First, I would like to thank NATE for setting up this Harold Rosen lecture. Harold wasn’t shy of writing or talking - far from it - but he was perhaps reluctant to gather together his thoughts and ideas into an accessible form. I think he thought - I’m only guessing here - that someone else could or should have done that. I’ve created a blog in his name which includes a couple of bibliographies. Various people have suggested putting together some of his key works, including several memorable essays published by NATE. The setting up of this lecture will spur me on to get this done - or as Harold himself would say to our mother, Connie, ‘Must press on, Con! Must press on!’
Secondly, I must thank NATE for asking me to give this first lecture in what I hope will be a long series. The tradition of memorial lectures is that they should reflect some aspect of the named person - whether it be their work or their life. I’ve never hidden the fact that I know something of both - indeed, there were occasions when we used to do a double act. In the morning, he might give a talk to a gathering much like this one, on the meaning of narrative, and then in the afternoon, I might be asked to read some poems. Some of my favourite poems featured him - not as Professor Harold Rosen - but as ‘my dad’, ‘the old man’ , ‘the O.M.’ or just ‘Harold’ as he rather liked his sons to call him. He would sit at the back of the room and halfway through my reading a poem he would shout, ‘Lies! It’s all lies!’ So, I’ll do one now, and we can imagine him, right now, sitting at the back - in fact, when I get to the end, you can be him, and call out, ‘Lies, it’s all lies’ both by way of remembering him, but also in the spirit of what he believed in, argument, discussion, counter-culture, and the questioning of received wisdom.
So, here goes - a scene in a flat in Pinner in around 1956.
We sit down to eat
and the potato’s a bit hot,
so I only put a bit on my fork
until it’s cool, just cool
into the mouth
My brother does the same
until it’s cool, just cool
into the mouth
And there’s my Mum
doing the same
- yes we did come from that sort of a home
until it’s cool
into the mouth
But my dad
What does he do?
He stuffs a great big chunk of potato
into this mouth
and that really does it.
His eyes pop out
He blows, he puffs, he yells
He bobs his head up and down
He even - spits bits of potato on to his plate
and he turns to us and says:
‘Watch out everybody the potato’s really hot.’
And you say:
‘Lies! It’s all lies!’
As John Richmond made clear in his wonderful obituary, Harold’s work shifted focus from his early days as a classroom teacher, to being a head of department in a south London comprehensive, to being a teacher trainer at what was then Borough Road training college, to being a lecturer at the Institute of Education, on to being a professor and head of department and in retirement pursuing several scholarly interests as well as gathering together his poems and autobiographical writings. Alongside this, he joined with James Britton and Nancy Martin in the forerunner to NATE - the London Association for the Teaching of English- memorably now written up by the present NATE chair Simon Gibbons in a recent book. In this time, he investigated and talked about such matters as poetry in schools, the home languages and cultures of school students, the orthodoxies of the exam system and its criteria of assessment, the politics of central government’s interventions into the English curriculum, language use across all the curricula in secondary schools, the centrality of narrative in knowledge and learning (or the marginalisation of it in education), the power of story-telling, the functions of language and the patterns and purpose of autobiography - including his own.
Out of all this work, it might seem odd or ‘churlish’, (a word Harold loved) - to quote something as far back as 1958, long before he became or even thought of himself as an academic. Thanks, I think, to Simon Clements, the English syllabus devised at Walworth Comprehensive School by the English staff themselves with Harold as head of department has come to light. It contains this passage:
[quote from Walworth syllabus]
The teaching of English at Walworth calls for a sympathetic understanding of the pupils’ environment and temperament. Their language experience is acquired from their environment and from communication with the people who mean most to them... However narrow the experience of our pupils may be (and it is often wider than we think), it is this experience alone which has given their language meaning. The starting point for English work must be the ability to handle effectively their own experience. Oral work, written work and the discussion of literature must create an atmosphere in which the pupils become confident of the full acceptability of the material of their own experience.
