Tag Archives: education

Subjects and verbs

2 Apr

A sentence, even one as short as “He left”, always contains a subject – a noun or pronoun – and a verb. The two should always agree although, in practice, they often do not.

For example, an article in today’s Guardian by Jessica Shepherd (its education correspondent, no less), read, “One in five free schools are opening…”. This should have been, “One in five free schools is opening…”. As far as grammar is concerned, it’s irrelevant whether she was writing about one school in five or one school in twenty-five – the singular subject of the sentence was “one” (one school in five). I know it’s easy to criticise journalists’ grammar (and I realise they are working to a deadline), but it would probably have been better to write, “One free school in five is opening…”.

The most common, and to me irritating, use of plural verbs with singular subjects is “are” with “team” and “group”. When talking about a team, commentators now always seem to say, for example, “England are unlikely to qualify”, or “Arsenal are unlikely to finish in the top four in the league”, but both “England” and “Arsenal” are teams – and a team is singular. “England is unlikely to qualify”, is not only correct, it sounds better – even if the outcome is just as disappointing.

The writer of another article in today’s newspaper couldn’t make up his/her mind about “group”: “The group say they do not blame…”, but farther on, “…exemplifies the frustration the group feels…”. (At least be consistent!) If, “The group says it does not blame…” sounded odd, it could easily have been resolved by writing, “The members of the group say…”, so that the subject was “the members” (plural), rather than “the group” (singular).

There’s a lot more on this to come, so watch this space.

Today’s picture

I took this in California in 1980. Is it the ultimate in bone idleness?



Eroding education

14 Jan

Eroding education.

Mr Gove and educational reforms

18 Oct

In yesterday’s Guardian there was more comment on schools. Plans to build two new state schools in Coventry, funded by developers of land previously occupied by Massey Ferguson and Marconi factories, have been scrapped after Coventry city council realised that all new schools must now be academies or free schools. The Guardian comments, “A little-noticed clause in the Education Act 2011 states: ‘If a local authority in England thinks a new school needs to be established, they must seek proposals for the establishment of an academy’.” Coventry council may now decide to spend the money on upgrading existing schools.

This prompted me to look at the Department for Education’s website to find out exactly what academies and free schools are. Written (surprise, surprise) in rather ungrammatical English – mixing singular and plural in one sentence and splitting infinitives, for example – it appears that both are state funded. “Some academies, generally those set up to replace underperforming schools, will have a sponsor. Sponsors…[include] successful schools, businesses, universities, charities and faith bodies” – and followers of this blog will already know my views on faith schools, on running schools for profit (which, presumably a business would be doing), and on the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

The DfE site continues: “Academies benefit from greater freedoms [why is this plural?] to innovate and raise standards.” These include:
freedom from local authority control
Academies and free schools receive their funding from the Education Funding Agency (EFA), rather than from local authorities. The EFA also supports “the delivery of building and maintenance programmes for schools, academies, Free Schools and sixth-form colleges”, but who controls the educational standards?
the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff
Is this an underhand way of emasculating the teaching unions, which Gove says exhibit “soft bigotry [can someone explain hard bigotry to me?] and low expectations”?
freedoms around the delivery of the curriculum
How does this conflate with raising academic standards and does it mean that schools can teach nonsensical theories, including creationism? According to the Telegraph, only 22 per cent of teachers support Gove’s plans to scrap GCSEs, although 77 per cent sensibly did agree that only one exam board should administer each subject, nationwide.
the ability to change the lengths of terms and school days
In principle, this seems logical, but how will working parents manage if they have children at different schools and those schools have different timings and holidays?

Gove was a journalist before he became an MP and (clearly) has no experience of teaching. He thinks teachers should “go the extra mile” by running after-school clubs and working on Saturdays. Teaching is tough – imagine spending all day controlling 30-or-so children as well as trying to teach them – and most teachers already “go the extra mile” by preparing lessons and marking homework out of school hours. Gove told the BBC that one of the “Five things I have learned” is that “you can’t spend too much time with your children”. Presumably, he thinks teachers don’t have children.

Today’s picture
And now for something a little more cheerful! My friends and I were excited to see this tortoise in Mallorca a couple of weeks ago. We’d only ever seen them as pets before.


