Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Lockdown, day two...

Day two of our new lives dawns bright and clear; the birds are singing and - as I write this - the pencils are scratching on the work that my children have been sent by their respective schools.

Yesterday seemed fairly easy really: we did a little maths, my son watched a YouTube live stream from one of his teachers and my daughter began a project on Queen Victoria. Other things happened too: we were made to do PE (in the garden) although I was excused as I have a note from Matron (having had a hernia operation... ahh, ow!).

Today the kids were up before me, dressed and raring to go. And today it was primary school English, that baffling and absurdly over-complicated way of learning (unlearning?) your native language that was invented by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings when they ran the Education Department and invented solely as a way of atomising everything that could possibly count as 'knowledge' in order that they could explicitly dictate that every teacher teach it and then test the teacher (via the children) on how well they'd done it. And no doubt (they thought, at the time) sack them if they hadn't done it well enough. Ha! No-one's sacking teachers now we need them for emergency childcare and remote learning, are they? Oh no!

Anyway, if like me (and I have a moderately respectable 'A' level in English and have taught it in secondary schools) you're struggling to separate your prepositional phrases from your fronted adverbials or your modifying nouns from your determiners, help is at hand.

If, like me, you were content to be taught nouns, adjectives, adverbs etc. I'll attempt to translate that into modern primary 'English'. If you weren't ever taught them, you'd better start here, with this brief explanation.

Basically a sentence (in English) works like this:
  • A noun is the name of something. It can be an object (my blog) a person (Tim) a place (my living room) or even an idea (helping other parents).
  • A pronoun is a word like 'I', or 'you' or 'they' or 'it' that you use so you don't have to keep repeating the noun. Which would sound odd. (Tim wrote a blog post on English. Tim typed it up and then Tim published it on his blog. Tim hoped it might help someone, somewhere, make sense of the English their children were doing.) [If I was still a teacher I might get you to re-write that sentence using pronouns... Stop talking at the back!]
  • A verb is an action, something you do, or something you think or feel. When I was at school (a long, long time ago) these were called 'doing words' or 'being words'. (Tim thought that what Michael Gove had done to education was a travesty. So he decided to write a blog post all about it.)
  • An adverb tells you something about how, or where or when or for how long a verb was doing its thing. That's why it's called an adverb. (Tim had always thought Michael Gove was a bit of a pillock). Confusingly an adverb can also add this sort of information to an adjective or even to another adverb. (He couldn't stand Gove's extremely smug expression) but that doesn't really matter. Once you know what they are it doesn't really matter where they occur.   
  • Tense: this tells you when what was happening (the verb) actually happened. Basically this is easy - you just add things like '-ed' or '-en' to the verb to indicate the past tense (it happened last night, last week, last year) or '-s' to show that it's happening now. (Tim had written a blog post listing useful websites earlier in the week. He hates Michael Gove with a passion!)
  • Subject and predicate: every sentence has a subject (what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what is happening to the subject or what they are doing). The subject usually (but not always) begins the sentence and can also include a pronoun and maybe some description. (Old, slightly overweight and balding, Tim was deliberately avoiding looking in the mirror these days.)  
Ok, so those are the basics. I could go on and talk about punctuation, spelling, common mistakes and so on. And I will if you want me to. But I'm also aware many of you (ok, well, maybe three?) have clicked today to find of what the f**k a fronted adverbial might be, so that you can help your children with their unnecessarily complicated English homework. So, here goes:
  • Determiner: this is a word that comes before a noun in order to tell you something specific about it. When I were a lad these were called things like 'the indefinite (or definite) article' or 'quantifiers';  even good ol' pronouns can be determiners and that's a good way to think of them: they're pro- the noun, helping it out in some way. ('One of Tim's blogs has been getting lots of traffic since the UK schools shutdown.)
  • Modifying noun: this is just a noun used as an adjective, so I'm a bit at a loss to know why it seems to have acquired a separate definition and identity, but hey-ho, you've got to fill your Year 6 SPAG tests with something! (Tim thought Gove had made a real pig's breakfast of the National Curriculum.)
  • Prepositional phrase: grammar teachers love the words 'modify' and 'modifier' and in the case of prepositional phrases it might just be the best way to think about it. If a preposition is a word like 'at, for, in, off, on, over, and under' that tells you where or when or how something is happening (the cat sat on the mat) then a prepositional phrase is just the preposition plus the object that it's governing, e.g. the cat sat on the mat or Michael Gove really does have a lot to answer for. Actually, is that a prepositional phrase? Even I'm confused! 
  • Fronted adverbial: if you put an adverb or adverbial phrase ('Then... All at once... Once upon a time...) at the front of a sentence (and remember you might have more than one word for this) it's a fronted adverbial. Basically. Technically it's a little more complicated. But technically, so is rocket science. And all this talk of 'fronted adverbials' is a bit like trying to teach kids the science of a NASA space mission in order to appreciate the moon. (Every morning, as the sun is rising, Tim gets out of bed and curses Michael Gove.)
Enough, already. When I tweeted some of this a little earlier someone tweeted a reply:

Is that why we see so many errors of things like 'they're, their, there' and 'you're, your and yore' ? It's too difficult so people give up? (I don't see any foreign English speakers making these mistakes...)

Quite apart from whether it's true that non-native English speakers have a greater tendency to avoid making these mistakes, it might reveal something interesting (important? Who am I to say? Ask Michael Gove. Or Dominic Cummings!) about how best to learn a language, viz. that you can be competent, confident, accurate and even fluent in your use of English without ever knowing (or needing to know) any of this 'under-the-bonnet' stuff. 

I can drive a car... but I've no idea how to build an internal combustion engine. 


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