It’s cited in:
“A curriculum in its place: English teaching in one school 1946-1963”
by Peter Medway; Patrick Kingwell
“In a chattier article from the same year Rosen writes:
‘Without hesitation I would say the home is the first source of supply. Keep sending them home – to mum, to dad, to the family; at meals, quarrelling, having a laugh, getting up, going out, buying something. Then what happens? They are dealing with a situation, rich in first-hand feeling, charged with association and personal relationships, alive with people they know extraordinarily well, down to the last foible. Because they know and feel about these things they have the language to write about them. The springs of language are being tapped, and all the writing skill can be directed towards the experience. From the home we can branch out into other autobiographical material, friends, the district, and school.’”
And in Medway and John Hardcastle’s 2004 interview with Harold - also cited in the book - Harold talked about a lesson on ‘Great Expectations’ and the first chapter in which we find, of course:
‘...the encounter with Magwitch, the convict, which is a fantastic piece, I’ve always thought it was quite incredible. And we read the big chunk of where he gets him to promise he’ll bring a file and something to eat. And so we read it, I read it once, and then I had them read it as a drama, skipping the intervening bits, just, it’s full of dialogue. And then we explored the idea of being frightened, and being frightened of certain kinds of adults. Well, I can remember being fantastically chuffed because ... they couldn’t stop talking about frightening adults, quite different kinds, of course, and I was surprised at how often they were people encountered in the markets, and who grabbed hold of them and so on, tried to get money from them. And then, of course, they could, if they wanted to, write about that, and they did, and there were a lot of good pieces....’
As we know now, though, it took the interventions of such people as Kenneth Baker in 1988 and Michael Gove in 2014 to allow all students in comprehensive schools to read Dickens.
Or not .
Some people here will not only remember some of the things Harold said and wrote but also the way in which he said them: his provocative questioning perhaps, or the anecdotes from his childhood, classrooms and staffrooms. Of course, as his children, we got another view of it. If you can imagine the way in which a dog harasses an old glove you might get a sense of it. He would fasten on to a word or phrase or whole subject and argue with it out loud. As a teenager, I can remember him sitting at the table with us having our evening meal, he with papers and books all round him, getting enraged about something called, ‘T-units’. He was doing his Ph.D. on a system of defining a student’s quality of English based on a supposedly objective measure called ‘T-units’. Many years later, long after I had left home, I would come to the house and almost as I was walking through the door he would be offloading his fascination with, say, Bakhtin on ‘subversive laughter’, feminist analyses of autobiography, or Frederick Bartlett on Memory. In case, this conjures up a vision of someone locked helplessly in a prison of theory, I should add that the particular fascination he had to share, could just as easily be with the previous week’s Arsenal performance, the miners’ strike, or the state of mind of the cats.
In more ways than I can know myself, I have learned from Harold - not only in the ‘what’ of what he talked about but also in the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. You all know better than me that his specific area of interest and work: English teaching in schools - is a matter of intense scrutiny and control from politicians. Right up to his death in 2008, we would talk about this, and, in some ways, the regimes imposed on English teachers since 1988 represent a defeat of ideas that he and many others believed in. One conversation that I didn’t ever have with him, though, (perhaps I was worried that it might be too painful,) was over the matter of tactics.
Let me put it this way: the predecessors of the people in this room, believed - and acted on the belief - that the teaching of English would develop and progress through the active participation of classroom teachers, working hand-in-hand with university based teachers. Through a network of conferences and the production of papers and books, ideas would be produced, contested and adapted but which could be traced to actual encounters between teachers and students. And - this is the important political bit - this would be enough. It would be self-evident that such teacher-based ideas would have the stamp of reality on them. What’s more, in the process of developing these ideas, teachers would be developing themselves as thinkers, as professionals and as people, enjoying doing the work.
What all this missed out is the politics of education. That’s to say, since at least 1988, politicians in many countries, - other than Finland - have taken on the role of knowing more about teaching than those who teach and those who study teaching.
