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Grammar is not enough

BaldJohn Bald welcomes Nevile Gwynne's book on grammar - but warns it will not guarantee moral virtue

Gwynne's Grammar, commended by Michael Gove to his civil servants, is in fact two books - his own analysis of English grammar, and a reprint of The Elements of Style, published in 1918 by Professor William Strunck  Jnr. of Cornell University. Mr Gwynne sets out the basics -  parts of speech, sentence structures, clauses and phrases, and punctuation.

He then leaves it to Professor Strunck to instruct us in applying what we have learned, with the goal of developing a style. Style is, for Mr Gwynne, "a science, just as much a science as any of the physical sciences to which the word is nowadays more commonly applied." A student develops his own style by studying other people's, and Michael Gove's memo suggests   writers to study, including George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchins.

An unusual grouping - Orwell and Eliot would be on my list, and gentle Jane's manuscripts as an interesting early use of the dash - but I'm not sure about the others. I would add Dickens, whose flexible yet entirely accurate grammar is a major part of his genius, and might prefer Charles Moore to the others, not that I always agree with him.

I had never heard of Professor Strunck, but his thoughts on organising writing are virtually identical to the advice I was given at university.  Strunck is very good indeed on punctuation, on the management of participles and relative clauses, on finding and omitting needless words, and on organising writing into paragraphs.  His ideas are at the heart of modern broadsheet writing, and none is more important than punctuation. When we speak, we use pauses and emphasis as they occur to us spontaneously - though this in itself is something we have learned to do.

When we write, we insert them by means of marks on the paper which are very simple in themselves - a dot, a dot with a tail, a dash - but which can contribute to or detract from meaning just as much as words. The most common, and commonly fatal, error at GCSE lies in not knowing where to place a full stop, and using a comma instead.

Most of us could learn a thing or two from Professor Strunck, but I also recommend Harold Evans' Essential English, also praised to the skies by John Humphrys. "Thank God it's back in print," he says on the cover of my copy. "It has never been more necessary."

Professor Gwynne sees his emphasis on grammar as a blow against child-centred education, and in this he can expect little disagreement from Conservatives.  The opposition lies in the policies of the National Association for the Teaching of English and its allies, notably Michael Rosen, whose father, the late Professor Harold Rosen, was one of the association's founders.

Recent histories of the Association have shown that it grew out of a conflict between an approach to English based on great literature, typified by the work of F R Leavis of Downing College, and known for short as "Cambridge English", and its own "London English", characterised by an emphasis on personal growth rather than correctness. The Association has, over time, been so successful in infiltrating its people and ideas into all areas of education that it has left generations without the skills in formal written and oral English that they need in order succeed in their later school work and in employment.

We might now have a chance to roll their changes back.

So, am I to take to the streets waving the copy of Mr Gwynne's little purple book my wife bought me a couple of months ago?  Well, and I say this with trepidation, I'm not.

Attention to grammar is a step in the right direction, and Mr Gwynne avoids the spanner that has been thrown into the works by twentieth century linguistics,  which frequently introduces new long words that do not clarify anything at all. The word  a, for example,   traditionally described as an article, is  in linguistics a determiner, even though it does not determine anything. To Mr Gwynne, it is "a kind of demonstrative adjective", though I can't see what it demonstrates.

Terminology should make things clear to people, and not create a new barrier to understanding through its own obscurity. I have a similar problem with the term "parts of speech" applied to types of word. Most "parts" can be broken down into smaller parts - sounds and groups of sounds, letters and groups of letters - and it does not advance anyone's understanding of a word to call it a part of speech.  

Mr Gwynne avoids the common error of describing verbs simply as "doing words" - misleading, because the most frequent verbs in European languages, to do and to have, do not actually do anything - but then suggests "a telling word" for beginners. The verb in My car is old doesn't really tell us as much as the adjective,  though. I've dealt with some of these issues in a paper on grammar for the Scottish Centre for Information on language teaching.

A head of English told me at the Wellington Festival that his examining board  had stopped allowing examiners to refer poor handwriting to senior examiners for adjudication. The only thing that could now be referred was a child protection issue.  If handwriting was illegible, the examiner just had to guess. If I can find confirmation, I'll name the board.

The suggestion that correct grammar leads to correct thinking and therefore correct decisions and happiness is put rather more circumspectly in his book than it was on Radio 4.  There are not too many grammatical errors in Mein Kampf.


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