A voice for every context

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Grammar doesn't have to be rigid and archaic. Geoff Barton welcomes the new Cambridge guide's liberating approach to the messiness and flux of language

Cambridge Grammar of English: a comprehensive guide. By Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy. Cambridge University Press pound;23.95 pbk (pound;29.95 pbk and CD-Rom)

When I started teaching English, some 20 years ago, grammar was something of a taboo topic. In fact I think we shied away from using the term "grammar" at all. During a teacher training seminar on writing, I remember asking how we might help pupils to use full stops accurately. The room fell suddenly silent. It was the educational equivalent of breaking wind in public. The answer, I seem to recall through my red-cheeked shame at having asked something so crass and utilitarian, was that if students read enough good literature, they would pick up punctuation for themselves. We returned to reading D H Lawrence.

Since then I've flirted periodically with grammar in the classroom, sometimes teaching it formally ("get out your exercise books and analyse these sentences"), sometimes in context ("let's look at the way the writer uses language to create suspense") and sometimes exploring language in everyday usage ("Got any other slang words for toilet?").

It's no exaggeration to say that for many of those 20 years, teachers of my generation have oscillated between shame, embarrassment, confusion and glee when we venture on to the fragile icy pond of grammar teaching.

That's why this new grammar of English is so welcome and so liberating. It contains the grammar we see and hear around us. Not everyone is so accommodating. Writing in The Daily Telegraph (March 22), for example, Spectator columnist Dot Wordsworth lambasts the authors for their "permissive pages".

I have to confess to a certain old-fangledness. Every time a pupil tells me in a lesson that an idea is "well good" or a rule "so not fair", I flinch and fire off a volley of corrective phrases. I wince at the gr8-ing effect of text-messaging, but that's because I insist that my own text messages contain semicolons. But I'm not sure I could ever clamber up on to the moral high ground by proclaiming, as Dot Wordsworth does, that this book will "relegate written English to the same kind of ghetto of incompetent self-expression with which we are familiar from graduates of art schools who have never learnt to draw".

I like the fact that this new grammar guide presents English in all its messiness and flux. This does not mean that it will somehow harm our students or that it should be read as an admission of falling standards.

Pupils come to us with the bulk of their grammatical structures in place by an early age, perhaps as early as five or six. They aren't the empty vessels of Gradgrind's world. Our role is to shape and develop their language, to sharpen their spoken and written communication for a range of contexts and purposes, not to teach them to write using the stilted archaisms of a bygone age.

There's much in this book that will help them to communicate more effectively. I like the section on politeness ("I wondered if you'd help me out"), ignored by many commentators. I like the comprehensive nature of the entries on tense and word order. But most of all I welcome the real-life entries which illuminate current trends in spoken English. The authors quote the BBC reporter who says, "I'm so not fit for this expedition" and the student who says, "I was so not ready to take an exam that day".

This is English as it is spoken by some (but not all) people, a cause for curiosity not prescription. The book isn't a classroom primer that preaches a new standard form. Just as some of my most illuminating and lively English lessons have been spent comparing English and Australian slang (hint: give the "mystery bags" a miss next time you have a cooked breakfast), so I'm looking forward to my pupils exploring contemporary spoken English and comparing it with the structure and lexis of the language used by their friends, parents and grandparents.

I think they'll enjoy investigating the difference between "made of, made with and made out of" and testing out the theories about "vague language"

as in this example from the book: "Between then and like nineteen eighty four I just spent the whole time, I mean for that sort of twelve year period or whatever, erm, I was just working with lots and lots and lots of different people." I read this stuff but it doesn't mean, you know, I have to, like, speak like that.

That's the fallacy of the book's critics, treating an English grammar book as if it's a batch of untreated nuclear waste, deadly in the wrong hands.

It is precisely the kind of book I want to fall into my pupils' hands, helping to compensate for a GCSE English qualification which at present doesn't go far enough in helping them to write or speak in language that's fit for purpose.

This book isn't an enemy of standards or stringency: it's a stepping stone towards creating more self-aware, confident and precise users of English.

It's just the kind of book teachers, pupils and possibly even newspaper columnists should read with open and inquisitive minds.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. He also writes English textbooks

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