Trump’s impeachment may hang on a point of grammar

Comey_Screen_Shot_2017_06_08_at_11.05.09_AM.0James Comey speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June 2017

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Donald Trump spoke these words to James Comey, former Director of the FBI, at a private meeting in the Oval Office. As Alex Ward of states, these are the most important words of Comey’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.

Comey felt that these were a direction to him by the President of the United States.

Primary school children in England are taught that a command includes a verb in the imperative mood. In everyday social life, however, the context of an utterance helps to determine its meaning. Questioning James Comey on 8 June, Senator James Risch sought to deflect Comey’s view that Trump had given him a direction:

Sen. James Risch

He did not direct you to let it go?

James Comey

Not in his words, no.

Sen. James Risch

He did not order you to let it go?

James Comey

Again, those words are not an order.

Pressed by Risch as to whether, as the former director of the FBI, he knew of any case where a person had been charged with a criminal offence for hoping for an outcome, Comey replied:

This is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

Comey is drawing attention to the context of Trump’s words, and in particular to the power relationship between himself and his interlocutor. He is implicitly making a grammatical analysis of language as a social semiotic – as deriving much of its meaning from the context of use.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate Intelligence Committee will accept this more adequate socio-linguistic analysis of the President’s words.

A longer version of this post appears on

Testing grammar

Female pupil writing

There has been much comment, discussion and even fury in the media about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high-stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view of language enshrined in the tests is so limited.

The language of school (and not of school)

Recently there seems to have been a surge of news and comment about the ways in which young people speak and write, and the relation of these to academic success.  A few weeks ago, the headteacher of a Middlesbrough primary school released a list of words that children were to be discouraged from using, in case this affected their chances in job interviews in later life.  Parents were enjoined to monitor their children’s speech and to correct them if they used local dialect forms that could make them sound uneducated (   More recently, the children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson was reported as saying that the children who wrote to her from Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal expressed themselves better than those from the UK: “They’re writing in English, and apologising for their English, yet these letters will be more grammatical and spelt more properly than [those from] our own children (” Bizarrely, another letter that came under fire for illiteracy was that written by 100 academics from a number of British universities criticising the Secretary of State for Education‘s s proposals for a new national curriculum.  Neville Gwynne, one of the judges of the Idler Bad British Grammar awards, claimed that part of the letter was “simply illiterate” because of a failure of cohesion between two parts of a sentence (  Toby Young, one of the other judges, commented that the academics’ “grammatical blunders” had inadvertently made an argument for precisely the kind of formal education that their letter was opposing.  And now the relation between formal, or academic, language and children’s everyday utterances is the subject of a two-day conference at Aston University towards the end of June (  So what is all this really about?  And should we be concerned?

The view that schools are not doing enough to prepare students for the language requirements of the outside world is not new: the 1904 Newbolt report on English teaching cites employers’ comments that their apprentices are unable to speak and write appropriately in the working situation.  However, there is a view that, in the 1960s and 70s, English teaching became less concerned with grammatical and formal correctness and more in favour of creativity and personal expression.  It was at this time that Basil Bernstein made his famous distinction between the “restricted” language codes of everyday life and the “elaborated” codes of school language.  He argued that access to and facility in the elaborated codes that, he posited, characterised middle-class language use were necessary if students were to progress at school.  Bernstein was not arguing for the teaching of formal grammar, and his analysis was taken up by some of the progressive educational writers who were advocating more student centred and expressive English teaching: Paddy Creber’s 1978 Lost for Words, for example, argues that rich experience of literature and creative writing assignments of various kinds would assist students who suffered from a language deficit.  Many other writers across the English-speaking world made similar arguments, and, even today, most English teachers would regard wide reading and exercises in various forms of writing as central to school English.

