Candidate for the first annual Politically Biased Peeving award

« previous post | next post »

Allison Flood, "Academics chastised for bad grammar in letter attacking Michael Gove", The Guardian 5/3/2013:

It was a blistering attack on Michael Gove for eroding educational standards and "dumbing down" teaching. But now the 100 academics who wrote an open letter in March criticising the education secretary's revised national curriculum have had their own accuracy questioned. Their letter has been dubbed "simply illiterate" by the judges of the inaugural Bad Grammar awards.

The professors, from universities including Nottingham Trent, Leeds Metropolitan, Oxford and Bristol, had warned that Gove's national curriculum proposal meant children would be forced to learn "mountains of detail" for English, maths and science without understanding it. But according to the Idler Academy Bad Grammar awards, they made a string of grammatical blunders including using adjectives as adverbs and mixing singulars with plurals.

I haven't been able to locate the text of the Idler's critique, but Flood's article quotes two specific grammatical complaints.

Gwynne, author of Gwynne's Grammar, highlighted a particular paragraph from the academics' letter for criticism:

"Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. 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."

Gwynne's attack opened with a consideration of the phrase "demands too much too young".

"Presumably they mean something like 'demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much', but, as worded, it simply is not English," he said. "In that sentence as worded, 'too young' can only be two adverbs, 'too' qualifying the adverb 'young', and 'young' qualifying the verb 'demands', as would, for instance, 'soon' or 'early'. But 'young' is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb. And it certainly is not doing the work of an adjective in that sentence, because there is no noun that could be 'understood' and which would turn that sentence into English."

The phrase in question is a classical allusion, referencing The Specials' 1979 song "Too Much Too Young":

In the lyric, "(much) too young" is (I guess) in apposition associated with the subject "you":

You've done too much
much too young
Now you're married with a kid
when you could be having fun with me

In the professors' letter, "too young" presumably modifies an understood third-person plural pronoun "… demands too much (of them) too young". For more on floating adjectives, see "Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007.  In any case, the meaning is clear enough, and I wouldn't have noticed the structural issue if Gwynne hadn't brought it up.

Gwynne was also disturbed by the academics' statement: "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."

"In the second clause, 'Little account is taken' is understood before the words 'that young children need'," he said. "But there is no such verb as 'to take account' but only 'to take account of' as in the first clause of that sentence. The second clause of the sentence is simply illiterate."

This is a fair criticism: the implied structure is "little account is taken of NP1 or NP2", except that instead of a second noun phrase, the constituent after "or" is a that-clause. But "simply illiterate"? This is not the sort of thing that marginally-illiterate people do — it's something that tends to happen in complex writing when the sense dominates the structure, something characteristic of writers who are especially fluent readers.

For the judges' likely motivation, see Michael Moran, "The bad grammar award: a superior kind of prize", The Guardian 5/3/2013":

It's no great surprise that the autodidact Nevile Gwynne was on the judging panel – the poor man has been the victim of myriad Restoration-themed spelling errors. However, you may have discerned a slight political subtext when you learned that the panel also included the free school evangelist Toby Young and the rightwing journalist Harry Mount.

I note in passing that The Idler's "About" page displays a nice back-formation, "art directed":

The Idler is an annual periodical that campaigns against the work ethic and promotes liberty, autonomy and responsibility. It is edited by Tom Hodgkinson. It was founded in 1993 by Tom and Gavin Pretor-Pinney. The Idler is now published as a high quality hardback book, which is typeset by Christian Brett and art directed by Alice Smith.

But the magazine's "Freedom Manifesto" makes me wonder why they're so eager to defend a government-mandated National Curriculum — and why they didn't recognize "Too Much Too Young":


  1. David Denison said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    Hi, Mark
    I was planning to comment in a forthcoming lecture on the criticism of too much too young, having heard the editor of The Idler, Tom Hodgkinson, talking in a rather mixed-up way on BBC Radio 4 on 2 May. He correctly identified young as an adjective but claimed that it should have been an adverb, to which Michael McCarthy gently and witheringly asked whether he would have preferred youngly. What no one in the discussion pointed out is that adjective phrases can occur quite normally, if less commonly than adverbials, in that positional slot, predicating some property of a preceding NP rather than modifying the verb:
    I’m coming to this problem fresh.
    He brought them back alive.
    Catch them young.
    Hodgkinson did allude to The Specials, as I recall, but he also revealed a great deal by suggesting that children should be taught something he called 'the official language'.
    You can catch the interview on the BBC iPlayer for a few more days at This interview started at 2:19:05.

