need that one for my job). What's important is
  • the thinking skills I honed when learning those things
  • the communication skills I developed in tasks related to those things
  • the knowledge that any part of the world can be analy{s/z}ed in interesting ways
  • the echo of those things in my mind, reminding me that things do have names and explanations and I could go look them up if I wanted to

P.S. Lots of other linguists and educationists and other interested people have written a lot of other things about this, but I couldn't take the time to link to them all. Feel free to suggest further reading in the comments!

* The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in the US is for (AmE) college/(BrE) university admissions. Lazily quoting Wikipedia, no one really knows what it stands for in England, as it's variously referred to as: "Statutory Assessment Tests, Standard Attainment Tests, Standardised Achievement Tests and Standard Assessment Tests".
The linguistic note here is that in the UK, it's pronounced as a word: Sats. In the US, the SAT is always S-A-T.


  1. As reported by The Mirror

    A Tory Education Minister has failed an exam question for 11-year-olds on live radio.
    Nick Gibb put his foot in it delightfully while he was trying to defend under-fire SATs exams for primary schools.
    Even Downing Street made fun of him - and all because he can't tell his prepositions from his subordinating conjunctions.
    That's right.
    BBC host Martha Kearney ambushed him with the words:
    "This is a question for slightly older children about the use of the word 'after'.
    "Let me give you this sentence:
    'I went to the cinema after I'd eaten my dinner'
    "Is the word 'after' there being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition ?"
    through the answer, the cheery minister said: "Well it's a preposition."
    Openly laughing at him, Radio 4's World at One host replied: "I don't think it is!"

    This is a prime example of the naming of parts approach to grammar. Why does it matter? If the after in after I'd eaten my dinner is so different from the after in after dinner, which of the two is the after in after eating dinner? What matters its that an 11-year old understands the three ways that after can be used in English sentences.

    What the 7-year olds are asked is simpler but open to the same objection. They're asked to identify nouns. Well yes, a child of that age should be able to spot the words that can be used ads nouns and those that can't. But what's the advantage of naming them as nouns at that early age?

    In the months before my TEFL Certificate course, I was sent to observe classes in a local comprehensive school. One lesson, the kids were doing worksheets and I was able to stroll round and talk to them. One boy was doing that very thing: underlining all the nouns in a text. Trying to be helpful, I pointed out that he'd unlearned the word yellow. Look at the definition at the top of the worksheet

    A noun is the name of a person place or thing.

    'But yes,' he explained patiently. Yellow is the name of a colour.

    I believe I could teach an adolescent what a noun is and why it's useful to have a label. But I wouldn't use the simplistic naming of parts that is being re-introduced to English schools.

    Then old traditional grammar which was banished from British schools some fifty years ago was obsessed with parts of speech defined semantically. A little earlier there was an obsession with clause analysis — again an inventory of terms and semantic definitions.

    What turned children off grammar was the load of incomprehensible terminology which made sentences appear vastly more complicated than they actually were. It didn't help that the terms are all from Latin; they sound archaic, and they don't quite match the actual set of word classes of English grammar. No room for the term determiner and marginalisation of the label modal verb. Still less room for the notion non-finite clause instead the misused term gerund which famously nobody understands.

    And appalling term subordinating conjunction obscures a simple and comprehensible grammatical function.

    A few years back there seemed to be a sensible move to introduce useful grammar and grammar terminology to secondary schools. It's heartbreaking to see the old nonsense being forced on children, teachers and parents.

  2. There are at least two problems with the current SATs. One is the content, which is frankly crazy - although I'm not an English language person I have a PhD, I'm old enough I did O-levels and A-levels. I'm meant to be off the golden age of education. I'd never heard of a subordinating conjunction (although I could work out after was joining two phrases so it was probably acting as a conjunction). I'm not arguing that our children shouldn't have a better grasp of grammar and it shouldn't be formally taught but in that level of depth to 11 year olds, really?

    The other is, as Lynne has pointed out, we've had 6 years of leadership from ministers who have that worst of both worlds when it comes to education. They're far from unique in not being teachers (Estelle Morris was the last Education Minister I can remember who was also a former teacher) and their far from unique in being both fairly smart and having done well in our education system. This gives them a remarkably narrow view on how the education system works and what works well. Unlike most of the previous incumbents they're convinced they know best and all the evidence is wrong. Gove, notably, dismissed it all as a left-wing plot.

    So we have a drive to impose new standards, new tests etc. with evidence to say "this is a bad thing" but they're just not interested. We have a drive to make every school an academy because they're convinced academies are better than LEAs. Despite the fact that only good academies do well and schools with good governors under LEA control do just as well. And so on. Ideology before evidence.

