How Not To Be A Grammar Queen

My old school has invited me to return and deliver lectures to my colleagues – the teachers in the English department– on grammar.

Really. Turns out that I have gained the status of sage in the use of the dash and the transitive and intransitive verb. As the Americans say – hoo noo? Me, a grammar expert!

What did I do to deserve this? I think it was being born, and therefore schooled, all that time ago. We were taught the subject–predicate alliance as a matter of course, and we knew there was nothing more perfect in the future perfect than in the pluperfect. It was an innocent age; we didn’t query these things.

Now when I reply to a pupil who has said “very unique”, “That’s an absolute already, you can’t add a modifier to that,” I become self-conscious. Oh dear, I have just paraded my grammatical knowledge, again. I must control myself. But the real problem is that I must now devise some grammar lectures…

It’s daunting to be asked to lecture on something that I have never claimed expertise in. (Yes, I believe there is no rule against ending sentences with prepositions. It’s merely a convention that Winston Churchill rightly dismissed as nonsense up with which he would not put!) Some things are so clear they verge on the boring. The apostrophe for instance – it’s got simple rules. I am more beguiled by the thickets of style and usage versus (v or vs?) the rules. Who sets them? I must find out…

So now I’m swallowing as many grammar books as I can. Fowler’s English Usage and Eats Shoots & Leaves are old friends; I am not sure where my copies are any more. I went and picked up Gwynne (and put him down again in pretty short order) and Pinker. Oh dear, a few shocks lay in store for me there. Allow me to quote you a passage or two:

If you are over sixty [I beg your pardon!?] or went to private school you may have noticed that this syntactic machinery differs in certain ways from what you remember from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom. …keep an open mind about how to diagram a sentence [sic] rather than assuming that everything you need to know about grammar was figured out before you were born.

Pinker, a linguist, reveals how modern analysts have rumbled earlier grammarians as both misguided – designing English grammar on the basis of Latin!* and misleading – perpetuating prejudices that have no useful purpose.

Thus the injunction against the split infinitive, and against the clause-final prepositions are exposed as “superstitions”. More worryingly, the conjunction has disappeared. Instead we get prepositions, coordinators [hmm], and determiners [wot?]. “It turns out,” writes Pinker, “that coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions have nothing in common, and there is no category called ‘conjunction’ that includes them both.” Blimey!

I am just getting my head around this modern, scientific, and rigorous (I like the Oxford comma – so shoot me!) way of understanding our syntax, when I look back at the National Curriculum specifications for grammar as tested in the SATS. And what do I find there? (Yes, Pinker is also quite sanguine about starting a sentence with an, erm, co-ordinator.) There, black on grey on my screen, is the government-backed requirement for all 11-year-olds to identify and use “conjunctions: expressing time, place and cause using conjunctions (e.g. when, before, after, while, so, because)”. So much for cutting-edge, forward-thinking curricula.

What to do? Navigating ambiguity is what we do when speaking, writing, and passing exams in English. Doing so with grace and style is my aspiration for myself and my students (be they tutees or my former colleagues).

Bill Bryson describes this phenomenon in his book Mother Tongue as asking people to play baseball using the rules of football. Perhaps a better analogy would be asking them to explain cricket using the rules of basketball. The other books I’m referring to are Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots & Leaves, the eponymous Gwynne’s Grammar, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Oliver Kamm’s Accidence will Happen.

P.S. It turns out there’s nothing wrong really with ‘very unique’ (I just read that in Kamm’s book). I really should control myself!


Poppy is an English Language and Literature tutor with Newman Tuition. To book a lesson with her, please call us on 020 3198 8006 or complete the form on the Contact Us page.