On a not very bright grammar test

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’.<!–more-->

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.


One thought on “On a not very bright grammar test

  1. I suppose it doesn’t ultimately matter too much if some uses ‘bright’ in place of ‘brightly’ in this day and age. There is no confusion between the meaning when used in a sentence, and since such a large number of the population use language similarly to this, it shouldn’t be considered incorrect.

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