Now, English teaching is particularly susceptible to this kind of intervention because in some ways, we are all experts in it. Most of us under the domain of the British government speak and write English. It’s very easy to make broad, general statements about, let’s say, a whole generation of people who (it is suggested) can’t write and only speak in grunts. This seems to be the theme of what Michael Wilshaw likes to say over and over again. The fact that this generation is now in their 20s, 30s and 40s ought to give pause for thought. After all, the supposed failure of the ‘failed generation’ is often linked - without evidence - to why Britain is falling behind and failing. Yes, it’s true the thing we were allowed to refer to for a short while as ‘British capitalism’ did come very close to collapse, but we’ve been told that the only thing that can save us is lower pay and less money spent on public services. So, was this collapse, - this failure - caused by bad English teaching, or not?
If, Michael Wilshaw is worried about a failed generation and the failings of British capitalism, shouldn’t he nip down to the City of London and do some hard questioning of the educational backgrounds of the hedge-fund managers, debt-sellers, rate-fixers and speculators? And then he could apply his findings back to the kinds of schools these folks came from and he could, perhaps, conjure up the kind of educational input he might imagine which would put a check on such people and such activity.
But of course he won’t.
Instead, we get talk about generations being failed by you; and your predecessors being linked to what are indeed tough times for many people, tough times for which you are not responsible. But it’s more than talk. It’s legislation, tests, exams, inspections and league tables. I don’t think anyone - my father included - could have imagined how centralised, how Napoleonic, the Department for Education could become in its micromanaging of syllabuses and teaching methods. In short, I’ll put this bluntly, successive governments have behaved as if teachers are too stupid and too lazy to be trusted to think about education. More particularly, English teachers are too stupid and too lazy to know about literacy, language and literature. Or worse, you have been involved in a conspiracy to deprive those particular children who come from backgrounds where standard English is not regularly written, and where the shelves are not laden with great books. The fact that you have repeatedly jumped through the hoops that successive governments have put in front of you, the fact that you have consistently adapted previously held beliefs to fit the requirements of tests, exams and inspections is ignored. The fact that there is a long line of talks, articles, books, text-books and conferences, perhaps dating from those words of my father in 1958, showing an almost obsessive commitment to working class education is seen as part of the problem and not as part of the solution. The fact that the system now in place, more than ever before, embeds failure, failure and more failure at the heart of education is just an inconvenience that we can overlook.
A good deal of this, I think, involves what Freudians call ‘displacement’. That’s to say, we live in times of panic about the general state of affairs with humanity’s ability to cope with real or concocted fears about climate change, war, terrorism, antibiotics, migration and debt. What politicians are expert at - in fact I sometimes wonder if they go on special courses to learn how to do it - is to displace these anxieties on to things that are neither the cause or the remedy. One of these is English teaching and within that, the English language itself. So, for example, I’m beginning to doubt if I can read. After all, I was taught to read without an hour a day’s-worth of systematic synthetic phonics implemented according to the principles of ‘first, fast and only’. Even worse, Harold and Connie Rosen read to me every night and shared with me, the writing on the pages of Beatrix Potter books and Picture Puffin Books, none of which was written according to the approved graded methods of systematic synthetic phonics. Heaven knows how I picked up the ‘alphabetic principle’ given that I learned to read using a multi-cuing system.
And so to grammar.
Or more particularly, the grammar of written English. I don’t need to tell you that a grammar syllabus based on the total language use of the students you teach doesn’t meet with the approval of those who lay down what you teach. Indeed, the implication at the heart of these guidelines and regulations is that the way many students write and speak is faulty. And presumably, once they’ve scored less than a ‘C’ at whatever the exam is to be called at 16, which will prove that they have failed, they will go out into the world knowing that are faulty users of English. More than that, having been told that everyone should be able to get an A-C grade, and having not got one, such people will know that they have only themselves to blame. And presumably whatever setbacks befall them later in life, like, say, being sacked, this too will be their own fault. Well, it’s one way to make sure that people, when sacked, go quietly.
So, if it’s not easy, not possible or if it is highly unlikely that there is time to run a grammar course for under-16s which has at its heart the students’ own language use - spoken and written - is there any wider interpretation of language-use which includes at the very least the variety of English that students come across?
