I got a text yesterday from a friend of mine, the beneficiary - unlike me - of a university education.
"Let me know when your (sic) in Scotland," he wrote. I wasn't exactly scandalised, but I did find myself silently tut-tutting. And then I read about Professor Simon Horobin, who told his audience at the Hay Literary Festival that none of this matters any longer.
"I am not saying we should just spell freely," he explained, "but sometimes we have to accept that spellings change." He suggested that "they're", "their" and "there" could all be homogenised, and also that the apostrophe was now redundant. His book, "Does Spelling Matter?", poses a provocative and interesting question, the answer to which, as far as I am concerned, is a resounding yes.
I know I'm giving away my age, but I still cling to the idea that the efficacy of the English language depends on its being tethered to a number of firmly fixed principles. How can anyone advocate giving up the apostrophe? Only the other day, I had a letter from a lawyer which talked about "client's interests" when he meant "clients' interests": the whole sense of his assertion was rendered incorrect.
Professor Horobin asked, rhetorically: "Is the apostrophe so crucial to the preservation of our society?" Of course, compared with fighting hunger, poverty and disease, it's a pretty small thing, literally and metaphorically. But I can't help feeling that the continued survival of the apostrophe, and its constant policing, can only improve the quality of human relationships. A big claim, maybe, but bear with me. Proper spelling and punctuation, I believe, is a form of politeness.
If you send a text that is grammatically correct, it shows that you have taken care over your message. In other words, you have treated the recipient with due respect. Given that text messaging is the most prevalent form of written communication these days, it is worth pondering this proposition. When I receive a text full of "gr8", "l8r" and "omg", I can't stop myself wishing that the person sending the message had paid me just a little more courtesy.
It's a very old-fashioned concept, but careful use of language equates to manners in my book. Stephen Fry is characteristically eloquent in his tirade against the grammar nazis - it is well worth looking up on YouTube - and rages against the pedants who write to newspapers (note, "to" rather than "in"). There are those who shake their heads at missing apostrophes, and mutter at split infinitives, but, asks Fry, "do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language?" Maybe not. However, I don't believe these two concepts are mutually exclusive. Surely it is possible to take delight in the sound of words, the perfect construction of a sentence, the coruscating phrase, while still zealously guarding some of the conventions with which the English language is underpinned. I don't regard myself as a pedant - although I admit to wincing slightly at the sound of a split infinitive - but I do believe that a free-for-all as far as spelling and grammar are concerned represents the thin end of a very large wedge. C u next week.