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Schools urged to get strict on grammar

Simon Heffer and students from King Edward VI Comprehensive School
Simon Heffer and students from King Edward VI Comprehensive School

Tom Bateman
Today programme

The journalist and author Simon Heffer has called on schools to put more emphasis on teaching good grammar. We met him as he tried to make his case to a group of students at a comprehensive in Suffolk.

Take a look at the following sentence and try to work out what's wrong with it.

"The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary."

Stuck? We'll tell you why it's not grammatically correct at the end of this article.

It's the kind of sentence the journalist and author Simon Heffer has been correcting throughout his career.

"We are judged by how we speak and we are judged - when we put things on paper or online - by how we write," he says.

Now he's calling for schools to put more emphasis on grammar in the classroom.

"There are many contexts in life where formal communication in every sense of the word is required.

"I think the education system needs to acknowledge this," he argues.

To make his point, Heffer spent a morning with secondary school students at King Edward VI Comprehensive School in Bury St Edmunds.

Surrounded by well-stocked bookcases in the school's learning centre, the writer - now Associate Editor of the Daily Telegraph - became a temporary English teacher to a group of students.

Simon Heffer and students from King Edward VI Comprehensive School
Heffer believes many children have little knowledge of good grammar

"The difference between 'I will' and 'I shall'. Have any of you been taught that?" he asked.

George Beard, 17, said she did know the difference, but only because she'd been told at home.

She explained: "If you use the wrong word then it's picked up by a parent.

"But I don't think I've ever been taught about it in school."

In a new book, Heffer claims that many young people have limited opportunities in life because they lack a full mastery of English grammar.

"This neglect has left most of them with nothing but a random (and often erroneous) understanding of the components of language", he writes.

He has numerous examples of linguistic abuse, or "verbicide".

"The noun target has in recent years become a verb," he complains.

"Some of us cannot understand why spending cuts need to be targeted on a specific department of state when they can just as well be aimed or directed there."

'Prescriptivist' view

The bespectacled columnist is also unhappy that the word "viable" is commonly misused.

He explains that the dictionary defines viable as "capable of living", and therefore a term that should correctly be applied to beings, organisms and plants capable of life.

However, "we hear today that, following an injection of cash, a business will be viable."

He explains that a correct adjective would be feasible, workable, reasonable, or even possible.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI school, agrees that teaching good grammar is critical for young students.

But he disagrees with Heffer over how much time should be spent on it.

Headteacher Geoff Barton
Headteacher Geoff Barton thinks good grammar is a critical skill

After watching the temporary lesson, he said: "There was what we would call a very prescriptivist view of language.

"We wouldn't entirely subscribe to the idea that one learns grammar purely in order to be correct and to be judged in that light."

Many of the students admitted they would like to learn more about grammatical purism.

But others didn't welcome much tougher lessons.

"I think ideas are the most important thing," said Jack Barber, 16.

"If you have the idea, then most of the time you can bring it through."

So, back to our grammatically incorrect sentence with which we began.

The problem, as Heffer points out, is that the verb "to warn" is transitive: it requires an object. Somebody has to be warned.

In our example, the Prime Minister had nobody to warn.

We could have said correctly: "The Prime Minister has warned the House of Commons that spending cuts are necessary".

Simon Heffer's Strictly English is published by Random House Books on 16 September.


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