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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Standard English and the subjunctive mood

Just before Christmas my husband was watching football and I heard one of the managers speaking in a post-match interview.  During that short discourse, I heard him say ‘I was’, ‘he was’, ‘it was’, ‘we was’ and ‘they was’.  No doubt, if he came from another part of the country, I would have heard‘ I were’, ‘he were’, ‘it were’, ‘we were’ and ‘they were’.  Now I have nothing against local dialects: the diversity in grammar and vocabulary found in different dialects gives our language richness and character.  If we are curious enough to investigate a dialect and its accent, we find out much about an area’s history, environment and way of life.  However, working with teachers, I am aware of the criticism they frequently receive about the way children speak and write, so I am alert to the different dialects I hear around me (including the Standard English dialect) and then my appropriateness radar switches on.

As teachers, we are charged with the task of teaching children to speak and write in Standard English, but that task is challenging when another dialect is spoken outside school by family, friends and community.   In addition, children are constantly hearing different dialects on television and radio.  Of course, the worst thing we can do is to tell children they are wrong to speak in dialect.  They are not wrong and we should value the rich variation in language that dialect provides.  It is a community’s natural, default speech pattern and we are only going to upset children and parents by trying to substitute it with Standard English.  What we need to do is provide children with an understanding that Standard English is useful for communicating with people outside of their dialect area and for specific formal purposes.  Then they have choice: knowledge of two different ways of communicating and the skill of understanding appropriate time and place for using each.

What is really annoying is poor usage of grammar within the Standard English dialect, particularly when it is broadcast through television and radio and perpetuated within the business community – the very people complaining about school leavers’ standards of literacy.  Subject-verb ‘disagreement’ and sloppy use of adverbs are a daily occurrence in the media and I’ve forgotten the times I’ve heard incorrect use of subject and object pronouns on programmes such as ‘The One Show’ and in phone conversations with business representatives.   Poor usage is rife in the corporate world and can be experienced almost daily in spoken and written advertising, business forms, promotional literature, phone communication and listening to company spokespeople in the media.  Correct usage of Standard English is also not helped by the incredible amount of business jargon that is bandied about.  I recently heard about developments in the ‘business stream’ and the fact that people were ‘onboarded’.  It’s no good business leaders complaining about standards of English, if they are not prepared to promote clear meaning and correct Standard English in their own companies.

In spite of this, in the grammar islands that are our classrooms, we will continue to rise to the challenge and develop children’s understanding of Standard English.  One of the priority areas in this struggle is subject-verb agreement.  However, in the new National Curriculum, the government is now proposing that we should also teach primary children the subjunctive mood, where subject-verb agreement alters in the third person singular.  Surely this is a step too far?  Use of the subjunctive mood is fairly rare in English and, although it expresses the hypothetical, our language has a range of modal verbs that do the same job, with less confusion to children who may still not be secure in their use of third person singular forms of our verbs. 

It would be better if the government also switched on their appropriateness radar and considered what eleven year old children need to focus on when learning the Standard English dialect.  The skill of speaking and writing for formal occasions has a progression, like any other area of learning.  In my opinion, the optional use of the subjunctive mood in formal speeches and documents does not belong in primary education and I would suggest that valuable classroom time may well be better spent developing understanding of those features of Standard English which will enable children to communicate effectively, confidently and clearly in situations where this dialect is appropriate.

If you would like further information on the subjunctive, click here.