Put the romance back into grammar

29th September 2006 at 01:00
In the latest in our series of resources that inspire, Elizabeth Hawksley looks at the notty problems of punctuation and other writing skills

When I started teaching in the adult education department of an FE college 20 years ago, punctuation, on the whole, was not a problem. When I left 17 years later, it was a serious concern.

This was echoed by the Royal Literary Fund in March this year, which reported "grave concerns about the shortcomings in student writing skills nationally" in its paper Writing Matters on the experience of its Fellows embedded in universities.

The paramount question, in my view, is what happens to grammatical language and concepts when English grammar drops off the curriculum. The answer is stark. The language of grammar disappears. Terms such as adverb, past participle and subordinate clause are now little understood. Most of my students knew that a verb was a "doing word" and that was all. A 1960s O-level pupil would have known about tenses, the names and functions of various parts of speech and so on. That has all gone.

If the tools have gone, how far is the ability to do the job at risk? What happens if you don't know what a main verb or a tense is? In my students'

essays I frequently found clauses masquerading as sentences and paragraphs which switched from past to present tense and back again.

It is not only students who are guilty of this. In a children's historical novel, specifically written to fit in with the national curriculum, I came across the following "sentence": "Which meant she was much less strict than other adults." We are forced to ask whether editors themselves always know how to punctuate properly.

This sets up a concomitant problem for teachers. Trying to teach students enough grammar to stop them jumping tense mid-paragraph is like expecting a cookery novice to attempt a five-star recipe. They don't have the language to tackle it. Descriptions such as "present or imperfect tense", "past and present participle" and so on, mean nothing to them. It was difficult to know where to start.

Give students too much grammar and they tend to go glassy-eyed. I came to call it the Colonel Dedshot factor. (Colonel Dedshot is the friend of Professor Branestawm in Norman Hunter's books. Whenever the professor explained his latest invention, Colonel Dedshot's mind "went all woolly".) Fortunately, punctuation terms are still understood - just, although I have had a student asking what the word paragraph meant, which struck me as an ominous portent of things to come. However, many were hazy about punctuation. One thought commas were sprinkled about like black pepper on pizza.

With a friend, Jenny Haddon, who has a business background, I started a project to look into reversing the decline in punctuation standards. We decided that you cannot turn back the clock.

We must start from where we are and build on what the students know. The success of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves shows that the interest is there. Her book, however, is not a How To guide.

There was, we discovered, a real desire for something which explained punctuation in accessible terms. It needed to avoid the Colonel Dedshot factor and keep grammatical terms to a minimum. It must be foolproof (I had not forgotten my student who did not know what a paragraph was), informative without being dogmatic and it should answer questions that a reasonable adult might ask.

Jenny and I are both novelists. We wondered if it would be possible to have a How to Punctuate guide with mini-novels running through it, perhaps in the examples and quizzes.

We invented a would-be historical romantic novelist called Belinda Bubblewit whose (unpublished) novel, Love and Lucasta's Lord, demonstrates all too clearly What Not To Do.

Colleagues were hugely supportive of our project and many confessed that they themselves had problems with punctuation. "I've always wondered about plural possessives," said a senior bank official, who had obviously been taking a wild stab at them for years. It seemed there were many people who wanted a user-friendly guide they could either learn from or dip into to check something. So we wrote one.

Elizabeth Hawksley taught both vocational and non-vocational courses at an FE college. Getting the point. A panic-free guide to English punctuation for adults by Jenny Haddon and Elizabeth Hawksley is published by Floris Books price pound;9.99

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