Sunday, 10 July 2011

GRAMMAR-LAND – M. L .Nesbitt, 1889 (British Library reproduction 2010)

M gave me this book the other week. On the front cover it says ‘GRAMMAR IS THE ART OF SPEAKING AND WRITING A LANGUAGE WITH PROPRIETY.’ Surely we should all strive for as much? It should be on every school curriculum in the country.
I loved Lynne Truss’ book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It highlighted the sad demise of grammar; you only have to walk through any city centre to see the evidence – I noted strawbry’s written on a greengrocer’s board recently. It also illustrated perfectly why it is still important. For example, without the apostrophe how will we distinguish between plural and possession? Clearly, a language evolves: thee, thou, thy etc. are now archaic and “it wasn’t me” is given as a particular example of ‘bad grammar’ in Grammar-Land although it is now seen as correct usage. But that does not change the fact that grammar is still important. It has always altered and adjusted to meet the requirements of the time. Therefore, it should not be abandoned. It matters just as much now as it ever did. I currently tutor English at Key Stage 3 for a Distance Learning company and I so rarely see an assignment written in Formal English throughout. I often feel as though I have to teach them the basics when they are thirteen years old.
With the advent of the National Literacy Strategy, all teachers were obliged to impart an understanding of what was termed ‘word level’ and ‘sentence level’ work to their pupils. The previous approach of ‘put language in the path of a child and hope they will fall over it’ was supposedly abandoned in favour of formal English lessons, even for the youngest pupils. I was teaching full-time then and I had a class of 4-5 year olds. I taught them the rules of English, I admit with some scepticism, but they loved it. They soaked it up. But now the curriculum has been deemed too formal, it is apparently not accessible enough, so it is once again being dumbed down.
I am sick and tired of finding that every time I receive a letter through the post, whether it is from the office of a banker, lawyer, insurer or TV repair centre that it is riddled with elementary errors. I was looking forward to the time, I think it would have been in about three or four years, when those original recipients of that formal curriculum would be taking their places at their office desks and would be answering my queries with ‘propriety’. But in the intervening years these children have, once again, been given the message that anything goes; they have been given the green light to use the conventions of text messaging not only for informal interaction with friends but for every communication. Therefore, I should, I suppose, get used to the fact that I will very rarely encounter you’re as a contraction of you are, as your takes fewer characters (or should I, in modern parlance, say less characters?)
I wish everyone would read Grammar –Land. It could be seen as a crash course. It is brim-full of charm, as is illustrated by the dedication: To all little children who think grammar hard and dry, this book is dedicated, by one who loves to see sunshine in schoolroom-shire.

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