Wednesday, June 07, 2006


As you may see from Mr Stuart's post today, I came last in the beardy book read-through sweepstakes. Mostly this was because I spent the morning correcting his grammar - well, a bit. Actually, he's pretty good at that sort of thing, as you would expect from any internationally renowned bearded writist.

But it got me to thinking, this grammar lark. I used to be dreadful at it, and to a certain extent I still am. At least I have some handy reference books to remind me what a gerund is.

By a strange coincidence, my old school magazine dropped through the letterbox the other day, bearing with it the sad news of the death of Jeffrey Davies, my old English teacher. Mr Davies, or Sir as he was known back then, was charged with teaching me the rudiments of the English language from the age of seven until just shy of my thirteenth birthday, and I can honestly say he failed magnificently.

Now before you accuse me of speaking ill of the dead, let me first say that Mr Davies was far and away one of the nicest masters at that school.* He rarely gave punishments, his homework was more enjoyable than most and he ran the school shop, which meant he was the main source of sweets, crisps, fizzy drinks and all the other luxuries we normally never got our hands on during term time. But was he a good English teacher? Not to me he wasn't.

At age seven I had a very precocious reading ability. I devoured books aimed at much older children, and with a speed I wish I could match today. What I wasn't so good at was writing. Or perhaps what I should say is, I didn't have the patience to write properly, so eager was I to get the words down on the page. I recall with alarming clarity my utter disdain for capital letters at the beginning of sentences, and I could never spell 'which' right, it always came out 'wich'. I could write perfectly understandably, but like most of the things associated with me at the time, myself included, my writing was very scruffy.**

I recall one particularly nasty punishment meted out when I'd handed in my homework with couple of basic mistakes in it. Whilst the rest of the class left to spend the afternoon playing cricket or lazing about in the sun, I was made to sit and copy out my homework, correcting the mistakes. The only problem was, Mr Davies didn't tell me what the mistakes were. I gave it a go, correcting at least one 'wich', but it wasn't good enough. There were still some more, so I had to do it all over again. And again. And again. All afternoon. I think I wrote that passage out about forty times in all, whilst patient Mr Davies sat at his desk reading a book or marking other boys' essays. Each time I took my work up to him he would scan it whilst I stood, peering over his shoulder at the playing fields through the window behind him. Then he'd hand it back with a shake of the head and send me off to do it again.

This was not the most unpleasant punishment that school meted out on me, by a long chalk. But you can tell it had a profound effect on me, since I can still remember it. Thankfully I've forgotten what the passage was about.

Then there was grammar. At the beginning of my first term, I was given a small softbound notebook, about A6 size and format, with lined pages inside. The rest of the class had them too. Once a week we would 'do grammar' in English class, which consisted of Mr Davies writing out on the blackboard a single article of grammar, say 'verb' for instance, followed by a short definition and a single sentence by way of example, with the relevant word or section underlined. The class would silently copy this into their books. Then we would go onto something else completely unrelated. Over the course of a year, this grammar book was meant to form the basis of our understanding of the English language. The problem was there was no context, no tying of the different blocks together. It was completely meaningless to me. It was never referred to, and we were never tested on it. I'd love to have that book now, to see what it actually said, since I can remember nothing of the words written in it. But alas, I burned all my books from that school in the summer holidays after I left.

It wasn't until I got to university, after having gained 'A' grades in English Literature and Language at O and A level, that I could confidently identify an adjective and an adverb, using those terms. Sure, I knew what they were. I never used an adverb in the wrong place; I knew how to describe a noun. But I never learned the jargon. I should have learned it from Jeffrey Davies, but he failed me.

I did learn how to forge his signature though, which was really useful for getting stuff out of the tuck shop.

* I won't name it, since it is still very much a going concern and several of my peers are now both lawyers and members of the school board.
** some things never change, I guess.


Blogger Vincent said...

Strangely enough, while I had some pretty good English teachers, the GCSE curriculum did not seem to include grammar. We did nouns, verbs and adjectives, but skimped on adverbs. Past perfect, future imperfect, plu-perfect and all those other exotic tenses weren't even mentioned, except in French when I wasn't really listening. Hence much of my grammatical ability is down to luck, rather than the modern school system.

June 08, 2006 8:42 am  
Blogger Stuart MacBride said...

"Mostly this was because I spent the morning correcting his grammar..."

Cheeky sod! That's the last time I share a first draft with you, matey boy!

June 08, 2006 9:40 am  

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