Photograph by Al Taylor

I and me

15 Oct

On 30 March, I blogged about me/myself and you/yourself. This is a continuation, or extension, of that.

I received an email the other day asking me if I’d like to meet “my daughter and I” for coffee. I couldn’t, unfortunately, but that wasn’t because the email should have read “my daughter and me”. (I am extremely fond of the sender, and her daughter!)

Using “I” instead of “me” is a common mistake caused, I imagine, by trying not to be ungrammatical. While you wouldn’t write, “My daughter and me accept your invitation”, after the event, you should write, “Thank you for inviting my daughter and me”. When in doubt, think the sentence through – my daughter accepts your invitation, I accept your invitation, thank you for inviting my daughter, thank you for inviting me – and you’ll always get it right.

Today’s picture

I have no idea what this tree is (photographed in Mallorca a couple of weeks ago), but it seems to have blossom and fruit on it at the same time.




Common errors

3 Sep

There are certain grammatical errors that are made so often that they become common usage. This is partly because English is a “jackdaw” of a language, partly because it is not taught well. Here are four of the most common; others will – no doubt – follow.

Criterion/criteria, from the Greek kriterion, are often used the wrong way round: criterion is singular, criteria plural. While agenda and data, both from Latin, have become accepted as singulars (rather than agendum and datum), criteria has not.

Farther/further. Farther should be used for distance (think “thus far and no farther”), further for time. “It is farther from London to Glasgow than it is from London to Leeds”; “The discovery of a cure for this disease is further away than is sometimes predicted”.

Myriad, from the Greek murias, means innumerable. There are myriad reasons why one should never say, or write, “there are a myriad of reasons”.

None is singular (no one), so it should be “none of these solutions is correct”, not “none of these solutions are correct” (“none” is the subject of the sentence and the verb should agree with the subject). According to thefreedictionary.com, “…the plural usage appears in the King James Bible as well as the works of John Dryden and Edmund Burke and is widespread in the works of respectable writers today”, but in my opinion, it’s still wrong!

Today’s picture

The sky is blue today. Is this the beginning of an Indian summer?

“Indian summer”, incidentally, refers to the US, not the Indian sub-continent. Fine, sunny autumn weather was said to be more common in the areas formerly occupied by native (Indian) Americans than in those occupied by the white population. This picture, however, is from India: it is the Lake Palace Hotel at Udaipur.


Get and got

28 Aug

“Get” is a useful verb but, as The Economist Style Guide says, “it has its limits”. A politician does not get to be party leader, he/she becomes party leader; nor does an employee get a promotion, he/she is given a promotion or even, perhaps, earns one.

“Got”, the past participle of “get”, is even more frequently misused. In conversation, we all tend to say, “I’ve got” – as in “I’ve got a headache” etc – but “got” is superfluous here. All we really need to say, or write, is, “I have a headache”.

 It is particularly irritating to hear our so-called well-educated politicians banging on about education: “We’ve got to improve standards in English” is a favourite. Yes, indeed, we have – and let’s start with you!

Today’s picture

An interesting piece of lettering in Melbourne, Australia.



Plurals, possessives and the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”

1 Jul

Plurals and possessives are a cause of much confusion in English – and there are no easy-to-follow rules.

Some words simply add an “s” to denote the plural – for example, girl to girls, boy to boys, house to houses; some insert an “e” – potato to potatoes, tomato to tomatoes; others make more substantial changes. For example, scarf changes to scarves, life to lives, person to people, lady to ladies; and some nouns, such as politics, are always plural (politic is an adjective and means prudent, which people in politics often are not!).

Never, ever, put an apostrophe in decades: it’s the 1990s, not the 1990’s, unless (and in English, there always seems to be an unless) you’re using it as a possessive – and possessives are an even bigger problem.

English is, I think, the only language to use apostrophes – ‘s (for singular) or s’ (for plural) – to denote ownership. It is much more fluent to say or write “The man’s hat blew off” than “The hat of the man blew off”, but it leads to a great deal of confusion and to the common use of what has become known as “the greengrocer’s apostrophe” (greengrocers seem to be particularly prone to labelling their goods “Fresh tomatoe’s”, instead of “Fresh tomatoes”, etc).

What is the easiest way to work out where the apostrophe goes? Turn the sentence around so that the noun is at the end; the apostrophe will follow the last letter of the noun. For example, “The homework of the girl” – one girl – is “The girl’s homework”, “The homework of the girls” – more than one – is “The girls’ homework”.