    [(myl) Indeed. But in your examples, there's always an explicit nominal element for the floating adjective to connect with: "_I_'m coming to this problem fresh", "He brought _them_ back alive", "Catch _them_ young". The same can be said for most of the examples in my earlier post, such as "_who_ walks safe".

    One precedent for connection to implicit elements is the case of imperatives: "Drive safe", "Think different", …

    I haven't come up with clear examples that are parallel to "[I]t demands too much too young" — have you?]

  2. KathrynM said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    A Google NGram indicates that the phrase "too much too young" (usually preceded by "knew") has been around since at least 1914, when Jack London used it in a short story. There are a handful of false positives earlier than that (and a bunch of hits where you can't examine the underlying text), and its popularity clearly soared after 1979–but there's at least one other clear use of the term prior to that, in Ursual K. LeGuin's /Planet of Exile/, first published in 1966. Granted, those are both US authors, so Mr. Gwynne may not be impressed by them–but then, he included /The Elements of Style/ in his own book about English usage.

  3. KathrynM said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    Thinking about it, though, those still include an explicit nominal element (the person who knew too much).

  4. Kevin said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    "too much too soon" seems like a common phrase. A Google NGram for "demands too much too soon" doesn't produce results, but a book search produces this example from 1945 (plus some subsequent):

    The trouble with evangelicalism is that it demands too much too soon. Most of us are simply not ready for it. I know that I was not ready for it in my youth.
    /The coming great church: essays on church unity/

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    "Too Much Too Soon" only qualifies as a classical allusion a la the Specials' reference above on account of having been the title of the second New York Dolls LP (1974).

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

    It actually seems highly probable to me (sort of for reasons akin to Hartman's law . . .) that any "open letter" signed by a bunch of academics condemning some government official's education policies ought to have some glaring errors of usage. That the ones being peeved about perhaps aren't doesn't directly undermine that hypothesis (although it perhaps suggests a further corollary to Hartman's law), but rather annoyingly I can't just by following a link or two find the full text of the original anti-Gove missive to make my own assessment. (I'm sure it's out there on the internet, but if I can't find it in less than 90 seconds work, my attention span has been exceeded.) I did learn that the sort of mindless rote memorization being complained about includes such archaic brutalities as expecting the equivalent of fourth graders to memorize times tables. I am now wondering what the UK equivalent would be to having schoolchildren memorize the capitals of all 50 U.S. states, which is a nicely arbitrary custom we have in many parts of the U.S.

  7. G said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

    Ignoring the allusion, I think there IS something odd about "it demands too much too young." And the examples others have brought up helps clarify what it is.

    Firstly, "too much too young" suggests similar phrases like "too much too soon" or "too hard too long" – e.g., "I've worked too hard too long to give up now!" – but in those cases the two adjective phrases both modify the same thing. Here they don't. I'm not sure "too much" is even functioning as an adjective; it seems like the direct object of the sentence (but I wouldn't bet on it with professional linguists around).

    Secondly, it feels awkward to have "too young" modifying an implied indirect object. It goes more naturally with the sentence subject (e.g., "He died too young"). In a potentially ambiguous sentence like "She had her baby too young," I think an underage mother is suggested much more readily than a premature child.

    While I can come up with sentences like "They took him from his parents too young" (modifying the direct object) or "They took his parents from him too young" (indirect object), I think it gets increasingly awkward. To have the indirect object being modified not even be present in the sentence is a step too far for me.

  8. G said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

    Should be "help clarify," of course.

