Martin Galway is a Teaching and Learning Adviser for English at Herts for Learning
Earlier in the week I wrote this redemptive blog in an attempt to share my regrets for mistreating the humble determiner, a part of speech that children are expected to be able to use, recognise and name from year 4 onwards.
I won’t go into too much detail here as I have already covered our once-rocky, now flourishing relationship. Bizarrely, I have Donald Trump to thank for helping me see the light. Again, if you want to know why – pop to the earlier blog and we’ll still be here when you come back.
In that blog, I shared some of the strategies I have previously used to teach this aspect of the primary grammar curriculum. They worked well enough, which is all well and good, but they never felt especially meaty, and perhaps didn’t really do the topic justice. I then went on to share some Trump-induced (sounds a bit wrong, but let’s go with it) ideas and approaches that I think would lead to richer learning. One of these ideas was to look at political speech and compare rhetoric that seeks to divide with that which apparently seeks to unite. In the case of the former, Trump came up trumps with some deliberate use of the definite article ‘the’ to define and separate off whole sections of society into a kind of homogenic entity (‘the African Americans’; ‘the Latinos’). So where to look to find a contrasting speech? Well, why move away from the biggest political circus on earth? Only, it’s not Hilary that I am thinking of for a counterpoint.
Michelle Obama has come to the fore as one of the key speakers on behalf of the Democrats’ campaign. Very recently she delivered a speech in Phoenix that I think makes some equally interesting use of language and that provides some rich material for discussion in class. If you follow the link above, I’d suggest skipping 8 mins 30 seconds into the video as a basis for discussion.
Here’s how this particular section kicks off:
“Sadly, for some reason, Hilary’s opponent comes from a different place. I don’t know, perhaps living life high up in a tower, in a world of exclusive clubs, measuring success by wins and losses, and the number of zeroes in your bank account, perhaps you just develop a different set of values…maybe with so little exposure to people who are different than you, becomes easy to take advantage of those who are down on their luck…if you think this way it becomes easy to see this country as us versus them and it’s easy to dehumanise them, to treat them with contempt. “
It’s fairly unsurprising that Obama seeks to put Trump in his own isolated space – a different kind of ‘other’, struggling to comprehend the lives of those outside of his apparently more limited realm of experience. This separation leads seamlessly to an “us” versus “them” narrative. In fairness, and thinking once more of the earlier blog, it could be argued that Trump had already firmly established an us/them divide with his determiner-driven over-simplification of diverse groups. I could tie myself up in knots trying to describe how, but a picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s get visual and unpick how such seemingly minor words play such a vital role in these speeches. First, let’s illustrate some of the positioning described in the earlier blog.
I think it is fair to say that we had the makings of an “us” versus “them” (and “them” and “them”) situation right here thanks to that distancing, reductive “the”. This positioning is seized upon by Obama who goes on to refer to comments about women, the disabled, and veterans and thus we have this even simpler relationship as detailed in the quote above:
As the speech moves on, some interesting shifts occur. Let’s briefly rewind into the later part of the quote above and then move forward:
“If you think this way, then it’s easy to see this country as ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and it’s easy to dehumanise them, to treat them with contempt because you don’t know them. You can’t even see them. Maybe that’s why this candidate thinks certain immigrants are criminals instead of folks who work their fingers to the bone to give their kids a better life…because he doesn’t really know them.”
Check out those emboldened pronouns – see how it moves from “us” versus “them” through an archetypal “you” to eventually arrive at “he” versus “them”. The battle lines are being refined somewhat. Made clearer perhaps. An opposing pointing finger if you like. A finger pointed squarely at Trump – the Donald Trump.
The speech and the pronouns move on:
“…because he doesn’t really know them. He doesn’t understand that they are us“
Let’s just capture that:
Or more precisely:
Can you see what she did there? Just compare and contrast with the first pair of circles. Here we have a linguistic sleight of hand by which the roles of us versus them have effectively been reversed. A final battery of pronouns (bold) and determiners (underlined – hurrah, they’re back!) makes explicit just who is who in this war of words:
” He doesn’t understand that they are us. They are our friends, our family, our neighbours, our colleagues…”
Nothing new here, a strategic alignment of speaker and audience, but a key element in persuasive speech that is always worth revisiting. Here it is in all its visual glory:
Having made these transitions, the path is cleared for a first person plural onslaught with Obama speaking on behalf of what appears to be the entire nation (perhaps minus one). Here’s just some of it:
“But here’s the thing: look at us. We all know better. We all understand that an attack on any of us is an attack on all of us. And we know that that is not who we are.”
So there we have it – pronouns and determiners as political instruments. Words that divide. Words that unite. Or at least seek to.
It may be that I have gone in to far more detail than is needed for the primary classroom but, hey, I enjoyed charting the shifts all the same. There’s something quite satisfying about representing aspects of language visually. It can really help to clarify your thinking. And what is that thinking? Simply this: don’t underestimate the “boring” functional words and let them be outshone by their showier relatives. Sometimes, it’s the quiet ones that you really have to watch. Determiners and pronouns – we know your game!