Don’t fence in the unicorn

My six-year-old explained to me what a split digraph was the other day. “A what?” I hear you say. Well, if you’re like me and grew up in what my daughter deems ‘the olden days’ then you might know it as ‘the magic e’ – when an ‘e’ at the end of a word is said to change the sound of an earlier vowel. So ‘grip’ with an ‘e’ at the end becomes ‘gripe’ and ‘rat’ becomes ‘rate’.

But, it turns out, when my primary school teacher told me the ‘e’ was magic, she was wrong (and not just because it couldn’t open a space-time portal into a parallel universe). It’s not the ‘e’ making the change in pronunciation. In such words the two vowels are actually a digraph, two letters that join together to make a different sound from either on its own (these can also be made from consonants too, like ‘sh’ and ‘ch’). It’s the wandering consonant in between them that’s confusing matters. It’s splitting them up. Take the word ‘gripe’ as a case in point. The digraph ‘ie’ is pronounced as if you bashed a hammer on your thumb: ‘Aye!’ (as in, ‘pie, ‘lie’ and ‘tie’). In ‘gripe’ this digraph is being split up by the rogue ‘p’ (obviously some no-good relationship wrecker).

Now I like to think of myself as a bit of a grammar nerd. I mean, I teach adults grammar in my business writing workshops. I get my knickers in a twist if I spot a missing apostrophe or a dangling modifier. So you’d think I’d be delighted that my child is being inculcated in the rigours of grammar at such a tender age. But I’m not. I think the current narrow focus on grammar is both limiting and limited.

It’s limiting because there’s so much more to literacy than knowing about split digraphs and trigraphs*. To put all the emphasis on its framework is to suck all the joy out of learning about English. It’s like kids spending all their time in the art room studying different types of canvases and brushes – instead of being shown a canvas and brush and then encouraged to splosh paint cheerfully about.

But this approach is also limited on its own terms, because the framework isn’t being shown for what it truly is. Grammar is not maths. The structures of English don’t follow any universal laws, like 1 + 1 always equalling 2. They’re man-made. They’ve grown up organically, over time. As a result, they’re tricky, illogical and ever-changing.

When our ancient ancestors lived in caves, presumably one of them started making a specific grunting noise when he/she pointed at a rock. The other cave people came to recognise the sound and started making the same grunting noise when they wanted to indicate a rock. A different grunt was used to signify ‘fire’ and then another for ‘sabre-toothed tiger’. And so it went on. No-one sat down in the beginning and decided to write an overarching rule book. Stuff just got added on. And on. Bits of other languages got mixed in when people started to travel and trade. Consequently, all languages are a patchwork of idiosyncrasies. And they’re all in flux. A quick shifty at any Shakespearean text will tell you that language never stands still. It’s not like you complain to a barista when your macchiato’s not up scratch by saying: ‘Accursed knave, my sops are besmirched!’

At various points people have tried, retrospectively, to stick rules on English, but it’s never worked. We all remember the collective groan in the English classroom when the teacher started to list the exceptions to a particular ‘rule’. But the Department of Education doesn’t seem to want to admit that. I can only put this down to its obsession with measuring and quantification. It likes league tables and statistics. It likes tests, lots of them, in which there is always a right answer and a wrong answer – so it can tick one, mark a cross against the other and stick a score upon a child’s forehead (and an Ofsted rating upon the school). Nuance, subjectivity and context don’t come into it.

The fact is there is no universal English grammar rule book. There are different schools of thought and different ways of approaching particular problems. Take my granny, for example. She trained as a legal secretary in Edinburgh between the wars. She’d have rather taken tea naked in Jenners than split an infinitive. I, however, like to regularly split infinitives. That particular ‘rule’, you see, originally comes from Latin, a language in which an infinitive is one word – so it can’t be split (like French infinitives: ‘manger’, ‘boire’, ‘sauter’ etc). In English infinitives are two words – ‘to go’, ‘to do’, ‘to run’, ‘to dance’ etc – meaning such a rule seems about as sensible to me as a custard toilet brush. But this doesn’t mean that I am right and my granny was wrong. It means we favour/favoured different grammatical approaches.

Our language is as beautiful, enchanting, exciting and, frequently, as elusive as a unicorn. To claim otherwise is to fence it in.


*Let’s leave that lesson until another time. But be aware that five and six-year-olds in this country are expected to know this stuff – at a time when some of them are still having issues with wiping their own bums.