This talk is not about all grammar everywhere.
It’s about a particular use of a particular kind of grammar.
Please don’t assume that what I’m saying here applies to what I think about all grammar, or all teaching of grammar for all ages.
It is a talk about the grammar being taught in primary schools in England, now, and in particular for KS 2 children who are aged between 9 and 11 who are tested in May when the children are 10 or 11.
I am the longest running continuous school parent in existence. I have been attending parents’ evenings uninterrupted for 37 years. I have a strong sense of how things change, how different priorities have emerged.
20 years ago, one such parent evening was a conversation with a teacher. She wanted to know what kinds of language-experiences my son had outside of school so that she could relate them to the language experiences he was having in school. She had a check list - devised over several years - by people who had been researching what has been called ‘knowledge about language’ and how making sense of home and school as one individual’s language-experience was a way of helping children make progress in the fields of talking, listening, reading and writing.
The teacher was particularly interested in whether there was any reason at home to talk about language itself, as with homes that are bilingual or trilingual. After all, the moment that we realise that language is not identical to the things it describes or names, then we’ve made a breakthrough in knowledge about language.
Not long after, there was a moment when teachers quite excitedly talked about two projects: a ‘literacy project’ and an ‘oracy project’. Teachers were researching how the children in their classes were writing and speaking and were collecting samples in order to compare them. We were invited to help.
The elements involved with these two kinds of parent evenings include: dialogue with parents, sampling actual language-use, and developing what we might call a holistic or total view of the child as a language-user.
These approaches disappeared without trace in the late 90s, and instead, parents’ evenings started to resemble bingo. The teachers started to fire numbers and letters at us, which were, I think, intended to prove that they the teachers were monitoring progress and that our children were or were not progressing. On several occasions, I said that though the government seemed to think that I, as a parent, wanted to know these scores, I, for one, did not. For a start, before getting to know scores, I wanted to know what kinds of questions were producing the scores.
I found out that in the field of language, the dominant questions about texts now revolved around three things: retrieval, inference and chronology. Interpretation was not on the list. And the dominant feature around writing was the ability to write in different genres as defined by some documents that the government gave to every school.
I was told that research proved the validity of this, though the documents didn’t actually reference any of this research. Though actual policies towards children and language have come and gone since then, this evidence-free, ‘government by diktat’ method has survived and flourished.
Any interest in what my children said, read, heard or wrote outside of school had disappeared off the dial. I started to hear much more vocally than before, a good deal that fell into the category of ‘linguistic deficit theory’ revived from the 1960s with Bernstein’s theory of elaborate and restricted codes - a knowledge about language that the researched child and parent are always prevented from investigating themselves. The work of socio-linguist William Labov was completely ignored.
Now let’s leap forward to the present context and something altogether different suddenly emerged.
Where before teachers had put in front of me samples of writing explaining, say, that my child had ‘mastered the genre’ or had written an engaging story, now, the conversation went like this:
‘We’re very pleased with x , he’s used an embedded relative clause.’
Now I’m pretty interested in writing. I read a lot, write a lot, I do workshops with children to help them write and I read what they write. I’ve been doing that for about 40 years.
In all that time, I don’t think I had ever thought that a piece of writing was good BECAUSE it included an embedded relative clause or a ‘fronted adverbial’ a ‘semi-colon’, ‘an expanded noun phrase’ or a ‘sentence exclamation’ though apparently ‘writing at the expected level’ - you can check the government documents that prescribe this - does precisely use these features as criteria of good writing.
On the matter of ‘embedded relative clauses’, on occasions, I might have said to a child, ‘Can you tell me a bit more about this person?’ Or, ‘Do you think this would be more interesting if you could give us a bit more of a sense of who this is?’ And as a result, an embedded relative clause may have done the job, though we have a range of ways of saying more about someone or something, including that old trick, much frowned on according to the latest requirements: starting a new simple sentence.
(One digression here - if anyone here imagines that good writing can be defined or measured by using a criterion like ‘does this passage include an embedded relative clause?’ then you might be interested to know that I write scripts for broadcast. This is an interesting genre of writing because it is written in order to be spoken, and spoken in order to be understood on a first-time hearing by a particular kind of audience. As with all language use, the total situation and context are key determinates in what is uttered, how and why. So, one of the key things I do with my scripts is go through them to remove those parts of them which sound too much like ‘written-ese’ and make them more like ‘spoken-ese’. One of the key markers of written-ese is the over-use of embedded relative clauses. They sound too pre-meditated, not spontaneous enough. Good writing in this context, then is getting rid of embedded relative clauses. )
Anyway, back with parents’ evening. The good teacher has done exactly what the government has asked her to do, which is tell me that my son is reaching the ‘expected level’ by putting an embedded relative clause in his writing. She is pleased and I should be.
