Thursday 27 June 2024

Can poetry (and other literature) help with recovering from distress and trauma? A schools perspective

 These are notes and thoughts as part of the talk I gave at the Northern Education Show today on 'Reading, Writing and Recovery'.

The standard practice of what to 'do with' literature in schools is to 'comprehend it ('Comprehension') and critique it ('Literary Criticism'). There are other spaces  (eg PHSE) in schools where we can think of literature (plays, poems, stories) in another way. We can think of it as starting points for talk, discussion, debate and reflection (as readers) and as starting points for writing plays, poems and stories ourselves.

From my discussions with teachers, I gather that a space where that can kind of activity can take place these days is in PHSE sessions. 

So let's run with this. My core point here is that literature offers readers (or readers who are thinking about writing something) are possibilities and permissions. 

What does this mean? Every piece of literature holds within it possibilities in ways of behaving, thinking and feeling. These possibilities are, in a sense, dangled in front of us, as temptations, models, challenges, speculations about how the beings in the literature go through the thoughts and actions described there. There are also the possibilities offered to us (eg as students) in the shapes, patterns, forms and themes of a piece of literature. This possibility can invite us to think, 'I could write something like that.' This is how literature develops and changes. One of the most famous examples of this is Shakespeare picking up on the possibility offered by 'Revenge Tragedy'. He seems to have thought, I could write something like that. And he wrote 'Hamlet'. But 'Hamlet' was a new kind of play because it may well have used the template of the Revenge Tragedy, but created a something new by mixing in philosophy, psychology and politics. As a result, people have taken up the baton offered by 'Hamlet'. 

But this sort of thing involves 'permissions'. Back with students and young children, it's my observation (and many other people's) that young people benefit from being offered permission to speak about or write about what's in their minds. We can think of literature as expressing important things in ways that we can't say for ourselves. Perhaps. But there's a way of saying, if that writer can say it, I'll give myself permission to say something like that too. So we have feelings, thoughts and ideas that I may feel are not worthy of being written about, or that perhaps there's some kind of taboo involved. Then we read something and discover that there is no barrier to talking or writing about such things. 

So, we have these two overlapping ideas: possibilities and permissions. I hope that these are useful ways of thinking how we can treat poems, plays and stories in spaces where we don't have to be thinking about Comprehension or Literary Criticism - eg in PHSE sessions. 

I can say that poems, plays and stories in my life have helped me deal with various kinds of traumas. I've written about this in 'Getting Better' but in today's session with teachers at the Northern Education Show, I illustrated what I'm saying in this blog, by reading poems from eg 'Quick Let's Get Out of Here',  'On the Move', 'Michael's Big Book of Bad Things', and stories like 'Sticky McStickstick', 'The Big Dreaming', 'The Sad Book' and 'Please Write Soon' .

One of the reason why writing helps sounds trivial - writing is slow. But that word 'slow, disguises the fact that writing lets us reflect on what we're writing much more easily than when we speak. As we 'unfold' it onto the page, we have time to stop, think, change and rewrite. We can edit and weigh up whether the writing really does represent how we think. This is a way of standing outside of ourselves, giving ourselves some objectivity about ourselves. This in itself is a relief. 

I've written about this in 'Write to Feel Write' which appears in the Big Cat series published by Collins. It's a book for both students and teachers to help them write in this kind of area. 

Wednesday 12 June 2024

This year's KS2 Grammar, punctuation and spelling test - analysed.

OK, it's time for my annual analysis of the Grammar test that is given to Key Stage 2 children (that's 10 and 11 year olds) in England. It's compulsory for children in 'maintained' schools (ie state schools financed from the government). Put another way, this means that private schools do not have to do the test. 

Please let's bear in mind right from the start that this test was NOT introduced because a group of grammarians and educationists said that it would be a good idea if 10 and 11 year olds knew this stuff. It was only introduced for one reason, as stated clearly in the Bew Report (2011). That is, that it would be a good way to assess teachers. Why? Because (again the Bew Report) 'grammar' has right and wrong answers. There is not a grammarian in the world who would or could seriously claim that. Language is not regular. The descriptions of language are not regular. As one simple example, as Professor David Crystal pointed out with the first of these Grammar tests, there was a question about the sun shining 'brightly'. The word the children had to insert was 'brightly'. If children wrote 'bright' that was wrong. It wasn't wrong, it's a 'variant usage'. Let's never forget that 'variant usages' are the nightmare of every examiner of these tests. In life, it's what makes us interesting. 

So, we test children in order to test teachers. This is a Michael Gove idea. I wonder even if this is legal! It's like punishing someone for something that someone else has done! (Meant, partly tongue in cheek.) 

In what I write about this, there may well be typos, and what are commonly called mistakes. There's no need to point these out to me as I'm someone who thinks that we all make mistakes. If I point out 'mistakes' in the test, that's because the people who set these tests are, de facto, exponents of the 'must-be-correct' school of thinking. I'm not one such person. 

'MR' indicates a comment by me. 

The front page of the test says this:

national curriculum tests

Key stage 2

English, grammar, 

punctuation and spelling

Paper 1: questions 

MR: You really couldn't think of a bigger irony than a test that is in part concerned with 'orthography' but on its front page has no capital letter for the first headline (ie for 'National'). This tells us that so-called 'rules' of orthography don't apply to headlines, signs, ads, social media, announcements and the like, if you don't want them to. 

1. Which sentence must end with a question mark? 

Tick one.

Do you know long it took for the trees to grow

We have planted rose bushes around the trees

How beautiful the flowers will be

I will ask my teacher if I can show you

MR: General comment: teachers will have taught the nonsense that there are 4 types of sentence: statement, question, exclamation, command. Once you've narrowed language down to this sort of thing, then of course you can demand that there is a 'must' about how it should be punctuated. Meanwhile, KS2 children are surrounded with written language that doesn't behave according to the claim that there are four types of sentence. You only have to spend time looking at ads, information signs, poems, song lyrics, film scripts, plays, slogans and social media, to see that writing is much more diverse than this crude description of what sentences are. 

Even so, the 'command' type is faulty in that this is a 'semantic' description not a grammatical one. We 'command' each other to do things in many different ways eg using words like 'must', 'I am telling you to do' and so on. What they mean is that a command is a sentence that uses the 'imperative' form of the verb (as with 'Go out' or 'Don't do that'.) 

Then again, the idea that an exclamation has to be a 'how' or a 'what' construction is a very strange and largely irrelevant selection from all the ways we have of exclaiming in English. It was fun listening to Nick Gibb, the then Schools Minister, struggling with this on the radio when this nonsense was first introduced. It is also a strange idea that there is any kind of 'must' (obligation) connected to a sentence like 'How beautiful the flowers will be' - that is, that it 'should have' an exclamation mark after it (not being asked for in this question but it's what teachers have to teach in the context of teaching for this question.)

2 Which sentence is punctuated correctly? 

Tick one.

After he ate the lion lay down, and slept for many hours.

After he ate the lion, lay down, and slept for many hours.

After he ate, the lion lay down and slept for many hours.

After he ate the lion lay down and slept, for many hours.

