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Stop asking silly questions!

© GettyIn my last post I mentioned a Telegraph poll which asked innocently: Does grammar matter? Other, equally unanswerable questions are floating around the media, like Is good grammar still important? (why ‘still’?) and Just how bad is bad grammar? I couldn’t say, lacking any appropriate measure of ‘badness’ – it sounds like something from a moral philosophy exam.

These questions are unanswerable because they are the wrong questions. They presuppose that we all know what ‘grammar’ is, for a start, and hence that we know exactly what ‘good’, ‘correct’, and ‘bad’ grammar are.

But of course we don’t. There exists no single, agreed-upon, correct grammar of Standard English. Grammar is not a system of rules that must be learnt and applied. Grammar describes the whole of the language we use, in all its variety; it embraces the notions of appropriacy, choice, and flexibility. Although, it must be said, different grammarians use widely different terminology and do not agree on the units of description, or even what sort of data to use.

Our policy-makers would have us believe that the only alternative to one correct grammar would be a chaotic free-for-all, but this sets up a false dichotomy. Obviously we must have standards, with clear expression of meaning uppermost. But children also need to know which features of language are productive – where the scope for choice and creativity lies. It’s an insult to people’s intelligence to confine them within a culture that prioritises ticking the right box in a multiple-choice test.

Moreover, language is in constant flux, and the rate of change is accelerating in this age of the Internet, where it is buffeted by new forces and the myriad demands of instant global communication. It is ludicrous to try and freeze-frame any variety at an arbitrarily-selected point in time.

So what’s changing? Well, contributions to this blog have often suggested shifts in the use of ‘function words’, traditionally the most rule-bound and predictable of classes. The artificial boundary between them and the ‘lexical’ classes is ever less distinct. For example, plus can now be classed as a conjunction, like and, as in It’s easier to work alone, plus it’s more cost-effective. And the noun way, discussed here, is becoming increasingly ‘grammatical’ or ‘de-lexicalised’.

There are even new members entering the function-word ranks. The pronoun themself is being used instead of themselves (see here) – a logical extension of the use of they as a singular pronoun (see here.) And Stan Carey has suggested that slash is also becoming a conjunction; stroke may have a similar claim.

Moreover, many grammar words are acquiring new meanings, especially prepositions like across, ahead of (here and here) and around in collocations like issues/debates/discussions around (here).

Word class is becoming ever more fluid. ‘Nouning’ and ‘verbing’ (see here and here) seem increasingly natural, and new coinages appear daily (e.g midwife a transition to democracy; hoping to summit Mont Blanc). Adjectives are displaying noun-like behaviour in realising clausal elements like subject and object (see here), as in the tourist advert for Bath: Explore unique. Discover you. And phrasal verbs are popping up everywhere: big it up, dumb it down, it creeps me out.

Affixes also provide plenty of scope for creativity. Prefixes like mega- and suffixes like –proof are flourishing, as discussed here. As for hyphens, they have simply taken off: hyphenated strings are getting longer and longer. A TV programme was described as Sunday morning’s most-watched-programme-that’s-not-pretending-to-be-even-a-little-bit-about-religion. (Thanks, Liz.) And a Guardian columnist recently placed a politician’s speech in the toe-curling, keep-the-scary-man-away-from-me danger zone.

You might hate some of these trends, but they won’t go away. It is unfair to everyone to ignore language change, and to expect teachers to perpetuate the ‘correctness’ myth, while the kids themselves hear and speak a creative, flexible, ever-changing language. Unless things improve, the gulf between ‘life’ and ‘education’ will widen even further, and school will be seen as increasingly irrelevant, little more than a training-ground for an endless succession of tests and exams.

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Gill Francis


  • Great post, Gill, and a clarion call for an approach to language teaching that acknowledges (and glories in) the fact that language is a flexible, ever-changing thing. The fact that language is more like a living organism than anything else makes the rulebound fingerwagging of self-appointed experts particularly inappropriate. But it has just occurred to me that maybe they have simply misunderstood the fact that ‘rule’ is a polysemous noun and are confusing the kind of rule that says ‘You must not run in the corridors’ with the kind that says ‘This is how this (type of) thing behaves’.

  • This is a nice summary of so many interesting recent trends. And I think Liz is spot-on re. the way ‘rule’ is misinterpreted y the pedantic tendency. Linguists agree that most things in language (how it works, and how it changes) are ‘rule-governed’ – not in the sense of top-down ‘do this-but-don’t-do-that’ rules, but in the sense that if you observe enough language in use, you discover that it follows rules (or recurrent patterns).. As Gill says, we don’t have to like everything new that happens in language, and we may find some trends irritating. But talking about it in terms of right and wrong isn’t helping anyone.

  • This is a great post Gill and amen to those comments Liz and Michael. In relation to Gill’s last paragraph, I don’t know whether you spotted Michael Rosen’s metaphoric description of the situation which for me hits the nail on the head: It’s like getting young people to learn the names of the parts of a car without teaching them how to drive …

  • Great post, Gill. I completely agree with you. I think there will always be a tension between how language is changing and what we should teach as Standard English in the classroom, but the likes of Gove and Heffer are invariably wrong on this. It’s deeply depressing to see that the new GCSEs will focus so narrowly on spelling, punctuation and grammar while ignoring where so much new language is being generated – spoken English and computer-mediated communication.

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