    Sorry, I'll get off my soapbox.

  3. I don't think I learned that much grammar in school (I grew up in the area of the former GDR), but I did learn all the Latin terms for noun, verb and so on. The German education system is actually 16 seperate education sysems and I assume that in other German states, they didn't teach the Latin terms because now when I start learning a foreign language there's a good chance that they don't use the Latin terms but German terms that either sound rather childish (like "Tu-Wort", lit. "do word" for "verb" or "Ding-Wort",lit. "thing word" for "noun") or not helpful at all (like "Hauptwort", lit. "main word" for "noun"). In any case, the Latin terms are precise because they (with the exception of "article") don't have another meaning and they're not that difficult to learn whereas the German terms seem to differ from state to state (at least that's the only explanation that I can think of for there being so many of them), some of them make you feel like you're being back in primary school and if you haven't learned this precise set of German terms you may not be able to guess what they're supposed to mean. I understand that they wanted it to be easier for primary school children to learn these terms by using German instead of Latin but on the other hand, the words used for describing grammar have such a specific meaning that the bigger issue is learning the concept behind those terms and learning a label for that concept is the smaller problem. Especially, if those labels then differ between German states and you consequently don't have a common system of terms to talk about these concepts.

  4. I was at primary school during the 70s and we learned very basic grammar & punctuation rules. I mean, really basic - nouns, adjectives, verbs. That's it. But I was a voracious reader so learned how language works by example, not instruction.
    When I went to secondary school we started doing French and once we got past the basics of 'il est dans la cuisine' and the present tense things started to get horribly complicated because grammatical terms were being used that I had no idea about. We weren't being taught these terms in English (it was more about studying literature than grammar) but that's the point when I would have welcomed the information and been able to understand the concepts (not as an under 11, which is what the government wants).
    To this day I have no idea what a 'past participle' is, or 'subordinating conjunction' or 'preposition'. And although I have a reasonable grasp of French vocab, my lack of understanding of the science of grammar (rather than the hands-on use of it in English) meant I failed my French O Level (spectacularly).

  5. Excellent article, thanks, Lynne. Very sad that such a fascinating subject as English Language / grammar should be taught in deadly, jargon-learning, exam-passing ways. Not the teachers' fault. As you say, we didn't vote for such a government and we shouldn't be surprised. But it is still shocking how great and swift the changes are.

  6. muerps

    the words used for describing grammar have such a specific meaning that the bigger issue is learning the concept behind those terms and learning a label for that concept is the smaller problem.

    I disagree completely. Those Latin terms have a specific meaning only when applied to Latin. For English they have an approximate meaning, which applies reasonably to the majority of words used most of the time. But there are fuzzy edges between categories, and they do matter.

    One example. The boundaries between English adverbs and English adjectives is far from clear. And yet old-fashioned traditional grammar will have none of it. It fetishises the difference between 'parts of speech'. From this mindset came a test item composed for English schools. I can't do better than David Crystal's account from his blog in September 2013

    An English-teacher correspondent in the UK writes to tell me a very worrying - but totally to be expected - story emerging from the Key Stage 2 grammar test marking earlier this year. Question 16 asks children to complete the sentence 'The sun shone ________ in the sky.' and the mark scheme reads 'Accept any appropriate adverb, e.g. brightly, beautifully'.
    A child presented the answer 'The sun shone bright in the sky', and this was marked wrong, on the grounds that it is 'not an adverb'.

    This is the kind of nonsense up with which nobody should put. It is the response of a marker who is insecure about his/her grammatical knowledge, and who has a half-remembered history of faulty learning based on unauthentic prescriptive principles.

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  8. I read through the mark scheme for the KS2 tests and I note that it says the word 'gotten' is not to be accepted as the past tense of 'to get' and that 'color' must not be accepted instead of 'colour' or indeed any other Americanised/ized spellings. Hm. Certainly 'gotten' is something I read all the time in my students' work, and they're secondary level. I wonder how long they can hang on to this prescriptive demand. I was pretty shocked to read the detailed list of grammatical concepts they have to teach in KS2 now. I would be staggered to find that all KS2 teachers have that level of knowledge, unless they did a degree which included Linguistics.

  9. Nick

    To this day I have no idea what a 'past participle' is, or 'subordinating conjunction' or 'preposition'.

    On the contrary, you have a very precise idea of all, three concepts. It's just that the knowledge is unconscious, and you can't place the appropriate label on each concept. Somewhere along the way, those terms have been sprung on you as information rather than explanations of your existing knowledge.

