O’Dowd under attack after grammar gaffes

Pupils at St Louise�s Comprehensive College, Falls Road get their GCSE results.
Pupils at St Louise�s Comprehensive College, Falls Road get their GCSE results.

THE “cringing misuse of grammar by some Northern Ireland MLAs, including ministers” was under fire yesterday, sparked off by a television faux pas from Education Minister John O’Dowd as he commented on Northern Ireland’s GCSE results.

Mr O’Dowd was visiting schools in north and west Belfast as students received their results, which were slightly up again on previous years in all subjects with the exception of English.

He was interviewed on a television programme featuring students from various parts of the Province showing that Northern Ireland was bucking the UK trend with results still improving year on year.

Speaking on BBC Northern Ireland’s Newsline, Mr O’Dowd said: “There is numerous pathways open to you.”

And as he exhorted the students to move on, the Education Minister added: “There’s many options open to you.”

The statements have jarred with politicians of various hues, including TUV’s Jim Allister (MLA for north Antrim), Alliance’s Ian Parsley (former deputy mayor of North Down) and Independent Unionist David McClarty (MLA for east Londonderry). As well as panning Mr O’Dowd, they claim that “unacceptable grammar like this is commonplace from Assembly members”.

Said Mr McClarty: “I heard the minister’s grammatical mistake on Thursday night and I have to admit I gasped. This was the actual leader of education, speaking among young students, and sadly many of them must think if this is what the minister says, it must be right. I compare it to a Minister of Health suggesting that the kidneys are behind the left ear.

“But John O’Dowd isn’t the only MLA, or minister, guilty of poor grammar. I have heard ‘I have went’ from the likes of Edwin Poots and Arlene Foster and it really grinds.

“Northern Ireland is, alas, sloppy and lazy when it comes to grammar and there’s no excuse for it. It seems to be acceptable, as does sloppy pronunciation like ‘safitty’ (safety) and ‘wickend’ (weekend). You couldn’t imagine anyone trying to learn a foreign language adopting that attitude.”

TUV’s Mr Allister claimed that many blushes on the floor of the Assembly were saved by the authors of Hansard editing the grammatical errors out of the final publications, but added that such efforts were impossible when they were recorded for interview, or were being broadcast from Stormont.

He said: “We are all capable of mangling the English language occasionally, but the regularity with which it occurs in the Assembly, including from patently incapable ministers, is embarrassing. Hansard invariably saves their blushes by correcting the use of bad grammar by MLAs and ministers, but when heard in the raw it makes me cringe. Some who want to promote the Irish language might be better learning to speak English properly.”

Mr Parsley, who is a linguistics expert, said that it was incongruous for a minister of education to come out with such bad grammar – “but he certainly isn’t alone in that respect”.

“Assembly debates are pitted with ‘I done’, ‘I seen’, ‘I have went’ and so on,” he added. “I’ve even heard Northern Ireland-born Match of the Day 2 presenter Colin Murray come out with ‘I have went’ on air, and pundit Alan Shearer is infamous for such blunders.

“I trust they have been admonished about it. The BBC is traditionally regarded as promoting good speech and grammar, but standards are slipping.

“This isn’t a snobbish thing – it’s not difficult for people, especially leaders of the country, to use proper grammar. I’m all for local accents and the occasional colloquialism, but there’s no excuse for bad grammar.

“Of course, we all have our blind spots, but the ‘I done’ syndrome simply isn’t acceptable from leading politicians.

“And neither is the use of the word ‘is’ in the context of a plural, as used by the Minister of Education.”

The News Letter yesterday emailed the Sinn Fein press office for a response, but by our deadline none had been received.

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