Eton schoolboys in traditional tailcoats (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Is grammar elitist?

The soft bigotry of low expectations

Artillery Row

Molesworth would be delighted. The St Custard’s schoolboy was famously idiosyncratic when it came to questions of spelling and grammar, and festooned his books, such as Down With Skool and How to be Topp: A Guide to Sukcess for Tiny Pupils, Including All There is to Kno about Space, with a phonetic approach to punctuation and ‘rite spelling’ that at times approaches Joycean levels of incomprehensibility. Yet Nigel Molesworth was a character created by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, rather than an actual student. 

  Unfortunately, it may well be that the next generation of university leavers have Molesworthian levels of spelling and grammar. Rather than their deficiencies in these areas being seen as a structural failure of the educational system that needs to be redressed, they are instead patronised. Hull University has attracted headlines for its decision to ‘challenge the status quo’ in its desire to ‘encourage students to develop a more authentic academic voice, a voice that can communicate complex ideas with rigour and integrity — that celebrates, rather than obscures their particular background or characteristics’.

There is something depressing about the basics of the English language being regarded as a kind of optional extra

  This ‘authentic academic voice’ is not one that relies on good written English, something that Hull has – bafflingly – described as ‘white, male and elite’. Instead, students are to be encouraged to follow their own voices. If these would once have been called sub-literate, then that is a mark of snobbery. It is hard not to imagine what Hull’s librarian Philip Larkin might have had to say about the matter. On the one hand, he is the poet who once wrote, in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, that ‘books are a load of crap’, and he had a healthy distaste for a literary establishment that he only ever half-belonged to. But on the other, the idea that the students who used the Brynmor Jones Library that he oversaw would be unable to spell or punctuate correctly, and that this might be seen as acceptable by the university, might have led the Oxford-educated Larkin to mutter, sardonically, ‘In a pig’s arse, friend.’ 

Hull is only one high-profile university to be open about its decision to lower literacy standards. The University of the Arts in London has told its staff to ‘actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes that do not significantly impede communication unless the brief states that formally accurate language is a requirement’. Far from their tutors being encouraged to correct students’ work, the institution has suggested that they should not impose their own, subjective idea of ‘correct English’ upon those that they are teaching. Worcester University, meanwhile, has simply announced that students should be judged on their apparent understanding of the subject, and spelling, punctuation and grammar should be set at naught, unless they are ‘central to the assessment criteria’. 

The denigration of spelling as white and elitist signals the return of our old friend, the soft bigotry of low expectations

This seems ambiguous. While it might therefore be argued that a student studying English literature at university would therefore be expected to spell and use grammar in a conventionally correct fashion, it could also be claimed that, given changing expectations of language, it would also be acceptable to use abbreviations and slang that have entered the lexicon over the past few years. Certainly, one lecturer friend of mine at a Russell Group university has reported, with mounting despair, the use of acronyms in assessed academic essays. I very much doubt that they have made him LOL, let alone ROFL or L(H)AO. 

I am myself no grammar pedant.  The rise of Mr Gwynne and his books about the rules and regulations of grammar does not especially appeal to me. There is something Gradgrindian about his maxim that ‘all thinking and communicating depend on grammar’. I cannot help but agree with the Times’ Oliver Kamm, who denounced Gwynne’s Grammar as ‘a work of titanic silliness…the worst book I have read on language and perhaps on anything.’ There is undeniably a dryness and stiffness to those who are unable to accept that language does change and evolve. Technically, the words ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ are more ‘correct’ than ‘you’, but their usage today would be hopelessly archaic. Any university is right to make a distinction between the formally correct English used by – one imagines – their lecturers and a more demotic kind that its students are more comfortable with. 

Yet the denigration of spelling, punctuation and grammar as white, male and elitist signal the return of our old friend, the soft bigotry of low expectations. If someone from a deprived background makes it to university with only a limited ability to spell and form coherent sentences, they might find indulgent academics prepared to make allowances for them, but they will find it considerably harder to make a career in the world thereafter if they cannot use the English language in a competent way – or, indeed, in any comprehensible way at all. Otherwise there will be the return to the old days of English As She Is Spoke, the 19th century Portuguese conversational guide that became a byword for inelegant and inaccurate uses of the English language. It would be a bad business indeed if supposed native speakers were reduced to the same level. 

I groaned the other year when I saw that the AA Gill Award for emerging food critics pointedly announced that ‘entries will not be judged on spelling or grammar’. Although there was a worthwhile reason in this case – Gill was so dyslexic that he was essentially illiterate and so dictated his brilliant copy – there is something depressing about the basics of the English language being regarded as a kind of optional extra. A word can either be spelt correctly, or incorrectly, just as a sentence can either make grammatical sense or does not. While some of the leading universities in this country may see there as being some kind of middle ground between the two, this ultimately remains a question of right and wrong, rather than rite and rong. One can only hope that students who find spelling and grammar difficult are helped to improve by their universities, rather than their deficiencies simply being excused altogether. As any fule kno.

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