"Deschooling Society"? The Left has its reasons
How the British Left is attempting to downplay the importance of good writing for its own sinister aims
I confess. I am a bad person. Instead of focusing on the great news issues of the day -- the possibility of bombing Iran or the Russian presidential elections or David Cameron's equine proclivities -- I am brooding on the trivial issue of English grammar.
I have been moved so to brood by an article in (where else?) the Guardian by writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen who has tried to persuade us that "there's no such thing as correct grammar". To be fair, that phrase has been added as a headline and does not appear in his article. But the headline not unreasonably sums up his point:
“Whereas linguists are agreed that language has grammar, what they can't agree on is how to describe it. So, while there is a minimum agreement that language is a system with parts that function in relation to each other, there is no universal agreement on how the parts and the functions should be analysed and described, nor indeed if they should be described as some kind of self-sealed system or whether they should always be described in terms of the users, ie those who "utter" the language, and those who "receive" it (speakers and listeners, writers and readers etc).”
The article is in fact a poke at Martin Gwynne who has taken to giving presentations on English grammar at Selfridges in London. An activity seen by Michael Rosen as crassly elitist:
“People attending his classes will feel immensely pleased that they have been told what's right and will probably spend a good deal of time telling other people they meet or read where and how they are wrong. This is not a neutral activity. It is part of how a certain caste of people have staked a claim over literacy. In effect, they state over and over again that literacy belongs to them. Other people (the wrong ones) have less of it or none of it. If we are serious about enabling those who want to acquire what we have called standard English then first we should be honest about change and its lack of encoded rules.”
What to make of this claim that grammar lacks "encoded rules"? First, the trivial logic point. It does not follow that because a language evolves and is necessarily always changing, there is not at any one time a coherent and identifiable set of rules.
Take Michael Rosen's own article. Nitpickers and pedants could rummage around in it and find certain grammatical infelicities. My computer’s Grammar Check picks up a few. But overwhelmingly his article sticks to a well-defined set of rules and linguistic conventions. In fact it reads smoothly and cogently. So does almost every other article on the Guardian website. Each of them is following impeccably not only the main conventions of English grammar but also countless points of tiny grammatical detail.
This has not happened by chance. It is because our English grammar rules have emerged and been codified over a period of centuries, and then adopted by all educated people. The fact that some people, no doubt an increasing number of them, have not mastered these rules or can't follow them doesn't mean that the rules don't exist or do not apply in mainstream English communication. They do.
The really disturbing aspect of this article lies elsewhere. It gives comfort to the proposition that good education and acquiring top-level skills in communication somehow don't matter. It's all relative! If you want to speak and write ungrammatically, that's fine. Nay, it is more than fine. You're involved in a revolutionary struggle, fighting back against all those 1% elitists in Selfridges who have arrogated to themselves the right to "stake a claim over literacy".
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