Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: The only SPAG I want comes with bacon and cream

3 years ago

Hello all!

Today’s Word Nerd might be a bit... political.*

You may recall, a few weeks ago, a bit of a kerfuffle about the national curriculum’s new exclamation marks rule? In case you missed it, the government issued a “clarification”† to the marking framework for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) tests for Key Stages 1 and 2, apparently requiring teachers to give no marks for a sentence ending in an exclamation mark unless it begins in how or what.

For the purposes of the English grammar, punctuation and spelling test, an exclamation is required to start with What or How, eg. ‘What a lovely day!’ or ‘How exciting!’

A sentence that ends in an exclamation mark, but which does not have one of the grammatical patterns shown above, is not considered to be creditworthy as an exclamation (e.g. exclamatory statements, exclamatory imperatives, exclamatory interrogatives or interjections).

Digital consultant (and devoted Twitter nuisance) Dan Barker picked up on the curious injunction and brought the world’s attention to it by grading Schools Minister Nick Gibb’s adherence to the rule:

(Dan later acknowledged that he’d been too generous, since “How cool is that!” – aside from sounding magnificently awkward – should actually end with a question mark anyway.)

It became the outrage du jour. The Telegraph picked it up in short order, and then the Guardian, and DJs joked about it on breakfast radio, and by the next day the moment had passed.

And I was all, “Whuh?”

Exclamation Marks!

So the exclamation mark (or exclamation point, to our friends over the pond) is of course this little guy (!), first introduced by printers in the 15th century and wonderfully called the “note of admiration.” We’re not entirely sure where it came from; a popular theory is that it started out as a sort of shorthand for the Latin word io (roughly “hooray”), which Medieval scribes would write at the end of particularly important sentences. Today, we use it for emphasis (obvs), on a broad range of sentences, from interjections and salutations to full declarations with multiple subordinate clauses.‡

And the authorities all tend to give it the big hairy eyeball. It’s too effusive, too informal, leaves too little to the reader to decide. The Oxford Style Manual allows it for “emphatic statements, commands, and interjections expressing emotion,” but admonishes us to use it “sparingly in serious writing.” The redoubtable Chicago Manual of Style suggests it for “an outcry, an emphatic or ironic comment,” and likewise cautions us to be “sparing.” The Associated Press Stylebook advises using it “to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion,” but to “avoid overuse.” But none of them actually forbid it; In fact, the only place I could find anything like the government’s new rule was dear old Strunk & White,** which forbids its use “to emphasize simple statements,” and that it is “to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.”

And I’m all, “Wait, ‘true exclamations’?”

Exclamatory Phrases!!

Welcome to what is sometimes called the exclamatory mood.¶ Moods modify verbs to tell you how the speaker feels about the subject: is she certain it’s the case (the indicative “you’re sitting down”), seeking confirmation (the interrogative “are you sitting down?”), issuing an instruction (the imperative “sit down”)? The increasingly obscure exclamatory mood modifies the verb so as to express wonderment and demand agreement; thus, “I am lucky” becomes the exclamatory phrase “how lucky I am!”, while "he runs swiftly" becomes "how swifly he runs!" and “he’s an idiot” becomes “what an idiot he is!” Generally, where the original construction uses the copular to be, the verb is dropped off altogether, leaving simply, “how lucky!” and “what an idiot!”

Formally, sentences in the exclamatory mood must end in an exclamation mark, in the same way interrogative sentences must end in a question mark; but it has long been permissible, in all but the most wilfully old-fashioned style guides, to add emphasis to other types of sentence by adding an exclamation mark (to the point now where, confusingly, most style guides refer to any sentence ending in an exclamation mark as an “exclamatory phrase” or “exclamation,” regardless of what mood it’s in).

The Syntax of What Now?

