Friday 13 January 2012

Grammar - rules, descriptions and systems.

A pre-amble:

In talking about grammar in education, it's crucial to keep several things separate: what 'grammar' is (definitions, approaches, etc); methods of teaching it; suitability for, let's say, 5-11 year olds; suitability for 11-16 year olds; suitability for adults (!). The reason why I'm saying this is that in all previous conversations I've ever had about grammar in education, people have thought that I was saying that no person of any age should ever learn anything about grammar. So, to be clear: I am not saying that!

One of the most common assumptions about grammar is that it's a set of rules that we have to obey. If that were the case, it would need someone or some people to have made these rules up. What's more we could access these rules and these would explain how language works. In truth, there are no rule-makers and the concept of rules doesn't explain very much at all. Even where people have said there is a rule, what they're describing is a wish - a wish that we would all say or write things according to its requirements. Again, these aren't explanations. So, if a person wants rules, and that's all they're interested in, then what I'm writing now marks a parting of the ways. That person should find a book of such rules and follow them. On parting, I would just say, that 'following rules' without having explanations or justifications for those rules is a) extremely difficult (human behaviour mostly rests on having reasons for doing things) and b) following rules without explanations is a strange way to behave in a modern society - and even more so given that language is one of the most democratic media (if I can call it that for the moment) that human beings have ever invented. Apart from people who have great difficulty with some of our faculties, we are all language users and, if we choose, we can use language to make up things, using language in many different, experimental and new ways.

So, 'grammar' - what is it, if it's not 'rules'? We're all aware of systems in life and machines. So, the human body is made up of parts but all these parts are part of systems. So, though we can describe 'the eye' or 'the bones' - or say that we can - in actual fact, we can only ever describe them with some reference to what they do. And we can only ever describe what they do as a part of a greater part and frequently as part of the whole. Any description will involve a 'cheat' - namely that we only select what we describe on the basis of a system that we are thinking about. So, sticking with the body, we might 'notice' about the eye, the colour of the iris but when biologists and anatomists talk about the eye they rarely mention this. The colour of the iris (not that it is coloured, but its specific colour) belongs to a different descriptive system from the one that biologists and anatomists are interested in. So, all descriptions, no matter how seemingly objective (not attached to systems) are in reality always attached to systems, and systems are in essence theories, explanations, ideas about how things work, how they connect together, how they 'function'.

When it comes to language, there is precisely the same problem: parts or system? System or parts? Parts AND system? Parts IN system? And, if system, which system? and so on. And anyway, the thing that I say is a part, (ie separate from something else) may not actually be a part!!'s all connected.

Grammar that is useful is an attempt at the very least to describe a system, and in so doing implies or offers an explanation of some sort as to what this system is for. Much less useful is simply insisting that this or that is the way it is because it is. As with my posts about the apostrophe, it doesn't take long to find that things have come about inconsistently and quite frequently the descriptions we give are false. More of that in a moment.

Language is spoken and written with lots of variations and combinations of the two. (Think of Bob Dylan's famous video where he held up cards with words on, while his recorded voice-over sang (not spoke): a very complex piece in terms of the systems at work, but very easy to grasp as you watch(ed) it.) The language we're talking about here is made by humans - which is kind of obvious - but a good deal of writing about language suggests that 'language' can do things on its own. It can't. It is something (in this context) that humans do. All language-use , 'uttering' it or 'receiving it' takes place in a context. In truth these will be many contexts: the context of the utterer's and receiver's lives, the situation the utterer and receiver live in. However, uttering and receiving don't always go on in the same context. We have ways of communicating with each other over time and distance. I can read Homer though Homer can't read me. I can broadcast and blog.

Grammar exists within these contexts, not outside of them. It doesn't somehow float free as a system separate from the human beings who have produced it or use it or receive the language in which grammar operates. Because human society changes and it's only humans who produce grammar, this is why grammar changes and evolves. At any given moment, there are aspects of grammar which are, if you like, 'old' (which are themselves aspects of a system that was changing) and others that are contemporary or 'new' if you like. In other words, we are, excitingly, always implicated in the process of change in grammar. So, for example, once, many years ago, the main way to ask a question was through 'inversion' - 'Go you to market?'. We still have inversion but by and large we invert the other bits of the whole verb and not the core or stem of the verb - 'Are you going to market?' or constructions like 'Do you like going to market?' and when it comes to 'negatives' we say, 'Don't you go to market?' or some such. But you see how I slipped that 'do'/'don't' word in? That was a change in grammar. People who spoke English at one point in history didn't use 'do' like that, then they started using it. And now most of us do. According to the 'rules' way of looking at grammar, this would mean that at some point, the introduction of 'do' was wrong. Then it became right. And yet no one legislated on this matter. It just happened. Society evolved, people changed their language, changed their grammar.

With that said, what is grammar?

It's a way of describing the system(s) of language -or it's the system itself, if we can imagine that there is a system separate from the words that describe it!  In fact, there are several or many ways of doing this. One fib that we hear from politicians and others is that there is just 'grammar'. In fact, grammar is what grammarians make up. They look closely at language and say that this or that is the grammar. There are areas of agreement but also massive areas of disagreement. So whenever a politician says, children will learn grammar - we are entitled to ask, which grammar? And how will it be taught?