  9. Brett said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    I too found the "too much too young" odd, I think for basically the reasons G states. The phrasing is not quite ungrammatical, but it seems quite awkward.

  10. James said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

    Hm, the construction is definitely odd, but to my ear it is not anywhere near being ungrammatical. From "It is not clear how to analyze this", should one infer "… so it is ungrammatical", or "… so it's an interesting construction"? Seems obvious which is right!

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    There's something a little non-compositional about many of these "too much too soon" constructions, though no one ever seems to peeve about them. There are too many toos. For instance, in Kevin's example, "The trouble with evangelicalism is that it demands too much too soon," the amount that evangelicalism demands isn't too great in itself, but only because it's demanded so soon. You could say, "The trouble with evangelicalism is that its demands, which are considerable, are made too soon." But if its demands are too big, then there's no "too soon"—they're too big whenever they're made.

    Maybe one reason that this construction gets a pass is that it's hard to find alternatives. If you take out the first too, you get "The trouble with evangelicalism is that it demands much too soon," which is incomprehensible. You could say "it demands too much at an early stage" or something like that.

    Moving on the actual source of difficulty with "Much of it demands too much too young," it's an odd kind of dangler, right? It's in the same category as "As an American, this custom seems very strange." For parallel examples, there are a mere five Google hits on "teach it too young", such as this on sex education: "Well, my point was the discussion of this is pointless, because they already teach it too young and that's not going to change any time soon."

    By the way, the original letter is here. The previous sentence mentions children.

  12. JS said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 8:40 pm

    Subheadline in the Guardian: "Anxiety about body image can start very young." Ah, pragmatics…

  13. Brett said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I agree with you about the illogic of the construction, with one too many "too." I don't like the expression "too little, too late," but it's a fixed part of the language. However, I think that expression does convey useful information. It means that whatever was provided was insufficient in quantity, and that even if it had been sufficient in quantity, it arrived too late to be of use. I'm not sure that "too much too soon" parses quite the same way.

    I suspect that "too little, too late" is much more common than "too much, too soon," and I imagine the latter was derived from the former.* However, I realized just now that I had at some point stopped associating "too much too soon" as an allusion to "too little, too late." I'm not sure if that's because I've seen the phrase often enough to detach it from its origins, or whether it may be specifically related to the fact that I've seen "too much, too soon" frequently used by anti-vaccination campaigners, and so the phrase as picked up a strong emotional valance in my mind.

    *Google Ngrams does not agree with my intuition, so I could just be wrong about everything in the second paragraph.

  14. JS said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

    ^ "Too… too…" is certainly idiomatic — and as proof of the "lack of alternatives," note that Gwynne's (awkward) paraphrase also employs it: "…demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much." However phrased, it wouldn't be "too much" if they were older and they wouldn't be "too young" if it were less, hence Jerry Friedman's sense that there are "too many toos"… but what seems to be conveyed by this construction is precisely the existence of the two possibilities: either quantity might be considered to be "too" relative to the other.

  15. Mark F. said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 10:00 pm

    I think you have to call this an ad grammaticam argument.

  16. Joe said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    While I hate to agree with Gwynne (and I'm writing this a bit quickly without too much thought), but I do wonder whether "too much too young" is ungrammatical in this context — if by "ungrammatical" we mean there isn't a productive rule of English that explains its appearance. It is not so much that a predicative can't appear as an optional adjunct (i.e., "floating adjective") in English. It's that there needs to be a predicand for the predicative, whether subject or object (as Mark notes in his response to David Denison. The Specials' song has "you" as the predicand, so it differs from the example under discussion. There's no overt predicand in an imperative like "Get clean," but imperatives work differently (we would use a reflexive, for instance, in "Get yourself clean").

    If this isn't just a nonce construction, the only thing that I think that can explain it is that "demand" takes an optional complement (headed by the preposition "from") and it is the object of the preposition that serves as the implied predicand. But I'm not aware of any other example in English where this occurs.