MR: If we interrogate why this question is being asked, we have to ask what this word 'correctly' actually means. Let's remember that punctuation was largely invented by artisans, not linguists or grammarians. It was printers who invented it. It's funny hearing people talk about punctuation as if it was produced out of some kind of higher learning and produced with the intention of being some kind of perfect system. In fact it was produced out of custom and usage: what worked for the kind of print produced by printing presses. If you look at, say, Elizabethan printing of eg Shakespeare's Sonnets or compare pieces of Elizabethan prose,  you can see punctuation at various stages of evolution. 

Even so, if you take my trip to look at notices, ads, social media and the like, you'll quickly see that there are people with the power of being allowed to write notices in stations or writing ads, making up their own rules of punctuation. How come? Why don't they obey the rule of 'correct' being demanded here? Here's an ad that I saw the other day:

"Priority boarding,

extra leg room, and

no delays. They hoped 

the flight would be first

class too."




MR: Whoever wrote this made up their own punctuation rules. You may well note that the first 'sentence' has no 'finite verb' and uses a comma before 'and' that some people object to. Some people (not me) might query why the first five lines have quotation marks round them. The three lines in capital letters at the end has no full stops or commas. Let's remember that children see this sort of thing every day. Meanwhile, teachers are told to teach that this test's way of writing is 'correct' and 'must' be adhered to. 

3 Insert a semi-colon in the correct place in the sentence below.

It was raining heavily she had lost her umbrella the week before.

MR: Because they're telling us that it must be a semi-colon, then there is usually only one place it can go. The problem in my mind is that of course, it doesn't have to be a semi-colon. I only use semi-colons as a separator in lists where the items on the list are long. I would use a full-stop here. Yes, yes, I know that that isn't what's being asked here. My point is that the teaching behind this question is that using a semi-colon in this sentence is the 'right' or 'correct' or even, the 'only correct' way. Once again, I turn to the great bugbear of prescriptive grammar - 'variant usage'. 

4. Which sentence uses a comma correctly?

Tick one.

Sadly, the match had to be cancelled.

However, talented she will still need to work hard.

Therefore the answer, is obvious.

Before next weekend all our packing, must be finished.

MR: This question works solely on the basis that a comma is needed in any of these questions! If you didn't use a comma in any of these questions, it really wouldn't matter. The children are in effect being asked here to be copy-editors correcting mistakes that someone else has made. What are commas for? Mostly, they are for segmenting sentences in ways that help us read for meaning. However, they become fetishes for some people in other constructions. Hiding here is the dreaded fronted adverbial. 'Sadly' is one of these. The children are taught that after a fronted adverbial there 'must' be a comma. This is a nonsense. There is no must about it. In the first sentence (the 'correct' one), the meaning would be clear without a comma. There would be no ambiguity, no difficulty in understanding on account of a lack of a comma. This question is fetishism disguised as punctuation rules. 

5 Which sentence is a command?

Tick one.

The nurse will bandage your sprained ankle.

You have been told to stay at home and rest.

Putting an ice pack on it should help.

Hold the handrail to keep yourself steady.

MR: I talked about this in my comments on Question 1. Here it is again: 

Classifying one of the sentence types as a 'command' is faulty in that this is a 'semantic' description not a grammatical one. We 'command' each other to do things in many different ways eg using words like 'must', 'telling you to do' and so on. What they mean is that a command is a sentence that uses the 'imperative' form of the verb (as with 'Go out' or 'Don't do that'.) That's a grammatical description. 

It seems as if no one can be bothered to think through the fact that this piece of grammar terminology is imperfect. The joke is that there are people who maintain that learning grammar BEFORE you learn a foreign language is helpful. This is an example of where it's worse than helpful. It's misleading, because they've disguised a verb form with an imprecise term like 'command'. What we do when we learn a foreign language is learn the 'imperative forms of the verb'. The question of 'how we command' is a fascinating matter involving tone, register, dialect and many different grammatical structures. 

By the way, I learnt 'grammar' in the 1950s at secondary school and largely through comparing English, French, German and Latin. It wasn't a matter of learning it BEFORE. And anyway, some of the terms were different from one language to the next, and some terms were relevant in one language and not in another.  

6 Which sentence uses an apostrophe correctly?

Tick one.

The car's horn beeps loudly.

The cars' horn beeps loudly.

The cars horn beep's loudly.

The cars horn beeps' loudly.

MR: The 'correct' one is of course the first. However, I can just about think up a situation in which number two could be correct too. Here's a story I've just made up. 

Oh dear, all the horns on the cars have broken down. 

'Now what shall we do?' says Fred the Ford. 

'Oh dear!' says Paola the Porsche. 

'What a pity!' says Hamza the Honda.

'Mine works,' says Solly the Skoda, 'I can beep my horn for all of you.'

'Go on then, do it for all of us, said Hamza.

Solly beeped his horn.

'Solly's doing it for all of us,' said Fred, 'yeah, hooray, we're the cars and the cars' horn beeps loudly.'

Why have I made up this daft story? Because the moment I see that word 'correctly' in these questions, I ask myself, 'Really?' Is it really a matter that only one of these alternatives is correct? Isn't language much more flexible, useful and diverse than how these grammar examiners think of it? Why should we be trying to tie children down with the correct/not correct binary when that doesn't match how we use language? Well, I can answer that! It's solely because this is a test to test to test teachers and it can only be done by kidding children there are only right/wrong answers (Bew Report 2011). 

And this is all in the name of 'standards'! Lying to children in order to improve education - brilliant!

7. Rewrite the underlined verbs in the sentence below so that they are in the simple past. 

Oliver feels proud when he collects his medal after he wins the race.

MR: Have you ever noticed how dull, weird and irrelevant these made-up sentences are? They are examples that defy the very basis of language, namely that we use language in order to express ourselves and/or to communicate with each other, as part of our behaviour, our ways of life, our ways of making relationships. These examples exist in some kind of weird non-time-space continuum that has nothing to do with expression, communication, behaviour or relationships. They are just there as bogus examples of how we could write, might write. They are like inedible food samples. 

Now to terminology: the 'simple past' is one of several terms that grammarians have used to describe 'verb forms' and time. If you do French, the most common term you come across for this is the 'imperfect' ('imparfait'). Beware grammarians coming towards you telling you that this or that word 'is' something and saying a term! At any point in your life you will come across another grammarian saying, 'Oh no, that word 'is' something else.' 

Another problem here is that the sentence they've given the children could just about be in the 'past'. We tell stories to each other all day long, where we use the 'present' form of the verb, when talking about things that have happened in the past. It's 'colloquial' or 'informal' but it's very, very common, in particular in football commentaries that many 10 and 11 year olds hear. I could imagine a novelist wanting to express this for the sake of immediacy with this 'present verb form' even though it's in a novel in which most the verbs are in the 'simple past'. In other words, as a child, I could look at that sentence and think, well, in a way, it is in the this one of those trick questions they like to give us? (See later for how some grammarians are thinking differently about tense.) 

8. Tick one box in each row to show whether the underlined word is a possessive pronoun or a relative pronoun.

That red helmet is mine.

