Mike Piercy, educational consultant and previous Head of The New Beacon, shares his thoughts on spelling, punctuation and grammar
Seen on an advertising board on a Southeastern train this summer:
‘Yes, ships do take longer than planes. Good isn’t it.’
Is the second sentence a statement about ‘catch and chase’ or is it a question? The very act of typing those words is painful, the fingers instinctively hovering; hesitating over punctuation keys. The marketeers have composed a clever message – agreed – which I suspect may well be deliberate, meant to be emphatic, reinforcing the point, trumping all technicality. Regrettably, in my view. I suppose, therefore, the advert has done its job: I’m thinking about it. Yet, my thoughts are not perhaps those desired by this Popular and Old British cruising brand: I am critical of what young people will notice and subliminally learn.
Teaching in its very essence and (so it follows) teachers, should harbour a partiality for pedantry. Those who teach English, while wishing to see creativity and looking critically at literature in a search of human understanding, also seek accuracy. Much has been written about the ‘new’ language which has emerged through emails, texts, social media, iconography; the fear that the richness of language will be lost. For young people there is a blurring, a diminution of the distinction between formal and informal: when to do what; and how? Yes, language must evolve, as it has always done, but there should still be precision, an attention to technical correctness, which young people need to learn and then apply.
Lynne Truss explores and bemoans the decline of punctuation in her book ‘Eats Shoots & Leaves’ – in an observant and delightfully dry, wry way. As an English teacher I have been trying to embed the importance of punctuation in my charges for many years. Introducing direct speech I would write on the board, without any punctuation, ‘what time is lunch dad asked mum’ questioning the children on its meaning. A good discussion would always follow – gender stereotyping sometimes featuring.
Teaching the (admittedly) complex use of the apostrophe to the youngest a virulent outbreak of ‘apostrophitis’ would break out, the ‘s’ at the end of any word being blessed with this oft misused (proliferating or absent) punctuation mark. Some have argued the apostrophe is now redundant. ‘Its’ sees the most frequent aberration: how can the distinction between possession and contraction be misunderstood?
But it’s not just children. How many reports have I read, proof-read and corrected over the years: millions? One doesn’t wish to point fingers but the word practice, or practice, will feature most often in sports and peripatetic music reports. ‘She needs to practise her shooting skills’ – ‘He must attend the lunchtime practice if he is to improve’… The analogy of ‘advise’ and ‘advice’ provides an easier differentiation between verb and noun – respectively. It is not uncommon in the media – including the broadsheets – to find incorrect usage of collective nouns: ‘The team were…’ is incorrect. A team is a singular unit: the team was. And so it goes on.
The amusements of Sheridan’s Malaprop and Shakespeare’s Dogberry aside, both of whom have entertained many an audience, we encourage in children the proper use of language and vocabulary. In correctly distinguishing between ‘imply’ and ‘infer’ I would tell my pupils they had a better understanding than most adults. To imply is to suggest; to infer is to make your own subjective interpretation – the difference between send and receive.
In aspiring to more sophisticated language children will inevitably, often amusingly, make mistakes. I would send a formal invitation to our Year 8s (no apostrophe) for their Leavers’ Dinner, instructing them to reply in kind. One wrote, ‘X thanks Mr. Piercy for his kind invitation and will do the honour of attending.’
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