Teaching the rules of English Grammar

When I was in my first year of secondary school, my mother was unimpressed with the quality of the education I was getting from the Christian Brothers.

She wasn't alone. Other parents were pulling their sons out of that school and sending them to one of the government high schools, where the education was believed to be better. She went further, and sent me to the city to boarding school. To the Catholic school with the best reputation for academic excellence.

She didn't like it that almost all schools in regional areas had given up teaching the structure and rules of English Grammar. She wanted me to be taught English Grammar. In addition, there would be Latin, and - if I ended up in the top stream - Ancient Greek. It was a matter of pride that my school was one of two schools in the state that still taught Ancient Greek.

I remember learning the rules of English Grammar in Year 8, in a very methodical manner from a teacher named Mr Harrison. He taught us how to write and structure the Queen's English but definitely not how to speak it. Behind his back we mimicked him giving us the instruction 'Get out your Pendlebury' in his very broad Australian accent. Our 'Pendlebury' was the class text, A Grammar School English Course by B.J. Pendlebury.

I never completely understood why some schools taught English Grammar and others didn't, until the other day when I read an article in The Conversation titled 'Things you were taught at school that are wrong'.

It's quite a good article, more balanced than the clickbait title suggests. It talks about the prescriptivists, who wrote rules prescribing how sentences must be structured, and the descriptivists who compiled guides describing how English was used by different people for various purposes.

Now I know that, in 1972, my mother was taking me out of the hands of the descriptivists and entrusting me to the prescriptivists.

The writer Misty Adoniou makes the not entirely tongue in cheek suggestion that the prescriptivists made up rules to ensure that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.

This is beyond the scope of the article, but it seems to me that the teaching and enforcing of language rules and exclusions has proved to one of the most effective tools of social engineering. In particular the assimilation of indigenous and migrant populations into the dominant culture.

But I can't agree with Adoniou's easy dismissal of the prescriptivists, and, in the end, I think the article is misleading and wrong. That is because teaching grammar has a lot to do with educating us to think logically and argue rationally. I know that this would have been my mother's motivation. She was definitely not a class snob.

I remember being taught not to begin a sentence with 'and', 'but', 'or' or 'for'. Now I do not hesitate to do that if it adds to the effect of what I'm writing.

Aside from its help in faciliating clear thinking and rational argument, I'm pleased that I was taught the rules of grammar so that I can pick and choose which ones to accept and ignore. It's a lot like being taught religious doctrine using a catechism. Or studying comparative religion. You're equipped to make informed and rationally argued choices.