  17. David J. Littleboy said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 3:33 am

    Funny. I find the "too much too young" bit to be highly effective and beautiful writing. I suppose that comes from having as a second language one that allows any nominal from anywhere in the deep structure of a modifying clause to be modified by said clause. (It makes translation a pain sometimes. though, since English is rather fussy about what can be pulled out and used.)

    Speaking of memorizing the capitals of all 50 states, apparently Japanese kids have to do the equivalent here as well. I overtook an upper-middle-aged Japanese male having a conversation with a bunch of grade-school kids on my morning walk one day. It turned out he was drilling them on the capitals of the prefectures.

  18. Joe said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 4:18 am

    In my original post, I was thinking of "too young" as a optional predicative adjunct in clause structure. However, I just took a look at Mark Davies' Corpus of Global Web-Based English and found a few examples that make me want to rethink that characterization. Here's a few that are of interest:

    (1) Where's the line between the natural consequence of hormones flying and society throwing too much too young at them?

    (2) I was going off the rails. It was too much too young.

    (3) Robert Coles tells a painful tale of "Too much too young "

    (4) In short, if the 'too much too young' culture is going to change, this change needs to happen from the top down.

    Could it be that "too much too young" is a constituent with somewhat similar distribution to an NP (or nominal, given (4): object in (1), PC in (2), complement in PP (3), and modifier to a noun in (4)?

  19. David Crosbie said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 7:01 am

    It's in the nature of such economical, effective phrases that obvious salient entities are not made explicit. "Too much too young" punches out two explicit judgements of two implicit entities

    Somebody(1) demands something of somebody(2).

    Somebody(1) is the personified curriculum.
    Something is the unspecified effort supplied by the school students.
    This is pithily characterised with the pronoun phrase "too much".
    (Gwynne seems to think it's an adverb phrase, but surely that would mean "demands too often".)

    Somebody(2) is the generality of school students.
    No text refers to them explicitly, but any sensible reader knows that they are the topic — indeed, the whole point — of the letter.
    They are pithily characterised with the adjective phrase "too young".
    The phrase follows the entity it characterises. If
    that entity is unexpressed, there is a potential for confusion. But not here. Gwynne claims to be confused, but surely even he can't imagine that the critics consider the curriculum "too young", or the pupils' efforts "too young".

  20. chris said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    But if its demands are too big, then there's no "too soon"—they're too big whenever they're made.

    It seems to me that these sorts of expressions imply a tradeoff between the two variables referred to, in this case, speed and expectations. If you demand something soon, you shouldn't expect as much, because Rome wasn't built in a day. You could demand that much, but only if you allow enough time for it.

    So, IMO, saying that the demand is "too much too soon" implies that demanding less at the same speed would be OK, and demanding the same amount but not so soon would also be OK. It's only when you combine a high demand with a short deadline that it becomes unreasonable.

    ISTM that this analogizes just fine to "too much too young". The younger the students, the less you ought reasonably to expect of them. If you want them to reach a higher bar you have to let them grow up a little more first.

  21. Too Much, Too Wrong | Caxton said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 7:48 am

    […] He objects to ‘too much too young’ and the way in which the second clause is joined to the first in the last sentence. I don’t need to add to Mark Liberman’s hatchet job in this Language Log post. […]

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 8:47 am

    I wrote, "Moving on [to] the actual source of difficulty […] it's an odd kind of dangler, right?" I would like to state for the record that my dangling participle there was intentional wit, but I'd be lying.

    James: I think you put your finger on it. "It is not clear how to analyze this, so it is ungrammatical" is a typical prescriptivist argument. "Grammatical" has two meanings, of course: existing in the language, and syntactically standard or acceptable to teachers and other authorities.

    chris: I agree that the trade-off you describe is the intended meaning, but I don't agree that it analogizes to "too much too young" (if I understand you correctly). Nothing in "too" suggests a trade-off to me.

    Incidentally, I'd say it could also mean "both too much and when the children are too young". "Children are asked to do too much rote learning too young." Not only is the amount of rote learning to great, but it's assigned when children don't even get the small benefits from it they'd get later. G's example "I've worked too long too hard" and Brett's example "too little too late" can also imply both, I'd say, and that interpretation seems more compositional to me.

  23. Kenneth MacKenzie said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    Mr Gwynne's been getting some attention in the UK press recently as a champion of the teaching of "traditional" grammar. The Telegraph had a good grammar test from him last week. The answer to at least one of the questions is just baffling, but it's worth paying attention to the rest of it in case you happen to run into anyone from the 19th century.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 9:17 am

    By the way, there's also "start it too young", as in "I'm intrigued by DITHOR, but I don't want to start it too young and squash ds's love for reading" here. (DITHOR is "Drawn Into The Heart Of Reading", and I think "ds" is "dear son". He's in second grade.)

    I can't come up with any examples other than "young". Maybe this is because "start it too soon" means the same thing in some situations—"I don't want my kid to start that too soon/young"—so people use "young" instead of "soon" in sentences such as "I don't want to start DITHOR too __."

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 10:21 am

    I do think "too much too soon" would have been more stylistically smooth in context (because the reader potentially has to work a little bit to figure out that "young" is a fair equivalent to "soon" given the subject under discussion — obviously "too soon in the curriculum" = "when the students are too young" but the reader may need to adjust frames of reference without sufficient advance warning). "Too much too early" would have been an intermediate possibility that I would personally find as felicitous as "soon." Many criticisms like this simply do not distinguish judgments of stylistic infelicity from those of ungrammaticality strictly speaking, and there is always a concern that the likes of us are being peevers in turn when we object to people using "grammar" in a loose and non-technical (but reasonably common . . .) sense to mean "elegant prose style" (or "proper deployment of apostrophes" etc.). But since Gwynne proceeds with an explicitly grammatical analysis, he can't escape censure on that ground.

    I tend to agree that "too much too soon" is not completely parallel to "too little too late" in the sense that in instances of the former it would not necessarily or generally have been too much if it had been attempted at a more appropriate and leisurely pace whereas in instances of the latter it would typically still have been too little even if begun earlier. But they are both perfectly cromulent idioms.

  26. David Crosbie said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    A third of Gwynne's critisms that I've read is an objection to the phrase:

    "to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity"

    which he affects to belive requires "something of a struggle" to find a genuine meaning.

    Surely anyone who teaches anything to anybody knows what this means — anybody, that is, who doesn't just spout the dogma and expect the learners to disregard anything they already know.

    Gwynne's objects to the allegedly confusing mixture of singular and plural. But see what happens if we homogenise:

    1. to relate abstract ideas to their experiences, lives and activities

    2. to relate abstract ideas to their experience, life and activity

    For me, neither is as good as the original.

    The former implies piecemeal relevance to isolated experience and activities. Surely, the teacher wants the learner to appreciate patterns of e pertinence and patterns of activity.

    The latter implies collective existence, not the individual lives that we wish to connect with.

    (Sorry for repeating Mark's point before. I hadn't read it. It was obscure by an East Coast Trains wifi sign forbidding acces to the video clip.)

    I wonder, does Gwynne dine on fish and chip?

  27. Eric P Smith said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    I think the beauty of the "too X, too Y" construction – the beauty of a sentence like "He is doing too much too young" – is that it expresses very concisely quite an involved concept. "He is doing too much, too young" presupposes that, given any age, there is some maximum amount that it is appropriate for him to do. That is, it presupposes a maximum appropriate amount which is a function of age. It further presupposes that the function is an increasing function: the older one is, the more it is appropriate for one to do. Given the truth of those presuppositions, "He is doing too much, too young" can be interpreted as meaning that the combination of his age and the amount he is doing – the ordered pair, in mathematical parlance – is above the graph. The concept is symmetrical in the two variables, age and amount done, because, given that the function is increasing, the proposition "He is doing too much, given his age" and the proposition "He is too young, given the amount he is doing" are logically equivalent: they have the same propositional content. "He is doing too much, too young" expresses that propositional content concisely and symmetrically.

    I said that the concept is symmetric in the two variables, age and amount done. In a sense it's not: the amount done is too large, but the age is too small. It may be better therefore to conceive of the amount done being plotted against the negative of the age. In those terms, the presupposition is that the graph is decreasing. That brings out the symmetry better.