One of the futilities of prescriptive grammar is that it takes as its implied or actual sample, the grammar of one specific kind of writing: the writing of continuous non-fiction prose - and within that, single isolated, out-of-context, specific sentences. So leaving behind - albeit reluctantly - the varieties of spoken language in use, what happens if we ask ourselves: what varieties of written language in use can we spot? After all, a scientist or a sociologist would take it as read that a given field of study would and should involve spotting varieties, creating distinctions and categories and classifications. So let’s put on our anoraks and go language-spotting.
Better still, let’s start with an experiment: you are going to write a puff for the place - road, village, town, city, country - as you wish. This is in order to say that the place in question is a desirable place to visit. This is not the part of the ad which commands your reader to come or to visit. That’s in another part of the ad which says things like ‘not to be missed’ or ‘come to...’. This is the box inside which you tell us, expansively as you can, what you’ve got. One restriction: you’ve got to do this in 30 words and you can lay it out, how you like. Your box of writing can be wide or narrow. You can use letters and punctuation how you like.
Over to you.
Let me read one I saw on an ad in the London underground this week:
“Centuries [with a capital ‘c’] of naval history, [comma] waterfront shopping, [comma] superb dining, [comma, new line]soaring sights [no comma] and miles of amazing beaches. [full stop] Ideally [with a capital ‘i’] situated on [new line] the beautiful south coast, [comma] only 90 minutes from London. [full stop]”
This presumably should fall into the category of defective and incorrect writing. Capital letters and full stops are used here without the phrases being true and correct sentences. Stylistically, there are problems with the adjectival present participle ‘soaring’ and the adverb ‘ideally’. It’s far from certain how, in a piece of factual writing a ‘sight’ can be ‘soaring’ or why or how this place can be ‘situated’ ‘ideally’. ‘Conveniently’, maybe, but not ‘ideally’ surely?
But in reality I don’t give a fig. I may not love this writing, but it’s doing its job: without finite verbs between its capital letters and full stops. Now, an hour reading ads and notices will reveal hundreds of examples like this. Quite clearly, this world of signs - away from continuous non-fiction prose - operates according to principles not devised in school grammar books.
We might ask, who invents these principles? And once invented, how come we’re able to read what’s written? Just to take the full stop in ad- , poster-, and sign-land - it seems to have functions other than those of continuous prose. It can be dropped even when a full so-called true sentence is given to us:
‘In an emergency [new line]
Use [capital ‘u’’] the red emergency [new line]
button to alert the driver [no full stop]
In fact the capital ‘u’ but not capital ‘b’ has a principle all of its own. I don’t know what that principle is, but perhaps best to ask the exec for Transport for London, Boris Johnson who I know is a stickler for such things.
Or the full-stop can be used like this:
‘One Water. [capital ‘o’, capital ‘W’, full stop] One Difference. [capital ‘o’, capital ‘d’, full stop]
In fact, the more you look at ads, even quite complicated, language-dense ones, the more you realise that it has become a kind of playground for graphic designers and copywriters who have in effect invented or re-invented ways of writing. Yet, as I say, we can read what they write.
I think there are important lessons here.
- Written language is not static, unchanging and conservative.
- Some very public, appropriate, highly communicative written language does not follow the patterns and conventions of traditional continuous non-fiction prose.
- Some of this very public writing is commercially successful. People make a living inventing it. Firms rely on it in order to sell their products.
- Official bodies and authorities use it in order to pass on messages - some of which are a matter of life and death.
- When talking about grammar - which is often a synonym for what people imagine is ‘correct grammar’ - it’s uncommon for this kind of writing to be included. Within the terms of ‘correct grammar’ it’s incorrect, though clearly it’s doing its job correctly enough to satisfy people publicising Portsmouth or delivering life and death instructions on London Underground.
- I think we confuse, baffle and deceive children and school students, if we talk about written English as if there is only one way to write it, as if it is static, unchanging and conservative.
What do grammarians say about this?
R.L.Trask taught linguistics and wrote ‘The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar’. It’s arranged along dictionary lines, in alphabetical order listing grammatical terms. So we find here a term I hadn’t ever come across before :
block language The distinctive type of language used in public signs, typically consisting of PHRASES, rather than complete SENTENCES. Examples: No Parking; Left turn only; Stage door; EU passports; Birmingham and the North; Open Sunday. Compare HEADLINE LANGUAGE’.
