Animal Farm: Squealer defends the grammar test for young animals

Janet Downs's picture

‘My fellow animals.   I am aware there are squeaks of protest against our rigorous grammar test for young animals.   But if our young animals have parents who don’t speak in a grammatically correct form day in day out, then they need that kind of structural instruction and teaching about how sentences should be constructed.   A beautiful command of our native tongue should not be the preserve of middle-class animals.’

Boxer shifted uneasily.  He was puzzled.  He knew he wasn’t the brightest in the farmyard but until Squealer suggested it he wasn’t aware his parents, low class stock, had only spoken to him in grunts.  He thought they, like all animals speaking the animal tongue, put words in the correct order and knew how to construct sentences so it was clear whether they were talking about something in the past or some future event.  All little animals picked this up effortlessly at their parents’ knees.

‘For the first time in fifty years, our young animals are being taught grammar.   They will be able to identify the past progressive, modal verbs and fronted adverbials.  It is only by being able to name the function of every word or group of words in a sentence that our young animals can make themselves understood.’

Boxer was still puzzled.  How was it, he thought, that if young animals had not been taught grammar for fifty years, that Squealer could speak so eloquently?  Squealer was known for his rhetorical skills, his silky use of words.  And not just Squealer, who was of course exceptional, but all the animals around him, even those born on the wrong side of the dung heap, could make themselves understood.  That wasn’t to say all animals were equally articulate – Boxer often found it difficult to say what he wished to say.  But he wasn’t sure being able to label parts of speeches would have helped him.  He’d rather listen to poets and story tellers, the weavers of magic and imagination than chop up chunks of words (sentences, were these called?) and give these gobbets labels.

Boxer’s ruminations were interrupted: the green spotted Lucas wanted to ask a question.   Could our leader Napoleon differentiate between a subordinating conjunctive and a co-ordinating conjunctive?

Napoleon leapt to his trotters.  ‘The whole point of these changes is to make sure that our young animals are better educated than we are. That is why I am absolutely delighted that my three piglets at state schools are going off to do these tests.’ 

He sat down triumphantly amid laughter and guffaws.   His ministers nodded their heads and slapped their paws together.  Boxer, however, was downhearted.  He was not convinced naming the parts would make him appreciate the whole.  But Squealer said it would; and Squealer was always right.

This is a companion piece to these articles:

1         ‘Oliver Kamm’s English usage guide poleaxes the pedants Gove admired’;

2          ‘I am the very model of a modern day Grammarian…’ sings ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove’ (which could equally apply to schools minister Nick Gibb); and

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

For a succinct critique of these tests, see Rigor spagis.



Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Phil Taylor's picture
Fri, 06/05/2016 - 19:30

Excellent Janet. I was surprised that Cameron was so foolish as to dis his very expensive private education because he wasn't taught 'proper grammar'. Perhaps the money spent on his education was wasted?

Of course he and Nick Gibb, and all the others who have been caught out may have been taught the stuff and then, like the vast majority of people who have been taught it, forgotten it....

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 07/05/2016 - 08:21

I'm old enough to have been taught 'grammar' but even those dire lessons re adverbial and adjectival clauses didn't cover esoteric terms such as 'fronted adverbials'.  If it had then we would have embarrassed our teacher (easily done) by asking her what a 'back end adverbial' was.  I don't know how I managed to cross the bus pass threshold without knowing what a modal verb was.   Wikipedia tells me they ' indicate modality' (what?).   It appears they're verbs such as 'shall/should', 'may/might'.  But then I learn there are also verbs which 'express modality' but aren't modal verbs because they aren't 'auxiliaries' such as 'wish' (this is getting depressing).

I've been using these verbs correctly all my life - it comes naturally to native English speakers.  There's no need to slap a label on them in order to use them correctly.  The only reason for labelling some types of words (eg nouns, adjectives) is for discussing how authors use language effectively.  The same holds for literary devices such as 'alliteration', 'simile' and 'rhyme'.   But being able to name the 'past progressive' has no use - we can perfectly well use it without examining children on how well the definition sticks.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.