Online grammar teaching


Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” programme, broadcast on Saturday mornings at 9 am, this week included a contribution from Nevile Gwynne. We were told that Mr Gwynne (and throughout the programme he was called “Mr Gwynne” rather than “Neville”) retired as a businessman (we weren’t told what line of business he was in) twenty years ago, and has since made his living teaching grammar, nowadays via the internet. I was going to sigh and shrug my shoulders at some of his statements, but I’ve also been reading the back numbers of Alex Rotatori’s blog and found his ‘altercation’ with an Italian writer on English phonetics who is less than perfect, to put it mildly; so I thought I would share some of the comments that Mr Gwynne made.

1) We think with words. We cannot think without words. Therefore the bigger vocabulary we have, the better we can think.

2) A lack of knowledge of correct grammar can lead to wrong thinking. Wrong thinking can lead to wrong decisions.

3) Happiness depends in part on the command of grammar. Wrong grammar leads ultimately to wrong meaning.

4) You will never find ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ confused by Jane Austen, P G Wodehouse or John Buchan. (How does he know? Has he read every word of their books so closely that he would find every example of what he would regard as ‘bad’ grammar?)

5) Shakespeare never splits an infinitive. Nor does Buchan or Orwell (two authors he specifically mentioned in this context).

6) Shakespeare introduced 19,000 words to the language, and every one of them was a useful word. The words he introduced were the Latinate equivalents for more homely words, and he thereby helps us to think better.

7) ‘Per capita’ should be replaced by ‘per caput’, as it is taken to mean ‘per head’ not ‘per heads’. (The OED shows that ‘per capita’ precedes ‘per caput’ by a couple of hundred years.)

8) You don’t learn language just naturally like a nightingale learns to sing. It has to be learnt partly by imitating other people and partly by being learnt. (This last one I copied down verbatim.)

I can’t make my mind up whether he was invited on to the show with serious intent, or in order to show him up as a charlatan.

Among other things, he was asked if “grammarian” was a word, and he said he didn’t know. For someone who is so ready to give blanket statements about great writers not to have heard of “A Grammarian’s Funeral” by Robert Browning is quite surprising.

He corrected Sian Williams when she said /pɑːˈtɪsɪpl/ to /ˈpɑːtsɪpl/. All three current pronouncing dictionaries allow /pɑːˈtɪsɪpl/.

He seemed to acquiesce in the statement that “‘infer’ is simply a posher way of saying ‘imply'”.

I don’t think any comment on the validity of these statements is necessary.

On his website, Mr Gwynne says he is an Old Etonian and has an MA in Modern Languages from Oxford. He gives no more information on his qualifications to pontificate on ‘correct’ English. Clearly, the internet encourages this type of thing (see Alex’s experiences with Sr Canepari). Unfortunately, it leads to the real experts being denigrated, and so can be quite dangerous.


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