Evolving Thoughts

Grammar wars in Queensland

I don’t have a very positive experience of the State of Queensland’s education system. Two children I brought here from Victoria when I took up my present position were doing well until they got here. Now both left before completing school amidst confusion and boredom to my great dismay. It’s not that there aren’t well intentioned teachers, or that Victoria was replete with Poet’s Society-type teachers, but that Queensland insists on doing things its own way, meaning that the curriculum is impenetrable to an outsider.

An example of this has come to light, as evidenced by a couple of Language Log posts: the grammar guide for teachers is a mishmash of confusion and error, according to an expert in linguistics, with whom the LL writers agree. They seem to have invented their own terminology for grammar, and get the traditional grammar terminology wrong. It also means that parents cannot assist their kids because they do not understand what is being proposed.

Now grammar wars and grammar nazis go back a long time, and the fight seems to this outsider to be between those who follow Chomskyian transformational grammars and those who follow traditional grammars. It doesn’t help that Chomsky’s ideas were a scientific hypothesis rather than a teaching tool, which traditional grammars had, as the second LL post observes, two thousand years behind it as a teaching tool. It doesn’t help even more that this is framed as a Left-Right split. The teaching of the “three Rs” is often a conservative rhetorical strategy in politics. But surely some standards are needed if language is not to become a class test. What is often overlooked in the grammar wars is that teaching traditional grammars removes many of the indicators of class, by making everyone capable of speaking in a “standard” manner. Of course, one cannot say that and not point out that the grammars of class-based and ethnically based speech are linguistically as sophisticated (and sometimes moreso than the “standard” form of a language like BBC English or Hochdeutsch) as any other kind, or else one might think I was were claiming that only the approved form is correct.

But I think traditional grammars were thrown out too soon. They could have been reformed (that damned accusative, and the ablative and subjunctive, could all be refined and revised) but they worked as a way to learn a new language. And no matter what political views one has, making the kinds of errors reported in the paper is inexcusable.


  1. #1 James McCann
    June 14, 2008

    “or else one might think I was claiming”
    “or else one might think I were claiming” instead?

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    June 14, 2008

    Like I said, subjunctive sucks. But I am also a product of the transformational grammar nazi education. I got through 12 years of state funded schooling with the sum total of my grammatical knowledge being – Nouns are thing words, verbs are doing words, and adjectives are describing words. I suspect we never covered adverbs.

  3. #3 Stephen
    June 14, 2008

    I’m the same as you John, I’ve been “educated” in grammar entirely by osmosis. I somehow managed to miss even verbs, nouns and adjectives. That I manage to write mostly correct English is simply a good example of how learning from examples works – I read a lot of books, most of which are written grammatically.

    I do wish I’d been taught some sort of grammar at school, though.

  4. #4 Elf Eye
    June 14, 2008

    Cannot. Resist. Must. Change. Like. I. Said. To. As. I. Said. Aaaaaargh.

  5. #5 Ian H Spedding FCD
    June 14, 2008

    My mother was an infant school teacher (5-7 year-olds) in the UK when what were called “modern teaching methods” were introduced. These required that poor spelling and grammar be ignored in the interests of encouraging creativity. In practice, what my mother and some of her colleagues actually did was quietly ignore these requirements. They continued to both teach correct grammar and spelling and encourage the children to be creative. Other teachers embraced the new methods, no doubt contributing to a generation of university students who needed remedial training in basic English so that they could express themselves comprehensibly on paper.

    Language is clearly a living and changing thing. The good, standard English of today is very different from that written by William Shakespeare or Geoffrey Chaucer. There are people today who find even the Victorian English of Charles Darwin difficult to understand.

    None of this means that we shouldn’t try to establish and maintain consistent standards for English spelling and grammar, though. I’ve quoted it before but I think the lyric of “Why Can’t The English” from the musical My Fair Lady sums it up rather nicely:

    An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,

    The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.

    One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.

    Oh, why can’t the English learn to set

    A good example to people whose English is painful to your ears?

    The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.

    There even are places where English completely disappears.

    In America, they haven’t used it for years!

