Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Grammatical nonsense!

On Saturday I went out to help a friend celebrate her birthday by visiting. Curry house in Rusholme, Manchester. An excellent time was had by all. We all ate copious amounts and, because the birthday girl got a huge discount for being a regular customer, for having a birthday and for making a booking for ten people, it only cost us £15 each. 

This made up, to some extent anyway, for my having to get a taxi back from Oldham to Delph, rather than waiting for over half an hour in Oldham's gloomy and insalubrious bus station. (If Oldham is the most deprived town in England, then the bus station is one of the most deprived parts of the town - OK, I exaggerate but it is very depressing!) 

Anyway, I had a good meal in pleasant company. Inevitably, since most of our group of ten were either language teachers or learners, some of the talk centred on language study. One person commented that until she learnt German she had no idea about grammatical terminology. I remembered something I had found written by Michael Rosen, poet, writer, columnist, talking about "fronted adverbials". Here is a part of it: 

 "For people wondering what the heck I'm on about with 'fronted adverbials' - and why it matters is this: 

1. Very young children are having to learn what 'fronted adverbials' are and then to make their writing supposedly better, use them in their writing. 
2. 'Fronted adverbials' is a fairly recent term to describe anything 'adverbial' (I'll come back to that) that comes before the verb e.g. 'On the hour, the bells rung out.' 
 3. It's not clear to anyone why writing in this way is better than writing 'The bells rung out on the hour.' As many have pointed out, this is not a 'grammatical' view. It's all about style. 
4. My view also is that it's all based on a false view of what grammar is and how it can be described. That's because the grammatical terms (like 'fronted adverbial') are not connected to meaning and purpose. 
10. By focussing obsessively on this kind of stuff, without it being connected directly to meaning, audience, purpose and function, we give children and teachers a false idea of what is good writing. Booklets and worksheets come out full of exercises in spotting these things, and of course test marks depend on them. That's bad enough. What's just as bad is that it pretends to be about something rule-governed, accurate and quasi-scientific. But it isn't. It's based on a bog of hybrids. Bogs of hybrids in language are actually what make language studies very interesting. You don't have to do it when you're 7 (the age when 'fronted adverbials' kick in in schools by order of Gove, Morgan and Gibb)." 

Here's a link to the whole thing

 "In other words," wrote Mr Rosen in another article on the same topic, "- another dodgy term, implying a rule that isn't a rule, a criterion for 'good writing' that isn't a criterion for good writing, another way to get children to be nervous about writing and for some to fail." 

But apparently in our schools children are supposed to know this stuff. Amazing! Their little brains must be going wild. I was shocked enough when my daughter, primary school teacher, revealed that eight-year-olds are supposed to know about, recognise and use subordinate clauses, and, yes, she confirmed th other day, fronted adverbials as well! Phew, I don't think she herself knew about sentence analysis until she studied A level English Language. 

 I am reminded of the numerous occasions when Spaniards learning English ask me about "Phrasal verbs". I had never heard of them until I had these conversations. It seems to mean verbs with prepositions: get over/under/in/out, give in/up, hand on/over/down and so on. 

But I have just found another wonderful term: "ergative verbs". These are verbs which can be used transitively or intransitively, with or without an object. You can say, "I broke the glass" or "The glass broke". And then there is the "perfect innocence of ergative verbs". When we say "the glass broke", nobody is responsible for the breaking - hence the perfect innocence. 

Put that in the national curriculum. Make seven- and eight-year-old recognise them! Do it now!Bah! Humbug!


  1. Hullo, I'll be in Vigo in April and I wonder if you could recommend a great bakery and a few tapas, wine tasting places I could go to in the old quarter, near the port? I'll be walking. Cheers!

  2. Hi Robin. All the bakeries are good. For tapas, look at places on the Alameda. But, if you like seafood, go to a tapas restaurant called El Puerto on Calle Argentina. There food is very good and very fresh.
    You could do worse than to catch a train to nearby Pontevedra and seek out Meigas Fora, just off the main square.
    And of course, Santiago has excellent tapas places.
    enjoy your visit.