Friday, February 26, 2010

Grammar, what big teeth you have

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I think it's the second Mad Max film where the road warrior comes across a group of desert urchins desperately trying to maintain their scant intellectual heritage through something they call the learnin'. The world has descended into a hunter/gatherer place of non-literacy where these small scraps of knowledge are passed between the few humans left. No one can remember why the learnin' is important but it palpably represents something that has been squandered.

This is where it all starts. A leading authority on English grammar has found no fewer than 65 grammatical errors in a sixteen-page guide to English grammar produced by English teachers in Queensland. Emeritus Professor Rodney Huddlestone from my alma mater University of Queensland, wrote to the The English Teachers Association to helpfully inform them of the mistakes in their publication Grammar at the Coalface. Was his expert input appreciated? Not a bit of it. He was sent packing by the guide's author, Dr Lenore Ferguson who is apparently under the impression that the language is a good deal more fluid than most of us imagine.

What can you expect from an organisation that can't even name itself without making a grammatical gaff. I suppose one could take the view that 'English Teachers' is a set rather than a group of people possessing an organisation but that would be to misinterpret the meaning of the word 'association'. The lack of an apostrophe denoting the plural possessive is, I think more of a style decision. A lot of educators think apostrophes are old-fashioned and try to find ways of not using them. Other people are very happy to use them in all sorts of inappropriate places. I saw a picture in a magazine recently of a footballer who had this tattooed on his chest,

One brother bleeds, all brother's bleed.


As for the charmingly non-sequiturial title - wouldn't you have loved to have been part of the committee that came up with that one? Dr Ferguson's view that grammatical nomenclature can be reduced to a matter of opinion is a tad too post-modern for me. And her rebuff to Prof. Huddlestone that he had replaced her 'practical framing with a theoretical one and [evaluated her] articles from this superimposed perspective', must have had him scanning his office for hidden cameras. All he did was point out that 'Sam's' (as in Sam's folder) is not a pronoun but the possessive form of a proper noun and that 'set' (as in set of bowls) is not an adjective but a noun. By Dr Ferguson's logic, I might suddenly decide to make 22 a prime number.

I've recently experienced a year of learnin' with teachers who couldn't form a coherent sentence. I could mostly guess what they wanted from the assortment of jumbled phrases and mangled spellings they'd cobbled together the night before, but it wasn't much fun. It took me half a year to work out how to frame a question that would yield me a comprehensible answer. I ended up with a What's My Line approach of yes/no enquiry. It mostly worked but it was mightily tedious.

Although the erosion of our language offers us constant opportunities for mirth, the serious side is the damage it's doing to the future prospects of children educated in the public school system. I don't suppose they'll be too amused when they find their language skills are inadequate for higher level employment. English is the language of global business which means everyone is learning it. You can bet it's being taught properly in China and India. Perhaps Grammar at the Coalface is an apt title. In the future, mining may be the only occupation open to Australians.