I was about eight when my mother gave me The Grammatical Kittens. It had that lovely old feel to it, with its lichen-green cover, cream pages, and black ink drawings. It was the kind of book you’d want to sniff.
I’d never heard of “grammar” before, and I read it lying on my stomach on the carpet. It felt like someone was sharing a secret — the cogs and wheels of a language I’d been using for years.
I might have been the only excited one to read it. The book was published in 1937, and is prefaced by a less than wildly excited introduction:
The teaching of Grammar is frequently postponed until the pupil has reached the age of ten or eleven; but, in the writer’s experience, those who begin this subject earlier find less difficulty in its later stages.
This story was accordingly written for a class of young beginners, in the hope of rendering attractive a lesson sometimes considered dull and difficult.
(DC was D. Carlisle, Principal of Clifton House School, Kensington.)
It tells the story of kitten twins Archibald and Caroline, being taught grammar by Cumber (the sheepdog) who breaks down language into eight components:
They then have eight conversations about grammar, while chasing flies and falling off roofs. As plots go, you’d have to be an overexcited grammar-geek to want to read it, but anyway… I enjoyed it.
As it turns out, this would be the sum of my formal training in grammar. I’m sure my subsequent mistakes were keel-hauled by various English teachers, but as a discrete subject, The Grammatical Kittens were, basically, it.
Until my eldest kid approached his SATs. About a year ago, when my child came home asking about relative clauses and so on, I took it upon myself to google (it’s a verb), and waded dutifully through a heady cocktail of grammar websites and Jack Daniels. Parenting halo lubricated, I managed to nail a couple of draft SPaG papers.
Were they terrifying? About as terrifying as kittens. This is grammar, not skydiving.
Were they easy? Well, no, as it goes.
Was my child terrified? No.
Did he do OK? Yes.
So far so good, but that was last year. This year it’s turned into a bad sitcom — grammar at a level that professional authors find hard, (kicks up the fronted adverbials, commiserations to the subordinate clauses), policy updates (a.k.a. u-turns) on the testing of various age groups, and now — bahahahaaa! — accidentally posting the SATs papers and results online, just before the test. (Go, pushy parents, download those lists and drill your children now! Or not, depending on whether you want today to be meaningful or ridiculous.)
OK, so if we chalk those up as mistakes, what’s the actual policy? Our culture? Aside from general incompetence, one thing did startle me: the concept that you have to name grammatical entities before you can use them. I listened to the WatO Martha Kearney / Nick Gibb interview, in which Gibb confused a preposition with a subordinating conjunction. Anyone could have got that wrong, but his response included this:
“… we need to make sure that future generations are taught grammar properly so that when they are asked to write, at secondary school — when they go to university and they are asked to write an essay — it isn’t a struggle to construct a properly crafted and grammatically correct sentence.”
Seriously? Of course children need to be able to communicate effectively, and grammar is a part of that, but we don’t need to name grammatical parts in order to use them, any more than we need to know the names of our bones and muscles in order to sit up or walk. I threw this idea out to Twitter (in response to Michael Rosen’s stream):
The latest grammar drive seems, to me, little more than expensive and time-consuming whimsy. There’s no need to plague primary schools with this level of linguistic intricacy (if Philip Pullman thinks the tests are too hard, they probably ARE?), when the children have so many other essentials to learn. I want my children to eat a varied and balanced diet, to play nicely with friends, and to be fit and strong.
I also want them to read, write and review, but I’m pretty sure that naming the grammatical terms won’t be key to that; I hope their writing will start with inspiration, motivation, content… perhaps, even, enjoyment?
My kids can learn about subordinating conjunctions if they want, but I’ll be concentrating on a more holistic childhood: footballs, go-karts, cricket pitches, strawberries and ice-cream, and lying on our stomachs in the sun*.
We’ll be keeping the kittens, though.
*Cornish for “rain”.