Grammar for Writing

English and variety

NATE views English as an infinitely variable and developing language, most easily categorised in speech by broad features of accent, dialogue and slang, and more subtly categorised by register, tone and idiom. Its written characteristics are most easily categorised by form, period or by audience and purpose. This variety of ways in which English can be categorised is its strength and, partly, its success as a global language. For several centuries, people have sought to find in this varied character a common structure. For most of them, “grammar” has been the common structure.

English and Grammar

The desire to find a common structure for the varied forms of English resulted in attempts to define from the pattern of written use the “rules” behind the pattern. The attempts usually started from the assumption that the language in its most elevated form was that of scholars familiar with Latin, one of the source languages of English. Drawing from written Latin the observable patterns and presenting them as the grammatical rules of good or “correct” English was relatively easy. It was, however, an insecure means of approaching linguistic understanding. Firstly, it replicated the social disprivileging of other source languages (Norse, Dutch, French, Anglo-Saxon, to mention a few) and it ignored the way English (and other languages) developed as oral communication, let alone as geographically regionalised communication. Nevertheless, the interests of a cultural elite in preserving the patterns of literacy which were its own resulted in a view of certain English grammatical patterns as inferior, from which it was an easy move to find them wrong.

This cultural intrusion into linguistics has left us with various “rules” for “correct” usage – for example, not ending a sentence with a preposition, or not splitting an infinitive. And not starting a sentence with “and” because it is a conjunct.  Academic linguists regard such prescriptivism as matters of personal taste more revealing of social attitudes than understanding of language. The alternative view, that language changes and that usage transcends prescript, puts neutral recording of change as the main focus of the linguist, avoiding moral, aesthetic judgement of the value of the change. Clearly, there are some aspects of grammatical pattern which are logical rather than cultural – such as matching a plural subject to a plural verb, as in “we were” rather than “we was”. Politics, culture and linguistics get into a tangle here. Judging such consistency or lack of consistency, conformity or non-conformity as tokens of moral or social worth is a cultural rather than a linguistic matter. And that cultural one reflects an economic and political centring of power in the Southern triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Teaching and grammar

A national education system has to embrace features of national language patterns if regional speakers and writers are to have currency beyond their own cultural corrals.  Hence to create wider social and purposeful access, regional speakers and writers may need to acquire aspects of the national pattern, resulting in a sort of bilingualism, and choice of pattern according to context and purpose. Where “grammar:” is taught as a prescription for correctness it runs the risk of alienating some at the same time it extends privilege to others. In teaching grammatical usage and variety, it is important to emphasise that grammars are the patterns that add meaning to vocabulary. In a sentence, it is not helpful to suggest that a single grammar is a skeleton. It is more productive to regard grammatical features as muscles:  a musculature model in place of notional single, fixed common structure emphasises variable and selective muscle use for audience and purpose. The greater the range of grammatical choices, the greater the range of audiences and purpose intended and addressed.

It may be thought that the priorities for teaching grammar in English are such that the “grammar” is part of the “basics” of learning to read and write. To think so is to ignore the evidence that learning “grammar” does not result in any greater writing competence, authenticity or communicative effect, and may even inhibit the motivation to write. It makes more sense to find grammatical features of interest in the enjoyment of texts which are intrinsically engaging. Assuming that grammar amounts to identifying “parts of speech” is of some use, but limited. It does not help to explain the humour of the sub-editor’s cheeky caption to the photograph of Cyfartha Castle’s Hall as “Where the Lord Mayor of Cardiff holds his balls and dances”, or the sly dexterity of the sentence “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”.

Teaching Resources

The articles in this NATE resource deal with grammatical varieties, grammatical functions and the way grammars reflect social context and change.  There is a strong practical focus on how to embed grammatical awareness and understanding in interesting examples of reading and writing, and a practical focus on how to make grammar something that students can talk about from their own experience as well as their study.