We don’t need no education

Don't tell me, it causes cancer, right?

I gather from reports in the likes of the Daily Mail (and even the serious press from time to time) that education is going to the dogs. Modern children don’t know their algebra from their elbow, proper sciences have been binned in favour of multiple choice-tested ‘general science’ and everyone gets an A* just for turning up. Not being lumbered with anklebiters, I wouldn’t know, though I do occasionally have a giggle at the so-called exam questions reproduced by newspapers going for the Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells demographic.

Given my lack of offspring and the fact that I already have an education, I ought to welcome this alleged deterioration on the grounds that it makes me increasingly valuable in a competitive employment market – despite my advancing years – as I can actually claim to know stuff, which appears to be unfashionable at the moment. In particular I am delighted to hear that French tuition is becoming rare in English schools, allegedly because it is difficult, boring or ‘not relevant’. This is school we’re talking about here, remember. While I couldn’t honestly describe much of it as having been difficult (except long division, which I never did grasp despite private remedial tuition), it was generally accepted that most of it was likely to be either dull, irrelevant or occasionally both. In fact the most ‘relevant’ thing I learned at school was probably the parallel turn, which was billed as a mere extra-curricular activity. If I’d realised at the time just how relevant it was going to be, I might have tried a bit harder despite the horizontal rain, rather than retiring to the Ptarmigan for pie and beans at the earliest opportunity.

But while I try to keep an open mind, the sort of written English I keep encountering in various corners of the internet is rapidly convincing me that there are swathes of people out there who quit school at nine and have spent the rest of their lives posting on fora, writing commercial web content and increasingly producing articles for national  news websites which I can only assume have sacked half their subs. Yes, Telegraph Online, I do mean you.

What’s more, no-one seems to have any comprehension of why this might be shameful, outrageous or even just plain important. Language is a living thing which evolves, they tell you loftily when  you point out yet another blatant howler. And so it does, but not because you can’t be arsed to learn the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ you smug tit. Even worse, they’re quite likely to tell you that their use of a word completely meaningless in the context doesn’t matter. Presumably it doesn’t matter if I use the word ‘ignoramus’ instead of your name either then.

Listing even the commonest recurring online examples of orthographic nitwittedness would take all night and half the available bandwidth, so I am forced to limit myself to this week’s top ten, which represent the tip of an iceberg the size of a small continent.

1. The apostrophe. Put down the mouse. Now step AWAY from the apostrophe button. Slowly. And keep your hands where I can see them. Listen carefully, I will say this only once: plurals do not need apostrophes. Once you’ve mastered this basic idea you can come back to me and I’ll explain where you ought to be putting them.

Good point well made.

2. Commas are not apostrophes. A recent and rather baffling development, this one. I see things like ‘can,t’ or ‘he,s’ (usually in the middle of a forum post which looks like the contents of a list entitled ‘How Not To Spell These Words’, admittedly). So far I haven’t seen an apostrophe used as a comma but I suppose it’s only a matter of time.

3. There, their and they’re. There’s a difference between these three – they’re not interchangeable and their meanings are entirely distinct. Got it?

4. It’s and its. I’m afraid this is the apostrophe again, but I’m putting it up there anyway before I suffer an aneurysm. It’s = it is. Its = belonging to it. There is no circumstance in the English language under which you would write its’ with the apostrophe at the end.

5. Haggle vs barter. Pay attention. Barter is swapping things for other things – it’s going into Marks and Spencer and offering the floor manager a goat for that three-piece suite. Haggling is when the manager throws up his hands and asks you if you’re trying to get him fired, what do you mean one goat, it’s worth at least five and a dwarf lop rabbit, look at the quality etc etc.

6. Complimentary. No, the toiletries are not complimentary, and I put it to you that you would hardly appreciate it if they were – you really want the shampoo to pipe up and tell you that you’ve got lovely hair as soon as you walk into your hotel bathroom? You’d jump through the roof. Toiletries (and wine, and anything else which is part of the deal) are complementary. With an ‘e’. The two words are entirely different and one of them doesn’t mean what you want it to. It’s not their fault they sound a bit similar.

7. Would of, should of, might of ….. for God’s sake, people, it’s have, not of. You make this mistake because you never read anything and then you think you can try your hand at writing and get away with it. Get a library ticket and come back in three years time.

