Down! Filthy Hags! How the Bard’s exclamation marks would fail KS2 tests

Janet Downs's picture

The scene: a blasted heath.  Macbeth exhorts the witches to foretell the future.  The three hags conjure bloodied kings and the murdered Banquo.

 ‘Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo.  Down!...Filthy hags!  Why do you show me this? – A fourth?  Start eye!...A seventh!  I’ll see no more!...Horrible sight!’

Even my truncated version of Macbeth’s feeling of revulsion reveals the horror of this scene.  It is spine-chilling.

But would its use of exclamation marks gain Shakespeare a mark in the Key Stage 2 Punctuation, Spelling and Grammar test?

The answer is no.  The  marking scheme states:

For the purposes of the English grammar, punctuation and spelling test, an exclamation is required to start with What or How, e.g.

 • What a lovely day!

• How exciting!

 A sentence that ends in an exclamation mark, but which does not have one of the grammatical patterns shown above, is not considered to be creditworthy as an exclamation.

 None of Shakespeare’s exclamations begin with ‘What’ or ‘How’.  They are, therefore, not ‘creditworthy’.

 We don’t know, of course, whether Shakespeare put in these marks or whether it was the compositors.  I checked the First Folio and the printers obviously thought they were needed.

 But those who devised the KS2 mark scheme would give Shakespeare no reward.  They would consider ‘Filthy hags!’ unworthy of a mark while ‘How exciting!’ is.   I can only surmise that those who wrote these instructions have no feel for language.  They appear to value a spurious measure of correctness over vivid use.

 David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language defines an exclamation as ‘A emotional expression marked by a strong intonation in speech or by an exclamation point in writing’.  He gives ‘Good grief!’ as an example.  He says nothing about only using an exclamation mark after expressions beginning with ‘What’ or ‘How’.

 Think how Shakespeare’s work would have been stilted if, as a young schoolboy, he had been told it was not creditworthy to use an exclamation mark unless preceded by one of the mandatory words:

 'What filthy hags!'  How my eye will start!  ‘How I’ll see no more!’  ‘What a horrible sight’.

 The power of Shakespeare’s language is dulled: its power to evoke horror has been muted.  The middle two don’t make sense and don’t replicate how people actually speak.

 But it would be creditworthy and would be awarded marks.

 Bill Esterson, Labour MP, asked the schools minister Nick Gibb if asking questions about the ‘subjunctive form, past progressive, subordinating, conjunction’ risked setting 10 and 11-year-olds up for failure.  Insisting on starting exclamations with ‘What’ or ‘How’ could be added to the Esterson's list. 

Gibb said, ‘…for the first time in several generations primary schools are explicitly teaching English grammar. The hon. Gentleman should welcome these reforms.’

 But as Oliver Kamm says: English speakers pick up English grammar unconsciously when they learn to.  That’s because grammar is about such things as word order and constructing tenses.  It’s not about pedantic rules governing such things as split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition.   

 That’s not to say pupils shouldn’t learn linguistic terms – they’re useful when discussing how writers use language.  Or better still, use what they’ve encountered in their own stories, scripts, articles, reports, puns and poems. 

 But love of language must come first.  Nothing kills literature stone dead more than picking out adjectives, adverbs and so on for no better reason than identification.  Identification alone doesn’t reveal how an author uses language to amuse, persuade, challenge evoke or suggest.  Vivisection kills what is being dissected.   And it diminishes the work of great writers to reduce it to the naming of parts.

This is a companion piece to my Gilbert and Sullivan parody, ‘I am the very model of a modern day grammarian.'



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Michael Pyke's picture
Tue, 08/03/2016 - 19:23

Dickens is another writer who would fail at KS2.  The brilliant opening sequence of Bleak House contains hardly a single sentence as the term is understood by our intellectually challenged government ministers and the idiots who advise them.   In Gove's day, one of these was old Etonian banker, Nevile Gwynne, author of an execrable tome called Gwynne's Grammar, which Gove ordered his civil servants to read.  The absence of any relationship between this kind of "grammar", and good writing can be seen in the following gem of self-promotion, written "anonymously" by Gwynne:

“He (i.e.Gwynne) is the author of what is, by any standards, a fascinating and important book, "The Truth About Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI", which shows clearly and very readably that the reality concerning the man almost universally regarded as the infamous Borgia Pope, easily the worst of all the Popes, there have ever been [sic], is completely different from that man that one almost always reads about in books and sees represented in films and on television…(continues at length in the same unreadable vein).




Michael Pyke's picture
Tue, 08/03/2016 - 19:27

Whoops! A stray, redundant comma has found its way into the above post.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 09/03/2016 - 07:46

Oliver Kamm, in his book Accidence Will Happen is equally scathing about Gwynne.  He describe's Gwynne as the 'author of a slight and perplexingly popular volume with the alluringly modest title Gwynne's Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction in Grammar and the Writing of Good English'

Kamm then quotes Gwynne lamenting his 'dismay and disgust' regarding the 'abolition' of formal grammar teaching in the 60s: 'Learning grammar does not just happen, it is not just picked up,' claims Gwynne.

But, as Kamm says, Gwynne is 'exactly wrong.  Learning grammar does just happen and it is just picked up.'  He describes how infants soak up English grammar.  When a young child says, 'I throwed the ball', s/he is showing s/he understands how to construct the past tense despite 'throwed' being incorrect because the past participle f 'throw'  isn't standard.  Language instruction found in schools is important, Kamm said, but it is not to do with 'whimsy' and shibboleths but covers appropriateness, register and fluency.

Michael Pyke's picture
Wed, 09/03/2016 - 10:04

Yes, indeed.  Moreover, what Gwynne et al conceive of as "grammar" is (was) actually an attempt to describe English in terms of the grammar of classical Latin.  There is, of course, some overlap but the attempt always dwindles into comic pedantry.  I still remember from the first school I worked in a misguided English teacher struggling to promote to his class the notion of the evils of the "pendent participle" and lamenting the children's apparent lack of interest in this fascinating concept.    However, there is  political motive behind all this nonsense:  to show that we are returning to former "high standards", deemed to have been discarded by "the blob" etc.

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