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Grammar lost versus argument regained

Schools have benefited recently from advice from the groves of academe. Professors Philip Hobsbaum, formerly of Glasgow University, and Joseph Farrell, of Strathclyde University, lament the standard of literacy achieved by young people entering university. They have a fair point in that some teenagers are less well equipped to undertake the written assignments expected of them at university than past generations. To equate this with "a rising tide of illiteracy" may be slightly hyperbolic.

The erudite professors can consult their tertiary colleague in Edinburgh, Professor Lindsay Paterson. He will share his impressive research documenting the progress made by Scottish schools in extending literacy and numeracy across the population. They will also discover the much broader portfolio of skills possessed by young people in comparison to earlier generations.

I recently had the privilege to read an essay on the Russian revolution by Katie Robb of the sixth year at Holy Rood. Her synthesis of relevant points, knowledge of the facts and clarity of language were far in advance of anything my own contemporaries might have presented at the same stage. History in the Sixties was about learning and regurgitating facts. Evaluation of evidence and synopsis of argument were relatively undeveloped.

Katie may be unaware that she is composing periodic sentences containing complex subordinate clauses. I concur with Professor Hobsbaum's view that improved awareness of syntax would enable pupils to write more coherently. Many years as a marker of national exams demonstrated for me the need for clearer understanding of sentence structure and composition skills.

However, when it comes to maturity of thinking, ability to express her views cogently orally and in writing, and proficiency in the use of information and communications technology to create, amend and organise her work, Katie leaves her forbears standing.

Professor Hobsbaum singles out the never-ending sentence as a feature of the grammatical decline. This is a characteristic of the language that pupils hear. They have to be made aware that a series of ideas linked with "and" and "but" is a boring and unimaginative way to write.

Fashions change and grammar and syntax cannot exist beyond the influences of the age in which they are used. Grammatical usage itself is descriptive as well as prescriptive. Which of us would dream of responding to the question "Who's there?" with the correct "It is I"? Access, process and progress are now transitive verbs as well as nouns. Everything in education, including missives from the Scottish Executive, is sent direct, rather than directly, to schools. Criteria is used daily as a singular noun. Neologisms abound, the most recent example I have encountered being "exceptionality".

The abbreviations encouraged by text messaging, such as URYY4ME (You are too wise for me), are likely to accelerate the flight from literacy.

We need to be aware of the linguistic environment in which schools and young people exist. Coherent written expression will always be an essential skill, requiring constant reinforcement. It will be all the more useful when combined with other competencies which young people possess in abundance. The ability to distinguish metonymies from synecdoches, though, may produce few cultural or vocational dividends in the 21st century.

When Professors Farrell and Hobsbaum reach the capital, they are both warmly invited to visit Holy Rood, where they will find an energetic and industrious team of English teachers striving to foster proficiency in written and oral composition against the tide of current linguistic usage.

In Roman times, politicians and philosophers mourned the passing of the Golden Age. Cicero called on the gods to witness the moral depravity of the age with the cry 'O tempora! O mores!' If he had looked ahead a century, he might have had higher regard for his contemporaries.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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