The Problems with Subject Terminology

Exam boards, as is reasonable, reward the use of subject terminology in both Language and Literature GCSEs. And specialist terminology in the study of English is a tempting and seductive world, a conceptual landscape in which you might lose yourself and never want to return to the crushing prosaicness (itself a subtle, filigree piece of terminology) of timetables, tube trains and toil.

The issue, however, is that it takes a life of study to uncover some of this. As a result, many less experienced teachers who were not taught any grammar at all during a period in which the education system would accept a child parroting “an adjective is a describing word” and take that to be the sum total of available human knowledge, know little about the meta-language of the subject. This is not their fault, but one is only innocent to a point. There comes a time when English teachers knowing the technical knowledge of their subject could and should be perceived a minimum qualification. (Rarer than a chooks’ choppers is the chemistry teacher who doesn't know the chemical symbol for sulphuric acid).

But here we are. English teachers are generally able to identify an adjective and, accordingly, they see this as a quite reasonable thing to expect of their students and, as a result of advice that such teachers provide, the consequences of which have not been at all thought through, many students are lead to believe that a rewardable approach to using subject terminology in English exams is throwing the word ‘noun’ at a wall and praying it sticks.

If you think about this practice with any insight and put yourself in the shoes of the beleaguered examiner sweating for a pittance, then you will realize that being able to identify a thing as a thing seems a tad too ‘early years’ to be showing off about. “Wow!” says Ms. Examiner, “This student has identified a table as a noun! Let joy be unconstrained; crack out the cava; ladle the grade nines with the most generous of flourishes.” And should a student ever make reference to the preposition usage in the dagger speech, it’s knighthoods all round …

This is hyperbolic, of course, but the idea of instructing students to plaster the words ‘noun’, ‘verb’ and ‘adjective’ into exam answers is so laughably low order that it should and will be taken by examiners to be evidence of the antithesis of its intent: in showing off this level of subject knowledge, you are boasting of ignorance and reminding examiners that the Dunnning Kruger effect applies to teachers also. A child that knows only this does not know enough to be certified as competent in a subject that has a great deal of knowledge outside of these three bare words.

This would be bad enough, were it not for the fact that so many get it so, so wrong. As a passing joy and this article exists mainly so that you might feast on the immediate below, here are some of the errors I encountered a couple of years ago in a school that has a name but not one I will share.[1]

“The noun phrase ‘our’,” “the noun ‘like’”, “the adjective ‘never’”, “the pronoun ‘mummy’”, “the adjective ‘matters’”, “the adjective ‘sort’”, “the adjective ‘ache’”, “the adjectives ‘dives’ and ‘strafes’”, “the verb ‘knife’”, “the adjective ‘fear’”, “the adjective ‘despair’”, “the adjective ‘nearly’”, “the pronoun ‘that’”, “the adjective ‘could’”, “the adjective ‘softly’”, “the pronoun ‘my’” (it’s a possessive determiner), “the adjective ‘burst’” (it was used as a verb), “the adnoun” (!), “the noun ‘never’”, “the noun ‘build’”, “the noun ‘savage’”, “the adverb ‘unanswered’”, “the noun ‘pummels’”, “the verb ‘nothing’”, “the collective noun ‘we’”.

Consider briefly your own reaction to such errors – they land with a spectacularly egregious thump for a reason – now imagine the examiner’s facial expression on encountering such errors; picture their brow as it furrows; hear the dim exhalation, the muttered, “Oh, for God’s sake;” drink in and fully understand the hinted at tears of both sorrow and laughter. This could never happen here, could it?

It could. It does.

This practice is so entrenched in our ‘knowledge-rich’ education system (a concept that tends to satirise itself so accurately and so acutely that I needn’t waste the effort) that it is more-or-less the default of the variety of English teacher who unthinkingly instructs students to structure any critical response in ‘addition to’, ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’ regardless of the meaning of the latter (if you think this gormless non-idea is uncommon practice, you are wrong: come, spend an hour in my trainers). The question is, how have so many of us got it so wrong?

Leaving aside the obvious regression to the beneath mediocre that any grouped practice ends up resulting in, the issue is that this – the parsing approach to language analysis – is rather more difficult than those who somehow contrive a living from knowing the difference between a noun and an adjective might imagine.

Let’s take a profoundly simple sentence. Let’s take the sentence “I am here”. Let’s parse it. It should be easy. It’s only three words.

‘I’ is the first person singular pronoun; ‘am’ is the present tense of the verb ‘to be’, but what about ‘here’? It seems to be modifying the verb and one would think, therefore, that it is an adverb. But, also, ‘here’, though abstract, is a thing. Is it then an abstract noun? Wrong on both counts. And if I’ve got this wrong don't shoot me: I got this from the interweb. Apparently, ‘here’ is a proximal deictic locative predicate. It does not modify the verb am. It does not modify anything, in fact. (Be) here is the predicate in the sentence. The am is an auxiliary verb, meaning, like the Spanish auxiliary estar, 'be located (at)'.

Parse this sentence. “The teacher walked in.” ‘In’ appears to be a position word, so is it a preposition? No. A preposition takes an object. Does it then become an adverb? Is it part of a phrasal verb? Is it related to the proximal deictic locative predicate above? In truth, I have no idea, and here comes the point. Whilst probably qualifying for the title of grammatical dunce, I know enough to have written twelve books, some of which have been well received and somehow got away with writing a column for a national newspaper for a decade. Someone with twenty-five years of classroom experience is not able to parse sentences with any real degree of success, yet English teachers expect sixteen-year-olds in fifth sets to be able to perform the same function without getting it completely wrong, and, guess what? They can’t.

This issue is further compounded by governments – this government, in fact – assuming that their expensive private educations made them experts in fields other than truth twisting and convincing themselves it is just and correct that children live in poverty. As it has been relatively recently with their profoundly untutored idea as to what cultural capital constitutes, so it was less recently with some of the demands of the grammar test introduced for eleven-year-olds. The early trial tests proposed to examine students on their understanding of the subjunctive mood. This is best explained, as are most things, with reference to the oeuvre of Justin Bieber. One of Bieber’s less nuanced works is the song, ‘Boyfriend’ (I’ve listened to it, so you don't have to). In it, the lead line in the chorus is “If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go’ which has all the ugly certainty you’d expect to find in the outpourings of (a) narcissistic youth. The internet is plastered in memes correcting Justin’s English as, according to the subjunctive mood, the line should be “If I were your boyfriend …”. It seems that Tory HQ were alive to the flaws in Beiber’s lyricism and, when Gove introduced the grammar test at key stage two (which I agree with by the way as they have caused teachers to have to up their knowledge), students were to be tested on their understanding of this all the while remaining ignorant that, and this is a direct quote from Wikipedia, “English does not have a specifically subjunctive verb form.”[2]

They compounded this with the determiners/possessive pronouns debacle. In the sentence “His ball was his” the first “his” is a possessive determiner (which comes before a noun) and the second is a possessive pronoun (which replaces a noun). This was all present and correct is the earliest iterations of the grammar test, but teachers didn't like it as they thought the first one should be a possessive pronoun, so the government changed the rules and decided, regardless of right or wrong in a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, you could teach children that a determiner is actually a pronoun if you so fancied.

We inhabit a realm, then, that comes with all manner of incompetence, cobbled together thought and poverty of knowledge and students’ use of the language suffers along with the life chances that competence in the same would vastly improve (Pierre Bourdieu once said, when asked to define what cultural capital actually is that “It’s language, first of all: a certain mastery of language”[3]). So what then is the answer? What should replace students’ grasped for clutches at a meta-language that eludes capture?

The answer is found in seriousness of intent; perhaps, it is to be found in poetry, perhaps, also, in Ancient Greece. The answer, as in all things related to English teaching, is in going high while others go low, going deep where others paddle the shallows. If I can just take one example from the lessons I teach on one poem, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’: in order to unpack this poem you have to be introduced to the distinction between coordinate and cumulative adjectives, that an ellipsis shows that the process of ellipsis (taking something out of the text – in this case the soldiers’ consciousness) has taken place, that there is both consonantal and vocalic alliteration, that adjectives modify nouns, assonance, consonance, sibilance, incremental repetition, portmanteau words, narrative shifts, anthropomorphism and willful incomprehensibility. My lessons on how to construct non-fiction cover a range of rhetorical devices: polyptoton, tricola of alliterative syntheta, anadiplosis, palilogia, syllogisms, appeals to inclusion, antithesis, anaphora, epistrophe just to name a few off the top of my head. It is this level of study and knowledge that hits the examiner’s need for subject terminology. What they seek is evidence of the fact that students know things worth knowing, that they have access to the powerful knowledge that is subject specific vocabulary, that they recognize that writers have access to techniques that they, themselves, are entitled to use as well.

It is only with this level of teaching that you can communicate, as I have had to several times this year, that if you use the present continuous as a first verb in a sentence in an adverbial manner but are modifying an action that you have entirely failed to write, it is not a sentence as there is not a main clause. As an example one of my students has taken to writing sentences such as “Holding the handlebars, wind rushing through my hair, laughing with my mates.” It is only a worked for grammatical knowledge in both teacher and student that helps us recognize what is going wrong here; only with the tools that subject specific terminology provides us can we identify that the failure to add a main clause here such as “we ride” takes what initially appears to be a pleasingly rhetorical sentence into something that feels, and is, aborted.

It is more complicated, you see, than adjectives and nouns and verbs. But the limiting beliefs foisted on children by adults with the responsibility for what we, sometimes laughably, call an education results in adults who don't know much thinking not knowing things results, in a situation that has religious parallels, in living in a state of almost Blakean grace. It doesn’t. It results in the bewildered (noun and adjective) chucking (of) three words at a wall and missing.

As a final diversion into how this – educators with little knowledge (and it is disappointing after twenty-five years to note that this thing is still very much a thing) teaching students with little knowledge that it is OK to have little knowledge – here is an episode from my first weeks at the otherwise delightful school I’ve been lucky enough to teach at for the last two years. The first thing I do with any English class is teach them how to punctuate their writing as it seems (often/always) that no one has thought this a useful thing to do before. This involves writing a lot of technical terms on the board. On seeing this for the first time, an exasperated TA could not help but give voice to the frustrations the language on the board was causing her. “You’ll put them off if you teach them that stuff!” she spluttered somewhat angrily.

I didn’t reply but mused internally how people can become attached to ignorance and see delivery from it as a form of theft that they want to protect children from: “the adjective ‘I’,” “the verb ‘honestly’”, “the adjective ‘despair’” …


[1] In those instances where the word in context could be classed with the parts of speech identified, they were used wrongly. It was “the knife”, not “I knife”.


[3] Bourdieu in Sociology is a Martial Art, dir. Pierre Carles (2001).

Added Wed, 17 Aug 2022 12:44

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