When we go to ‘headline language’ we find:
‘The rather special variety of English used in writing newspaper headlines. In the following examples, the first form illustrates headline language and the second ordinary English: President denies misconduct (The President has denied misconduct); Universities feeling the pinch (Universities are feeling the pinch); PM to visit China (The Prime Minister is going to visit China).
If like me, you’re obsessive enough to be the kind of person who would read a whole dictionary of grammar, we find some other terms:
the ‘minor sentence’ where a piece of language doesn’t have the form of a complete sentence but, I quote, ‘which is normal in context’ Examples: Why not do it now? Any news? All aboard! No smoking; This way, please; As if I would know;
the ‘pro-drop’ - ‘the property of a language in which a sentence does not require an overt subject’.
Here Trask suggests that English is ‘not a pro-drop language’ but I would suggest that there are plenty of examples of ‘pro-drop’ in English, as in, say, ‘See you soon’.
Maybe I haven’t understood this properly. Apologies if that’s the case.
the ‘fragment’ - ‘an incomplete piece of a sentence, used by itself. Examples: Ted: Where’s Susie? Mike: In the library. Ted: Can England win the World Cup? Mike: Probably not.
the ‘pro-sentence’ ‘a single word which can take the place of a complete sentence’ ‘The most familiar English examples are yes and no. Here is an example. Jan: Would you like some tobasco [sic] sauce ? Larry: Yes. Here Larry’s response is equivalent to the sentence I would like some tobasco sauce.
And of course our old friend, ‘ellipsis’ ‘The omission from a sentence of material which is logically required to complete its structure’.Examples: ‘Nough said (‘Enough said’); Seems we have a problem (‘It seems we have a problem.’) - which should feature as an example of pro-drop which, according to Trask doesn’t occur in English. Again, perhaps I’m confused here.
So, what should we make of all this?
My first reaction is to be mildly delighted. Of course other grammarians visit this territory - our hero David Crystal gives it a couple of pages in his ‘Rediscover Grammar’ book. With Trask, we are given more terms than Crystal gives us in that particular handbook, though of course they’re spread out and diffused through the whole dictionary. There isn’t a consistent effort to describe and analyse the kinds of signs and posters that we see every day.
I have another problem. The usage in question is mostly seen in the light of whatever it is that a ‘complete sentence’ is. Though, Trask tells us that they are ‘normal in context’ - thank goodness for that - there is the suggestion that lying behind all these signs and utterances are more complete forms. In other words they are defined in terms of what they are not, rather than what they are. I don’t buy this. The first rule of descriptive grammar should start out from the principles of who is doing the speaking or writing; who are they talking or writing for. In other words it has its own force field, if you like, and can only be explained in terms of structures outside that context if it can be shown that they derive from that context.
I‘m not sure that the examples I’ve given derive from what Trask calls more ‘complete’ forms. I think they come from somewhere else. For example, some of the language in question might be described in terms of its proximity to a good deal of speech. Advertising copywriters and sign-writers frequently try to imitate the questions, commands and phrases that we use or might use in speech, albeit in a very exhortatory, get up and go sort-of-a-way:
All the following come from ads and signs in the Underground:
“Go miles further with our best ever Skywards Miles offer”
“Let’s get it done’
The statement that sounds like an answer:
“Helping London grow for the future”
The question as if in speech:
“Going on a hot date this weekend?”
‘Got an opinion? Then share it with us’
The famously ambiguous command that isn’t a command: “Dogs must be carried” to which we can reply, ‘but I haven’t got a dog.’
‘Please stand on the right.’
The statement as in speech, followed by the informal exclamation:
‘Delays cut by 40% (Whoosh!)’
The pseudo-poetic or proverbial:
‘Cold drink Warm heart’
Again: ‘From everyday potentials to future spouse essentials’ followed by announcements: ‘Brands you know. [full stop] Rewards you’ll love. [full stop]
Telegram or text message type descriptions:
‘Floor slippery when wet’.
