English Grammar Day 2023

With Charlotte Brewer and Jonnie Robinson I’m one of the co-organisers of the English Grammar Day 2023 on 23 June 2023 at University College London. Here’s the programme:

09:50-10:00Welcome & Introduction
10:00-10:30Sylvia Shaw, Lost in Transcription? The representation of parliamentary speech in writing
10:30-11:00Julia Snell, Does correcting children’s spoken grammar improve their writing?
11:45-12:15Steven Dryden, They, Them, We, Us
12:15-12:45Guyanne Wilson, Caribbean Englishes in the Standard English debate
12:45-14:00Lunch break*
14:00-14:30Joanna Gavins, Using linguistics to help tackle plastics pollution
14:30-15:00Susie Dent, Word imperfect
15:45-17:00‘Any Questions’-style panel discussion, chaired by John Mullan, UCL
Submit your questions during the first coffee break!
* Coffee and tea is included but lunch is not provided. UCL has numerous food outlets within a short walking distance.

Do join us and bring your (A-level) students.

For more information, speaker information, abstracts, and a link to the booking site, click here.

Fronted adverbials: the bugbear of English grammar teaching

For some years now, with the regularity of clockwork, opinion pieces appear in the press about grammar teaching. The dystopian language used in these articles might lead you to think that children are subjected to unspeakable suffering: a recent piece laments the “full horror of the primary grammar curriculum”, another talks about the “Kafkaesque grammar system” used in our schools which “kills the English language”. The writers of these pieces often pride themselves on being successful writers or journalists, and on not knowing what a fronted adverbial is.

Why is there so much resistance to the teaching of grammar in schools?

Well, one answer is politics. Grammar was brought into the national curriculum by Michael Gove in 2014 with the aim of bringing some rigour back into teaching and the use of language. The curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2 specifies a range of grammatical concepts that children need to learn. Some of these are very basic, such as ‘noun’, ‘adjective’ and ‘verb’; others are less well known, such as ‘determiner’. Children are tested at the end of Year 6 in the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (Spag) exam. Many teachers feel, with some justification, that the tests are unimaginative tick-box affairs, and are designed to test them, rather than their charges, and to rank their schools. Some parents feel that the terminology isn’t particularly appropriate for very young children and stymies their creativity. Labels that have been singled out as being particularly objectionable are ‘subjunctive’ and ‘fronted adverbial’. The latter has become the bugbear of English grammar teaching.

What is a fronted adverbial? To explain this, let’s look at this simple sentence: Ben met Jo last night. You can conceive of this sentence as a miniscule play in which there are two actors: Ben and Jo. We can’t do without actors in a play, so in English we can’t say *met Jo last night or *Ben met last night. (Linguists use an asterisk to indicate an ungrammatical sentence.) In grammatical terms the actors Ben and Jo carry the functions of subject and object in this sentence. But what about the phrase last night? This phrase is not an actor in this sentence, but it provides some further background information about ‘when’ Ben met Jo. A phrase or clause in English that gives information about ‘when’, ‘why’ or ‘how’ something happened is called an adverbial. This is also a grammatical function label. Typically, these are optional and occur at the end of a sentence, as in my example. However, we can also put this phrase at the front of the sentence: Last night, Ben met Jo. We now have a ‘fronted adverbial’. The idea isn’t hard to grasp, but the label is admittedly off-putting for young children.

Why is it useful to teach young children about fronted adverbials? Well, one answer is that it helps children to write better. After all, if you don’t always put an adverbial at the end of a sentence, but sometimes at the front or in the middle, your writing will become more varied and potentially more interesting. Linguists study how language users can convey information effectively under the heading of ‘pragmatics’.

Many teachers see the point. In a thread on Twitter one of them writes in Twitterese (which has a grammar of its own!):

“There are things I’d change about the National Curriculum. About what we teach/what fits into the school day. But. Fronted adverbials. Learning what type of words can be used where and how. I see the point, right there. In the stuck child going, ah ha, LATER THAT DAY! SNEAKILY! BEHIND THE SHIP! And writing on. For the way they can help unlock the gate, I kind of like ’em. I know I’m out of sync with most of Writer Twitter. But. Here I am.”

Read the full thread here.

But hold on, I hear you say, are you not one of the authors of a recent UCL report that found that teaching young children English grammar doesn’t benefit their narrative writing? Yes, indeed, I was one of the investigators – in fact the only grammarian – on the project Grammar and Writing in England’s National Curriculum. This involved a randomised control trial in which Year 2 children in London schools were taught 10 grammar lessons, while pupils in a control group were taught their regular (‘business as usual’) grammar classes. We asked children to do a writing test before and after the intervention, and we found that there was no measurable improvement in their narrative writing. We did, however, find some improvement in what is called ‘sentence combining’, i.e. putting together two or more separate sentences to form a single new sentence (for example, We went to the park. The weather was great. >  We went to the park because the weather was great), though the effect was not statistically significant.

I cannot deny that the outcome of the research was disappointing. I lead a team of linguists at UCL who created the Englicious website with free-to-use English language resources that aim to teach grammar in a fun and engaging way. The 10 grammar lessons I mentioned above were specially created on the Englicious platform. My hope had been that teaching grammar using a dedicated set of lessons would result in students using more varied sentence structures. For this age group (6-7 year olds) we did not get a positive result as far as narrative writing is concerned.

