When teachers can’t write (follow up).

A response to my previous blog (When teachers can’t write) was posted on Facebook by a teacher. It makes the point that nurturing young minds and helping children to become well rounded adults is more important than knowing where to put an apostrophe. A fair point, of course. Here’s what the teacher said:

“There is a difference between spelling and writing. Not being able to spell doesn’t mean that you are not able to love, nurture, motivate, inspire, convey, supervise and entertain as well as TEACH and in my book those come a LOT higher on the list of priorities for what a teacher needs to be able to do than be the perfect apostrophe placer. Did I mention not verbally, mentally, sexually, and physically abusing children because people might want to think about what they REALLY want from their teachers when they look for professionals of perfect punctuation. There is a hell of a lot at stake in teaching and behind that badly placed apostrophe, you might be looking at someone who does amazing things for a larger number of children every year than the author even comes into contact with in a lifetime.”

Fair enough. But why should we make such a miserable compromise? The ability to spell words and punctuate sentences should be a prerequisite for being a teacher. Or, indeed, any kind of professional person. These skills should be acquired by the age of 10 or 12 and then practised regularly. By the age of 16, children should be able to write essays in history or biology in language that is as good as it would be in an English exam. Then, when would-be teachers arrive at university, their ability to use the language shouldn’t be an issue. They should be able to concentrate on developing the skills specific to teaching: those important, civilising skills mentioned in the quoted passage above.

But what if a school were blessed with an inspiring teacher who was a genius at mathematics or music but who was rubbish at spelling and grammar? Such teachers could be allowed to continue on the understanding that they didn’t write anything but equations and music notation. School reports and class handouts would all have to be sub-edited by someone else.

Seriously? Is grammar really that important? 
Yes, seriously. Grammar really is that important. Clear thinking and clear writing go together and help each other. If you learn grammar and then read a well constructed sentence, you can appreciate the subtlety and the precision the writer intended. Then when you construct your own sentences, you have the ability to shift emphasis, make fine distinctions and so on. You can ask a question or make a statement in different ways, being subtle, forceful, tactful, enigmatic or whatever.

People who dislike or dismiss grammar tend to perceive it as a set of unnecessary rules observed by a self-appointed elite. They suspect its only purpose is to enable such ‘grammar Nazis’ to recognise each other. It’s silly to use the word Nazi in this context but grammar fanatics do exist and are widely disdained. It may surprise you to learn, dear reader, that I share this disdain. Grammar is not there simply to be learned and insisted upon. Its job is to bring clarity, precision and subtlety to a sequence of words. By teaching, learning and using grammar, we are giving civilisation a chance.

Our society is based on communication. Of course we can say nasty and abusive things as well as loving and constructive things but for civilisation to have a chance, we need clarity – clear thought, clear expression, clear understanding. The U.S. Republican, Todd Akin, suffered a self-inflicted blow to his career in August 2012 when he used the term legitimate rape. From the context, it was clear that he did not mean to suggest that rape could be acceptable or legally permissible. In fact, he said it was important to punish rapists but the content of his statement was utterly lost. First, he made the mistake of not thinking clearly which led to him not expressing himself clearly. What he meant to talk about was rape that is really rape – an act of penetration that uses violence or force. By using the word legitimate, he meant ‘criminal sexual penetration’ or ‘rape as it is legally defined’.

All over the world, badly educated activists pounced on the term legitimate rape and denounced the Congressman for suggesting that rape could be acceptable. But he never said that. What he actually said happened to be a load of gynecological bollocks* but no-one noticed. [* Yes, I know.]

Instead of considering a whole sentence and working out the meaning, the unthinking activists, fulminated against a single phrase. Their outraged outpourings were very similar to the angry exchanges you see in arguments on Facebook. People pick up one or two words or phrases from a piece of writing, leap to the wrong conclusion and then fire off an insulting reply. Compare the arguments in the letters pages of newspapers such as The Times with the drivel that drives much of Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. People who get letters published in quality newspapers are people who have learned to think clearly and express themselves clearly. If they are replying to a letter from another reader, they will have read and understood that letter first.

When a generation of teachers fails to teach grammar, the result is a generation of school leavers who are deficient in the skills of thinking, understanding and expressing themselves in their native language. To starve young minds of grammar is, in my view, a form of child abuse. And it’s bad news for civilisation.

For those readers who understand French, here is something to think about from La Peste by Albert Camus.

