Gwynne’s Grammar

I hadn’t heard of Nevile Gwynne until this morning. Michael Gove clearly has. Gwynne is a former businessman and self-taught grammarian whose primer has been endorsed by the Education Secretary as one of the books he wishes his civil servants to read, along with Orwell, Waugh and Austen, in order to improve their style.

An elderly Old Etonian with a clipped accent, Gwynne was on the radio lamenting the grammarless wilderness to which, he says, education was consigned 50 years ago. Grammar is the basis of everything, he explained: words frame thoughts which, clearly constructed (with the benefit of good grammar), lead to good decisions, which lead to happiness. Perhaps a rather simplistic view of the workings of society, but we got his general drift.

Listening to him, I felt oddly divided. A self-confessed pedant is someone from whom I would naturally recoil. One who is hailed by Michael Gove as a beacon of educational excellence should be an anathema. And yet, a little voice was whispering to me, ‘He’s right, you know, if you can’t tell a gerund from a participle you’re barely literate.’ Well … words to that effect.

The odd thing is that I don’t recall being taught English grammar. Every rule I remember comes from either French, Latin or Greek. Even now if I think, for example, of a subjunctive – which I don’t very often – I see it first in one of those languages, then work backwards. It’s as if I learnt English grammar in reflection. And perhaps there’s a lesson there. Perhaps it’s easier to learn the grammar of a new language, whose vocabulary and syntax you’re learning at the same time, because then you’re constructing the whole edifice from scratch; whereas deconstructing the language you already speak naturally is a much more difficult, some would say pointless, thing to do.

Is it pointless? I have some sympathy for people who think: ‘I can make myself understood perfectly well without it. What’s the problem?’ If the purpose of language is to communicate and one can communicate effectively without an ablative ever having darkened one’s door, then fair enough. I took the Gwynne test (here) and scored somewhat less than 100%. Sour grapes perhaps but I came away thinking: how useful is it really to know that in the sentence ‘This is nowhere near good enough’, ‘nowhere’ is an adverb qualifying an adverb? Thousands of people every day must say something similar, in exactly the right context, without ever having needed first to parse the sentence.

Earlier this year I helped my son with his undergraduate dissertation. I’m fairly sure he hasn’t been taught any grammar since primary school, if even then. He certainly wouldn’t know a subjunctive if it floated to the top of his soup. And in his acknowledgments he rather touchingly thanked ‘my dad for teaching me what a verb is at the age of 22.’ Yet his essay was perfectly readable, there was nothing wrong with his thinking, and apart from a stubborn confusion of ‘effect’ with ‘affect’ it was free of the kind of howlers on which Messrs Gove and Gwynne surely love to pounce.

But still the idea that grammar is valuable persists with me. Of course it does. I’m a writer and I need to know grammar as a cabinet-maker needs to know the grain of his wood. As professional knowledge it’s indispensable, and its very constraints bring with them an enormous freedom – to be precise, to be clear, to be elegant, even lyrical. But not everyone needs that particular knowledge, and the idea that a whole new generation of schoolchildren might grow up having to endure the parroting of an English version of ‘amo, amas, amat’ seems a retrograde step of the kind only Gove could dream up.

In my universe, grammar would be optional. It would be taken out of the hands of the pedants and disciplinarians, the Gradgrinds and Squeers’s, with whom it has so long been associated, and entrusted to the kind of visionary teachers who can find a new and enlivening place for it in a world where some will need it, others won’t, and education in general – to return to my theme of two weeks ago – values intuition as highly it does intellect.

A Few Kind Words will be going off air for three weeks. Normal service will be resumed on August 2nd. Meanwhile the Dark Angels collective novel now has 80% of its funding. Sincere thanks to everyone who has already pledged – and if you haven’t, do please consider helping us to get the final 20% by pledging here!

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About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
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7 Responses to Gwynne’s Grammar

  1. anitanee says:

    Although every time I read or hear about Gove it makes my heart sink, I was torn too. The piece began by saying the DfE was looking at the way they communicate (or something similar) and I was over the moon, hoping they’d called in you or John Simmons! But then I listened on … and my heart sank further. I’m one of those who wasn’t taught grammar, at least not in the detail that Gwynne expects. In my early 20s, a kindly person sparked my interest in learning more, by recommending a book (The Elements of Style, Strunk and White). Yet I still tremble when people start questioning me about some of those definitions that you and Gwynne speak of (or of which you speak!). I wholeheartedly agree with you, and I think I’d like your universe.

  2. You’re welcome to join, Anita! You’ll remember that Evan Davis said to Gwynne words to the effect of, ‘the problem with [your] approach is that people then become obsessed with correctness and forget that the whole point is to communicate something.’ I agree. And then I heard Daniel Pinker just now on Desert Island Discs (listening to a lot of radio right now – in between the tennis!) saying his research has shown that children don’t simply memorise what their parents say but that they start to create their own basic rules from it, which is why they can make mistakes such as ‘I runned, I holded’ etc. So to some extent we’re hard-wired for grammar anyway. Fascinating subject … !

  3. James Robertson says:

    Like you, Jamie, I scored somewhat less than 100% on Gwynne’s grammar test. One answer I got right by sheer guesswork, another I got wrong because I foolishly stuck with the presumption that as version (a) of a sentence sounded and read much more natural(ly?) than version (b), it was the grammatically correct one. It wasn’t, which only goes to demonstrate that language evolves, sometimes through natural usage and wastage, sometimes as a result of immense pressures brought to bear on it by forces (principally the mass/instant media) that did not exist in earlier times. Sometimes it makes more sense to split an infinitive than not to. Sometimes, to say that a failure ever to break a grammatical rule is something up with which we should not put – is patently silly.