Within this progressive tradition, a desire to make students consciously aware of the workings of language has never really disappeared: Peter Doughty’s Language in Use materials were popular in the 1970s and 80s and “Knowledge about Language” has been an intrinsic part of the National Curriculum since 1988.  Most recently, Debra Myhill and Helen Lines’ project Grammar for Writing has shown ways in which teachers can help students become aware of the resources of language in order to improve the range and appropriateness of their writing in various contexts.  Nonetheless, the complaint is often made, especially from outside the profession and in political discourse, that students “don’t know grammar” and that this is the cause of lamentable standards of speech and writing.  The academics’ letter to the Secretary of State appears to demonstrate that this grammatical disregard has reached the highest levels of academia.

To an outsider, English teachers’ apparent reluctance to place a great deal of emphasis on formal grammar teaching may seem merely perverse: surely their job is to make students aware of and capable in the resources of their native language?  Significantly, there is a political dimension to this debate.  Just as a conservative political orthodoxy holds that early years teachers have an unreasonable aversion to teaching children to read through the method of synthetic phonics, a similar orthodoxy holds that later primary and secondary teachers are refusing to do their job of grammatical instruction.

The reticence to foreground formal grammar teaching comes indeed from a libertarian regard for young people that does contain an element of political opposition.   There are three main elements of this stance.  The first is the recognition that, in Peter Trudgill‘s words, native speakers do not make grammatical mistakes.  The child who tells his mother “I runned home” demonstrates an implicit awareness of a grammatical rule (the formation of the past tense by adding -ed to the stem of the verb) that he (without instruction) will shortly learn does not apply to the irregular verb run.  The second element is an awareness that dialect forms contain their own grammars, which, again, young people learn without formal instruction.  (I like to argue that the verb to be, when conjugated within Devon dialect, demonstrates an advanced form of linguistic simplification characteristic of the most mature languages.)  The third is a professional memory of the dismal experience of trying to teach disconnected grammatical exercises, separate from the context of writing. I once tried to teach a class of young secondary school students, recently arrived from their primary schools, a few parts of speech.  They were adamant that they had never been taught these before, and had no idea what an adverb might be.   It was only when I wrote a few on the board, and explained that they usually ended in –ly, that they remembered: “Oh, yes, Mrs Brown was always going on about those!” On another occasion, I asked the students to give me an example of a question, as distinct from a statement.  One of them offered: “When will this lesson end?”

The regard for students’ implicit grammatical knowledge of their own dialect may appear to be leaving them in a weak position and indeed to be denying them the advantages of education.  Again there is a political dimension to this: the proponents of selective grammar schools speak of their role in promoting social and mobility by freeing students from the chains of their local language.  (Many proponents of comprehensive education will make similar arguments.)  Currently there is a good deal of discussion of ways of promoting students’ knowledge of academic registers: Bernstein’s arguments are finding new followers, and teachers’ reflections on these issues are expressed in blogs such as Alex Quigley’s Hunting English ( .  The Aston conference tagline – moving learners from everyday language to the academic language needed to succeed – focuses these concerns.

The problem with these arguments is that they may assume too easily that the only thing that is holding students back is their incapacity in formal, academic language.   It is worth considering why UK students do not always appropriate “elaborated” language forms as readily as the European students who wrote to Jacqueline Wilson appropriated formal English. Humans have an extraordinary capacity to work simultaneously in several languages and dialects, as anyone who lives in a multicultural area will testify.  If students are less inclined than one would wish to adopt what Bernstein (in his  recent formulations on academic literacy) calls the “vertical” discourse of the Academy as opposed to the “horizontal” discourse of everyday life, it may be because they know that academic and economic success require more than learning a new register.  Academic literacy, as described by Brian Street and other writers in the field of new literacy studies, involves the capacity to negotiate the power relations of the academy and to inhabit a very separate culture from the everyday. It is not a matter of “language” alone – unless one regards language in the much wider sense of a semiotic domain within which one must construct an academic identity. A student who wishes to inhabit this domain needs the confidence to explore not only a different language from that of their previous education and experience, but also what is in many ways a different social geography.   Merely “learning grammar” at school will not give them the keys to the academic kingdom.