Grammar, the Big Conversation and others

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Children are learning grammar again - but not the quiz kind

Children are learning grammar again - but not the quiz kind

Sir: Grammar is even more "in fashion" than Philip Hensher thinks ("The rules of grammar are back in fashion", 27 November). Thanks to the National Literacy Strategy and the KS3 English strand, children now learn about grammar at school - but not Hensher's kind of grammar.

Yes, they do learn how to write effective and accurate English, including apostrophes and the rest of punctuation; but split infinitives are not on the syllabus.

His comparison with quiz knowledge is revealing. What children will learn is that grammar is the exact opposite of quiz knowledge: it is a tightly integrated network of mutually defining concepts which cannot be "tested" in isolation, and where "correctness" is relative to context. This is the reality of grammar, and style manuals, however amusing they may be, reveal as little about grammar as etiquette manuals do about human psychology.

RICHARD HUDSON
Professor of Linguistics
University College London

Sir: Exasperated by the constant use of the abusive term "greengrocer's apostrophe" (latest culprit: Philip Hensher), I will tell you a different story.

My father worked in the fruit and vegetable trade from the age of 18 to 71, for much of the time in partnership with my mother. Not only could they both spell and place apostrophes accurately; my father, until his recent death aged 86, could recall quantities of Greek and quote accurately more Latin than I ever learnt for my O-level. He loved explaining the origins of English words which had their root in one of these classical languages.

Compare that with, for example, the listing for Harrow council in the current BT telephone directory. Under the Education Department you will find "Suppley Teachers" and "School's Art and Music Resources". Judging by the quality of written material put out today by government, professional and commercial bodies, my "greengrocer" parents were literary scholars compared with many of today's so-called educated classes, including teachers.

JACKIE HAWKINS
Chester

Sir: Philip Hensher, when considering the meaning of the word "coruscating", could have pointed out that if we do not properly understand it, we misinterpret the remark that Oscar Wilde's conversation was "coruscating on thin ice".

GWYN NEALE
Pwllheli, Gwynedd

Sir: Is it better to write "greengrocer's apostrophe", or "greengrocers' apostrophe"?

DAVID BOYCE
Gourock, Renfrewshire

A conversation with Tony Blair

Sir: Our government is asking us to enter into conversation with it. Here is a small example of its ability to make our public services work.

For more than six months I have had a lump in my groin. Because I am a doctor I knew what it was and only went to my GP four months ago. I have been seen at a local teaching hospital whose students I taught but still await surgical repair. I am one of 150,000 people in Britain waiting for this operation. Meantime the lump has grown bigger, it hurts and there is a one in ten chance of it throwing up a life-threatening complication.

The number of hernias in our population is predictable. As fast as one is repaired, some other unfortunate will get one, so the waiting time for their repair is entirely unnecessary.

This lot in government has known about this problem, not to mention all the others, for at least six years and wants me to enter into conversation with it!

MARTIN ROSSDALE
London NW5

Sir: Although our present voting system is indeed unfair and arbitrary, Alexander Davies's suggestion that proportional representation would reconnect government with the people (letter, 29 November) overlooks the fact that there is also alienation from the political process in democracies which already have PR.

The problem is more deep-seated: it is the widespread awareness that all the party-based models of representative democracy are failing to deliver government in the public interest, as distinct from the interests of the political class and of the corporate and producer lobbies to which it is beholden.

More radical reforms are needed, including the selection of at least one house of Parliament by lot from all ordinary members of the public willing to serve. That would produce an independent and representative chamber which would suffer no careerist constraints in holding the executive to account and which could make a reality of the separation of powers.

CHARLES SCANLAN
London NW8

Sir: A little less conversation, a little more action?

STEPHEN CHALMERS-MORRIS
Cheadle, Cheshire

Under V-1 attack

Sir: John Lichfield's report (Review, 20 November), unquestionably identifies why Londoners are grateful to French spy Michel Hollard and, hopefully, full recognition of his efforts in saving London from being destroyed can and will be acknowledged. However John Lichfield's assertions about Londoners and their morale are a scandalous slur on the hard-pressed people.