I wear it when I ride the new boke which my uncle gave me.

My bike does much faster than yours.

[Next to the sentences are columns, one with 'Possessive pronoun' as the header, and the other with 'Relative pronoun' as the header. Any ideas what 'rule' decided that the first word in each of those phrases should have a capital letter, or was that something the examiners made up? See later where the examiners do not follow that rule. ]

MR: The naming of different types of pronouns is something that obsesses some grammarians. We can assume that virtually all 10 and 11 year olds who have lived amongst English speakers for at least 5 years will use words like 'mine' and 'which' all day long. When they write, I can't think of many situations in which they would confuse or get muddled between the two. What is the purpose of knowing the different names for these two kinds of pronoun?

Now for a laugh. Think of our 'possessives' - my, your, his, her, our, their. When I was at school, I'm pretty sure that we put these in with mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs and called them all 'possessive pronouns'. Ah no, someone said. The first kind can't be proNOUNS because they're not nouns. Arrggghh! What are they? I know, said some, they're 'adjectives', let's call them 'possessive adjectives'. OK, said others, but they are 'determiners'. Determiners? What are determiners? You know those things like 'a', 'the' and 'an' that come before nouns. Oh but they're 'articles', aren't they? They're 'article determiners'. You mean there are others? Sure there are. Like what? Like 'each' and 'any' and 'every'. What about 'both'? Is that one? might be. And what about numbers? Numbers! Oh well, they could be. So back with 'my' and 'your', what ARE they? Well, you can call them 'possessive adjectives' OR 'possessive determiners' but you must NOT call them 'possessive pronouns'. OK, I won't. I promise. And probably I've misremembered how I learnt them in 1958 anyway...I mean, how many terms are there? Don't make excuses. 

9 Tick one sentence that must end with a question mark.

Tick one.

If you don't mind, I'd rather stay at home today

He asked why his parents wanted to move house

If you finish your homework, are you able to stay

She wondered if she would ever find the answer to her question

MR: Oh sheesh, haven't we done question marks already on this paper? What is it about question marks that keeps these examiners awake at night. Last year it was 'formal'/'informal' English. This year question marks. 

I suppose they think that they've 'hidden' 'are you able to stay' in a longer sentence, so that children might not notice it? Or that they might confuse 'conditional' clauses ('if' clauses) with questions? Do they? Would they? 

By the way (or btw), I notice that many of us write texts to each other without using question marks. What happens? Does life come to a standstill? 

Also btw, who still writes 'are you able to stay?' Don't we mostly write/say 'can you stay?' Just a thought.

10. Tick the word that is an antonym of happy.

Tick one.





MR: To be clear, this has nothing to do with grammar, punctuation or spelling. So this means that the heading at the beginning of the paper is false. This is entirely to do with meaning ('semantics'). Even so, there is a large body of theory that considers the very idea of antonyms and synonyms is bogus. That's to say, it's a matter of opinion, ideology and social norms that decide that words are or are not synonyms or antonyms. What's more,  words do not merely 'denote' ie simply or only describe things and processes and feelings etc, they also 'connote', that's to say we use them loaded with associations that depend on context, our culture, our personality, our personal or social history. This is a really important point about language and society, language and personality, language and culture. The very idea of antonyms and synonyms is an attempt to put a frame over words and determine that there is some essential or core meaning that is devoid of culture, ideology and social behaviour. It's a fib. 

Now to the question itself. Let's think of a context: parent and child. Parent wonders if a child is happy or....miserable (yes, 'correct' answer). But a parent could also make an alternative out of happy and bored. 'Are you happy or bored?' That's as 'antonymic' as happy or miserable. 

Beware grammarians coming towards you bearing words as if they have one core meaning and that they can match them for sameness or oppositeness, outside of context and usage in real situations. 

This question is bogus nonsense. And possibly something nastier than that to do with grammarians deciding what words mean on the basis of a false notion of what 'meaning' actually is and who 'owns' meaning. They don't own meaning. We do.

11. Which sentence is the most formal?

Tick one.

The school would save so much money, wouldn't it?

The school could end up better off financially.

The school would benefit from the financial savings.

It's a great idea to save school funds!

MR: If someone can tell me where in the materials given to schools the word 'formal' is defined, please could you tell me? I haven't been able to find it. 

I ask myself, is there a simple definition of 'formal' in relation to language anyway? There are formal situations but the notion of formality in language is highly problematic. We might say, 'formal language is the language used in formal situations' but I've been in plenty of formal situations where people are not using what they mean by 'formal language'. In fact, I'm not absolutely sure anymore what is a formal situation! I turned up for an event in a jacket (not something I do very often) and the boss at the event wasn't wearing a jacket. So I got that one wrong! 

So what do they mean? They mean that there are certain structures and phrases that have have come to be attached to these formal situations (which, I for one, am not sure what they really are anyway!). 

I guess that they want the children to tick the third sentence. What is the actual difference between two and three? Is 'better off' not 'formal'? In what situations would you not use the phrase 'better off'? Or 'end up'? In front of the King? In parliament? In court? In an article in the Times? I don't think so. 

 It seems to me that when  you put this question into imagined social situations, it becomes more and more meaningless. 

I would suggest (call me paranoid) that by asking children to do this, we are pushing them towards a view of language and status. We are saying in effect, that there is something superior or more important about sentence three, simply because someone has said 'benefit' rather than 'end up better off'. 

Ultimately, it's a matter of opinion anyway. There is no grammatical basis for this question. Wrong question, wrong place, wrong-headed. 

12 Insert a dash in the correct place in the sentence below.

I will not tell you any more about the film you'll have to see it for yourself.

MR: Like the semi-colon, the dash is an optional punctuation mark. In this example, I would weigh up using a full stop, a comma, a dash, or a semi-colon. I know that they are not saying that it is the only correct punctuation mark in this sentence but it's a highly nuanced point to make to 10 and 11 year olds, namely that 'you could use a dash, but if you use a dash, there is only one place you can use it.' And kinda pointless. We should be indicating that there are these pauses and additions we use when we write and we have a toolbox of marks we can use. Variant usage. Instead we load them as 'correct' with this kind of question. 

13. Which sentence used capital letters correctly?

Tick one.

In July, I will visit my grandparents in newcastle.

In July, I will visit my Grandparents in Newcastle.

In July, I will visit my grandparents in Newcastle.

In july, I will visit my grandparents in Newcastle.

MR: I suppose they want us to say that number three is 'correct'. My reaction is that there are times that I might want to put a capital letter for 'grandparents'. A capital letter can indicate a kind of emphasis, or a sense of respect. Variant usage. Who are these examiners to think that a child couldn't or shouldn't put a capital letter at the beginning of grandparents? After all, we might say, we write 'Grandma' and 'Grandpa' so why not 'Grandparents'? Am I the only person round here who finds this sort of thing infuriating? This is entirely prescriptive based on the prejudices of the examiners. At core, it's the repressive ideology that lies behind the word 'correctly'. Alternatively, I think of it as a mix of the trivial and the bossy. 

