Sam Leith

How to kill the English language

How to kill the English language
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Probably, most of you will have only the dimmest idea what a ‘fronted adverbial’ is. I used one in the last sentence. Can you spot it? Very good. Those among you who did are either a) professional linguists, b) seven-year-olds, or c) are, like me, recovering from several long months of home-schooling a seven-year-old. Forgive me if in mentioning it I retraumatise members of category c).

‘Fronted adverbials’ have become something of a cause célèbre among the parents of primary school children. They even occasioned a prime ministerial joke, interpreted in some quarters as a dig at a certain former education secretary, about ‘every detail of the syllabus, from fronted adverbials to quadratic equations’. This term for what others know as a sentence modifier — essentially, a word or clause that qualifies the main part of a sentence — has become a metonym for a whole approach to language teaching. It’s an approach that has baffled many parents, exasperates experienced educators (try getting Michael Rosen started on this stuff), and seems to issue in some very odd and potentially counterproductive ideas about how sentences are best formed.

Let’s take that example, to start with. Why the special interest in ‘fronted’ modifiers? ‘Fronted’, by the way, is a gruesomely clumsy usage to indicate that it’s a pre--modifier, i.e. coming at the beginning of a sentence. ‘Before he could teach me any more grammar, I scarpered’ isn’t intrinsically more valuable than ‘I scarpered before he could teach me any more grammar’. Indeed, a sensible piece of advice on clear writing is to form ‘right-branching’ sentences — i.e. to put the main clause as close to the beginning of a sentence as possible. If you’re rewarded for rewriting a whole block of text inserting pre-modifiers, you might arrive at the idea that sentences that start that way are better than the other sort.

It’s not just fronted adverbials. The other day, for instance, my nine-year-old was asked to rewrite a series of sentences using modal verbs. I have — humblebrag alert — a semi-decent amateur grasp of this sort of material. I studied English at university, whipped through Saussure, Chomsky, Pinker and co, wrote about pidgins and creoles as part of my finals, and have published a general-audience book about English grammar. Still, I hesitated. What the hell is a modal verb?

I had to check my own book to remind myself what counts as a modal verb (‘could’ and ‘should’, yup; ‘may’ and ‘might’, sure — but ‘will’ or ‘won’t’?). Pretty soon I was into the thickets of epistemic and deontic modality, which was no help to anyone. In any case, it was quite unclear in the examples we were given why the insertion of a bunch of modal verbs would improve those sentences. At other times we’ve been asked to add two or three adjectives to every noun in order to make the sentences more vivid and exciting: but if you do that you just end up sounding like the late Lynda Lee-Potter, bless her adjective-bothering heart.

One problem with all this, it seems to me, is that we’re mistaking teaching nine-year-olds how to use language for teaching them something closer to linguistics. It’s a meta-subject: if you’re teaching a young person to drive, you want them to learn the Highway Code, not how to strip and reassemble an internal combustion engine. The other problem is that the advice is a mishmash, and often questionable if not outright wrong. Undergraduate-level snatches of linguistics are mixed up with decades-old shibboleths of the sort that please pedants and cause actual linguists to slap their foreheads.

I’ve had my seven-year-old telling me off for starting sentences with conjunctions. And it came out not long ago that examiners had determined that no sentence ending in an exclamation point could be marked correct unless it began with ‘How’ or ‘What’. That is flat wrong. Even hoary old Fowler allows wishes, commands, calls for attention, cries of alarm, shouting.

Grammarian-in-chief Michael Gove, who has driven much of this, once sent a memo to his staff deploring — another of those ancient shibboleths — the passive voice: ‘Use the active, not the passive voice. Ministers have decided to increase spending on the poorest children. Poorer children are not having a harder time under this government.’ Both the sentences he quoted were — duh! — in the active voice. Shades, here, of the one-time US vice-president Dan Quayle solemnly correcting the word ‘potato’ to ‘potatoe’ for the world’s media.

The impression I have is that teachers — much against many of their best instincts — have had foisted on them a primary-school curriculum that looks for ways of teaching language that can be marked and quantified: that is, in which you can count the number of modal verbs or fronted adverbials or attributive adjectives there on the page. Reassuring to Whitehall, which likes metrics. Not a great idea, I suspect, for kids.

The thing is this. You can mark grammar when it makes writing bad — put a big red cross against that dangling modifier, that borked agreement or misconjugated verb — but the way in which a particular construction will improve a piece of writing is a much, much more fugitive question. The things that make sentences sing are situational, and instinctive — not formulaic.

That’s hard to teach, of course. You learn by doing — by reading and writing and listening. But be not discouraged: the amazing thing is that kids learn grammar instinctively. And as the teacher and writer Kate Clanchy’s experience shows (she shares the extraordinarily good poems her teenage students write online), they learn a lot more than just grammar given encouragement. My worry is that they may unlearn it if they’re getting a row of ticks for bollocksing up a perfectly good piece of prose by stuffing it full of random grammatical objects just to show it’s possible to do so.

Modifying clauses, modal verbs, adjectives, shifts of voice — these are all just objects in the toolkit. They only make sense inasmuch as they are called into use, in a particular situation, to serve their purposes at the right time. I’m reminded of the old parable about people finding a great number of large rocks near the shore, counting and measuring and cataloguing them — and not at any point realising that if you stacked them up one on the other, and climbed to the top, you could see many miles out to sea.

Oh, yeah: ‘probably’. That was the fronted adverbial. Probably.