Tom Hodgkinson: How grammar can keep you out of jail

 

Share
Related Topics

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'

React Now

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

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bill Cosby speaks onstage at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund 25th Awards Gala on 11 November 2013 in Washington  

Bill Cosby: Isn’t it obvious why his accusers have stayed silent up until now?

Grace Dent
 

Our political landscape is not changing anywhere near as much as we assume it is

Steve Richards
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible