Tuesday 28 June 2016

"White as a sheet, he..." (Grammar chat)

1. [I posted this (adapted slightly now) on facebook] I was at a grammar conference on Monday at the British Library. Things got a little testy on occasions, not least when, in passing, I challenged the purity of the concept of the 'fronted adverbial' on the grounds that sometimes it's more 'adjectival' than 'adverbial'. For this I was told that I didn't understand/was ignorant of grammar.

Here's a sentence taken from a novel:

"White as a sheet he bowed over it and touched it with his lips."

It seems to me that the phrase 'white as a sheet' is a phrase which modifies 'he'. Yes, you could say that it modifies the whole sentence and is therefore adverbial, but to my mind, it mostly seems to be telling us what the 'he' looks like.

So, in my 'ignorance' I think it is not helpful to tell children (or me!) that it's 'adverbial' when it appears to be doing the work of talking about 'he'. Or perhaps, there is a full category 'fronted adjectival' - though I can't find it in any of the National Curriculum documents or test papers. Perhaps I've missed it.

I put all this in front of you as an open query. Happy (fairly) to be told I am indeed ignorant/don't understand.

2. Here are two replies:

John Hodgson:
If I recall correctly, 40 years ago theorists of transformational grammar cast doubt on distinctions between adjectivals and adverbials. I studied this before a stint teaching in the US, where I was surprised to find that traditional Latinate grammar was still taught. Not sure how much has really changed.

Nick Kerin: 
Otherwise written, it would be 'He was white as a sheet.', so clearly describing the character, so adjectival. 'Fronted adverbials' can exist. An example here would be: Slowly peeking through the gauze curtain, white as a sheet, he...'. However, I don't think (in fact, I know from first-hand experience) teaching the children to recognise and 'use' these in grammar lessons, means they will be come 'better' writers.

[There were others who thought my question wasn't worth asking etc.]

3. Here are my thoughts (also posted on Facebook:

Yesterday, I asked a question here about 'fronted adverbials' with an example of a sentence. It arose because of an unpleasant moment in the grammar conference at the British Library.
Thanks for your replies.
The reason why I asked these questions is because I think:

a) that there are problems with the kind of 'grammar' that is being taught and one way to challenge this is by investigating closely the logical and methodological failings in the system. I don't think that those of us who are unhappy with what's going on with language education in primary schools should just say, 'it's crap', or 'what's the point?' We should take it on as a system of describing language (is it good enough? if not, why not? ) and also ask is the amount and nature of it appropriate for the age group? Some of this, I think, for those of us with time and means to do so, involves us learning and understanding the grammar they are dishing up in order to critique it for what it is and for what it claims to do.

b) I think that no matter what grammar is being used in primary schools - I am not talking about secondary here - there is too much of it and it's only being used as a means to an end: to test teachers' ability to teach it as a means by which to measure teachers' 'performance' . That's why 'grammar' is reduced to right/wrong answers ie to fit performance measures, not because it's a good method of looking at language. 'Grammar' is distorted to fit a means by which to measure teachers. Both grammar and assessment of education suffer as a result - but also - of course, children even more so, spending hours doing exercises, tests, pre-tests.

c) in principle, I'm not saying that it's desirable that primary children do none of this grammar. Some of it - a few of the terms and processes - are probably useful for most primary age children. I'm saying there are the problems in point b) above, plus the fact that there is too much of it, and it's mostly treated as incontestable - as if the categories and names are scientific, watertight descriptions - and not as a set of possibilities. Language itself is treated as if it's a set of rules as a opposed to set of varying and diverse behaviours with conventions and patterns. This results in the weird practice of constantly ripping words and sentences out of context and claiming that these demonstrate something essential or correct about usage. Yesterday, I tried to demonstrate this in detail with this kind of grammar's use of the word 'command' to describe a 'sentence type'. (I'll post my talk up later.)

d) the key element missing from this kind of grammar is it mostly excludes 'social function' ie why is this person using language in this way at this time? It's an attempt to produce rules or patterns that are 'ideal' for all situations: 'commands are...' 'subordinate conjunctions are...' In fact, the moment you investigate real language in use, you discover that the categories are at the very least 'fuzzy'. (Just look at linguists talking about the word 'word'!). I'm of the view that 'fuzziness' is more worth talking about than saying 'an adjective is...'

e) the problems with the above pale into comparison with the pernicious effects of applying these rules to children's writing. Under the most recent stipulations, children have to write at 'expected levels' which include the obligatory usage of some of these grammatical features e.g. 'expanded noun phrases', 'embedded relative clauses'. The result is in many cases 1) dull, formulaic writing 2) teachers being bullied by 'Moderators' who are coming into schools telling teachers that the children's writing that they, the teachers, think is good, is not good because it doesn't include these features.