Thursday, 12 September 2013

On a not very bright grammar test

An English-teacher correspondent in the UK writes to tell me a very worrying - but totally to be expected - story emerging from the Key Stage 2 grammar test marking earlier this year. Question 16 asks children to complete the sentence 'The sun shone ________ in the sky.' and the mark scheme reads 'Accept any appropriate adverb, e.g. brightly, beautifully'.

A child presented the answer 'The sun shone bright in the sky', and this was marked wrong, on the grounds that it is 'not an adverb'.

This is the kind of nonsense up with which nobody should put. It is the response of a marker who is insecure about his/her grammatical knowledge, and who has a half-remembered history of faulty learning based on unauthentic prescriptive principles.

The devil, of course, lies in the detail - here, in the word 'appropriate'. If you interpret this word to mean 'appropriate to the rules prescriptive grammarians think operate in English', then brightly would of course be privileged. It has been the norm in formal written standard English for the last couple of centuries. But if you take 'appropriate' to mean 'in a way that makes sense', then bright is a perfectly normal alternative, used by hundreds of millions all over the English-speaking world, in writing as well as in speech. It has been a part of English since Anglo-Saxon times. You'll find an adverbial use of bright in Beowulf, in Chaucer, in Shakespeare (repeatedly - 'The moon shines bright', 'teach the torches to burn bright'...), and right down to the present day. Prescriptive grammarians took against it in the 18th century, but they were unable to stop the progress. The adverbial use of bright is used even by prescriptively minded people, when they say such things as 'I got up bright and early'. It is unequivocally an adverb when used in Question 16, and anyone who can't see this needs to take grammar lessons.

Even Fowler, beloved of prescriptivists, saw the nonsense. In the entry in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage on 'unidiomatic -ly' we find: 'much more to be deprecated ... is the growing notion that every monosyllabic adjective, if an adverb is to be made of it, must have a -ly clapped on it to proclaim the fact', and he condemns the 'ignorance' that leads people to think in this way. A 'growing notion'. That was in 1926. Topsy sure has growed now.

What is much more worrying is the marker who rejected dutifully as an appropriate answer. What on earth is wrong with 'The sun shone dutifully in the sky'? Now, we don't know why the child who gave this answer used this particular adverb. One of the ways in which the grammar tests would be made more meaningful and exciting would be if there was a space for kids to give explanations about why they made the choices they made - a pragmatic perspective. Context is ignored in these grammar tests, which is one of the basic problems with them (as I remarked in an earlier post). But, looking at it cold, dutifully to my mind is a lovely creative way of expressing a situation in a narrative where, for example, after a period of rain, someone begs the sun to appear and it 'dutifully did so'. If this turned up in a story by a well-known author it would be appreciated as an imaginative use of English and considered as perfectly appropriate. To reject it here is to convey to children and their teachers that the only kind of English that Mr Gove and his markers want to see in schools is of a predictable, cliched, and uninspiring kind.

63 comments:

Kathy said...

Great post. Thank you. I saw this on twitter as I was explaining to a parent that the KS2 grammar test provides no true reflection of a child's writing ability and is, at best, a feature-spotting exercise.

Gove and his cronies are killing creative learning.

Zeppo said...

Thanks for this post.
My bugbear is people insisting on 'I contacted them directly' instead of 'direct', as though the latter were wrong.

Paul Wingrove said...

'Oh, the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin...' as we used to sing when school-children!

Mike said...

I had a Spanish teacher in Salamanca with a similar dreary outlook on language. I couldn't write (the Spanish equivalent of) "I was dreaming on my bed". I had to be sleeping.

Likewise, one couldn't sprint in a race, one had to run.

Anonymous said...

By appointing armies of avid prescriptivists, it is possible to display plenty of ill-founded rigour for things 'pure and simple'. For a public hungry that 'something should be done' about those already branded as 'enemies of promise', there is an easy relish for intolerance of anything complex and subtle - such as a living world language. Sadly, history teaches us that it is only much later, when irreparable harm has been done, that a surviving public will regret their support for those who were quick to condemn and slow to understand. It is only then that they will accept the sense behind the words of Oscar Wilde (who was persecuted for behaviour which is now condoned) that the truth is never pure and rarely simple.