    That's the real objection to what's going on in these SATs. They're bringing back that phenomenon of blocking the sort of consciousness-raising that makes these terms
    (a) understandable and
    (b) serviceable in speaking about language.

    1. Did you have any problem understanding the slogan

    You know when you've been Tangoed

    when you first heard it?

    No? that's because you recognised what had happened to the trade name Tango. If I'd been your teacher, I might have said that past particle was a handy label for the thing you'd just recognised.

    2. Which of these two do you prefer?

    ...I waited between he left and came back
    ...I waited while he left and came back

    and how about this?
    ...I waited because he left and came back

    Spot how between doesn't work as well as while or because? Of course you do! Your unconscious knowledge of grammar is pretty well perfect.

    I don't think you now need me to explain which of these words we call a conjunction. Now all you need to dredge from you unconscious is the difference between

    (a) I'll wait here and you come back soon. I won't wait but you come back soon
    (b) I'll wait here if you come back soon. I won't wait unless you come back soon

    The (a) sentences don't work because the conjunctions and and but do a different job from conjunctions like if and unless. There are terms for this
    (a) coordination, coordinating
    (b) subordination, subordination
    Big ugly terms that got in the way of you labelling something that you understood perfectly.

    3. Preposition is such an easy concept most of the time that you only need to see a list — whether of English prepositions of French prepositions — to recognise immediately the category that you already unconsciously understand.

    There is a problem, but it's the product of grammar teaching. Churchill's famous

    Up with this i will not put

    (echoed by David Crystal in my quote above) was a response to the 'rule'

    Never end a sentence with a proposition.

    So yes, the instinctive understanding of what category words like up and with belong to needs some adjusting and nuancing. But I don't think it can be done without raising someone's consciousness as to what a an archetypal preposition is and does.

    [I've had to re-post this, adding all the formatting again because my wretched spellcheck changed Tangoed to Tangoes, thus ruining the point I was making.]


    Never end a sentence with a proposition

    I had to un-spellcheck this almost every time. My spellchecker just hates the word preposition. This example is one that got through.

  11. Thanks David, that's actually quite useful information!

    Yes, you're right that I know how to use all of these things - but the fundamental problem I have is that I was never given these things as information never mind explanations!

    I know what "conjoin" means therefore I can deduce that a conjunction must be something to do with joining 2 things together, but no-one told me that that means 'and' or 'if' or 'but'. We covered it in primary school, but in the context of 'joining words' (which made perfect sense, in the same way that we had 'describing words' and 'doing words'). I was never taught what a preposition was (just had to Google it because I'm still unsure).

    The weird thing is that as a user of English I have never needed to know the 'science terms' of what I'm doing - but it completely baffled me when learning French because all of those terms could just have been from Jabberwocky for all I knew. So, do I think a primary school child should learn full-on grammar terms? No - keep it simple & get the kids to read.

    But secondary school English lessons should have structured learning on converting that basic understanding into the science of grammar, which would then make learning other languages a lot easier.

  12. Excellent article. Thanks!

  13. The late Richard Mitchell wrote about the connection between grammar and thinking:

    "As a child in school, I was not baffled by subordinating conjunctions, but that was only because I was totally indifferent to subordinating conjunctions. I knew what the book said about them, and I could answer the teacher's questions about them in the terms of the book, and that was all I needed to do. It satisfied the teacher. But to be baffled, one must be interested, and to be interested in subordinating conjunctions, a condition that seems especially dismal but, fortunately, remarkably unlikely, requires first an interest in subordination itself.

    "But an interest in subordination is not unlikely, not, at least, in a mind that has discovered certain of its powers. Subordination is the root of logic, which is itself a grammatical art, the consideration of the just relation of one statement to another, and logical fallacies are errors of grammar--a confusion, for example, as to whether two statements can be related as 'if' implies or as 'because' implies. Some minds, at some point, discover that they can not make sense of their own predications without attention to grammar, although they do not ordinarily think of what they are doing as an exercise in grammar."

    Richard Mitchell, "Why Good Grammar?"

    The essay opened: "I have been given this assignment: To write on the question, Why good grammar? I have not been explicitly asked to answer the question, however, and for that I am grateful. It is a strange question, after all, something like Why clean hands? And its best answer is really, Well, why not? If there is anything to be proved here, it ought to be left to those who support the cause of 'bad grammar.'"

    I was privileged to have Mitchell as a professor of English at Glassboro (New Jersey) State College many years ago. Fortunately some devoted former students preserved his writings on the Underground Grammarian website:

    His last and, I think, best work, available on the website, was The Gift of Fire, which the site calls "Mitchell's beautifully written, exquisitely argued explorations of not what but how to think."

