Philip Hensher: Computers have got a lot to learn about grammar

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We're all getting, I fear, a computerised reading device for Christmas, allowing us to read the complete works of dozens of novelists through the magic of a seven-by-four screen. What happens if the logical conclusion is reached, and the computer takes to reading what we write, and judging it, too?

Experiments with using computers to mark exams have been on the rise for some time, and have now reached the point where they are supposed to be able to judge styles of writing. Last week, the Westminster Education Forum amused itself by hooking an exam-marking computer up to various classic works of literature and rhetoric. What mark would Jane Austen, William Golding, Hemingway, Churchill get? The answer was predictable: too much repetition; not proper sentences; even grammatical incorrectness (it thought Churchill's phrase "the might of the German army" was a misuse of the conditional "might").

The conclusion was clear: a computer was at least as likely to make mistakes in marking as a student is in writing. But computers don't make up these standards themselves. They arise out of the principles of writing installed in them by, I am afraid to say, schoolteachers. Those school-taught principles have a way of hanging around in the head. It's surprising to discover what a load of old rubbish many of them are. First, teachers were always telling pupils not to repeat words – this is the one that did for Hemingway in the forum's experiment. But why not? The alternative is something called elegant variation – not a good thing – and the style of very old sports reporters; Wayne Rooney, for instance, becomes, in succession, "the recent proud young father", "the lad from Liverpool", "the Scouse bruiser", "the pug-faced virtuoso of the leather globe" and so on, deliriously. Much better to stick to the accurate word. A specific terrible application of this comes when pupils writing a story are asked not to repeat "he said" and "she said", but to vary the verbs of speech, so that people are always described as murmuring, stating, enunciating, chirruping, guffawing and so on. I expect teachers want to increase their pupils' vocabulary, but the fact remains that only truly terrible writers do this; good ones generally stick to "he said, she said".

Probably, nowadays, the demented old rules about not ending a sentence with a preposition and never splitting an infinitive have disappeared. But what seems to have taken their place are some creative-writing derived principles. The good principle of not using unnecessary words is interpreted by teachers, and I dare say computers, to mean "if you can cross out a word, do so". A "tiny little" object means something different from either a tiny, or a little, object; Sebastian Barry's memorable title A Long Long Way is different from both a long way, and a very long way. Either of these examples would get the computer's alarm bells ringing.

Computers could be programmed to recognise and deplore the passive voice, such as, indeed, "could be programmed". Teachers hate it, despite its obvious usefulness. They could even be instructed to identify instances where students have lapsed from that saddest of creative-writing instructions, "Show don't tell", or to reward the pathetic belief that writing in the present tense is somehow more vivid than in the past. But should they? Some of the things we are told in school, and apparently go on believing quite fervently, are not good general rules to which genius provides an exception. They are just terrible rules.

Incidentally, I just ran this page through my computer's grammar checker. It ticked me off for two fragmentary sentences, one misspelling and one non-existent word ("Scouse"), and made an impertinent suggestion regarding a comma. Its day, I think, is still to come.

On yer bikes, bankers – you're being watched

Lord (Chris) Smith, now the head of the Environment Agency, has proposed that everyone in Britain be given a personal "carbon allowance", or ration, as I prefer to think of it. The idea is that you hand over your ration-book points when buying petrol, airline tickets or, for all I know, when you break wind, emitting dangerous quantities of methane into the lower atmosphere. Officials have said that "It will probably be only bankers and those with extravagant lifestyles who would lose out."

I don't know why bankers are supposed to be more environmentally poisonous than anyone else. This latest wizard wheeze strikes me as – shall we say – a little transparent in its intentions. Wouldn't it be nice, the Environment Agency quietly thinks, if we could return to the good old days of the late 1940s, when the chap from the ministry told you how much you could eat, how much you could spend, and didn't even need to make inquiries into your extravagant lifestyle because he knew it all already?

The Environment Agency doesn't yet propose taking information about how much endangered fish you eat, and whether your beans come from Kenya, or whether your house contains furniture made out of unsustainable wood. But that day will come, and the state-funded inspectors will be at your door, looking over their half-moon glasses with a sustainable clipboard in their hands.

People dislike ideas of this sort not because they don't believe in environmental catastrophe; rather, because they sense in these schemes a hidden agenda to come round and boss us all from morning until night. And the first ones to be bossed, I suppose, are the bankers, who from now on can ride a bicycle to work and do compulsory exercises under the gaze of Lord Smith on the telescreen when they get there.

The fascinatingly horrible world of Athena-style art

A BBC2 documentary tonight, The Art on your Wall, surveys popular art from the last few decades. Not the art people flock to see in art galleries, but the prints they used to buy from Athena, often in their millions. It's all here: Tretchikoff's unbelievable green- faced Chinese girl; that hideous bare-chested yuppie holding a bewildered baby; Jack Vettriano's singing butler on the beach; the tennis-playing girl scratching her bum.

Kitsch is almost always enjoyable in retrospect, and I long to find out more about a fascinatingly horrible painting that was everywhere in the early 1970s, The Wings of Love. If you are over 40 you will know it; a naked dude stepping down from the inside wing of a giant swan to greet a sprawling naked chick. For some reason, her back is lit by a ferocious orange glow, as if your gran had left all three bars on.

In our house, this image was always regarded as the ne plus ultra of vulgarity; the monstrous Beverly, in Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party triggers off her husband's heart attack by entering with it in her hands. Some people might have had Desiderata or Che Guevara on their walls in the 1970s, or a droopy pre-Raphaelite maiden. The decade will always be summed up, however, by The Wings of Love downstairs, the bum-scratcher upstairs. And what, on our walls, will seem like the purest kitsch in 30 years' time? Banksy, of course.

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