Monday, November 22, 2010

A prescriptivist pot-pourri

Conservative governments - even ones that barely scraped into power and find themselves propped up by Lib Dem MPs - tend to like their pronouncements about "tradition", especially when it comes to cultural touchstones like the English language itself and the traditions of the language. So, it's not much of a surprise to find that Michael Gove, the Tory Education Minister, has started to talk tough about spelling and grammar in school students' work. According to Friday's Daily Telegraph, students will lose up to 5% of their marks at GCSE (in any subject) if their spelling, punctuation and grammar aren't up to scratch.

Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who doesn't think that clear communication is vital to the education of a student, and I think most students would probably agree too. But dig a little deeper into what Gove and his supporters say and you get a much more muddled picture of what "clear communication" means. Take the comments on this page of the Daily Telegraph's site, where posters bring up many of their own pet hates about language usage - "sloppy speech", innit, we was, slang of all colours (but mostly black and/or American), anyone who doesn't speak RP -  and you can see that to the Conservative Party's natural support base, the perception is that the English language has been wrested away from them and placed in the hands of the infidels and chavvy proletarians, but now they can claim it back as their own.

The horrible prescriptivist pot-pourri that appears on pages like this shows us what confusion there is about grammar and how we should be studying it in more detail: not studying it to be prescriptive and claim that one should never dangle a participle or split an infinitive, but to learn more about the language in all its fantastic variety. The approach I'd support is the one outlined here on the UCL project blog and here in an article for the TES that Professor Dick Hudson and I wrote the other week.

More grammar - yes please, but not the kind of "grammar" that should remain in the Victorian schoolbook or in the snug of some Surrey village pub where the bar is propped up by retired wing-commanders and investment bankers whose grammar is basically prejudice dressed up to look like knowledge.

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