We don’t need no ed-yoo-kay-shern

As regular viewers of this and my Facebook will know, I have a real bugbear about bad grammar. It sets my teeth on edge when marking essays and when I see it in public, it almost makes me want to cry. This week I marked a dissertation that was really good – insightful, interesting, lively. And it was full of spelling and grammar errors. The result: something that should have been a first became an average 2: 1.

I teach a class on Mondays about writing and design skills and strategies. The first lesson was on correct English – the technical aspects of good writing, such as spelling, grammar, sentence length and so on. I’m sure my grammar and spelling aren’t perfect. We didn’t ever really go beyond the basics at school, but I do know the basics of sentence construction, punctuation and spelling most words, the things we learned at school; the things I assumed everyone learned.

As a little task, I gave my students some multiple choice questions. They all got the there/their/they’re and you’re/your ones right (pity they don’t get this right in essays, mind) but there were two questions where they all slipped up. The first of these was ‘could of’ versus ‘could have’. Most of them said both ‘could of’ and ‘could have’ were correct, and some said only ‘could of’ was. Now, I understand how ‘could of’ has come into use; it’s from could’ve, which *sounds* like ‘could of’. But I don’t understandhow they could think it was correct, and certainly not more correct than ‘could have’. After all, when do you say ‘I of been listening to music’ (etc) ?

The other mistake? The dreaded greengrocer’s apostrophe. Even though they all seemed to be able to tell me what an apostrophe does in principle (joining two words, showing the possessive), in practice they couldn’t apply it. They were all shocked when I said that 1990’s and DVD’s (etc) were wrong. ‘But… you mean everyone’s getting it wrong?’ Yes. Well, no, not everyone. You do still see correct use of an apostrophe out there, but it is becoming increasingly rare. In fact, I have to do a double take now when I see 1990s or DVDs or similar in their correct form.

Where did this come from? 1990’s clearly means belonging to the year 1990. 1990s’ means belonging to the decade. 1990s means the decade itself. How on earth does it make sense for an apostrophe to be there? Same with apostrophes for other plurals: DVDs, CDs, students. Ironically, I have seen several essays where apostophes are used for plurals and plurals for possessives (eg student’s are responsible for societies downfall).

I wish it wasn’t possible to pass a degree without being able to use English, but if that were the case, we’d only pass five percent of them. Should we blame the students though? They are only responding to the rest of the world. In the past month I have seen misplaced apostophes on the Channel 4 website (which they altered after a complaint), in lecture notes by someone else at Lincoln, on signage in Toys R Us, Blackwell’s (BLACKWELL’S!) and other stores, in the Argos catalogue, in brochures and websites for Chesterfield College and even on the BBC. In other words, I think we are heading to a time when the rules of grammar are going to actually be changed because incorrect usage of grammar is beginning to outstrip correct usage. I know language is always evolving. Maybe we no longer need to be bound by grammar rules, maybe I’m a stick in the mud.

By the time students reach university, the rot has set in, and it would be impossible to fail them on grammar alone (though it regularly means the difference between one grade band and the next, which I always tell them and they never take on board). But what about before then? What on earth are they being taught in schools these days? When Lynne Truss published Eats, Shoots and Leaves, it looked as though the pro-grammar brigade had a voice at last. But sadly, in the years since its publication we have seen a decline in standards.

You know what, I’m generally a liberal lefty sort. I abhor most things The Daily Mail and their ilk stand for. I’m all for progression. But on this issue? Gah. I’m a conservative, old-fashioned doom-monger, I’m afraid.


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