14. Insert a pair of brackets in the correct place in the sentence below.

The players both former world champions waited at the side of the court.

MR: Again, we know that you could use dashes, brackets or commas to do this job. Same thing applies: I know they're not saying that you must use brackets and I know that they're saying that if you use brackets  there is only one place you can put them. Even so, the phrasing suggests and implies (not tells) that brackets are the correct usage here. And let's remind ourselves - most punctuation was invented by printers. 

15. Look at the underlined pronoun in the sentence below. Circle the noun that it refers to.

Early bicycles did not have pedals, so riders had to push themselves along using their feet.

MR: There is a tragic sub-text to this. This question is about 'cohesion'. Cohesion is one of the ways in which we 'stick language together'. One of the forms of cohesion in our language repertoire is the use of pronouns. When we use a pronoun, we mostly (not always) hark back or refer to a noun that came earlier. There is, if you like, an invisible string between the pronoun and the noun - here it's 'themselves' and 'riders'. There's a trick element to the question (why are examiners such sadists?) because at first glance that 'referring back' might link to 'bicycles' or 'pedals' because they're plural nouns too. 

Why tragic? Because cohesion is a subtle and wonderful process by which we hook concepts and thoughts and feelings within sentences, between sentences, across passages, chapters or even whole books. Cohesion in a novel is a fascinating 'hidden grammar' of how we understand, feel and appreciate what we read. Because it's a test, they can only 'do cohesion' on a small scale, so the concept gets reduced to a simple right/wrong answer. Why? To test teachers (Bew Report 2011). This question is a perfect example of how the subtlety of a grammatical concept is reduced and strangled for the sake of a test - a test that was only introduced at the behest of Michael Gove. 

That's where we've got to in England with the 'study' of language in primary schools in 2024. 

16. What is the grammatical term for the underlined words in the sentence below?

The cat that was stuck in the tree belongs to my sister.

Tick one.

a noun phrase

a relative clause

a co-ordinating conjunction

a main clause

MR; Before saying anything about this, please see that this time, there are no capital letters at the beginning of these phrases, unlike the 'Possessive pronoun' and 'Relative pronoun' earlier. Why's that then? Examiners' whim? Variant usage? Hmmm. 

There's something beastly about this question. The phrase 'The cat that was stuck in the tree' is the subject of the sentence. What we do in speech and writing is 'expand' the key word - here, 'cat'. We have 'the' and 'that was stuck in the tree'. That whole concept 'belongs to...' In a way, as a learner I could easily think intelligently (but according to the examiners, wrongly) that 'The cat that was stuck in the tree' is an 'expanded noun phrase'. In a way, on account of the whole phrase being conceptually the subject of 'belongs to...' it is! But no, there is only one answer, 'a relative clause'. I must put away my speculations about how we expand our thoughts through language. I am 'wrong'. 

17. Tick one box in each row to show whether the sentence is written in Standard or non-Standard English. 

"You haven't done a bad job!" she told us.

'You ain't done a bad job!" she told us.

'You've done an excellent job!" she told us.

"You done an excellent job!" she told us.

[There are two columns next to these sentences, one headed 'Standard English' the other 'Non-Standard English']

MR: Note the use of capital letters: 'non' and 'Non'. Yes, the explanation would be that the first 'non' is because it's in a sentence and the second 'Non' because it's a heading. Even so, the capitalisation of initial letters on this test paper is really quite a mish-mash, right from that very first heading 'national curriculum tests'. Oh well, they're examiners. They can make up the rules as they go along. That's a little lesson in language and power, isn't it?

The question here is grammatically wrong. They refer in the question to 'the sentence'. In fact, in each of the examples the sentence is the quotation plus 'she told us'. In other words, they are all written in 'Standard English' because the main verb is 'Standard'. What's in quotation is another matter. (I'm being pedantic just for the fun of it.) What the question should have asked (if you're going to ask it) is which of the quotations is in Standard English (or some such.) Fun to see them being so clumsy about it, though.

Once again, we are in the land of tragedy. There is a vast and wonderful study to be made of varieties of English depending on who is speaking to whom, where, when and why. This is at the core of how and why we use language and the specific language that we use. Here it's reduced to simply a matter of 'Standard' and 'non-Standard'. This suggests that there is one proper way - Standard' and everything else is 'NOT' that thing. It's how binaries convey ideology. The point is that 'ain't' or 'You done' are not a matter of 'not being Standard'. They are ways of talking that are their own thing. They belong to communities of people who express themselves. They aren't in a state of not-being something! 

This way of thought bedevils this test, and the whole content and structure of the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling curriculum.

18 Insert a full stop, a question mark and an exclamation mark in the correct places in the sentence below.

"Did you see that goal I thought it was incredible " exclaimed Elle

MR: Given that teachers are asked to teach children that they must put an exclamation mark after an exclamation beginning with 'how' or 'what', you could forgive a child for thinking that maybe there isn't a 'correct' place to put the exclamation mark in this sentence, even though it says that Elle 'exclaimed'. Let's remember that children often do this test in a state of nerves, worried or confused that they can't ask for help or that they can't consult books or the internet (which we all do!). 

There's even an argument for saying that if you used a comma after 'goal' you could put your question mark after 'incredible'. But no, this is about prescriptive usage so there is only one way to get this 'right'. In real life, there are various ways to get things right. Variant usage.

19 Which sentence is the most formal?

Tick one.

We'd appreciate it if you could put  your litter in the bin outside.

Please pick up your litter and put it in the bin.

We request that you put any litter in the bins provided.

Don't forget - litter goes in the bin.

MR: What is the purpose of this question? Why is the use of the word 'formal' in any way useful here? It is devoid of context, audience or purpose. The word 'formal' here in this question pre-supposes a context, or audience or purpose without stating what that context, audience or purpose is. That is precisely how you denude language of its function. Language - apart from these naff sentences - is always in use, in context, with audiences (implied or actual) and purposes. If you take those away, you deny what it's all for in the first place. To do that,  you have to use an ill-defined, or non-defined concept like 'formal' and just hope you can get away with it  - which of course they do,  because they're the examiners. Language and power on display and in practice again. Teachers and children with no power, examiners with some power, the Dept of Education with more power over them and the Sec of State for Education with more power over them. It's a ladder with the children at the bottom. 

20 What's the grammatical term for the underlined words in the sentence below? 

Tick one.

We discovered the dusty, narrow pathway behind the house.

Tick one.

a noun phrase

a relative clause

a main clause

an adverbial. 

MR: More obsession with grammatical terms, which we know are unstable and changing anyway. Interesting, back when I was at school we were taught 'box analysis'. It was a way of breaking sentences up into phrases and clauses. We would have 'boxed', 'behind the house' separately from 'the dusty, narrow pathway' and called it an 'adverbial phrase'. The 'noun phrase' would therefore be 'the dusty, narrow pathway'. 

What does this tell us? It tells us that how we 'segment' sentences is a matter of choice and opinion based on different methods of analysis. 

Either way, I am endlessly amused at the dogmatic way in which one era teaches 'grammar' and 'grammatical terms' and then ten or twenty years later, and just as dogmatically, another bit of grammar or 'term' is taught. 

