Why not disown this mark of possession?

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Kevin Fitzsimons is an advanced skills English teacher in Hull

I hate the apostrophe denoting possession. Irrational, I know, but so is this nuisance. It is the aristocrat of punctuation. It has no value except snob value if you know how to use it. It operates merely as a pretext for self-congratulatory know-alls to write letters to the newspapers or appear on TV or radio complaining about "standards".

Why not let it go? It is an anachronistic survivor from German and is, literally, useless. There is no occasion in English when the omission of the apostrophe would cause anything more than momentary ambiguity. For a language which changes daily, which has stolen vocabulary from every conceivable source and has spelling which is best described as bizarre, this attachment is wilful.

I try to teach students a rule that no one can agree on. Is it "Jones's broken finger" or "Jones' broken rule of thumb", or are both acceptable? And I see "merang's" in a cake shop. Should I tut-tut or just eat the meringue? After all, the mistakes were in the language, not in the baking.

My interest is entirely professional. As an English teacher, I am responsible for all the errors in the world. Can't spell? Blame the English teacher. Invasion of Iraq? Blame the English teacher for not teaching children to analyse texts and spot the lies that politicians regularly peddle as truth using some of the most sophisticated rhetorical and linguistic devices available. Of course, we would like to spend more time teaching students to "read" by interrogating texts instead of simply decoding them, but we have to implement the literacy strategy, which reduces language teaching to the jigsaw-puzzle model.

Some years ago, I was part of a group of teachers all involved in giving English lessons of some kind other than at key stage 4. We were looking at assessment and marking with Robert Protherough, who is for me the doyen of English teachers. He gave us a typed piece and asked for a GCSE grade from us. He left me till last as the "specialist". Some gave the piece a "C" and all agreed it was presentable. "Come on then," he said to me with that glint in his eye. I said: "If I didn't know you better, I'd suspect you of giving us a piece by a 10-year-old and typing it to fool us."

Sure enough, he showed us the original. It was a virtually incomprehensible, unpunctuated piece of writing from a remedial Year 11 pupil that would have been ungraded as coursework. The story illustrates, as Mr Protherough meant it to, the disproportionate emphasis we place on the superficial aspects of syntax, spelling, punctuation and handwriting.

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