Posts Tagged ‘English grammar’

Teaching grammar: does it matter?

November 15, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

This is a difficult one. I never really had a solid grounding in grammar, as I was at school in the late sixties and early seventies, when the general feeling was that it would be picked up almost by osmosis as it were; there wasn’t a structured way of teaching it, and suitable textbooks were disappearing and being replaced by very dumbed-down ones. During my teaching career, things became even more difficult as the terminology used was changed, sometimes by grammarians in the name of accuracy and clarity, sometimes by government quangos in the name of god knows what…

To most school students, grammar is deadly dull, and the necessary drilling in order to inculcate understanding and good practice even more so. In my experience, gaining knowledge and understanding of grammar came mainly from learning other languages, and then reflecting that grammatical knowledge back on to my knowledge and understanding of my own language; if it hadn’t been for my innate curiosity about such things, very little would probably have stuck.

Learning Latin in those long-gone days was very heavily grammar-based, with memorising of the five declensions, four conjugations, principle parts and I don’t know what else. Once you’d cracked subject and object, you were good to go. And then there was French, and again, the grammar and its terminology gave you a handle on your own language. But the overall effect was pretty piecemeal, especially since a lot of it wasn’t directly transferable to English: English and Latin grammar are miles apart, despite the best efforts of several centuries of prescriptivists.

With such an incomplete knowledge of English grammar, trying to impart it to my own students was rather a challenge, to say the least. In the end, there wasn’t enough time fully to explore the subject, and I didn’t want to bore my classes to death; I was about to say there were more important things to teach them, but it would be better and fairer to say, more interesting things. It became a matter of working out what were the absolute essentials that needed to be imparted, starting with the basics of the parts of speech, and moving on from there, developing knowledge as far as was necessary, and when it was particularly called for. I was never happy with this approach, but it was the best I could do. I don’t think anyone has come near working out what to do – I just know how enabling the ability to communicate clearly in Standard English is, and therefore how important it is to be able to offer this to school students.

On grammar

April 5, 2019

I’ve written about grammar, and its teaching, before, and if you’re interested, you will be able to find those earlier posts. But I’ve returned to thinking about it as a result of re-reading the Latin book I posted about yesterday, and my rediscovery of Winnie Ille Pu, which is a lot harder than de roma antiqua… more colloqualisms and invented words needed there!

My experience of English grammar has been fairly mixed: I was at school in the progressive late 1960s and early 70s, when grammar was rather out of fashion, and I never really acquired a structured and thorough knowledge and understanding of it; I did some study and serious preparation when I needed to teach it myself, but was aware that there were colleagues whose knowledge was far more comprehensive, and to whom I sometimes needed to refer.

My knowledge of grammar came from my learning of other languages, which I was then able to apply to English. Back in the day you could not get to Latin O Level without the famed Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (which I still have); everything was logically explained and copiously illustrated, usually from actual classical Latin authors. Because there is much more inflection in Latin than in English, there were many more rules which one could learn and apply quite logically, to end up with correct sentences in prose composition exercises. This application of rules clarified how my own native language worked, and how the correct use of grammar aided clarity and accuracy…

The same was true of other languages: French grammar was drilled into us by a teacher who, unlike many other MfL teachers at the time, put a clear emphasis on speaking the language, and used the same textbooks that French school pupils used, so we were totally immersed in the language. The rules were practised and absorbed. German was a very different kettle of fish: I learned it conversationally, and grammar rarely got a look-in, with the result today that, although I can speak the language and make myself understood reasonably well, my grammar is pretty poor, really: the correct cases don’t drop into place as I speak, my verb tenses are all over the place, and as for prepositions governing cases, well… My rather more rudimentary Polish suffers from the same issues, sadly. But Spanish, which is my newest project (still in progress) is well-rooted in grammar and I am really fortunate to be in a small class and taught by a traditional teacher who also understands and believes in the necessity for grammatical rigour.

It’s also the case that, in talking with all sorts of friends and acquaintances in various conversation groups that I’ve been part of, invariably they say that their knowledge of grammar has come from their study of MfL and not from any English lessons they had at school. So what is the problem?

I think that grammar went out of the window in English schools (along with quite a few other things) because it came to be perceived as dull and boring, at a time when school was meant to be exciting (!); also there was a fashion for believing that certain things would be learned ‘as you go along’ almost by osmosis as it were, without any conscious effort being required. There’s a baby and bathwater situation there, I feel; learning needn’t be dull, but sometimes there are things which cannot be rendered un-tedious and which have to be mastered; not all of life is going to be wild whoopee and excitement, and that in itself is a lesson worth meeting when one is younger…

The effect of the disappearance of grammar teaching then had its effect on MfL, which became rather less structured and rather more conversational (that not a bad thing in itself, but it lacked the necessary underpinnings) so that we eventually ended up with students memorising lists of sentences that they did not necessarily fully understand, in order to pass oral examinations in French or German. This then made the leap to advanced study of a language of such a magnitude that many students regarded it as far too difficult, with the consequent disastrous effect on the study of modern languages in our schools and universities…

And the disappearance of Latin from our schools, to which I referred yesterday, has its place in all this, too. Such structure and discipline could underpin the study of MfL as well as English, except that it no longer does. Too difficult… unnecessary…irrelevant… when one starts to apply such a purely utilitarian logic to learning and education, all sorts of things fly apart. But that is a much wider argument, so it’s probably a good place to pause.