DC said...

Can I remind people wanting to post on his blog that I don't normally publish responses from anyone called 'anonymous', and am only letting this one through to act as a trigger for this comment. I like to know who I'm talking to, even if it's only a nick.

Considerer said...

Gah! When I first read the question, I thought to myself that I wouldn't even have gone for an adverb, more something positional; "The sun shone high in the sky" - guess I'd fail too!

Simon said...

Sorry, David. I didn't mean to be anonymous, but I'm a novice and was baffled by the identity choices. 0/10 for 'computing'.

Also let me correct the Oscar quote. It should be 'rarely pure and never simple'. Another 0/10 in Govean literature test for me!

'Flat adverbs' are common in phrases such as 'sleep tight' (rather than 'tightly') and 'take it easy' (rather than 'easily').

Isn't it interesting that in common parlance no one would baulk at those expressions, but, enter THE GRAMMAR TEST, and common sense is blown to the winds. Maybe grammar tests are a bad idea. How strange that at a time of austerity their expense was sanctioned. (Though clearly the employment of sub-standards markers must have been a saving.) Since they are clearly not 'rigorous', are not used in 'competing jurisdictions' and do nothing to raise standards of English, what possible motive can there have been for introducing them against the advice of the profession? Can anyone enlighten me?

DC said...

Very good question, Simon. I wish I could.

Lipman said...

Prescriptivists do Fowler wrong when they claim him. I never understood why they like him, other than because he expressed a strong opinion.

Bas Aarts said...

The SPaG test is problematic in other ways too. My daughter took the test this year and came across this question:

The children listened carefully as the naturalist explained to _the children_ how to rear tarantulas, because, _the naturalist_ said, _tarantulas_ are tricky creatures outside their usual habitat.

Look at the passage above. Change all the underlined nouns/noun phrases to appropriate pronouns.

My daughter said to me afterwards "I didn't know whether to replace the phrase 'the naturalist' by 'he' or by 'she' as this person could have been a man or a woman". Afraid not to score any points she went for 'they'. This was marked as incorrect.

Incidentally, of course all the highlighted items in the passage are noun phrases. None of them are merely nouns.

Lise said...

This is an important post and more people need to be aware of this problem - it is extremely worrying that this is happening.

DC said...

Thanks, Bas. With examples like these mounting up (see my post 'On a testing time', 5 May this year) it's clear that the test is seriously flawed. It's sad that the kids are being penalised as a result of the bad decisions. I bet there are hundreds of examples like this out there.

Johnny E said...

Seems most likely that the "dutifully" kid was making a mistake and meant "beautifully"... but either way it wasn't a grammatical mistake, so it shouldn't have been marked down.

In other words, there's no need to make apologies for his word choice, because it's irrelevant to the context of the test. The fact that the result can be interpreted sensibly is nice, but "The sun shone exponentially in the sky" would also be perfectly grammatically correct.

(Incidentally, I had to really rack my brains to find an adverb that didn't make sense on a metaphorical level... funny how much agency and emotion one can ascribe to a glowing ball of gas.)

DC said...

Willie Haas (prof of linguistics at Manchester years ago) used to say that he could contextualize any sentence within a minute, and proved it, when challenged with 'Quadruplicity drinks procrastination', by starting to talk about the way the Big Four powers behaved after World War 2... I reckon he would have dealt with 'exponentially' in a few seconds!

But this is the whole point, isn't it - the way parts of speech can be stretched to make people think, really think, about the way they use words. Shakespeare does this all the time. Tests should be reinforcing such exploration, not impeding it.

Mike Church said...

Extraordinary. Great post, and also some excellent follow-up comments. It's hard to disagree with anybody or anything here. I was particularly taken by the poor lady who failed to score for using - intelligently, in my opinion - "they" instead of "he" or "she". When my students use "they" in this way, I give them *extra* marks, but each to his/her/their own, I suppose.

Emilio Márquez said...

Here’s a quote from Sweet (in Palmer and Blandford’s A Grammar of Spoken English, 3rd ed, rewritten by Roger Kingdon, page xviii):
“The first object in studying grammar is to learn to observe linguistic facts as they ARE, not as they OUGHT to be, or as they were in an earlier stage of the language”.

Bob Hay said...

Funny that this should come up just a few days after you were discussing William Blake: "Tyger Tyger, burning bright".

DC said...

Well, do you know, that association never occurred to me! Thanks.

Ray said...

The sun shone bright on Stephen Foster's Old Kentucky Home.

MichaelRosen said...

Great work, David. I've tweeted and facebooked it. (Facebook is quite obviously not a verb though.)

xipuloxx said...

This is my first ever post here, please be gentle! :)

@ Emilio Marquez: Are you suggesting that the adverbial use of "bright" is part of the English language as it was rather than as it is now? Because it is in fact still valid, if somewhat old-fashioned.

As it happens, I'm currently reading a collection of science essays by Isaac Asimov, entitled "The Sun Shines Bright"! It never occurred to me that this was in any way ungrammatical.

StevieTT said...

Am I missing the point? Would you accept "The sun shone dutiful in the sky" then? Or are we only dealing with monosyllabic adjectives? Genuinely confused.

DC said...

This particular issue relates to the monosyllabic ones. As you increase length, the issue becomes less pressing, as there's a clearer divide as to what people do in standard vs nonstandard speech. The standard norm is certainly to use '-ly' with polysyllabic adverbs, such as 'dutifully'. But if you carried out an acceptability test in the sample sentence, using a wide range of adverbs, you'd find that your intuition about what is acceptable varies with the choice of lexical item.

This is one of the problems with trying to test grammar in the way Gove wants. Things are rarely as black and white as testers would like them to be.

Conor said...

"The sun shone dutifully" reminds me of the opening line of Beckett's Murphy, "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new".

Mark Bennet said...

I'm not sure what the exact instruction was, but the sentence seems to me to be complete without any addition. So were children who put nothing in the gap marked as getting the question correct? The instruction should be "add a word in the place indicated in the sentence below to make a new sentence". I have a daughter who might have agonised for some time about what the question meant, and whether to put something or nothing.

Kim F said...

I'm sorry to say I was a marker for this test this year. I was appalled at the prescriptive mark scheme which left no room for imagination. I had to give 'nil points' for a huge range of carefully chosen metaphors which were not acceptable whilst accepting 'butifuly', 'britely' etc.

DC said...

That's a really valuable point, Kim. Thanks for adding it.

MichaelRosen said...

re things not being as 'black and white' as claimed, as David has said, it should be remembered that the justification given for the SPaG test was precisely because grammar, punctuation and spelling have 'right and wrong answers'. See the Bew Report. This was the 'independent' review on assessment and accountability which Michael Gove set up. Its provisional report made no mention of such a test. It was introduced without references, sources or evidence as a kind of postscript to the provisional report. Needless to say, Gove 'accepted' the recommendations of the report which were nothing more nor less than prejudice dressed up as argument.

DC said...

Strong point, Michael.

Superdooperal said...

I wonder what the marker would have made of Gerard Manley Hopkins? What is so ghastly about this whole test is it squeezes out the creativity and self expression of the young mind just at the point where is needs to ne allowed to develop. ITs the language equivalent of colouring inside the lines.

Mike Baker said...

So "the sun shone high in the sky" would be marked as wrong, and "the sun shone highly in the sky" would be marked as right.

Mark Bennet said...

When I studied German we were taught about adverbs of "time, manner and place" [to be organised in that order]. I wonder about the different reactions / responses I have to "The sun shone timely in the sky" - which seems vacuous - and "The sun shone untimely in the sky" - which has the identical grammatical form, but which seems to evoke mystery "why?" "how?". The gap in the question is an interesting thing to fill, but the real question is why you fill it as you do, and the impact that has in the context - including the question of whether you are writing for immediate understanding or to convey layered meanings (both of which are valid purposes of language).

