Deborah Yaffe

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Jane Austen: not a grammar nerd

By Deborah Yaffe, May 16 2016 01:00PM

The UK recently instituted a grammar and punctuation test for students in Year Six – kids aged ten or eleven, roughly equivalent to American fifth- or sixth-graders – and that has bent some pencils out of shape over in the homeland of the English language.


The union representing British school principals is up in arms about the test, which they claim is Just Too Hard. (You can try your luck here. I’m allegedly a professional writer, and I still missed one. I never did know the definition of a preposition.)


“We used to teach children about verbs and now it’s all the different types of verbs: modal verbs, transitive verbs, intransitive verbs,” one principal told the Guardian last month. “I’m sure Jane Austen didn’t need to know that when she was writing her novels. I’ve managed to get by for twenty-three years without knowing what a transitive verb is.”


Despite my prepositional issues, I’m kind of a grammar-and-punctuation nerd. I’d be delighted to explain to you, at length, why “she laid down on the bed” is grammatically incorrect. (Hint: it has to do with transitive and intransitive verbs.) Back in my youth, I updated the style book of my college newspaper just for fun. One of my fellow staffers claimed to have overheard me saying, “I love commas.” Which I may, indeed, have said, since I do, in fact, love commas.


Grammar is about structure (as is punctuation, although the two are not the same: one of my pet peeves is the blurring of that distinction.) And I do think it’s useful to understand how sentences are built as you start trying to build them yourself. Still, I’m not sure how necessary it is to know the names for all those component parts. A theoretical understanding of grammar and punctuation is certainly not sufficient to being a good writer – and maybe not even necessary.


Jane Austen, who employs an idiosyncratic nineteenth-century punctuation style and occasionally lets her participles dangle, most likely didn’t know what a transitive verb was. I’m willing to bet that, like most good writers, she learned how to write by reading: she knew what the language should sound like. Her Oxford-educated brother Henry, with his well-honed knowledge of Latin and Greek, probably could have diagrammed a sentence better than his self-taught little sister, but I’d read Pride and Prejudice over Henry’s sermons any day of the week.


So if we’re deciding how British schoolchildren should spend their time in English class, I’d opt for more reading and less wrestling with subordinate clauses – much as I do love commas


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