More on what grammar isn’t

An English language test introduced into British primary schools this week has prompted some interest in the topic, including this test published by the BBC. It’s hopeless, for the reasons Peter Harvey gives in this post on his blog.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “More on what grammar isn’t

  1. I saw this being discussed this morning on the Beeb and very nearly threw my breakfast at the screen.

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  2. I don’t suppose they went to the trouble of getting someone who knew what they were talking about. ‘And remember, when it’s language, people never check. They never call a linguist. They just make stuff up.’ (Geoffrey Pullum)

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  3. Jonathan Hammond

    I didn’t bother going beyond question 3, which is contrived, to say the very least. If this is the sort of stuff that Gove is promoting, then heaven help us.

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  4. Question #1 assumes facts not in evidence, namely whether there was a win against Australia. (Someone must beat them sometime in something, no?)

    #3 is indeed contrived (and the only one I got wrong). Plenty of people say and write “my brother Benedict” even if they have only one.

    #4 is flat wrong: “Less than three coffees” is idiomatic for expressions of measure that are the plurals of mass nouns, at least in English as I speak it.

    #7 shocks me: I thought Brits other than Fowler himself were immune to that/which crackpottery. Of course either one is fine in restrictive clauses, as it was Middle English and ever after shall be, world without end.

    #9 is again flat wrong: there is nothing wrong with “I was sat in the chair” if someone else forcibly put me there.

    #10 is fine with me, because of the separating comma before the allegedly misplaced clause. If the dress had been tightly integrated with the King, there’d be a problem, but set off as it is, it’s plain that it means the Queen. (And have no kings worn dresses?)

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    • Thank you, John. I agree that #7 is particularly surprising. But then, as Geoffrey Pullum has said, ‘when it’s language, people never check. They never call a linguist. They just make stuff up.’

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      • Peter Harvey and I discussed this further at the link above. My remarks about #1 should have been about #2, and I rather missed my own point. What I said there (and should have said here) was:

        Thus “The win against Australia might have been a turning point, but it didn’t turn out like that” implicates that it was not a turning point and so the referent of itis the win, which is clearly what the BBC intended. However, “The win against Australia may have been a turning point, but it didn’t turn out like that” implicates that it was a turning point, and the referent of it is something else in the (implied) discourse. In particular, it is reasonable to infer a later reversal of fortune: the win was a turning point, something else was another turning point, and it (the whole story) ended badly for the original winners.

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  5. Gerunds are nouns made from verbs, but “my asking you” doesn’t have a gerund in it. Nouns don’t have direct objects. English isn’t Latin.

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    • Quite right. In fact, linguists tend to avoid the term gerund altogether now, preferring the simple description ‘-ing’ form. The more we move away from grammatical terms more appropriate to Latin than to English the better. I wasn’t aware that nouns could take a direct object in Latin either, but perhaps that wasn’t what you meant.

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      • Alon

        I wasn’t aware that nouns could take a direct object in Latin either

        Not all nouns, but gerunds do: ad testimonium ferendum, for example, is an often-used legal term, in which testimonium has to be analysed as the DO of fero.

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        • That is true, but a Latin gerund is a rather special kind of noun. In that particular case, I wonder if ‘ferendum’ isn’t actually a gerundive.

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  6. No, what I meant was that Latin’s labels don’t always fit English’s forms.

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