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!