Sunday, 16 December 2012

English Teachers

I have had many English teachers over the years, having studied English up to A Level and then done a degree in linguistics. I have already written a blog post where I complain about English teachers who misunderstood my writing; in this post, I will praise the good English teaching I have received.

In Year 12 (aged 17), Mr Spiller taught me the subjunctive. For A Level English Language & Literature, we were studying Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – a brilliant choice! One lesson we read this extract:
unimportant, of course, I meant,’ the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone,
‘important—unimportant—unimportant—important—’ as if he were trying which word sounded best.
 Mr Spiller then asked why Carroll had written 'he were' rather than 'he was'. Various answers were suggested:

  • "Because of the word 'trying' which follows?" No, 'he was trying' is grammatical English.
  • "Because of the word 'as' at the beginning?" No, 'as he was trying' is grammatical English.
Eventually someone said, "because of the word 'if'?" Yes, it is because of the word 'if'. Mr Spiller explained that this phenomenon is called the subjunctive and that it is so misunderstood in English that we are hardly taught it at all and not taught it in our French classes until sixth form. This was true: I hadn't yet encountered it in French. However, thanks to Mr Spiller I can now correctly identify and use the subjunctive in English, and also spot when it should have been used.

In Year 13 (aged 18), Miss Nelson taught me how to use a semicolon. I was so glad someone had finally explained it clearly! She explained that if you have two separate clauses which function as complete sentences, they can be joined using a semicolon. Here was her example:
I went to the shop; I bought a CD.
To write "I went to the shop, I bought a CD" would be ungrammatical because the two clauses are complete sentences on their own. When a comma is put between them like this it is called a comma splice or a run-on sentence. You could use a comma if you were to make the sentence into a list of three or more items, for example:
I went to the shop, I bought a CD and I went home.
It would also work to insert the word 'and' or to put a full stop instead of the semicolon. Although these alternatives exist, I like that there is the choice of using a semicolon, and I was so glad that I finally understood how to use one properly! I now regularly use semicolons in my own writing. I think carefully about how to punctuate each sentence (whether I am writing fiction, a blog post or an email) and use semicolons where appropriate. Sometimes it isn't appropriate to use a semicolon, for example in informal writing (where an n-dash (–) may be more suitable, or it may be better to put a full stop and start a new sentence). I am so grateful to Miss Nelson for giving this lesson and improving my understanding of punctuation, my passion for the English language and my writing.

Can you spot my use of the subjunctive in this post? And what do you think about my use of the semicolon?

No comments:

Post a Comment