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Coffee House

The DfE has issued guidance on exclamation marks. How Orwellian is that!

6 March 2016

6:04 PM

6 March 2016

6:04 PM

A friend of mine, another journalist, is getting terrifically worked up about the Department for Education’s persecution of exclamation marks. He’s busy writing a defence of free punctuation and because he’s a better stylist than the people laying down the law on this one, this will sting. Apparently, exam bureaucrats told teachers and moderators at a briefing run by the Standards Testing Agency last month that the use of an ‘exclamation sentence’ must start with either a ‘how’ or ‘what’ and must be a full sentence – including a verb. So, ‘What a delightful home yours is!’ is fine; ‘Awesome!’ is not.

Naturally, there’s going to be a backlash. It started in that fine periodical, Schools Week a fortnight ago, and this week takes to the Sunday Times and from there it moves to the rest of the media. And like all the best fights, there’s a cultural and political component to it. And this component may be roughly summed up as anti-authoritarianism on one side, and a sense on the other that children are best served by having some rules to work with.

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So, the anti-authoritarians are very keen on letting punctuation, and grammar generally, develop where and as it will. The favourite case study here is George Orwell’s famous essay on the abuse of English in which he lays into the over-use of the passive voice. Ah, the critics say, but that very essay is peppered with the passive. Go figure! (A sentence, I should say, with a verb, but which does not start with How or What.)

In this case, there’s plainly a tendency in our culture to use exclamation marks by way of intonation, sometimes without a verb, sometimes with How or What. ‘How great is that!’ should be fine under the new guidelines, in that it starts with a How and includes a verb, but it’s slang. I’d say the exclamation mark is used by girls way more than boys, by way of declamatory emphasis.

But a broader point needs making. Of course teachers and exam authorities look like twits when they lay down prescriptive rules. Of course many journalists – some of whom write far better than the educationalists – can point out examples of how this makes for clunking prose. Oliver Kamm, a leader writer for the Times and a lovely stylist, has written an entire book about how we should just grow up and use grammar and punctuation exactly as we want to. But I have issues with this approach. It’s absolutely fine to make free with language and its rules if you’ve been to a really good school – as Oliver Kamm and my literary friend did – and you know exactly what those rules are and how you break them. But it really is another matter if you haven’t been schooled in the active and passive voice, and your grip on punctuation of any sort is tenuous. Listening to contemporary police statements – which are full of jargon and poorly constructed sentences – you can see exactly why the DoE is getting all Orwellian.

In fact, it’s rather an indicator of privilege that you can afford to play fast and loose with language. You can make free with syntax and punctuation if you know what you’re doing. For the less sure-footed – and it’s often a class thing – you cling to the rules because the usage around you isn’t any guide to what’s acceptable. My own, unhelpful advice to the DoE would be to teach the rules of grammar as prescriptively as they want to… and then teach children how to break those rules. Having said which, its rule on exclamation marks is nuts.

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