But I’m not.
I am thinking that this is utterly absurd. A particular form of language, and a particular description of language are being used as criteria for what makes writing good. More seriously, if my son and others in his class don’t do this, she will be deemed to have failed and if some other teachers are in the same boat, the school will have failed and if that’s the case, then the Secretary of State for Education - one person - can sack the school management, deliver the school up to a sponsor - usually a multi-academy chain these days - on a 125 year lease.
Why am I saying this?
Because, I believe that no use of language goes on outside of a particular context. Indeed, context drives use. The context I’ve just described drives the embedded relative clause.
And how did we get to this?
Is it because a great volume of research was put in front of the government showing that this approach to writing and grammar created good writing?
Is it because a great volume of research was put in front of the government showing that this approach to writing and grammar narrowed the attainment gap between the disadvantaged and advantaged?
None that I’ve seen.
Is it because a great volume of research was put in front of the government showing that this approach to writing and grammar enabled all children to become more capable of thinking in abstract terms?
None that I’ve seen.
No, the reason quite simply - and we have it in black and white - is that the government’s commissioned Bew Report of 2011 on Assessment and Accountability stated that schools and teachers could be assessed properly by testing children on grammar, spelling and punctuation because, I quote, these have ‘right and wrong answers’.
Just to be clear here, this is the input-output theory of assessment: whereby, say, petrol is tested not by testing the petrol but by testing the performance of the car. In this case, the petrol is what and how teachers teach. The car is the child. The performance is the mark in the Spelling, punctuation and grammar test, predicated on the notion that these three features produce right and wrong answers.
The weakness in this model is that children are not cars. They’re not machines. They are people with experiences of life, experiences of talk, experiences of written texts and an ability to reflect on and interpret what’s around them. But they and language are being treated as part of a machine model of human beings.
That’s why I’m here today. This kind of study is what my youngest child has just spent the last year doing. That’s why the particular grammar that he’s been doing has taken the shape that it has.
I said ‘particular grammar’ there.
For almost all commentators in the mass media, this phrase sounds distinctly odd. Surely, there is only ‘grammar’ or ‘the grammar’ which is at heart a set of rules that children should learn so that they can write and speak properly? Up till now, the argument put out from the DfE says, children have been deliberately deprived of this knowledge. This government has stepped in and ensured that all children get this knowledge and standards will rise partly because it’s taught but also because it’s being tested. This is what makes it rigorous.
I disagree with virtually all of that.
Firstly, as linguists themselves know, there isn’t just ‘grammar’ or ‘the grammar’. There is language which has a defining characteristic of being a coherent and cohesive set of utterances and that in every language there are the means by which these utterances from the smallest up to the longest stick together in order to make meaning.
Then, even though what I’ve just said is itself a description, there are many different ways to describe this - anything from regarding language as a branch of human behaviour, through to it being a set of finite rules. What’s more, within this or that school of description there is a lively debate about terms, processes, structures, functions and more.
However, these descriptions - perhaps like all descriptions - depend on what or who they are for.
To take some examples: people learning English in a non-immersive environment may well find it useful to have names for things they say in their first language to match with things in English and vice versa - and that can be at the level of morphology, syntax, punctuation or whatever.
People of any age, native English-speakers or not, immersed virtually all day long in English use - spoken and written - may well find these names not particularly useful at all. They may well find what are in effect style guides by practitioners - for writing, speaking or whatever - much more useful in terms of what they want to say or write and how to do these things. That’s because forms of investigation, comparison, imitation and adaptation are very good ways to learn how language can be used for different purposes.
So, to be clear again, the particular grammar being taught to children in English primary schools is only being taught in order that teachers’ performance to teach it can be measured. And this is predicated in particular on the notion that it must, must, must be either right or wrong. This is how the tests work.
But, I’m entitled to ask therefore, is this how language works? Is this how grammar works?
So, let’s get down to some nitty-gritty. I want to dwell in detail on one example by way of saying, this applies in general across the board.
Here is a question from the government’s sample paper for Key Stage 2, Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling, 2016
X31X Which of the sentences is a command?
After you wash the dog, you will need to dry it with a towel.
Before you go out, ask your mother for the shopping list.
I want you to clean out the playhouse this afternoon.
Here is a list of jobs you must finish before lunchtime.
The correct answer is ‘Before you go out, ask your mother for the shopping list’.
It’s the correct answer because it includes the imperative form of a verb, in this case ‘ask’.
In other words, the defining characteristic of a ‘command’ is that it includes the imperative.
Logically, then, we should take all commands to be imperatives and all imperatives to be commands.
We have to talk in these terms because this kind of grammar is predicated on the idea that we’re talking about logical systems. You’ll remember that the terms are based on meaning and function combined in a slightly alchemical way: here on this matter of commands, over several hundreds of years observers of language have noticed two things:
- language-acts which involve people telling other people what to do;
- a verb form that makes it possible to do this. From these observations of meaning and linguistic function, the category ‘command’ has been created - and incidentally put in a family of four sentence types.
Now there are several snags with this - most notably on the logic front.
1. We can ‘command’ very easily without using an imperative.
2. Not all imperatives ‘command’.
To which a grammarian can reply, just as Joseph Heller might have said in ‘Catch-22’, ‘Ah but we’re talking about the kind of command that does use the imperative.’
So, the word ‘command’ is not being used here as ‘command’ but as ‘command using the imperative’. This method of description applies a good deal in this particular kind of grammar.
This is where I’m going to make the case for saying that there comes a point with this kind of grammar that it can become self-serving and self-referential, saying in effect, that this term is what it is because we’ve said that it is. In other words, we’ve moved further and further away from actual language in use, language for meaning, and language for what I will call ‘social function’ as opposed to a supposed ‘grammatical function’.
So, the test on this one feature is a test on ‘commands using imperatives’.
If you’re still with me on this, then I’m glad. Remember that this is just one of anything like 50 features or more of language that might crop up on a GPS paper, many of which may well involve this kind of self-referential thinking. That’s 50 features of language that a teacher has to teach; 50 features which an 11 year old has to learn so that the teacher can be measured to see if he or she can teach it.
So back to the question:
This is a multiple choice question, which according to the science of testing, is a fair and objective way of finding out whether candidates know something.
However, the complication with multiple choice questions is that a) you can score at least 25% from them by shutting your eyes and using a pin. Good teachers recommend that children should, when getting towards the end of a test, realising that they won’t finish, should do precisely this - just dash ahead and tick anything.
- multiple choice questions are not equivalent to each other. This is because of the varying force of the wrong answers: they are varyingly plausible or implausible across a paper for the same person, and varyingly plausible or implausible between people. What seems like a reasonable alternative to one person may not be so to another. So what is actually being tested are the varying plausibilities of the distractors.
In this case the distractors are: ‘you will need to’, ‘I want you to’ and ‘you must’.
Bearing in mind that we are talking about 11 year olds here, then that last one - ‘you must’ has a very plausible feel about it: ‘you must’. In fact, children are told ‘you must’ almost every day. If anyone says, ‘you must’ to me, quite often it feels like a command...aha - but not a ‘command using the imperative’. So remember, we are telling children that such a command is not a command. Pause a moment, and consider why would we or should we tell children that a ‘must’ clause is not a command? What possible purpose can it serve? Only a purpose if you are measuring teachers’ ability to teach commands as a yes/no act within one narrow category.
Now, the advantage of this kind of question is that it doesn’t test the other weakness of the logic, namely that not all imperatives are commands.
There are some obvious ‘commands using imperatives’ ordering people to do or say or think what we order or demand them to do. Why not turn to the person next to you and command them to do something which they could reasonably and legitimately do right now and see if they do it.
Now, with the person next to you, see if you can think up some imperative forms of the verb that really can’t be described as commands. I’ll give you a hint: they may be more like requests or instructions or exhortations.
Now, as I said at the outset, there is not just one way to approach language, we can think in terms of knowledge about language, and ask, ‘what kinds of knowledge about language are there?’ and ‘why do we want or need this kind of knowledge about language?’ and ‘what happens if we think about these things without the need for right and wrong answers, without the need for rigid classification systems to fit right and wrong answers?’
In which case, we might say:
that one kind of knowledge about language that is useful for writing for this age of child is ‘becoming aware that there are different possibilities or different ways of talking and writing’ and that these are ‘dependent on such things as who is being spoken to or written for’ .
So, sticking to the specifics of ‘commands’ how might we do that? How might we investigate the field of commands?
I’ve been out and about in the tube and various places looking at two things: imperatives and commands.
Here are some of the texts that I’ve found:
‘Drinking alcohol, carrying open containers of alcohol, and smoking, including e-cigarettes are not permitted.’
Not a ‘command using an imperative’ clearly, but fairly command-ish, even so.
(By the way, there is a comma in front of ‘and’ in this sentence which the GPS paper marks as wrong. This is an official notice produced by TfL. Perhaps the people responsible for this SATs paper should give them a call and tell them. Of course, it’s only wrong in the context of this test. Everywhere else it’s a variant. )
‘Please help us reduce gap-related injuries.’
A ‘command using an imperative’ but not actually a command at all. It’s a request.
‘Please stand on the right
Hold the hand rail
Keep clear of the edges
Hold children and family
All ‘commands using imperatives’ but interestingly not of equal status or kind given the context:
Yes, we can all stand on the right. Yes, we can all hold the hand rail. Yes we can all keep clear of the edges. But to obey the next command - ‘hold children and family’ - we will have to get hold of some ‘children and family’ and then we’ll have to get some dogs to hold and some pushchairs to fold. If not, we could be in trouble.
In other words there are commands and there are commands, some of which are directed to everyone and others which are conditional on something and yet this condition is not stated grammatically.
This tells me, that grammar is not a ‘sufficient’ explanation for why or how language is used. Talking about ‘commands’ or even ‘commands using imperatives’ doesn’t actually explain everything. Far from it. What is not included with this kind of grammar is the full meaning and the full social context - and yet this is what makes it interesting and useful.
‘Get that mini-fist-pump feeling’
‘Find out what happened next in the love story that broke 8 million hearts’.
There are those imperatives - ‘get’ and ‘find out’ and according to the ‘command using an imperative’ they should count as a SATs ‘commands’. Again, though, they aren’t commands. They are more like exhortations or aspirations. They are a very common part of children’s everyday language experience, because it’s the language of ads and a good deal of encouragement from teachers and parents.
Sometimes, it’s even less clear:
I’m not going to get into the linguistic game of deducing things according to ellipses, but this looks as if both ‘bet’ and ‘win’ are ‘commands’, but semantically this is impossible. I would suggest that this is an example of where the sound of language is doing the job of tempting you to think one thing, disguising the fact that it’s easy to obey ‘bet’ and not very likely you’ll ‘win’.
How do I know that this is a command? Not from the grammar alone. However, next to a sign saying ‘No smoking’ written in white on red in the underground then I know this is a command without imperative. And very command-ish it is too.
‘Invest in property, without the hassle.’
A ‘command using an imperative’ but can hardly be so because very few of us can afford to ‘invest’.
‘Fill in the white squares with numbers 1 to 9’
is an instruction not a command but fits the bill perfectly for the SATs paper.
‘ALT + CLICK - COPIES ANYTHING’
‘cmd + SHIFT + A - SELECT MORE’
Here we have some hidden ‘commands using imperatives‘ signifying such things as ‘press the cmd’ button which, ironically means ‘command’ and ‘press the ‘shift’ button’ where ‘shift’ might be an imperative or it might be a noun or it might be an adjective or even all three but incredibly we can get along fine without knowing which.
This is the button on a bus.
Obviously, it’s a ‘command using an imperative’. Well, only if you interpret it grammatically. For everyone else, we must not interpret it grammatically because it does not mean ‘stop’. We are not meant to stop doing anything, or stop anything. When we press it, it sends a message to the driver who also will not stop the bus. He or she will interpret it as meaning that you want him or her to stop the bus, at a specific point in the near future. The correct interpretation of the word ‘STOP’ produces a sign that indicates your intention. One word - for which the grammar is a far from sufficient explanation for its use or purpose.
‘Paper recycling only’
Another form of command - using ‘only’.
The noun as command - ‘silence’.
‘Hop-on - hop-off’
written on the side of a bus.
At first glance this is a ‘command using the imperative’ until you see that also on the bus is written ‘hop-on - hop off bus’.
The imperatives ‘hop on’ and ‘hop off’ have been shifted to being compound adjectives when there is a ‘bus’ next to them but when they’re on their own, they could be either or both.
‘Except buses’ - on a traffic light above a one-way sign.
