My A-Z of reading: G is for Grammar

November 2, 2016

I have a confession to make. As a secondary school student in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, I received very little formal teaching of English grammar; it was patchy and sketchy, and what grammar I really learnt came via my study of Latin and French. Yet I went on to have a successful career as an English teacher. My knowledge and understanding of English grammar was largely self-taught, and there are gaps, grey areas in my knowledge about which I was glad rarely to be asked.

There are all sorts of issues here. Should grammar be taught in a traditional way? Will it help with MFL (which is going down the pan very fast in the UK, it seems). Certainly it will be dull, boring and repetitive, and one might argue that most students will not need it anyway… and, of course, that’s an elitist argument in itself.

One might, instead, teach grammar as and when it’s needed, which was how I approached it during my teaching career. Formal teaching of some grammar and punctuation were needed if students were to progress beyond a certain minimum level in their own writing – and here’s the rub: how many people go on to need to write essays or other chunks of formal prose in later life? Surely, being able to speak correctly – to be able to function in Standard English as well as one’s home variety – is of more importance nowadays. And here we hit the thorny question of correct usage…

What is correct? Various newer usages grate on my eyes and ears, but as a student of our language as well as a teacher, I’m aware that language is a dynamic, developing and evolving construct; change is inevitable. Otherwise we would still all be speaking Latin…

When it came to trying to teach grammar effectively, I was hampered by the lack of decent resources for classroom use, and ended up constructing my own, cutting and pasting from a wide range of material. Textbook writers dumbed things down in an effort not to bore students to death, and didn’t provide the necessary practice drills that embed what is learnt. And then there is the matter of disagreement about the terminology to be used – the Year 6 SATs have produced some really wacky labelling, although I did find an intelligent 11-year-old to explain some of it to me…

And what about the great prescriptive vs descriptive debate: are we merely noting a range of usages, or are we in the business of telling people which to use? My criteria for students were always effective communication and intelligibility. There may well be a range of ways of being correct; it’s more useful to know what is actually wrong, in terms of impeding good communication.

I think – have thought for a long time – that the situation is a mess. Perhaps it has always been. Studying Latin to sixth form level embedded what I know and understand, but Latin isn’t English. I’ve always been interested (with a small ‘i’) in grammar, and have found my understanding very useful, but I’m well aware I’m not your general reader. What do you think?

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2 Responses to “My A-Z of reading: G is for Grammar”

  1. cooperatoby Says:

    Latin grammatical classifications don’t seem to fit English very well: the difference between gerunds and gerundives being a case in point. But yes, some of these new classifications are weird and incomprehensible. I reckon I can put together a fairly correct piece of prose, yet I would fail school grammar now.

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    • litgaz Says:

      You’re right about Latin, and one of the reasons there are anomalies in our grammar is because in the 18th century various people tried to impose Latin-style grammar on a language where it does not fit… I suppose the discipline and structure of Latin, when I was learning it, helped me understand the idea of structures and rules more generally.

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