So, going back to the apostrophe of yesterday as an example: we say that the grammar of apostrophes is that a 'noun' might possess another noun: 'the boy's hand'. And we're clear, it's the boy doing the owning and it's his hand. But what if we say, 'the queen of Ruritania's glove'. You can see we've put the apostrophe next to Ruritania but it's the queen who owns the glove. The first description of grammar I gave, falls down. We need some other description, perhaps something along the lines that 'the queen of Ruritania' in this example should be thought of 'one noun' or something! In fact, one term that some grammarians like is 'nominal group'  because this is how they see a little mini-system working around 'nouns' as we use them in utterances.

Yet, when I was at school, we learnt about 'nouns' as if they were discreet little chunks, doing whatever they do on their own, with appendages on them like 'the' or 'a' and various ways of 'describing' the nouns called 'adjectives'. So when we came to describe a 'sentence' we said that the 'noun' was, for example the 'subject' or 'object' of the sentence. But, sticking with the queen, if I say, 'the queen of Ruritania's glove is flying through the air'; it's clear there are two 'grammatical' ways of looking at that: the single word 'glove' is what's being talked about here (ie that's what's flying) or it's 'the queen of Ruritania's glove'. Old grammar said it was the glove. Some new grammarians would say that it's the whole nominal group.

Now if you think is all fiendishly complicated, some new grammar has kicked over the traces even more. So,  M.A.K. Halliday, for example, makes the claim that separating grammar from meaning is fundamentally flawed. He argues that we must always understand grammar (ie the system of language) as being there (ie created by humans) in order to express meaning. So if we talk about the 'subject' of a sentence we should do what we can to consider it simultaneously with the concepts of 'actor' and 'theme' and only then will we have a route through to understanding what we are saying and writing and why.

This is messy stuff. Nothing like the neat, clear grammar I had, where we used to recite what different kinds of word were - nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, gerunds, articles, exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions etc, then break sentences down into sections which we were told were bound by certain rules. Then we said  that each of these parts did a job - nouns 'name', adjectives 'describe' , verbs 'do' - even though it became clear to us by the time we were 13 or 14 this was boloney. First of all 'nouns' don't do anything. Human beings do it. Then, is there any way that nouns do any more 'naming' than any other kind of word? All words 'name'! They are how we have devised ways of indicating, marking, identifying what's going on! We say adjectives 'describe' but then 'bungalow' 'describes a one-storey house to be distinguished from other houses. And when it comes to 'doing' we can have words that deal with doing like 'the jump' or 'energetically'. Either the concept is false or the means to describe it. Perhaps both.

Then we were introduced to another level of system - subject, verb, object. The subject did something to an object, we said. 'The dog ate the bone'. Yes, that worked, but then in real life, we say and write many things that don't do things to other things and the old grammar described a complex set of structures and functions to do with the verbs which could be, say, 'passive' ('The bone wa eaten by the dog') or that some verbs 'took' objects like 'eat' and others don't - like 'walk' and some require an 'indirect object' as with 'I sat on the mat'.

The objections to this are that it enshrines a grammatical function in a word, when all around us we see a given word not being used in this way: so 'I walk the dog' is me doing something to the dog. In English, we constantly move functions around: athletes win medals, but now they also medal. Noun-ness isn't enshrined in the word 'medal'. It can now be a verb.

This means that grammar has to describe what's actually there in the sentence 'I'm hoping to medal at the Olympics' and not pretend that 'medal' IS a noun. It's only a noun when it's functioning as one - which might mean, apart from anything else, that it's in a 'nominal group', because that's where we put them to make sense of the world, to make meanings. 'The dog' is very different from 'a dog', for example.

Meanwhile, the descriptions we use for 'verbs' are beset with problems too of course. In English we have created incredibly complex ways of talking about the processes of activity, sensation, command, thought, intent and the like, which are often but not always embodied in these items we call verbs. We can vary them in scores of different ways by adding bits on the end, adding other verbs and the like. We can go backwards and forwards in time. We can stand still or keep on going. We can have the activity with certainty, doubt, desire by adding more verbs, and so on: Thus: I go,I'm going, I went, I might go, I would have gone, I would have been going, I will go, let's go, I daren't go, I ought to go, I used to go, I would go...and so on.

And I do all these things, I use these verbs in this way because I'm trying to make specific meanings to specific people (or animals) at a specific time in my life, in a specific place, in a specific point in the development of the society I'm in. That's why I'm doing it that particular way.

Halliday tries to find a way of describing all this by constantly looking at the particular set of words any individual word has been placed in. He uses the word 'clause' but not in the identical way we were taught it! He tries to keep the meaning and purpose embedded in the particular grammar being used. It is always language in action, language in use, language for meaning. This distinguishes it from the grammar I was taught, and the grammar that I suspect is likely to be on the compulsory curriculum in English schools in the new dispensations coming in soon.

This means, I'm going to suggest, that what we will put in front of young children (let's say, primary school children), will involve a good deal of description that is false, inaccurate and unhelpful. That's why it won't actually help them make meaning - or if you prefer - to speak and write well.

To do that, I suggest we need a completely different model of learning about language. And that would involve observation, investigation, experiment, hypothesis, comparison and tentative conclusions. Not chanting of 'rules'.