Gove’s lesson: spare the comma, spoil the child

Every parent cherishes those oh-so-fleeting times, when their child sits up eagerly in bed squealing “Please can you explain the uses of a colon again.PLEEEEASE.”

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We’re at that point in a Conservative-led Government when, according to parliamentary rules, the education minister has to announce that society is collapsing because kids use incorrect grammar. There must be a template speech they’re given, that goes: “Is it any wonder so many of our youth waste their lives smoking crack, when today’s teachers allow them to use a comma before ‘and’?”

Michael Gove announced there will be grammar tests in primary schools to prevent this, and you can see his point, because what encourages kids to read and write isn’t ideas or stories or imagination – it’s punctuation. Every parent cherishes those oh-so-fleeting times, when their child sits up eagerly every night in bed squealing: “Please can you explain the uses of a colon again. PLEEEEASE.”

“Don’t you want to hear what actually happens to the very hungry caterpillar?” you ask. But “No,” they snap. “I want you to describe the mechanism by which the reader is alerted to a forthcoming list of nouns, in this case the foodstuffs eaten by the greedy bastard,” they say. And your little heart melts.

If only all teachers had matched Gove’s rigour, our writers may have been capable of expressing themselves correctly. For example, if Stephen Hawking had been taught properly, the teacher would have said: “WHAT have I told you about the importance of a hyphen in anti‑matter? Maybe if you STOPPED dreaming about black holes and THOUGHT about sentence structure for a minute, you might write something WORTHWHILE, boy.”

And teachers of English literature would be free to explore with students the essence of a story. “Come on,” they could yell. “You ought to know why To Kill a Mockingbird had such a shocking impact. No, Susan, NOT because the innocent man was shot. It’s because he said, ‘I ain’t never done no harm to no one’, not just a double but a TRIPLE negative. It’s no WONDER the jury didn’t believe him.”

Michael Gove insists not only that grammar should be given priority in primary schools, but that there is one correct grammar, unchanging and constantly right. So it must infuriate him that his colleagues say they’re “gobsmacked”, or that one of his party’s most famous election slogans was “Labour’s double whammy”.

If there is a true, unchanging English, he must insist that the Government makes its announcements in Chaucerian verse, such as: “Merrie be the counsyl clerk, Who swyngs at folk a mighty axe, And spekes thus ‘Flee ye afore dark, For paying not ye bedroome tax’.”

Even that could be a betrayal, because Chaucer used an English that had hardly been written. Prior to him, the official language was a hybrid of English and the French brought by the Normans, so Chaucer was using the dialect of the common folk, the ungrammatical heathen idiot. Or we could turn to the Bible as the immaculate source of perfect English, so maths teachers would say: “Many were the sevens that did go into 56, and it was Nathan who did put up his hand and declare, ‘Be there eight, Sir’, and it was good.”

But there was an almighty battle throughout the 16th and 17th centuries to get the Bible written into English, as the church insisted it should only be in Latin, to keep its text beyond the common man. When the English version first appeared, it was as shocking as if one was printed now that went: “A man say da flood coming fam, and it will be BRUTAL u get me 4 mash up da whole EARTH. And dis old bruv Noah build dis crib im call ark wid BEAR space, wid room 4 2 goat and 2 camel and 2 weasel and shit u shld see it fam it SICK.”

At any given point, it’s almost impossible to state that there is one true grammar as it’s in a constant state of change. The rules exist so that language can be understood, so if everyone decides that colour should be spelt color, the rule alters, however infuriating it might seem.

If someone who’s used to writing letters to The Daily Telegraph texts a teenager with: “Dear Sir: Regarding your request of the 15th inst. to ‘cum 4 pint b4 9’ I am happy to accept, and look forward to hearing tales of your recent expedition to the dubstep nite [sic], at which I was sadly unable to be in attendance. Yours faithfully, Admiral Gordon Plantagenet MBE.”

They both follow the rules of their own world, so both would be right and both would be wrong. Michael Gove could use his position to ensure that schools enthuse students about the exhilarating nature of language. But the genius of the theory that promotes grammar above all, and insists on “correctness”, is that it presents literature and poetry to people at the time they’re most eager for ideas, and bores them stupid, often to such a degree that they go through life saying: “I was put off literature at school”.

This is as magnificent a failure as a car salesman who not only fails to sell someone a car, but their potential customer spends their whole life travelling on roller skates as the salesman put them off cars for life. Still, force them to do a test about prepositions, as there’s nothing in the world as thrilling as an unto in the proper grammatical position.

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