Rhythm and blues

Making textual music with grammar and punctuation

Authored by: Debra Myhill

The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy Teaching

Print publication date:  February  2010
Online publication date:  February  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415469036
eBook ISBN: 9780203863091
Adobe ISBN: 9781135183141


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When adults and young writers think about grammar and punctuation, all too often their thoughts turn to notions of accuracy and correctness, to ‘getting it right’. This is reinforced by marking systems for public English examinations in England which give marks for spelling, grammar and punctuation (SPaG) separately, disconnecting the grammar and punctuation from the communicative and creative function of writing. A consequence of this is to regard grammar, and with it, punctuation, as fulfilling the need ‘to attend to the mechanics of writing (Hillocks, Jr, 1986: 138) and little more. It is a limiting, technicist conceptualization of grammar. Similarly, public discourses relating to grammar and punctuation are framed by reference to error and blame, and almost always by claims of a national decline in standards. Pinker (1994: 370) wryly observes how subtly the link between social standards and grammar can be made: ‘as educational standards decline and pop culture disseminates the inarticulate ravings and unintelligible patois of surfers, jocks and valley girls, we are turning into a nation of functional illiterates’. The public acclaim of ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ (Truss, 2003) was in many ways astonishing – a best-selling book on punctuation, triggering radio and television reports about the nation’s use of the apostrophe! A recent lengthy review of research on writing (Myhill et al., 2008), published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), the ministry responsible for education policy in English schools, was greeted by the media with scare reports about teachers’ understanding of grammar. The Times Educational Supplement (Stewart, 2008) headline ‘Syntax too taxing for teachers typifies the tone of reporting. Such things are symptomatic of a national psyche of anxiety about grammar and punctuation.

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