Good English, correct English?

September 15, 2018

You would probably expect a retired English teacher to have strong views on what constitutes good or correct English, and what is permissible and what shouldn’t be. I’ve found myself thinking more deeply about this, partly provoked by what I’ve read recently about changes in French orthography. Whilst many and different attempts have been made to make our own language more gender-equal, languages like French which attribute, often apparently randomly, different genders to all nouns, have a rather more complex problem when they try to do this.

For instance, to use they as a singular pronoun in English, to avoid using he or she, and perhaps appearing to subsume the female in the male, jars for some, and for others seems perfectly acceptable, normal even. Usage evolves inevitably and although spoken English may lead, the written usually follows. With gender-specific nouns, some have started to use the (previously) masculine form for both male and female, thus, for instance, describing both male and female performers as actors, rather than using the separate form actresses for females only. I can’t, personally see a problem with such modifications of usage. But then, we don’t have any official body in charge of regulating the language, unlike the French.

At the moment, if you want to be equal across the genders in French, you have a masculine and feminine version of a word – let’s say étudiant and étudiante. And if you are attaching any adjective to that noun, it will also have a masculine and feminine form, and then there are different forms for singular and plural too. And the rules of the language currently say that the masculine form is sufficient when speaking or writing about a group that may actually comprise both genders. If you’re not happy about this, what do you do? I won’t go into further detail here, but there’s plenty of detail available out there on the web. All the possible suggestions I’ve seen or read about are either ugly or cumbersome or both. And then there’s the official body regulating the language to satisfy…

Which brings me back to right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Certain things rub me up the wrong way, like fingernails sliding down a blackboard. And yet, I have to acknowledge our language as a changing, evolving, dynamic system, and my studies of literature across the centuries have demonstrated this quite clearly to me many times over. Double negatives, which many blench at, were acceptable, even necessary, in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s time.

During my time as a teacher, I tried to explain to students the notion of clarity as central to effective communication, and also the idea that spoken and written language are different, as are formal and informal usage, and what students needed most for success was an understanding of this, and the ability to function well in the appropriate register for whatever situation they found themselves in. Thus, how one spoke or texted in free or social time was one thing, and I could tut-tut quietly to myself if I liked; how one spoke in the classroom – a formal situation – was different, and I could and did have various specific expectations. Similarly, depending on who the audience was for your written English affected how you framed it; anything ad usum privatumcould be as you liked, although sloppy habits there might well end up carrying over into formal situations and causing problems; written English with an audience demanded care and adherence to the conventions of correct English. The same was true with regard to regional accents; there was nothing wrong with themper se, but in certain situations Standard English might be expected, and an inability to function in that register might disadvantage one.

All that is before we get started on the vexed topic of spelling, about which I was always much more rigid.

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?

On the English language…

January 31, 2015

You would expect me to say I love the English language, but I have been thinking about what it is that I particularly love; teaching the language and its literature gave me a career I loved, too. And yet my knowledge of the language in terms of its history, structure and linguistics is basically self-taught and rather patchy.

I love the quirks and oddities of the language: the ‘th’ sound that foreigners have such difficulty getting their minds around the two different pronunciations of, and its utterly bonkers spelling rules, that I fervently hope no-one ever succeeds in ‘reforming’.

One of the things I have come to realise and appreciate over the years is how vast it is, as a language, with far more words than any other language; the OED has twenty huge printed volumes and several volumes of supplements, and, as far as I’m aware, no other language comes anywhere near this. What this means is that there is a great wealth of synonyms – look at the size of Roget’s Thesaurus (a volume I’ve always possessed and never used!); synonyms mean an ability to express more shades of meaning, and meaning with great precision and subtlety. And then, the sheer wealth of words mean that, for instance, there are far more rhyming words available to poets if they want them.

English does seem to have developed into the closest thing there is to a world language; obviously this is a good thing in some ways, although I think it is also capable of getting in the way of communication, but it has also led to the English becoming very lazy indeed about learning other languages, and this is both sad, culturally, as well as a serious mistake in terms of our relations with the rest of the world.

I am fascinated by the ways that our language has changed over time, from an inflected Germanic language via Norman French to the relative simplicity of today’s English. I say simplicity advisedly, because that perceived simplicity is one of the reasons for the falling off of foreign language learning in this country. But we have a grammar without the genders that French, German, Spanish, Polish and many other languages have, we have a grammar without the use of cases such as German and Polish have, and we have a very flexible word order to our sentences. Equally fascinating to discover has been the wealth of word experimentation and creation by our great writers such as Shakespeare and Milton. I have loved what my learning of foreign languages has taught me about my own language, in terms of connections in vocabulary and word origins, as well as differences in the ways languages develop and change.

I find certain things about English to be annoying, or to be disadvantages, particularly some of the effects of sharing the language with the United States. Somehow, generic ‘mid-Atlantic English’ is rather soulless.

As a teacher, I felt I was something of a stickler for speaking correctly, as well as writing grammatically and spelling accurately. I always encouraged students to learn a new word every day. These are not the most important things in the world, but are surely worth doing properly. There is money to be made for the person who can find an effective way of teaching and drilling correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, from the start to the end of compulsory schooling. And I feel strongly about such things because I think the English language is such a wonderful thing…

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