Monday, 28 March 2016

The DfE teaches us how to write bad sentences

Statement by 'Department of Education spokesman':

“Rather than simply opposing our reforms, which have already seen 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, the NUT would do teachers and pupils a much greater service by engaging constructively with them.”

(I'll leave the politics of this to others, as I'm on my SPaG rage trip at the moment)

Look at the last word in this sentence: 'them'.

It's a 'pronoun' because it stands for a 'noun'. 'Grammar' is supposed to teach us that when you use a pronoun, you make clear which noun it refers to. There is no rule on this. It can be the 'subject' of the main verb, the subject of a verb in a subordinate clause, or the 'object' of these verbs or even a noun in the phrase that comes nearest to the pronoun.

Ask yourself what possibilities are there for this 'them'?

In purely 'structural' terms - the kind of grammar adopted by SPaG, there is only one real contender - the phrase 'teachers and pupils', but that is NOT what the 'spokesman' meant. He meant 'reforms' which is way back in the sentence, even earlier than 'schools' and 'children'.

This shows us that we 'get' meaning from context, even when sentences don't follow the logic of 'structure'.

On the other hand, the DfE spokesman produced a fairly ambiguous sentence especially for those who haven't followed the context of the argument. To that extent it's a 'bad' sentence. And it's been produced by someone from the DfE.

Nick Gibb will sort it.

Can you sort it by teaching more of that kind of 'grammar'? Nope. You can only sort it by listening to the rhythm of the sentence and asking yourself, have I made myself clear? Is there anything in this sentence that people might not 'get'? You learn this by sharing these sentences with 'audiences' i.e. readers and listeners and NOT by doing more exercises and tests.