I was 12 years old and had just returned from three years' evacuation when the doodlebugs rained down on London. This was a bombardment following on from regular and routine German bombing raids. Because the frequency of the latter had reduced we had taken to sleeping indoors again, only making for our Anderson shelter when aircraft could be heard. My parents decided that once the V-1 blitz started, we should sleep each night in our Anderson shelter so that we might have a night's uninterrupted rest.

Each working day adults went to work and children went to school. All public services, transport, buildings and places of entertainment were open normally. At school we were taught in our classrooms and only went to the school shelters at the wail of the siren. Older children sat their School Certificate examinations in the shelters whether or not an "alert" was on so that their tests were not interrupted. At the cinema, in the event of a raid, an "alert" caption was shown on the screen and the film continued so we, the audience, listened for the distinctive note of the doodlebug - no one left their seats.

We did not pray that "the bomb would drop over the next street -- any street but their own". To the contrary, with indiscriminate bombing all we knew was that some poor family, or families, were to suffer. There was no praying that we in particular should be spared.

Yes, we would watch the doodlebugs flying, listen to the droning engine and wait anxiously for the abrupt silence, witness the silent glide and then experience the dreadful explosion. No one derived any satisfaction that they had been the lucky ones that time. Whilst there was a sense of relief that we were safe, this was tempered by the fact that we had yet to find out whether all our family was safe.

That is how Londoners endured life with the V-1s - no panic or any selfish desire for their own preservation, just a dogged determination to continue living and working in as normal a manner as possible.

A E WATTS
Dorking, Surrey

Top-up fee verdict

Sir: G R Evans ("Not all Oxbridge dons want to see top-up fees", 28 November) says: "It's time to find out what university teachers really think about top-up fees."

As the main academic and academic-related staff union, we carried out a survey of almost 2,000 of our members, earlier this year, on a number of higher education matters, including variable top-up fees, and found that 81.8 per cent of respondents opposed the much-reviled charge.

This figure matches the results from an opinion poll we commissioned last week, which questioned 1,108 people, and showed that 84 per cent of the public opposed variable top-up fees. On this matter, higher education staff and the public at large are clearly at one.

TERRY McKNIGHT
President, Association of University Teachers
London WC1

Not devastated

Sir: Your piece "British Library opens a new chapter: helping Amazon storm the antiquarian book market" (25 November) was an Amazon promotion dressed up as news - confused and confusing.

Quite simply, Amazon have linked their site with the British Library's on-line public access catalogue - currently freely available to anyone on the net anyway. That's it.

Suggesting that such a simple technical device will have devastating effects on the antiquarian book trade is nonsensical. The BL catalogue usually gives basic information only; certainly there is no indication of value or rarity. Specialist booksellers actually know what they are talking about (most of the time) and have clear ideas of rarity and value - and acceptable condition.

BRIAN LAKE
Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers
London WC1

Lurch to the right  

Sir: We've now got something of a full house of bêtes noires: Bush as US President, Sharon as Israeli PM, Howard as Tory leader and now, the cherry on top of the cake, possibly Paisley as Northern Ireland First Minister. Stop the world: I want to get off!

PAUL WALTER
Newbury, Berkshire

Old trouble

Sir: Terence Blacker's article "Watch out: grey power is taking over" (28 November) is interesting and, by and large, balanced. But I do deplore the sentence "For the first time, there are now more people in Britain over 60 than there are under 16, a situation which, with the declining birth rate, will get progressively worse." Worse for whom? Is The Independent institutionally ageist?

JOHN BREWSTER (aged 67)
Hexham, Northumberland

Seasonal gloom

Sir: I do not recall a Christmas when more charity appeals have fallen out of newspaper colour supplements or through letter boxes. Could it be that, shockingly and bizarrely, under this Labour government there are more poor and more suffering inequality in Britain today than even under Thatcher or Major?

MIKE ABBOTT
Kew, Surrey

Mobile moments

Sir: On a recent visit to Venice we observed with delight a gondolier talking into a mobile phone while sculling with his other hand. (We also saw a radar-equipped hearse for foggy funerals.) While taking our grandchildren to the zoo, my husband overheard "I am in the lemur enclosure..." spoken into a mobile.

MARINA DONALD
Edinburgh

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