If an 11-year old were to learn the subjunctive

If an 11-year old were to learn the subjunctive…..then so what?  Would they say, “if only I could use the subjunctive mood in my conversation, how cool would I look!” Perhaps not!

It seems ridiculous that such young children should learn the finer points of grammar like the subjunctive, or be tested on the difference between a preposition and a subordinating conjunction (the distinction which I heard the Schools Minister Nick Gibbs get wrong live on air), or that 6 year olds should face national tests on punctuation, tenses, nouns, adverbs, statements and verbs.

On the other hand, consider this. The U.K. is falling down the international league tables in English education. Yet we invented the language. Shouldn’t we be nearer the top?  Whereas we might soon be behind the Marx Brothers’ imaginary countries like Freedonia  or Moldova (OK that turned out to be a real one).

Also I rather like the idea of 11 year olds knowing more than me about English grammar. Not difficult I admit.  I was never really taught it at school until I did Latin, taught by our wonderful North of the Border Latin master whom we nicknamed “Scotch Mist”.  “The having been marched up the hill Romans won the battle”, or “he was so stupid he was fed to the lions”.

As ever I turn to pop music. All of these songs use the subjunctive mood to a degree. “If I were a rich man” (Fiddler on the Roof).  Correct. “If I was” (Midge Ure); incorrect – should be “were”. ”If I was a boy” – Beyonce: incorrect – likewise. “If I were the only girl in the world and you were the only boy” (Dean Martin – correct), and the classic Tim Hardin/Four Tops “If I were a carpenter”; correct.

I guess that if you are going to raise standards you have got to start somewhere.  Possibly these tests are a step too far, but on balance it is better to aim too high than low, and they are a counter to the seemingly unstoppable rise of Twitter-like abbreviations.  If the building blocks of Maths like fractions are being taught at an early age, why not do the same for English?  Maybe the ability of children to pick up grammar, if taught, is greater than we think.  We shall find out in due course.

Let us not forget in this “Shakespeare year” that the Bard, or rather Macbeth, whispered one of the greatest subjunctives of all. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly

So to finish here are two sample tests, first  KS2 English for 11 year olds, in which you will find the controversial “subjunctive” topic in question  41, and also for KS1 6 year olds   Can you manage them?  (I didn’t even score 100% in the KS1 grammar test! But then I am a scientist and mathematician so there is something reassuring about that!)

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