Friday 1 December 2017

Bad grammar.

In the previous blog, I said how the disciplines of narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality could be used as part of a broad strategy called 'knowledge about language'. My argument is that 'grammar' (as defined by the testing and exam system) has become the tail wagging the dog on this matter and that there are political reasons for why 'grammar' (and this particular kind of grammar) was singled out and blown up into the one key kind of 'knowledge about language' that is being taught in schools. In my next blog, I'm going to give you a break down of how those topics, narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality can be broken down into very usable 'triggers' for teachers to use in classrooms to help analyse texts, and discover how writing works and to what end. 'Grammar' will be included in this but as only one part. 

As I've said before, the particular kind of  'grammar' primary children do, was introduced because Michael Gove inserted it into the Bew Report, which we should remember was not a report on language in the curriculum, but a report on 'Assessment and Accountability'. Grammar, it was stated, has right and wrong answers, and so would be suitable for use as a means to assess and evaluate teachers and teaching. It was not introduced because a combination of linguists, applied linguists, educationists and teachers thought it would be a good idea. It was introduced purely and only because Michael Gove thought that it would be a good way to assess teachers. However, the actual nature of the grammar involved was plucked from a repertoire of 'grammars' and linguistic knowledge that can be taught. It seems to have been based on Gove's reading of Simon Heffer's book(s) on the matter. Simon Heffer is not a linguist. He's a journalist. I reviewed his first book on grammar for BBC Radio 3 and it included several mistakes.  

The meat of the issue is that for these political reasons, this kind of grammar and an implied teaching practice to fit the test came into being. The grammar itself is problematic because it is based entirely on a self-sealed system which they call 'structure and function'. The function in question is the function within the sentence or passage of writing, not the function in social use. The argument here is that such grammarians believe that they can divine grammatical systems without explaining any particular system according to why such structures have evolved and why they are used. So, they segment ('chop up') language into the sections they think are valid e.g. words, phrases, main clauses, subordinate clauses etc ; and they give them functions e.g. 'subject', or that they 'qualify' or 'modify' other words or phrases or clauses, and so on. Quite why the language is segmented this way is treated as self-evident (the clever grammarians just know it and tell us) , and we have to take the internal logic of e.g. 'subject-verb agreement' as again, apparent. 

To take this as an example, in fact, in use, the subject-verb agreements they say are 'correct', and which teachers have to teach, and children are test on,  turn out to be not correct for millions of people, who say such things as 'we was', 'I were'. Millions of people are, according to this way of looking at language, wrong. To be clear, they are only wrong, if you it has been pre-decided that 'we were' and 'I was' are the only 'correct' forms according to 'rule' invented by grammarians called 'subject-verb agreement' and that there can only be one form of 'agreement', the one we say is right. Why can't we live with variation? Some people say one thing, others say another. After all, we tolerate variation in many other parts of language use. In fact, what happened was that grammarians drew up 'conjugations' of verbs based on what they said was 'one correct form', claimed that this represented some 'real' category called the 'singular' and 'plural' form of the verb ('was' and 'were' when used in the 'first person' ('I' or 'we') even though millions were using it in different ways! Hundreds of years later, thousands of children sit down in a test that is used to assess teachers, and have to spot the 'right' 'subject-verb' agreement! We are not talking about scientific descriptions here. We are talking about a false categorisation foisted on to teachers and pupils. 

Because none of this is connected directly to use and social purpose, the whole field is full of arguments and disputes about terminology and whether bits of the language really 'are' such-and-such or not. Teachers will be very familiar with the argument about 'connectives', 'conjunctions' and 'adverbs'  where they were, in essence, victims of two or three very dogmatic schools of thought claiming that such-and-such a word really 'is' a connective or really is a conjunction or, in another example,  really is an adverb. Similar arguments break out over the categories of words e.g. over 'infinitives', 'subjunctives' or 'determiners' and it's often hard to work out whether the name for one kind of word, e.g. a 'modal verb' is a sub-category of another, in this case, it's clearly a sub-class of 'verb', but is it a sub-class of 'auxiliary' verb or a parallel class? Looking across the English-speaking world, or across time (e.g. in my lifetime)  there are variations between those who would describe 'my' in 'my hat' as a 'possessive determiner' while others call it a 'possessive adjective'.

