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English - Rebel with a clause

Why the tricky bits of English language are worth the effort

Why the tricky bits of English language are worth the effort

Sit up at the back: it's time for a grammar test. Here's an extract from a 1967 O-level English language paper:

Make up three sentences using the words in italics as indicated:

a) were as a verb in the subjunctive mood

b) too as an adverb of degree

c) singing as a gerund (verbal noun)

There we were thinking the Sixties were as much about free writing as free love.

I'm looking through a collection of questions from the Joint Matriculation Board, a name that once sent a wave of terror across a generation of teenagers. The papers include convoluted passages on topics such as life in the Soviet Union and arctic penguins, followed by arcane questions on vocabulary ("Explain cleavage", demands one, humourlessly). The papers assume knowing about language is an important part of being able to "do" English.

In 1994, I edited a volume of English in Education, the academic journal of the National Association for the Teaching of English. The journal whipped up a small controversy because it contained a feisty article by academic David Tomlinson about grammar.

Tomlinson went back through years of research which seemed to suggest that knowing about grammar didn't make you a better writer. He said much of it was written to provide "what many in the education establishment wanted to hear" - that is, that teaching formal grammar was pointless.

The education establishment's view appeared to be: "You don't need to be able to service a car in order to drive." But of course we do need to know what a steering wheel is and when to press the clutch. Similarly, I will become a better writer when I understand how to expand noun phrases, how to write sentences containing a variety of clauses, and know a range of more interesting conjunctions than "and" and "but".

This is not an argument for teaching students to quack out definitions of the gerund and subjunctive. Rather, it's a recognition that, just as we want students to know key principles of, say, science, we owe it to them to teach explicitly how something as rich, empowering and creative as the English language works.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, where he teaches English



TES English has a handy resource full of starters on spelling, punctuation and grammar - try it with your pupils.

In the forums

If you really want to get down with the grammar pedants, join the Pedants Anonymous conversation in the English forum, where teachers reveal their grammar bugbears.

And if (after reading those) you feel you need to swot up on your own grammar skills there are links to book recommendations from TES Resources users. Visit

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