Too Much, Too Wrong

In his book about the English language, ‘The King’s English’, the British novelist Kingsley Amis divided speakers of English into two groups, as follows:

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Whatever you may think of berks, the crazed Nevile Gwynne is clearly of the latter persuasion. I mention the wretched man’s name again because it has come up in connection with the equally misguided Bad Grammar Awards. The judges have directed their disdain against a letter written by 100 academics commenting on the British government’s proposed educational reforms, including reforms in the teaching of English. Gwynne has criticised this paragraph in the academics’ letter:

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

He objects to ‘too much too young’ and the way in which the second clause is joined to the first in the last sentence. I don’t need to add to Mark Liberman’s hatchet job in this Language Log post.

Gwynne might deserve a more sympathetic response to his strictures if his own writing could serve as a model, but it doesn’t. On one part of his website we find these four sentences:

Interestingly, the only people in the room who had been completely “unphased” by how I had treated the children were the children themselves!

It should not be ‘unphased’ but ‘unfazed’.

Today I started off by giving them some revision what we had already learned quite extensively.

It should be ‘revision of’.

What is interesting, as far as the story is concerned, is that the mother seem to be very much giving me the impression that she was no longer protesting about what I had done with Billy, and was coming as close as she felt she could to apologising.

It should be ‘mother seemed’.

One of the most important thing is that I am teaching the children to do, and was very much teaching them to do in this instance, is to focus their attention.

It should be ‘things’, not ‘thing’ and thereafter the syntax is hopelessly muddled.

On another page, he seems to be writing about himself in the third person, and in decidedly flattering terms. That page contains this convoluted sentence:

He is the author of what is, by any standards, a fascinating and important book, The Truth About Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, which shows clearly and very readably that the reality concerning the man almost universally regarded as the infamous Borgia Pope, easily the worst of all the Popes, there have ever been, is completely different from that man that one almost always reads about in books and sees represented in films and on television.

After several readings you can make it out, but stating that ‘reality’ is different from ‘that man that . . .’ is at best clumsy, and there is no excuse for a comma between ‘Popes’ and ‘there’.

He could perhaps be dismissed as a harmless eccentric if he didn’t prompt headlines such as the Daily Mail’s ‘This marvellous moralist is the corrective to claptrap’. This is just the sort of thing to appeal to those who like to see their own prejudices confirmed rather than to take the trouble to seek out the facts.

Gwynne’s petty response to the letter by the 100 academics risks drawing attention away from the seriousness of some of the implications of the government report which prompted it, particularly in regard to the teaching of English. Fortunately, we still have people like David Crystal who care enough, and, just as importantly, know enough, to challenge the politically driven nostrums included in the report. Michael Gove (British Secretary of State for Education) probably won’t read David Crystal’s post on the subject, but I hope some of my readers will. I know that not all will, so here are the final few sentences:

I hope things will change – and I especially hope that there are enough linguistically aware teachers out there these days to see the limitations in tests of this kind and continue with the more informed approach to language study that I know exists in many schools. There’s nothing wrong with being able to identify adverbs as long as this is not thought to be the end of the story. It would be like giving people a driving test where all they had to do was name the parts of the car. With a linguistically informed approach, one can do this, yes, but then go on to drive the language, as it were, and take it to all kinds of exciting places.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Too Much, Too Wrong

  1. Pingback: The wrong way to be right | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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  5. I’m glad you are as equally disturbed by Mr Gwynne as I am. Thanks for reminding me that David Crystal finds the knowledge-based curriculum as abhorent as I do. I think I might just re-quote his driving test image until Gove goes away. Thanks for sharing.

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    • As David Crystal says, there’s nothing wrong with knowledge in itself, but gaining knowledge is the start of the process, not the end. Education should also give us the confidence to challenge the likes of Mr Gwynne. It’s because many people lack that confidence that he’s allowed to get away with it.

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