The Debate on English

I have just been marking essays written by university students. The standard is greatly variable, but in some cases I have been astounded at the lack of knowledge of basic grammar, punctuation and the like. So when I saw an article on PhD students and the declining proficiency in the use of English, it piqued my interest. It seems that not only undergraduate students have problems.

Grammar may be boring, but I think that it is very important to have a knowledge of how to write well. Sometimes people just pick up grammar instinctively; but other people need to be taught. My own instinctive knowledge of grammar comes from the fact that I have read a very wide range of well-written literature. Why is it so important? Well, I had difficulty reading one of the essays I was marking because it was so badly written, and it was only on my third read that I worked out that the author had made some excellent points. However, the excellent points were so badly expressed that I could barely understand what the student was trying to say.

I have a unique perspective on this topic because I completed the first three years of high school in Australia, and the second three and a half years of high school in Britain. In Australia, I had cruised on through high school; I had never even had to study to do well in a test. I just picked it up as I went along.

When we moved to England, I was in for a big shock. Admittedly, my school was not a normal English school by any stretch of the imagination. It was highly academic and very competitive. Once, I recall that we had to pray for good marks in our exams (I refused to participate: I regard my marks as arising from my own efforts, not God’s mercy). Initially, I was leagues behind the other students academically, and added to this, no one could understand a word I said. The school called my mother in and gently hinted that I might be mentally retarded in some way. My pride was stung, and for the first time in my life, I studied as hard as I could. I was determined to give those Pommie b*stards a run for their money. I am very proud to say that I did not let my country down in those first set of exams. The pride of Australia was restored.

I found that I got the best of both worlds with a combination of the Australian schooling system and the English schooling system. The Australian system was great for giving me an open mind and encouraging me to think outside the square. But the thing that my English school did a lot better was to give me straw with which to build my bricks. Unfortunately, not all learning is interesting. Some of it is boring, but you need to learn it (by rote if necessary) before you can get onto the interesting stuff. I think ideally, you need to ensure that the foundations are there, and then encourage open minded inquiry.

Everyone in my English school had learnt grammar a few years before I joined the school. But we read “the classics”, wrote hundreds of essays and had our grammar and spelling corrected within an inch of our lives. Woebetide the student who misplaced an apostrophe! These lessons have stayed with me to this day.

Knowing English grammar does not only promote proficiency in the English language. It is useful when one is learning another language. My knowledge about the mechanics of grammar (verbs, adverbs, adjectives, plurals, the like) was actually derived from studying Japanese! It makes it much harder to study a foreign language if you have no idea what a “verb” or a “pronoun” is. With no consciousness of the way in which your own language is constructed it is very hard to learn and understand other languages. A friend and I were theorising that this is one of the reasons why learning second languages is difficult for Australians (apart from the fact that we are so far removed from the rest of the world geographically speaking).

Incidentally, on a related point, I have been following the ongoing debate in The Australian about the teaching of English in Australia and the value of teaching postmodernism. I may be complicit with the fascist hegemony by saying this, but I think that the canon of English literature has its place and should be taught thoroughly before any postmodernist techniques are taught. I don’t care that Shakespeare is a dead white male, I still love his plays and think that he has something to say to everybody. That is part of his genius. When I went to university and studied English literature, critical theory was all the rage. I have studied postmodernism and postcolonial theory, among other things. Some of it was useful and intelligent, some of it was absolute rubbish (as with all things). In my opinion, some theorists strung jargon together so that they sounded very intellectual and clever, but it didn’t actually mean anything. (No one wanted to say so, however; it was a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes.) On other occasions, deconstructing a text could be useful and enlightening. But I was very glad that I had a very sound education in the canon of English literature before it was deconstructed. You can’t “deconstruct the canon” if you have no idea about it to begin with. Therefore, I think you have to be really careful to build up students’ knowledge before you start to deconstruct it.



Filed under plain english, society

6 responses to “The Debate on English

  1. the angry bee

    I agree with you, LE.

    The other impact of learning basic grammar is on learning other languages. I remember being frustrated that so much time in my French lessons at school, and even university, were spent teaching other students about verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc – so that they would be able to apply the correct grammatical rules. Without this knowledge, they had no hope of being able to master the language properly.

    Speaking another language is a way to open your mind to other cultures. By failing to teach our children proper grammar, are we not condemning them to speak only English – and bad English at that?

  2. Aimee

    Oh don’t get me started on grammar. There are cafes with misplaced apostrophes in their signs (probably in their business name registration forms too) and who can help correcting their menus?

