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Michael Gove’s grammar: former education minister is gonna rue the day he used Nonstandard English

Tensions are running high. The battle for Brexit is reaching its climax. The need for government ministers to sound decisive and determined is tantamount. So why does government minister Michael Gove suddenly sound like he’s speaking in someone else’s voice?

In a recent interview with BBC Politics Live, the host Andrew Neil asked Michael Gove what the government would do if Labour succeeded in getting a referendum amendment attached to the deal. Gove’s answer was short and blunt: “That ain’t gonna happen … There ain’t gonna be no second referendum.”

Gove’s answer used two grammatical constructions of Nonstandard English (any structured variety of English which differs from Standard English): “ain’t” (instead of Standard English “isn’t”) and a construction referred to as a double negative (or as an instance of multiple negation, or negative concord). Double negatives use two negative elements in a sentence instead of one (compare: “There ain’t gonna be no second referendum” with “There isn’t going to be a second referendum”).

These constructions are regularly and systematically used in Nonstandard dialects (that is to say, there are grammatical rules about when and where they can be used in the varieties that use them – they aren’t just “mistakes”). But they never appear in Standard English – the variety of English that most closely describes how Gove would normally speak.

Going a bit ‘street’

So why does Gove use them? Nonstandard negative constructions are most often found in the speech of people with working-class backgrounds, so their use is often linked to the social characteristics associated with working-class people. Depending on who you are (and what you think about working-class people), rightly or wrongly, this can include characteristics such as “straight-talking” and “resilient”.

We also know that repetition in English can be associated with emphasis. So the use of two negative elements, instead of one, might also help to intensify the strength of what is being communicated.

In this way, Gove’s use of nonstandard negative constructions might communicate his attempt to portray himself as “straight-talking” and “resilient”. It also aims to stress his commitment to what he is saying – to emphasise his belief that there will be no second referendum. Of course, whether or not we read that in his message depends upon what we believe about Gove and precisely what we, as individuals, infer when we hear instances of nonstandard negation.

The fact that Gove doesn’t normally speak like this contributes to how we interpret what he’s saying. So, we might understand that he’s trying to sound “tough” but we might read this as disingenuous or fake, because he doesn’t sound like himself.

Keeping up standards

What has all of this got to do with the National Curriculum? Well, in 2014, a new National Curriculum in English in England was introduced. It was designed and launched by Gove as education minister. The new National Curriculum for English placed increased emphasis on the importance of children using Standard English – not just in writing, but also “in a range of formal and informal contexts of speech”.

While everyone expects Standard English to be the norm in writing, it is not the norm in speech for the majority of English children (or, indeed, adults). Many of us use the nonstandard features of our local dialect all of the time when we are speaking, but we often interchange them with features of Standard English.

The National Curriculum discourages all use of Nonstandard English. Undrey via Shutterstock

In many cases, this is not because we don’t know how to speak in Standard English, but because using our local variety signals the many positive associations we have to our local area. It can also help us to communicate more nuanced messages about the content of what we say – that we are being “emphatic”, “determined” or “tough” when we use an instance of nonstandard negation.

In this way, nonstandard grammatical items can be very useful because they allow us to communicate our feelings or stances concisely. Saying: “I ain’t done nothing” is a quick way to say: “I haven’t done anything, I’m strongly telling you this, and I don’t agree with what you have said.” How people use Nonstandard English in this way shows us how useful it can be.

Gove’s National Curriculum policy suggests that Nonstandard English is never useful because Standard English “covers most registers”. This has led to criticisms that schools are teaching grammar as inflexible and fixed: there are right and wrong ways to use language – and Standard English is always the right way. But as Gove himself has shown, sometimes Nonstandard English can be the right way to speak – it communicates a message quickly, efficiently and directly, and it does so better than a Standard English “equivalent” might.

This doesn’t mean that Nonstandard English is appropriate in formal writing (or that we shouldn’t be teaching children to write in Standard English) but it does suggest that attempts to remove Nonstandard English from speech will not necessarily result in more efficient, interesting and effective communication.

In this way, Gove’s use of nonstandard negative constructions in speech not only exposes the flexibility of grammatical variation and its rich social meaning potentials, it also exposes the flaws in his National Curriculum policy. In two small statements about Brexit, Gove has been hoisted by his own petard.

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