8. Hyphens. To write ‘my six-year-old hamster’ is entirely acceptable and demonstrates your understanding of the compound adjective. Scribbling ‘my hamster is six-years-old’ indicates that you are an idiot who has no business writing for a national readership. Telegraph Online, I’m looking at you again.

Wreaked iron .............. do you want a slap or what?

9. Wreaked vs wrought. Now, you can wibble on at me for as long as you like about strong vs weak verb endings, but the day you show me a wreaked iron gate is the day I’ll let you write ‘wreaked havoc’ on a national news website, all right?

10. Nerve-racking. It is, isn’t it? Not ‘nerve-wracking’, as lots of you seem to suppose. The rack was a hideous instrument of torture designed to tear the victim slowly limb from limb. Wrack is a kind of seaweed. While I can see that being slapped around the chops with a handful of wet slime isn’t fun, it hardly compares with having your arms removed at the shoulder over a period of several hours, does it? Think about what you’re writing.

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About misplacedperson

Camping and snowboarding for a living. It may not be a career, but it's certainly a life.
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22 Responses to We don’t need no education

  1. I love a good grammar rant!

    I don’t worry that very few of the people of my generation (and younger) have read Strunk and White…

    What worries me is that very few have heard of Strunk and White!

    And the next time I hear someone say “Know what I mean….” or “Like I say…” I’m going to have to rip their head off and plead insanity!

    All the best


  2. awindram says:

    Actually, nerve-wracked is an acceptable usage with both the O.E.D. and Webster’s. Wracked is that which has undergone or suffered wreck, esp. shipwreck; ruined, destroyed.

    1911 E. Pound Canzoni 46 How our modernity, Nerve-wracked and broken, turns Against time’s way.

    • Excellent, a pedant! Chambers likes rack, I have to say. As do I. Like your blog as well, have added it to my favourites page (not sure how many visits it gets, mind).

      • Newminster says:

        Chambers is happy with “wrack”, as I told you, though it does suggest this might be a mis-spelling for “rack”.
        I knew a butcher once who sold “wrack of lamb”.
        Why have you missed out “flout” and “flaunt”? I know you said Top Ten but surely they must be near the top of anyone’s top ten? No?

        And I have already had words about Telegraph Online though my main beef is that the educational standards of their crossword compilers is deteriorating rapidly and if you can’t trust a crossword clue then there’s no hope!

      • Almost as irritating as affect/effect. Wrack of lamb clearly some Welsh dish involving sheep and dulse.

  3. EvanS says:

    You shouldn’t draw my attention to things on Facebook if you’re then going to get it wrong.

    ComplImentary toiletries is absolutely, 100 per cent correct. ComplEmentary means “goes with”. ComplImentary has two meanings – and one of them means gratis and free. We’ve had this out before and you ignored me; look it up.


    Also, nerve-wracking is, indeed, acceptable.

    Apart from that, you’re preaching to the choir.

    • You’re reading the wrong dictionary. Mine has nothing whatever to say about complimentary meaning free.

      • EvanS says:

        My world of living is full of giving, and I hope the html works.

        Oxford Dictionary of English: adjective 2 given or supplied free of charge: a complimentary bottle of wine.

        The New Penguin English Dictionary: adj 2 given free as a courtesy or favour: complimentary tickets.

        Collins English Dictionary: adj. 3 given free, esp as a courtesy or for publicity purposes.

      • Well, I don’t hold with your newfangled dictionaries, probably contain text-speak so-called ‘words’ as well. Forsooth varlet, get thee to a nunnery, egads. (Though I think you should probably go swimming instead.)

      • EvanS says:

        This is just like being married – no sex, and I’m never right, regardless of the impeccable authorities/witnesses lined up on my side of the courtroom.

        Admit you’re wrong. Go on. You can do it!

      • Shan’t. Besides, it’s much cheaper than marriage – you’re getting a bargain.

  4. awindram says:

    Normally, I’m not so pedantic, but I usually go with nerve-wracked and so needed to double-check that I hadn’t been getting it wrong all these years. Thanks for the link, have done likewise on my blog.

  5. EvanS says:

    Oh, dear, I seem to have been redacted. That’ll teach me for being right, eh?

