Gibb’s grammar was right but he’s also profoundly wrong

Janet Downs's picture

There was much crowing when schools minister Nick Gibb flunked a grammar question on Today.   The Sun, for example, sent him to the ‘bottom of the class’.

Gibb was asked whether the word ‘after’ in the sentence ‘I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner’ was a preposition or a subordinating conjunction.  Gibb replied, ‘It’s a preposition’.  The presenter said, 'Wrong.'   But Oliver Kamm in The Times (14 May 2016) said Gibb’s reply was correct.   He explained that ‘after’, wherever it occurs in a sentence, is a preposition that can be followed by a clause.

But that doesn’t let Gibb off the hook.  Kamm continues:

‘In short, there’s nothing wrong with Mr Gibb’s understanding of grammar.  Even so, I’ll criticise him on educational policy…the minister is making a grave mistake in micromanaging the curriculum.  Looking for a binary right or wrong answer in grammar is sometimes plain misguided’.

But it is on such binary right or wrong answers that 11 year-olds are being tested.

Kamm supports children learning about English grammar.  But grammar can’t be taught in isolation.  English language expert David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, says it’s impossible to understand syntax without ‘seeing it in its broader perspective’.   This includes:

  • General knowledge
  • Vocabulary
  • Punctuation and layout
  • Word order
  • Prosody: variations in pitch, volume, speed and rhythm.  These are spoken equivalent of the way prose is organised in writing.

Crystal proposes that grammar is taught via stories, poetry and other genres which help learners focus on particular linguistic issues.   What he does not suggest is learning the names of grammatical constructions out of context.

Reducing the teaching of English to a reductionist naming of parts will not help children write clearly, effectively and engagingly. 

I’m old enough to have been taught formal grammar.  One exercise comprised ruling columns on a page and heading them ‘Noun, Adjunct, Verb, Adjunct’.  We would dissect individual sentences by writing nouns in column one, any adjectives, clauses or phrases which complemented the nouns in column two, and so on.  No doubt Gibb would approve.  But if I can write clearly today it is in spite of such dull analysis not because of it.

The grammar test is flawed.  Gibb ‘conflates performance in these tests with writing fluently and cogently’, writes David Reedy on the Cambridge Primary Review Trust website. They have no educational value and distort the curriculum. 

But Gibb is convinced testing children on their ability to spot esoteric grammatical terms will turn them into proficient writers.   But, as Reedy points out, ‘These grammar tests will not and cannot do what the government’s rhetoric claims.’

In the end, Gibb’s assertion that he’s injected ‘rigour’ into primary teaching turns out to be empty rhetoric – so much hot air.  There’s no evidence frequent, mandatory testing increases school performance.  It is, as retired primary head Gerald Hair says: ‘SPAG bol*****’.

And it’s not just grammar tests:  David Crystal tells Hay Festival why exam boards and DfE are wrong about punctuation.






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agov's picture
Thu, 02/06/2016 - 11:53

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 02/06/2016 - 16:27

agov - my immediate response was, 'Does it matter if "after" is a preposition or a subordinating conjunction?'  But, of course, it does matter when 10 year-olds are tested on knowing the answer that appears on the marking sheet.   I was taught 'after' was a preposition - this must be one of the few occasions when Gibb and I agree with each other.   But others would disagree.  And there's the problem.  As Kamm says, there is often no binary right or wrong answer.  

Kamm cites grammarian Otto Jespersen who wrote in The Philosophy of Grammar (1924) that there's no reason to consider conjunctions as a separate word-class.  He gives two examples: 'after his arrival' and 'after he had arrived'.  The only difference between the two is that in the former the complement ('his arrival') is a noun phrase while in the latter the complement is a clause.  Because the difference lies in the complement, 'after' is not a conjunction but a 'sentence preposition'.

Kamm concludes that 'Jespersen's point is unanswerable'.  He writes that Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of the 'seminal' Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) explains that 'after, 'in all its occurences [is] a preposition that can take a clause complement'.

On the other hand,  David Crystal in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language DOES use the term 'subordinating conjunctions'.  These are used, he says, when one clause depends on another as in 'We went out after the rain stopped'.   

According to Kamm, Jespersen and Pullum, Gibb and I were correct in saying 'after' was a preposition.  But according to Crystal, 'after' in the sentence given was a subordinating conjunction.  This wouldn't matter if children weren't, in Kamm's words, 'penalised on arbitrary and whimsical grounds for giving the "wrong" answer'.


agov's picture
Fri, 03/06/2016 - 12:50

So, insofar as I understand all that, Gibb was profoundly wrong but his grammar might have been right or wrong depending on who you ask.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/06/2016 - 08:28

That's a succinct summary - according to Kamm, Gibb's grammar (as measured by naming of the parts) was correct.  But according to other grammarians (or websites that set themselves up as experts in order to sell grammar primers), Gibb was wrong.  

Kamm's comment regarding Gibb's error was not about his grammar  but on his micromanagement of the curriculum.  This is especially true where there are disputes surrounding terminology and methodology.   On the former, children are being tested on terminology which is not just debateable (as in the above) but unnecessary  nit-picking (knowing the difference between determiners and pronouns is not a prerequisite for producing well-written English).  On the latter, this depends on Nick Gibbs' prejudices which he elevates above teacher professionalism and labels it as 'rigour'.

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