By Abi Saffrey
Since 2014, the British Library and UCL (in association with PhilSoc and the University of Oxford) have hosted English Grammar Day. Although the event is primarily aimed at those teaching or studying grammar, the variety of sessions makes it a fascinating day for anyone with an interest on what we do with our words.I first found out about English Grammar Day 2018 earlier this year (thanks Twitter) and was very keen to go – despite not having studied linguistics for 20 years, it’s still a subject that fascinates me and grammar is part of my day-to-day editing life. And it’s not often that you can get a day of CPD for the bargain price of £10 (and in the wonderful surroundings of the British Library too).
Jonnie Robinson started the day with a look at the British Library’s Evolving English VoiceBank and WordBank – excerpts of people talking about their word choices and grammar demonstrate how grammar forms part of our identity. The next session, presented by Lynne Murphy (an SfEP conference favourite), showed us the differences between American and British English grammar. Nope, not as different as we might like to think.
After a cuppa and a leg stretch, Rebecca Woods discussed how children acquire the grammar needed to ask questions – how they build up the components necessary to create a grammatically correct question (and how short a time it takes them), and of course what funny things they come out with in the process. How chickens?Teaching and understanding grammar is on many teachers’ minds following curriculum revamps over the past few years. Suzannah Ferguson, a primary teacher now moving into postgraduate study, explained how there is a generation of teachers in schools who are without grammar knowledge and without second language knowledge. They face a steep learning curve just like their pupils. Suzannah was passionate about reassuring children (and teachers) that grammar is not the scary beast that it can easily be perceived as.
After lunch, SfEP President David Crystal brought humour and warmth to his session about grammar teaching.
‘Poppy knew what adjectives and nouns are.
She’d been drawing circles around them for ages.’
Giving children (and writers) the ability to play with words, to ask why changing the ‘standard’ word order changes the effect, develops their love of language. (Anyone for a game of adjective tennis?) Most children know many grammar rules through their acquisition of language – David believes we quibble and debate about around only 5% of grammar as a whole. We’re all grammar experts by the time we start to learn to write and read.
The final session was a panel discussion with all of the presenters, chaired by John Mullan from UCL. In summary:
- Breaking (grammar) rules is fun.
- Observe, explore and investigate language to make it – and grammar – interesting.
- Usage creates norms.
- Grammar arguments quickly evolve into identity.
- Linguistic prejudice is real, and wrong.
Although the day was not directly aimed at editors, it did feed my appetite for language awareness and grammar knowledge. It reminded me to question my own preferences for certain structures or word choices; an author’s voice must be respected when it does not sound like my own.
I will certainly be booking my ticket for English Grammar Day 2019 as soon as the email arrives next spring – join me, editors and language lovers!
Abi Saffrey is an editorial project manager and copy-editor, and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She really should get around to finding a suitable postgraduate linguistics course.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.