Grammar for Kids

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wants to introduce a grammar test for 10-year-olds, a proposal that has annoyed many academics. I’m in favour of anything that helps people understand each other more and grammar can certainly be important in this – but only up to a point. The most important thing is to convey what you want to say accurately and unambiguously. This generally comes naturally for the most part and it’s often not really significant how or why a sentence or phrase fulfils this function.

Neville Gwynne
Nevile Gwynne

Mr Gove praises the book Gwynne’s Grammar, described as “The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English”. The book’s author, Nevile Gwynne, has devised a grammar test for the Daily Telegraph – try it and see how you do:

The majority of questions are about parts of speech, which is fair enough, but I wonder how much knowing whether a word is an “adverb qualifying an adverb” or an “adverb qualifying an adjective-phrase” really helps you write “good English”. Two questions I found irrelevant for different reasons. One asked whether either or both of the names “Amanda” and “Miranda” were examples of the nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported into English directly from Latin. This is etymology and about Latin grammar, not English grammar. The other concerned this sentence:

“I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.”

You’re probably thinking: “Ha! The nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported directly into English from Latin!”, but please concentrate. The question actually concerns whether or not you can tell from the sentence the sex of Evelyn. Apparently you can because no comma exists after “my brother”, meaning that Mark is the brother who doesn’t live in New York, and consequently that Evelyn is the brother who does. But who on earth would ever ask a convoluted question like this? It has the same quality as a lateral thinking teaser that is fun to work out if you’re in the mood but certainly not the kind of thing that people say in the normal course of conversation. As I said earlier, accuracy and avoiding ambiguity are the most important things in communication between people.

In a letter to the Independent newspaper in March a group of 100 academics criticized Michael Gove’s new National Curriculum. Nevile Gwynne later analysed this letter and singled out one particular paragraph to highlight the academics’ own grammar failure. This is the paragraph concerned:

“Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.”

Gwynne didn’t like the first sentence because it doesn’t follow strict grammar rules, and that’s true. But it’s well-known colloquial usage and I can see nothing wrong with it here.

He also pointed out the incorrect structure of the last sentence. I’m more in agreement on this: it sounds clumsy and if you take out the end of the first clause, you end up with “Little account is taken that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.” It doesn’t sound right and I wouldn’t be happy with it in a piece of written work – not even a letter to a newspaper, especially a letter concerning educational standards!

The points the academics were trying to make were, unfortunately, somewhat undermined by their failure to write “good English”. So it’s clear that correct grammar is important sometimes!


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