27 March 1954: Former pupil Clifford Turner teaches a class in elocution at the Central School of Drama in London. Picture Credit: Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In defence of good grammar 

Why Angela Rayner needs to stop torturing our language

Artillery Row

What a sad irony that in the UK speaking clear, educated English has become synonymous with class division, snobbishness and elitism. Yet far from being exclusive, our language remains the lingua franca, with more than 350 million people around the world speaking English as a first language and more than 430 million having English as a second language.

It’s telling that so many so-called “foreigners” speak our mother tongue better than we do, and yes, I do believe “speaking well” has value however unfashionable that may sound. Scandinavians put many of us to shame with their remarkable grasp of English, while in the US “good” spelling and the “correct” use of grammar is still hardwired into every child. In the UK there remains an underlying sense that speaking well is the sole preserve of a posh elite, which may explain the lack of educational rigour when it comes to teaching the language.

She implies that articulacy is the enemy of authenticity

In a recent tweet, Angela Rayner complained about the media’s critique of her use of grammar. She argues that working class people like her are far more concerned with learning about “integrity, honesty and decency”.

This sentimentalised vision of working class strife smacks of the worst kind of inverted snobbery; a patronising paternalism that sees the disadvantaged as little more than proudly inarticulate underachievers who can be weaponised in the pursuit of political gain. 

Rayner’s tweet is an inversion of her oft-repeated mantra that there is “one rule for them and another for us”, suggesting instead that the privileges enjoyed by the few need not apply to the many.

It’s telling that phrases such as, “don’t get above yourself”, “know your place” and “don’t get ideas above your station”, are uniquely British – there’s nothing the French love more than getting above themselves and try telling a German to know his place. Over here we tend to laugh at people who take (for instance) elocution lessons because we assume they are trying to “better themselves”, something elites find distasteful not least because it smacks of middle class aspiration. And there’s nothing those same elites hate more than accusations of “trying too hard” – another uniquely British criticism. The French may seem a little overzealous when it comes to preserving some of the more arcane aspects of francaise (or is it francais?) but they have managed to retain a level of pride that we have lost.

In Rayner’s tweet, for example, she implies that articulacy is the enemy of authenticity and thus the preserve of manipulative upper class tyrants like Boris. This is both an insult to language and a sad reflection of her hierarchical view of education.            

You may have noticed the extent of adolescent inarticulacy when listening to school leavers struggling to construct a coherent sentence without having to fall back on verbal ticks such as “like”, “innit” and “you know what I mean?” Yet this pummelling at the foundations of communication is by no means limited to the less well educated. In another example of inverse snobbery I’ve been told there is a fashion amongst Etonians to expel any trace of privilege and nothing says “street” more than glottal stops, mangled phrasing and sloppy grammar.     

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him” wrote George Bernard Shaw and indeed this embarrassment about the way we speak has become endemic. Even that titan of the spoken word Stephen Fry is disdainful of those who seek to uphold the sort of standards that keep playing fields level. In his essay “Don’t Mind Your Language . . .” Fry argues that since language is constantly evolving, the more Blimpish amongst us should stop obsessing over petty niceties such as fluency and grammar.

He jokingly refers to himself as a “language professional” and a man who “linguifies” for a living, but then insists that his use of language is by no means “standard”. Fry makes an interesting point about the distinction between “language, the thing itself and the use of language; there is chess and there is the game of chess”.  His mellifluous use of words isn’t merely English but his own brand of English, “an ‘English’ English salted, spiced, pickled, seasoned, braised and plated up to you bearing all the flavours of my class, gender, education and nature, discourses as you might call them.” So yes, language is as unique and unchanging as a set of fingerprints and of course the way we speak is more than just a means of communication but without the means to communicate there can be no lucidity or jouissance.

200,000 pupils may be leaving primary school without basic reading and writing skills

Like all great logophiles Fry’s luminosity is rooted in the boring mechanics of good grammar and coherent sentence structure. Even he had to master the rules before he could break them. It has always struck me as odd that those who have benefitted most from a thorough education often seem blasé when it comes to instructing others.

Progressive educationalists believe children must be free to develop their own patois unencumbered by elitist rules and conventions, but this laissez faire attitude has left us with a generation woefully ill equipped to function in the real world where the ability to communicate is paramount.

Instead of lowering standards to meet ideological whims and cultural and class sensitivities we should be lifting young people out of the prison of low expectation and equipping them with the tools they need to live a rich and communicative life. Despite what class warriors like Rayner and Fry might think every pupil deserves the right to leave school with a strong command of the English language regardless of background. What language deconstructionists fail to acknowledge is that without these vital literacy skills, children will always struggle to find purpose and meaning. By allowing language to become part of the culture war we deny children access to the great works of literature as well as limiting their chances of gainful employment.

A 2018 National Literacy Trust report on the link between literacy and life expectancy shows that children growing up in areas with high levels of illiteracy are more likely to be unemployed, have low incomes and poor health, leading to significantly shorter lifespans. With social mobility severely compromised, illiterate children become increasingly resentful about the lack of opportunities afforded them and with some justification.

Angela Rayner may have lucked out but millions of working class people remain trapped in systemic disadvantage brought about by a lack of will on the part of teachers and parents to instil a love of language.

Of the “educational left-behinds’ Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission writes, “I doubt that I’ll ever work out why the British appear untroubled that so many of their children emerge from over a decade of expensive, compulsory education with scarcely more in the way of literacy and numeracy than the average Neanderthal.”

Covid has only inflamed what Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the education committee, has called an “education apocalypse”. A recent government report states that more than 200,000 pupils may be leaving primary school without basic reading and writing skills. The statistics also reveal an extra 30,000 children struggling with literacy over the past year alone. How can we hope to “level up” when large swathes of the population are barely able to communicate?

Of course children need to become fluent in matters of “integrity, honesty and decency” but without fluency of language, they will remain trapped in a cycle of ignorance and poverty and there is nothing remotely decent about that.

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