We also use apostrophes to indicate an elision (one or more missing letters): I’ve (I have), I’m (I am), wasn’t (was not), etc, and it’s (it is) –  and with it’s we’re back to the confusion between possessives and plurals. It is a pronoun (like him and her) that is used to refer to an object or an animal; the plural is its, not it’s.

As you can see from the following pictures, the confusion about apostrophes is not recent. The person who owned the pie and mash shop was, undoubtedly called Clark. Strictly speaking, his shop sign should have read “Clark’s”, and the addition of the apostrophe wouldn’t have spoiled the sign. Similarly, I’m sure that the man who built the terrace in Islington, in 1824, was called Thomson…and how interesting that the stonemason added a pointless full point after the date.




The church of England and state education

19 Apr

As a member of the British Humanist Association, I wrote to my (very good) MP, Emily Thornberry about a potential increase in the role of the church of England in education. She raised it with the Schools Minister, Jonathan Hill, and has sent me a copy of his reply.

He writes, “Currently, it is not possible for a maintained school without a religious designation to convert to become an Academy with a religious designation in a single process. Any maintained school that wishes to gain a religious designation must follow a clearly laid out statutory process, which includes a requirement to consult on that change locally. It is possible to publish concurrent proposals to cover the requirements of these two separate processes.

“The Department is currently looking at school organisation regulations with a view to streamlining processes and reducing bureaucracy, as far as possible. However, the current requirement for a maintained school without a religious designation to close and then re-open as a new maintained ‘faith’ school in order to obtain a religious designation is set out in primary legislation. Any change to this requirement would, therefore, be subject to Parliamentary process and agreement.”

As Emily Thornberry points out in her covering letter, “It is clear that discussions on this point are continuing, and it is quite possible that the Secretary of State might seek to change the regulations or the primary legislation.”

As an 11-year-old, I was fortunate to win a scholarship to a public school, unfortunate in that it was to a Methodist public school. On our first day we were asked what our religion was (a school friend remembers me saying I was an atheist!), there were prayers in assembly every morning, rather a lot of scripture lessons and the boarders had to go to chapel twice every Sunday (luckily I was a day girl).

While I believe it is important for schools to teach comparative religion so that children learn about, and are tolerant of, different faiths; I do not believe they should be teaching from the point of view of one faith. Have we learnt nothing from the strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, Christians and Muslims elsewhere in the world? Religion should be taught at home, not at school.

(And the Schools Minister used the dreaded “going forward” phrase: “…we believe that using collaborative structures such as Umbrella Trusts will be important going forward.”)

Today’s picture

After that rant, I think you need a calm picture and, surprisingly, a religious one. Each afternoon at the Sera monastery in Tibet, the monks debate with their novices: they ask questions and there are formalised “yes” and “no” gestures for right or wrong answers. The monk standing on the left is giving a “yes” gesture.Image



Superfluous words

18 Apr

You may have guessed that I’m a newspaper addict, but so many people subscribe to the “why use one word when you can use three (or more)” syndrome, that it’s not really good for my blood pressure.

Today, for example, it was reported that Judge Anthony Pitts told the Southwark Crown Court “…the figure may be in excess of £200m” – why not “the figure may exceed £200m”? And in a piece about an Alfred Hitchock season “…one of the highlights…will be to fully restore nine of the director’s silent films”. Who needs “fully”? Apart from splitting the infinitive (and, yes, I am one of those dinosaurs who hates split infinitives), they’re either going to be restored, or they’re not.

The most frequent culprit is, of course, “of”: “all of” instead of “all”; and “inside of” and “outside of” instead of “inside” and “outside”.

Back in the day, as they say, with the exception of direct quotes, newspaper subs corrected grammar, cut copy to fit without losing important parts of the story, and wrote headlines, captions and stand firsts (introductions) that accurately represented what was in the piece – which isn’t always the case now.

I realise that cost precludes the use of subs now, but could we not teach people to write better English in the first place? Minister for Education please note.

Today’s picture

The weather is vile today (I think we had summer in March; in a few years we’ll be having it in December), so here’s some sunshine: the shell seller’s shelter on the beach at Trinidad del Mar, Cuba.Image