  14. Nick,

    I think there's a benefit, at some point, to knowing the technical terms for nouns, verbs, adverbs etc. If for no other reason it makes us sound vaguely mature when we talk about it on blogs like this! Picking when you change from the functional description you know to the technical terms is really what's up for debate, as well as the depth of it.

    And one of the real benefits of having the technical terms is you get to discuss concepts like the same word (like after) is mostly a preposition (it describes a relationship in time, prepositions are words that describe relationships in time or space - they're anti-TARDISes) but can sometimes be used for other things like joining phrases (where it becomes a conjunction) which is pretty important. Clearly the school's minister didn't know that and had been given the prescriptive "Words that describe a relationship in time & space are preposition, words like above, after..." so he answered as he'd been taught.

    But... does an 11 year old really need to know that? In all the nitty-gritty technical detail? At 16+ if you're studying English Language, definitely. If there's evidence teaching it to children between 7 and 11 improves their written English as adults, then ok. Without that, I'm not sure of the real value tbh.

  15. Eloise - exactly! Yes!

    I remember being taught 'doing/describing words' at Junior school and we quickly became familiar with nouns, adjectives and verbs. But the rest of it? In primary school? Nope.

    If the 'rules' for the more complex aspects of grammar have grey areas then should we even consider teaching them to under 11s? This is literally 'Lies-to-children' (the simplification of an issue to enable understanding), as the minister so wonderfully illustrated (although at the time I didn't even understand the question so wouldn't have been able to give any answer at all; happily, after partaking in this blog discussion I can now see that he's actually an idiot - of course it's not a preposition).

    I would argue that secondary school (year 7 I think) is the place to start giving more precise tuition on grammar, its uses and its peculiarities - because it is then transferable knowledge to understanding how other languages work. Education before then should be about actually reading and writing and getting used to how sentences are built - the clinical dissection should come later.

  16. I'm a scientist, allegedly. We teach science by lying to the children all the time. We don't call it that, we say "What we taught you before is a simplified model, actually it's a bit more complex, this is a more accurate model."

    Perhaps the easiest example of that is Newton's laws of motion. Even if you can't formally state them, you basically know them. Objects keep moving unless a force acts on them, every force has an equal and opposite reaction, force = mass x acceleration. For most things that's OK. So guy you may have heard of, called Einstein, showed it's not true for large masses with General Relativity. Quantum mechanics showed it's not true for sub-atomic particles. (There are most subtle ones, but nearly everyone remembers Einstein and Newton.)

    And the sentence in the example is one I think a child under 11 will use. "I went to the cinema after I'd had my dinner." It's not an uncommon structure, even though grammatically isn't a bit of a bitch. We can either teach them the simple rules, and in 30 years or so we'll have another confused minister, or we can miss out the nomenclature and teach them that some words do double (or triple or more) duty.

    And I'm not sure how well it really transfers beyond the basic parts to other languages. Once you poke beyond the basics, how applicable are the terms and rules? I'm not really sure (and I'm well away from my area of expertise). I would say in the languages I've studied formally or informally to various low levels (French, Latin, Portuguese, Maori and Mandarin) even the first three where you'd expect some commonality since two are direct descendants of the third the rules don't transfer particularly well.

  17. As an American, I don't have a dog in this fight. But I think Nick is exactly right--give the kids some basic names and some general rules, then get them to read, read, read. They will need do know why something is wrong when their writing gets marked wrong, but that doesn't require a technical term. But if they can get to the point where they don't do something because it sounds odd, then that's just fine early on.

    As an analogy, back when I was in 5th & 6th grade in the early 70's, we were dealing with "New Math". I quickly learned to strip away the excess brackets and braces and other crap that was part of the New Math notation and to focus on the basic operators and how parenthesis worked. I did pretty well with that. But in helping some of my friends, I could see how badly they got bogged down in it. When I got into college and started getting a computer science degree in the late 70's, then the notation and other features actually became useful.

  18. My daughter, who is of the generation that did not learn formal grammar at school, said that she was grateful for the formal grammar lessons when she began to learn French, as it gave her some idea of how her own language worked.

    My 6-year-old grandson, in Year 1, takes great pleasure in explaining to me things he has learnt - why and when to use an exclamation mark, for instance, or a question mark. And yesterday he sent me a text message which was grammatically correct, used punctuation correctly, and only contained one minor spelling error ("parst" for "past", which, in our non-rhotic dialect, is understandable). His mother sent a follow-up text to say he had done this with no help or input from anybody. I was very impressed.