However, unlike what some of the newspaper headlines suggested, we cannot conclude from this research that grammar teaching is without value. We need much more research to find out whether perhaps grammar teaching should start in a later year, perhaps Year 4, and has a more direct effect on that age group and later ones. Importantly, as with all subjects taught in schools, it’s crucial that the teaching of grammar is engaging and fun, and that it is made relevant to young children by making reference to stories, poems and songs.

The qualitative part of our research, which didn’t make the headlines in the papers, showed that the teachers and pupils who took part in the intervention valued the interactive teaching resources that we made available for them, and that they had a positive impact on the children’s progress.  Teachers noticed their pupils’ enjoyment of learning about grammar and speaking confidently about it, and this included lower ability and ‘reluctant’ learners. As part of the project I visited several primary schools and witnessed some wonderful, brilliant and imaginative teaching fully engaging the pupils, for example when they were asked to ‘act out’ an adverb in the classroom: “Walk across the room sadly”, “Wave your arms slowly”. We need more of this.

Learning about grammar is no different from many of the other subjects that are taught in schools. We teach them because they are relevant to us. Language plays a crucial role in all our lives, and hence knowing something about how it works is very valuable. This is especially true when we set out to learn other languages. The intentions of the linguists who designed the curriculum were focused on improving children’s literacy by introducing knowledge of grammar into schools. There is no doubt that some of the specifications of the curriculum need to be revised, especially with regard to some of the terminology, and the testing regime is also in need of overhaul.

But those who have been saying that they have become successful individuals despite never having learned about fronted adverbials miss the point entirely.

Link: Grammar and writing in England’s National Curriculum

New: ‘Grammar Explainer’ mini podcasts

Together with my colleague Tim Clist I produced a series of ‘Grammar Explainer’ mini podcasts.

They come in two types. ‘Basic explainers’ are aimed at NQTs and teachers with very little grammar training, whereas the ‘Advanced explainers’ are aimed at more seasoned teachers.

The podcasts will be posted on the Englicious Twitter feed (@EngliciousUCL), but if you want to binge-listen to them all, then visit the Englicious Soundcloud page here: soundcloud.com/search/sets?q=

Let me know if you find the Grammar Explainers useful.

Change the tests, but don’t ditch grammar

This time last year the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test (GPS, popularly called SPaG) was in the news almost every week. The DfE was mocked for not being able to prevent the leaking of a test, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb couldn’t answer a grammar question on live radio, and parents kept their 6-year olds at home to boycott the Key Stage 1 test. Numerous well-known writers, poets and education specialists railed against the tests and their inadequacy. Now, it’s spring and the debate has flared up again. Last month the House of Commons Education Committee published its report on primary assessment. After hearing a large number of experts who made clear that they did not like the tests, the Committee recommended that the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) review them, and that the KS2 test, like the KS1 test, be made non-statutory. (Did you spot the subjunctive verb? I’ll come back to it later.) In May the Guardian published a piece by Warwick Mansell on the SPaG tests in which the arguments in the debate were rehearsed. And the next day another piece appeared in the Guardian.

It is unfortunate that the debate on grammar teaching and testing is muddled because there are several strands to it which are confused or ignored. The first two strands concern whether grammar should be taught in schools and, if so, how. The third and fourth strands are the questions of whether and how it should be tested.

Let’s look at each of these strands.

Why do we teach grammar in schools? Critics say that the curriculum is already full and that we can do without grammar. Of course, it’s true that we can lead a happy and fulfilling life without knowing anything about subordinating conjunctions or determiners. But the same could be said for history. You can go get to the age of 95 without ever having heard of Henry VIII or the Great Fire of London or knowing what a parliament is. However, nobody would deny that learning about history enriches us and helps us to understand the world as it was, and how it is today. But have you noticed that nobody ever asks for evidence of the beneficial effects of teaching history? We just assume, quite reasonably, that knowing about history is important. For me learning about grammar is as important as learning about history. One reason is so obvious that it almost doesn’t need pointing out, and this is that grammar plays a central role in our lives, as part of the language(s) we speak. When we learn about grammar we learn something about ourselves because only human beings have language. We use language all the time, all day long, talking to friends and family, writing shopping lists, text messages and school essays. It makes sense for all of us, not just school children, to know something about how our language works, how the bits and pieces fit together. And of course, having a knowledge of grammar is also indispensable for learning foreign languages. If you teach Spanish and your students don’t know what an adjective is, it is harder to explain that they should order dos cervezas frías, not dos frías cervezas in a bar in Spain.

For a long time critics have argued that teaching grammar stifles children’s creativity. It’s better for them to engage with stories and poems and learn about language in that way. Grammar teaching is sneeringly called the ‘naming of the parts’, so that being able to label a word as an adjective is no different from knowing that the red car that just passed you in the street is a Ford Mondeo. Well-known writers such as Michael Rosen have made this point. E.L. Kennedy is on the record as saying that she has no idea what fronted adverbials are. It seems that for her the logical conclusion is that nobody else therefore needs to know what they are either. On Twitter people have said that they have an English degree from Oxford, and that they can’t answer the questions on the SPaG test. They seem to be saying that having an Oxford degree means that you know everything that needs to be known. As for the person who said that the primary tests would have stumped Jane Austen, well….

