Saturday, 14 May 2016

A dead hand laid too heavy - Dennis Hamley

I would be very surprised if anybody who writes or reads these blogs would consider that what children under eleven are in future expected to know about language is anything but a disastrous misunderstanding of the true nature of both language and learning. Let's take at random one of the fantastic assertions the onlie begetters of the futile new tests peddle as stone tablets. What are the situations in which you can use the the humble exclamation mark? It would appear that children need to know that one of the very few places in which it can be used without fuelling the experts' anger is when the sentence begins with 'How' or 'What' . Actually, as the last sentence but one above begins with 'What', there's a good case to make that I should have used one instead of a question mark.

On reading the paragraph over, it occurs to me that I've said something serially stupid. 'What? Can he be serious about that?'  I hear you cry? Surely he should say 'What! Can he be serious about that?' because 'What' is  a surprised exclamation on its own. But  also, 'What' has interrogative associations. So it should have a question mark as well, thus: !? Or perhaps he could put it all as one sentence with a comma after 'What', thus: 'What, can he be serious about that?' But that won't work because  logic dictates that we can't use an exclamation mark after 'What' because there's already a comma there to show the sentence is not only spoken differently from the first but has a slightly different meaning as well. It would have to come at the end. So perhaps we should use both at the end again, thus - !?  However, because nobody wants our expression to become tedious, perhaps he could have put some variation in our writing because that's what the new curriculum exhorts us to develop. So he could turn them round, thus -  ?! There, that should satisfy our instinctive craving for the entertainment value of the unexpected. Though of course it will lead to argument in some quarters about which is more important to that sentence, the interrogative or the exclamatory. 

                               Image result for images of young children sitting at desks in schools

I know how he feels.

But we all know that's daft, don't we? Though perhaps, as a non-serious rhetorical question which is meant to have, however ineffective, a humorous and satirical edge, that last sentence can have an exclamation mark as well as a question mark, though I wouldn't dream of giving it one because there is a limit after all and I don't want to be silly. Anyway, when I was at school and put exclamation marks and question marks one after the other at the end of a sentence just to be annoying, the English teacher chalked a cross all over my nose, which hurt. I don't want Nicky Morgan (the Education Secretary, not the writer), let alone Mr Gove, to chalk more crosses over my nose, which is why I don't do such things any more. But, to mention another of their obsessions, after over fifty years of writing and nearly sixty of teaching I still don't know what a 'frontal adverbial' is. And nor do I want to. So it looks like I might be in big trouble. (Did you notice the infelicity of style there? I'd better watch my step.)

I was going to write about something completely different this month, but something changed my mind. Yesterday (May 12th) I was prompted by a long thread on the Scattered Authors Society's message board to make sure that I read in the Guardian the Society of Authors' statement on government policy on grammar and testing, which was written by Anne Rooney and Nicola Morgan (NOT the Education Secretary), both of the Scattered Authors' Society. Here is a link:

It makes the case against the tests perfectly. There's nothing to add. So I began wondering how we got into this state. What historical fallacy concerning language has brought about such a monstrosity? Then I remembered something I had almost forgotten. Back in the 60s, when I first started teaching, I did, part-time, the Diploma in Advanced Studies in Education at Manchester University. And as part of it I wrote a dissertation with the alarming title of: A HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF THE TREATMENT OF PARTS OF SPEECH IN NINETEENTH CENTURY GRAMMAR TEXTBOOKS, WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO THE WORK OF LINDLEY MURRAY. So I rootled round my bookshelves and found it, a faint carbon copy in an ordinary file. It was on quarto paper and the punched holes had long ago burst open. It was like a very large and very shabby pack of cards. But when I opened it I was transported straight back to that heady time of optimism and hope.

I didn't choose this subject. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But a friendly tutor suggested it and, though just for a moment I was appalled at the thought, I quickly saw that, as I taught English, it was absolutely right for me. I had no idea how many grammar books had been written during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and when I found out I was appalled at the task yet again. But this was only a dissertation, so I had a good excuse to only read a few. I soon found that Lindley Murray was the lynch-pin of the whole output. Everything written before led up to him: everything written afterwards was influenced by him. The influence was not wholly good. I don't think, though, that this was entirely his fault.