And this appears to be where the government’s come a cropper. They’re trying to teach children what an exclamatory phrase is, and so the answer to any question in the SPAG Test about an “exclamation” should follow that format, to demonstrate that the student has learned the term. Except they’ve entirely failed to explain to teachers or students what they mean by “exclamation,” and their clarification totally reads like you can only use an exclamation mark when you’re writing in the exclamatory mood and never otherwise

And just check out their response to the criticism: “The national curriculum programme of study for English writing at KS2 states that pupils should learn how to use sentences with different forms, for example, as a statement, question, exclamation and command. A sentence that takes the form of an exclamation starts with ‘What’ or ‘How’ and uses the syntax of an exclamation.”

Do you know how many times I read that before I realised he wasn’t saying you could never use an exclamation mark without a what or how? But read it again now and realise what he’s saying. It’s, like, he gave all the correct information, but entirely failed to express the relevant point or even understand why he was being asked the question by our fleshy Earth faces.

...which is fair, I suppose, as none of the rest of us have the faintest idea why the test exists anyway.

Lord Bew, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and SPAG

Introduced in 2012, the Key Stage 1 and 2 Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Tests (to use their formal name) were proposed in a 2011 study by Lord Bew to correct the perceived failings of the existing English assessments for those age groups, because...

Well, search me, actually. Lord Bew (twice) remarks, “We recognise that there are some elements of writing – spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary – where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers,” and offers precisely fuck-all evidence for this position whatsoever, presumably because he assumes it’s a self-evident truth (an outlook, it could be argued, which should flat-out disqualify one from running any sort of educational review even if it weren’t egregiously, demonstrably false – so many of the ‘rules’ of English grammar are inconsistent or contradictory, or later inventions, that they really serve little to no use at all).

Bizarrely, he offers it on the same page as this bit of teacher feedback, on the existing system: “High quality writing is often marked down as certain aspects that are expected and used for scoring may not appear.” Which strikes me as an argument against a prescriptive, checklist-based assessment method, but hey, he’s a Lord; who the fuck am I to say any different?

Ah. Yes.

The Professionals

Who I am is, of course, an editor and a grammar columnist. I am, as it were, a professional Englisher, in a room full of professional Englishers. I mean, literally, we do spelling, punctuation and grammar for a living, all day, every day. You cannot find career paths to which these tests are more relevant. If anyone can demonstrate the importance and effectiveness of a test like this, surely it should be us?

So we went ahead and did it.

Pictured: Hope.

This is the Key Stage 2 English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test (Paper 1: Questions) Sample Booklet, which holds the punctuation and grammar side of the test (the spelling side involves a tester reading out the list of words while people write them down, which was a bit too much of a pain in the ass for our taste). The tests and answers are all freely available online, if you want to have a go yourself. We printed them off, sat ourselves down and had a go.

The Results

Pictured: Capturing a grown man’s descent into despair on paper.

The results were... pretty much as I imagined, sadly. Individual names will not be linked to scores so as to avoid shaming anyone, but my colleagues got 64%, 70% and 74%. Keep in mind this is a test for eleven-year-olds, and my colleagues are all university graduates with thirty years’ writing and publishing experience between them.

(I did well – 94% – but then I am a massive nerd for this stuff. I mean, seriously, I spend hours every month digging shit like this up to amuse you; I have not one but five style manuals on my desk. When #OldEnglishRap trended on Twitter a few years back I translated the first line of “Ice, Ice Baby” into literal Old English.§ The point is, I don’t use the vast majority of this shit to either write or edit, and neither do any of the guys.)

The first half of the book we mostly all handled pretty well, since it was largely practical questions, and, you know, they’re what you need – if you need anything – in order to be an effective grammarian. But towards the end it breaks down into raw jargon, which is not only profoundly irrelevant to writing well and clearly, but something that basically no two grammatical authorities will ever entirely agree on! In fact, as Michael Rosen’s excellent letter to Nicky Morgan last November points out, the government’s own guidelines keep changing, giving us tangled messes like “conjunctions,” “connectives,” and “joining words,” which were all offered over a two-year period to describe the same words.

