Thursday 11 February 2021

Grammar - there are other ways. Really!

We all of us know, one way or another, that language is social. We talk to other people, other people talk to us. We write to other people, other people write to us. Even when we say that we are writing for ourselves or even talking to ourselves we are using this system - language - which is created socially. And even more: when we think, it's made up of language (along with sensations) which again is all socially acquired and created. Everything I've written so far in this paragraph is 'social' in the sense that it belongs in the socially created and acquired 'bank of words and phrases taken from English.

'Grammar' is a means of describing the language according to what grammarians believe are its parts, functions and systems. They order languages into groups, categories and classifications. Most of the grammar that the government demands should be taught in primary schools in England leaves out the 'social' aspect of language. The terms and classifications are 'absolutes'. They are deemed to be outside of, or beyond the messy business of why someone is writing (not usually speaking!), what theme they're writing about, or what form or genre the writing is in.  So the tests and text books and examples given are time and time again, made-up sentences, phrases and clauses that demonstrate a given term or function. Why is this? What's the matter with real language used for a specific function, a specific genre, between a given write and their the audience? It's not as if we are short of examples!

This tells us a lot. It tells us that the 'grammar' that they are using is what's known as 'ideal'. It's based on what is some kind of pure language or what should 'ideally' happen. In fact, there's almost a rule that is an anti-rule: invent a rule about language and you'll find exceptions to it; invent a definition for a term or category or function and you'll find that the definition will have the problem that it overlaps with other terms, categories and functions or that it is not a necessary or sufficient definition. If you say, for example, that an adverb tells us about eg 'time, place and manner',  you can find other parts of speech (classes of word) that can do this too. If you say, for example, that there is a present tense in English, you can quickly find that that exact 'verb form' works in some contexts which are 'in the past' or 'in the future'. So it's not always a 'present tense'.  And so on.

The reason why this kind of 'grammar' is stuck in this bog of vagueness, imprecision and contradiction is that its sole means of proving that it's right, is itself. A grammarian describes a system - the 'grammar' - and tries to fit all the uses of language that they collect, into that system. The system itself is derived from a mix of the rag-bag of what grammarians have been saying for the last 3000 years (!) and new observations: virtually all of them ignoring the simple fact that language is really always 'language-in-use' in social situations and socially created forms. These 'grammars' keep referring to themselves in order to prove that they are 'right'. So there is an argument about whether there is or is not a 'subjunctive' in English. The present primary school grammar says there is. Real grammarians are not so sure. The reason why they're not so sure is because those grammarians have a system that says what verb forms are: they say they 'conjugate'. They look at, say, the thing they call the 'subjunctive' in French and see that the so-called English subjunctive is just a highly particular, fairly unusual, mostly fairly archaic sounding thing. So they say, well, it may be a thing but it's not really a 'subjunctive'. Perhaps call it something else but don't dignify it with that term. Even so, as you can see, these are arguments from inside the hut of language about language about language, according to the systems these grammarians have invented. 

One grammarian tried to step outside of the hut: M.A.K. Halliday. His first fundamental principle was that language-in-use involves 'choice'. We speak and write according to choices made according to contexts. He dubbed three of these contexts: field, mode and tenor. I'm not going to go into all this here and now, but just to say that these contexts take into account such things as: a) who is speaking/writing; who that person is speaking/writing to b) what is the theme and purpose of what is being said or written and c) what is the form or genre of what is being said or written.

These three contexts open up for us a completely different view of how language works. Instead of seeing language as a stack of inconsistent rules and terms that supposedly tell us how to write, we can see language as something we use for reasons and purposes. Accordingly, we make choices to fit the contexts.

So far, so abstract. It's quite possible to take Halliday's 'grammar' and break it down into exciting ways to teach. We can for example look at books, conversations, TV programmes, songs - anything - and talk about 'who they're for', 'what is the theme?', 'what kind of piece of language do they belong with?' We can then have a go at doing them ourselves. We can have a go at doing them but playing about with them, mixing them up, trying out new things by changing eg settings, mixing genres, changing their purpose (intended audience) etc.

This will take us into the important area of 'register' - the kinds of language that appear to follow status, class and perhaps region or locality mixed in there too. This may take us into questions of dialect and 'code-switching'. It may well lead us into making our own classifications of language that don't fit what grammarians say they should fit.

Halliday is not an easy read. Things get very complicated very quickly when you read his stuff because (I think) he was trying to prove the validity of a method which completely overturns the principles of the kinds of grammar that is the government told us had to be taught in primary schools. However, it is possible to break it down into user-friendly chunks - which he himself did! He and Peter Doughty worked with teachers and teacher-trainers (including my father) in the late 60s and produced a wonderful blue print for school work on language called 'Language in use', published by the Schools Council. 

It reminds us that there is a whole body of theory and practice that doesn't accept that the best way to teach language and writing is to use a heap of terms that at very best describe bits of 'ideal' sentences but are mostly an unreliable, inconsistent jumble of stuff acquired over hundreds of years derived from itself with no reference to the world that is using the language. 

There is also the wonderful world of 'stylistics' that addresses at a very significant level our reasons for writing in certain ways. There's 'pragmatics' that looks at how we converse. There is 'structuralism' that looks at eg story grammar (ie how we construct stories), 'narratology' (how we narrate stories, create time-frames etc), 'intertextuality' that looks at how one 'text' (story, non-fiction, song, film or whatever) 'borrows' from other texts through motif, allusion, form, story-line, language etc, and so on. If, as the government claims, they are interested in how children learn to write, then all these areas are much more fruitful to explore than that antiquated muddled grammar stuff. And it's easy to adapt them for use with young children. 

I explore these in my booklets: 

'Why Write? Why Read?'

'Writing for Pleasure'

'Reading for Pleasure'

'Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools'

all available through my website 

click on 'Books'. 

They're for you to use, adapt and change in whatever ways work for you.