  6. #6 John S. Wilkins
    June 14, 2008

    Elf: You’ll note I did not actually say subjunctive sucks in the main post, but it was in fact similar to the sentiment of the main post to say it did, hence “like”. So there…

  7. #7 Elf Eye
    June 15, 2008

    Ah, but ‘like’ is still a preposition rather than a subordinating conjunction, and as such it supposedly may not introduce a subordinate clause. Of course, the language is always changing, and in a few years ‘like’ may be almost universally recognized as a subordinating conjunction. Seriously, though, I am generally opposed to teaching grammar because it is so often done badly. Teaching children the correct labels in and of itself has little or no impact upon writing ability, yet instructors persist in teaching labels with the expectation that students will thereby become better writers. The activities that do seem to improve writing: extensive reading, extensive writing, and extensive rewriting. Having said that, I believe that learning the parts of speech and the function of each may be useful if the teacher does so in order to have a conversation with a student about the student’s own writing. For example, one of my students recently wrote a ‘sentence’ like this one: “By finishing the difficult project demonstrated that she didn’t give up easily.” In conference, our conversation was certainly streamlined by the fact that I could point out to the student that the supposed sentence was in fact a fragment because the phrase “finishing the difficult project” was the object of the preposition “By”, thus leaving the ‘sentence’ without a subject for the predicate verb ‘demonstrated’. (There is a grammatical ‘no double dipping’ rule.) If we had not had vocabulary in common, it would have been slow going. In short, as long as instructors understand that teaching the students to label the parts of speech will not in and of itself lead to improved writing, formal grammar instruction may be useful as an adjunct to writing instruction. Absent the application of grammatical concepts to the student’s own writing, however, formal grammar instruction is useless and even counterproductive; for it both takes up time that could be devoted to actual writing and discourages students who perceive the study of grammar to be busywork with no application beyond the classroom.

  8. #8 The Ridger
    June 15, 2008

    But other prepositions are allowed to introduce subordinate clauses. Forbidding “like” to do so must be justified on other grounds, I’m afraid.

  9. #9 Adrian Morgan
    June 15, 2008

    The linguistics expert (Rodney Huddleston) and the writer of the Language Log post (Geoffrey Pullum) are the two principal authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (the non-principal authors are specialists who contributed to particular chapters). So it’s not surprising that they agree.

    Now, I own a copy of The Cambridge Grammar, so I could tell you quite a lot about that (including any revisions of the subjunctive and so on). It is definitely not a traditional grammar, and so Huddleston cannot possibly be described as a traditionalist when it comes to grammar. But here’s the thing. When The Cambridge Grammar revises traditional terminology, it does so on a firm scientific basis, with reasoned arguments. When the Queensland grammar guide writers do it, they do so on a whim. As you will agree, there is a world of difference between the two.

    I think you’re mistaken in supposing that Chomskyan transformational grammar has any part in this.

  10. #10 Thony C.
    June 15, 2008

    the “standard” form of a language like BBC English

    Can’t resist, the correct designation is “Standard English with Received Pronunciation”.

    I went to one of the best grammar schools in England and never learnt a single thing about grammar. When I settled in Germany and started to seriously learn German, which is a language with a complex and fairly strict formal grammatical structure I was literally up shit creek in a barbed wire canoe without the proverbial paddle. I had absolutely no idea what a noun case was and German has four! I went out and bought a comprehensive German grammar written in English and read it from the beginning to the end, like a novel, twice! That was my crash course in the mysteries of grammatical analysis. These days I earn my living teaching English grammar, as a private tutor, to German school kids who are failing in school. Talk about irony!

  11. #11 David Marjanovi?
    June 15, 2008

    Someone seems to have confused “teaching the terminology of grammar” with “teaching the standard language”.

    To what extent is the latter even necessary? I learned Standard German from the TV and from reading before I entered school, and I’ve never had problems with things like the past tense which doesn’t even exist in my dialect.

    BTW, Hochdeutsch (High German) is a geographic term: it’s the German spoken where the land is high, as opposed to the nether regions of northern Germany where Niederdeutsch (Low German) is found instead. Standard German (mostly called Schriftsprache, “script language”, where I come from) is mostly based on a 16th-century version of some of the lower High German dialects and has undergone its own evolution since then. High Alemannic (most of the Swiss German dialects) and Highest Alemannic (the dialects of central Switzerland) are technical terms, too…

  12. #12 PhysioProf
    June 15, 2008

    Subjunctive conjugation (if that’s the right word) of verbs seems to be dying out in English.

