Glamorous Grammar

Jill Carter dispels the popular myth that grammar is boring and explains why she thinks it should be revered by teachers and students alike. 



In the years I have spent around teaching, one of the main subject-related complaints of English teachers is SPaG.  The main complaints seem to be: ‘I wasn’t taught grammar at school; I don’t feel confident about teaching it.’ and ‘Grammar is boring.’

I wasn’t taught Romeo and Juliet – or Macbeth – or a range of other texts and topics. A lot of my teaching results from being self-taught (generously supported by friends and colleagues) and I imagine this is true of most teachers. I learnt what I needed to teach and probably taught all the better for it. There is a quotation somewhere: ‘We teach best what we most need to learn.’* Now there’s a challenge!

A good example is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which I hadn’t even read until last year. Someone said “Oh weren’t you taught that at school? Didn’t you do it at university?” Well, no. Funnily enough, even 10 years of studying English can’t cover all the ground. So, I read the book. Then I found as many resources as possible, watched Mark Birch on Youtube (highly recommended – thank you, Mark – I owe you one) and began to unpick the novella lock, stock and gin bottle (reference to Utterson’s self-denial). In the process, I also started to enjoy it because I found so much I hadn’t seen on first reading. And it wasn’t just the language. The grammatical construction of the thing was just delightful. Take the opening sentence:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. 

It seems to me that we celebrate word choice, imagery and other language techniques all the time in English but we rarely eulogise about the PaG. (obviously eulogising about spelling might be a bit silly although if you’re into etymology it becomes insanely fascinating.) Look at those semi-colons, layering detail upon detail, building a positive gateau of an image. Look at that list so perfectly controlled by commas to form a rhythmic overview of the man himself. And then we can ask why isn’t ‘the lawyer’ marked off by commas for parenthesis – well in my interpretation it is because he is so much the lawyer – his ‘lawyerness’ is not something he does, something extra – it is something he is; it is his very essence. It’s possible Stevenson just didn’t bother to use commas in this instance but I’ll get an interpretation out of anything if it means marks in an exam. How can anyone not love, worship, exalt punctuation?

This may be why I have loved working on OUP’s Get It Right Workbooks. SPaG has had a bad press – it is viewed as the extra on the film set, the bread in the BLT sandwich. It is in fact the essence of the writing – without it there would be no meaning, no text to explore. But we need to explore grammar in the context of excellent writing. Input is great and so are exercises (actually students love the methodical, almost meditative process of working through a series of grammar exercises) but when we explore grammar in action in a specific piece of writing, creating an effect, it comes to life, it suddenly gains real value. And that it is when students can see not only how a certain kind of punctuation mark is used, but also how they themselves might use it in their own writing. The thought of some em dashes or semi-colons appearing in that piece on My Summer Holiday, the thought that the verb tense might be consistent throughout and adding flow and finesse is tantalising. The Get It Right Workbooks include In Context sections which do exactly this – they show students how grammar is used and encourage them to comment on this and to apply it to their own writing.

Time for SPaG to steal the limelight for a while!


*Richard Bach Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah