Tag Archives: ignorant amateurs

The Party of Dulness

Some people cannot brain today; others cannot brain at all.

I ran into Academics chastised for bad grammar in letter attacking Michael Gove on the Guardian by chance this afternoon. There’s actually a second (meta) article about it, which has all the amateur linguists crawling out of the woodwork and making pronouncements about language which, with a few exceptions, reveal once again that the amateurs need to keep their cake holes shut and leave language to the professionals.

It all began with an open letter to Michael Gove, the nation’s Schoolboy-in-Chief, back in March about standards in education and teaching, which has been criticised for its bad grammar. One passage came in for particular excoriation:

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

Quite, quite dreadful. Really?

Much was made of the opening sentence by Nevile Gwynne, who was one of the judges in their dubious competition. To quote directly from the Guardian article (since I don’t have the wit to paraphrase this level of genius):

Presumably they mean something like ‘demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much’, but, as worded, it simply is not English,” he said. “In that sentence as worded, ‘too young’ can only be two adverbs, ‘too’ qualifying the adverb ‘young’, and ‘young’ qualifying the verb ‘demands’, as would, for instance, ‘soon’ or ‘early’. But ‘young’ is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb. And it certainly is not doing the work of an adjective in that sentence, because there is no noun that could be ‘understood’ and which would turn that sentence into English.

Let’s have a look at that sentence again with a few simple function labels.

[Much of it]S [demands]V [too much]dO [too young.]A

Let’s then ask Gwynne whether he has any problems with a sentence such as

[Gwynne]S [read]V [a new book]dO [every day.]A

According to his reasoning, this isn’t a possible sentence either because “every day” is an NP, and just as adjectives cannot function as adverbs, so NPs shouldn’t be able to function in the same way.

At worst, the sentence is stylistically clumsy with the doubling of “much”, but there’s nothing wrong with the grammar.

What about

Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

Well, at most Gwynne can smack them for their rhetorical lapse by not paralleling the grammar of the clauses dependent on “Little account is taken of”, but such lapses aren’t exactly unusual, and when you have to deal with someone as annoying as Michael Gove, you are inclined to yell angrily first and think afterwards.

You could also argue that the that-clause is in apposition to “little account”. I often find I use a similar construction with “reason” where I use a that-clause to state the reason, but feel vaguely uncomfortable about it. If I had to make an educated guess, I’m generalising “that” a complementiser.

Probably CGEL (if you can afford it or find it in your local library [assuming they can afford it]) will have sensible explanation for what’s happening here.

I cannot help but quote Pope yet again:

A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

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