  13. #13 Elf Eye
    June 15, 2008

    Yes, David Marjanović, much of ‘grammar’ instruction is really the teaching of terminology, which is a waste of time unless you are teaching it to enable students and teachers to have conversations about ways to improve writing. Almost all children automatically learn the grammar of their language through listening and imitation. However, every language exists in numerous dialects, and some children do not in fact learn the ‘standard’ (i.e., prestige dialect). There is thus something to be said for encouraging children to learn an additional dialect for use when appropriate. You may call this grammar instruction if you like. Also, while nearly all children master the rules of their language without conscious effort, they do so in the context of speech. There are, however, certain errors characteristic of writing that do need to be pointed out to a student. For example, given the choice between ‘he rides’ and ‘he ride’, students who grew up hearing standard English will choose ‘he rides’. However, in writing, phrases and clauses often come between subject and verb. If, for example, the nearest noun to the verb is plural but the the subject is singular, the near noun may ‘contaminate’ the student’s choice of ending for the verb. So there is a place for teaching grammar but, again, within the context of a student’s actual writing. What I have instead seen is students being presented with the sort of exercise in which they must choose between ‘he rides’ and ‘he ride’. They have no problem with picking the correct answer, but their ability to do so will not automatically carry over into the situation I have described above. No, that sort of exercise is silly, a ridiculous waste of time that could be spent on actual writing and revision.

  14. #14 Chris' Wills
    June 15, 2008

    On English,

    I find it sad that the Indians I work with tend to have a better command of English than a lot of the native (US, Aus, NZ, UK, Canadian) speakers. They often speak and write the King’s English rather than the Queen’s but that just makes it interesting.

    More seriously; if you cannot write so that others can understand then forget about becoming a very succesful Scientist/Engineer/Architect etc. You could possibly become a politician as that, mainly, requires rhetorical skills; but even then ignorance of how the language goes together may limit your progress.

  15. #15 Thony C.
    June 15, 2008

    BTW, Hochdeutsch (High German) is a geographic term: it’s the German spoken where the land is high, as opposed to the nether regions of northern Germany where Niederdeutsch (Low German) is found instead. Standard German (mostly called Schriftsprache, “script language”, where I come from) is mostly based on a 16th-century version of some of the lower High German dialects and has undergone its own evolution since then.

    David you are of course correct in that Hochdeutsch (High German) and Niederdeutsch (Low German) refer to the two main German dialect groups with English and Dutch basically being Niederdeutsch dialects however Hochdeutsch does have the meaning that John intended. I quote:

    hochdeutsch deutsch, wie es nicht den Mundarten od. Der Umgangsprache, sondern der allgemein verbindlichen deutschen Sprache entspricht (bes. In bezug auf die dialektfreie Aussprache)

    Duden “Deutsches Universal Woerterbuch A – Z”, Dudenverlag, 1989, p.724.

  16. #16 Kate
    June 15, 2008

    So it appears that no one has yet called attention to the Language Log response:

    To summarize the argument of the response post: the Queensland “grammar wars” have nothing to do with Chomskyan or transformational grammar, and everything to do with basic grammatical terms, such as whether “won’t” is an adverb (the answer is no). On this front, it doesn’t even make sense to invoke differences between “traditional” and “transformational” approaches to grammar, nor grammar naziism, nor anything of the sort. This is competence. No one who understands grammar in any sense will tell you that “won’t” is an adverb. The author of the article in question tried to argue that it was; this is wrong.

    Many arguments over grammar suffer from similar problems, ie a lack of understanding surrounding the basic issues. No one is throwing out traditional grammars, and the modern study of linguistics does, in fact, continue to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical forms; the outside observer would be wise to gain some appreciable background on the matter before making pronouncements about the wisdom of one or another of the perceived “schools” of language.

  17. #17 JM
    June 15, 2008

    John, your third paragraph is one of the most confused things I’ve read in my life on linguistic issues. You seem to be supporting a “traditional” (i think you mean ad-hoc) grammar against a Chomskyian grammar and claiming that the traditional grammar promotes equality while Chomsky does not (I’m not sure what you expect it to promote, but it is a reality based framework whereas “traditional” grammar is simply prejudice.)

    On the contrary, Chomsky managed to show that grammar reflected deep structure in the mind irrespective of culture. The fact that I can speak only ungrammatical Japanese but yet still make myself understood to a Japanese native speaker means that there are common structures which hold *regardless* of the form in which they are expressed.

    There is a reason why I can speak broken language in a foreign tounge and make myself understood – and it ain’t traditional grammar.

    As an old friend of my mine – who is a psycholinguist – explained to me:- everyone uses ungrammatical forms but nonetheless understand each other, why?

    BBC “received” grammar is only, *only* the dialect of a particular group of English speakers. It is not the only correct form.

    Otherwise you would have to argue that the ‘scouse cannot communicate and spend most of their time in confusion.

    That is clearly not true. People speaking all dialects of English understand each other perfectly well, it is only outsiders who have trouble.

    These arguments about grammar – and other forms of “proper” expression – are usually (always in my view) about some form of cultural exceptionalism. I think that is clearly shown by the evidence.

    Jamaicans (to pick on a stereotype) don’t suffer from any greater lack of communication than you or I do, so their grammar is *NOT* inferior.

    However, if there is a dominant cultural group in which a Jamaican wishes to participate – let’s pick, I dunno, why not a community of western anglo centered science blogs – then if my putative Jamaican wishes to participate in that community, they better damn well learn the lingo. But that doesn’t make their grammar or their language inferior, only different.

    So yes, there is an enlightened view that is right to say “when in Rome speak Latin” but that doesn’t mean that this
    angels-dancing-on-a-head-a-pin stuff needs to sanction the speech of a privileged group above the the speech of others.

    That is what really opens the door to mediocrity. The sheer accident of being born into the favored linguistic group ends up bringing economic reward to those who otherwise don’t deserve it. The particular linquistic form – grammar if you will – used on scienceblogs facilitates communication and is valuable, but otherwise has no superiority to any other form of effective human communication.

    Let me give you a concrete example:- Ramajidan. The Indian
    mathematician who spoke in forms alien to his peers but was
    nonetheless a man of great creativity and originality.

    I’ll leave the arguments about the validity of grammar as a guide to
    learning second languages to another time.

  18. #18 John S. Wilkins
    June 15, 2008

    It appears that my cursory expression and inchoate thinking has left one or two ambiguities in the post (he said, hoping desperately they buy it).

    OK, the “grammar nazis” are not those who are attempting to get grammatical terms used properly. I am not criticising Huddleston or Pullum. But I expect that there will be those who engage on this topic who insist, for example, that everyone know and use, say, subjunctive properly or not end a sentence prepositionally. Every time someone mentions grammar, the woodwork is suddenly swiss cheese with these guys. I was trying to distance this topic from that.

    Second, I do not think (and in fact said that I do not think) that non-standard Englishes are inferior or less sophisticated. As far as I understand it, apart from recent creoles, most vernacular dialects and forms of English are richer than the basic or standard forms.

    I was completely off the mark about Chomskyan transformation grammar playing a role in this case. My bad. They seem to be the all-purpose evil demons in grammar so I figured that the educational philosophy underlying the teachers’ guide would be transformation.

    But I stick by what should have been my main point – that traditional grammars are good tools for learning languages, or the Indoeuropean ones at least. So teaching the basics of that should be useful in general education (even if it does lead to preposition wars).

  19. #19 fusilier
    June 16, 2008

    What Chris Willis (#14) Said.

    My Dad was a project engineer for a glass container company – so senior that, when he retired in 1972, his job was split in three. He forced me to learn proper English on the grounds that his worst difficulties with new hires was not engineering, but reports. He couldn’t determine if a new fellow (this was 1972 after all) actually understood the problem.

    James 2:24

  20. #20 Paul Murray
    June 16, 2008

    “Subjunctive conjugation (if that’s the right word) of verbs seems to be dying out in English.”

    Be that as it may, I say: God save the Queen!

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