The Grey Grammarians and the Alien

Oh the Grey Grammarians! There's a little story circulating among my colleagues on Facebook, about a school visit by one of our children's authors. The class of ten year olds had been asked to write a story, and one child began a sentence with: "Lucy dashed towards..." "Now that's a good place to insert a fronted adverb," the teacher suggested, and changed the perfectly good sentence into: "Quickly, Lucy dashed towards..." The author took it out, explaining that 'dashed' clearly described quickness and speed, but afterwards she was conscience-stricken - after all, the class teacher was the authority, not her.

It seems that the Grey Grammarians have recently taken over the teaching of basic English, and have invented new definitions that defy comprehension by colleagues who are literary critics, lecturers and, yes, professional writers. Some of us have re-named the 'fronted adverbial' into 'full fronted adverb' (as in the hilarious teenage Full Fronted Snogging series), and imagined them in rather rude animations. I've recently had a tiny run-in with the GGs. One of my publishers has gone all educational theory-wise, and sent me a thirty one page brief covering language for stories for beginner readers. Ignoring most of the verbiage, I sent them a little story which seemed to fit one of the age groups - 'one I'd done earlier' - about a small boy who forms a relationship with an alien being living on the ceiling of his classroom - and to my amazement, they liked it, but then proceeded to re-construct it. Instead of being whisked off by the Alien around Planet Earth during playtime, it now helps the small protagonist score a winning goal. Oh, and the title? Mine was: Adam and the Alien. Theirs? Adam and the New Boy. Votes, please. At least they kept the Alien!

The house across the road is having a loft room constructed, and from upstairs I can watch the builders at their very skilled work - and it is indeed skilled. On a sunny morning like this one, they take a tea break on the roof, which means that if they're curious, they can watch me applying some very basic slap, as I can watch them. Which makes me wonder how many roofers turn into writers? Writers are always curious about other people, and if you work up there on a roof, apart from occasional nudity, you must occasionally see quite a few dramas, and it's only one small step to inventing a story.

On the subject of stories, can you remember the lies you told as a child being referred to as "stories"? It's so basic to all of us to make things up, to frame incidents we've noticed and then embroider the facts - tell stories. My first whopper was putting together the sound of clapping coming from an adjacent classroom in my primary school and the fact that I desperately wanted to be a six year old film star, so out came the story of a lavish stage performance at school, in which I was - well, you've guessed it. Unfortunately my mother believed every word, and went about playing the proud parent, which I hadn't bargained for.

I've been telling stories ever since, though - incurable. And I can't stop being curious about other people. This being Holacaust Memorial month, there's a lengthy book review in the London Evening Standard of a history of that terrifying period, with new research, documentation and images, and the image they chose to post was one of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto. I'd like to understand more about archival photographers of horrors, and how they differ from people who post images of current disasters and those who slow down on the motorway to feast on details of some horrific accident - in the first case, I prefer to think of them as very brave, and taking personal risks to record something evil, and to tell the world "this really happened".

In the Evening Standard photo, there's a little boy of about five or six, with an outsize cap and a too-short coat or jacket, warm-looking socks almost up to his knees, he's obviously cared-for, loved. His face is frightened, and he's holding his hands up, as if, confusedly, taking part in a game the grown-ups are playing - this is what you have to do. There's a sweet-faced young woman with her hands up, half-turning back towards him with concern. His mum? Big sister? The little boy looks puzzled - it's just a game, isn't it? And games end, don't they? I would like to reach back in time and pick him up, give him a cuddle, take him to a green space and let him kick a ball around, or ride a bike. The soldiers stand impassive - what are they thinking? What are their stories? There were no photographers or war artists at the Battle of Agincourt - so does seeing these images make us more compassionate or less - these heartbreaking images that cry out to us over time...

On a happier note, I'm currently enjoying reading: "THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP," by Nina George, featuring Jean le Perdu who lives on a book-filled barge on the Seine, and who prescribes literature for ailments, but has no cure for his own lovesickness.  Do seek it out - it's uplifting.


Bill Kirton said…
I used to teach French and nowadays give workshops is schools on writing English, and I've always thought that teaching any language is made more difficult for learners by having a third language - that consisting of technical terminology - also thrust into the mix. I'd have to look up 'a fronted adverb' to know what it was and recently a teacher undid the progress I was making with a class on restructuring sentences to give them greater impact by reminding the class that they were already familiar with 'inverted sentences'.

On the other hand, the terminology is a source of intense (if perhaps smug) satisfaction, when seeing jokes on Facebook and elsewhere such as that in which Scrooge has another ghostly visitor.

'I am the ghost of Xmas Future Imperfect Conditional', said the Spirit. 'I bring news of what would have been going to happen if you were not to have been going to change your ways.'
Jan Needle said…
i've always treated english grammar as a description of what has been written, not a prescription of what one ought to write.
Enid Richemont said…
LOVE your Future Imperfect Conditional, Bill. Oh, and French is even worse! I believe there was an historical time in France when it was super-posh and trendy to speak only in the subjunctive.
Fran B said…
Ah, the French subjunctive! Remember it well - actually badly. Il faut que je fasse, etc.
Had a hard time with autocorrect there - you almost got 'It fast question joy false'!

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