Even now, I can hear someone in my ear shouting at me that the underlined phrase 'IS' a noun phrase and that 'behind the house' 'IS PART OF THE NOUN PHRASE'. 

OK. I still find my box analysis (thanks Mr Brown, Harrow Weald County Grammar School) useful for when I construct sentences and I'll go on using it, thanks. 

By the way, it's interesting to compare this question with Question 16 where we had to 'segment' the relative clause off from the noun phrase, but here the adverbial phrase is included in with the noun phrase. Why's that then? 

21 Which sentence is punctuated correctly?

Tick one.

"Please take out your books, said the teacher calmly, and finish your poems."

"Please take out your books," said the teacher calmly, and finish your poems.

"Please take out your books", said the teacher calmly, "and finish your poems."

"Please take out  your books," said the teacher calmly, "and finish your poems."

MR: More copyediting as a means of testing teachers through children. 

Note that the difference between three and four is the tiny matter of which side of the quote marks, the comma goes. Just think:  a teacher's career and an Ofsted report could rest on things like this.  

22 Insert a colon and a comma in the correct places in the sentence below.

We are pleased to announce the three winners of the art exhibition Samir Ben and Ella. 

MR: More copyediting. This tells us that a whole chunk of education in Year 6 is the subject: 'Copyediting'.

23 Tick one box to show whether the words are synonyms or antonyms.

rough, smooth

courageous, brave

vivid, dull

[Alongside these pairs there are columns headed 'Synonyms' and 'Antonyms']

MR As I've said before this is conceptual and ideological nonsense. The lexical and semantic relationship between 'vivid' and 'dull' can't be expressed by either 'antonym' or 'synonym' but, given the false concept of antonym then you could argue that the colours on a painting could be 'vivid' and paint on another painting, could be 'dull'. That would be one of their antonyms. But, that would be 'wrong'.   There is of course no context here. We only have binary choices ( between two non-grammatical concepts!). Why do they have to be binary? Because this is a test paper for the benefit of those who decide which teachers are 'good' and which teachers are 'bad'. So children who get this question 'wrong' are - apparently - badly taught, even though the thing being taught is valueless and wrong. 

As for 'rough' and 'smooth' - both words have multiple meanings - or, as I should say, 'we use them in many different ways'. A child could easily think of an older sibling saying 'I feel rough' but that same child might think of a 'smooth' surface. Not antonyms when used like that, are they? The concept of antonyms is itself false. 

Education. England. 2024.

24 What is the grammatical term for the underlined words in the sentence below?

If you get tired on the cycle ride, stop and have a break.

Tick one.

a relative clause

a noun phrase

a subordinate clause

a preposition phrase

MR Note that when I was at school, we didn't talk of 'preposition phrases'. We said that phrases were 'adjectival' or 'adverbial' and they 'began with a preposition'. Somewhere in the heart of grammarians' minds they thought that they could clarify things (really?) by making up a new term. Then they call it 'the' grammatical term. Just guessing, but by the time these 10 year olds are my age (78) they'll be called something else or they'll have gone back to being adjectival or adverbial phrases that begin with prepositions. I guess coming up with this stuff does pay the mortgage and for that we should be grateful. We should lay aside the matter that inflicting this stuff on children is done purely in order to assess teachers  (Bew Report 2011) and the diktat of Michael Gove. 

Btw where is Gove now? Just to be crude about it, he's done what rabbits do when you chase them:  sh** and run. (Sorry if that was non-Standard. Lols.) 

25 Insert a pair of commas in the correct place in the sentence below.

One of the world's most interesting plants the Venus flytrap catches its prey by snapping its leaves shut. 

MR: I have to say that the concept of a 'pair of commas' is a new one on me. I know what this means, but I've never referred to them as a 'pair of commas' and never will. There is also the interesting variant usage of a lower case initial letter for 'flytrap'. Some would give it a capital letter, some would not. 

More copyediting in order to assess teachers. Just how important do you think copyediting should be in the education of 10 and 11 year olds? I'll leave that one hanging there.

26 Which sentence is in the passive?

Tick one.

The manager has sent you an email.

Our dog lost her new collar.

The weather was very cold this winter.

The meal was enjoyed by everyone.

MR: The use and non-use of the passive is a wonderful and subtle matter of tone, purpose, audience - and sometimes, of politics and ideology. It's best explored in use and context because it's like that, we get some sense of why we use it. This is yet another example of reducing language to its structure, and reducing that to right/wrong answers. By now, if you've been reading this from the beginning, you'll know why I think this is being done, and it's nothing to do with the purpose of language or education or language-in-education, and everything to do with how the government controls and disempowers teachers and children. 

27 What is the grammatical term for the underlined part of the word below?


MR: There was a point in the debates about language and education where some of the people who said they were keen on teaching children grammar (it was never clear whether they meant primary or secondary children) insisted that this didn't mean that we would go back to 'parsing'. This was a reference to Latin lessons in Public (ie private) and Grammar schools in the past. Lessons or parts of lessons could be conducted by teachers barking at you to parse words. You had to reply by saying whether a word was 'accusative' or 'dative' or whether a verb was 'third person' and so on. Spotting prefixes and suffixes wasn't usually part of parsing but it has the same trainspotting methodology: naming of parts. 

There are interesting things to say about '-ness' and other ways we have of making adjectives into nouns. One of them is that we have French ways and Old English ways of doing it. I'm someone who thinks that if we spend time exploring language with 10 and 11  year olds that would be a more interesting way of finding out about 'stems', 'prefixes' and 'suffixes' rather than simply labelling them and testing them. 

28 What is the word class of the underlined words in the sentence below?

Although the battery on her phone was low, Amy managed to call her mum when she knew she would be late.

MR: Naming of parts. We used to call these 'subordinate conjunctions'. They're now called 'subordinating conjunctions'! I wonder if I would be marked 'wrong' if I wrote 'subordinate conjunctions'. I don't know. 

Interesting sentence: the second 'she' is actually ambiguous. Whoopsidaisy, examiners. Do you care? Nope. Perhaps you need to do more grammar. (Irony alert, see next question.) 

29 Explain how the comma changes the meaning of the second sentence.

1. We have cooked chicken soup and fresh bread.

2. We have cooked chicken, soup and fresh bread.

MR: This belongs to what I call the John Humphrys theory of language. John Humphrys, some people will remember, was the former presenter of 'Mastermind' and the 'Today' programme. I talked to him about language on several occasions and he seemed to live in a state of fear and loathing that the world of language around him was riddled with ambiguities caused by the misuse of commas and apostrophes. He had examples up his sleeve that indicated the dire consequences of such misuses. I suppose theoretically there are some possible dire consequences in, let's say, instructions in a military context and the like. In examples like this? Really though? What would be a possible context for this sentence? A letter?  An email? A text? In which case, wouldn't it be clear from the context of the sentences around it whether it was 'chicken' and 'soup' or 'chicken soup'? But this test is about context-free language.  That's to say, it's not real language. It's language abstracted from context so that there can only be right and wrong answers. Thanks Michael Gove. 