There is recent research that suggests that kids very much enjoy learning about grammar. When you point this out to critics and journalists it is steadfastly ignored.

Here are some quotes from Huw Bell (2016) citing teachers:

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And in Kimberley Safford’s (2016) article much the same points are made:

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It’s time some serious attention is given to this kind of research.

The last quotation above points to an issue that to my mind lies at the crux of the complaints we have been hearing about the tests: teachers feel insecure about teaching grammar. When the new National Curriculum was published people quickly noticed that apart from traditional terms such as ‘noun’, ‘adjective’ and ‘verb’, it also contained some new terms that are in line with the terminology used in modern linguistics, such as ‘conjunction’, ‘determiner’, and ‘adverbial’. From a linguist’s point of view this is very welcome, but it understandably caused alarm among teachers because they were suddenly faced with having to teach a subject about which they weren’t taught much themselves during teacher training, so they can be forgiven for feeling unhappy about it. It is a major failing of the government that it has not offered teachers any support on how to teach grammar.

Here we come to the second strand of the debate, namely how to teach grammar. Education specialists have pointed out that teaching grammatical terminology has no benefits at all. They say that it won’t help children to write better or read better. This may well be true, but much more research is needed to establish this. But even if turns out that grammar teaching isn’t directly beneficial, that doesn’t mean that we should ditch it. We teach history or literature, because these subject have an intrinsic value, and the same is true for grammar. When the critics talk about grammar teaching you find that there is often an unstated assumption, namely that when teachers teach grammar they must be teaching the ‘naming of the parts’ and no more than that. For older generations this was often what grammar teaching was like. But grammar pedagogy is much more than just teaching terminology, and has moved on from the way it was taught in the 1950s. Grammar terminology can now be taught using online resources which get children to learn about grammar in a playful and engaging way, using technology that is also used in games (see Englicious). Of course we do still need to teach some terminology, because it’s useful to have a metalanguage to talk about a subject, in the same way that it is useful to know what a metaphor is when you talk about literature, or what a monarchy is when you study history. There’s nothing to stop teachers from teaching grammar in a more contextualized way by using literary texts such as poems, plays and songs. As we have found at UCL in the CPD courses we offer, when teachers are offered the right kind of support to teach grammar they begin to enjoy it and see the benefits.

What about the tests? It is true that these are problematic in various ways. People’s views of the tests are coloured by the fact that they were brought in by Michael Gove, who was disliked by many teachers. It was Gove who insisted that the subjunctive be taught in schools, despite linguists advising him not to include it in the curriculum. Admittedly, the tests are somewhat unimaginative when children are asked to identify word classes or underline subordinate clauses, not least because it leads to teaching to the test, and the results of the tests affect how teachers and their schools are judged. So the tests need reform both in the way they are set, and in the way they are used.

Should we scrap the tests altogether, as some people have suggested? To my mind that would not be the right thing to do, because it would probably mean the end of grammar teaching in schools, and for the reasons given above that would be a shame.


1. As I have mentioned in different places on this blog, I should make clear that over the past few years I have advised the DfE on the SPaG tests by being a member of a Test Review Group. In this group a large number of experts, which includes teachers and literacy advisors, scrutinize the questions that will appear on the tests to ensure that they are clear and fair. The tests are looked at by other experts too, such as test specialists, statisticians, inclusion experts, and so on. There are several phases that draft tests go through over a two year period, before they are used in schools.

2. Huw Bell (2016) ‘Teacher knowledge and beliefs about grammar: a case study of an English primary school’, English in Education 50.2, 148-163.


3. Kimberley Safford (2016) ‘Teaching grammar and testing grammar in the English primary school: the impact on teachers and their teaching of the grammar element of the statutory test in Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG)’. Changing English, 23.1, 3-21.

See also: How Bell and Steph Ainsworth (2017) ‘Grammar’s best kept secrets: what every primary teacher should know’, NATE Teaching English, Primary Matters.


Beware of Google: the case of adverb phrases

Q: What is an adverb phrase?

A: A group of two or more words whose most important word (called the Head) is an adverb.

Here are some examples in context:

  • They repaired my bike [very quickly].
  • He worked [extremely hard] at the weekend.
  • She did [really well] in her tests.
  • Why are you leaving [so soon]?

The Heads of these adverb phrases are quickly, hard, well and soon.  They are modified by the adverbs very, extremely, really and so. (Remember that adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, as well as entire clauses/sentences.)

Despite this being really straightforward, it is nonetheless very easy to get confused about adverb phrases if you look up the notion using Google.

Here’s an example of the kind of definition of adverb phrase that I found on the web: ‘An adverb phrase consists of two or more words that act as an adverb.’

One particular website I came across offers lists of ‘adverb phrases’, such as the following:

  • adverb phrases describing ‘where’: on the corner, under the table, on the mat, near the sea
  • adverb phrases describing ‘when’: after the summer, in the evening, before they get up
  • adverb phrases describing ‘how’: with a pen, with pleasure

Are you confused by this? If you are, don’t worry, because the definition of adverb phrase given on these websites is wrong. The problem is the wording ‘two or more words that act as an adverb’. In the examples above the italicised units do not ‘act as an adverb’. What the author of this website is trying to say is that each of them can have the grammatical function of Adverbial when they are used in sentences such as the following:

  • I saw her on the corner.
  • We will meet again after the summer.
  • They check their email on their iPad before they get up.

