Language rules OK?

EVOLUTION THE ONLY WAY FORWARD. John Honey's waspish new book blames teachers for falling standards of grammar. Here he does battle with Elspeth Bain (right)

As the millennium approaches it is natural for a nation to review its success at preserving aspects of its heritage. The popular press suggests that although samples of our architectural heritage and landscape are being protected, our language, a far greater national treasure, is in decay. It faces, at worst, deliberate despoilation and, at best, shameful neglect. English is perceived as a degraded and debased victim of widespread indifference and more specifically of a teaching establishment that recklessly abandoned the teaching of grammar a generation ago.

Should a preservation order be slapped on the language? Is the damage irretrievable? Should English teachers be forced to return to the good old days of formal grammar teaching? Should the Government bring back compulsory parsing?

The notion that language is in decay has a long pedigree. Greek scholars of the 3rd century BC bemoaned the declining standards of language, hankering, presumably, after the higher standards of the 4th century BC. In linguistic terms it seems the past was always a golden age and change is never for the better.

Down the years English writers have complained that the language is decaying, often describing their own work as the last bastion against linguistic chaos.

Some have suggested language can and should be "fixed". In 1712 Jonathan Swift called for the setting up of an academy to control the English language because he saw "no absolute necessity why any language should be perpetually changing". But languages do change and, presumably, always will.

The bulk of formal grammar teaching disappeared from schools during the 1960s. The discipline became discredited because there was no evidence it improved pupils' use of language and because it was based on a prescriptive approach that was seen to be untenable.

Grammar is not a set of absolute rules, the "that-which-must-be-obeyed" of language, but a series of patterns through which a language community constructs meanings. These patterns include the ways words are modified to refine meaning and the ways they are grouped together to create sentences and longer texts. While there will be many widely accepted patterns, they will necessarily change over time as users develop new modes of expression to meet new needs.

Once systematic grammar teaching was abandoned, most teachers chose to address specific issues as the need arose. Although aspects of grammar were still taught, there was no consensus on what should be covered. A general feeling emerged that purposeful tasks could develop language skills without the need for explicit teaching of what was understood implicitly.

Many English teachers now see value in explicit grammar teaching. But this is no return to the past practices. Any study of grammar must aim to make implicit understandings explicit. It must be directed towards clarifying meaning or contributing to a judgment of value.

So, for example, teaching pupils to identify parts of speech is, in itself, of limited value. They need to be able to go on to use that knowledge to explore refinements of meaning and aspects of style in real examples of purposeful writing. They need to examine their reading and learn skills they can use in their own writing.

Work on verbs could start with pupils identifying verbs within a text, and reflecting on their own use of them. It could move on to substituting alternatives for some selected verbs and experimenting with various effects. Developments could include looking at verb-less sentences, such as: "Three pints today, please." or at the use of tenses including, perhaps, the predominance of the present in newspaper headlines.

The work could then be reinforced during the drafting process, when pupils would be asked to review their selection of verbs and reconsider some of them, possibly suggesting alternatives to a drafting partner.

A modern study of grammar cannot restrict itself to formal, written standard English but must take account of the entire range of usage, including spoken English, informal standard English and regional dialects. This does not detract from the significance of standard English, but pupils must see that this dominant and widely accepted dialect exists within a more varied range of forms of English and cannot be examined in isolation. Awareness of the grammatical structure of their regional dialect will help pupils use standard English, with its different structure, more accurately.

It is also essential that a modern grammar should examine the structure of complete texts. Examples of texts could be drawn from novels, shopping lists, tabloid and broadsheet papers, casual spoken and formal persuasive language, carrier bags, school reports, comics and textbooks.

Through work on grammar, incorporated into reflection on their own writing and redrafting, pupils will learn how to improve control of meaning in sentences, gain an awareness of the dangers of ambiguity, write with simplicity and clarity and find an appropriate balance between variety and repetition.

Our pupils' understanding of language should not be informed by a simplistic distinction between false absolutes of right and wrong but by a subtle and intelligent approach to language forms. The best, indeed the only way to preserve a language is to encourage its use for all purposes and in all modes by people who are demanding and analytical about their own writing and reading. Only dead languages do not change and develop. English must change.

Let us aim to educate vigilant and enthusiastic users of the language who will enjoy its freshness, variety and beauty and who may be the first generation to celebrate the excitement and promise of a developing and perpetually changing language.

Elspeth Bain is head of English at Boldon Comprehensive School, south Tyneside, and co-author with her husband, Richard, of The Grammar Book, published by the National Association for the Teaching of English, 1996, ISBN 0 901 291 45 5, Pounds 45, to non members Pounds 40 to members, plus Pounds 3 pp. NATE, 50 Broadfield Rd, Sheffield S8 0XJ

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