    • EvanS says:

      OK. That’s weird. It was there, then gone, then back. My apologies. For further elucidation, our style is nerve-racking – but the other is acceptable.

    • You think I have nothing better to do than moderate your comments all morning? I’ve been busy ejecting half the neighbourhood felines from my living room, I’ll have you know.

  6. hlp5040 says:

    Excellent. Reading this was just what I needed on a dull afternoon. It reminds me of when I was a teacher in the 1990s, before I saw sense and moved on. Schools had suddenly realised that being literate wasn’t a dirty secret that one only owned up to in private with other consenting adults and so mine decided to set up, heaven help us, a literacy committee. Due to my reputation as a pedant, I was instantly volunteered for said committee. The decision was taken that each half term we would nominate a grammatical point for ALL staff to teach and actively correct, so the children would have the point frequently reinforced. Remember, we were in the days (are we still?) when it was felt that correcting children’s work would demoralise them and stunt their creativity, so we were told we must not recommend that teachers correct all errors at once. The first target point selected was: “correct use of the apostrophe” and this was duly announced in the next staff meeting. The room went silent, faces paled to sickly green, Miss Jones looked pleadingly at Mr Smith, then a quavering voice from the corner broke through “err, that could be difficult, err, you see, like I kinda don’t know much about them myself”. Relief washed across troubled countenances, clearly this was no isolated case. We came up with a solution which worked well. We decided to produce a concise guide to each grammar point before its introduction and distribute it to each staff member. The same guide was enlarged to A3 and stuck on each classroom wall.


    I’d like to nominate a few more that irk me :
    a.affect and effect
    b. less and fewer
    c. I and me

    • Ah yes, those three piss me right off as well. Probably game over when most of the teaching staff haven’t a clue either though. Maybe we should just go back to being an oral culture innit.

  7. Charlotte says:

    I get particularly annoyed at affect and effect too, and you’re right. The standid of gramma is gettin’wirs

  8. Schools should be obliged to TEACH proper English and correct people… I left school at 14 and carried out my education by correspondence, really just to get through to A’Levels – I couldn’t have cared less about getting an education as I was otherwise occupied. I then moved to France aged 16 and all notions of English grammar went out the window!

    Oh how I regret it now!!! For a number of years it didn’t bother me but then as Charlotte points out above, not knowing the difference between affect and effect is just annoying.

  9. EvanS says:

    Affect and effect, less and fewer, more than and over … the joy of working with “professional” writers is that you can legitimately get grumpy with them. By this stage of the year reporters tend to wince when I walk over to their desks, and actively look forward to me going away to ski. The fun parts of the day come when they try to use polysyllables, bless them.

  10. Mark says:

    7. Would of, should of, might of ….. for God’s sake, people, it’s have, not of. You make this mistake because you never read anything and then you think you can try your hand at writing and get away with it. Get a library ticket and come back in three years time.

    Should be “three years’ time” (The time of three years)

  11. FemmeFranglaise says:

    As someone who’s taken their children out of school in France due to the poor quality of teaching and a curriculum that brings a new meaning to the word ‘irrelevant’, I just don’t recognise the portrait of British schooling that is perpetuated by the British media. My children all learn grammar at school and hours are spent on learning and understanding the correct use of apostrophes, commas, hyphens and the like. I went to a grammar school but didn’t learn half the stuff my children do. Neither does their school resemble ‘Waterloo Road’ in any way, shape or form. I would also wager that the people who misuse the apostrophe on internet forums are not products of the current education system but are rather older and so from the supposed ‘glory days’ of British education (if you are to believe them!)

    I also agree that French isn’t really relevant these days. There are a plethora of people who speak English and French, although in my experience the British children speak French rather better than the French ones speak English and these days Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin are far more useful. A growing number of schools now teach these languages, in fact at my childrens’ school they can take Japanese and Mandarin up to A level. Rates of illiteracy are far higher in France too and text speak is finding its way into the classroom in the same way as in the UK.

    I also think you are wrong about complimentary, as others have said, as it means something that is given away free or as an inducement and nerve-racking and nerve-wracking are completely interchangeable. Also, wreaked havoc is common usage and completely acceptable whereas wrought havoc is classed as archaic usage and would not really be considered correct. You didn’t mention my pet hate which is ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’.

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