We all know how much the current government values grammar. Dangling participles are there for the plucking, dissecting and force-feeding to 11-year-olds.
And I get it. I do. I’m a grammar pedant, so I am all for grammatical pedantry. But here’s the thing about grammar pedants: we see other people’s pedantry as a challenge. (We have lots of friends at school. Oh yes, we do.) Because people who live in grammatically shaky houses probably shouldn't be throwing conjunctive clauses around.
And where better to begin an examination of the government's own grammar than with the recent schools White Paper? So gird your fronted adverbials. We’re going in.
- Subject and verb must always match
“One in four pupils exceed the expected standard”, the White Paper says.
No, no. One in four pupils exceeds the expected standard.
- Only use a semicolon if you know how to use one
“We need to extend and embed the last Parliament’s reforms so that pupils and families across the country benefit; and we must raise our game again to reflect higher expectations from employers and universities.”
A semicolon is essentially the punctuation equivalent of a conjunction. Unless you’re compiling a list, it should never precede a conjunction.
- Make absolutely sure that you do know how to use a semicolon
“In 2010, we inherited an education system where 1 in 3 young people left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly; where the number of young people studying core academic subjects had halved in 13 years.”
This isn’t grammar. It’s the punctuation equivalent of shotput: just chuck that semicolon out there and see where it lands.
- No, I mean really, really sure
“These opportunities can include secondments and exchanges between partner schools to expand new leaders’ experience; and drawing on the experience of leaders who have successfully turned around schools.”
Somebody give this White Paper a semicolonic irrigation, please.
- Watch out for Random Capital Letters
“We are agreeing new Memoranda of Understanding”
“Each academy has a headteacher who is advised and supported by an Advisory Board”
“To support Church and faith schools to become academies”
Let’s just Insert some capital Letters into a sentence, for no Apparent Reason. The Germans are above us in the Pisa rankings, right?
- Avoid quotation-mark “misuse”
“We will replace the current ‘Qualified Teacher Status' (QTS) with a stronger, more challenging accreditation”
The new National Professional Qualification for Headteachers “will set a ‘gold standard’”
“We will also work with Ofsted to introduce ‘improvement periods’”
The problem with sprinkling your “sentences” with “quotation marks” is that, inevitably, you end up sounding slightly “sarcastic”.
- Try to avoid sounding like Yoda
“Great teachers – everywhere they’re needed”
Replace that dash with a comma, and the sentence sounds much less like a mournful reflection on the recruitment crisis.
- Dashes should not be used for emphasis
“Children will benefit from their schools being part of a larger whole – with improved opportunities and support for teachers and leaders.”
If one were to be really pedantic (always), one might point out that “being” is a gerund, and should therefore be preceded by a possessive: “their schools’ being”. But far more offensive is the gratuitous use of a dash – purely to emphasise a particular point.
- No, that wasn’t a forgivable one-off
"We will take a more differentiated and proportionate approach to financial oversight, and better support schools to deliver value for money for children and the taxpayer by ensuring they have the necessary training, tools and guidance – and access to better national procurement frameworks.”
“We will ensure that the bodies responsible for school buildings get a fair share of funding according to their needs – and that they have the right incentives to use it effectively.”
Just for the record.
- Don’t forget the subjunctive
“That means the bar is comparatively low – a new teacher needs only to demonstrate that they meet the Teachers’ Standards at a level appropriate to the end of initial training”
As every 11-year-old child will now know, that should be: “a new teacher need only to demonstrate”.
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
“Around 8.6% of male teachers work part-time, compared to 13% of men in the workforce nationally”
“Compared to” means “liken to”; Shakespeare is offering to liken his lover to a summer’s day. The White Paper means “compared with”.
- Every sentence needs a subject
“At the heart of this approach will be supporting the strongest schools and sponsors to expand their reach.”
What is the subject of this sentence? Answers on a postcard.
- Metaphors are not for the mixing
“We will embed a knowledge-based curriculum as the cornerstone of an excellent, academically rigorous education up to the age of 16, establishing the national curriculum as an ambitious benchmark which autonomous academies can use and improve upon.”
We’re embedding a cornerstone as a benchmark. And I am bowled over by a tidal wave of horror.
- There’s more to life than grammar
“In particular, to make it easier for parents to navigate the school system, we will seek views on requiring local authorities to coordinate in-year admissions and handle the administration of the independent admission appeals function; and on creating a single route for escalating any complaints about the maladministration of appeals.”
“We will set high expectations for every child, ensuring that there are no forgotten groups or areas and we will focus on outcomes.”
On the whole, the White Paper’s grammar isn’t actually too bad – its mistakes aren’t too egregious. But it stands as proof that one can obey (nearly) all the rules of grammar, and still produce prose that is almost unreadable. Knowing the rules of grammar, as every primary teacher will tell you, is not at all the same thing as knowing how to write well.
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