Friday 2 November 2012


With the new spelling, punctuation and grammar test coming in, there is a lot of confusion and misrepresentation going on in relation to grammar. What follows is offered as a positive contribution.

1. All languages, dialects, slangs, ways of speaking have 'grammar'. Grammar is first and foremost a word to describe the fact that languages have systems for hanging sounds, signs and words together. This  idea of grammar tells us that it is grammar that gives those sounds, signs and words their meaning.

2. The only means we have of describing grammar is by using words. This means that there is a secondary meaning to the word 'grammar' which is in effect, 'this set of words or terms that I'm using to describe grammar'. Most of the time, people use the word grammar in this secondary sense. When they say, 'grammar', they mean that 'system that was described in the way that I learned'.

3. This becomes a problem when people think that there is only one way to describe the language and it was the one they learned. What follows from this is that the word 'grammar' is used as if describing language is without problems, disagreements or, if you like, a work in progress, or indeed an imprecise process in which there are several possibilities. Why should it not be? Language is a human activity and like all human activities  it involves, (or is part of) the mind, social interaction and behaviour. We know from, say, the world of psychology there is no universally agreed system that satisfies all psychologists - and no reason why there should be.

4. Grammar is a very abstract way of thinking about words. Most of the time we use words to mean things. We talk about expression, communication, understanding, instruction, direction and the like. These are all words which suggest that we use language for purpose and meaning.  Talking about grammar of language is often  firstly concerned with whether words, sentences, paragraphs and the like can be categorised, ie  given group headings like 'noun', 'verb' etc. This is not what we usually do when we use language. I'm going to call that way of thinking 'abstract'.

5. Secondarily, a lot of grammar is about process. That's to say, it takes words like 'noun' and tries to find out what the nouns 'are doing'. In fact, they don't 'do' anything. We do the doing! Human beings make choices about what to do with nouns. However, a good deal of grammar (and I may do it here) uses a short hand to suggest that it does stuff for its own internal reasons, without human beings being involved. I would suggest that that is impossible.

6. These processes are very hard to describe and are much disputed. So what grammarians do is take a word like 'noun' and say that in a given 'utterance' (which can mean something spoken or written) the noun is acting as a 'subject'. This is a category of what nouns might 'do'. So, the 'subject' of a sentence is in grammatical terms in a relation with a 'verb'. So now we are into a secondary level of abstraction. We've taken the abstract word 'noun' and created a category for what it's doing: 'being a subject'. It is this kind of double abstraction which makes it hard for  young children to get hold of. They can learn it parrot fashion, they might be able to spot what's going on if you give them an illustration and very similar examples, but trying to deduce what the subject of a sentence is in, say, a passage of a Shakespeare sonnet, where the subject can come after the verb or very detached from the verb is very hard and requires an understanding of the process at a very abstract level.

7. In the test that is coming up for Year 6's it looks as if the following kinds of grammatical description are going to be tested:

subject-verb agreement
use of prepositions
word classes
grammatical function of words
different types of sentences
grammar of complex sentences

8. If you look at the sample test paper on the DfE website you can see the kinds of questions that are going to be asked.

9. Your school will decide on the best way to teach this. By and large, the only way that this country has known how to teach grammar is through 'exercises'. That's to say, sentences are given to the pupils and they are told what's in the sentence. There is no reason why this should be the main way or the only way for grammar to be taught. There is at least one other way: this is to treat language as something that the children can investigate.

10 Investigating language: for a start you can set up the problem of a) how to find categories for different kinds of words and b)how to describe how sentences work.

What happens if you ask children to 'sort' words just as you might ask them to sort buttons, or fruit, or numbers?

What categories do they come up with?
How useful are they?
How could such categories be used?

What happens if you now introduce the idea of 'noun' after this?

Now let's see if we can spot nouns and if there are different kinds of nouns?

Why is it difficult? why do we not agree?

One of the reasons for that is that the central problem of grammar is that you can only say what something IS, if you can also say what it DOES!

One example: when nouns are in use, they are only nouns because they are doing a 'noun thing'. 'Noun' is not a label that you can attach to a word because it is of itself a 'noun'. So, to take an obvious example that irritated some people during the Olympics: 'medal' can act as a noun in 'I won the gold medal' or as a verb in 'I hope to medal in this race'. It's the function that makes it a noun, not anything else.

So nouns are not 'naming words'. They are those words that are acting in a certain way in sentences and speech (which is mostly not 'in sentences'!)

So, can we ask children to see if there are any patterns in the sentences that they are reading.
They may come up with a noun-verb-noun pattern. Maybe, maybe not.
What patterns do they come up with?
Why do we disagree?

Now introduce the noun-verb pattern....

And so on.

11. re: the list of possible subjects coming up in the test. They are in some ways quite problematic.
Subject-verb agreement.
We don't always agree about this! And the situation is changing even amongst so-called educated people and has done in my own lifetime.

The formal shape of European languages is that the word which is the 'subject' will have a particular bit of the  verb matching it.

In standard English 'I was'. In some other dialects: 'I were...'
In standard English 'We were'. In some other dialects 'We was.'
In standard English 'The boy comes in..' In some other dialects: 'The boy come in...'

This grammar test want you to teach the standard English form and say that the dialect form is either 'wrong' or 'not appropriate' for a particular kind of writing.
That's fine, so long as we understand why for some children this is very hard to get right. Not impossible. Just hard. They might hear every day and all day, equivalents of: 'The boy come in...' So when they're asked to get the right answer for the test, this is a harder job for them than for the child who hears and only hears 'The boy comes in' etc.

We should never forget that it's hard, even as we may try our damnedest to help the child who doesn't hear the standard form very often. It is also just possible that this test will simply confirm that those children who use the non-standard forms will not do so well as those who use the standard forms.

So firstly, with any noun that seems to contain lots of items within it a 'collective' noun you can often read things like 'the government is...' or 'the government are...'.

Then I've noticed that more and more often, all sorts of people like MPs, journalists, commentators have started using phrases that come before the noun as if they are in inverted commas or the subject they're talking about  or a title of something. This then entitles them to take something that is plural (more than one) and use it with a 'singular' form of the verb.

So, here's where that happens when it's a title: "'The Borrowers' is a good read.'" (not 'The Borrowers' are a good read.')

But I hear things like 'Too many cards in my wallet makes me worry.'
In standard English that would be 'Too many cards in my wallet make me worry.'

It's as if 'too many cards in my wallet' is a topic that makes the speaker worry.

You listen out for it. I think it may have come about because so many people in quite formal situations (speeches, presentations, articles) are working to headings. So people are turning things in their speech into informal headings which then become singular.

So, to finish this for today (!), the very things that we are testing the children on are 'unstable' or changing. Some people would like to pretend that they are not. Or that you can't tell children that they're changing or they'll get confused.

I disagree. By telling children they are not changing they become confused when they hear or read examples that don't fit the exact shape or 'rule' that we tell them that they should produce.

The books they read will vary between them in usage. Particularly, when it comes to deciding what is a sentence. As with that last one. And that one. And that one.