John Cowan said...

Historically the flat adverbs descend from Old English adverbs that were formed from adjectives by adding -e. The general fall of final -e in English left them identical to their adjectival sources. That's why most flat adverbs are monosyllabic.

Emilio Márquez said...

@ xipuloxx: I mean, if you are a native speaker and you feel that such usage is “natural”, then it can’t be ungrammatical –I suppose.

DC said...

Mike: I hope not! But this example reminds me of a point I should have made at the outset. One of the reasons the test sentence presents a problem is that the verb 'shine' can be taken in two ways. Like several other verbs in English, it can have an 'equative' function. If I say 'John feels happy', this essentially means 'John is happy', and in such a case it is not possible to replace the adjective with an adverb. Similarly, 'The sun shines high in the sky' essentially means 'The sun is high in the sky', and again there would be no adverb.

So the problem with 'bright' is that there is a coming together of two constructions. It's a perfectly good analysis to take 'The sun shines bright as meaning 'The sun is bright'. Dick Hudson sends me an example of 'He came home drunk', where it is the 'he' that is drunk not the 'coming home'. This shows the difference with 'The sun shines bright', where the 'bright' can apply either to the sun or to the shining. In other words, the sentence is structurally ambiguous - leaving aside the question of standard vs nonstandard - and is a bad example to use in a test. The marking scheme, illustrating with 'brightly', show that the examiners are thinking of the blank in an adverbial way. The kids who wrote 'bright' could have been taking it in an adjectival way.

Far better to find examples where this kind of ambiguity doesn't arise. The basic point that most adverbs are formed from adjectives by adding '-ly' is what the examiners are struggling to determine.

Barry Cusack said...

I wonder if the test item was ever trialled. From Kim's observation, I suspect not.

Our young people deserve better: they need
1. to learn the difference between adjectives and adverbs and
2. to be given a fair way to demonstrate their knowledge.

Isn't that all?

Karl said...

The very format of this question -- "Fill in the blank with any appropriate word" -- is crazy, and is just begging for this sort of controversy. It can only work if you reword the question: "What would be the least imaginative, least creative, least colorful, and most technically defensible word to put in this blank?"

Mary said...

This is a very encouraging and uplifting conversation. BUT will it change anything for children failing those tests?

Incidentally, in relation to the sun shining, I had a pupil who wrote in an essay that 'The sun shone hot and sticky and I badly needed an ice cream'. Even typing it in word does not trigger red or green squiggly lines!

DC said...

I hope it helps form a climate - but I'm not holding my breath!

Peter Harvey said...

Open-ended questions are the devil because, as has been pointed out, just about anything can be justified if you try hard enough. The problem is that they are easy to write; objective tests are much harder to write but are also much easier to mark. As a rule of thumb, the easier a written language exam is to set, the harder it will be to mark and vice versa.

Roger said...

I don't know about Charlie Chaplin's involvement but most rugby players past and present will know the sun shone bright on little Red Wing.

Roger

Roger said...

Tsk! "moon".

Roger

Adrian said...

I do wish parents and children would boycott these tests. Children gain no benefit from them. I'm surprised that the Emperor's New Clothes which are otherwise known as SATs have gone unchallenged for so long.

Susspa said...

Can an action be ascribed to the sun. The sun is always shining. I'm having a philosophical problem with the concept of the sun shining as if it were a voluntary act and as if it could do anything else...

Esther said...

Esther said...
Thank you David. And do you know whether, as parents, we can insist on withdrawing our children from this and the Year 1 phonics test? I have a feeling that if I ask the school they will have no idea on whether parents can do that? Does anyone know?!

DC said...

No idea, I'm afraid.

Emil Klein said...

I didn't even want to put an adverb in there in the first place! I thought I was good as english, specially the grammar. But, well :) I guess we all thought of something which could have fitted perfectly in the sentence :)

Jessica Brown said...