In fact, none of the italicised units in the lists above are adverb phrases. They are all preposition phrases, except for before they get up which is a subordinate clause introduced by the subordinating conjunction before.

There are countless websites that confuse form and function, leading to poor writing on grammar. Here’s a particularly bad example. Can you make sense of it?

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Conclusion: be careful when you search for grammar terms on the internet: what you find there is often completely unreliable. If you want to be sure to get reliable information about grammar, use Englicious.

On the difference between adverb and adverbial, see my blog post Adverb and Adverbial.

See also: Forms and function (1), Form and function (2).

Right and wrong answers in grammar tests

The schools minister Nick Gibb, who is responsible for the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (GPS) tests that UK school children sit at ages 7 and 11, was asked a grammar question in a BBC Radio 4 news programme. The question had previously appeared on one of the GPS test papers. Here’s a snippet of the interview:

Interviewer Let me give you this sentence: I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner. Is the word after there being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition?

Minister Well, it’s a proposition. After – it’s…

Interviewer I don’t think it is.

Minister After is a preposition, it can be used in some contexts as a, as a, word that coordinates a subclause, but this isn’t about me.

Interviewer No, I think in this sentence it’s being used a subordinating conjunction!

The press had a wonderful time pouring scorn on the minister for not being able to answer a question that very young children need to be able to answer by the time they leave primary school.

There has subsequently been some debate over the question of whether the minister may actually have answered the question correctly. Oliver Kamm wrote a piece in the Times with this heading:

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Kamm writes that Gibb was correct in saying that after is a preposition, and there “was no need for the minister to be defensive of his grasp of grammar.”

So was Gibb’s answer correct or not?

Well, that depends on the grammar you consult. The two most influential standard grammars of modern English, namely A comprehensive grammar of the English language (CGEL; by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik) and the Cambridge grammar of the English language (CamGEL; by Huddleston and Pullum et al.) have different analyses of the sentence that was presented to the minister.

In CGEL a distinction is made between the preposition after and the subordinating conjunction after, such that we have the two analyses below:

  • I went to the cinema [PP [P after] [NP dinner]]
  • I went to the cinema [clause [subordinating conjunction after] I’d eaten my dinner]

[In this notation the brackets indicate the grammatical units, called constituents. P = preposition; PP = prepositional phrase; NP = noun phrase.]

So in the CGEL framework after, as a preposition, takes a noun phrase as its complement, but as a subordinating conjunction it introduces a subordinate clause.

By contrast, in CamGEL (which was influenced by the Danish grammarian Otto Jespersen, as Kamm points out) we have this analysis:

  • I went to the cinema [PP [P after] dinner]
  • I went to the cinema [PP [P after] [clause I’d eaten my dinner]]

In the CamGEL framework after is always a preposition which takes either a noun phrase or a clause as its complement. Both after dinner and after I’d eaten my dinner are prepositional phrases. In my Oxford modern English grammar I adopt the CamGEL analysis.

It would be fair to say that the CGEL analysis is the dominant one and in this grammar, along with after, we also find words like although, asbecause, before, if, since, (even) thoughwhile, when, while, etc. within the word class of subordinating conjunctions. Because it is more widely adopted, and because the analysis is conceptually easier to grasp, the CGEL approach was adopted in the National Curriculum (NC) after a process of consultation which my former UCL colleague Dick Hudson conducted to find out what fellow linguists thought about the best way to present particular grammatical analyses for use in schools.

Now, because the National Curriculum adopts the CGEL analysis, we can say that Gibb was in fact wrong in saying that after is a preposition in the sentence I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner.

Some commentators have been saying that we should not be teaching children about subordinating conjunctions because grammarians themselves can’t agree about how they should be defined. This is misguided.

The study of grammar is no different from other fields of enquiry in being replete with disgreements about how we should look at particular phenomena in the world around us. Think of the Expanding Earth Hypothesis in science, or disagreements among art historians about the significance of Renaissance art, or the different ways in which we can interpret the character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. Such disagreements make these fields fascinating, and discussions of them propel our knowledge of the world forward.

But what does all this entail for the teaching of grammatical concepts such as ‘subordinating conjunction’ in primary schools?

One approach is to say that such notions are too hard for 11-year olds. This is what most commentators in the press and social media seem to have been claiming. Some of these comments were along these lines: “I have an English degree from Oxford and do not know what a subordinating conjunction is.” The conclusion that is then drawn is that nobody else needs to know either!

The alternative is that we do not shy away from teaching this notion, since it really is not all that difficult to grasp, at least no more difficult than learning about, say, the division rules at KS2. However, if we do decide to teach grammatical notions it’s best to use a particular model of grammar to teach the basic concepts, and to refine the concepts that are learnt in primary school at a later stage, e.g. at secondary or university level. Pedagogically it makes sense to use models, even if they are not agreed on by all specialists in a particular field. In science something similar happens, for example when the acceleration of free-falling objects is taught: we then pretend that there is no air resistance. In the classroom making use of idealisations and models is a very useful and effective strategy.

PS If you want to find out more about Otto Jespersen, have a look here.