    As your examples of children saying ‘I runned’, ‘I holded’ clearly show, grammar is itself inconsistent, otherwise those children would not be making grammatical errors. And your other point is also right: many, perhaps most people, don’t need to know the niceties of grammar, they need to know how to communicate effectively. In previous apparently golden ages of grammar, which never existed, the vast bulk of the population either didn’t read or write or had very little need in their daily lives to do so, and they certainly did not form their sentences according to a set of grammatical rules. Now the bulk of the population has to grapple with the written word on a daily basis, but to expect everybody to mould their sentences like an old ex-Etonian who no doubt studied Latin is both absurd and futile. We may not always like what the democratisation of language produces, but it is democracy. The only people who get upset by sloppy grammar (and I include myself in that group) are those who are reasonably proficient in their own use of grammar. That’s like a professional pianist castigating thousands of lesser pianists for not coming up to his or her standards. It is, in other words, snobbery by another name. I am sometimes guilty of this. I need to get over it, and generally do!

  4. I’m sure you do, James – and more than just generally! And I agree, you need to be interested in it to be bothered by it. I love your pianist analogy, it’s spot on. I was searching for a musical analogy while writing the post late last night but the brain wasn’t up to it. Now I can’t help feeling that the grammar pedants have their musical equivalents in those countless music teachers who, tragically, destroy music for their students through rigid adherence to the rules, the grammar one might say, of the western classical tradition. It might serve the pianist in your analogy perfectly, but when I think of the many, many stories I’ve heard of those who simply want to enjoy an instrument, yet can’t wait to stop being taught the minute they leave school and never ever pick up an instrument again in their lives, I could weep …

    • James Robertson says:

      Yes, and think of all those musicians who can’t read a note of music but can certainly make it, and make it beautifully. We know there are many writers who don’t know the rules of grammar but whose prose or poetry is sublime or even not sublime but brilliant. Rules can destroy as much as they can aid…

  5. wrbcg says:

    Gwynne is a traditional prescriptive grammarian for whom Latin grammar is perfection. He would no doubt welcome a National Academy of English so as to forever preserve the language in its imagined form. Unfortunately, Latin is not widely taught in schools these days and English is not Latin – the fit is far from perfect. This is compounded by the fact that English is a living language; Latin is not.

    I, unusually, was taught basic grammar at prep school by a brilliant, young, English teacher called Nick Aldridge. He told us that he did not like any of the published grammars and so we were conscripted into assisting him in writing his own grammar. I learnt the lessons well and, thus, found myself to be one of only three or four students (out of the 70) in my university class who could parse sentences. Yet, that was the only paralinguistic grammar instruction I received. The rest was intuited through being corrected (functional grammar), and through extensive reading.

    I perhaps fared somewhat better with the test as I spend most of working time teaching language. Students who have studied grammar in their own first languages seem to delight in asking intractable questions about English grammar. In my teaching – effective communication being the objective – I use a blend of functional and lexical approaches. The former tells the student how and when a form of language is used; the latter, teaches the collocations and colligations that are in common use (a descriptive grammar).

    Having looked at Gwynne’s (incidentally the apostrophe’s uses were not settled until the19th century) justifications for his answers, I disagree with numbers 1, 9, and 10.

    “Whom” (which has been controversial since its introduction in the 1830s) is almost extinct in spoken language and fast heading that way in written. Most experts (eg Prof David Crystal) would accept “who” as perfectly valid form which does not compromise the intended meaning. It is likely to be seen, within a generation, as being as archaic as “thou” and its matching “-est” inflection.

    Having been prescriptive in his answer in question number 1, Gwynne attempts to become descriptive in number 9. His argument that “teaching” is an adjective qualifying the object pronoun “me” is nonsensical and breaks the rules on which he would categorically insist elsewhere. Also, it becomes impossible to parse the sentence. Moreover, he seems unaware that a gerund is a present participle, albeit one with a special role. (In Spanish, the present participle, no matter how used, is known as el gerundio.)

    In number 10, he is quite correct that first is both adjective and adverb; he fails to point out that all the ordinals have this characteristic and, therefore, first, second, third.. would, traditionally, be far more correct.

    With number 11, despite the explanation, the implication is too nuanced for most people, including me, to work out that Evelyn is a brother.

    If this is the way that Gove & Gwynne would have Civil Servants write, it will make the documents sound outdated and in some cases unintelligible. This would fulfil, what i have long believed to be the mandate given to new Civil Servants when editing their work: “If one can understand that which you have written on the first reading, there is obviously something wrong with it.”

  6. John Roberts says:

    I’m sure I’m not alone in spotting the pedant’s pedant hoist with his own petard on World Update this morning: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01bdmvs

    Gwynne: “…we’ve got to get our thinking and therefore our words and our grammar exactly right and the more precisely and exact we know them, the more richer and the more useful and the more accurate, above all, our thoughts are going to be.”

    This is followed by host Dee Sebastian asking, “Quickly, your worst, worst grammar gaffe?”

    Gwynne: “The one that irritates me most… is the modern use of ‘hopefully’, when people say, ‘Hopefully, we’re going to improve our grammar’, rather than, ‘I looked at him hopefully…”

    Sebastian (interrupting): “We’ll have to leave it there Neville but I’d like to say to all the listeners, ‘Hopefully you’ll be back listening to us on Monday.'”

    When the grammar guru commits such a basic error and the BBC presenter immediately throws his “most irritating grammar gaffe” back at him, doesn’t it emphasise the hopelessness of the enterprise?

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