Anyone going through the requirements of the primary school grammar test (GPS) will have come across something that strikes quite a few people as odd: commands and exclamations.
It seems odd because what's going on here is that grammarians have classified how we speak and write according to what they think are grammatical systems. These systems juggle grammatical 'rules' (e.g. a singular subject should determine the singular form of the verb as in 'The cat eats...' ) with structure (e.g. to ask a question in English, we hardly ever 'invert' a main verb anymore: we don't usually say, 'Go I to the pub?') with meaning: (e.g. I can only call 'very' an adverb in the phrase 'very good spaghetti' because I know what 'very' means) with function (e.g. the auxiliary verb 'have' in 'I have eaten the banana' is serving the function of indicating a way of talking about an event that has happened.)
So 'grammar' juggles with rules, structures, meaning and function.
When the GPS first appeared, many people were surprised that suddenly out of the blue there were only two 'allowed' way to exclaim: in structures following 'what' and 'how'; and there was only one 'allowed' way to command: in structures using the 'imperative' form of verbs: as in 'Go to bed!', 'Stop running! and the like.
What's going on here is that 'grammar' (as defined by GPS) lays a matrix over language, chops language up in certain ways and says that only specific kinds of structures or rules can fit the term that 'grammar' has devised. In real life, we know full well that we can 'exclaim' and 'command' in many different ways. We can use exclamation marks in all sorts of ways too. You only have to read fiction, poetry and look at ads to see that.
Now let's consider this way of looking at language in relation to 10/11 year olds children reading and writing. What do we want them to do? Understand and enjoy what they're reading; write and talk in lots of different ways, for different purposes; to know that language is owned, created and changed by all of us. It doesn't belong to a small group of people who 'know best'. Unlike, private swimming pools, we can all access great uses of language for free, simply by reading or listening to it in schools, libraries, online and so on. What's more we can make it our own by imitating it and adapting it. Some terms to describe what we're doing are very helpful - so long as they don't become the reason why we're doing it.
Back to commands and exclamations: I would argue that these are indeed fascinating parts of our repertoire of language. We all use them and use them often. However, the ways we do it differ and vary and each kind has 'nuance' - subtle differences of meaning, tone, function and intention.
So, rather than laying a grammarian's matrix over command and exclaim, I would suggest we collect up as many ways we can think of, of commanding and exclaiming, examine the differences in meaning, tone, function and intention.
When we've done that, aren't we just that bit better at knowing how and why someone is saying/writing these things to me, and I'm much better at making choices about saying/writing these things?
Here's an example:
I mentioned 'No smoking' in the previous blog. It's a very odd construction. In theory, it's a phrase you could use outside of its usual context where it's a mixture of an instruction and an order.
"I went into the dole office and it was free of cigarettes. No smoking. None at all.'
That's a common way of writing available to us from at least since Dickens' time.
So how do we know that 'No smoking' in a train, means something like, 'You can't smoke here' or 'There must be no smoking here' or 'Smoking is not allowed here'? We know from several contexts: we've seen it many times before and had it explained to us; the sign saying 'No smoking' is nearly always in the same places and looks similar; we know that 'smoking' and 'no smoking' is a big deal in public places...and so on. We use the contexts to tell us it is in its own way a command.
But why doesn't it say, 'Don't smoke!' - the 'command' as determined by GPS. Does 'Don't smoke!' mean the same thing as 'No smoking'? If so, how?
So, if I use a particular kind of grammar will I help create a particular kind of meaning, a particular kind of response from people hearing or reading what I say/write? And how does context work in this situation? Is it an invisible 'grammar' which traditional grammar can't see, hear or describe and yet it crucial to how we communicate to each other about smoking in public places?