PPS The basic concepts of grammar in the NC are all explained on the free Englicious site.

‘Booby traps’ in the SPaG test


Rob Smith, in one of his Literacy Shed blog posts writes:

As I have said in my previous posts – I am not opposed to testing.  I do not like high stakes testing and how the tests are used to judge teachers and schools.

However, I am against tests that are filled with ‘booby traps’ and questions designed to confound and bamboozle young children.   I call them ‘trick questions,’ but it has been pointed out to me that they are not trick questions just difficult ones.

I have come across a few sample SPAG test questions recently that have made me think.

The first from the KS1 Sample test.

Circle the verbs in the sentence below.

Yesterday was the school sports day and Jo wore her new running shoes. 

‘Booby traps’ are what test designers call ‘distractors’. These are plausible, but incorrect answers, often used in multiple choice tests. Having distractors is a way for a test to distinguish the more able candidates from the less able ones, which is what all tests need to do.

In the example that Rob quotes the ‘booby traps’ are the past tense verb wore and the word running before the noun shoes.

I think we can be brief about the first of these. Granted, wore is an irregular verb, i.e. it is not formed using the regular past tense inflection -ed, and hence less easily recognisable as a verbbut it is not unreasonable to have such distractors in the test, as they can be used to probe the depth of knowledge that a particular child has of the grammar of verbs.

The second booby trap is indeed questionable. Which word class does running belong to? In the test designers’ view running is an adjective, since it occurs before a noun. They intended the item to ‘catch out’ children who think it is a verb. I agree with Rob that this is not a reasonable distractor, because it is highly debatable whether or not running is an adjective in this case. In my view it is more reasonably labelled as a verb. Why? Well, first of all, running is a present participle of the verb run. Secondly, if it were an adjective, why doesn’t it behave like an adjective in other respects? We can’t say, for example, *the very running shoes (compare the very big house) not can we say *the more running shoes (compare the more interesting problem). The fact that running occurs before a noun is neither a necessary nor a sufficient reason for labelling it as an adjective. Now, not all grammar books would agree with this. We’re dealing with a problematic area of grammar that linguists have discussed extensively (for a summary, see my book Syntactic gradience: the nature of grammatical indeterminacy). For this reason it would not be fair to have this kind of distractor in tests for children.

Having said that, to my knowledge the sample test in which this item occurs had not been scrutinised by a Department for Education Test Review Group. As a member of one of these groups I can confidently say that unfair distractors such as the one discussed above are weeded out prior to publication.

Is the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test for Key Stage 2 too hard?

In the Times Educational Supplement Mary Bousted, writes about the Key Stage 2 (KS2) Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling  (GPS) test under the heading:

Take this absurdly difficult English test – and see why this generation of students will be alienated by education

She cites a number of questions from a sample test published online by the Department for Education (DfE). Here are a few examples:

  1. Underline all the determiners in this sentence: “Two apple trees screened the open windows on one side.”
  2. Complete this sentence so that it uses the subjunctive form: “If I ____ to have one wish, it would be for good health.”
  3. Identify the verb form that is in the present perfect in this passage: “Rachel loves music and has wanted to learn how to play the piano for years. She was hoping for piano lessons, and was delighted when her parents gave her a keyboard for her birthday.”
  4. Is the phrase “where my father works” in this sentence a preposition phrase, a relative clause, a main clause or a noun phrase? “My baby brother was born in the hospital where my father works.”

She writes:

It may surprise you (it horrifies me) to learn that these are sample questions for the key stage 2 Spag test, to be taken by 11-year-olds.

She also says:

While I have absolutely no objection to learning grammar – indeed I think it is helpful for children to understand the basic building blocks of a sentence (on which fluency in writing is based) – the level and range of grammatical terms outlined above are daunting and counterproductive.

As a linguist I never fail to be surprised at the constant bashing of grammar teaching in schools, whereas nobody ever feels the need to be critical of mathematics teaching. Everyone agrees – and rightly so – that it’s useful to have a basic knowledge of maths. The reason for this is that it is all around us, and it would be hard to live our lives without being able to use maths competently. For this you need to be taught about number, place value, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios and proportions. This is a wide range of concepts, all of which are quite abstract, but they are nevertheless part of the KS2 specifications for maths.

What about the structure of language, i.e. grammar? This is also all around us, and arguably it would be even harder to live your life without language and knowing something about how it works. So doesn’t it make sense that children are taught some basic grammar terminology? Bousted uses very negatively charged words to talk about grammar teaching:

The pitfalls of grammatical drilling are well known, and well evidenced. An obsession with describing language takes teaching time and attention away from children developing their own language abilities. They need opportunities to read widely and to write stories, because stories are our way of making sense of the world – of sequencing time, of understanding emotion, of learning how to describe what we see and feel in ways that are powerfully affecting for other people – our readers.

Learning about the language you use every day can only only be called ‘grammatical drilling’ if the teaching you receive is unimaginative and unengaging. This is the way that grammar was taught in the early 1960s, and one of the reasons why it was scrapped from the curriculum. (See Hudson and Walmsley’s article ‘The English patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century’; available here.) However, as I have argued before, things have changed and the concepts that are part of the KS2 specifications can be taught in a fun and playful way, without ‘obsessing’ about describing language and without resorting to ‘drilling’ of any kind. Taught in the right way grammar can enhance children’s problem-solving skills, help them to write stories and to describe their responses to what they read. But for this they need a toolbox, just as they need a toolbox to talk about literature, maths, or geography. Like any other subject taught in schools grammar makes use of concepts that are useful to any educated person, and we should not shy away from teaching these concepts.

