Spare the semi-colon and spoil the child

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LET US begin with a quotation. It is from Winston Churchill's My Early Life. 'By being so long in the lowest form (at Harrow, where he had to repeat a year) I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys . . . I got into my bones the essential structure of the normal British sentence - which is a noble thing.'

Oh, how I agree and ah, how tragic has been the decline in the correct use of the English language in the past two or three decades] I blame it on the ending of parsing as a necessary discipline. At my boarding school we were made to parse until we could do it in our sleep. It meant unpicking a sentence down to the basic bone-structure and laying out its component parts . . . clauses, sub-clauses, subject, object, nouns, adverbs . . . all anatomically labelled into their proper categories. It was pretty boring, but it worked. Furthermore, once grasped you didn't have to learn Latin (though we did) to understand how language is put together.

The new English curriculum for schoolchildren, published by the National Curriculum Council last week, makes no mention of parsing. It says that children will be expected to use full stops correctly by the age of seven, commas by 11 (an eldritch voice within me shrieks, Not till 11?), apostrophes and speech marks by 13 (same eldritch voice: 13?) and colons and semi-colons by 16. Yet teachers have reeled in despair from these modest proposals. One teachers' union spokesman said, with weary incredulity: 'Yet more change. When will this nightmare end?' Another called it 'education by government diktat'.

Chalkies of Britain, you are talking arrant nonsense. If people cannot speak or think with precision and clarity, how can they hope to express their dreams, wishes, ambitions, intentions or dissent? For precision and clarity in communication, a knowledge of the rules of grammar is essential. You might as well give someone a bowl of eggs, a triangle of cheese, a lump of butter and a salt-cellar and claim it would cramp their creativity to be shown the recipe for cheese souffle. Life is lived by rules, and language written or spoken without regard for correct grammar is ugly, confusing, ambiguous, clumsy, and usually crude. Geniuses such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett may break the rules; but maths is not taught as though every schoolchild were an Einstein, and Irish schools taught - and still do teach - flawless grammar, which may partly explain why the Irish are such a beguilingly loquacious race.

This exaggerated fear of cramping children's precious creativity by teaching them how to write properly is a recent thing. Last weekend I went to the Imperial War Museum to see 'Forces' Sweethearts', an exhibition about the women who served and waited behind while the men they loved were fighting the wars of this century. Among the exhibits were a number of letters exchanged between couples during their enforced separation. Touchingly composed for the most private audience, an audience of one, they were none the less beautifully written in grammatically correct English.

Yet today's young adults, even those with A-levels, yes, even some of those at university, are often incapable of writing their own language properly. By no means all are confident of the distinction between 'their' and 'there', let alone 'its' and 'it's'. Split infinitives defy their comprehension; hanging gerunds are light years beyond them.

Ten years ago I lived next door to an old man in his 70s. He had never passed any formal examinations, and spent most of his life working as a cook. From time to time he would push a note through my door (about the children's footballs landing in his garden or a parcel to be collected). These notes were invariably written in a clear hand, properly spelt, and perfectly direct. Yet my neighbour regarded himself as ignorant and unlettered.

According to one university lecturer who despairs of the decline in the standard of English, time that should be spent with his students discussing books and literature now has to be spent teaching them basic use of English. Knowledge of the content of books will be next to go. The nightmare depicted in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 cannot be far away.

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