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Is this the write stuff?;Opinion

Senior school pupils should know their exam fate today. John McIntyre, a marker of scripts, is unhappy at the way the ablest handle their own language.

IN SUMMER, the language police emerge to judge the quality of English language expression in exam scripts. What hard evidence is there this year of faulty expression in candidates' submissions?

The 75 scripts in a CSYS modern language paper that I marked contained on average between four and six sides of material. Three candidates produced a flawless performance. Twenty-seven candidates had three errors in English or fewer. The remaining 45 candidates each had four errors or more.

With 341 errors overall, the average number of errors in each script was 4.54. The use of "done" for the simple past "did" surfaced only once, in "perhaps he done it". Other low-frequency errors included confusion between -ei- and -ie-, logged only three times, in "recieved", "the theifs" and "wierdly", and the confusion between "there" and "their", also logged twice in "their would exist" and "there reaction".

Nouns ending in y which change to ies in the plural were mishandled in "bodys", "memorys" and "spys". Final letter y, due to change to i before the addition of a suffix, was wrongly preserved in "pennyless", "pennylessness", "unhappyly" and "unhappyness".

Infinitive forms ending in y, due to change to ies in third person singular of present tense, wrongly kept the y in "he implys it" and "it signifys hope". Final letter f, due to change to ves in the plural, was missed in "the two halfs" (of the text) and "theifs."

An unneeded apostrophe popped up in "he remember's", "on it's own", "it's usage" and "it's modernities", whereas the apostrophe was omitted in the foreshortened verbal units "its amusing", "he cant say", "they dont accept", "he doesnt mind", "he didnt" and "theres no controll".

It can be difficult to discriminate between ant and ent at the end of words. Candidates therefore produced "apparant", "consistant", "extravagent", "ingrediant", "permanant", "pleasent", "prevelant" and "prominant".

Since English renders the 's' sound in different ways, this area of pressure generated "absense", "atrosities", "consise", "critisicsm", "presense" and "reminissing".

The third most common error overall was the failure to use capital letters in place names and adjectives of racial, national

and regional origin, as in "amazon", "boston", "english", "hispanic", "indian", "latin-american", "new York, "north-american" and "yankee".

In the second largest area of error, they had difficulty in deciding between single and double consonants in "habbits", "hiden", "saddness", "having studdied", "proffession", "finaly", "intelect", "inteligent", "comas" (for commas), "imediately", "to comunicate", "conotations", "maner", "annonymous", "inapropriate", "oposed", "appology", "interupted", "occured", "refered to", "deterent", "forrest", "embarassed", "assasination", "oppresive", "posesses", "commited", "nattive", "to be pittied" and "regrettful".

The most widespread error was the failure to recognise the need for the possessive apostrophe, as in "the authors use" (for author's), "the citizens well-being" (for citizens'), "each others situation", "peoples houses", "the other persons language", "the poets resentment", "the priests feelings", "the readers attention", "Mr Taylors humble appearance" and "the tribes name".

Some one-off errors brought a smile, as in "acquantainted", "adulters", "Court-Marshals" (for courts-martial), "doughtful", "is not phased in the slightest" (for fazed), "intreaged" (for intrigued), "jelous", "palice" (for palace), "pessemistic", "the native's pidian English" (for pidgin), "poinant" (for poignant), "the secrete police", "has a sedistic side to him", "they through stones (for throw), "they threw stowns at him" (for stones), "at the end of his teather", "tidiousness" (for tediousness), "in the same vain" and "they are warry of him".

The most flawed script contained 18 errors, including "subconcious", "the poets use of similies", "subconciously", "god", "thoughtfullness", "the priests memories", "assasination", "opressive", "in Somozas Palace" (for Somoza's), "spys" (for spies), "finaly", bodys" (for bodies), "the poets word-choice", "his sentance structure", "the atrosities", "who go their" and "a new begining."

Such an aggregation is worrying because these candidates probably passed Higher English and at least one modern language Higher in fifth year.

Twelve months later, about to enter college or university, these candidates - among the very best of Scottish secondary students - still display irritating weaknesses in English language expression. Some do not handle word shapes and word formations well and sometimes seem deaf to the feel and sound of the words in English. The abandonment of capital letters is general. There is widespread confusion over single and double consonants.

And, sadly, the study of possessives in a foreign language does not always help their understanding of the English possessive.

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