If you follow any of this closely, you might be interested in this: for all my life studying English, learning French, German and Latin, I've been used to hearing the term 'tense' to describe one feature of verbs. We're all used to throwing around 'past', 'present' and 'future' and where necessary attaching the word 'continuous' when '-ing' endings are used. Sightly more complicated:  the words 'perfect', 'imperfect' or 'pluperfect' might be used. Again, the terminology-lovers get 'essentialist' about it and say, that such-and-such a verb 'is' the 'present' or 'is' the 'perfect' or whatever.  Because all this is a sealed system, not attached to real-life social use, this way of describing verbs gets reduced in the exercises and tests in such a way, that writing, let's say, 'I walk in', gets reduced to saying this 'is' the 'present'. What's wrong with saying that? Well, you don't know that this really 'in the present' until you hear it in the context in which it's spoken. Most of us, at some or another tell stories, or give accounts of events in the past by using the so-called 'present' form of the verb. (This sometimes gets called the 'historic present' to cover it.) 'I walk in' or 'Napoleon gets on his horse' can indeed be part of an account that took place in the past. Meanwhile the form we use in novels to tell stories that are unfolding in the present is the same form we use to recount things that happened in the past: 'Harry Potter wore glasses' means in the book, that in the present of the book, Harry Potter 'is' wearing glasses. In some countries, novels are told using what has been called the 'present' form of the verb.  People having the unfortunate task of teaching 'grammar' to 10 and 11 year olds have to explain that 'I have eaten' is now called the 'present perfect' because, according to the people who invented this term, whatever happened is connected to the present. Most people might reasonably think that if they say, 'I have eaten', the matter of eating is now closed. It happened. It's finished. There's nothing 'present' about it. So what's going on here? Such 'grammarians' have spotted that 'have' is a 'present' form of the verb so 'I have eaten', they say,  must have something of the 'present' in it! This is an example of treating language as a sealed system, with terminology cooked up to justify or slot in with previous terminologies and not with actual social use.  Having learned that it's the 'present perfect' in Year 6, students go into Year 7 and 8, learn French,  and hear that 'I have eaten/J'ai mangĂ©' is the 'passĂ© compose' (meaning literally, the 'composed past') or just the 'perfect'. But surely the 'future tense' is a fixed matter? Not so, say some, because where in French the 'future' is created by doing something with the end of the verb, in English we use the word 'will', so it's not a 'tense' as such, say some, it's just a use of an auxiliary. But hang on, we have another way of doing it: using 'going to'. So is 'going to go' a 'future' tense or not? But hang on again, we can use the 'present' to indicate futurity. 'What are you doing tomorrow?' 'I'm going out.' Clearly this conversation is all about the future, but has used the 'present' in order to tell it. Well, in truth it's not the 'present' in the present, then is it? 

Some other grammarians have stepped into this world of 'tenses' and have announced that the term 'tense' is so problematic, we should dispense with it, and think instead of 'aspect'. This, they say, would dispense with linking a particular form of the verb to a particular time frame (e.g. 'I go' is 'present') but always look at the particular use and describe that. 

Now all this kind of argument is kept well away from teachers and pupils. That's because we're talking here about the equivalent of magic. They believe that it's vital for this stuff to be taught and learned as something fixed by incredibly clever, experienced people who know all about this code that lies behind and beyond language. If you suggest that all this terminology is much debated, is wobbly, fuzzy, and indeed provisional, then it can't be imposed as the right/wrong system required by the Bew Report in order to assess teachers. Then again, if the whole system has problems (because it's self-referential and doesn't connect directly with use) then the whole edifice of diktat and authority is undermined. It must not happen. 

And you shouldn't have read this. 

Unread it immediately.

The worst aspect of all this, though, is that the grammar in question is then used to produce 'writing at the expected level'. Arbitrary categories such as 'fronted adverbials', 'expanded noun phrases' and 'embedded relative clauses' and 'complex sentences'  are used as criteria for what makes 'good' writing. Teachers are forced to tell children that because they are using fronted adverbials,  expanding their noun phrases and embedding their relative clauses, they are writing well. 

As I hope to show in the next blog, 'technical' descriptions of language can involve a wide array of methods. These don't claim to be 'rules' but are tailored to language in use and language in use is of course incredibly diverse and uses 'variants'. Some of these methods may be useful in helping children and students to write. Given that writing is a very complex matter, it's foolish to make great claims for any one method which will itself, on its own, definitely deliver up good writing. People in government and people who devise assessment systems have to say such nonsense. 

PS - I know I've told this story before, but enjoy it if you haven't. Last year, Schools Minister Nick Gibb was asked on to the BBC Radio 4, World at One programme to talk about the grammar test for Year 6 (10 and 11 year olds). He explained how important it is, because he's slotted it into his world view that 'knowledge' is 'knowledge' and that more knowledge is good, less knowledge is bad, and even though the testing system he so loves, segregates children precisely on the basis of whether they have more or less knowledge, he keeps telling himself that the kids are getting cleverer now, thanks to the Tories. 

So the news programme's presenter, Martha Kearney read Nick a sentence and asked him if a given word in a sentence that she read to him was a 'subordinate conjunction' or a 'preposition'. Poor Nick. He struggled and then said the 'wrong' thing. Before we laugh at his misfortune, though, ask the question, in the example that Martha gave, was the distinction between two categories ('subordinate conjunction' and 'preposition') really valid? (The actual example doesn't matter!) Oh yes, say some grammarians. Oh no, say some others! So poor old Nick struggled to get 'right' something that the grammar test asks for, but which may not be right OR  wrong anyway!!! Remember what Lord Bew said in the grammar test? Grammar can be used to assess teachers because it has right/wrong answers. No, Lord Bew, it's you who can be deemed right or wrong on this matter, and in this case, you were wrong, as evidenced by Nick Gibb, who is still smarting under the indignity of Martha Kearney telling him that he was 'wrong'. In reality, it was the question that Martha plucked from the GPS paper that was wrong, not Nick Gibb, and not any of thousands of children and teachers who were told that they had got it 'wrong' too. 

PPS, the dispute in question is over the use of the words 'after', 'before' or 'since' in sentences like (1) 'He went to the loo, after the concert' and (2) 'He went to the loo, after the concert was over'. One school says that the first 'after' in (1) is a preposition and the second (2)  is a 'subordinate conjunction'. Another school says that the distinction - in this circumstance -  is invalid.