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? Woz-orl dis Gramma stuff anyhow

November 5th, 2014

Grammar-blogBack in the 1970s something strange happened in British schools – they stopped the formal teaching of grammar. Why? Well, not being a linguist … I’m not absolutely sure. All I know is that, having left school in 1979 with a very sketchy knowledge of the subject, it’s caused me a number of problems over the years.

For starters, learning a second language, which I did in the 1990s, was quite tricky. I particularly remember one multiracial class of students being held up for an hour while the teacher tried explaining to me (and only me) what a ‘past participle’ was – very humiliating. And then there’s writing. I don’t know, perhaps if you’re J K Rowling or Stephen King all your mistakes get picked up by armies of proof-readers and editors, but down here in the real world, if your grammar’s not right you don’t get published – it’s as simple as that. I’ve tried catching up. I’ve read Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves over and over, and I always keep a copy of New Hart’s Rules close to hand. But even so, I sometimes feel like an electrician who doesn’t really know the difference between watts and volts – a bit of a fraud.

Scooting around the internet, trying to find out why all this happened, I found a report from Glasgow University called From Parsing* to Politics: A Brief History of School Grammar Teaching. According to this, until the 1950s British educationalists worked on theories of language developed way back in the 18th century. Grammar was considered a fixed commodity with inflexible rules, it was taught by rote, and was often used an indicator of social status. But in the 1960s a series of reports came out showing that, generally, teaching grammar did nothing to improve pupils use of language. M. A. K. Halliday of University College London lead one particular project called the Programme in Linguistics and English Teaching. This promoted a new approach in which “The focus is not upon ‘teaching grammar’ but upon creating knowledge about language as pupils meet it in daily life.”

So that’s why, in the 70s, teaching changed. The intention was to help children explore language on their own terms and find ‘their own’ voices. During these years grammatical structures were explained only when necessary, and definitely not taught by rote. Was it a good idea? It’s hard to tell. For everyone who says the 1950s were a golden age, there’s someone else claiming that confident self-expression can only be nurtured in the absence of formal grammar.

And where do I stand? Well, my children are nine and twelve years old, they’re both learning grammar at school, and I think that’s good. To me, the whole argument seems very similar to the one musicians have about ‘theory.’ Do you really need it? Of course not – anyone can knock out a simple tune. But if you want to make complex music, or music with other people, you need a bit of theory; if you want to work with an orchestra you need lots of theory; and if you want to do something new – something original, then you need all the theory there is – so you know when to chuck it out of the window.

Keep on writing!

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* Parsing or syntactic analysis is the process of analysing a string of symbols, either in natural language or in computer languages, conforming to the rules of a formal grammar. The term parsing comes from Latin pars (orationis), meaning part (of speech).

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