English Grammar Day 2024

I went last week to an event called English Grammar Day 2024 at the British Library. This event has been held for the last 10 years, but I went for the first time in 2023. The event is sponsored by UCL (the official short name of University College London), the University of Oxford and the British Library.

There were 6 talks, called:

  • Exploring children’s and teachers’ metalinguistic thinking about perfect and progressive categories of the verb
  • Ten years on: grammar, spelling and punctuation in the National Curriculum
  • Stokesy ct. Foakesy b. Woakesy. The grammar of nicknames in sport
  • Changing London grammar
  • Grammar, the media and the reporting of violence against women
  • Grammar: possibility, craft and agency in the classroom

In a panel session at the end, 5 of the speakers discussed questions from the audience.  I give below summaries of the 6 talks.

Exploring children’s and teachers’ metalinguistic thinking about perfect and progressive categories of the verb

Shahan Choudhury (Anglia Ruskin University) summarised a study investigating how primary school children learn various grammatical patterns involving verbs. The study used grammar exercises and narrative writing samples as well as interviews. Interviews were conducted of children in years 5 and 6, and of teachers.

Focussing on the meanings of the perfect and progressive forms of the English verb, interviewees were asked to explain the differences between example sentences such as:

  • Sarah ate pasta [simple past] vs Sarah has eaten pasta [present perfect]
  • Richard is walking [present progressive] vs Richard was walking [past progressive]
  • Mohammed built Lego [simple past] vs Mohammed built Lego [present perfect]

Verbs with 2 components

Shahan Choudhury commented on one factor that may make it challenging for children to understand (and explain) the perfect and progressive forms. Both forms distribute meaning across 2 separate verbal components: a participle and an auxiliary. And both the auxiliary and the participle carry indications of tense and /or aspect.

Where children (or even teachers) have difficulties in explaining (or perhaps even spotting) the differences between progressive and non-progressive, or between perfect and simple past, that might be because they pay attention only to the particle or only to the auxiliary, without looking at how the auxiliary and participle work together.

Illustrative quotes

As an illustration, Shahan Choudhury gave brief quotes from a handful of interviewees. Here is what I took from the quotes and Shahan’s comments on them:

  • the Year 5 children seemed unable to explain the meanings of either the progressive or the perfect.
  • the Year 6 children showed a good understanding of the meaning of both constructions. They also displayed an encouraging ability to explain that meaning explicitly. For example, one child explained the progressive as referring to an incomplete action that is still going on; and a child explained the perfect as something that was happening now (a feature that grammars often call ‘current relevance’) as a result of something that had happened in the past (‘before some time’).
  • the one response quoted from a teacher was rambling and largely incoherent, certainly showing much less insight than the Year 6 children who were quoted.
    I presume this quote shows that teachers did not receive enough training and support when explicit grammar teaching was suddenly introduced into the primary school curriculum in 2014.

Understanding vs explanation

Presumably because of time constraints, the speaker did not go into the distinction between:

  • children’s (and even teachers’) understanding of the meaning of the perfect and progressive forms; and
  • their ability to explain those forms’ meanings.

In my view, there are probably several components of the reasons why children might not be able to explain the meanings of those forms accurately, clearly and fluently:

  • children might not yet have acquired sufficiently adult-like competence in use of these features of their own variety of English.
  • these features of (the adult version of) their own variety of English might differ from the standardised variety taught in schools. Children might or might not have spotted those differences. And they might or might not be able (or willing) to adjust their own variety to a standardised variety.
  • children might not have learnt how to explain these features of English. Learning how to provide such explanations will inevitably require instruction. And such instruction will undoubtedly focus on standardised school English, not on children’s own variety.
    (Though if these features in school English differ greatly from the corresponding features in a widely used local variety of English, I suspect that children would benefit from exploring the differences.)  

Ten years on: grammar, spelling and punctuation in the National Curriculum

The National Curriculum for English was launched in 2014. It includes teaching specifications for grammar, punctuation and spelling and tests at Key Stages 1 and 2. Bas Aarts and Luke Pearce (both of UCL) presented briefly some results of their recent survey of teachers. The survey asked teachers about their experience teaching the curriculum and whether they think it has made a difference to their pupils’ literacy skills.

Respondents generally agreed that:

  • when children finish compulsory education, they should know the basics of grammar (93% agreed).
  • There were mixed views on whether teaching grammar has improved writing and literacy skills over the last 10 years. Roughly equal numbers agreed, disagreed and were neutral.
  • 61% said that grammar should be a regular part of Secondary and Post-16 education and 37% said that grammar ‘might be useful at times’.

The survey asked respondents what they saw as the purpose of teaching grammar. They were asked to rank 8 options. In the responses:

  • 2 of the 4 top-ranked options were about correctness. The top-ranked option was ‘to know the rules of English and use the language correctly’. Ranked 4th was ‘to avoid making mistakes in—and improve—spelling, punctuation and grammar’.
  • The options ranked 2nd and 3rd were more to do with applying grammar in producing texts (‘to apply when writing creative texts or essays’) and in analysing texts written by others (‘to analyse how writers use language for effects’).
  • Ranked lower were 3 purposes probably seen as specialised or peripheral: ‘to learn about linguistics and how languages function’; to make learning other languages easier’; and ‘to understand the difference between different varieties of English and how language changes over time’.
  • The lowest ranked response was ‘to label the parts and know grammatical terminology’.    

Concerns expressed by some respondents including the following:

  • Grammar needs to be taught in context. Too much teaching is formulaic, and directed towards formal testing. And the formal tests of grammar should be redesigned.  
  • The grammar curriculum for primary schools covers too much, and focuses too on much terminology
  • Some teachers do not know enough about grammar and lack the confidence to teach it.
  • Secondary schools do not build on the grammar work done in primary schools, and some secondary teachers tell children explicitly to forget the grammar they learnt in primary school.

A fuller report is available at https://ugc.production.linktr.ee/efbb3d12-3dc6-4b5f-adca-06b3968be735_Grammar10-Report-3.pdf

Stokesy ct. Foakesy b. Woakesy. The grammar of nicknames in sport

Jonnie Robinson (British Library) explored grammatical patterns in how we create ‘transparent’ nicknames. He did this using a dataset of nicknames of elite athletes he has compiled from the mainstream British sporting press and media.  The database contains 361 nicknames, but is currently heavily skewed: 320 names are male, 305 are British or Irish, 328 are English or Celtic (Welsh, Irish, Gaelic).

Jonnie Robinson explained that nicknames have 3 main functions in sports teams:

  • to convey affection;
  • to strengthen a sense of team identity; and
  • to permit rapid communication in a match.

Automatic nicknames

He began by pointing out that some surnames are more or less automatic for people with some surnames. Examples he gave were Smudge(r) (for Smith, an example is the current Australian cricket Steve Smith) and Nobby (for Clark(e)).

My impression is that this kind of surname has gone out of fashion. Nobody has ever called me Nobby, and I don’t remember anyone ever using Smudge(r) or Bobby for any Smiths or Clark(e)’s I know.

Physical and other characteristics

A 2nd category of nickname reflects people’s physical or other characteristics. Examples include:

  • Nord (the England men’s football manager Gareth Southgate, said to look like Dennis Norden, a TV presenter from many years ago).
  • Crouchy (former England woman footballer Jill Scott, said to be tall and lanky like former England man footballer Peter Crouch).
  • the Ice Maiden (former tennis player Chris Evert) or the Iceborg (another former tennis player, Björn Borg).

Transparent nicknames

For the rest of his talk, Jonnie Robinson focused on nicknames formed in a transparent manner from surnames.

A common way of forming nicknames from monosyllabic surnames is adding one of the suffixes -y (or ie), -o or -sy.

Common ways of forming nicknames from polysyllabic surnames are:

  • clipping—removing part of the surname: Tosh (from Macintosh); Hutch (from Hutchinson); Studge (from Sturridge).
    Sometimes, clipping also leads to a phonetic change: Geech (pronounced /giː/)from McGeachan (prounced /mkgiːkən/)
  • adding a suffix to a clipped form: Woosy (from Woosnam + –y); Lawro (from Lawrence + –o); Becks (from Beckham + –s); Dunks (from Dunkley + –s); Athers (from Atherton + –ers); Macca (MacManaman + -a—with -a being a spelling variant of -er)
  • clipping, and mutating a final -s or -r to -z, possibly then adding a suffix (often -a /-er(s)): Gazza (from Gascogne + –a)
  • initials—pronounced as letters (KP, Kevin Pietersen, and KJT, Katharina Johnson-Thomson) or as acronyms (BOD, from Brian O’Driscoll).
  • blends—for example of an initial and a clipped name: Jennis (Jessica Ennis Hill); (G-Mac, Graeme McDowell); Kedders (Kyle Edmund); Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner).

Spelling and phonetics

Clipping sometimes leads to spelling changes needed to preserve phonetic shape: Dicko (from Dixon /dikson/ +o); Motty (from Motson +o); Donny (from Doncaster Hockey Club +y)

But sometimes spelling drives (playful) phonetic change: Shill (pronounced /ʃill/) from Sam Hill.

Not always one-to-one

Some surnames have more than one nicknames (Fitzpatrick and Fitz / Fitzy).

But some nicknames correspond to more than one surname: Daggers from Dagley / Dagnall; Woody from Wood / Woods / Woodward.

Failed nicknames

Sometimes people create a nickname that never comes into common use. A recent example was a failed attempt during a radio show to create the nickname MChaps for sports presenter Mark Chapman (often known as Chappers).  

Changing London grammar

Devyani Sharma (Queen Mary University of London) asked how grammar is changing in London today. Are the seeds of tomorrow’s standard grammar visible in the vernacular of today?

In a new project Generations of London English, she is in a team tracking the changing language in real time, across speakers of different varieties of London English, with a focus on East and South London. This includes considering speech from teenagers and adults at different time points, re-interviewing participants from earlier Multicultural London English projects, and longitudinal tracking of children from their first year in school.

This talk presented reasons for cycles of change in language and then gave preliminary observations on contemporary changes in one component of standard English (intensifiers) and on rule-governed novel forms in vernacular syntax.

Causes of language change

Devyani Sharma pointed out that common causes of change in language are:

  • balancing production effort against ease of understanding;
  • shifts in functional load—some items start to play a larger or smaller role;
  • shifts in meaning; or
  • contact with other languages (eg in earlier stages of English, contact with Old Norse or with old French).

Changes in intensifiers in standard English

The speaker next discussed some changes in standard English, illustrating this with a discussion of intensifiers (words meaning ‘very’). Intensifiers go through a cycle:

  • existing intensifiers become bleached—lose the strength of their meaning—through overuse.
  • speakers then create a new intensifier.
  • the new intensifier spreads rapidly to other speakers, and also spreads incrementally into other registers. At first, the intensifier retains much of its original meeting, but over time, it becomes increasingly grammaticalised, with its meaning shifting incrementally until it finally serves only as a pragmatic intensifier, with none of the original meaning.
  • in some cases, as the new intensifier becomes grammaticalised, it may mover to a higher position in the sentence, where it can modify the entire sentence.
  • for a time, an old intensifier persists as the unmarked form, with a new intensifier as the marked form. 
  • as speakers use the new intensifier more and more, it gradually loses its freshness and force. Ultimately, speakers recruit a new intensifier to start the cycle again.

Devyani Sharma reviewed 3 intensifiers that have come into use in the 21st century: super (as an adjective); legitimately; and low key.

I have heard super a little (not just from teenagers!) but hadn’t come across legitimately or low key.

Multicultural London English

The 2nd area Devyani Sharma discussed briefly was Multicultural London English (MLE). MLE is one of several urban multiethnolects that have developed in various multi-ethnic cities. Other examples include Kiezdeutsch (Germany), Straattaal (Netherlands) and Rinkebysvenska (Sweden). She mentioned several features of MLE encountered by the project team in interviews with MLE speakers:

  • man and mandem as pronouns;
  • introducing quotations with this is [+ pronoun to denote speaker], eg this is me;
  • non-standard distinction between was and were;
  • the discontinuous phrase why … for instead of just why in some contexts, often when challenging. For example, why are you looking at me for? vs why did you grow up in France?
  • MLE is constantly changing, so some aspects found in previous work are no longer part of MLE.

Grammar, the media and the reporting of violence against women

Deborah Cameron (Oxford University) discussed how the news media report violence against women—crimes like rape, domestic homicide and the sexual exploitation of girls. She argued that reporting of these crimes both reflects and reinforces common myths and biases.

Discussions of language of news reporting often focus on what words reporters use, but grammatical patterns are no less important in shaping public perceptions. This talk considered the role played by grammar. When linguistic patterns are repeated constantly and we come to expect them, we process those patterns quickly without thinking about them.

Deborah Cameron highlighted some common problems with how news media report violence against women:

  • they downplay the male perpetrator’s role as agent, for example by using the passive voice with no agent. Or they report a victim as having died, rather than having been murdered.
  • they constantly foreground the woman as victim, in ways that may seem to ‘blame’ her for doing something that ‘caused’ or ‘permitted’ the crime.  
  • they reflect the viewpoint of the male perpetrator (‘himpathy’). For instance, they portray him as having undergone some external force that made him ‘snap’.

Deborah Cameron referred to Jane Gilmore’s book fixed it: violence and the representation of women in the media (2019) and to her Fixed it project https://www.patreon.com/JaneGilmore

She said that some groups have produced guidance for journalists on reporting violence against women. One example is Dignity for Dead Women: Media guidelines for reporting domestic abuse deaths https://www.ipso.co.uk/media/2435/media-guidelines-v2-1-level-up.pdf

Deborah Cameron said that these guidelines are a good start, but are not perfect:

  • they focus mainly just on words.
  • what they say about grammar is not always right. Although the passive omits or downplays the agent, sometimes the focus needs to be on the victim, not on the perpetrator. An example is when a political leader is assassinated. In such cases, the passive may be the best choice.
  • some of the guidelines ignore the fact that journalists (and especially headline writers) must meet some particular needs of news writing. Most obviously, headlines need to be concise.

She finished with a more fundamental point. Maybe the problem isn’t that a journalist chose the wrong words and language to tell the story they decided to tell. Perhaps the words and language they selected really were the words and language that best tell that story—but they chose to write the wrong story.

Grammar: possibility, craft and agency in the classroom 

In a lively, engaging and entertaining talk, Jennifer Webb (English Teacher and creator of Funky Pedagogy https://funkypedagogy.com) challenged the perception of grammar education as a dry, irrelevant form of torture. She views it as an empowering source of knowledge which fuels art and advocacy. She talked about language awareness in the English classroom, and about how educators and students can use grammar to develop voice, confidence and enjoyment of language.

Among the points she made were:

  • teaching writing is about giving children agency
  • she wants children to learn to write in their own voices, not in their teacher’s voice.
  • she shows children that writing isn’t some pointless activity that doesn’t help them.  Writing is an external extension of your working memory. Writing things down gives you a tool for going back and reviewing your thoughts.

Recurring themes

Several themes came back repeatedly throughout the day, in the individual presentations, in brief questions and answers sections after each presentation and in the panel session at the end:

  • reintroducing explicit teaching of grammar into the curriculum was a good idea.
  • but the reintroduction of grammar teaching was badly botched. It was done too quickly and teachers were not given enough training or supporting resources.
  • the curriculum was driven too much by personal whims of politicians, leading to the inclusion of pointless material (for example, the subjunctive). (To my mind, the subjunctive is more or less dead in British English, though it is still going reasonably strong in American English. There seems no reason to teach it in primary school.)
  • some (many?) primary school teachers are not confident about teaching grammar. This may be because their own explicit knowledge of grammar is not deep enough. This lack of confidence and knowledge shone through in Shahan Choudhury’s quotation from a teacher.
  • in both teaching and (badly designed) formal testing, there is too much emphasis on ‘naming parts’ and labelling grammatical phenomena. There is too little emphasis on using different grammatical devices to achieve different effects.
  • there is not enough follow through from primary school grammar teaching into secondary school.

Some thoughts of mine:

  • In my view, all children benefit from some explicit teaching of grammar, though I don’t know how much and when. If children gain same insight into the structure of their native language, that insight can help them understand how to speak and write more effectively.
  • Explicit teaching of grammar is particularly important for those who are learning English as a second language, or whose first language is a dialect of English that is not standard English. Not teaching those children something about the grammar of standard English is likely to narrow their life chances, especially in societies that demand fluency in standard English.   
  • Children shouldn’t just be taught grammar. I am sure children also need guiding in how to write creatively and fluently and they need practice in writing.
  • Having a label for a concept makes it easier for people to learn that concept and talk about it. I’m sure this is also the case for children—if they are taught grammar in a stimulating and engaging way. For example, once children learn the concept of a ‘fronted adverbial’, they can explore with their teacher when it would be a good idea to place an adverbial at the front and when it would be better to place it later. That will help them learn how to make texts they write more effective and more engaging.
  • Over many years, I reviewed many draft documents written by first-language and second-language writers of English. Many of the authors weren’t natural writers and many of them had never had any training in how to structure a text to make the logic flow clearly within sentences, between sentences and between paragraphs. Reviewing their drafts was both easier and more effective when the reviewer and reviewee shared some common terminology and structural knowledge for discussing how English grammar works.

Further reading

I have written before about some of the things discussed at this event:

Conclusion

Overall, this was an interesting and enjoyable event. I shall try to go again next year.

My summary of last year’s English Grammar Day is at English Grammar Day – Language Miscellany

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this Peter. I tweeted about your blog post on our Englicious X-account, but unfortunately couldn’t ‘at’ you in, because I could not find an X-account for you.

    BTW, UCL is not formerly University College London. We still are!

    Bas

    1. Thanks, Bas. I’m not on X (and don’t intend to join it).

      I’ve changed ‘formerly University College London’ to ‘the official short name of University College London’.

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