I Blames The Government

Well, to be honest, I blame the government for many things. Politicians and bureaucrats deserve my ire for all manner of failings – the state of the economy, the holes in the roads, world peace (or lack of), the price of beer etc.

But my complaint today is about my education. Okay. To be fair that took place some time ago but it was only relatively recently that I spotted one particular gaping great big hole in my knowledge.

For many years – a couple of decades in fact – I happily went through life pretty much ignorant of… GRAMMAR!

Is this how English grammar should be learnt – on a beach in Thailand?

When I was at school in the 1970s, we were taught the difference between a noun, a verb and an adjective and that was about it. (I don’t remember anything being said about adverbs and there was certainly no mention of prepositions, conjunctions, phrasal verbs or any other fancy stuff.)

Anything else we learnt was by absorption – reading and listening to how others used the language.

In many ways it didn’t hold me back. I got a degree, became a journalist, went into PR… communicating in English became my trade. But I was like all those other people who drive cars without ever looking at what’s under the bonnet (or hood if you prefer). I was competent at using English but I didn’t really understand how it worked: its rules or structures.

And as a writer I want to complain. Loudly. Because I was held back by the UK education system AND it spoilt my holiday!

Let me explain: in 2006 an early version of my novel The Vault was read by an editor and I got a report that commented on my overuse of perfect tenses.

At the time I didn’t want to admit my ignorance but the truth was I’d never even heard of a perfect tense, let alone – knowingly – used one in anger.

I let the report slide and life moved on. Then, a couple of years later my wife and I decided to give up our jobs and retrain to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). We were interviewed by a school in Lisbon and told that although our English was good, our grammar knowledge was… lacking.

But, having given up our nice secure jobs, before attempting the training course we decided to do a bit of travelling. And a few weeks later, there we were: sitting under a palm tree on the beach in Thailand… reading a big, heavy textbook on relative clauses, passive constructions, discourse markers, modal verbs and all this other stuff that quite frankly made my brain ache!

Now, thanks to my TEFL training, I finally know what that editor was on about. And I think that having a better understanding of my language has really helped me analyse and improve my writing. But what I don’t understand is why didn’t they teach me at least some of this stuff at school? How come all these foreigners who come here to learn English are taught more about the rules than we ever were?

If I’d had a decent grounding in grammar my writing might have been much better years ago. Plus, I wouldn’t have had to sit on a beach studying when I’d far rather have been snorkelling!

PS. That’s my wife wearing the bikini in the picture, not me.

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4 responses to “I Blames The Government”

  1. Maddie Cochere says :

    Even though I had years of grammar in school, and two years of Latin, I’m surprised at how much I’ve had to reinforce my grammar skills now that I want to write. I still struggle with holding tense when I’m talking about something that happened previously. … But I sure would like to have my refresher courses on a beach in Thailand! 😉

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Yes. It wasn’t all bad – and to be honest I wasn’t the keenest student at school and probably would have hated grammar. It’s just bizarre that I didn’t even know most of this stuff even existed.

  2. suze01 says :

    Huw, I feel the same resentment towards the Australian government. I was lucky enough to have learned the basics quite well at primary school, but that’s because I was taught by teachers who’d been taught the ‘old way’, i.e. properly. Even then, we didn’t go beyond adjectives and adverbs.
    I’m just now completing a writing course and one subject in first year was dedicated solely to grammar. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and I personally believe they should teach it at every school.
    Interestingly, the students who coped best were the ones learning other languages as understanding grammar is regarded as being important.
    Who knew!
    Great blog. 😀

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