17 May '13

News Sats girl takes Michael Gove, the comma chameleon, to task

10-year-old challenges education secretary after he 'set a bad example' with punctuation inconsistencies in this week's test

Michael Gove's complaints at the poor writing standards of English schoolchildren have been disproved in delicious fashion after a 10-year-old upbraided the him for grammatical inconsistencies in this week's national spelling, punctuation and grammar tests.

Rebecca Lee, a year 6 pupil at Christ Church primary school in Bristol, struck a blow for her generation's epistolary reputation by writing to the education secretary after she and her classmates noticed inconsistent use of commas to delineate sentence sub-clauses while sitting the Sats this week.

Having insisted on inserting commas at the end of sub-clauses in the paper's grammar section, the authors of the spelling test that followed ignored the earlier strictures and dispensed with commas in similar textual situations.

"I understand that you are very keen for us all to learn our complex sentences and use of accurate punctuation. I believe that your department should also use the correct punctuation in all the Sats tasks," Rebecca wrote, in a copy of her letter passed to the Guardian. "I am very surprised that you have allowed these mistakes to occur.

"As the secretary of state for education you are responsible for these tests and your department should be setting us a better example."

Fortunately for Gove, the 10-year-old stopped short of calling for his immediate resignation, but added: "I would like to hear what you have to say about this and also whether you will perhaps admit that punctuation is often a matter of judgment, with not necessarily a single right answer."

Just last week, Gove gave a speech in which he highlighted the poor letter-writing skills of boys and girls in England, compared with their counterparts overseas, claiming this "regretfully acknowledged a terrible truth about English students".

Jo Lee, Rebecca's mother, said her daughter came out of the test exercised about the questions. "She said, 'Who's in charge of these things?'" Told that the secretary of state had ultimate responsibility, and following some research on the internet, Rebecca composed her response.

"She dictated it and I typed it and we sent it off there and then," Lee said.

Barney Braithwaite, Rebecca's teacher at the Church of England primary academy in Clifton, said students noticed the apparent mistakes during the test and raised it with him.

"The whole question with grammar is that it is flexible," he said. "But when you have to teach it for a test then you have to teach it as a rule."

The test, sat across England on Tuesday, had questions in which students had to insert a correctly spelled word missing from a sentence.

Question six read: "If there is not [blank] rainfall this month there will be a drought." Question 16 read: "As he was the [blank] of the tribe, the final decision was his." Based on their experience of the earlier part of the test, the pupils protested that a comma was required after "month" and "tribe".

The result is mild embarrassment for the education department in the first year that the "Spag" (spelling, punctuation and grammar) tests for year 6 pupils have been conducted. The wording of the tests was approved by the Standards and Testing Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Education.

• David Marsh, editor of the Guardian style guide, writes: You don't need to insert a comma between clauses, but doing so can make the sentence easier to read (as with this one).

Both examples are perfectly grammatical with or without the comma but I would be inclined to use a comma after "tribe" in the second one.

Reading such sentences out loud is a good guide. I pause slightly after "tribe", which suggests that a comma should be inserted. It adds a slight emphasis to the clause that follows.

But insisting on a comma is, if I may be permitted to use a word that is not to be found in any dictionary, bonkeroony.

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