Oh, one more thing: the first question that Bousted cites was discussed on this blog. This question on the sample test was inappropriate because it is not clear from the National Curriculum specifications whether or not the numerals two and one should be regarded as determiners. However, the sample test that Bousted cites from had not been seen by the usual panel of experts that scrutinises the GPS tests before it was published online by the DfE, so the question shouldn’t have occurred in the sample test.

The grammar of ‘kangaroo flatulence research’

The Guardian recently ran the following marvellous headline:

Kangaroo  flatulence research points to new climate change strategy for farmers (The Guardian, 5 November 2015)

What is the grammatical structure of kangaroo flatulence research?

Here we have three nouns in sequence, and the whole string is a noun phrase. That much is clear. But how do the three nouns relate to each other, since they are obviously not in a random sequence?

The first question to ask is : what is the head of this noun phrase? One way to identify the head of a phrase is to check what the phrase as a whole is a ‘kind of’. Because kangaroo flatulence research is a kind of research, we identify research  as the head.

What about the other two nouns? They are clearly dependent on the head, but not in the same way. The noun flatulence modifies the head research directly, and in turn this noun is modified by kangaroo. In fact, kangaroo flatulence is a noun phrase in its own right which modifies the head.  And we can go further: within the noun phrase kangaroo flatulence we can analyse kangaroo as another noun phrase. So in fact we have three noun phrases: the overall sequence and two modifying noun phrases, slotted into each other like Russian dolls. We can represent the structure of the overall NP as follows:

[NP [NP [NP kangaroo] flatulence] research]

Bear in mind, though, that the UK National Curriculum does not recognise kangaroo on its own as a phrase, because in the NC a phrase is defined as follows:

A phrase is a group of words that are grammatically connected so that they stay together, and that expand a single word, called the Head. The phrase is a noun phrase if its Head is a noun, a preposition phrase if its Head is a preposition, and so on; but if the Head is a verb, the phrase is called a clause. Phrases can be made up of other phrases.

This means that the NC analysis of our phrase is as follows:

[NP [NP [N kangaroo] flatulence] research]


The study of grammar is interesting in its own right

Michael Rosen’s piece in the Guardian (‘Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one right answer’, 3 November 2015) raises interesting questions about the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (GPaS) test, more popularly called the SPaG test. Rosen’s main point is that the test is not fit for purpose. The real motive for teaching grammar in schools, Rosen argues, is a political one, namely to grade children.

I will not engage with these assertions here, but will discuss another point that Rosen is making – more subliminally and not for the first time – namely that grammar is a subject that involves no more than ‘the naming of parts’, equivalent to ‘collecting car names’. It’s very unfortunate that Rosen seems to be suggesting that the teaching of grammar is not worthwhile in and of itself by telling us that it would be better not to spend valuable teaching time on teaching formal grammar, but instead get children “to do detailed comparative work on different kinds of texts, investigating, interpreting and experimenting, while keeping in mind the objective of enabling all children to write coherently and interestingly”. As long ago as 2005 Philip Pullman made a similar point by claiming that “If we want children to write well, giving them formal instruction in grammar turns out not to be any use; getting them actually writing seems to help a great deal more.”

I would ask this: why can’t we do both, i.e. teach grammar and get kids to write interestingly?

Should we teach grammar in schools at all? The answer to my mind is obviously ‘yes’: grammar is a central part of what makes up the language(s) we speak, and as such is inextricably part of our everyday existence. For most of us it would be very hard to imagine a day going by without using it when we speak, write or think. Because language is uniquely human, knowing about grammar enhances our understanding of what it means to be a human being: it helps us understand ourselves, and how we interact with those around us.

When it comes to physics, biology or maths nobody asks about the utility of teaching these subjects. It is rightly assumed that children should know something about the phenomena that are part of the natural environment they live in. The knowledge they acquire about these subjects ranges from the esoteric to the practical, but most of it is a source of wonder, and can be conveyed by inspiring and engaging teaching. Grammar is no different.

I’m endlessly fascinated by grammar because studying it involves solving interesting analytical puzzles and considering different solutions to the same problem (a transferable skill if ever there was one). From experience I know that school children also enjoy an investigative approach to studying grammar. They love doing grammar. The Englicious website has many grammar activities for school children which helps them learn grammar in a playful way. More advanced students can get their teeth into the assignments that form part of the very successful Linguistics Olympiad in which many schools take part.

For all the above reasons it is important that school children are taught about grammar. However, learning about the mechanisms of language involves effort for children, which includes familiarising themselves with some technical terminology, in the same way that knowing how a poem or novel works involves learning about metaphors, similes, etc. I don’t think that Michael Rosen would disagree with that. Terminology is necessary for every subject we study, and there is a certain joy in knowing the names of the nuts and bolts of things.

Can we do without the terminology? Sure, it is possible to study language and other subjects such as literature, art and philosophy without any knowledge of terminology, but it will be much harder. If students do know some terminology it makes studying those subjects a much richer and more rewarding experience. To my mind if teachers avoid using terminology they underestimate their students’ abilities, and they dumb their subject down.