Murray's English Grammar: adapted to the various classes of learners was first published in 1795. The last edition I am aware of was published in 1852. Most grammars written during that period stressed their indebtedness to him, as did others written well into the 20th century. But there is nothing world-shaking in what he says. He stresses that it is meant as a teaching manual and essentially a compilation.

The root of the present argument and source of the new prescriptions is to be found, like so many other things, in the eighteenth century. The Elizabethan and Jacobean periods saw the final stages of English becoming a fully mature language. Poets and dramatists revelled in the adventures they could have with it. But perhaps it was time to calm it down a little. So along came John Dryden, who, as a poet, 'found it brick and left it marble.' And that settled it. Poetry, and by extension, polite language as well, had now to be marble. Brick was for everybody else. It was surely clear that English had now reached the state of stability and perfection which Greek and Latin had possessed.

It was at this time that the process of codification of the language started. And straight away, the great split began. It is perfectly illustrated in the work of two rival grammarians, James Harris and Horne Tooke. Harris's great work Hermes: or a philosophical Inquiry concerning Universal Grammar, was first published in  1752. To him, all expression is a volition of the mind paralleled in every language. Therefore, every language can be codified completely, purely on the basis of how it exists at any one particular moment. There is no room for growth: the rules underlying language are fixed. Language is a matter of the intellect and therefore constitutes the art of logic. Inferior compositions which address the imagination are without logic, therefore rhetoric and poetry are no more than 'warbling trifles'.

Harris, naturally, takes his nomenclature and his definitions straight from Latin. Horne Tooke on the other hand sees language perpetually developing. In his Epoa Pteroenta (Winged Words), or the Diversions of Purley, 1786, he sometimes carried his account of parts of speech to fantastic lengths, but his work is never less than interesting, suggestive and, in the end, influential. While Harris categorised everything - even conjunctions are separated into classes - Tooke only admits two parts of speech, the noun and the verb. All the rest are particles - mere abbreviations. But that gives them a strength Harris cannot allow.  'Abbreviations are the wheels of language, the wings of Mercury,' says Tooke. ' And later: 'Has the conjunction THAT  any the smallest correspondence or similarity of signification with THAT, the article or pronoun?'   Well, yes. their signification is the same, always. And he illustrates this neatly:

I  wish you to believe THAT I would not hurt a fly.
I would not hurt a fly; I wish you to believe THAT.

Words exist, not for what they are, but for what they do.

And he goes on to assert that everything which is not a noun or verb is a corruption of a disappeared usage. For example, 'if' is the remains of an English Imperative, which we can now, if we choose to, express with the phrase 'Given that.'

So, before Murray's Grammar was published, the battle lines were set out. On the one hand, the fixed view of language which could be exhaustively codified: on the other, the view that language had changed was changing and would always change. And, at root, the struggle has continued for nearly three hundred years.

Danger. Grammarian at work

In many ways the dispute about language reflects society and politics. Harris wrote from the point of view of the classical scholar steeped in the dead languages of Ancient Greece and Rome which had provided what the educated member of Augustan society living in the Age of Reason saw as the highest pinnacle of civilisation, which the present age was trying to emulate. Horne Tooke was a combative man, fell out with many important politicians, was outspoken in his views, started out as a clergyman but left the church to become an MP.  He was seen as seditious and his support for the French Revolution saw him sent to the Tower of London,and put on trial for treason, though he was quickly acquitted. A few years later, another great maverick, Richard Cobbett, he of the Rural Rides, wrote a grammar in which children were invited to parse such sentences  'The guilty tyrants are  ready with their dungeons and axes.' To deny grammatical orthodoxy was to commit a mild form of sedition.  Sometimes,  I think it still is and my experience as an English Adviser tends to confirm it. 

The situation was brilliantly summed up by Noah Webster in his Dissertations on the English   Language (Boston, Mass. 1789):

But when a particular set of men in exalted situations undertake to say,  'We are the standards of propriety and elegance, and if all men do not conform to our practice they shall be counted vulgar and ignorant.' they take  very great liberty with the rules of the language and the rights of civility.