    Not to mention the terrible people who pepper their speech with inaccuracies…. Whenever I hear someone say “bought” when they mean “brought” you can guarantee that under my breath I am correcting them. (One is the past form of bring, one is the past form of buy – think about whether you bought your boyfriend or brought him!!)

    I agree that you have to know the rules before you can break them, and you have to know the canon before you can deconstruct it.

    I remember at high school an english teacher complaining that the french teachers wanted them to teach grammar because the students were otherwise unable to learn french grammar, and the english teacher in question wondered why she should have to make life easier for the french teachers. Not the point. English grammar is also helpful when you are speaking english, not just learning foreign languages!

  3. Anonymous

    As a senior associate, I try to train junior lawyers to have compassion for the people who ultimately have to read the advice they have written and write in a manner that is clear, structured and, at a reduced risk of being misconstrued. Sometimes I think that people who should know better (ie lawyers) often lack compassion for their clients and therefore couldn’t care less about the effort that their clients have to go to in order to understand their advice. It’s also a risk-management device – I’m of the view that if a legal argument cannot be expressed clearly, then it is probably incorrect or missing something. The same is true if the language needs to be distorted or strained to get the desired result.

    However, for many other people I imagine that it is not a lack of compassion that causes them to express themselves so poorly but a lack of training. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons including:

    a) once you can express yourself clearly and simply, you free your mind to concentrate on the substance of your thoughts rather than the manner of communicating them (I’m a great believer that the rigidity of grammar actually grants us greater freedom to express ourselves and be understood);

    b) Without being able to express yourself, you risk being constantly misunderstood; and

    c) If you can’t express yourself clearly and analyse other people’s use of language, you are at risk of being unable to challenge whoever is in power at the time. (I sometimes wonder if a general inability to analyse language is why people don’t seem to be afraid of the manipulation of language by our current federal government).

    One last thing – I definitely agree that it’s essential to learn the basics before embarking on postmodern/postcolonial analyses of texts. While I found such analyses fascinating while I was at Uni (despite the huge amount of incomprehensible guff that was frequently written in their names), they don’t make sense if you don’t understand what they are trying to challenge.

    Still, I would disagree with our current Education Minister who was this morning reported as saying, among other things, that feminist analyses of Shakespeare should be kept out of schools. While I don’t agree that a feminist analysis is the only way of discussing Shakespeare, I don’t see the harm in, for example, a teacher challenging students to consider how Shakespeare portrayed women from Juliet to Portia.

  4. -k.

    There is so much to this topic but ultimately, you’re right. We are failing our students when it comes to learning English grammar.

    Every day I have to remind my year 12 language students of the difference between a verb and an adjective (don’t even get me started on pronouns). Slightly worrying when you consider we’re just weeks out from their final exams.

    My English-teaching colleagues face much the same problem. A recent mini-novel assignment at year 9 level returned many pieces that didn’t include a single piece of punctuation for a page or two.

    Something needs to be done, but it isn’t as a simple as saying ‘improve the teaching of grammar’. Grammar needs to be integrated into existing curriculum and across the board, not just in English.

  5. ky

    I think it is true that assessment of English standards for Victorian leaves a lot to be desired. I managed to obtain A and A+ grades for both internal and external assessment during VCE. I carried many of the writing habits acquired during secondary school into university, and only ever got praise for my writing.

    But then I started working for a bunch of Poms. As LE noted in this blog, they are a lot more strict and precise when it comes to grammar. Suddenly, I’ve learnt all these new grammar rules about which I knew little previously, such as the need to avoid splitting infinitives, that one “replies to” another and not merely “replies”, that one should avoid ending sentences with prepositions, etc. It’s fair to say that I’ve learnt more English grammar in the past 4 years than in the preceding 15 years in Australia.

    I suspect part of the problem with Australia in relation to grammar and spelling-related issues is that as a whole, the nation does not quite know whether to adopt the English or American standards. Thus, it is easier for teachers and students alike merely to fudge some of these issues. For example, I have no doubt that the tendency for many Australians to say “I’ll reply you…” comes from the American “I’ll write you…”. Similarly, the Australian spelling standard contains both the English “centre” and the American “program”.

    Even politicians are confused. Even “Labor” party politicians would write about the “labour” movement.

    What hope does an Australian student have?

  6. Anonymous

    In my op-ed extensive teaching of grammar is not necessary if, and only if, you can instead get students to read a lot of well-written materials. We write what we read.

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