  19. Eloise

    We teach science by lying to the children all the time. We don't call it that, we say "What we taught you before is a simplified model, actually it's a bit more complex, this is a more accurate model."

    If only traditional grammar teachers would do the same! What they do instead is to deny that the science of grammar has made any advance whatsoever in the last two hundred years — some would say the iast two millennia.

    At least school physics teachers acknowledge to themselves that relativity, quantum mechanics and the rest are valid and may ultimately be of relevance.

    Besides, Newtonian mechanics bears a close relationship to what happens in the real world in everyday circumstances. Traditional grammar is less close a model to everyday speech than any of the linguistically informed models.

  20. David,

    I suspect part of the problem is that, even if we don't quite use that language to children at ages 7 and 11, by the time we're really looking at more complex models with science (I think chemistry and electron shells was the first one I really remember, chronologically but it was getting on for 40 years ago so my memory might be wrong) is that we're also teaching them the scientific method where you look at a system, simplify and restrict it to test your hypothesis. Again we don't really do that formally (or we didn't) in a way that I'd recognise as useful now (but I've got a PhD and some years of teaching experimental design at that sort of level, so what I recognise as useful is really, really different to the initial steps you teach and learn and I haven't been exposed to what they teach kids really - I know enough to recognise I'm not a good judge of it) but the children in a science class are at least aware of the idea.

    Now, I would argue that they should be able to transfer that to an English class too. OTOH in the final year of my undergraduate degree we got taught some material in one course but a particular lecturer. The same lecturer in a different course but about a week later gave us some silly quiz thing to fill in the blanks on a sheet. About 2/3 was from the material taught within that course, the other 1/3 came from the material she'd taught the previous week in the other course. Both were compulsory modules. Two from the 30 of us filled in the material from the other course, the rest said "We haven't covered that!" So, while that's a small sample size, I would wonder how many people would transfer the learning model to such a different subject.

  21. Eloise

    What preceded the scientific method was learning what Aristotle said. Traditional grammar never really advanced beyond that.

    I was struck last week by a discussion on In Our Time of Euclid's Elements. I hadn't fully taken in before how a tiny number of definitions lead step by step to the vast superstructure of geometry. That's what the old grammarians strived for. Starting from definitions of a few parts of speech, the elaborated rules that would lead inexorably to 'correct' grammar.

    But it doesn't work that way. Euclid's postulates and axioms match the real world exactly here and now. When confronted with a world that doesn't fit, mathematicians go back to zero with new postulates to create non-Euclidian geometry. But when the real wold of speech contradicts the 'rules' of traditional grammar, the custodians of the dogma dismiss that real world as 'bad grammar'.

    The new Govism likes to think it's not a unscientific as that. Nevertheless, it's built on that same approach of starting with definitions of terms and building up logically on them. What makes it worse its that definitions make for highly reliable test items. It's much more difficult to construct a reliable test of understanding or application of concepts.

    In an ideal school world, children should be able to discover concepts — and then be shown the relevance and application. I have a fantasy lesson in mind, teaching nouns to young children. I would hand out a pile of flash cards for the kids to use as labels:
    • multiples of cards reading book, desk, etc
    • multiples of cards reading water, paper etc
    Other cards would be unique, but the kids wouldn't know this in advance
    • single cards marked with a pupil's name, the name of a place in a wall poster, etc
    • single cards reading air, noise, etc
    • single cards reading door, whiteboard etc

    What (I hope) they'd learn is that
    • some words can label a lot of similar objects
    • some words can label dissimilar objects sharing something
    This leads to the concepts and (probably in the future) the names countable noun and uncountable noun.
    By extension, it can also show that some sounds have plural forms and others don't.
    • some words can only be used individually — eventually to be identified as proper nouns
    • some labels can't be attached — eventually to be identified as abstract nouns
    • some labels can be placed only one in this classroom — eventually leading to the grammar of the and a

    My aim would be for them to discover
    • that nouns are used
    • that some nouns have no plural form (normally) and others don't
    • that the same distinction means that some nouns can't be used without a (or something else)
    • that some nouns are names in the sense that kids understand, and are spelled with a capital letter
    • that some words are used withthe because there can only one thing in the context that fits the label

    By contrast, traditional grammar teaches

    A noun is the name of a person, place or thing

    This seems to makes sense, but it disguises a tricky complexity with the little word name. It appears to explain reference, but modern grammar tells us that in English it isn't the noun that refers to something but the noun phrase within which it serves.

    It then goes on to subdivide nouns according to what they mean rather than how we use them. But it isn't the just the semantics that divides English nouns into countable and uncountable.

