Thursday, April 20, 2023

Tackling 'in defence of good grammar'

One of the text extracts that I linked to in this post, was a piece called In Defence of Good Grammar, written by James Innes-Smith for The Critic website, which bills itself as a "monthly magazine for politics, ideas, art, literature and much more". 

The language pieces on there are not very frequent but, when they do appear, seem to me to be a mixed bag. Some of them recycle quite common prescriptive positions. So there's this one from April 2023 which starts off by complaining about supposed Americanisms in the English language before firmly aiming its fire at just Americans more generally.  It even manages to include a language discourses greatest hits in this paragraph: 

Turn on the wireless at any hour, and you may think this country has been infected by a linguistic virus. Words and phrases that were once regarded as intrusive Americanisms have become commonplace. Curveball (what’s wrong with bouncer?) and stepping up to the plate (taking a fresh guard?) are daily horrors which merit six firm strokes of the cane.  

Then there's this one which focuses on language and class through the lens of Angela Rayner's non-standard grammar. But then you also see a few others - like this one on accommodation, class and downwards convergence - which are a bit more linguistically descriptive in their outlook. 

But it's the other article on Angela Rayner and language 'standards' that I want to focus on here, so what follows is an attempt to offer a few things: a bit of analysis, some discussion of some of the techniques and language choices being used and a couple of suggestions about where this article and some of its ideas might sit within wider discourses about language. 

You can probably tell that I've taken quite a critical stance towards it but you may well want to look at it from other perspectives and see if some of its arguments can be supported linguistically or if they might be seen as being more coherent and well-supported than I thought. Towards the end, there are also a few suggestions for other extracts in the article that you could analyse and evaluate. Anyway, here goes...

Sub-editorial features

Title immediately suggests a discourse of conflict: a defence is being made against some kind of attack.

The standfirst presupposes that Angela Rayner is torturing our language and the only question up for debate is why she needs to be stopped.

Interesting choice of verb in ‘torturing’: language is being represented as the victim of a painful process. 

Who is the ‘we’ in ‘our language’ and why has this possessive determiner been chosen? What might be the implications around the portrayal of those who are not part of the 'we', 1st person plural, group?

The image (from 1954) is in black and white and presents an elocution lesson. 

Is this the era the writer wants us to return to? A post-war utopia where people were happy to be taught how to speak ‘properly’? A simpler time when rules were rules and everyone followed them? 

Opening paragraph

  • What is the language issue and how is it being represented here? 
  • Interesting modifiers in this noun phrase: clear, educated English. Why choose these? 
  • And what do we make of these choices of abstract noun? class division, snobbishness and elitism

The second sentence uses a coordinating conjunction as a discourse marker to establish a counter-argument to the position in the first sentence. The idea here seems to be that clear, educated English isn’t ‘exclusive’: it’s welcoming and inclusive. I wonder what the writer of this piece would think about the varieties and styles of English used by many of those close to a billion people…

Selected extracts: 1

…and yes, I do believe “speaking well” has value however unfashionable that may sound.

Have a look at the positioning being used here. 

How is the author representing himself to his readers? Bravely out of touch with modern society? Proud to be out of step with modern, ‘woke’ sensibilities? Traditional, conservative and proud to be upholding standards? 

But what is this fashion that he’s out of step with? We see, on a few occasions in this article, that he makes reference to what it’s supposed to be like these days, but we don’t see a lot of empirical evidence for that. 

Selected extracts: 2

In the UK there remains an underlying sense that speaking well is the sole preserve of a posh elite, which may explain the lack of educational rigour when it comes to teaching the language.

So, where’s the evidence for this claim? It sounds very certain: look at the modality of that first sentence – ‘there remains…’ – as if this is an undeniable fact. 

And in the next clause (speaking well is the sole preserve of a posh elite), it's the the same use of the declarative mood. The adjective choice too (‘sole’) seems to accentuate the exclusivity he claims to be opposing. 

And what about the final clauses. Does that ring true? Ten- and eleven-year-olds in the UK do grammar tests… you’re doing an A level that involves some quite hardcore grammar. But no, this is a lack of ‘educational rigour’. 

And what of the emerging discourses? We started with one around conflict and now we’re into ones around rigour and permissiveness, good versus bad, right versus wrong. It’s a fairly familiar prescriptive discourse.

Selected extracts: 3

By this paragraph, we are well into some fairly common anecdotes about young people these days…

You may have noticed the extent of adolescent inarticulacy when listening to school leavers struggling to construct a coherent sentence without having to fall back on verbal ticks such as “like”, “innit” and “you know what I mean?” Yet this pummelling at the foundations of communication is by no means limited to the less well educated.

The use of ‘pummelling at the foundations of communication’ seems quite hyperbolic as well: as if the very basis of communication is being attacked by young people’s ill-educated language choices. 

And a few lines later, you could analyse the representation of ‘street’ language – whatever that might mean in this context – through the adjectives used in the examples of ‘mangles phrasing and sloppy grammar’. 

Selected extracts: 4

By the time we get to the rather predictable George Bernard Shaw quotation and the author’s assertion that ‘this embarrassment about the way we speak has become endemic’, we are firmly into the kind of language discourse you’ll have seen many times before: language styles and variations as a disease. 

‘Endemic’ has less wide-ranging connotations than ‘pandemic’ but still implies that something has become widespread in a certain community and that’s quite an interesting theme in this article, because the author reflects quite a lot on this problem that he’s identified as being an English thing: a modern English disease, perhaps? 

Does this suggest that his theme - that 'we' are squeamish about 'good grammar' is a modern development and one we should jettison?

Other sections to look at

There’s plenty more to analyse in this article but I’ll leave you with these final extracts to think about.

Look how opposing ideas have been represented here, the metaphors being used and their implications if you take them to their logical conclusions. 

How fair or accurate do you think this might be, when you think about some of the linguistic arguments you’ve explored on your course? 

Instead of lowering standards to meet ideological whims and cultural and class sensitivities we should be lifting young people out of the prison of low expectation and equipping them with the tools they need to live a rich and communicative life.

And what about the discourses conveyed through the metaphor choices in these two extracts? What kind of arguments about language and society are being advanced?

What language deconstructionists fail to acknowledge is that without these vital literacy skills, children will always struggle to find purpose and meaning. By allowing language to become part of the culture war we deny children access to the great works of literature as well as limiting their chances of gainful employment.

Angela Rayner may have lucked out but millions of working class people remain trapped in systemic disadvantage brought about by a lack of will on the part of teachers and parents to instil a love of language.

...without fluency of language, they will remain trapped in a cycle of ignorance and poverty...

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