To Infinitive and Beyond

H. Armstrong Roberts/Corbis

There’s an odd noise echoing through the Idler Academy, a pretty 19th century shop in Notting Hill, west London, on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

“A pronoun is a word that stands in place of a noun,” bellows Nevile Gwynne, a retired businessman turned English grammar supremo. And we, his grown-up pupils, shout it right back at him: “A pronoun is a word that...”

This is literally learning by rote—learning by constant repetition until the eight parts of speech are drummed into our skulls. Many modern educationalists would have a coronary, not just at the sight of learning by rote but also at the very idea of grammar lessons. Surely this is Stone Age stuff, the sort of thing that went out of fashion with ration books and bobby socks?

Apparently not. Over the past year, there has been a soaring revival of English grammar. Last year, Gwynne’s grammar guide, Gwynne’s Grammar, was on the best-seller lists for months. It has sold more than 40,000 copies and will be published this September in the United States by Knopf. At one point, Gwynne was even giving grammar lessons to crowds of shoppers at Selfridges department store on Friday evenings. This spring, Gwynne published a follow-up volume, Gwynne’s Latin, which does for Latin what Gwynne did for English grammar. The only way forward is backward, it seems.

Certainly, Gwynne’s pupils are delighted to be immersed in this old-fashioned learning.

“I’ve always known my grammar was terrible,” says Heidi Hodgkins, who works for a publisher in Windsor. “If I’m told again where to put a comma, I’ll die. You just can’t learn it anywhere else. You’re raised to speak English, but I realize I don’t know my own language. Just after doing my first lesson, I realize quite how much I don’t know.”

Gwynne’s lessons start simply, with explanations of what a noun, verb and adjective are, before moving onto more brain-crunching stuff. What sort of verb is the one in “Rule, Britannia!” and “God Save the Queen”? The answer: the subjunctive.

Gwynne believes that basic grammar is at the heart of all our lives, and that the disappearance of grammar lessons is a modern-day tragedy.

“You are about to learn the most important lesson of your life,” he says at the beginning of our session. “Grammar teaches us how to use the words we use to make sense. For 3,000 years, until the 1960s, grammar was the first thing you were taught. All the leading schools were grammar schools.

“Grammar is the start of thinking. And, without thinking, you can’t make good decisions, and if enough people don’t make the right decisions, the world becomes disastrous.”

The beginning of the grammar decline is often dated to 1967, with the publication of The Plowden Report,” a government report on primary education. The report emphasized that “at the heart of the educational process, lies the child.”

“The result was to change completely just about everything to do with education,” says Gwynne. “That meant a complete change in the manner of teaching, removing either completely or effectively the most important subjects that had been taught, and adding hugely to the number of subjects taught and therefore reducing—disastrously—the depth in which any subject could be taught.”

Gwynne’s Grammar was born when Gwynne tutored the three children of Tom and Victoria Hodgkinson, the founders of the Idler Academy, a combination bookshop and lecture theater that has lectures on everything from calligraphy to the ukulele. Tom, author of the best-seller How to Be Idle, suggested that Gwynne write a grammar guide.

“Everybody has a sense that they’re not very good at grammar,” says Tom Hodgkinson, “It’s a common feeling. Even very well-educated people can be a bit confused about where the apostrophes and the semicolon go. I didn’t have a clue what a pronoun was, despite going to Cambridge and writing books. We’ve had taxi drivers coming into the shop and going on Mr. Gwynne’s courses. They say, ‘I was never taught grammar, and I want to learn it.’”

The Hodgkinsons also oversee the Idler Academy’s Bad Grammar Award. Earlier this month, the 2014 award was given to Tesco. The supermarket chain used “less” instead of “fewer” on its loo roll packaging: “Less Waste. Less Lorries.” Jeremy Paxman, one of the judges, accused Tesco of “sheer, clear stupidity.”

Tom Hodgkinson thinks there has always been a fascination with the English language. “People are interested in grammar in the same way they’re interested in the weather,” he says. “There are weather fans and there are grammar fans—who sit at home shouting at Radio 4. There are 18th century prints of people in coffee houses throwing coffee in each other’s faces, arguing about grammar. It’s a perennial debate.

“What dismayed me was that the idea you should teach and learn grammar is some kind of Tory position. We were attacked by left-wing academics, and by the children’s writer Michael Rosen. We were even attacked in a Times leader [editorial]. I thought I was doing something fairly innocuous.

“I’ve got journalist friends who did English at Oxbridge, who’ve been to Harvard and Yale, who’ve written books and studied linguistics,” he continues. And they say, ‘You shouldn’t force these rules on people,’ while knowing them themselves.

“What are they saying—that we’re going to conceal this knowledge from children? We’re not going to teach them where to put the apostrophe because it’s some kind of imperialist imposition? It only takes your teachers an hour or less to teach you the apostrophe at school—why don’t they?”

The grammar revolution has two strands to it. First—never firstly, as grammarians will tell you—the demand for children to know their apostrophes. Second, the protection of the more obscure rules of grammar, as promoted by specialists, or pedants, as critics call them.

There’s an allied revival, too, of plain English, as part of the battle against jargon and gobbledygook. Leading the charge is Rebecca Gowers, in another new book about English, Plain Words. Among her targets is Nick Clegg, the British deputy prime minister, whom she criticizes for his difficulty with the words “I” and “me”: “Myself and the prime minister are saying exactly the same thing.”

Plain Words was originally written by a senior civil servant, Sir Ernest Gowers, in 1948, as a guide for civil servants. It was a surprise hit, selling 150,000 copies. Rebecca Gowers, his great-granddaughter, has now updated the book.

“Jargon’s got worse since he wrote it,” she declares. “It’s partly a gang culture, shared by a certain government department or whatever it might be. And it’s partly a desire to seem more important. My great-grandfather’s message is just as true today: Put simple ideas in plain language.”

In fact, Sir Ernest’s most quoted maxim became a 1950s catchphrase: “Be short, be simple, be human.” Sixty years on, he might add: “Be grammatical.”