Strictly speaking, grammar nuts have a point

There is a scene in George Eliot’s Middlemarch in which a retired school mistress, Mrs Garth, is attempting to drill her son, Ben Garth, in the finer points of English Grammar. Master Ben is proving a reluctant student. ‘I hate grammar’ he declares; ‘What’s the use of it?’ His mother, however, is in no doubt as to its value; for her, it is less the gateway to good breeding than the cornerstone of civilisation itself. As Eliot notes, in a sardonic aside, in the event of a ‘general wreck of society’ she would hold her book of grammar ‘above the waves’.

It is easy to laugh at ‘Grammar Nazis’ – easy and, frequently, necessary. People who obsess about beginning sentences with conjunctions, or ending them with prepositions, are to be studiously avoided at parties, while those who object to the use of ‘which’ in restrictive clauses are only marginally less irritating. As for the empurpled nitwits who complain loudly about split infinitives (an invented rule, and the crowning stupidity of nineteenth-century prescriptivism) – those who haven’t died of natural causes should be, for their own sakes, humanely put down.

Nevertheless, it is plain – or it should be – that we have strayed too far from grammar’s arms. The idea that language is ‘caught’, not taught – that it is, primarily, through reading, not teaching, that students learn the rules of language – was a necessary corrective to grammatical prescriptivism. But we also need a vocabulary in which to talk about what is wrong, and why, and the name for this vocabulary, traditionally, is ‘grammar’. Of the competencies analysed in this year’s national literacy tests (spelling, punctuation etc.), sentence structure fared especially badly. Only 4 per cent of Year 7 students used correct or varied sentences, while the figure for Year 9s was 13%. Clearly, this isn’t good enough.

For a number of years now, I’ve taught Literacy Competency at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, as part of the bridging or ‘enabling’ program offered to prospective students. And while my student sample is necessarily limited, I think I’ve gained a fair idea of the kind of knowledge that is lacking in this area. Indeed, the problem is immediately apparent whenever I meet a new group of students. The first five minutes tend to go like this …

I write a sentence out on the whiteboard – ‘Me and my sister went shopping today’ – and invite my charges to raise their hands if they think there is nothing wrong with it. No hands go up – a good sign. Next, I ask them to raise their hands if they think there is something wrong with the sentence. Most hands go up – also a good sign. Then I ask them what is wrong with the sentence, at which point one student will invariably say, ‘It should be “My sister and I …”’

Ah, but I didn’t ask what it should be (I say). I asked why ‘Me and my sister’ was wrong. At this stage, there is usually a furrowing of brows.

I then rub out the words ‘and my sister’, leaving only ‘Me went shopping today.’ Would we say (I ask) ‘Me went shopping today’? No, we wouldn’t. At this stage, brows unfurrow slightly.

Now, precisely why ‘Me went’ is wrong and ‘I went’ is right is an interesting question, but it isn’t one that need detain us here. The point is that all students who have English as a first language know immediately that ‘Me went shopping’ sounds wrong. More importantly, they have grasped, in a simple way, the principle at the heart of grammar: that one part of a sentence should ‘agree’ with another.

This principle applies at the most basic level. In every English sentence – here’s the next lesson – someone or something is doing or being something. The someone or something can be singular or plural, and the doing or being must follow suit. Would you say, I ask my students, ‘My friend are in Paris’? No, they wouldn’t say ‘My friend are in Paris’. Would they say ‘My friends is in Prague’? No, they wouldn’t say ‘My friends is in Prague’. What about ‘The teaching of spelling and grammar are not all that important’? Is that right? By this stage, on average, about half the students are able to spot that since the subject is singular the main verb needs to be singular too. The sentence should read, ‘The teaching … is …’ And we’re still only ten minutes into the lesson.

Obviously, when it comes to writing at this level, the problems tend to be of a higher order than a bit of subject-verb confusion. The essays I read are littered with mistakes – mistakes of spelling and punctuation, yes, but especially mistakes of sentence structure. Even after a heavy night, my students are, in conversation, mutually intelligible. But when it comes to writing, in the majority of cases, the reader is doing 50% of the work. Even in the work of my brightest students, pronouns don’t agree with their antecedents, verb tenses are confused, and sentence fragments abound. None of these problems can be rectified without a basic grounding in the principles of grammar.

The problem is simple but it goes very deep. It is clear from anecdotal evidence that we now have a generation of teachers – possibly even two generations of teachers – who have no idea of how to teach grammar. This is not the fault of the teachers themselves. It is the fault of policy decisions made as long ago as the 1970s. At any rate, any effort to improve grammar ‘outcomes’ (as educators like to say) will need to address this fundamental problem.

This needn’t be an arduous task. True, it is impossible to talk about grammar without a certain amount of technical language. (Since the subject of an English sentence is always a noun or noun-equivalent, we need to know what a noun and its equivalents are!) But the principles underlying basic grammar are simple. They are agreement and consistency. These principles, together with an emphasis on simplicity – on saying one thing at a time, as simply as one can – will go a long way to improving the current situation.

Recently, I had a conversation with a teacher who suggested that as far as his school was concerned ideas were more important than language skills. His students were marked on the originality of their thinking rather than on their sentence structure. There are two problems with this approach. The first is that good sentence structure and the ability to have original or interesting ideas are, far from being mutually exclusive, connected at a deep level. (As the US philosopher John Searle once put it, ‘You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.’) And the second is that, even if this were not the case, the ability to have original or interesting ideas is a pretty pointless one to have if you can’t convey those ideas to someone else.

And that’s the key point I’d like to make: literacy is not only fundamental to our life chances but also essential to the health of our democracy.

To be heard is one thing. To be understood is another.

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First published in The Australian.