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Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Mornings in the Newsagent's

I do not travel by bus or tram much these days. Indeed, I cannot recall when I last did so, unless I am to count the tour of Bath made a couple of years back in one of those open-topped tourist busses. That being so, the nearest I get to hearing the opinion of "The Man on the London Omnibus" (or any other mode of public transport, for that matter) are the conversations that take place in the newsagent's shop each morning. Recently these have (again!) included the thorny topic of what is to be done about our young people and the poor state of their education. In particular the debates have focussed on their inability to read and write and the dumbing down of English exams. The myth of being rewarded with marks for being able to write one's name has surfaced more than once. And then there came this week the news that a candidate was awarded 7.5% for writing "f*** off " on his paper. The mark was given, not by some rookie examiner, but by the chief examiner himself, who then went on to use the paper with trainee examiners as an example to them of how to mark. The principles are quite clear, he maintained: you give marks for correct spelling and for the sequencing of ideas - though as the pupil wrote nothing else against that particular question, and by the examiner's own admission the phrase had no relevance to the question, it is difficult to see what were the ideas he put into sequence... can you have a sequence of one?

I have always been of the opinion that spelling should be tested separately, and not as part of a creative writing excercise, for example. Everyone should be quite clear about what is being marked. But for the majority of the debaters in the newsagent's shop there are no such qualms: "If they can't spell, knock off the marks!" seems to sum up the attitude. But of course, that is not how it works. You do not knock off the marks that you have given for, let us say, developing a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, you just don't give any marks for spelling in the first place. This means that if something (like spelling) is to be taken into consideration, then marks must be allocated for it, guidance given as to how those marks are to be awarded. Furthermore, those marks must be awarded if the criteria are met. After which, it is all down to the examiner's interpretation, just as the application of rules in football hangs, in the last resort, on the referee's interpretation of them. It does mean, though, that marks may be awarded (in this instance, for spelling) in circumstances in which it would seem to most people more appropriate not to award marks at all.

I was reminded again of this issue by a reference on the radio this week to Winston Churchill's own description of his attempt at a Latin prose paper, part of his entrance examination for Harrow: "I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question: "1." After much reflection I put a bracket round it. Thus:"(I)." But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle : and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster's table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr. Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow. It is very much to his credit. It showed that he was a man capable of looking beneath the surface of things: a man not dependent upon paper manifestations. I have always had the greatest regard for him."

Strangely, next to the cry of "why can't youngsters spell, these day?", I would guess that the next most common "newsagent moan" (if we stick to those concerned with the English language) is concerned with what a nonsense our spelling system is and how it's a wonder any child ever masters it! Of course, it isn't a system at all: that's the whole point about it. It hasn't come down to us in any sort of pure form, but as a hybrid script, a coming together of Old English and Norman French. The incompatability of these two made it almost inevitable that there would be no coherent system, but then throw in (as they did) heavy lashings of Greek and Latin and confusion was the more confounded. And there was one other event of great importance, what has become known as The Great Vowel Shift. It affected the way words were pronounced (particularly in London and the South of England), and therefore it had great relevance to the way in which spelling related to the spoken word, the cause of so much anguish these days. It is not always remembered that the spoken word is primary, that spelling merely attempts to represent it in some visual form. Until the thirteenth century words were pronounced very much in the Italian or Liturgical Latin way, but from then on, and over the next four hundred years or so there came about a gradual increase in the height of the tongue and a tendency to push it further forward until Middle English speech had become our Modern English version. The rift between spoken and written had become even wider and the ground had been prepared for the many movements that would attempt to reform our spelling - and, indeed other aspects of our language.

I have concentrated on spelling, but the reverse side of the same coin is punctuation, for which much the same arguments and counter-arguments are raised, but which seems to me to be more important than spelling, though punctuation is perhaps more of an art than a science, whereas spelling is but a convention. There is a lot of talk about "correct punctuation" (in the media as well as in the newsagent's), but I doubt that such a thing exists beyond a very minimal framework. Give two or more professional writers - or two or more examiners, come to that - an unpunctuated script and I guarantee that they will all punctuate it differently.

I have long had a hankering to try for the form of punctuation that was in use until the eighteenth century. It was based upon the pauses for breath which occur in spoken English, and not, as in our current system, upon grammatical structure. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries punctuation was heavily applied, though today the vogue is for a lightness of touch. Even so, there are many variations with some authors using different styles for different purposes and various in-house preferences.
Many of the marks and terms we use these days derive from the Greek and originate from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at which time they were used to mark off sections of text, the comma and the colon being used to mark off sections in a line of verse. The use of the stop, even when grammatically correct, can imply a separation between sections of text that is not always appropriate, I feel. The voice, with its inflections and pauses is more flexible, as was punctuation when it was more closely related to these. Grammarians have much to answer for, maybe.

Here, to conclude, are a few thinking points:

  • How many authors, professional writers and other such are overly concerned with spelling and correct punctuation when getting down the first draft (which an examination answer usually is)?

  • For centuries the legal profession managed very well without punctuation of any sort, particularly in such documents as deeds and for conveyancing, considering that punctuation was the cause of much ambiguity. It is only since legal English has become established as the dominant international business language that this has changed. Punctuation has now established itself again in modern legalese.

  • James Joyce's Ulysses has an almost complete lack of standard punctuation (being partly based upon the spoken word and partly on "stream-of-consciouness"?), yet despite also lacking the usual narrative flow, is as understandable as any piece of writing can be - for we might well debate whether any work of literature can be completely understandable.

