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.
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.
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.