The argument about teaching and testing grammar in schools seems to have mutated into an increasingly political media squabble about ‘correct grammar’.
Michael’s critique of self-styled ‘crusading grammarian’ Mr Gwynne took me reluctantly to the ‘good grammar test’ featured in The Telegraph. (I scored less than full marks, I’m happy to say.) In the newspaper’s follow-up discussions, it was dubbed ‘Nevile Gwynne’s brilliant new grammar test’, and praised as ‘fiendishly tricky’.
Look up fiendish, and you’ll see that it means ‘clever but cruel’, ‘difficult to solve’, or ‘very evil’. Question 12 is none of these. Here it is:
Which of these names is in fact the nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported direct from Latin? (Amanda, Miranda, Both, Neither)
This is simply irrelevant to English grammar.
Having passed A-level Latin, I vaguely remember the ‘nominative feminine singular’, not to mention the accusative masculine plural, but I wouldn’t dream of introducing these terms to anyone who is learning not Latin, but English. Nor is there any place for the ‘gerundive mood’ in a description of how English works. But being a glutton for punishment, I dipped into Gwynne’s Grammar, courtesy of Google, and read:
The gerundive, a verbal adjective, is a verb-form and usage which, to the best of my knowledge, has never occurred in any book of English grammar before.
Well, let’s hope it never occurs again, since it cannot be of any possible use.
Of course it is interesting to recognise that addenda and memorandum are ‘imported direct from the Latin’, but thousands of our words come from other languages without being forced into categories like ‘gerundive case’. Harry Mount argues, in support of Gwynne, that ‘if you learn the brain-crunching rules of Latin grammar, then the different constituent parts of English fall naturally into place’. How so? The grammatical categories of Latin and English are very different, and learning Latin seems a curiously roundabout way of mastering English.
Question 11 elicited the gender of ‘Evelyn’, based on the invented sentence ‘I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to my brother Mark who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.’ Gwynne has since accepted the impossibility of this, and has replaced it with something equally confusing; see here.
Questions 2, 4, 7, and 8 ask you to identify the ‘parts of speech’ of the word near in four different contexts. Near is revealed as an adjective, an adverb, a preposition, and another adverb, respectively. For example, Gwynne rules that in ‘That was nowhere near good enough’ (Q.4), near is ‘an adverb qualifying an adjective-phrase’.
This is characteristic of the lack of clarity that bedevils Gwynne’s grammatical oeuvre. He uses the term qualify here, whereas his Grammar informs us that ‘an adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb’. Moreover, near in Question 4 neither qualifies nor modifies the ‘adjective-phrase’, because it is part of the adjective phrase.
If you’re becoming a bit hazy about adverbs and their behaviour, read on:
Adverbs are often the equivalent for verbs, adjectives and adverbs that adjectives are for nouns and pronouns.
Not exactly crystal clear, either.
On the back of this ill-conceived quiz, The Telegraph conducted a poll, asking its readers:
Does grammar matter? YES, or NO?
We don’t know what they meant by ‘grammar’, nor how it was interpreted. But apparently 93 percent of the approximately 4,000 respondents answered YES. One can only hope that this won’t be interpreted as a big welcome to any approach to language that offers a dull, numbing collection of do’s and don’ts, an ill-fitting hand-me-down Latin-based terminology, and an array of immutably ‘correct’ answers to every question.
Because if this is what grammar is, then the answer is NO, grammar doesn’t matter.
Fortunately, it is far more than this. Grammar not only describes how all language works; it is the stuff of language itself, with its incredible flexibility and dynamism, its creativity, its inherent ambiguities and humour, its effortless responsiveness to change. No one should ever reduce it to a set of choices between the ‘correct’ and the ‘abominable’.Email this Post