Monday, 21 March 2016

6 thoughts on the DfE 'glossary' and grammar

1. Look away if you're bored stiff by my comments on 'grammar'.

When I was at secondary school we spent many hours distinguishing between what were called 'adjectival phrases' and 'adverbial phrases'. So, according to that system, if I write, 'His face downcast, the boy picked up his knife' they used to say that this described the 'boy' so it was 'adjectival'. But if I wrote, 'In an aggressive manner, the boy picked up his knife' we were told that was 'adverbial' because it modified the verb 'picked up'.

In fact, I would say that these things are 'marginal' in a lot of cases. That's to say these phrases describe both the 'boy' and the 'picking up'! However, in the onrush to tell us that 'fronted adverbials' are magnificent and every child should have one and it's this that makes writing 'good', we're telling children that all these phrases are not only 'adverbial' (even when they don't modify the verb) but also that they're 'better' when they're 'fronted' (i.e. in front of the verb) than when they're somewhere else - 'rear' perhaps.

In other words, - another dodgy term, implying a rule that isn't a rule, a criterion for 'good writing' that isn't a criterion for good writing, another way to get children to be nervous about writing and for some to fail.

2. The government (DfE) has provided a glossary which is intended to be a guide for teachers - and, I guess, parents (?). It’s supposed to cover all questions and problems to do with the stuff that crops up in the SPaG tests.

Here is the link:

3. The all-encompassing glossary doesn't cover all the stuff that teachers are supposed to teach. So, for SPaG teachers are supposed to teach 'commands, statements and interrogatives' but you won't find an explanation of these in the glossary. Perhaps they think it's obvious. It isn't - as is demonstrated by the kinds of questions you get on mock SPaG tests which are designed to trick children. What you get is a multiple choice question to choose which of the sentences is a 'command'. In one I saw, it included a 'You must...' construction, as with, say, 'You must go out'. For most children this would sound like a 'command'. But oh no. They use the word 'command' in a technical way - not that you would know from the glossary. That is a 'command' in their book - not in common speech - is a sentence that includes an 'imperative' form of the verb...with or without a 'negative' e.g. 'Don't...' but also 'Go out'. So - lunacy time - 'You must go out' is not a 'command'!!! And 'Go out' is!!! That's because this is a grammar that is not linked to meaning and function. That's why it is ultimately useless.

4. Glossary:

"Traditionally, a clause had to have a finite verb, but most modern grammarians also recognise non-finite clauses."

In other words - we really don't know what to say here. We're going to cover our back by saying 'most modern grammarians' as if that settles anything. So what we're saying is that you can have a 'clause' that doesn't have a 'finite verb' in it. So why is that different from a 'phrase'. isn't...unless a 'clause' is a phrase with any kind of verb in it. But we haven't said that. That's because we're a bit wobbly on all this. It's possible that these distinctions are meaningless and useless anyway. We won't admit that because we believe in our 'grammar'.

5. From government SPaG glossary:


In some languages, the inflections of a verb include a large range of special forms which are used typically in subordinate clauses, and are called ‘subjunctives’. English has very few such forms and those it has tend to be used in rather formal styles."

Not from government SPaG glossary

"Even though English has 'very few such forms' of the subjunctive and though it tends to be used in 'rather formal styles', we at the DfE will include the subjunctive as one of the questions in the SPaG test. This will confuse and worry your children. Tough. "

6. Another blast from the past about grammar in grammar schools in the 1950s: a lot of effort was put into us getting 'participle phrases' 'right'. (Participle in the context of this post = '-ing word', though there are other ‘participles’. ) So, if I write, 'Walking down the road, I felt a bit funny.' This was 'good' and 'correct' because it's 'I' who is walking down the road. But if write, 'Plunging into the valley below, I saw the waterfall glinting in the sun', this is 'bad' and 'wrong' because it's not 'I' who is plunging but the 'waterfall'.

Quite apart from whether it was 'bad' or 'wrong' (my own view is that most 'dangling participles' are fine because we 'get' what the speaker or writer means from the context), I wonder why SPaG hasn't put this one in their bag of torture tools? But also, why doesn't this kind of phrase count as a 'fronted aderbial'? Perhaps it does, but I don't seem to see them as examples.

Are you teachers 'allowed' to include 'participle phrases' as 'fronted adverbials'...or is it one of those 'real' constructions that are too 'real' for the 'glossary' that's supposed to be the be-all and 'end-all' ?