‘This is a residential area please leave quietly’
The hidden request or command - embedded in the use of ‘to fill’ as in:
‘700 empty bowls to fill this Christmas’
or simpler statement but more complex grammatically:
‘Coffee to go’ where I think ‘to go’ is probably a highly specific adjectival phrase but which we can only understand if we know US usage.
And even more compact, and with yet another function for the word ‘to’ :
Fresh to impress’
meaning, I think, that it ‘will impress’ rather than a command or an adjectival or adverbial description.
The right of titles of books, films, plays, songs, poems to use language that implies that something is unfinished, unsaid or indeed incomplete:
‘London Grammar If you wait’
Inventing new vocabulary:
“Whole food revosmooshon
Fruit and nuts smooshed together’
‘Mortgages. [full stop] Courtesy of our savers. [full stop]
‘Planet. [full stop] Sized. [full stop] Brain. [full stop]’
The conventions of the press recommendations, including single words, the title of the newspaper, or even an accepted sign with the use of five stars :
***** [five stars in a row]
‘a beauty of a show’
The strangely non-referential
‘Manchester for just £19’
so, the ‘for just £19’ doesn’t refer to Manchester being on sale but the journey to Manchester.
A different sense to the grammatical term, the ‘dangling participle’:
‘Closing down, everything must go!!!’
where what is being referred to is a place not the word for a place.
‘Lower window for ventilation’.
Is it a command or a description? Should I lower the window, or look for a lower window’? Context explains all. I should lower the window.
‘Look right’ - well, I look fine thanks.
A complex and, dare I say, poetic utterance:
‘Eat up. [full stop] Feet up. [full stop] Catch up. [full stop]’
two of which are verbal commands (‘eat up’, ‘catch up’) but one of them -(‘feet up’) sounds as if it could be or should be - but is actually a description. So it’s a kind of grammatical pun.
The feigned correction:
‘It’s the thought that counts’ where ‘the’ is crossed out but still visible, so we read both ‘It’s the thought that counts’ and ‘It’s thought that counts’
invoking mistakes, corrections, re-writers, edits. Or, it is the palimpsest - the text written on another text.
‘Travel alerts on twitter
Using a quotation (‘OMG’) without having to reference it, because it’s colloquial digital language shared by those whom the ad wishes to address. A fine example of how an implied reader is inscribed in the language of every piece of text.
Highly complex but simple
Which as we know, does not mean, say, this bus stop is working. Or that stopping works in life, but that we should stop because there is building site or some such nearby.
Even more simple but even more complex:
written on the button on a bus, where it does not mean that we should stop doing anything. It means, if I want to send a message to driver to stop the bus, and press this button he will. But, not that he will stop the bus immediately. He will stop the bus at a bus-stop.
I can’t think of a better example of how language can only fully signify when we know the context.
So within the context of ads and signs, a complex range of language use and grammars. Interestingly, I think, we learn how to understand them without being told how. We pick them up through looking, reading, re-reading and talking about them with family and friends. I would argue that they offer us in education a rich resource for describing and understanding language in use. People like R.L.Trask give us some of the means by which we can pin this down, but it may well be that we have to invent our own - a truly liberating thing for school students to do, I think.
Now of course I am by no means the first person to draw attention to this idea of varieties of written English - and of course there are many more than the ones that I’ve talked about so far. Some of you may know ‘Variety in Written English’ by Tony Bex from 1996 and, I would suggest, subsequently largely ignored by those who want to tell us how to talk about language with children and students. More technical is ‘Text Types and the History of English’ by Manfred Görlach from 2004.
Bex reminds us that standard English even within the context of continuous non-fiction prose has variety, and he draws attention to such things as the language of letters informing people of their rights, descriptions of a gas boiler, printed messages on Christmas cards, legal notices, lists of ingredients, Psalm 24 in the King James Bible of 1611, information about lost telephone cards, recipes, letters, bills, an announcement of a conference on linguistics, notices of sale of second hand items, a spoof scientific document on temperature and geography, and finally in a surprisingly short section, poems and novels.
Görlach attempts a classification of text types going back to Old English and forward to such things as hymns, jokes, representation of a standardised dialect in Scots, and what he calls ‘Indian English’. In the central section of the book he has a glossary of over 2000 items of text types.
