Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A Bit of a Grump

Back again after the Xmas Break, and unfortunately starting the New Year with a grump. And it’s not related to anything about autism this time, for once. Except that perhaps I’m being a typically pedantic aspie, grouching about other people’s (linguistic) imperfections…

Most particularly, those to do with basic writing skills. I don’t know if something similar happened with schooling in other countries (though I suspect it did), but between my own school years (60s and early 70s) and my daughter’s (80s and early 90s), something strange happened in NZ education. My generation had the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc drilled into us. It didn’t seem to harm us any, and did give us a good grounding in language skills. It didn’t seem to harm our creativity either - many of my generation, and previous ones, went on to become some of NZ’s finest writers, poets, playwrights, artists, musicians, filmmakers and so on. Okay, maybe some of it was a little boring, or punitively taught, but it seems like when They (that mysterious They, the Powers That Be Who Decide These Things) decided to ditch those ways of teaching, it seems they threw the baby out with the bathwater, and ditched intensive teaching of language skills too.

I first became aware of this when my daughter was almost ten, and I began home schooling her. Imagine my shock when I discovered that despite five years of education at a supposedly good school she couldn’t really spell, her handwriting was atrocious, she had only a hazy idea of punctuation, and wasn’t too sure what distinguished a noun from a verb, let alone any other parts of speech. It’s not that NZ primary schools don’t teach these things, it’s that they don’t place a lot of emphasis on them, they’re sort of thrown in incidentally, now and again, and the children are somehow expected to ‘just pick them up’.

For instance, when I talked with the principal of her primary school, prior to removing her, I had to lay out what I intended to teach her. Regarding language skills, he didn’t seem to think it important that I teach her about all the above things, almost pooh-poohing them, rather he insisted that she be taught to ‘write creatively’, to ‘express herself’ in writing. NZ textbooks, I also found, were the same. It was so marked that I ended up using a British set of language workbooks, which systematically taught these basics, in what my daughter found a fun and interesting way. (And surely if the Poms can do it, so can we…) (And that's what schools are supposed to do, teach kids, right? ...Right?)

It’s not that I don’t think learning to express yourself on paper is important, or that I would want to see our schools return to the old days and old methods. But you can’t build a house without a good foundation, and you can’t be really good at expressing yourself if you can’t write legibly, or coherently, or organise your ideas into decent sentences. And while perhaps some can ‘just pick up’ these skills, others can’t, and need more intensive training in them. The results of that lack of proper training is being seen at NZ universities, many of which now have instituted remedial programs to teach those basics. And this is for the ‘best’ students, the ones who supposedly are our well-educated highest achievers!!

I’ve since worked in a NZ school, and seen for myself how little focus there is on grammar, punctuation, etc. I’ve seen work produced at higher secondary levels too, for exams, and in many cases it’s pretty bad. I don’t blame the secondary schools – these things should be being taught at primary level, and they simply aren’t. And for years I’ve seen it almost daily, in supermarkets and shop signs and everywhere, growing worse year by year it seems, a whole heap of muddled errors of spelling and grammar and punctuation that renders the results almost incoherent, or at least forcing me to stop and think about what the writer means. (And some of course are just laughable, especially to someone like me with a very literal aspie brain.)

So let’s get a few things straight, most especially to do with apostrophes, as that seems to be what confuses people the most.

1) A simple plural doesn’t need an apostrophe. ‘Tomatoes’, when it’s simply the name of a bunch of the fruit, doesn’t require one. (I wince every time I see “tomatoe’s” or even “tomato’s” for sale.)

2) The possessive form of any word does have one, eg if you’re talking about “the tomato’s smell and shape”.

3) “It’s” requires an apostrophe only when it’s short for “it is” or “it has” – ie, it stands in for the missing letters, as in “it’s been raining”, or “it’s raining outside”.

4) If this isn’t the case – ie if “its” is simply about ‘owning’ something – eg “the cat and its collar” – then it doesn’t need one.

5) If you’re not sure, try replacing “its” with “it is” or “it has”. If the sentence makes sense, then you need to put an apostrophe in. If it doesn’t, you don’t.


Right. Grump over. For now.

1 comment:

  1. "Its" and "It's" are, sadly, the tip of a rather large iceberg.

    There are, of course, many people for whom good grammar, punctuation and spelling are perennial problems. Such is life. What appalls me is professional people, such as doctors and nurses who don't have a good command of written English. How they survived university education is beyond me!

    The less said about "TXT speak" the better.