Monday, 1 February 2021

School Grammar

Not Grammar Schools but the kind of grammar being taught to Primary School children, which is different from the grammar taught to their parents and grandparents. (Actually, if my experience of raising three daughters in the 1980s and 90s is anything to go by, parents probably weren't taught any grammar at all). It is also different from anything a linguist would recognise.

Last week Michael Rosen wrote an article in the Guardian in the form of an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Now, Michael Rosen is a recent survivor of the Corona virus; he nearly died and suffers from a range of Long Covid symptoms and side effects. There has been an overwhelming wave of love and support for him during and after his illness and, though he might hate the idea, this accomplished, versatile and prizewinning writer is now something of a National Treasure - a sort of literary Captain Tom Moore. As well as producing his bestselling books, poetry and memoirs and  YouTube videos with a huge following, Mike presents Radio 4's Word of Mouth programme and is already back in the metaphorical saddle doing that again.

All this could mean that Williamson might take note of what he said but, whether he did or not, Mike makes some excellent points: It's only now that so many parents are home schooling their children that they are realising how "the primary curriculum now includes all this so-called grammar, which to many of us is a package of outdated, rigid, misleading, prescriptive, disputed terms, all based on the false assumption that “grammar” is either right or wrong."

"So-called grammar" is spot on and one of the most made-up things about it is the dreaded "fronted adverbial," the meaning of which many much-published and highly-educated people do not know. (Does Gavin Williamson know?)

There is nothing wrong with having a language-with-which-to-talk-about-language. It is, after all, what this blog is about. There is Descriptive Grammar, which is what the discipline of Linguistics is about and Prescriptive Grammar, which tells you what is right and what is wrong. 

It is worth re-stating here that Grammar Grandma is concerned with what is used in Standard English, while acknowledging the many differences in dialect, slang, register and idiolect. If you use those variants, that is completely OK,  but you might find it useful to know what SE does differently, for occasions when you want to use the formal language of a job application, UCAS personal statement, etc.

(It's the same as "translating" a family word in a context outside the family. I have to remember every week that Sainsbury's will not understand "squinges" or "nubbles" if I type them in my order).

Michael Rosen's point is that Primary Schools are not only teaching Prescriptive grammar but are then going further and pretending that this will make you a better write: "Somewhere along the line – have you noticed? – these grammatical features turned into instructions to children on how to write. So now, I gather, they have to create sentences using fronted adverbials, relative clauses and expanded noun phrases – preferably after a preposition."

It seems to me there is nothing wrong with teaching what an adverb is and noticing that where it appears in a sentence might change its emphasis but why on earth make up a new name (I have the same problem with "phonics") and then ask children to use lots of them in their writing?

Wouldn't it be better to look at how interesting writers make a book inviting and exciting by choosing a superbly right word or making up a new one or yes, even putting an adverb right up there at the front? I would place a large bet that no good writer every wrote a good book - or even a good sentence - by thinking "I must put in lots of fronted adverbials."

This is why children thrill to the poems and stories of Michael Rosen and no-one has ever felt the slightest frisson while listening to Gavin Williamson or any other Education Secretary (Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove, Kenneth Baker? - we've had a few doozies)


Word of the week: vaccination

On Saturday, I went, an hour after my husband, to our new local GP Practice to be vaccinated against Covid-19. And a very well-organised procedure it was too. But I started musing on the word, which clearly begins with a cow. Apparently it is because the first "vaccine" (for Smallpox) was developed from cowpox and "vacca" is Latin for "cow."

You could use "innoculation" or "immunisation" instead but "vaccination" is certainly the popular word for it now and "vaccine" a useful word for what you are vaccinated with. I saw no cattle at the health centre.


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