I have never sent a manuscript back to an author with the names of the grammatical rules I was enforcing, except where I thought they wanted it or would query. I have never turned around to my colleagues and said, “What do you think, lads? Should we use a preposition or pad it out with a subordinating conjunction?” Most of these terms are useless, in fact, to anyone who isn’t literally planning a career as grammar academics, and I assure you we only need so many of them.

So What Was the Point, Then?

So why do these tests? Were Lord Bew, or Michael Gove, or Nicky Morgan, so caught up in this government’s bizarre exercise in high-stakes Victorian LRP that they actually believed rote learning terms like present perfect and noun phrase will somehow make the world a better place?

Of course not. As Bew’s report makes clear, he was proposing an affordable standard to test all British children on (his report specifically mentions creative writing as being “expensive to judge”). This test isn’t supposed to reflect what children are learning (he even says “there is much more to ‘writing’ than spelling, punctuation, grammar”), but only to provide an easy to measure cross-the-board standard, so the system can identify where support is needed.

Which would be sound logic, but there is no point assessing something that’s not relevant. If you notice your most talented Fine Arts students have the most paint on their clothes, do you start to keep a Paint On Clothes Index as a guide to accomplishment? Of course not. Hell, it would be counter-productive; all the teachers, desperate not to lose their jobs, would just start throwing paint on their students.

Which is exactly what’s happened here. Except not with paint, obviously. Teachers have been teaching – are expected to teach – to these tests, to coach their students to get the best SPAG results. Time that could be meaningfully spent learning critical reading, practising writing, talking about and comparing prose – all the crucial skills, the stuff that gives you an instinct for grammar, because the true fucking secret of grammar is it’s what sounds beautiful in English – is wasted on a big ol’ list of tedious Latinate terms that maybe one in a thousand of them will ever need to draw on in their adulthood. In the meantime, anyone who doesn’t have the right sort of brain or the interest (and really, how many people other than me get excited by words like preposition?) will get bored, and eventually turned off altogether.

Starting to sound harmful yet?

The Harm Of It

Well, how about this?

This is a child raised in this system, who’s read a story by one of their beloved authors, who’s started a sentence on a conjunction.

(This is fine, by the way. In fact, as an editor, I’ve suggested adding conjunctions at the beginnings of my authors’ sentences, precisely to make the words roll better.)

This is a child who’s already concerned about petty, prescriptive, eighteenth-century-grammarian rules. A child who already clearly loves reading, but a this stage could either a) become so ground down and upset by shit like this they lose interest and go into something dumb and easy like physics, or b) become so enraged at the stupidity of the rules they were made to learn that they become a writer. Maybe even an editor.

I know what I’m hoping for, but this fucking test is going to choke more people than it ever inspires.

As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.

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*But still ALL NERD, BABY.

†You’ll note, following this link, that they’ve since relaxed the wording, reeeal quiet.

‡Sometimes questions, although not often, since writing both symbols (and no-one can agree on whether it’s !? or ?!) looks crowded and bless them, the interrobang crowd’s never going to win that fight.

**For those unfamiliar with it, William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style, first published in 1959 – sometimes known as the “wonderful little book” – is a very small, very short, remarkably thorough, unapologetically prescriptive and magnificently dated style manual. I urge you to buy a copy and never use it. If style books were family members, this one would be your slightly racist gran, whose stories you love and who you desperately hope doesn’t say anything out loud until the guests go home.

¶Which I’m sticking with, because while many reputable sources insist English has only three moods – indicative, imperative and interrogative (unless there’s four, including subjunctive, or three and interrogative doesn’t count) – the “exclamatory” certainly seems to fit the bill for a mood, and no-one seems to be able to convincingly classify it as anything other than a mood. I’m taking a goddamn stand.

§Ætstand! Fylst ond hlyst! Hrim gecierrþ mid min niwe frumsceaft! – from “Hrim, Hrim, Baba,” by Hwite Hrim.