30 Circle the modal verb in the sentence below.

Hannah said I could share her snack because I had forgotten mine.

MR: Modal verbs and 'modality' are a fascinating topic. It's fun to explore all the different ways we can express intentions, possibilities, certainties, uncertainties, in English. Pupils who know other languages might be able to compare how they do it in another language - it's often very differently from how we do it in English. Why would that be? 

Notice also there's a trick element in this question. There is a modal verb in the sentence and an auxiliary verb. That's in order to distract the child in the hope that some will get it wrong. It's vital that some children get some of these questions wrong because only then will the test produce the 'bell curve' ie the shape of the test results across the whole cohort. 

There's another aspect of the way KS2 children are learning modal verbs: it's in a list. They're often given a list of modal verbs. Then there's the exam and they match the list with the question. What is the purpose of this as a piece of education? What is its value? How does it relate to the use of language that they read or hear, or the use of language as they speak it or write it? 

There is also a very good chance that within three or four years they will forget it. I can vouch for this. I taught one of my children to do this paper and he got 100%. A few years later I tried a little bit of a test on him. He had forgotten virtually all of it. He hadn't had to apply any of it to anything else he was doing. In the case of modal verbs, the foreign language he was learning was French. French has three modal verbs though 'il faut' would make it four! (pouvoir, vouloir, devoir, if you're wondering). In French, you 'do modality' mostly through verb endings and the subjunctive. 

31 Circle the four nouns in the sentence below.

The successful athletes were full of pride when they accepted their medals from the judges.

MR: I suspect that this is one of the questions they hope that everyone will get right. The examiners have to keep an eye on the bell curve. 

32 Tick one box to show the subject of the sentence below.

Every Saturday, Nadim takes his dog for a walk in the park. 

[Underneath Saturday, Nadim, dog, and walk, there are boxes.]

MR: I'm someone who thinks that 'subject' and 'verb' is one of the things worth teaching to primary age children. I think of subject-verb as the core or crux of a standard sentence (apart from the imperative!). I also think that the old ' box analysis' that I did is much more useful than all this obsession with naming of parts. 

Btw, were the examiners aware that they have touched on a sensitive matter in this sentence? Nadim is a Muslim name. Some Muslims regard keeping dogs as pets as not desirable. Fine to keep dogs as working dogs - hunting, guard dogs etc, but some Muslims think that keeping dogs as pets is not OK. Just thought I ought to say that. Perhaps it's an example of the examiners really, really, really not dealing with context!

33 Add a prefix to the word charge in the sentence below to show that the waiter did not charge too much.

The waiter was careful not to _____charge the customer.

MR: I'm guessing that the answer here is 'over'? Or can it be 'sur'? I wonder if either would be allowed? Variant usage.

Interesting social class question here too. What kinds of children do not know about waiters, charging and customers? I guess that would be children who use fast food joints. So this is one of those questions that gives a social advantage to those who know about waiters, charging and customers. Now there's a surprise. Are there ever questions in these tests that favour the social class that doesn't know about such things as waiters and bills? 

34 What is the word class of the underlined words in the sentence below?

We had a drink after our swim in the pool.'

Tick one.





MR: I'm getting déjà-vu here. Didn't we do nouns a few questions earlier? I suppose they think this time they'll be tricksy and give us nouns that can also be verbs. Imagine the minds of examiners figuring out how to trick 10 and 11 year olds! Then they go home and they're nice to their own kids. Weird.

35 Insert a hyphen in the correct place in the sentence below.

There was a build up of litter around the bins in the school playground.

MR: Ah, I can see another 'distractor' here. 'Build up' is the one they want but 'school playground' is one of those compound nouns that sometimes has or could have a hyphen. It's just sufficiently possible to be a distractor, particularly under exam conditions. 

36 Circle the co-ordinating conjunction in the sentence below.

The journey proved difficult as they had to travel by night, but they made good time once the stars came out to guide them.   

MR: I'm out on a limb here. I'm someone who believes that 'but' shouldn't be a co-ordinating conjunction. I was taught that co-ordinate clauses are stand-alone, equal in status and the meaning of one doesn't depend on the meaning of the other. 'But clauses' seem to me to not do that. A 'but clause' contradicts another clause. It doesn't stand alone. It's OK, I know I won't convince anyone of this matter. So be it. 

37 Which word class is hand-operated in the sentence below?

One person turned the hand-operated wheel while the other steered the boat.

Tick one.

a verb

an adjective

a noun

an adverb

MR: A tricksy sort of question this: the adjective here is made up of a noun and a past participle of a verb. What is the purpose of asking a 10 or 11 year old such a tricksy question? How much teaching of the way in which we can create one word class out of words belonging to other word classes, do you have to do, in order to get this right? How much time is needed, Mr Gove, in order to teach this? And why? Oh yes, it's to assess teachers. I remember. So the grammar involved is not as important as the assessment of teachers. Got it.

38 Draw a line to match the first part of each sentence to the second part so that each sentence is correct.

[first column]

The teachers

The teachers'

The teacher's

[second column]

staffroom was full of books and old armchairs.

new mug was a present from her class.

were taking part in the school play. 

MR: What is it about apostrophes that gets grammar examiners so excited? Why do they think they're so important? They're like people who walk past greengrocers and go apoplectic when they see "carrot's". And then they inflict their state of mind on 10 and 11 year olds. What a worrying thought. 

39 Add a prefix to the underlined word to make its antonym. Write the whole word in the box.

Aisha had a very mature attitude to life.

MR: Another tricksy question. The easy negative prefixes to remember are things like 'dis-' 'un-' and 'in-. It's easy to forget or not know 'im-'. 

So here we have the bogus idea of antonyms, which are not grammar and are invalid anyway. Then we have a tricksy prefix on top. All this in order to prove that some children don't know the word 'immature'. Yes, because actually this is not really a grammar question at all. It's a 'vocabulary' question! Or at the very least, you can only really do the question if you know that the 'correct' word is 'immature'. You can't deduce it from the prefixes you know, even if you remember 'im-' is one of them. If you don't know the word, you could think it's 'unmature'. Why not? 

40 What is the word class of the underlined words in the sentence below?

After school, Jack takes his little brother to the park.

MR: For those of you older than about 30, you may not know that the 'correct' answer is 'determiner'. That's because when someone of my age (78) did grammar till it was falling out of my ears (English, French, German, Latin, Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English...), we didn't call them 'determiners'. If there were people calling them determiners at the time, they didn't come up on my radar. To which the grammarians of today say, ah yes, you would have called them eg a 'possessive' and a 'definite article' but nowadays we group these together under a heading called 'determiner'. 

This bit of juggling pre-supposes that 'his' and 'the' are doing the 'same sort of thing' in that sentence. My olde fashionede viewe is that 'his' is telling us things about the relationship between Jack and someone else whereas 'the' is about referencing that this park is a presence in the life of Jack. They are doing similar things but not the same. 

But hey, this is more terminological diarrhoea with not much purpose. Ideal for inflicting on 10 and 11 year olds if you want to assess teachers. Of very little use to anyone, anywhere, ever again. 