As then, so now. But,Webster had departed to a new society starting from scratch and he could afford to be clear-eyed about the weight of history and the ambiguities it had led to, which he'd left.

So what of Lindley Murray? Well, his book was a compilation of what had gone before and he undoubtedly approached his task with the best intentions. But here is a paradox, and it has dogged grammar teaching in schools ever since.  It's too long to quote here, but he starts with a long and even eloquent restatement of Horne Tooke's position and then launches into a rule-governed teaching scheme. Don't blame him too much.  What else could he do? He praised Tooke and Harris without seeming to realise they were diametrically opposed. He accepts Tooke's assertion that language changes, but he is pledged to provide a teaching programme so he has to have recourse to Harris's rigid codifications. He justifies this by referring to language's 'present state of refinement', so 'refinement' suggests absolute standards while 'present' implies that it's all going to change. So he can have it both ways, and his book casts a long shadow over grammar as taught in schools. Thus comes the confusion which has bedevilled grammar teaching for nearly three centuries. 

And the bedevilment continues as the two basic models of education, represented by the two views of language slug it out yet again. And the children are the victims of this squalid puzzle. And everybody suffers.

I could go on like this for hours but I've got to stop because Saturday 14th May is very nearly on us and this has to be scheduled. But I've much enjoyed looking over this long ago dissertation - and, do you know, I really think it does say something quite important. Why the 'dead hand' of the title? Well, the last words of the dissertation attempted to sum up the whole process: 

The dead hand of conventional grammar was laid too heavily on these men and there were no means to shrug it off.

The sad thing is that it looks now as if they never really wanted to!


Susan Price said...

You can only put an exclamation mark to sentences starting with 'what' or 'how'?
This is complete *&%"*-wittery!
Who told these idiots they could go around doing this to my language?
This view of language is historically and scientifically ignorant. It's blinkered and stupid and how come it's being taught as 'correct' in schools?
Language doesn't belong to any government or official body and it's purpose isn't to be correct or follow rules. It belongs to the community who use it and they are entitled to do what they like with it, so long as they are understood by their community - because the purpose of language is expression and communication.
The rules of punctuation and grammar are fine so long as they aid these purposes but they are not an end in themselves.

I end by quoting some of the comments under the Guardian article, with which I completely agree.

'Ishouldbewriting' said:
exclamation marks can only end sentences starting with “what” or “how”

Well, that's a load of bollocks!
See? So much for that rule, eh? Seriously, who the hell is dreaming this crap up, and to what end?

CiggyStardust said:
If I was breeding the next generation of zero hour serfs, the very last thing I'd want to do is equip them with a confident command of language. I'd be terrified of what they might do with it.

Mari Biella said...

You can only use exclamation marks in sentences beginning with "what" or "how"? Well, that's news to me! Oh, wait a minute...

madwippitt said...


Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent and fascinating post, Dennis. I didn't know about these grammarians. I did a couple of years of linguistics as part of my degree at Edinburgh and it was all about change and underlying structures. Chomsky was writing his Transformational Grammar which made a strange kind of sense and our lecturers were telling us 'words do not have meanings, people have meanings for words' - which is clearly true. I taught EFL for a few years and I've never heard of a frontal adverbial or any of these other made up terms. Part of the problem is, however, that now, there are significant numbers of young people who seem to be functionally illiterate and what do we do about it? The current rubbish is clearly not the solution, but something has to change. There are kids on university degree courses, passing courses (because their lecturers are not allowed to comment on or even take into account grammar and syntax so they indulge in a species of decoding) who simply can't communicate. So there's a problem, to which this is entirely the wrong solution, I agree. I don't know what the solution is though. Casting my mind back to the dim past of my own school days in a small bog standard city primary school, we DID do a modicum of very simple grammar, of the 'noun is a name of a person, place or thing and a verb is a doing word' kind. We were taught where to put a full stop, and what was and wasn't a sentence. It didn't seem very hard or stressful, mostly because it wasn't. We didn't do anything about frontal adverbials though!

Lydia Bennet said...

Very worrying Dennis, hopefully there will eventually be another cycle in preferred theory but how many children will have learned to hate writing and language in the meantime?