Accents is awright

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The Independent Online
GRAMMAR was once called 'a system of pitfalls, thoughtfully prepared for the feet of the self-made man'. In future, however, those without a cut- glass accent and a classical education will have nowt to fear.

A new definition of Standard English, drawn up by Government advisers, elevates dialects and accents to a position of respectability. It says they are acceptable and even to be welcomed - when used in the right circumstances.

For the first time, the description of all that is considered desirable in the teaching of English will be enshrined in law - if it is accepted by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority this month.

The document, a copy of which has been sent to the Independent on Sunday, reveals notable concessions to the liberal English teachers who forced the review by boycotting national tests last year.

The richness of dialects and accents in England and Wales can contribute to pupils' understanding of language, it says. They should speak Standard English when circumstances require it, but should also have the freedom to make their language fit any situation in which they find themselves.

The document defines Standard English as 'vocabulary as found in dictionaries, and agreed conventions of spelling and grammar. It develops and changes over time'. Pupils should be taught to speak, read and write it fluently and accurately, it says, and should learn to use verb tenses, pronouns, adverbs and adjectives correctly.

Advisers hope the latest version will settle a long-running debate over the nature and importance of Standard English. However, writers and English experts are still divided over the correct definition of Standard English and how it should be spoken, as well as over the importance of dialects.

Baroness James, better known as P D James, the crime writer, pointing out that the last Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle, was written in Irish dialect, said: 'We have to make a distinction between dialect and incorrect or ungrammatical speech. Dialect enriches English, but Standard English is comprehensible to everyone, and unless you can communicate I think you are disadvantaged. I would never say dialect is inferior, but I think we need to teach children Standard English, for their sakes.'

Nina Bawden, the children's writer, said that dialect should be respected but be used only for specific purposes in written English. However, Standard English was not always appropriate. 'I was once told by an American editor that the children in my novels didn't speak grammatically. She went through making them all speak in the subjunctive. I went through taking it all out - it seemed a completely unreasonable approach.'

Jeffrey Archer, author of bestselling novels, said that as a 'Somerset boy' he was strongly in favour of dialects. 'But I would be always wary of anything that took away from discipline. Children should be taught in a very formal way, otherwise the sloppiness goes on through their lives.'

Sir Randolph Quirk, former president of the British Academy, and an English language expert, was delighted to see that some suggestions he made had been had been adopted by the review group, but was dismayed that Standard English was not given more weight. He said: 'I am alarmed at references to 'when occasion demands'. Standard English is the absolute bedrock of all neutrally expressed English, whether in speech or in writing.'

All state school pupils should be taught the new system of grammar from 1995, when Sir Ron Dearing's review of the whole National Curriculum is complete. Standard English has been a hot issue since the National Curriculum for the subject was first published in 1990. It said pupils should be taught that Standard English was the language of wide social communication and was generally required in public or formal settings.

A revised version of the curriculum, published in 1993, said that all children should be taught to use Standard English. David Pascall, then chairman of the National Curriculum Council, said that pupils who said 'We was' instead of 'We were' should be corrected, even in the playground. Mr Pascall is disappointed by the new formula. He said: 'Standard English has become standard precisely because it facilitates communication for everyone.'