Le mal qui est dans le monde vient presque toujours de l’ignorance, et la bonne volonté peut faire autant de dégâts que la méchanceté, si elle n’est pas éclairée. Les hommes sont plutôt bons que mauvais, et en vérité ce n’est pas la question. Mais ils ignorent plus ou moins, et c’est ce qu’on appelle vertu ou vice, le vice le plus désespérant étant celui de l’ignorance qui croit tout savoir et qui autorise alors a tuer. L’ame du meurtrier est aveugle et il n’y a pas de vraie bonté ni de belle amour sans toute la clairvoyance possible.

And here’s an English translation:

The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good will can do as much harm as evil if it is not enlightened. On the whole, men are more good than bad and that is not really the question. But they are more-or-less ignorant and it is this that we call virtue or vice. The most incorrigible vice is the ignorance that believes it knows everything and then authorises itself to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind and there is no real kindness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.

When teachers can’t write

This smiling woman is evidently proud to call herself a teacher. But she cannot punctuate a sentence.

She wants this picture to be reproduced as as many times as possible in order to demonstrate the power of the Internet. Even though she is hoping that millions of people will read her message, she hasn’t bothered to write it properly. And she’s a teacher!


This woman is responsible for the education of children in ‘Year 7’ which means 12-year olds or what we would call Lower 4ths. So it’s quite alarming that her English is this bad. One would hope that, by the age of 12, most children would have learned how to use punctuation and be able to correct the efforts of this teacher.


I was by no means an exceptional scholar but I did go to a school where they took English seriously. By the age of nine, I could divide a sentence into subject and predicate and was familiar with nouns, verbs and adjectives. A year later, I could tell you about pronouns, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions. I could construct sentences using main and subordinate clauses and I knew where to put apostrophes and commas.

Once we knew how to construct proper sentences, we moved on to ‘composition’. We read extracts of work by a variety of writers and learned about style. All this was before we went to ‘big school’. Many years later, working as a journalist, I realised that Mrs Tattersall’s ‘Blackboard English’ in my old prep school was the most valuable part of my education.

In a typical afternoon on a daily paper, I would write about 130 sentences. I didn’t need to stop and think about tenses, verb agreements or apostrophes; I knew them all intimately. I knew what they did and how they worked. If you watch a bricklayer building a wall, or an Italian baker making pizza dough, you see speed, fluidity and grace. You don’t notice the precision. But it’s there. If it wasn’t, the wall would collapse and so would the pizza. My sentences did not collapse. No-one had to correct the punctuation. My sentences didn’t flop, break or backfire.They were good and strong. Their meanings were clear. Thankyou Mrs Tattersall.

Now, why isn’t the teacher in the photograph like Mrs Tattersall? It may be that this modern-day teacher was taught to write but didn’t care. More likely, though, is that she had a poor education when it came to English. The rot began back in the Sixties when some teachers, who were well versed in grammar, decided not to teach it. They were idealists who believed that allowing children to express themselves was more important than teaching rules. This selfish decision was such a dereliction of responsibility that any surviving perpetrators should be tracked down and prosecuted for child abuse.

In any other field, such an irresponsible attitude by teachers would not be tolerated. Imagine if driving instructors adopted the same approach.
“Don’t worry about the rules. Push any buttons and pedals you like. Drive on the left or the right. Traffic lights are just decoration nowadays. Please yourself. Be free!”

For those of us who learned to drive properly, the rules are our friends. It’s by learning the rules and mastering the machine that one gains true motoring freedom. If I want to drive to Scotland, right now, I can do it. By learning the rules and acquiring the knowledge, I have gained the freedom to travel anywhere I please with speed, comfort and safety. Similarly, if I want to write a newspaper story, a magazine article, a sonnet, a limerick or this blog, I can do it.

Learning to write is great. It gives you the power and freedom you need to change your world. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. But not by itself. A sword has no might until it is held by someone skilled in swordsmanship. The same principle applies to the pen. In the hand of an idiot, a writing tool won’t do anything more than update a Facebook status with some petty fact or observation such as ‘Them kitte’ns cute!’ or ‘All tory’s are b*st*rds’. But in the hand of a master, a pen can change the world.

Fascist-killing pencil

But only if you learn to write.

The world we live in today was determined by both the pen and the sword. It was military might that crushed the Nazis and repelled fascism but our post-war civilisation is protected  by the European Convention on Human Rights – a work of the pen. A greater work, in literary and political terms, is the Constitution of the United States. This splendid document, including the first ten amendments and the Bill of Rights, amounts to just 4,440 words. The fact that it is written in good, pithy English may have something to do with the fact that it’s still going strong – the oldest, working written constitution in the world.

So, in an attempt at pithiness and clarity, here is a modest proposal:

Anyone who wants to be a teacher should be required to learn to read and write. If they fail a literacy test (as our woman with the sign would), they should not be paid out of taxpayers’ money to educate our children.