    "Too little too late" is similar, with the difference that it presupposes a minimum appropriate amount rather than a maximum appropriate amount for any given time, and expresses the proposition that the ordered pair (time, amount) is below the graph rather than above it. It may be better to plot the littleness (not the greatness) against the lateness. Then the graph is decreasing, and the proposition is that the ordered pair is above the graph.

  28. Jason said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

    Look at it this way: The fact that these pompous "conservatives" think "too much, too young" is ungrammatical is precisely why we need real grammar education in schools.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

    Gwynne appears to be the sort of self-confident crackpot who gives autodidacts a bad name, but to give him his due he did have one which-of-these-is-correct question in his quiz where one of the options was "both" AND "both" was accepted as the correct answer rather than just serving as a decoy to flush out the squishy hippie relativists. So a deviation from pure One-Right-Wayism and perhaps a little chink in the tinfoil. Plus clicking through to the otherwise ridiculous Gwynne quiz led me to a link with the awesome headline "Bill Clinton Fails to Reunite Led Zeppelin," which was totally worth the price of admission.

    [(myl) I haven't read Gwynne's Grammar; and his decision to incorporate the 1918 edition of William Strunk's little book doesn't increase my curiosity. But in fairness to him, he does claim to have been inspired by William Cobbett, who was the sort of self-confident crackpot who gives autodidacts a good name, at least after a couple of centuries of aging. I've written about his feud with Noah Webster here. And I recommend his Grammar of the English Language, In a Series of Letters, Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in general; but, more especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-boys, not so much for its linguistic insight as for… well, just read it.]

  30. “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it”: Delusions of grandeur among language elitists | linguistic pulse said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    […] an ad hominem manner) attacking the credibility or intelligence of the grammar snob's target. Mark Liberman notes that in the case of the Bad Grammar awards, there appears to be a political motivation […]

  31. Ken Westmoreland said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    My main bugbear with Gwynne is that he's a 'Latinist', somebody who thinks that you can't have a grasp of English grammar unless you know Latin. Ditto Harry Mount (also a 'Latinist') and Toby Young (who went to a comprehensive where they've never taught it.)

    I'd let the use of 'young' as an adverb pass, for the simple reason that there is no distinct adverb derived from 'young' – ('youngly'?) I have described people in my family as having 'died too young', and the grammatical aspect of that is the least of my concerns. In other Germanic languages, adverbs and adjectives are often indistinguishable – Sie starb schnell in German literally translates as 'She died quick'.

    As regards the song 'Too Much Too Young', I prefer the Little Angels' song, though that goes back to 1992, so not the same vintage as the song by the Specials.

  32. Michael said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    It strikes me as quite all right. The only possible issue I would take with "too much too young" is that I would prefer a common ("too much, too young") but then again, I certainly overuse commas.

    Is Gwynne really that cranky? Or are these just two fairly bizarre examples?

  33. Ken Westmoreland said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    Here's the letter:

  34. William Berry said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    I like the phrase "too much too young". That it is an allusion to an American writer is a nice touch.

    It reminds me of the way I was so charmed by such turns of phrase when I was a youngster. I would read Gibbon, Hume, et al, and marvel at their facility for that sort of thing. I once used (about nineteen yrs old; freshman philosophy survey ccourse, AIR) "I would here venture to suggest" in a short paper! To this day, I can imagine the smile on the professor's face as he came across that gem, obtruding so prominently in its crude, amateurish context.