I think 'The sun shone dutifully in the sky' is a lovely answer!

R. Sabey said...

"The sun shone bright in the sky" is fine, but I'd say that "bright" is an adjective complement of the verb, not an adverb.

There aren't all that many adjectives which have corresponding adverbs identical in form to the adjecives. For example, "fast", and a bunch of adjectives such as "daily". And "then" can be used both as adverb and as adjective as in "In 1990, the then president...". But not "bright".

DC said...

This reinforces the point I made a few cpmments ago.

Ramon said...

Interesting post. It is curious that "The sun shone bright in the sky" is not acceptable, but you could state "The sun shone daily in the sky", and this would be OK. As Jessica points out, that is an adverb as well as an adjective. I wonder whether the teacher would accept it?

@BobK99 said...

Verbum sat. I've posted a matters-arising note (not about Gove 'or his works or his pomps' to quote the RC baptism service), here

b

Lesley O'Mara said...

I am of the generation which sadly received no real formal grammar teaching in school. I now have two children in primary school and am really having to work hard to keep up with how/what they're being taught so that I can help them as much as possible in preparation for the various tests and targets they face. In fact, I'm now studying for a linguistics degree because I've found it all so fascinating - it's rather scary, though, that I'm learning terminology from my Open University "Worlds of English" module with which my 7-year-old son is already familiar! Hopefully we'll help each other through, though.

David Crosbie said...

To continue the pickiness with the moon shines bright, it was on pretty Redwing. The song with little Redwing is one sort of parody. The childish song with Charlie Chaplin is another. T.S. Eliot's Waste Land with Mrs Porter is a third.

By contrast The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.

Jason Franklin said...

This is a clear case of too much focus on accuracy. In our country, schools focus too much on accuracy rather than fluency. Language is dynamic. What is unacceptable before is now being acceptable now. We teachers should be flexible to allow these changes.

Adrian said...

"so that I can help them as much as possible in preparation for the various tests and targets they face" Such is the sad way that British parents and children have been indoctrinated. The only important tests are the GCSEs and equivalent exams they take at 16. The only important educational target is to achieve to the best of their ability. All the other tests and targets are just part of the process, and parents and children should not be tyrannised by them.

Roger said...

The original blog here mentions Shakespeare as justification for the use of the flat adverb (a term I had not heard of before) but I question whether this is valid. Shakespeare wrote dialogue which says nothing about what he thought was linguistically correct — it is only, perhaps, a guide to the common usage of the time. I say "perhaps" because Shakespeare's writing was by no means "common".

Roger said...

While I was posting my response, I heard my local newspaper drop through the letter box and, when I had hit the submit button, I went to pick it up. The single, firont page headline, referring to planting a time capsule was "Digging deep at new scool site". I don't think "digging deeply" would have worked.

DC said...

I mentioned Shakespeare as one (of dozens of writers) who could illustrate this usage over the centuries, at all stylistic levels, from literary to domestic. I wasn't suggesting that this point had anything to do with views about correctness. It was made simply to help counter the commonly heard remark that this kind of usage is 'new'.

krishna said...

This is problamatic for non native teachers

Paul Gelling said...

Although not directly relevant to the substance of this fascinating discussion, my recollection of a similar test in the 1950s might amuse you. Asked to complete this sentence: "The rain was --- down", I answered "shuttering", as it was what my Yorkshire grandmother said (of heavy rainfall), only to be told by my teacher that the word did not exist. I complained bitterly to my parents when I got home.

Mantralayalam Surendran said...

A beautiful post. The pupil, probably, implied a an adjectival meaning (the bright sun shone in the sky). In my humble opinion, the case is one of a conflict between grammar and semantics. The "tester" thought of adverbs and the pupil thought about the meaning that was prompted by the sentence. It was the brightness of the sun that impressed (probability) and not the location (adverbial). However, in usage, which determines the dynamics of language, the pupil was using "bright" correctly as an adverb