  22. David,

    I think we're singing from the same hymn sheet, I think the problem is we sing in different keys! Or from another Radio 4 show perhaps we're singing one song to the tune of another. As a sax player you're singing different words for the music I've got!

    I'm not a grammarian. I understood the concept of countable and uncountable nouns because the words make sense together but I've never heard of it before. I did go and check it meant what I thought it meant, just in case. I've also never taught children of that age, I've rarely worked with anyone under 18 although I did some work with 16 and 17 year olds.

    I can see the value of your lesson and the usefulness to me. I'd like to know more about noun phrases and how a noun serves a noun phrase and how they work as a reference. (That's way outside this blog and I'll go and do the reading.) It's a trickier thing for me to be sure how well it would work as a teachable concept to children.

    And, of course, it's a nightmare to assess in any sort of standardised way. But then, despite (or perhaps because of) being an educator and doing really well in exams and the like, I've never really been a fan of standardised testing. They're a dramatically crap way of testing ability and understanding. They're quite a good way to test whether you're good at passing tests though.

  23. Eloise - my favourite way of teaching nouns/noun phrases/extended noun phrases is to look at menus. They start with fries. They become hand-cut fries. They become rustic hand-cut fries. They become organic rustic hand-cut fries. Then they become organic rustic hand-cut fries cooked in duck fat from local ducks reared at a milkmaid's knee at HollytreeFarm. Blah blah etc. The kids love making their noun phrases ridiculously long to mock the supposedly persuasive language of a menu, and all of a sudden we're into satire! The annual M & S Christmas ads, which get posted on Youtube, are another source. The best fun is to take a menu such as 'sandwich, crisps and chocolate' and extend it to sound amazing, or indeed, reduce a posh menu to its basest parts. Anyway, I'll stop now. You can tell I enjoy those lessons! And they work with adult learners as much as with the youngsters.

  24. Despite having just got back from lunch, I'm now salivating. And considering deconstructing and reconstructing menus the next time I go out!

    I think from what I've read (don't tell the boss I wasn't working quite as hard as he thought!) David is strongly suggesting a move to a far more functional view of grammar than the current curriculum. Sort of "This is a sentence and it's made up of one or more clauses. Clauses have a phrase and a verb, and there if are several of them in a sentence they're either joined by punctuation or special words (even if in other places they work in other ways). A phrase can be a noun phrase, an adverb phrase or an adjective phrase. This is how you tell them apart and this is how you use them in BrE."

    Which eventually leads to some looser definitions than the current curriculum, LOTS of fun with the examination at KS2 and children who are better taught than the current generation.

    I can't help feeling I'm treading on the shoulders of a giant in a field I don't know. This sounds like something Chomsky should have said... him and Pinker being the only names I really know in this field without hitting up Wikipedia or similar.

  25. Indeed, grammar is not the enemy, and nor is testing (the enemy). When I taught pre-clinical medics and biochemistry BSc students, I used to tell them that exam nerves were a sign that they were ill-prepared,that they they should not rely on rote-learning and last-minute revision - they should try to understand at a deeper level. I would say that exams (even including Finals!) were as much an assessment of our ability to teach as of their knowledge and understanding, and of course they inform the students of what they do not know at the time.

    The spokesmen from the educational establishment responded to the 'Let Kids be Kids' dispute by painting the picture of illiterate, innumerate school leavers, presumably a warning of what might happen if SATs were to be dropped. But what if kids were tested regularly in a low-key way, using 'formative assessment' (university jargon term) to help the kids, rather than to punish teachers and schools for not having a perfect score. It has been said that you don't help a pig to grow by constantly weighing it - but at least you could get a good idea of the most effective feeding regimen.

    Language is very important to scientists because we require precision - how can one repeat or understand an experiment if the scientist cannot use vocabulary and grammar correctly when reporting the findings? The examples that spring to mind - from very bright students with high grades at school - are the verbs effect/affect (and of course medics use affect as a noun too); may/might and past/passed. I paused as I typed that, as I don't know the parts of speech for the latter pairs of examples!

    I think I learned a little English grammar at school in the 1960s, but French and Latin were taught in a much more formal way, perhaps because of the declensions and conjugations that were required, and I was amazed to discover a textbook of English for foreign learners, where our language was tabulated in the same way. The Times has a weekly column called The Pedant, whose writer maintains that we all speak and write correctly just by listening and reading. I look froward to reading his opinions of this dispute.

  26. Well, I finally got round to the Times on Saturday, and blow me, the Pedant (Oliver Kamm) is actually keen on the study of parts of speech, grammar and so on at school. I suspect that he might think that six year olds are a bit young for the subjunctive, transferred epithets and causal whatnots, and he says nothing about the SATS themselves. But he does wage a war against a well-known grammar handbook that he says is too prescriptive and old-fashioned.