If the teaching of grammar only involved the ‘naming of parts’ that would be worrying, but there are very clear signs that teachers do not teach grammar in the same way as was done decades ago. There are now many resources that help teachers teach language, including grammar, in an engaging way that inspires children. A clear indication of the excellent language teaching that is being done in schools is the large number of school children who go on to study English language and linguistics at university. There is now talk of an A-level in linguistics. The sooner that comes about, the better.

Can ‘fun’ be an adjective?

Jerry Jones  writing recently in the Bucks County Courier Times objects to the following use of the word fun:

  • Every day should be as fun as a Phillies game

What’s the problem? Well, according to Jones, the sentence above is ungrammatical. He explains why:

The sentence contains a blatantly ungrammatical misuse of the word “fun,” and even worse, the way the sentence was structured made no sense whatsoever. Almost any elementary school teacher will tell you, it’s grammatically incorrect to say “as fun” or “so fun.” In these instances, “as” and “so” are adverbs, and “fun” is a noun, and adverbs never modify nouns. The noun “fun” should be modified with the preposition “much,” as in “as much fun” or “so much fun.”

This use of fun has been discussed by grammarians for a long time, and it seems that Jones has also been aware of it for decades. He writes:

The first time I ever heard “that was so fun” was somewhere in the late-1960s in a conversation with my eldest son, Jerry, who was then still in elementary school. He was describing some school activity he and his classmates had obviously enjoyed. “What was that you just said?” I asked incredulously, hoping I had misunderstood my normally well-spoken son. “That was so fun,” he repeated. “That’s totally ungrammatical,” I insisted. “Fun is a noun.” Beyond that, it sounds stupid.

Is Jones right? Is fun always a noun?

It seems that English has changed over time, and that fun can be used both as a noun and as an adjective. What’s the evidence for this? Let’s first look at some data in which fun is used:

  • That should be fun
  • She’s so completely lovely and fun and joyful.

These examples are from the ICE-GB Corpus at UCL, a collection of authentic spoken and written English. In these cases fun occurs after the linking verb be. In this position it can be a noun or an adjective, because after linking verbs both nouns and adjectives can occur. However, notice how in the second example fun occurs in a list of words that includes lovely and joyful. These are adjectives. Now, that doesn’t prove that fun is also an adjective, but it does suggest it.

But consider now the following attested data from a recent lecture by David Denison:

  • Doing something fun like redecorating your room…is really interesting biz for a teen who loves being busy. (1951 OED v. teen n.2)
  • Andrew and I are having a very fun time together, yes. (1988, COCA)
  • And they are so fun to eat! (1979 Chuck Kinder, The Silver Ghost, COHA)
  • […] to a place as fun and earthy as a mud fight (1990 San Francisco Chronicle, COCA)
  •  Don’t be too worried if the software seems too fun to be educational. (1993, COCA)
  • Walking and looking is boring. Touching is funner. (1990 Denver Post, COCA)
  • It used to be buying clothes was one of the funnest things in the world; – now it’s more a necessity. (1990 Time 1990/02/19, TMC)

For some speakers, Denison among them, not all of these examples are acceptable, but it’s clear from attested usage that fun as an adjective has been part of some speakers’ idiolects for quite a long time. In the last two examples funner and funnest, as comparative and superlative forms, are especially revealing.

The word fun can even be used as a verb, as in the recent car advertisement slogan Go fun yourself.

So, rather than deny that fun can be an adjective or a verb, we need to recognise that English is not static, and that over time words can be used in different ways.

The full text of David Denison’s lecture can be found here.

Does English have a subjunctive mood?

Many creatures on earth are able to communicate with each other in various ways. Dogs wag their tails when they are happy, and cats purr. Bees can tell each other in which direction to search for nectar. However, animal communication is very limited. For example, bees can only communicate to other bees that there is a source of nectar at a certain distance in a certain direction. Animals can only ‘talk’ about the observable world, here and now. What they cannot do is ‘talk’ about the past or future, or about hypothetical or desirable situations. Thus a bee cannot ‘tell’ another bee that there was, might be, or will be some nectar nearby. Human beings – the only creatures who have language at their disposal to communicate – can talk about anything, including the past, the future and hypothetical situations. Typically, when we talk about possible, desirable, or hypothetical situations in English we use modal verbs such as can/could, may/might, will/would, shall/should, and must. So we can say, for example:

  • Peter may be in his room.

to express the possibility that he is there. Or we can say:

  • Peter must see his teacher.

to express an obligation imposed on Peter. Another way of talking about possible, desirable, or hypothetical situations is by using what many grammars call a present subjunctive verb, as in this example:

  • It is necessary that Peter see his teacher.

What makes the italicised verb special is that it does not have the third person singular –s ending that we find in declarative clauses that contain a present tense verb e.g.

  • Every day Peter sees his teacher.

