When I was 16 my father read through my history project that I was to submit as part of my ‘O’-level (yes, I am that old, but only just!). When he got to the end he said, in the way only my erudite father can, peering over his half-moon glasses…
“Very good – only two split infinitives.”
I re-read it again and again, and I still don’t know where they were. Despite my imperfect grammar, I got an A.
This week the Year 6 children in the UK have been sitting the first grammar tests as part of their SATS. Mr Gove believes that our 10-11 year olds should be precise in their grammar, spelling and punctuation and thus they have extra exams to perfect this skill.
There has been a lot of criticism of this test, not least from writers – the very people you’d think want to encourage excellent writing! Michael Rosen has written an excellent article in The Guardian last week, and also Matt Haig with his 30 Things to tell a Grammar Snob. And I have also read of one young girl writing to the Education Secretary to point out the grammar flaws in the exam – flaws that they have been taught by rote to correct.
Personally, I like correct grammar. I appreciate accurate spelling. I understand the difference between their and they’re, and I appreciate the apostrophe. Spotting Grocer’s Apostrophes drives me potty. I love to face a page of clean writing, that flows and fanfares the English language.
Yet I know that grammar changes. It has varied over the years, and varies according to the style of the author and the writing genre. In some places it is best – if not essential – to be as pedantic as possible. Undoubtedly, a letter of complaint will be respected more if it is set out accurately, spelt well and properly punctuated. It may make the receiving authorities seem small-minded, but it is the way of the world. Easy to read: easy to accept.
But surely there is a time for learning the fine points of grammar and punctuation, and that is not necessarily before leaving primary school. Young children need to develop a love of reading, of story-telling and writing. They don’t need to have red pen marks all over their scripts because they spell phonetically, nor to worry too much about subordinate clauses. I have sat through hours of tedious homework that presents a sentence and asks my child to punctuate it, or put in the relevant clauses, or place apostrophes. Does a tortuous weekend chained to the desk writing out sentence after sentence encourage a child to love English? (Based on n=1, NO!)
Grammar changes and fluctuates with context. To boldly go? My father’s pedantry on split infinitives is almost out of date. And if I struggled with them aged 16, then please! Why are we examining 11 year-olds?