Tom Hodgkinson: How grammar can keep you out of jail


Anyone who knows anything about prisons will suspect a link between criminal behaviour and illiteracy. I'm a keen student of the work of Noel "Razor" Smith, armed robber-turned-writer and public speaker. He has been in and out of prison all his life. There is no doubt that he found liberation through language. And again and again in his accounts of prison life, we find that a large proportion of his fellow inmates cannot read or write.

Somehow, then, our progressive education system, which has been in place roughly for the past 40 years, has still failed a significant proportion of the population when it comes to literacy.

On a less socially damaging level, young people seem completely unable, for example, to put the apostrophe in the right place. Every day I see flyers and promotional materials for events and clubs which lack a basic understanding of the rules of grammar. Even the well-educated ones fail in this area. I am regularly sent unsolicited articles for The Idler by Oxbridge graduates who wouldn't know a semi-colon if it came and bit them on their skinny jeans.

One wonders what on earth they were doing in school for 14 years. I could teach the correct use of the apostrophe in "its" and "it's" in about five minutes. One character trait young people do emerge with is what is now called "self-esteem" but could very easily be called "pride". They've got a bob on themselves, as my mother would say, a sense of entitlement with little to back it up. I suppose they have been told that any piece of work they have produced, however shoddy and packed with error, is really great.

Children are also very good at computers and outstanding when it comes to shopping. My own children, who I have attempted to shield somewhat when it comes to the commercial world, are already experts in online consuming and extracting my credit-card details from me. Their abilities in this area have improved hugely since we plugged the telly back in last year. So I conclude that they are being taught shopping studies by the ads on television.

Advertising, by the way, works simply by repetition: we all know Tesco's slogan without thinking about it, yet few of us could give a good definition of a pronoun. But if the definition of a pronoun was repeated in every commercial break, we would soon learn it. So one wonders why this simple educational technique has been abandoned by teachers, who seem to have given in to the assumption that learning by rote is "boring".

The progressives will often repeat that "to educate" actually means "to lead out what is already there". This sounds nice until you ask yourself whether the times tables are already implanted in the child's mind, or indeed the capital cities of the world. No: they have to be put in there by the teacher.

Well, rather than hanging around waiting for government to fix this problem, we at The Idler have followed the lead of the great 19th-century radical William Cobbett and attempted to help people educate themselves. Cobbett wrote a brilliant guide to English grammar, through which thousands of people taught themselves the rules of accurate writing. As a result they became what we today would call bullshit detectors: able to spot attempts by politicians and marketers to pull the wool over our eyes.

One fascinating charity I have met since starting the Idler Academy is Real Action. It uses old-fashioned methods to teach literacy to poor children in west London. Education director Katie Ivens says that in six months of weekly two-hour sessions, they can improve a child's reading age by 13 months. Again, she says that the over-riding characteristic of young gang members in the area is their inability to read or write. So this sort of teaching has immense practical value.

We hope to be working closely with Real Action in the future and we are starting to plan bursaries for their kids to attend our grammar classes and philosophy classes. To teach good grammar is not particularly difficult and can completely transform lives.

This leads me to confess a mistake I made in my previous column. I used the word "brassic" meaning "broke". My mother emailed me to point out that the correct word is "boracic", and is Cockney rhyming slang for "skint", as in, "boracic lint", a sort of medical dressing popular in the 1950s. Clearly we need to introduce a Cockney rhyming slang course at the Academy.

Tom Hodkinson is editor of 'The Idler'