Save our children from the Grammar Tribe

Is it, though?

From Friday’s Daily Telegraph: Teaching standard English is important – but who decides what’s right and wrong?

Their out of there minds. Two pizza’s for the price of one. Its all downhill from here. You’re turn. If you have a certain type of mind, those four sentences will have set your teeth on edge, and you will be sorely tempted to take out a red pen and correct them on the page.

Don’t worry. I know my way around an apostrophe, most of the time. There is a concern, though, that the Youth of Today does not. The nation’s grammarians winced when Luisa Zissman, a finalist in The Apprentice, asked her Twitter followers to “help her out” in her efforts to name her new business: “Is it bakers toolkit or baker’s toolkit with an apostrophe?!” It was pointed out that it would be either “bakers’ ” or “baker’s”, depending on the number of bakers; she decided to leave the apostrophe out anyway, because it looked better. It is to combat this sort of punctuation abuse, and other purported horrors, that the Government has introduced a penalty in GCSE exams for poor spelling and grammar – up to 5 per cent of marks could be lost if you put in too many “could ofs”.

This sounds laudable. But there is a question that needs to be addressed: who gets to say what “good English” is? Which spellings are correct and which are not? It’s not always clear-cut. If you spell “chemistry” as “juniper” or “Xlosg”, or if you use ampersands instead of commas, we can agree that’s wrong. But there will be plenty of borderline cases, too. Is it wrong to use an apostrophe to pluralise a number? According to most guides, it’s permissible for a single-digit number (“The 3’s and 7’s”) but not for longer ones or years (“the 1990’s”). But others disagree; according to the linguist Larry Trask, in American usage “the 1990’s” is acceptable. Should children be marked down for that?

Similarly, “dived” is the traditional past tense of “dive”, but “dove” has overtaken it, as speakers have drawn an analogy with “drove” and “wove”. At some stage, like “stopt” – the old past tense of “stop”, common as recently as the 1940s – “dived” may be obsolete. When will we start to dock points for “dived”? The playful Americanism “snuck” is replacing “sneaked”; will that be allowed?

This isn’t nitpicking. The language changes with surprising speed, and there is no perfect form which we can hold modern usage up against. What’s more, many people hold passionate, but incorrect, beliefs about grammar, such as that it is wrong to split infinitives, use “none” in a plural form, or end sentences on prepositions – strange shibboleths that have nothing to do with how English is actually used, but are intended to mark the writer out as a member of the Tribe of Grammar People. There is a risk, therefore, that children will be marked down for using perfectly good English, such as “none of them are ready” or “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. If children are going to be punished for using English badly, we need to be damn sure that the people marking them know what they mean by using English well. It’s not as simple as saying “two Rs in ‘surprise’ ”.

But none the less, teaching children standard British English is important. Not because non-standard English is wrong – for instance, “I was sat” is fine in many dialects, though the chiefs of the Grammar Tribe harrumph and insist on “I was sitting” – but because standard English is the language of business, of academia, of success.

In a fascinating piece for Harper’s magazine in 2001, the author David Foster Wallace wrote that black Americans in universities are expected to write in, essentially, a foreign dialect. Black American English uses double negatives, for instance, which are considered wrong in standard American English, and users are marked down for bad grammar. But even though it’s unfair, he says, standard English is the language that the country uses to talk to itself – and the same is true in Britain. Users of other dialects are seen as stupid; standard English is “perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige”. Those of us who grew up speaking and writing it at home are at a huge advantage. Schools, then, have a vital role: teaching standard English “as a foreign language” to speakers of other dialects, to give them a fairer chance in life. More broadly, it’s important that children know how to write correct standard English, so that universities and employers don’t judge them badly.

But we need to be very careful about what to count as “correct standard English”. If we leave these decisions in the hands of the chiefs of the Grammar Tribe, we’ll end up with children losing out on well-deserved grades because they used “they” as a singular pronoun, entirely grammatically. Too much of what is considered good English is based on half-remembered laws from 1950s textbooks that were wrong even then. By all means crack down on apostrophe abuse. But make sure you know what’s right and wrong before you do.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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