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Fingers picking up an apostrophe

Deborah Duncan laments the abuse and misuse of a grammatical old friend - the apostrophe.

This article may turn into one of those rants made by Victor Meldrew-types in their twilight years; the type of thing my father does now he is retired and has time to read the Daily Telegraph every day from cover to cover before ringing me to bemoan the parlous state of the nation compared to when he was a boy.

Or maybe I too am getting old. I've started to think the police officers that investigate incidents at the school look like they are in Year 12 on non-uniform days. However, I digress.

My particular rant is of a grammatical nature - the demise of the apostrophe.

Within the education sector I am particularly irritated by its use in plurals of abbreviations; SAT's or GCSE's, for example. However, apostrophe abuse seems to be everywhere - in shop signs, magazines, on the side of vans and in advertisements.

I recently spotted a sign in a dry cleaner's window proclaiming that they cleaned 'suits, curtain's and duvets'. I was very tempted to ask what the curtains had done to merit an apostrophe which the other two items had not. Other infractions witnessed recently are 'menu's' and 'MOT's While U Wait'.

The second example begs a bigger question about the general demise of appropriate spelling and grammar. Should I be worrying about the apostrophe when, reading statements given by students following an incident, I can barely decipher their meaning because they are written in text language - as in, 'he sd 2 me c u 2 nite'?

I long for students like the ones in Alan Bennett's The History Boys in which, in a scene from a 7th term Oxbridge entry general studies lesson, a group of English boys conduct a full and spontaneous conversation in French 'en utilisant surtout le subjonctive'.

The fact that the entire scene is based on a visit to a brothel, rapidly converted into a First World War field hospital upon the arrival of the headmaster, gives it its great comedy value.

Maybe QCA could introduce a foreign languages GCSE in texting that could contribute to the revival of modern foreign languages 14-19. The students would certainly excel in it, where perhaps they would struggle in spoken French using the subjunctive.

Maybe it is my background as a linguist. Having studied French and Spanish at university where I (sadly) delighted in learning about the apocopation of the partitive article, the agreement of the past participle with the preceding direct object and the past historic, I've always felt that the English disregard for grammatical accuracy showed us up, particularly in the eyes of the French whose Academie Franšaise polices and constantly scrutinises the evolution of their language.

There is something very satisfying and comforting about the sureness of grammar rules in a world where the only certainty for a headteacher these days is that he or she will inadvertently break at least one health and safety regulation somewhere on site.

The difference between possession and plural seems quite straightforward to me but I am constantly correcting letters sent by staff with erroneous apostrophes lurking in dark corners. I can hear many of you saying that I am old and grumpy but you cannot send out letters from a school containing grammatical mistakes, can you?

What chance do our students have in becoming literate if we do not model this skill for them? As if things could not get any worse, two examples on the Apostrophe Protection Society website were actually from the world of education:

'Reserved for Principals Office'

'7 Reasons Why Teacher's Find Us Top Of The Class'
(Clearly not because of your grammar)

Maybe I should just go with the flow and start writing to parents in text language. And don't get me started on the difference between less and fewer. I think I should stop now and check the SEF for apostrophes...

Deborah Duncan is head of Horbury School in Wakefield

Want to have the last word? The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you'd like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.

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