Saturday 3 February 2018

Terminology wars in 'grammar'

My argument about the 'grammar' that is taught in primary schools is that:

not only is there too much, 
not only is a good deal of it not age appropriate (because much of it is too abstract to understand even if it can be 'learned'), 
not only is it not appropriate to use it as a criterion for describing 'good writing', 
not only that it was introduced on a false premise by the Bew Report (which claimed that it offered Assessment procedures a means of assessing teachers on the basis that grammar can be reduced to right and wrong answers) 

but that the 'grammar' itself is based on dodgy principles.

These dodgy principles are that a good deal of it is based on itself ie it claims to be able to describe and name parts of language and the process of language only by reference to itself and not to how language functions in society in real situations. Instead, it  claims to 'explain' language through why this or that piece of terminology being justified on the basis of how it 'works' in a sentence or passage of writing. Thats what I mean by 'reference to itself'.

A perfect example of this cropped up this week. Anyone reading this will be familiar with the fact that we often have a use of words like 'however', 'hopefully', 'moreover', 'furthermore', 'eventually' and many more likes these as words that seem to introduce a sentence. When I was at 'grammar school (1957-1964) and when I was doing English at university (1966-69) we called these 'sentence adverbs'. This was a way of saying that such words seem to refer to or affect or modify the whole sentence. (By the way, the word 'adverb' is really confusing because it contains the word 'verb' and yet some adverbs don't affect verbs! Perfect example of the terminology being unhelpful even as it's supposed to be helpful!)

Teachers in primary schools about ten to five years ago will remember that they were suddenly given a word, 'connectives' which lumped together these 'sentence adverbs' and another class of word 'conjunctions' and teachers were told to teach 'time connectives'. Children using 'good time connectives' were told that this was good writing. So children's writing suddenly became peppered with 'eventually', 'next', 'later' and - hurrah - it 'was good' as the Bible says.

Anyway, it now turns out that there is an alternative term for 'sentence adverbs' that some people prefer: 'conjunctive adverbs'. (I'm late to the table on this one. I had never come across it until last week. Shame on me.) Why do some people think 'conjunctive adverb' is  preferable? Because quite often , this class of word (if it really is a class! Remember, the term 'connective' lumped together what some people claim is two classes! Are you still with me, folks?) has a linking function: such words, they claim, often (mostly?) link to the sentence or passage that precedes it. This is what the linguist M.A.K. Halliday and others call 'cohesion' - how texts stick together through the use of words that refer back and forth across a text. The most common of these are the pronouns: "Michael was doing his nut about 'grammar. He really was.' (The use of 'he' in those sentences, links the second to the first.)

This, linkage thing, then is the 'explanation' for this class of words ('however', 'furthermore' and the like)  being called 'conjunctive', and, by implication the explanation for how it 'functions' and indeed for 'why it exists'. I don't have the will to investigate whether such 'conjunctive adverbs' include ones that are not very 'conjunctive', as when we start a sentence with 'Hopefully'. Maybe they're still called 'sentence adverbs'. Please don't fall asleep. Bear with me.

But - there's a problem in all this. (I would say that, wouldn't I?)

There are more functions than those purely to do with how this or that class of words functions in sentence and passages. For example, people often use this particular group of words ''rhetorically'. That's to say, as effect. You could argue (I think I do) that all language use ultimately comes back to how the person speaking or writing is seeking an effect on the person or people being addressed. Sometimes this is more obvious than at other times. Think politicians or lawyers saying 'furthermore'. And I would also argue that there are social reasons for why and how we all seek 'effects' with the way we speak and write. We may not achieve those effects but we try all the same. What's more, our methods for seeking effects include a historical aspect - that is, the language we use comes to us from users who precede us, we inherit language, and adapt it to the conditions we find ourselves in. If we're serious about looking for 'explanations' for why we use words and phrases and indeed all our talk and writing, the avenues of 'rhetoric', the 'social' and the 'historical' will, I believe, offer up much more than tinkering around with terms which confine themselves to trying to find explanations within sentences themselves. 

In the meantime, we are doomed to terminology wars, over 'sentence adverbs', 'conjunctive adverbs' and 'connectives'.  By the way, at one level, I'm not bothered that people find the time and energy to engage in terminology wars. Even at this moment there are people sweating over the term 'tense' (ironic!) and whether it should be dumped or whether we should or should not use distinguishing terms like 'preposition' and 'subordinate conjunction' when describing the use of the word 'after'. So long as such people constantly explain that these terms are provisional and limited, and that such terms do not represent the outlines of a 'rule', I'm OK. Provisional and limited - because a) they are never sufficient explanations for how and why we use language in a particular way; b) they are not 'right or wrong'; c) school students should not be told that they are 'right or wrong'; d) that school students should be given the chance to explore the ideas of 'category' (or 'class') (rather than that teachers should be forced to tell children that any given class or function is a rule);  and e) the word 'function' should involvea much broader context than language itself. 

This used to be known as 'knowledge about language' and 'language in use'. The linguists engaged in such matters have been sidelined. There are books and books on this stuff, that are being carefully ignored by the 'Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling' tests for 6/7 year olds and 10/11 year olds (the old SPaG test as it was called).