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The grammar police belong in the 18th century – let’s not inflict their rules on today’s children

Hard for primary school children – what about you? TungCheung/

Parents and teachers in England are angry about a spelling, punctuation and grammar test that school children must sit at the end of primary school. First introduced in 2013, all 11-year-olds at local-authority-maintained schools will take the test on May 10. This year the difficulty level has increased significantly, in line with the new national curriculum, leading to calls for all key stage tests to be cancelled.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s The World At One on May 3, schools minister Nick Gibb answered a typical question from the test incorrectly. He was presented with the sentence: “I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner.” Asked whether the word “after” in the sentence was a subordinating conjunction or a preposition, Gibb said preposition. According to the terminology used in the tests this is the wrong answer, although the British-American linguist Geoff Pullum has argued that this terminology is based on an “ancient but incorrect analysis”.

There are many aspects of the debate around these tests, and the wider culture of testing they are a part of, but a significant issue remains the purpose of learning grammar.

Grammar as a subject is distinct from the spelling and punctuation that it sits alongside in the test. Spelling and punctuation are artificial functions of the written language and can only be acquired explicitly. Grammar, by contrast, is an innate part of natural language which children acquire from birth – although the Standard English required for formal writing may differ in key aspects from their naturally acquired English.

At its best, learning about grammar is the process of enabling children to understand the structures of English. This can help them to improve their own writing in a range of styles, and provides a foundation from which they can understand how the grammars of other languages differ from their own. At its worst, learning about grammar is about acquiring abstract terminology and a set of nit-picking (and occasionally outdated or simply invented) rules about “correct” grammar. This can result in children losing all interest in their own language, as well as any faith in their own ability to write well.

These two poles of grammar teaching – the “descriptive” (learning to describe structure) and the “prescriptive” (learning a set of prescriptions about language) – have been evident in the teaching of grammar from the outset.

The government’s own aims are sometimes nakedly prescriptive. The fact that “children will be expected to understand how to use the subjunctive” was trumpeted as a key feature of the higher standards in English introduced when the revised National Curriculum was announced in 2012. This decision makes little sense given that the use of the subjunctive is rapidly dropping out of even the most formal English.

Grammar obsessions

Before the 18th century, English grammar was rarely taught explicitly. If you learned grammar, you learned it via grammars of other languages, most notably Latin. The original purpose of grammar schools, first set up during the medieval period, was to teach Latin.

Grammar obsessive: Robert Lowth. Engraving by LE Pine

The 18th century saw an explosion in the publication of books about English grammar. The most influential grammarian of his day was Robert Lowth, whose 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar went through over 40 editions before 1800. Lowth has often been held responsible for all later prescriptive rules, including the split infinitive. As Ingrid Tieken Boon van Ostade has shown, however, Lowth’s prescriptivism is less evident than has generally been assumed. He certainly had nothing to say about the split infinitive.

Still, the success of Lowth’s Grammar prompted others to emulate him and brought about a surge of linguistic consciousness quite unlike anything before. Grammar books became one of the publishing phenomena of the day. The result was a circular process.

The idea that incorrect grammar was a terrible social stigma meant that there was a lucrative market for self-improving grammar books. Many authors hastened to supply this market by writing grammar books, which reinforced the idea that bad grammar was a terrible social stigma. Along the way, many new “rules” were formulated by grammarians keen to fill their pages, and there was a proliferation of exercises in bad grammar designed to test students’ mastery of these rules.

What the Romans didn’t

In his preface, Lowth writes that: “The principal design of a grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that language.” This line of reasoning led one of his imitators, William Milns, to make claims such as: “Latiné loqui, the speaking of correct Latin was an accomplishment which even the natives of ancient Rome could not attain but by long and assiduous study.”

No linguist today believes that Roman school children had to be drilled in amo, amas, amat in order to speak their native language fluently. Yet, pressures towards a prescriptive teaching of grammar remain, particularly in the context of the new nationally administered test.

The need to reduce grammar to something that can easily be tested through multiple choice questions gives the impression that grammar is a subject for which there are always simple right and wrong answers. It also confuses the ability to understand language structure with the ability to obey arbitrary, prescriptive rules.

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