I’m not at all surprised my correspondent had a problem. The test asked readers to ‘give the parts of speech, including the grammatical part of any verbs, of “boiling” and every instance of “washing” in the sentence, “She is washing in boiling water yesterday’s washing in the washing machine that she uses for washing clothes”.’
Gwynne provided the answers in the letters column of the 7 November (I give his exact words):
Boiling: present participle (verb-adjective)
First ‘washing’: taken with ‘is’, continuous present tense, active voice and indicative mood. By itself, present participle.
Second ‘washing’: either gerund (verbal noun) or gerundive.
Third ‘washing’: noun acting as an adjective (‘noun-adjective’).
Fourth ‘washing’: gerund, acting both as a noun and as a transitive verb.
A letter in the issue of 14 November tells us that only 29 people attempted it and only one got the above answers. This didn’t surprise me either. I suspect most readers of the Spectator were sensible enough to see through the artificial nature of the exercise, with English being forced into the categories devised for Latin. Gerunds and gerundives have no place in an English grammar. And doubtless there were those, whose grammatical knowledge is better than Gwynne’s, who were marked wrong because they didn’t conform to Gwynne’s own misanalysis of ‘washing machine’. This, of course, is a compound noun - recognized as such in every dictionary - so the first element shouldn’t be classed as a separate part of speech at all.
Heaven knows how people are supposed to make sense of the jumble of terms in the answers. A present participle is a verb-adjective. One ‘washing’ is either a gerund, or a gerundive - though it can hardly be both at the same time. Another is apparently both a noun and an adjective. Another is both a noun and a verb. No wonder people are put off grammar when presented with this kind of thing.
Fortunately, modern approaches - as opposed to these resurrected Victorian ones - present English in a much more straightforward way. ‘Boiling’ is an adjective; ‘washing’ in ‘yesterday’s washing’ is a noun; ‘washing’ in ‘washing clothes’ is a verb; and so on. That is all that needs to be said, when first introducing word classes. Introducing imagined parallels - for instance, that ‘boiling’ is an adjective that reminds you of a verb - is an unnecessary confusion when identifying parts of speech.
Gwynne is so out of touch with what is actually happening in schools today. He says on his website that grammar ‘has by now been almost entirely abolished’. Tell that to Buckinghamshire teachers, with their splendid Grammar Project - to name just one of many initiatives taking place around the country. Yes, the kind of grammar presented in Gwynne’s Grammar has indeed been almost entirely abolished in schools, and that’s a very good thing. But it’s been replaced by an approach which respects English for what it is, and doesn’t try to treat it as if it were a bastardized form of Latin.
By the way, while I’m in this mood, I have a second piece of evidence to support my contention that the Spectator isn’t interested in facts. A few weeks earlier (24 October), a writer penned a travel piece on Anglesey, where I live, praising its natural splendour but denying that that there were any art galleries on the island, and saying it was impossible to go to an opera there. I wrote a letter pointing out that Llangefni has a fine art gallery, Oriel, with a stunning Tunnicliffe collection, and that the Ucheldre Centre in Holyhead has art exhibitions all year round. And Ucheldre regularly presents operas - Wales National Opera and Swansea City Opera, to name just two - as well as giving people the chance to see Covent Garden et al there too, thanks to streaming, at a fraction of the London prices.
They didn’t publish that one either. I think I'll stick to blogging.