Definitely a command, but I have no idea whether it means it’s one way for all of us ‘except buses’, or that it’s ok for all of us to proceed ‘except buses’ or something else. But it is a command.
‘Beware pickpocket’s tactics’
(note the apostrophe is before the ‘s’ indicating that we should only be beware of one pickpocket, presumably.)
‘Beware’ is one of the strongest command words we have in English but can’t be called a ‘command using an imperative’ unless you claim it is through its etymology. A word too interesting for GPS, then. This kind of grammar knowledge doesn’t have time to interest children in the history of language.
Then, similar to the ‘stop’ example, a door with ‘push’ on it, also has the sign ‘open’ on it. ‘Push’ is our ‘command using an imperative’ but ‘open’ isn’t, it’s an adjective not a command. ‘Push’ tells me how to open. Open tells me it’s open. I only know that from context, not from morphology.
Same goes for ‘help point’ which doesn’t mean ‘Help! Point!’
The sign ‘Warning’ is a very command-ish word meaning in part, look at this sign and take notice of what is written here but no imperative in sight.
And then finally, you might enjoy calling out ‘command’ as I read this to you:
`Get up!' said the Queen, in a shrill, loud voice, and the three gardeners instantly jumped up, and began bowing to the King, the Queen, the royal children, and everybody else.
`Leave off that!' screamed the Queen. `You make me giddy.' And then, turning to the rose-tree, she went on, `What HAVE you been doing here?'
`May it please your Majesty,' said Two, in a very humble tone, going down on one knee as he spoke, `we were trying--'
`I see!' said the Queen, who had meanwhile been examining the roses. `Off with their heads!' and the procession moved on, three of the soldiers remaining behind to execute the unfortunate gardeners, who ran to Alice for protection.
`You shan't be beheaded!' said Alice, and she put them into a large flower-pot that stood near. The three soldiers wandered about for a minute or two, looking for them, and then quietly marched off after the others.
This excursion through commands and imperatives tells me that language in use is more interesting, more complicated, more useful than the right/wrong requirements of the SATs tests which is at present blighting primary schools.
It is forcing knowledge about language into requirements which language itself cannot fit.
There is too much of it for this age group.
Some of it is too complicated and too abstract for this age group.
It is nearly all ripped from context, depending on artificially constructed sentences, created precisely in order to show or not show a particular use for no other purpose than to be right or wrong.
It is mostly far from children’s own everyday use of language or what they hear or what they read.
One last example.
In this year’s GPS test, the children were asked to write the antonym for the word ‘fierce’.
I’ll make the following observations:
- There is nothing grammatical about antonyms and synonyms.
- In my world, there are hardly any antonyms or synonyms and perhaps there’s a good case for saying there are none at all. Either way, the interesting discussion to have is how words seem to have overlapping meanings, or appear to be the same whilst being subtly different.
- I don’t believe any word on its own, outside of a use has meaning, so on that count, it can’t have an antonym or synonym.
- Give these strictures, I concede that as not much more than a holiday quiz game, we can say that words like ‘hot and cold’ or ‘big and large’ can work in the antonym-synonym axes...but ‘fierce’? Oh please.
So what was the correct answer?
In the mark booklet it said ‘gentle’ or ‘calm’ or equivalents.
Try it. ‘Yesterday, I had a fierce argument with my mother’.
‘Yesterday I had a gentle argument with my mother.’
Or a ‘calm argument’.
The point is it’s the ‘fierce argument’ that is the semantic unit here, and the opposite - if there is one - is having a discussion or a chat or a cup of tea...
Try this one:
“Beyoncé freely admits being possessed by a spirit she calls Sasha Fierce’.
By way of postscript, people here may well have heard about Nick Gibb the schools minister stumbling on air on Radio 4 over whether the word ‘after’ in a given sentence was or was not a preposition of a subordinate conjunction. The presenter, Martha Kearney pronounced him wrong.
Actually, it’s worse than this: it’s the requirement that it should have been one or the other that’s wrong. In other words, it’s only the fact that a description of language is being forced into right/wrong categories, which seemingly caught him out. As people here will know, there is a lively debate going on in the world that likes to describe language in this way (ie one branch of linguistics) over whether this word is or is not a preposition or subordinate conjunction. In truth, it can be either or both and no one will die.
The sad fact is that children will be told it has to be one and not the other, many won’t remember, and at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter for that age group. Knowing the name will not help them write better, and in this particular case, it may not matter terribly much at all.