41 In which sentence is dance a verb?

Tick one.

Our class took part in an Irish dance workshop.

After he sprained his ankle, he could not dance

The dance involved moving very quickly.

Ballet and hip-hop are favourite types of dance.

MR: The fact that we can switch the 'word class' of words according to their function is a delightful and flexible thing. We can explore it in playful and interesting ways through poems and games (I've even written a poem that explores this!). Here, though, it's reduced to a dull matter of getting the name right. Teachers may have time or inclination to avoid teaching it in a way that is similar to this question. They may not. The chances are that they're pressured by time to have to teach it in a short, snappy way. The shorter and snappier it is, the less meaning and use it has. Would the people who set this stuff care about that? Absolutely not. This is about right/wrong, not about usefulness in how we write and talk. 

Btw, correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought hip-hop was an early form of rap, not a dance. Have the examiners got their cultural antennae in a knot? Or is that me?  Happy to be proved wrong, if I am! 

If I'm right both about Nadim having a dog (earlier question) and hip-hop not being a dance, then this paper would reveal two cultural gaffes. As I say, I may be wrong about either or both. 

42 Write the contracted form of the underlined word in the boxes below.

If nobody is at home, your parcel will not be delivered.

MR: It's convenient to call these forms 'contracted'. That said, it doesn't really make sense as far as language-use is concerned. When  somebody says 'Nobody's' or 'won't', they're not 'contracting' anything. They're just using a form that is available to them in the repertoire of possible words, phrases and constructions. It's only 'contracted' in the mind of the grammarian who has extracted 'Nobody is' and 'will not' from context, taken them away to the grammarians' den, compared them with 'Nobody's and 'won't' and decided that they're contractions. 

This is a perfect example of how grammar can be made separate from usage. And that's a problem if we want to understand how language works, how we use language and how language changes.

43 In which sentence is fast an adverb?

Tick one.

Although he ran fast, Tom did not win the race.

Although he was a fast runner, Tom did not win the race.

Tom did not win the race, despite his fast time.

Tom's time was fast, but he did not win.

MA: One purpose of this question is to catch out 'lazy' teachers who've taught the children that adverbs are '-ly' words. They must (irony alert) also teach children that in English there are non '-ly' adverbs, 'fast' being one of them. However, teachers must (irony alert) spend time teaching children that some words that don't end in '-ly' should end in '-ly' if we want them to be adverbs. You must not (irony alert) say that Tom ran quick. You must say (irony alert) that Tom ran quickly. 

The aim here is to catch out both children and teachers. Job done. Bell curve assured.

44 Rewrite the underlined verbs in the simple past.

Joseph hurriedly draws the man's portrait, but then tears the page out of his sketchbook.

MA: Subtext here: it's easy to remember the simple past form when it's just an '-ed' ending as with 'walked'. Harder to remember and confuse are the so-called 'strong' verbs where we change the vowel sound in the middle of the verb, as here. And remember there are some where we don't change it at all! I hit (present), I hit (simple past) I have hit (present perfect). These are all what we might call 'sites of confusion' or 'sites of uncertainty'. I hear people being uncertain or using irregular variants,  every day. And remember that there's the past participle to remember too: write, wrote, have written. People sometimes get them 'wrong'. How much does this actually matter? And if it matters, how do we teach it? Through use, through exposure to loads of reading and writing? Or through formal lessons with a test at the end of it? Or a mix of both? What do you think?

45 Circle the two prepositions in the sentence below.

After playtime, you must stay inside the classroom until it is lunchtime. 

MR; Oho ho ho. This is the one that flummoxed Nick Gibb, the former Schools Minister. He couldn't sort out his prepositions from his subordinating conjunctions. That's why 'until' is there which can be either (according to this system of 'grammar') depending on its function in a phrase, clause or sentence. It's there in order to catch the children out. Great, eh? And 'inside' can also be an adverb in some circumstances, say the grammarians, so that could be a distractor too.  

Bell curve. Examiners' work done. Teachers assessed. 

46 Rewrite the underlined verb so that it is the past progressive. 

Alexandra walked home.

MA: Another bit of terminological revisionism. In all my grammar lessons this was called the 'past continuous'. Then someone decided it 'is' the 'past progressive'.  You must get these names right and get them right before the name changes (irony alert).

By the way, serious grammarians are reluctant to use these rigid descriptions of verbs in which a given 'verb form' is matched with 'time frame'. The point is we have various ways in English of indicating time: 'I'm going out tomorrow' is so-called present progressive tense but clearly what's going on is someone talking about the future. Grammar should describe what's being said and written, not what some formal list of conjugations tell us! So some grammarians are talking about 'time aspect'. It's fun to play with too. Much more interesting than conjugations! 

47 Rewrite the sentence below in the passive.

Remember to punctuate the answer correctly.

The noise of the traffic disturbed us.

MR: More stuff on the 'passive'. Wow, it's hard to keep being interested, don't you think? I guess the answer is, 'We were disturbed by the noise of the traffic.' I've put a full stop at the end. Do you think that's what they meant by punctuating it  correctly? Or should there be a comma? Am I going to lose my mark because I missed out a comma? Isn't it optional? I don't know now. I'm all in a fluster. And my teacher is going to get done over for it, if I get it! Get me out of here!

48 Which sentence is an exclamation?

Tick one.

It's surprising how little is known about deep-sea creatures

It amazes me that anything can live so far under the sea

How do they survive without sunlight

How strange some deep-sea creatures look

MR: Oh no, it's the types-of-sentence question again! Several tricks here: if teachers have taught the children that 'how' sentences are exclamations, then number one and number three have got the word 'how' in them without them being exclamations. Hard luck. 

The exclamation-sentence theory, remember, is that these must be 'how' or 'what' exclamations. If you have any spare time, you might like to sit and invent some exclamation sentences that are not 'how' or 'what' sentences. If you can, you've proved the worthlessness of this question.

Joke: in order to ask this question the examiners have had to punctuate all the sentences wrongly. Love it.

49 Underline the adverbial in the sentence below.

We put on our PE kits before the match.

MR: An 'adverbial' didn't exist when I was at school. We talked of adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses. Then someone lumped them together and called them 'adverbials'. Why? Did we need a higher order category? And then, when grammarians had invented it, why did it have to be taught to 10 and 11 year olds? I managed without, and I'm a language and grammar freak. Why does everyone else need them too? 

50 Circle the two adjectives that are synonyms in the sentence below.

The street was lined with grand houses; the modest cottage stood out amongst its imposing neighbours.

MR: I guess the examiners were getting tired by this time, so they ask yet again another word class question. The trick here is that a present participle has been recycled (as it were)  as an adjective: 'imposing'. In other words, some children will think that 'imposing' is not an adjective.  The hope is that sufficient numbers of children will get this wrong, so that the bell curve can be produced. Of course, if your school has too many on the wrong side of the bell curve then Ofsted must be called in and there may be evidence that the school can be put in special measures. After all, standards must be maintained and how else to show 'standards' but through asking right/wrong answers about an imperfect system of describing language (this 'grammar') and through claiming that there are right/wrong answers to questions about a non-grammatical, non-valid concept (synonyms),  wheeled out for test purposes? 

