Tom Hodgkinson: Can we wipe out the aberrant apostrophe?


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Thank you to all of those who wrote in following my previous column on the teaching of grammar. Many of you agree that schools should instruct pupils in the proper use of English. And you have mentioned many bugbears. Perhaps I could list a few.

Mr O'Driscoll is particularly irritated by the construction, "I was stood next to her," which, he points out, should be, "I was standing next to her." Miss Pelling spotted an example of this on the radio, when a Lib Dem activist was describing being groped by Lord Rennard and said: "I was sat by Lord Rennard," and also "when I came out of the toilet [Rennard] was stood...".

Also bemoaned by Mr O'Driscoll is the use of "with" after "meeting" as in, "I am meeting with her." We ought to say, "I am meeting her." A teacher going by the pen name of The Northumberland Nit-picker wrote to complain about the unnecessary use of the word "so" on the radio. Time and again, she says, learned guests will put a "so" at the beginning of a reply to a question. She illustrates her point with the example: "Can you tell us about the importance of the leech in medieval medicine, Dr Omnium?" "So, the leech's bloodsucking properties..."

The Northumberland Nit-picker has spent years teaching grammar to little ones, but says that today the teachers themselves are badly taught: she says she is "appalled that many of the younger members of the teaching profession are as grammatically challenged as their pupils".

Many readers have sent in examples of what Keith Waterhouse used to call the "aberrant apostrophe". Thank you to Mr Beat for emailing his particular favourite, a sign seen above a Spanish restaurant: "Tapa's Bar". Is that a bar owned by Signor Tapa, we wonder? Readers also spotted that people often confuse "too" and "to", and "off" and "of". Mr Williams writes in with an example that committed both errors. He saw a sign on the back of a car that read: "If you can read this you are to close. Now back of!"

It seems aggression and poor grammar are often bedfellows. Miss McCaughan spotted an example in Margate, where an anonymous authoritarian had scrawled the following inscription on a concrete post: "DO NOT LET DOG SHIT hear," with an arrow pointing to the offending spot.

Mr Blumenau, a teacher at the Idler Academy, provided a handy list of common errors. Here are three: "Different to" instead of "different from"; "the reason was because" instead of "the reason was that" and "the law needs changing" instead of "the law needs to be changed".

A teacher of 32 years' standing took umbrage at my criticism of the teaching profession. He sarcastically noted that my phrase "teach this stuff" was "memorably elegant", and added: "Why on earth you are given the first page of a leading Sunday journal to express your views, whereas those of us who actually work in schools and colleges are expected to absorb sustained insult in stoic silence is beyond me." I have written before in admiration of the Stoics, and the NUT could hardly be accused of suffering in silence if its recent wailings are anything to go by. But that is another point. At least on this occasion I have helped bring a teacher's woes to public notice.

I sent a copy of Gwynne's Grammar, the new grammar guide which I have helped to bring to public attention, to Jeremy Paxman of the BBC. I included a covering note. Mr Paxman thanked me for the book but found fault with my letter: "That dreadful 'best ever' in the third paragraph is a sodding disgrace," he admonished. I replied that in fact the occasional use of bad grammar for rhetorical effect can be excused, whereupon he declared that my use of "in fact" was "otiose". I rushed to the dictionary. "Otiose" is derived from the Latin for "otium" meaning "leisure", but Mr Paxman used it in its correct modern sense of "superfluous". "Call yourself a grammar Nazi?" he jibed.

My grammatical attitudes were challenged by the well-known journalist AA Gill at a function. "There's no such thing as bad grammar," he boomed. "Language changes. There are no rules." Mr Gill said that he is a dyslexic who was told he was thick when at school. Even today he has a horror of writing and dictates all of his articles, rather like another very successful but under-educated writer, Jamie Oliver. These two examples of outstanding personalities demonstrate that a lack of grammar need not be an impediment to literary and worldly success. They do not convince me, though, that grammar should not be taught to the ordinary folk.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'. 'Gwynne's Grammar' is published by Ebury Press, £7.99

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