Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Goveites behind the Bad Grammar Awards

If you turned on the radio or opened a newspaper today, you might well have come across the so-called ‘inaugural Bad Grammar Awards’. First prize went to a group of academics who wrote to Michael Gove criticising his plans for the national curriculum. Judges branded the letter “simply illiterate”, claiming the writers had “inadvertently made an argument for precisely the sort of formal education the letter is opposing”.

It’s a great story, isn’t it? Ho ho, a bunch of professors moaning about education policy who can’t even write English. What a bunch of losers, right?

Well, as it happens, wrong. 

A few things about this story set tiny alarm bells ringing for me. Let’s ignore the highly debatable question of whether the grammar prescriptivists even have a point in the first place (on which my hubby is much better placed than me to opine) and take this nonsense on its own terms. 

For a start, the letter didn’t seem to contain any remotely egregious examples of ‘bad grammar’. The ‘errors’ the judges pointed out were the kind of tedious technicalities that have no impact on sense and wouldn’t even be noticed by anyone but the most committed pedant. In fact, Nevile Gwynne – the judging panel’s ‘grammar expert’, quoted in the Guardian’s write-up – was reduced to picking the tiniest of nits in order to find something to complain about. Apparently he objected to the academics’ use of the phrase “too much too young” on the grounds that “'young' is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb”. Oh yeah? Tell that to The Specials, you insufferable windbag.

Then there was the rest of the judging panel, which featured Gove cheerleader and champion git Toby Young, right-wing journo and former Bullingdon Club member Harry Mount, and somebody I’d never heard of called Tom Hodgkinson. At this point I started wondering who Tom Hodgkinson and Nevile Gwynne actually were, and whether they also fell into the category of ‘people who would relish a chance to ridicule Gove’s opponents in the national press’.

So I did a bit of Googling. It turns out the Bad Grammar Awards are essentially a publicity stunt for Nevile Gwynne’s new book, ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ – first published by the Idler Academy, an outfit run by one Tom Hodgkinson. So that’s one mystery solved. But who is this Gwynne fellow anyway?

Well, according to his personal website, he’s an Old Etonian, Oxford-educated accountant who now teaches Latin to children and adults. He's not affiliated with any academic institution and doesn’t appear to have any qualifications that particularly equip him to call himself a grammar expert, unless you count his undergraduate degree in Modern Languages. He is also incapable of using English.

Here’s a typical sentence – or, if you prefer, paragraph – from Gwynne’s ‘About Me’ page:
“He is the author of what is, by any standards, a fascinating and important book, The Truth About Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, which shows clearly and very readably that the reality concerning the man almost universally regarded as the infamous Borgia Pope, easily the worst of all the Popes, there have ever been [sic], is completely different from that man that one almost always reads about in books and sees represented in films and on television.”

I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Actually, on second thoughts, don’t bother – my wishy washy liberal state education has left me incapable of prolonged concentration and I’ve just been distracted by a squirrel.

Still, there’s at least one person who is a big fan of Nevile Gwynne. A whole page of Gwynne’s website is devoted to an article from the Sunday Times written by a gentleman whose children he teaches Latin (for a very reasonable £250 a month). The author enthuses about the life skills his children are acquiring from Gwynne’s rote-learning sessions, which they “claim to dread” (can’t imagine why), declaring that, “contrary to the beliefs of the anti-Latinists such as our former schools secretary, Ed Balls, Latin has myriad practical benefits.”  Interestingly, he also reveals that Gwynne is decidedly old school: not a trained teacher, he uses pre-1960s methods, because his view is that modern teaching styles do not work.” After a bit more absurd chuntering, including citing Boris Johnson as cast-iron evidence that a classical education brings genius and success, he concludes: “I await with interest Michael Gove’s new primary curriculum, but meanwhile, I recommend taking matters into your own hands. Gwynne is accepting more pupils and can be contacted at"

Really, Gwynne should be paying this guy, rather than the other way round. Then again, who knows – maybe he is, being as how the author of the piece also happens to be the guy who bankrolled Gwynne’s book. Yes, that’s right, Gwynne’s biggest fan is none other than … Tom Hodgkinson! Colour me surprised.

So basically, what we’re left with here is a bunch of wealthy, largely public school educated, middle-aged white men who seem to care quite a lot more about Latin than they do about English, and who share a fierce commitment to Gove’s educational agenda. Indeed, this commitment is the driving force behind the whole enterprise, as explained in this blog which Tom Hodgkinson has just written for Waterstones. And, quite by coincidence, they’ve decided that the worst case of bad grammar in the entire country is a perfectly lucid and coherent letter from Gove’s opponents. And, according to the Guardian, the BBC and countless others, this is news.

Now, naturally I realise there is likely to be a strong overlap between people who get their knickers in a twist about grammar and people who think Michael Gove’s ideas are the best thing since sliced bread. I’m not claiming to have uncovered some kind of shocking conspiracy here. I just don’t think it’s really good enough that so many media outlets covered this as a bona fide story rather than the exercise in political propaganda it so obviously is.


  1. I wonder if this letter will be considered for an award next time around?

  2. The Idler (the infrequently published magazine that Tom Hodgkinson's been producing with Gavin Pretor-Pinney for 20 years) never used to be about this kind of fussy, pompous rubbish. I didn't read it much, but it was usually interesting (if sometimes pretentious and pleased with itself). And I wouldn't have expected it to put itself so definitely behind any political agenda (let alone Michael Gove's). Their only real position was that life is for doing interesting things, and toil for its own sake is pointless.

    What's happened to Tom Hodgkinson? It sounds like he's had some bizarre epiphany brought on by becoming a parent and spending too much time with Toby Young and the old-school Latin teacher. That's a pity.

    Mind you, regular Idler contributor Alex James is entirely comfortable these days hanging around with David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, and writing about how great Greggs is. So maybe once you retire to your jolly farmhouse somewhere picturesque, it's only a matter of time before you become like all the other tweed-wearing bores in your local?

  3. Brilliant, a great laugh.
    Thanks for this, have tweeted link.

  4. Only just seen, after reading Geoffrey Pullum's commendation. We are clearly of like mind. My real name is Barrie England, the blogger behind Caxton .

  5. Absolutely. Either it was a very slow news day for this to get into the papers, or there are a lot of Govites out there in the media who would like to discredit the academics simply by belittling their language and not really dealing with the actual content of their argument against the pub quiz curriculum. I just read an article in the Guardian about Gwynne's 'Bad Grammar' award and whilst I was a little surprised that the Guardian would give space to such a Govite minion, I remembered I'd read his name elsewhere before. In the Language Log to be precise. It all becomes clear. Are the media really ALL just Govite puppets, I wonder?

    Anyway, well done on writing such a clear and erudite post despite your obvious lack of a good education. Long may you continue. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one with a wishy-washy liberal state education who reads the broadsheets from time to time.

  6. What a depressing tale of mutual puffery.