  • Is not the main consideration that the reader should be able to plug in to the author's intended (and, depending upon the nature of the writing, his unintended?) meanings?


hope said...

In my senior year of high school, my English teacher gave our term papers two grades: the first was for spelling and grammar, the second was for creativity. His goal was to prepare us for college life by pointing out that the first grade was the more important one...if you couldn't spell what you were trying to say, it didn't matter how creative you were. :)

Sadly, computer "Spell check" has ruined many folks. They depend on it and forget that it can't remind them if they've chosen the wrong word to begin with. {Such as to/too/two}.

I think as long as someone says, "Hey, this matters!" people will take note. Even young people. Keep pointing such matters out...at least I don't feel alone muttering, "Does anyone proofread any more?" ;)

Dave King said...

Thanks for that Hope. There is much sense in what you say, and nothing that I would disagree with, but it does depend, I think, upon what is taught under the heading of grammar. I remember lessons that were so formal and far from everyday usage (would have been more appropriate in the Latin lesson - which is where they originated, of course)that it was simply not reasonable to expect anyone to think about them when trying to be "creative" - or even when trying to put something down clearly and unambiguously, for that matter.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm understandably very old school as regard both spelling and punctuation. I was lucky enough to have one teacher in Primary 6 who was obsessed with English and we spent a great deal of time breaking down sentences. I learned so much in that year but not nearly enough. I would happily take a course in English grammar. That said I still struggle partly because I have a tendency to construct complex sentences. My one concession to the… what shall we call it?... new grammar is the sentence fragment. My rationale is that is more effectively reflects how we speak and much of what I write is just me, or my character, talking to the reader.

hope said...

The only part of English grammar which I never used again was Diagramming Sentences. :)

Unless you teach English, where else would you use such a skill?

Dave King said...

I think, not for the first time, that our experience must have been very similar. The only reservation I have about mine is that we parsed to the Nth degree, to the point where it bacame a purely academeic exercise.

Dave King said...

Quite. I had to look it up!
Thanks again.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, as you maybe already know I am an Italian teacher of English.
I teach in a secondary school, a Liceo Scientifico that more or less corresponds to an English grammar school.
The standard is getting lower and lower for various reasons here in Italy and in various ways but mainly for guaranteeing the students' "success", not to discourage them and TO AVOID legal actions by the parents against teachers and school, so students pass without much effort. I wanted to start a blog in Italian entitled "SCHOOL S.O.S.".
Now I am wondering, reading the first pat of your blog, is this a European phenomenon, maybe a World one, this decadence of schooling and learning?
best wishes, Davide

hope said...

If I may offer as an American who has a degree in Early Childhood Education and works with an after school program, the problem appears to be universal. Sigh.

Too many children don't care, they have parents twice that bad who feel the teacher's job is to "make my kid smart". Well that takes a little work after school. Some of these parents are only good for finding lawyers...who can spell out exactly what teachers are lacking.

I once jokingly said Text Messaging will be the downfall of the English language. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm not too far from wrong on that one?

Dave King said...

A fascinating speculation. Alas, I don't know the answer. I do know that there are a lot of people who think the same sort of thing is happening here, that education is being "dumbed down" for political (mainly party political) reasons. Very difficult, though, to produce hard evidence either way. Comparing the present with the past is so bedevilled by questions of interpretation.

Dave King said...

As a teacher and ex-headteacher I have a great deal of sympathy with what you say. As I mentioned above, I do not know what the answer might be, but I do not feel wholly pessimistic.
Way back I posted a few thoughts under the title "The Language is Under Siege". Late on in it I mentioned predictive texting, which sparked off an interesting (I thought) correspondence - not only about the predictive side of texting.
In general, I would say that there is very little that is new in txting. The aspect which seems to arouse most concern is the CU2nite phenomenon, but we have been doing such things for donkey's years (IOU, for example).

Rachel Fox said...

Sorry to join you all a bit late here!

People love to moan don't they...particularly about declining standards. I bet some of those people moaning in the newsagent's have declining standards of their own in other areas of life (tolerance perhaps).

It would be good if all teaching was to a high standard but it isn't and it never has been all good - even in some of the 'best' schools. And then there are all the other things teachers have to deal with...a neverending list! I think full-time teachers are mainly to be admired (apart from the sadists and I'm sure there are still some of them about!). I think one of the most important things is not to look down on a person because of their spelling or punctuation. They may have had poor or broken teaching and also there will probably be other things they can do well - not everyone is as interested in the written word as all of us here. When I did some (part-time) teaching we had some training about '7 types of intelligence' (do you know this Dave..I'm sure you do, it probably has a name and everything?). There was linguistic intelligence (probably most of us - and indeed most people who do well in school) but all the others too...I think numerical intelligence, physical intelligence...I must go and see if I have the notes. I found it really interesting. It was basically teaching us not to look down on students who found certain types of learning difficult. I know it sounds like new age 'everyone gets a medal' teaching but to be honest when I look around at my friends and acquaintances (a right mixed bag) I think there is a lot of truth to it. I can correct their spelling but they can correct me in lots of other areas of life!

I had a reasonably good education and yet I still learned hardly any punctuation (beyond the comma and the full-stop).I love spelling and the complexities of spelling in English so I'm generally good at that but then I'm generally more...creative with punctuation. I found your information on punctuation particularly interesting therefore! Next time I get any criticism on the subject I will just say I'm working to the James Joyce model...although saying that 'Ulysses' did nothing for me...I gave up a third of the way through and never went back. I'm sure it's a classic if you like it...maybe I'll try it again another time...