Making meaning with grammar: a repertoire of possibilities



Publication Details

Myhill, D., Lines, H. & Watson, A. (2012). Making meaning with grammar: a repertoire of possibilities. English in Australia, 47 (3), 29-38.


The place of grammar in an English or literacy curriculum has long been a source of debate, one in which professionals, politicians and the public have often engaged with unbridled enthusiasm. As such, the debate has sometimes been characterised more by ideology or polemic, than by intellectual engagement with the core ideas. In part, this is because grammar has become inextricably intertwined with notions of correctness and standards. Indeed, Hancock (2009) argues that 'Grammar is error and error is grammar in much of the public mind.' You can be certain that if the question of grammar is raised, 90% of contributors to the discussion will focus on the niceties of grammatical accuracy, be they dangling participles, split infinitives, or here in England, the linguistics sins of 'estuary English'. Frequently, the debate is not even about grammar but about accent and pronunciation: estuary English, for example, is more about a particular accent than about grammatical variations from Standard English. And before long, the accuracy of our grammatical usage becomes a touchstone by which we measure the morals of the nation. Get your grammar wrong and the very fabric of the nation crumbles around our ears. Nearly a hundred years ago, the Newbolt Report argued for the importance of a corrective approach to language to banish the 'evil habits of speech contracted in home and street' (Newbolt, 1921) and in the 1980s, British Conservative politician, Norman Tebbitt, linked 'bad English' with involvement in crime. The tendency to associate grammatical correctness with 'a more general 'struggle' against dark social forces, and specifically as a means to counter the anarchy of the (working class) home and street' (Cameron, 1995, p. 96) is a persistent one.

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