Clare Dean reports on a man who spells trouble for all those careless with language. A castrated ram has, on the face of it, very little to do with the nation's favourite topic of conversation - the weather. Unless you are Bernard Lamb.
For Dr Lamb, a reader in genetics at London University and a member of the nation's guild of wine and beer judges, has a mission.
He is the spokesman of the Queen's English Society, founded 23 years ago to promote literacy and encourage high standards in education and, among other aims, discourage slovenly and ugly usage of language.
Dr Lamb has scrutinised and dissected the written work of biology degree students at Imperial College, London.
According to him, 46 per cent of students confuse the spelling of "affect" with "effect"; around 16 per cent are uncertain about the distinction between "complimentary" and "complementary" and 21 per cent cannot tell "weather" from "whether". Or, for that matter, "wether" which (as everyone knows) is what the Longman's dictionary defines as "a male sheep castrated before sexual maturity".
One PhD thesis consistently confused "proscribed" and "prescribed" and "leeched" and "leached". Student nurses, according to Dr Lamb, sometimes wrote "to elevate the disease" when they meant "alleviate", while many students muddled "were" with "where" and "there" with "their".
But as he ran through the catalogue of student errors at a conference on writing skills held at Nene College, Northampton, last week, Dr Lamb was accused of going for cheap laughs. His suggestion that teachers felt corrections to schoolwork harmed pupils and inhibited creativity were met with hostility and anger. His rules for spelling and grammar also found little favour with the assembled academics, who complained they were too "prescriptive".
He told the conference: "Many of these student errors give unintended or unclear meanings, and impair comprehension. They stem from inadequate teaching in schools and are often serious in their effect. They are far too frequent in 'educated' students and in an advanced country."
But Professor John Stephenson, project director of Higher Education for Capability, a national initiative started at the Royal Society for the Arts, said students have to have good reasons for writing.
Youngsters were bombarded with deliberate misspellings and misuse of English in corporate logos such as Toys'R'Us and in terms and phrases such as "nite spots" and "don't luv ya no more".
"Some of these phrases are coming from the very corporations that are complaining about the literacy standards of the young people they are employing," said Professor Stephenson.
The scale of literacy problems in this country was highlighted in a survey by the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit two years ago which revealed that more than 40 per cent of 10,000 further education students had the reading ability of an average 11-year-old.
Concern about the use of written and spoken English has been taken up by the Education Secretary, who has pledged to campaign for the use of "plain, simple, effective English" - not just in the classroom, but in industry, commerce, the media and even Parliament.
Judith Thurston, from Northampton School for Girls, protested at the blame being heaped on teachers by Dr Lamb. "We do our utmost to teach children how to spell, punctuate and the rudiments of grammar," she told the conference. Mrs Thurston, who is also an examiner, added: "Last year we were discouraged from being too rigorous in correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar."
A conference seminar heard that at one secondary school most students had not read a book for pleasure in the past year and that more than half of its 16-year-olds watched 15 hours of TV a week.
Teachers said that higher education admissions tutors had to emphasise the need for literary skills and one said that while spelling, punctuation and grammar only accounted for 5 per cent of exam marks, school staff would continue to teach to the test.
Professor Stephenson said: "No matter how often we talk about the rules of the apostrophe, if students don't feel it is in their interest to resolve these issues things will always be difficult."