What is English?

Photo: iStock.com/undrey

English belongs to everyone. English is everything and nothing. Tim Hands explains it is not just a language, with a magnificent literature written in it, but an evolving construct which draws the globe together.

Recently, an eminent prep school Head asked me if I would talk to local Heads of English about the subject we all teach. With me, I took the Second Master, Nick, also an English graduate, but an even more formidable musician, and our Head of Department, Richard, who trumps by way of relevance any other qualification – he is a Chief Examiner for GCSE.

What is English? English belongs to everyone. English is everything and nothing. English is not just a language, with a magnificent literature written in it, but an evolving construct which draws the globe together. English is big enough for different people to see it in different ways. All three presenters like to read it, write it, and teach it. Alas we all have to test it too.

I am the 60s child. Language was made before grammar, not grammar before language, as Thomas Hardy famously pointed out. English has no rules. Not only can we all speak it, but we can all punctuate it – honest. Ask any 13 year-old to read their work aloud. Pause means comma. Breath means full stop. You don’t need much else. How would I teach English ideally? With plentiful oral work, with no compulsory literature if at all possible, and certainly without a mention of Shakespeare before a pupil reaches 16.

What is being good at English? It’s acquiring a mind which can understand people and situations and structures, and express reflections on them with intelligence and elegance. Being good at English exams is something different. Public exams in English are a poor indicator of real ability. At Oxford it certainly used to be the case that English Literature GCSE was a weak indicator of success in the Final Honours School, less good than English Language. History was better than either of them. With this revelation, I rested my case.

Dr Tim Hands, a former Chairman of HMC, is Headmaster of Winchester College.