Before I look at a few more examples I’ve collected, let’s just stop for a moment and consider how a minister of education who was seriously interested in children and students of all ages understanding language, might behave. With the kind of work done by Bex and Görlach, a minister might start up a commission, under the auspices of NATE, say, in which teachers and teacher-educators might develop potential fields of study and investigation for students and teachers to look at in the field of text types, or ‘variety of written English’: what might be the most appropriate types, what might be the most appropriate terminology, what would most help children and students to understand the language they see, read and try to use when they’re writing.
This wouldn’t have to be limited and held within what have been called ‘genres’. It wouldn’t have to be limited by criteria derived from outside language on the basis that one genre is more powerful than another. I know the argument which claims that the language of administration is more powerful than the language of, say, subjective accounts of what I did today. Meanwhile, the language of, say, advertising, leads us to believe that the word ‘fat-free’ indicates that it’s healthy even if the food in question is stacked up with refined sugar. In a previous NATE talk I suggested that helping students discover the strategies by which people lie - when speaking as well as writing - might be just as powerful as being told that this or that genre is powerful. And the idea that you become powerful when I dictate to you how to write like that - a strange contradiction in terms, I’ve always thought.
So, let’s return to one or two more text types:
the press are often on teachers’ backs for failing to instill what they often call the rules of English. Here’s the sports writer, Patrick Barclay writing in the ‘Evening Standard’ on June 23 2014:
‘There was no shilly-shallying, no retraction that time would be taken to absorb the lessons (in other words, assess the determination of the media to have a head on a plate). Just a grasp of the international game. And it will get better. ‘
The phrase, ‘just a grasp of the international game’ is given a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end. Likewise, ‘And it will get better’.
What’s going on here?
This is the development of standard English writing. As we can tell from the phrases ‘no retraction that time would be taken’ and ‘assess the determination of the media’, Barclay is a writer who can draw on highly formal ways of writing. And yet, he is quite happy to break what children and students will be told is a rule about sentences - and indeed will be marked on it in tests and exams. In short, you are required to fib to children that there is only one way to write continuous non-fiction prose in Standard English. Clearly, even the sub-editors at the ‘Evening Standard’ were quite happy for Patrick Barclay to write like that. In other words, there is a new - what shall we call it - informal-formal writing. Any curriculum based on language in use would enable students to find, investigate and write about a development like this. I would suggest that we don’t even really know why or how it has come about. Interestingly enough, it’s come about at precisely the time when the bookshops are full of books by people like John Humphrys, Simon Heffer or the ubiquitous Gwynne, telling us what correct writing should look like.
Again, something to investigate.
Meanwhile, like Tony Bex, I’ve left the best till last.
Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop...
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.
from D.H.Lawrence ‘Bat’ 1923.
Many of you will know the layout on the page, done according to the principles of free verse, namely that the line breaks are guidelines to how the poet would like us to read it. Some people have said the line in a free verse poem is the equivalent of the foot in a metrical poem, it is the marriage of a unit of sense with a measured out unit of language.
With Lawrence as with thousands of other poets, he writes in what appears to be a standard form of language other than that he doesn’t, in this section, use finite verbs. He bounces between questions, descriptions and exclamations. He not only uses exclamation marks, but also italics with exclamation marks - a kind of double exclamation, then. He uses double line breaks as if there are verses or stanzas. He uses them irregularly. He uses traditional capital letter systems at the beginning of lines, for, I suspect, no other reason than he wanted to call this kind of writing ‘poetry’. He uses repetition, done, as we used to call it, ‘in apposition’, listing terms, adding descriptions as he goes. It’s hard to resist the temptation to say the lists gather descriptions to give the impression of the looping of the flight of the swallow. A musician will explain that if you say, ‘a twitch, a twitter, a shudder’ there is no change in the tempo. If you add in ‘elastic’ but keep the beat, and squeeze in the extra words, you speed up the speech to fit the beat, thus:
‘a twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder’.
Poetry and poetry-with-music, as with rap, can teach us how to do these things. And we can unpack it grammatically to see how it was done.