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

    I had paywall problems with the Independent link, but not with the version at the Telegraph's site here: Contra David Crosbie upthread, I would plump for "experience, lives, and activities" over either the awkward-to-my-ear original or either of his proposed-but-then-deprecated alternatives. It's not imho a question of needing perfect parallelism in singular/plural, it's a question of having each entry in the list actually make sense in context, and "relate abstract ideas to their . . . activity" makes no sense whatsoever to me and would not make sense even if the subject were a a single generic student (thus making "life" preferable to "lives"). Various experiences can and do idiomatically sum up to an overall "experience" but various activities do not, at least in my idiolect, typically sum up to a single overarching "activity," at least without some additional specification not present here. David Crosbie's gloss of singular (or is it some sort of mass noun?) "activity" as "patterns of activity" likewise doesn't work for my idiolect (again, without some specification like "marketing activity in the previous calendar quarter" which I would find less aesthetic than "marketing activities" but not actually semantically ill-formed). But I suppose I should accept the possibility that BrEng educator jargon has a different usage with which my AmEng ear is not familiar.

  36. David Crosbie said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    Sure enough "activities" has particular connotations in British primary education which may not cross the Atlantic. To me, it suggests children dividing up into individuals and groups to do painting, measuring, counting, sculpting, reading, writing, or whatever. The authors of the letter are British educationalists. Even if some are not specialists in primary education, they must be aware of the informal terminology.

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    Yes, "activities" means approximately that to me when discussing U.S. elementary school students and I would find "relate abstract ideas to their . . . activities" perfectly fine in context even if other items in the same list were singular/mass and thus non-parallel – my quibble with the anti-Gove letter as written is that I just can't get singular/mass "activity" in my idiolect as a sensible way of describing the sum or collectivity of such activities.

  38. John F said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 4:18 am

    Personally, I think I didn't get enough English grammar in English primary school in the 80s and (ironically) Northern Irish Grammar school in the 90s. I remember in primary school we obviously learned the difference between nouns, prepositions, verbs and adjectives, but then we had one lesson on this strange concept called 'tenses' and that was about it. I think that if you learn a little Latin, French, German and various computer languages, you get the wrong idea about English grammar, which, from my reading of LL seems to have wonderfully nuanced rules, far from the notion that some have of English grammar who claim it has no rules. Far from the UK, my sister is teaching concepts of sentence construction much more complex than I have ever studied to under tens for whom English is not their first language.

  39. Herman said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 5:23 am

    Here is a compilation of clips from Mr Gwynne's recent appearance on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live.

    I think it's fair to say that he expresses one or two somewhat eccentric ideas.

  40. David Crosbie said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 5:24 am

    The reason John F got little grammar in the 80's is that my generation and those who taught us twigged that the stuff currently peddled by Gwynne was mendacious rubbish, with a potential for hurtful snobbery. What happened was classic baby and bathwater. Instead of teaching proper grammar with a scientific basis and some relevance to present-day English, schools just stopped teaching grammar altogether.

  41. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    May 9, 2013 @ 4:59 am

    For all his claims of being in favour of 'traditional' education, Mr Gwynne seems ignorant of the story of the English king demonstrating that he could not hold back the tide. I find that a little surprising as Gwynne has always struck me as something of a Cnut.

  42. MarkB said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    Tell my how grammar can be judged to be correct or incorrect without first having learned (memorized) the rules of grammar – whatever you think they are. Now imagine a generation raised in the absence of grammar pedagogy having the discussion above. The thread would extend over weeks and months rather than days, as those free of rote learning searched through books (more likely web pages) to make sense of the subject.

  43. David Crosbie said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

    Mark B's question is easily answered. If a native speaker of English raised in the absence of grammar pedagogy judges something spoken or written by a foreigner or a child to be grammatically incorrect, then it almost certainly is grammatically incorrect. if there's any doubt, we can get a second opinion from another native speakers. For those of us who teach foreigners, a little grammar terminology may be helpful in diagnosing errors and in clarifying our objectives, but it would be possible to teach grammatically correct English without any knowledge of explicit grammar theory. I suspect MarkB is really thinking of usage, but even here a list of known shibboleths would suffice.

    The 'rules of grammar' come in two varieties:
    1 Rules of descriptive grammar are tentative hypotheses derived by induction from observed regularities in language. They are, it is hypothesised, applied automatically by the mind at such a speed that they are not open to conscious introspection.
    2. Rules of prescriptive grammar are derived by deduction from philosophical tenets which went out in the eighteenth century.

RSS feed for comments on this post