Got a Punch-line for the possessive apostrophe?

25th April 2003 at 01:00
SO nine out of 10 graduates are turned down for a job because their CVs are full of errors. While the days of learning to spell by rote and practice in parsing are long gone, we still expect our learners or potential employees to come to us honed in these skills.

All over the country, those practised in the art of spelling and punctuation are composing exemplary letters to newspapers bemoaning poor spelling and the inability to distinguish a plural from a possessive.

Meanwhile, the website freespeling.com. which promotes a spelling revolution and offers guydlines to help us spell for clarity and cumfort plans a world vote in May.

Text messaging, advertising slogans and popular culture all bend and twist the language. And why not? Teaching within the creative industries, I help learners see that language is a tool they use in their work. "I thought it was a rule you could never begin a sentence with and," one of my older learners argued. But you can break the rules creatively, provided you know you are breaking them.

The power struggle rages between a youth culture rebelling against an out-of-date orthography and the traditionally educated older generation who sees a wave of illiterates storming the gates.

I find it interesting and exciting that we can still talk about language with passion. As a lecturer, however, I hope that those who do pick up the banners of freespeling are aware that they will probably also be picking up unemployment benefit for a long time. In further education, our remit is to prepare people for jobs. The hard facts are that employers are looking for communication skills which include spelling and a good grasp of grammar and punctuation.

The trouble is, wrestling with basics such as the possessive apostrophe or subject-verb agreement just doesn't seem fun. Educators are aware that they fight for space within a highly stimulating communication industry of press, broadcasting and web. One of the units I teach is editing and proofreading.

Yes, it is about as exciting as it sounds and the best thing about it is when the students have completed and you can stop doing it. How do you make it interesting? It seems there is no shortage of innovative ways to push the right buttons in education. Currently, a Punch and Judy performance of Othello is touring sixth-form classes in England. It provides a way into the text, and sparks discussion.

Fine. That's the way to do it! I haven't yet worked out how to get Mr Punch to illustrate the possessive apostrophe, but I'm working on it.

Meantime, I come clean at the beginning of the course. I admit it's not the most exciting unit, but tell them it is probably the most important. Last year, one of my learners had a brilliant interview in London with a web-page design company, and was on the point of shaking hands on his appointment when his interviewer said: "By the way, how's your proofreading?" - and decided to give him a test. Andrew said his proofreading skills got him the job.

I show learners examples of super design work on packaging ruined by careless proofreading. And for lighter relief, I refer them to freespel's examples of nonsense packaging text. On bread pudding - product will be hot after heating. On nuts - open packet. Eat nuts. Or the ultimate instruction on a Superman outfit - wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.

I'm planning packaging text on similar lines for the editing and proofreading unit. Warning: passing this unit may render you employable.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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