Btw, what sense is there in the word 'synonym' if 'imposing' and 'grand' are synonyms? The word 'imposing' has in many contexts a sense that the person or thing doing the imposing is  being disapproved of eg 'You've imposed on me!' (This is the interesting topic of 'transitivity' - ie how we express attitude towards things through the words we use.) On the other hand 'grand' in most contexts has a sense of approval - 'What a grand house!' 

And these are synonyms?!

Maybe the examiners are just not very good writers. Too much grammar, not enough reading. 


Thursday 6 June 2024

Teaching sentences, but what is a sentence? What's happened to 'the sentence'? Does it matter?

 When we think of written English in education, we instinctively think of sentences. It's what I was taught, my children have been taught, and is still taught. The sentence used to be defined as having a 'main clause' within which is a 'finite verb'. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.

It doesn't take much research to see that an enormous amount of writing is done that is not with these 'sentences'. Spend a little time looking at advertisements, headlines, film scripts, plays, poems, song lyrics, powerpoints, signs, slogans, proverbs and even in novels and newspaper articles written in standard English. Perhaps even more widespread is the field of social media where people chat to each other all day every day in a form of writing that has evolved and is evolving without instruction, direction or examinations. For much of the time, people are not bothered about 'main clauses' and 'finite verbs'. 

There's an argument for saying that the sentence in the modern world is still the means by which power is enacted. Powerful people pass laws, rule in courts, run companies, produce news reports, and science journals are written - in sentences. It follows, the argument says, that education should teach sentences in order that everyone has access to that power. This is true. 

The question arises though as to what we teach when we teach 'language'. Do we teach the sentence, or do we say that there are many varieties of written language (English in this case)? And though the sentence is the language of the powerful, the power is enacted through longer passages of writing - the paragraph, the page, the chapter, the article, the book etc? So we have to teach 'cohesion' and 'coherence', 'genre' and 'audience'. 

And more than that, do we say that there are hugely lucrative careers in the world of the non-sentence: song-writing, copy-writing for advertisements, writing film scripts and TV scripts and plays, lists and notes we write for ourselves or others,  producing punchy powerpoints and so on? There's even an argument for saying that writing quick, sharp, to-the-point social media has huge social value too.

I'll leave that hanging.

In the meantime, here are just a few examples of non-sentences and/or sentences that are not displayed or punctuated in the traditional way.

Train for a 

job you love

job you love

job you love

job you love

[Fashion Retail Academy ad]


in front

is all you

But the 



On Side






Sofa. Heaven.

Near Angel

(As you'd expect.)


Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumped over the moon.

The little dog laughed to see such sport

And the dish ran away with the spoon.

[The first line is interesting because it seems to be unattached grammatically.]


How, how, how, how? Chopped logic! What is this?155“Proud,” and “I thank you,” and “I thank you not,”And yet “not proud”? Mistress minion you,Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday nextTo go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,160Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.Out, you green sickness, carrion! Out, you baggage!You tallow face!
[Romeo and Juliet]

‘Fog’ from

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens


Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Loyle Carner

Ain’t Nothing Changed

Check, I'm saying ain't nothing changed

Trust, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Saying, ain't nothing changed

Nah, 'cause ain't nothing changed

I'm saying ain't nothing changed

Uh, uh, I'm saying ain't nothing changed

Brother, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Saying, ain't nothing changed

Nah, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Trust, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Stream of consciousness

from Molly Bloom’s monologue last chapter Ulysses by James Joyce

let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so as I can get up early Ill go to Lambes there beside Findlaters and get them to send us some flowers to put about the place in case he brings him home tomorrow today I mean no no Fridays an unlucky day first I want to do the place up someway the dust grows in it I think while Im asleep then we can have music and cigarettes I can accompany him first I must clean the keys of the piano with milk whatll I wear shall I wear a white rose or those fairy cakes in Liptons I love the smell of a rich big shop at 7 1/2d a lb or the other ones with the cherries in them and the pinky sugar 11d a couple of lbs of those a nice plant for the middle of the table Id get that cheaper in wait wheres this I saw them not long ago I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because theyre afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said 

Stream of consciousness plus ‘free indirect discourse’ 

from ‘To the Lighthouse’ Virginia Woolf

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs. Ramsay's knee. And yet, she knew knowledge and wisdom were stored up in Mrs. Ramsay's heart. How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people. Mrs. Ramsay rose. Lily rose. Mrs. Ramsay went. For days there hung about her, as after a dream some subtle change is felt in the person one has dreamt of, more vividly than anything she said, the sound of murmuring and, as she sat in the wicker arm-chair in the drawing-room window she wore, to Lily's eyes, an august shape; the shape of a dome.

Very recent popular novel. First person narrative by Joyce. 

(Note non standard sentences)

from ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ by Richard Osman (2020)

pages 18-19

Elizabeth and Penny would go through every file, line by line, study every photograph, read every witness statement, just looking for anything that had been missed. They didn’t like to think there were guilty people still happily going about their business. Sitting in their gardens, doing a sudoku, knowing they had got away with murder.


Ibrahim soon joined them.  He used to play bridge with Penny, and had helped them out once or twice with bits and bobs. He’s a psychiatrist. Or was a psychiatrist. Or still is, I’m not quite sure. When you first meet him you can’t see that at all, but once you get to know him it makes a sort of sense. I would never have therapy, because who wants to unravel all that knitting? Not worth the risk, thank you.



Written by Brandon Saunders 

Final Draft 


A modest home in the outskirts of town. 

MAN 1, wears a PORCELAIN MASK and all WHITE CLOTHES, sprinkled with blood. He closes the trunk to a BLACK CAR parked in the drive-way. 

YOUNG BOY (O.S.) (muffled) No! Light 

THUMPS and CRIES come from inside the trunk. Man 1 makes his way inside -- 


Cozy. Furniture screams good taste. Boxing gloves hang on the wall next to a BOXING TROPHY and numerous GOLD MEDALS. A NEWSPAPER on the kitchen bench headlines: "Boxing upset has Punters furious." 

Man 1 joins 3 MEN playing poker. He sits to the right of: DAD, 30, clean cut. Bruised and beaten. Tears slide down his face, as he stares daggers across the table to the man with majority of the chips: GAMBLING MAN, 45, sinister smirk. Wears a BLACK SUIT. In his right hand, he holds a King of hearts and Nine of diamonds. He squeezes a STRESS BALL with his left. To his right: DEALER, too, all WHITE CLOTHES and PORCELAIN MASK. 


I told you to tighten his gag, not read him a fucking lullaby. Dad slams his cards face down. 

Stands abruptly.



I’ve got three cookies

Interviewer gave them to me. Home made

Shhhh don’t tell Joni



Ho ho

En route


Am outside

On corner






Passing ally p Stn



Rail strike

Still stuck?




Slow stuck


By the park

Heading for round


I have many other examples from texts, tweets, newspaper articles, poems, songs, film scripts and fiction but rather than put them up for the moment, perhaps this is an area that language students might be interested in researching.