Many languages have special verb forms for the subjunctive. For example in French we say:

  • Il est impératif que tu viennes. (‘It is imperative that you come.’)

with the subjunctive verb form viennes, rather than:

  • Il est impératif que tu viens.

which contains the indicative verb form viens. The question now arises whether it makes sense to say that English has subjunctive verb forms in the same way that French does. Many grammar books will tell you that it does. However, if you think about it you will realize that, unlike French, English has no special dedicated ‘present subjunctive endings’ on the verb in examples such as the one cited above. Therefore, English has no subjunctive mood. In fact, the form of the verb is simply the base form (sometimes also called the plain form), that we also find in sentences where infinitives are used (for example, I went to see my cousin at the weekend). In view of this it makes more sense to speak of subjunctive clauses than of subjunctive verb forms. We can then say that the clause that Peter see his teacher in the example sentence is a subjunctive clause expressing an obligation imposed on Peter. Subjunctive clauses often occur after adjectives such as advisable, crucial, vital, necessary, imperative, etc., and are more common in American English than in British English. In British English it is also perfectly possible and acceptable to say:

  • It is necessary that Peter sees his teacher.

This example contains a declarative clause after necessary. Americans tend to find this odd. What about the ‘past subjunctive’? Again, English has no special ‘past subjunctive verb endings’, so that we must conclude that English also has no past subjunctive verb forms. There’s one exception, though, and this is when we use were in an example like the following:

  • I wish he were more helpful.

This use of were is a relic of the past subjunctive. We now also frequently hear:

  • I wish he was more helpful.

which is perfectly grammatical. But wait, I hear you say, the National Curriculum does recognise a subjunctive for English, because in the Statutory Requirements for Years 5 and 6 we read that students must be able to recognise “vocabulary and structures that are appropriate for formal speech and writing, including subjunctive forms”. What’s more, there is a Glossary entry for ‘subjunctive’:

In some languages, the inflections of a verb include a large range of special forms which are used typically in subordinate clauses, and are called ‘subjunctives’. English has very few such forms and those it has tend to be used in rather formal styles.

  • The school requires that all pupils be honest.
  • The school rules demand that pupils not enter the gym at lunchtime.
  • If Zoë were the class president, things would be much better.

Reliable sources tell me that the reason that the subjunctive is part of the NC is that Michael Gove insisted it be there (or ‘insisted it is there’; take your pick!).

If you’re a Year 5 or Year 6 primary teacher, then you’ll need to tell your students about the subjunctive, as a question may appear in the Year 6 GPaS (SPaG) Test about it, but for the rest of us, we can relax about the subjunctive!

(A slightly different version of this blog post previously appeared on the Oxford Words Blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/02/does-english-have-subjunctive/)

‘Connective’: why it’s best to avoid the term

In the new National Curriculum terminology has been dropped that teachers have been using for a long time, but it isn’t made clear why this has been done. An example is the term connective that has been widely used by teachers to group words that can connect units of information in various ways. These include words like however, so and nonetheless, and because, although and after. In most contemporary discussions of grammar, and in the 2014 National Curriculum, the term ‘connective’ is not used. Instead, we distinguish between subordinating conjunctions, coordinating conjunctions and certain types of adverbs. Subordinating conjunctions place one clause in a lower (subordinate) relationship to another.

  • He is only six years old, although he is very tall.
  • They devoured the cookies because they were hungry.

On the other hand, coordinating conjunctions link two units of an equal status:

  • novels and plays
  • fast but unsafe

Finally, words that connect sentences or clauses more loosely in terms of their meaning are called (linking) adverbs:

  • Everyone loves vacations in Hawaii. Nevertheless, I would never want to go there myself.
  • I have lots of friends, so I’m very happy.

Note that the adverbs above can be omitted, and the result would still be a grammatical sentence. The conjunctions in the first two examples cannot be omitted without the result becoming a ‘run-on’ sentence. This is just one very good reason why these two types of connective words (conjunctions and adverbs) are not part of a single grammatical category.

You may find that the term connective is useful as a general notion that encourages students to think about how they might connect one piece of information to another. However, it is not considered a word class in the 2014 National Curriculum, and we would strongly encourage teachers to avoid it. (From the Englicious Glossary ‘connective’).

There’s no such thing as a possessive adjective

Many websites on English grammar make mention of possessive adjectives. They use this term for words like my, his, her, our, your, etc. which always occur before nouns, typically to indicate possession. This would seem to make sense. After all, there is a similarity between the following:

  • my daughters


  • lovely daughters

However, the fact that my and lovely both occur before the noun daughters does not mean that they are both adjectives.

Adjectives are often said to be describing words: they ascribe a property to the noun that they accompany (‘being lovely’). By contrast, words like my, his, her, etc. have a ‘specifying’ or ‘identifying’ function. They belong to the class of determiners, along with a, the, this, that, those, etc. Compare the following:

  • a cat


  • the cat

If you and I are talking, and I use the former phrase then I’m talking about a cat that is not known to you: it has as yet not been identified. The property of not being identifiable is called ‘indefiniteness’. Conversely, the property of being identifiable is called ‘definiteness’. So, when I use the phrase the cat in a conversation with you then you are familiar with (or I’m assuming that you are familiar with) the particular cat I’m talking about: it is an identifiable cat. Similarly, when I use the phrase my daughters then the individuals I’m talking about are identifiable to you.

Adjectives are grammatically different from determiners: typically they have comparative and superlative forms: lovely, lovelier, loveliest, and they are often gradable: very lovely. However, determiners cannot be modified in this way. We can’t say my-er, my-est or very my.