Lawrence didn’t invent this way of writing. Let’s try Shakespeare. Hamlet is in quite a state. He wonders whether it’s worth going on.
‘To die, to sleep -
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye there’s the rub.’
This is of course ‘written speech’ - another text type. Grammatically, Shakespeare has written this part of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech with what Trask has named as ‘minor sentences’ and ‘fragments’. Though the first part of the speech that I have quoted, is enclosed with full stops, the first finite verb in sight is the colloquial ‘‘Tis’ and then off we go with the inversion of ‘to die, to sleep... etc...there’s the rub’. You could perhaps put up an argument that, grammatically, the whole thing refers back to ‘that is the question’ but either way, this soliloquy is what some people might foolishly call ‘highly irregular’. But we don’t call it ‘highly irregular’ , we call it Shakespeare, or a great speech...
What we can do is investigate it; we can see if grammarians have given us ways of describing what we find, or if we need some new ways. We can see if looking into it, this releases some meanings that we hadn’t thought about before. So, we might see that the grammar is different from the first part of the speech:
‘To be or not be that is the question
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and by opposing end them.’
This part sounds coherent, is written in standard grammar, subject verb, alternative but equal clauses as subjects. This involves a classical balance of opposites, with a view to possible consequences - vary rational. Do we say that the grammar produces the rationality? Or that the rationality produces the grammar? Interesting question.
We might say that the passage with the minor sentences and fragments represents a process where Hamlet’s rational thought and standard grammar break up. Could we say, the passage gives us another kind of thought process: the ruptures, self-questionings and self-interruptions of inner speech - or what we think sounds like inner speech? Again do we say that the grammar produces the impression of confusion, or the impression of confusion produces the grammar?
That’s a question to ask a writer. And I get from that, that it’s something that we can invite students to try themselves. We can say, can you convey in writing, a slide from coherent thought into confusion? One minute you’re planning for your GCSE’s and the next minute you slide into panic. How do you write that? Or the other way round, one moment you think of your parents in a state of rage and the next, you have an insight into what kinds of childhoods that they had and this enables you to make allowances. We can investigate what kind of grammatical constructions we find ourselves using in order to do that.
And we can make comparisons between what and how we write, with how Shakespeare wrote that passage.
Finally, we can take a well-known example from a novel.
from Chapter 1
‘Bleak House’ by Charles Dickens(1852-1853)
‘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.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.’
This piece of writing defies the neat categories we like to give to literature. It is descriptive, poetic and figurative, it’s social in that it shows us a range of social class, but it’s also political (or ‘engagé’ as the French would say), and ultimately passionate and angry. This range is represented in the grammar which begins with the syntax of a free verse or prose poem: short descriptive strokes as if it had been written by one of the imagists, T.E.Hulme, or H.D.; extends into phrases with present participles as it includes people at work, and ends with complete sentences sculpted into patterns of repeated finite clauses piling on top of each other just as a political speaker or priest might use to grab and hold the attention of an audience. Incidentally,the first part of this passage uses a dance of punctuation, between full stops, commas and semi-colons, employed apparently arbitrarily by Dickens - unless we can detect a subtle attempt to mark pauses between cadences as a composer might do with minim rests, semi-breves and breves. Why not?
The term ‘standard English’ cannot contain writing like this. Nor should it. It’s the job of grammar to describe what writers and speakers do. It’s not the job of writers and speakers to do what grammarians or politicians tell us to do.
I’ll finish with a Harold-like suggestion. Perhaps we can take R.L.Trask, Tony Bex, and Manfred Görlach along with, say, Michael Toolan’s ‘Language in Literature’ and break their work down into something accessible for 10 year olds or 14 year olds which would enable them to investigate (not enforce) varieties of written English in use. Yes, Ronald Carter and his colleagues have produced books in that zone, but I’m suggesting something simpler and, dare I say. a bit more fun than that. Perhaps NATE could produce a resource for teachers and students like that.
And while I’m on that, has NATE ever thought of asking, say, 20 published writers about how and why they write; and what suggestions would they give to students and teachers on how to do it?
If not, no worries, that’s another idea for another time. Harold always believed there was another idea for another time.