One November morning in the 1970s my dad suffered a sudden release of adrenalin, causing hyperventilation, tachycardia and dyspnoea, leading to respiratory alkalosis. Fortunately nobody told him this and he put it down to a panic attack resulting from having to drive to Great Auntie Hilda’s funeral via the Gravelly Hill Interchange – better known as Spaghetti Junction.
Back then “Spaghetti Junction” was a term that put the fear of God into older drivers like my dad. He was far more at ease negotiating his Ford Anglia around the nation’s B roads. Unravelling pasta-style motorway mergers was his worst nightmare, in a world with no satellite guidance and maps the size of bed sheets. To make matters worse, his navigator (my mum) was more interested in solving crossword puzzles than giving clear directions.
When my dad set off that morning he looked as grim as death. This is exactly how my friend Janet looks now that she’s facing Spag (shorter to write but just as scarily confusing to the uninitiated). Her granddaughter, Jemima, is staying for the weekend and she’s brought her English homework. “Her teacher says it will help with her end-of-year tests,” Janet says. She checks the grammar police aren’t hiding behind the sofa and (with no hint of irony) adds, “Only it’s like a foreign language to me.”
She follows me into the kitchen where I put the kettle on. “Spag is just an acronym used by teachers,” I say. “It’s short for spelling, punctuation and grammar.” Janet is not convinced. She thinks I don’t appreciate the complexity of the task in hand, so I ask her what Jemima is expected to do.
“Demonstrative determiners,” Janet announces, like someone revealing a top-secret code that only a math genius could hope to crack. “The help sheet says ‘determiners go before nouns and there are four kinds: articles, quantifiers, demonstratives and possessives’.” Although I’m a primary teacher familiar with the latest education jargon, I’m suddenly at a loss. It reminds me of the time Professor Brian Cox tried to simplify quantum theory. I still wouldn’t know what wave-particle duality was if it turned up at our door with an identity badge pinned to its lapel. Since then I’ve been happy to let atoms get on with their job while I get on with mine. But primary English is my job.
A proper look at what Jemima is expected to do helps us to negotiate the confusion that comes when giant clodhopping terms trample through the garden of common sense. “She just has to choose words from the list below and put them into the sentences so that they make sense.” I pour troubled water on to calming teabags.
“So those are demonstrative determiners,” Janet says. There is a pause. “So what are articles, quantifiers and possessives?”
“I don’t have a defibrillator, so it’s best not to ask,” I reply.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield