Saturday 26 March 2016

People with linguistics degrees can't answer my son's SPaG homework. Can you?

Yesterday, I put up a question that was in my son's Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar homework for the holiday. It's a photocopy of what looks like a previous or 'mock' test. For those who are not part of this nightmare, I'll remind you it's a test for Year 6 pupils who are 11 years old or nearly 11 years old.

By the way, you'll see that people below, like me, don't know the answer. Or, if we come up with an answer, we can also justify why there are two answers - according to the descriptions given in the government's own 'glossary' on the '' site. 

I am still waiting for someone to tell me the answer, and to tell me the reason why it is the only answer and, therefore, why the others are 'wrong', as I have to help my son with his homework this easter.

(In terms of my qualifications to talk about 'language', as people ask: 

I studied Latin, French and German to 'O'-level (i.e. GCSE equivalent). Did loads of 'grammar' for O-level English. Did A-level French and English. Did a degree in English Literature and Language (which included Old English and Middle English). Because my father did a post-doc linguistics course with M.A.K. Halliday, he shared a lot of what he was studying with me in our many, many chats about language. I've also on many occasions set myself linguistics homework so I've read  one of David Crystal's grammar books, read an intro to Halliday's work, read his own 'introduction', read and used many books on grammar, applied linguistics, language in education etc over the last 50 years; regularly interview linguists on 'Word of Mouth' on BBC Radio 4 (1998-now), correspond regularly with linguists who take up issues with me over what I've written - either in agreement or not, including two of the linguists who are behind this system of classification for SPaG. I also have an MA and a Ph.D in children's literature which on occasions called on me to investigate language at the level of 'narratology' and 'intertextuality' - which in spite of these being a bit 'abstruse' in the way of subjects, would in fact be much more useful for teachers to know more about in terms of helping children write.

I have only done this c.v because some people get aggressive online and assume that I'm just the geezer who writes funny poems, so how could I possibly have the right to question what the government says is 'grammar'. Apologies if it sounds like showing off.)

Here is the question again:

'Tick the sentence where the highlighted word is used as a subordinating conjunction.
Tick one.
He was at school BEFORE you.
She did her homework UNTIL dinnertime.
Do not undo your seatbelt, UNTIL the car has stopped.
WHEN the sun is out, we will go outside.'

You can read my comments on this in my previous blog.

My view is that according to the old Latinate grammar that I was taught, there is no difference between the 3rd and 4th example. The only difference is where 'until' in the 3rd and 'when' in the 4th appear in the sentences given. This shouldn't make a difference when it comes to 'subordinating'. My view in summary is that:
a) the category 'subordinating conjunction' is disputed by linguists - see earlier blog by Geoff Pullum, professor of linguistics, Edinburgh University. (Thanks, Geoff.) 
b) a 'grammar' that talks about language in this way is not much use for anything apart from coming up with self-serving, 'internal' rules that don't refer sufficiently to use, meaning and purpose - that's why some grammarians argue about it and change the terms. And it's not 'the' or 'the only' 'grammar'. It's one version of 'grammar'.  
c) knowing such things is useless for helping young children write well 
d) teachers find this stuff confusing to teach 
e) it's only being imposed on children so that central government has as assessment system to assess schools with. 
f) what we need to ask is 'what kind of knowledge about language do we need to teach that will help children write well?'

I put all this up on Facebook and here are some of the comments that people put up. Please note that some of the people have a degree in linguistics and/or a degree in English Literature and Language (like me), some taught in secondary schools for many, many years, some are teaching Year 6.

COMMENTS by people on Facebook:

1. I have a degree, and I taught English in one shape or another from 1974 to 2015. I am afraid that is my only qualification. To me, they are all conjunctions, as 'were' and 'arrived' are understood, respectively in 1 and 2. The comma in 3 is unnecessary. There seems little difference to me between the use of until in 2 and 3, even if 2 is about a passage of time, whereas 3 implies UNLESS as well as until. All four imply time that has passed or is to pass. I like analysis like this, but the idea that there is an absolute and correct classification is very silly. It is useful to consider shades of meaning, but the tick-box mentality is daft.

2. ME: I think they used to say that the first two were 'prepositions' because they introduce 'phrases'. I think M.A.K. Halliday did away with the distinction and called everything a 'clause'. (When I cite the past, I don't cite it as the truth but merely that it was a staging post where once it was the truth and now we're in a different 'truth' that isn't truer. Just more now. Interesting also that you started going into semantics in order to work out what classification of 'grammar' it should have. That's the hoax of this kind of grammar i.e. that it's purely 'structural'. But you can't work out the 'structure' unless you 'get' the meaning! It ain't so pure after all.

3. I was wondering whether "until" was a coordinating conjunction ( not a subordinating one) because the clauses on either side appear to be of equal importance. But this, as you say, is primarily a semantic consideration. I'm more persuaded by Laura's suggestion below that 3 is the answer because "until" is in the position of the "joining word". Maybe we should have grammar tests where students compete to give the most abstruse definition, like mediaeval scholars debating why Adam did or didn't have a navel.

4. 3 and 4 could both be argued for. It's a kind of theology which might amuse ethereal linguists but is utterly inappropriate as a test at school level.

5. ME: I've been asked if this 'matters'. I have answered: "In the life of one very nice boy I know very well, and love dearly, it matters an enormous amount. I wish it didn't. It makes me angry that it matters, particularly as it seems to me like junk knowledge. Useless, irrelevant, sloppy, pointless, unrigorous, illogical knowledge.”

6. It's not fair, I'm teaching this to a year 6 class on a daily basis. Trying to explain passive voice and subjunctive form and the difference between phrases and clauses to a group of children who don't really need to know or want to know, just to satisfy the ridiculous demands of a group of idiots who have never been in a school. They're learning things that my 17 year old daughter didn't even come across in high school. The kids are stressed, the staff are stressed and it's going to be the same again next year when they change it all AGAIN. They're kids, not pawns to be used in some kind of political game.

7. I'm treating this as a puzzle and have been agonising for 20 mins ... In a test situation I would discard 1 & 2 because as you said they start a phrase not a clause (no verb). No 3 I would say is a compound sentence as 'until' joins 2 main clauses & therefore I would pick no 4... You could say that without "when" they are both main clauses too in 4, but because it is 'fronted' ( to use another of your favourites) I think it counts as subordinate... I have a degree in linguistics... That took me a long time... And I am far from being certain it's the right answer! It's just wrong to expect chn to do this.

8. I think it's the third one. In the 4th, 'we will go outside' seems to be the subordinated phrase, as it depends on the sun being out!

I have grappled with this, and other parts of the new grammar, as a Year 3 teacher.

I did a languages degree (French and Danish) with a good helping of linguistics, and Old Norse- a heavily declined language, as well as 4 Years of Latin at school. And worked in Greece for a while. English grammar should be fairly transparent to me!

9. Aside from number 4 being 'fronted', I can't see a structural difference between 3 and 4. Do not undo your seatbelt until the car has stopped / We will undo our seatbelts when the car has stopped / We will go outside when the sun is out / Do not go outside until the sun is out... all seem pretty similar to me. Would love to know the answer. That pesky comma before until is making me itchy.