Why Your Wrong about Grammar

By McConville, Alistair | Times Educational Supplement, August 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

Why Your Wrong about Grammar


McConville, Alistair, Times Educational Supplement


Grammar's reputation as a tool for pedants must be rehabilitated, Alistair McConville argues. When taught well, far from constraining creativity, it gives young people the ability to make choices about how they use language and acts as an essential glue for social cohesion

In a 12th-century stone relief at Chartres Cathedral, a po-faced personification of grammar holds a scourge threateningly, while two children cower at their books beneath her.

For too many, this resonates with their own experience of grammatical study. A penchant for grammar smacks of dusty pedantry, squeaky chalk and mortar boards. It conjures up black-and-white mental images of canes and gruel.

Unsurprising, then, that the government's attempts to re-emphasise the importance of grammar through systematic teaching and testing have been much criticised, not least in the pages of this magazine, with pictures painted by critics of bewildered children robbed of their childhood by fronted adverbials, driven to distraction by antonyms and under ruthless assault from ellipses.

Geoffrey Willian's literary creation, the grammar-lite Molesworth, would no doubt see such a prescriptive regime as an utter "swiz", dreamed up by sadistic "skool masters", and beloved only of "swots, wets and weeds".

Is he right? Or can our collective perception of grammar be rehabilitated? I believe so, but there are minefields to negotiate surrounding questions of individuality, hierarchical control, creativity and freedom of expression.

A 'trivium' matter

In the classical world, grammar's pre-eminent status was unchallengeable. It was one of the three foundational arts - the "trivium" - alongside dialectic (logical reasoning), and rhetoric (the art of communication and persuasion). These three paths put a young Greek firmly en route to becoming an educated, fulfilled human being capable of successful contribution to his community: healthy, wealthy and wise. So how did grammar end up with the bad reputation that it has today?

Perhaps the problem has lain in a tendency to think of (or indeed teach) grammar as the dissection of living language into dry, atomised chunks, which are labelled and filed in the appropriate place by the grammarian, robbing our dynamic language of its natural spontaneity and creative possibilities. No doubt plenty of students have had good reason to think of grammar this way, having associated it with rote-learning endings and principal parts of decontextualised Latin verbs. (Fero, ferre, tuli and latum are all from the same verb? Give us a chance!)

The mistake, of course, has been to define grammar as though it were only the drudgerous element of language learning - hard, colourless, but necessary work in laying the foundations for distant understanding - rather than expanding our definition to include a more generalised sense of discovering meaning in our communications with one another. Philosopher Anthony O'Hear defines grammar in promisingly broad terms, as "the ability to read and express subtleties of meaning in words".

Language generates meaning in a way that ought to be a source of constant wonder and fascination. We are all guilty of taking it for granted every day. By means of varying our bodily grunts, hisses, tuts, ticks and exhalations, human beings can express feelings, give instructions, joke, tell stories, chide, offend, flatter, and so on and so on. Incredibly, we can achieve exactly the same effects with squiggles and scratches on a page.

It is surely no exaggeration to say that language, spoken and written, is the evolutionary development on which the whole cooperative edifice of civilisation rests, and grammar is the gateway to our understanding of this extraordinary capacity.

We marvel and delight at the effects of the whole when we read Shakespeare - or Molesworth - but would it not be contrary to our natural inquisitiveness if we weren't also eager to look under the bonnet and peer at the inner workings? …

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