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.”


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Tea and sympathy for the idea of religion as a force for peace

Andrew Buncombe
The BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House is illuminated at night in London, England.  

We can no longer justify paying the license fee when the BBC wastes so much money on expenses

Mira Bar Hillel
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits