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18 October 2013

Why the “golden age“ when everyone knew their grammar is a myth

The why-oh-why-are-things-so-awful-it-was-so-much-better-in-my-day brigade should give some thought to why the worst language abuses come from people who have been well (often expensively) educated.

By David Marsh

In May, a “bad grammar” award was given to an open letter published by academic opponents of the education secretary, Michael Gove. The judges described as “simply illiterate” the following sentence: “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.” If this really is “the worst use of English over the last 12 months by people who should know better”, the judges were making a political, not grammatical, point.

Language has been changing since the Tower of Babel. Just think about the gay times we had in the old days, when spam was something that went into fritters and you kept your mouse in a cage. The belief that all change is for the worse is invariably accompanied by the conviction that standards of literacy are falling. Such fears date from at least the 18th century.

When someone noticed this summer that the OED had, a couple of years ago, accepted that “literally” was widely used to mean “figuratively”, the uproar suggested that the world had come to an end. If not literally. This is the kind of thing up with which Gove, the coterie of Tea Party dogmatists by whom he is surrounded, and armchair grammarians generally, will not put.

Lynne Truss, in her book about punctuation a few years ago, set the tone for the latest pedants’ revolt when she referred to “the justifiable despair of the well educated in a dismally illiterate world”. According to this argument, it all started to go wrong in the 1970s “when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression”. Sticklers long for a “golden age”, typically 40 or 50 years ago, when everyone knew their grammar and all was right with the world. For Truss, who is about my age, the last generation who she says “knew how to write” were at school in the 1960s.

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The problem with this theory is that it’s a myth. I attended a highly regarded grammar school, one of the top 10% in my county who passed the 11-plus in 1964. I was put in the A stream – 30 boys, out of an intake of 180. Of the 30, although we all more or less scraped through English Language O-level, many took little interest in grammar; English Language was not even an option at A-level. So that’s perhaps a dozen 16-year-olds in each year – 15% of an elite school – with a good grasp of grammar.

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Yet we are expected to swallow the idea that standards were so high in all schools, including those to which the 11-plus failures had been consigned, that everyone emerged with a sound knowledge of written English – including the greengrocers, who knew where to put the apostrophe until suddenly in the 1970s “trendy teachers” conspired to deprive them of this ability.

I believe the gerund-grinders know full well that many, perhaps most, people finished their education in the “golden age” with barely adequate formal writing skills. I don’t think Gove much cares about that majority; it is telling that his unpleasant sidekick, Dominic Cummings, bemoans money wasted on education: genetics determines children’s fate, and most teachers are mediocre anyway, so why bother? When traditionalists talk about going back to rote learning and memory tests, they know this will benefit only a small proportion of children. Populist language books, meanwhile, condemn the great unwashed as “stupid” or “illiterate”.

There’s no evidence that overall standards are worse than when Truss and I were at school. Jean Aitchison, a distinguished English language professor at Oxford, says: “Tut-tutting complainers sometimes behave as if a golden age existed, when everyone penned elegant letters and read widely. Yet this is unlikely … More people can read and write than ever before.”

The why-oh-why-are-things-so-awful-it-was-so-much-better-in-my-day brigade should give some thought to why the worst language abuses come from people who have been well (often expensively) educated. So here’s my suggestion. Instead of undermining teachers and students, the pedants should turn their attention to:

• Politicians who use language to mislead and obscure the truth – demonising people who claim benefits as “skivers” and “shirkers”; dressing up plans to spy on everyone as a “Communications Capabilities Development Programme”; adopting the language of the National Front to tell minority ethnic people to “GO HOME”; fighting “wars” (on drugs and terrorism) that are neither wars, nor winnable.

• Business leaders who have all but lost the ability to communicate meaningfully, blathering on about “taking a dashboard approach” and “owning the strategic roadmap”, yet who still criticise young people for poor English. What a nerve.

David Marsh is the production editor of the Guardian and the author of For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection (Guardian Faber).