  27. Eloise

    If you want to say anything useful about the grammar of sentences and/or clauses, you need the concepts traditionally termed subject, object, complement. These are elements of the structure of a larger grammatical. Unit such as a clause, and they have an internal structure, namely noun phrase. It's just not grammatical to say, for example,

    book is on desk

    It's also unsatisfactory as a communicative utterance.

    By substituting noun phrases, as for example

    John's book is on the desk near the window

    We produce something that's acceptable English, and actually communicates something.

    Moreover, it's misleading to say that a pronoun substitutes for a noun. If that were true, we might say

    John's it is on the desk ...

    No, what a pronoun substitutes for is a noun phrase:

    It is on the ...

    And there's a structure we use all the time for (amongst other things) espresso get time and place. Modern grammar looks at the structure rather than the meaning and speaks of preposition phrases. Examples:

    on my desk
    in the mating season

    Again, the structure is not with a noun (well, often not) but PREPOSITIONS + NOUN PHRASE

    We don't normally say

    on desk
    In mating season

    It was OK in Latin grammar to use the single term noun for the two concepts, but it just won't do for English grammar.

  28. This is the hairest of hairy topics, but I just wanted to note that the US Common Core standards are a (more rigorous, detailed, uniform) set of skills-outcome standards than states had been using individually. They haven't been adopted by all the states, and they are not a curriculum setting out what content to teach. That is still done by states, individual school districts, and even individual classroom teachers. All of whom are, along with parents, fiercely protective of that status quo. Federal law still prohibits the adoption of a national curriculum, and although the Common Core talks about the importance of content teaching, US state-funded education is still progressivist.

    And I doubt that that involves much grammar instruction.

    It seems to me that there is an firm rationale for teaching a certain amount of grammar with the goal of making student writing clear and comprehensible, but rote memorization by seven year olds is not the way to do it.

  29. Eloise

    Some interesting typos in my reply, notably

    And there's a structure we use all the time for (amongst other things) espresso get time and place.

    I was using a tablet, and in a foreign country, and barely managed to get from Edit mode to Preview mode against nagging demands from Dutch Google. Getting back to functioning Edit mode was impossible; espresso get just had to stay. Presumably you spotted that I meant 'expressing'.

    I obsess with the noun/noun phrase distinction because my 1950's half-hearted grammar instruction persuaded me that a noun was a person, place or thing. This is neither useful nor true. Worse, it makes it harder to get to the actual truth later. A false foundations is worse than no foundation.

    In that fantasy lesson, the only relevant purpose would be for the kids to grasp that nouns are words not things. Hence the physically obvious difference between flash cards and things (some, not all of them concrete). In my first posting I recalled that teenage boy who identified the adjective yellow as a noun because 'Yellow's the name of a colour'. Teaching had led him not to clarity but to muddle.

    Nouns are words which either reflect concepts, metal entities — or, in interesting ways, create them or give them focus. I don't expect primary school kids to understand this, but I'd like them to have minds open to the idea later in life.

  30. For those who didn't spot the reference to the Henry Reed poem


    To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
    We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
    We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
    To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
    Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
    And to-day we have naming of parts.

    This is the lower sling swivel. And this
    Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
    When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
    Which in your case you have not got. The branches
    Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
    Which in our case we have not got.

    This is the safety-catch, which is always released
    With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
    See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
    If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
    Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
    Any of them using their finger.

    And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
    Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
    Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
    Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
    The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
    They call it easing the Spring.

    They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
    If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
    And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
    Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
    Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
    For to-day we have naming of parts.

    A delightful poem and extremely relevant to British tractional grammar teaching.

  31. I don't disagree with the general tenor of the post and the discussion (though I would just point out that there are more than US and UK Englishes, and I distinctly remember receiving a note from a student from India that told me he had called and found I was "not on seat", clearly a local bureaucratic usage).

    FWIW, I went to a primary school in the 1950s that would probably have been considered quite progressive in the 1930s. While I can remember doing 10 minutes every morning of "mental arithmetic" (no calculators for me!), I don't remember being introduced to much if any formal grammar until I went to, yes, an old-fashioned grammar school after the 11-plus (a process I would regard as decidely prepositional rather than a conjunction of anything, subordinate or otherwise). That was when we started on formal grammar, more or less simultaneously in English, French and Latin, including "parsing" collectively in English language, but I don't recall ever being introduced to "modal verbs". That is a term I remained blissfully unaware of - or conveniently forgot, perhaps - throughout my school career and a university degree in French and German, until the reports and discussions of this latest, entirely justified, protest at the Gradgrindian nonsense emanating from Whitehall.

    Much more important was the encouragement in both schools to read, write and imagine for ourselves: and more of it in primary school, as is only right for children at that age. Never mind the naming of parts, why not ask children why something seems "right" or "wrong" to them and let that open their minds to whether and why different people can have a different view, the difference between what is grammatically regular (more or less) and what is simply pleasing style, and so on?

  32. I (an American) worked as a brochure production manager at the old Thomson Holidays from 1989 through 2000. In the early 1990s, the practice was to hire in a new crop of school-leavers and polytech grads to tackle repetitive work of assembling hundreds of pages of Summer Sun and its kin. Many of them were pretty keen: we were at the forefront of electronic page-makeup, and they were excited at using Macs and Quark XPress, so they learned quickly. Still, in the quieter winter season, most would drift away or be made redundant.

    Someone eventually noticed this was a bit wasteful of training time, and an effort was made to groom them for promotion -- which meant no longer pasting in someone else's approved text but actually doing line edits and, more important, cutting or adding text to fit the layout. I had the unenviable task of proofing every page for final content, and soon discovered many had a pretty shaky grasp of written communication.

    Some of the errors were pretty funny (I'll dine out forever on the sentence 'Sit back with a coffee in one of Rome's insalubrious cafes.' I can only guess the negative was more common than 'salubrious'...) But the sloppy grammar drove the division director nuts, and I was tasked with creating a style manual to prevent them making fools of the company.

    The director and senior managers thought it all very well and good, but sent it back to me with two instructions: produce a version that could be used as a teaching tool (think flashcards), and write an appendix that explained all those arcane terms I'd used.

    You guessed it: If I was going to insist on writing instructions (think Strunk & White) like 'do not join independent clauses by a comma,' they were sure that terms like noun, verb, adjective, clause and conjunction were going to confuse the dear young things beyond redemption. They'd never heard such terms, and so the shorthand of terms we use to coach writing skills was unavailable to me.

  33. Autolycus

    That was when we started on formal grammar, more or less simultaneously in English, French and Latin, including "parsing" collectively in English language, but I don't recall ever being introduced to "modal verbs".

    Yes, that's how rubbishy traditional grammar was. Modal verbs as a distinct word class are not a feature of Latin grammar and are probably not too useful in describing French grammar. However, in Germanic languages it's an important word class. Perhaps not quite as important in describing German. But an English grammar which doesn't identify them as a class with distinctly different grammar is just plain inadequate.

    Of course, you can teach the grammar of modal verbs without using the term. That's what I did throughout my career as an English Language teacher. But it was of supreme importance to me to recognise the class, and recognise the label as a teaching item.

  34. Laura

    think Strunk and White

    We can't. The book itself is unknown in Britain and there's no tradition of anything like it enjoying any significant respect.

    Unusually, I have in the past read odd references to it. It sounded perfectly vile and ill-informed. Then I read Stephen Pinker's new style guide, and was astonished to find that Strunk and White had some good things in it.

    Because of the way terms like noun, verb, adjective, clause and conjunction were used in teaching for a couple of centuries up to (approx) the middle of last century, grammar was loathed and rejected by schoolchildren and school teachers. I think the main reasons were twofold:

    1. Grammar instruction was prescriptive and therefore often wrong

    2. Nobody ever demonstrated any use. There was no correlation whatsoever between good writing and receiving grammar instruction.

  35. I really appreciate your comment that it is unfair to quote adults about facts and test information. Critical thinking skills and the ability to look up information is gained in the process of education. I have struggled with this very thing as I am completing my Bachelor's degree. I have reflected on the information I am able to recall as I am asked about my education. I am not a person that is skilled at recalling information in detail very well, but I have gained all of these skills and have learned the resources to find information needed.

    An American Linguist Student

  36. Great post. I do appreciate the fact that an education provides the ability to retrieve information from resources and to have critical thinking skills as well as communication skills.

  37. This post has a terrific set of comments! Reading them I really felt that the readers of this blog form a community of like minds - and minds that I like.

  38. Coming back to this many years later, children can be awful grammar snobs! A few years ago I was hearing my younger grandson read, and was explaining to him the "magic e", which makes the vowel say its name, not its sound (as in jam and James, mad and made, etc). "It's not called that," said his elder brother, scornfully. "It's a split digraph!" And (when he was at primary school) rabbited on about fronted adverbials and trigraphs (he had a phase of calling an I-pad
    an "Igh-pad") and other things that I had never heard of! And we did learn grammar in my dim and distant youth....


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