Fantasy Grammar


Cover of Grammar-Land: Grammar in Fun for the Children of Schoolroom-shire, by M. L. Nesbitt, 1878

by Deborah Cameron

The national curriculum for England and Wales, introduced at the end of the 1980s, made it mandatory for schools to teach English grammar. Yet the myth still persists that grammar has not been taught since the permissive 1960s. For politicians in need of a populist gesture, that belief has been the gift that goes on giving. Every few years, the same ritual is enacted: A politically ambitious Education Secretary declares that grammar has been neglected for too long, and they announce a drive to raise standards, reforming the curriculum to put more emphasis on the ‘basics’. The initiative is welcomed by employers’ lobbies and the Daily Mail, and decried by the teaching unions. A few years later the same problem is rediscovered, and the cycle begins again.

The latest enactment of this ritual occurred last month, when our current Education Secretary, the Conservative Michael Gove, announced an overhaul of the primary school English curriculum. As usual, he promised a return to the basics, more rigorous teaching and more demanding tests. As usual, grammar featured strongly in his proposals. And as usual, those proposals suggested that Mr Gove knows very little about the subject he promotes.

The new guidelines stipulate, for instance, that ten year-olds should in future be taught about the proper use of the subjunctive. I’d expect that to be a very short lesson, since the English subjunctive is essentially extinct. Even in Oxford University’s examination regulations (an ultra-formal document which used to contain a paragraph beginning, ‘If any examiner die…’), it has now been replaced with the indicative. It survives only in a few formulaic expressions like ‘if I were you’ and ‘God save the Queen’.

The fetishizing of obsolete distinctions like indicative or subjunctive is a sure sign that we are in the realm of ‘fantasy grammar’, a version of grammar which is to the English language what maypoles, Morris dancing and Ye Olde Teashoppe are to contemporary British culture. If Mr Gove had deplored science teachers’ neglect of the basics of alchemy, or complained that medical schools are no longer teaching students about the humours, we would have wondered what planet he was on. But in the case of grammar, analogous pronouncements do not just escape derision; they are apt to be lauded for their sagacity and ‘rigour’.

Why does grammar inspire this peculiar nostalgia when other school subjects do not? In reality, it is simply the branch of linguistic knowledge which deals with the principles of word and sentence structure. But in our collective cultural fantasy it has a deeper symbolic meaning: the grammatical rules which govern language and make it orderly become a metaphor for the rules that govern social and moral conduct. Teaching grammar can thus be conceptualized as a way of inculcating the values grammar stands for—discipline, order and respect for the rules.

Michael Gove visiting a primary school.

This is exactly how grammar was conceptualized by the right-wing ideologues who successfully campaigned to make it part of the national curriculum when the latter was created in the 1980s. Their pro-grammar rhetoric rarely touched on the value of linguistic knowledge as knowledge; what it emphasized was rather the potential of grammar-teaching to reverse what was portrayed as a precipitous decline in moral standards.  John Rae, the headmaster of Westminster School, suggested in a newspaper column that the abandonment of grammar by ‘progressive’ educationalists had licensed ‘the equivalent of creative writing in social behaviour’. He continued: ‘As nice points of grammar were mockingly dismissed as pedantic and irrelevant, so was punctiliousness in such matters as honesty, responsibility, property, gratitude, and apology and so on’. The Thatcherite politician Norman Tebbit told the BBC that ‘If you allow standards to slip to the stage where good English is no better than bad English, where people turn up filthy at school…these things tend to cause people to have no standards at all, and …then there’s no imperative to stay out of crime’.

In this kind of discourse, grammar really is like alchemy, a mystical recipe for turning undisciplined schoolchildren into responsible, law-abiding citizens. Perhaps this explains the obsession with archaic rules and obscure definitions disconnected from the reality of language as we know it: the more arcane the knowledge, the greater its power. Except of course that alchemy did not work: it was based on false premises and therefore doomed to fail. The same is true of the fantasy approach to grammar.

Yet I do not share the view advanced by some on the left, that grammar is an elitist irrelevance which has no place in a modern classroom. This argument does nothing to challenge the metaphorical equation of grammar with social and moral authoritarianism. It is also ineffective strategically, because it tends to come across as the defensive reaction of people who feel insecure about their own grammatical knowledge and fear having their ignorance exposed. But there is plenty of ignorance on the other side too. If we want to break the spell, the best way to do it is to make teachers sufficiently knowledgeable about the reality of English grammar that they can no longer be distracted by fantasies or intimidated by nonsense.

About the Author:

Deborah Cameron teaches linguistics – including grammar – at Oxford University. Her book Verbal Hygiene is published by Routledge.