I have a constant, agonising problem whenever I sit down to mark my students' essays. Should I intervene in their spelling and punctuation, or stick to assessing their interpretation of historical evidence?
After a brief moment of doubt the answer is always the same. I intervene. Canute-like, I stand on the shore of bad grammar and command it to roll back. It's a very damp experience.
The Newman students are no worse than any others. They use their phones to send text messages, which are devoid of punctuation; they have spellcheckers on their PCs which change English spelling to American; they were taught by teachers whose own grasp of the niceties of the English language was shaky; they are surrounded by signs which fail to distinguish between upper and lower case.
The world outside is collapsing these distinctions, I admit. But the world can have double standards. The easiest way for an employer to reduce 50 job applications to a manageable ten is to weed out those who have taken leave of their grammar. That's what I tell the students, anyhow.
But let us set aside the differences between colour and color, or between King and king (let alone between NEC and nec) and concentrate on the humble apostrophe. This small, upwardly mobile comma is the cause of more conflict in the country and the classroom than anything. It's the biggest problem in the English language. In fact, it's is the biggest problem, if you see what I mean.
The stray apostrophe was once confined to the Bull Ring market, but it is no longer restricted to carrot's and cauliflower's; it has now moved uphill to the posh shops, where they sell jacket's and dress's. I've probably lost the battle, but I will continue to fight them on the beach's and on the landing-ground's.
Unfortunately, I think my battle is being undermined from above, if that's possible. One of my students devoted her local history study to King's Norton, and knowing my propensity to ambush her English, she had done her research. She was going to spell Kings Norton without the apostrophe, because the boundary commissioners had recommended that spelling.
This is indeed the case. The City Council ward, after the recent boundary changes, is now spelt without the apostrophe. This brings it into line with Acocks Green, I suppose, but not with the English language. Norton was, after all, a manor belonging to the king.
The boundary commissioners are not the only ones to be throwing out their apostrophes. I am, coincidentally, writing these words at a railway station. But whether you call the station Exeter St Davids or Exeter St David's depends on whether you read the station signs (no apostrophe) or the timetables (with apostrophe). It's one of the lesserknown effects of the break-up of British Rail.
What I suspect is happening is that in the wake of widespread misuse and confusion our public bodies have elected to go with the flow and dispose of the possessive form.
The age of the apostrophe is therefore officially over, and accidence may never happen again...
If that is the case, I would be interested to know whether the people of Germany and Sweden are equally non-plussed over their umlauts, or if the French are jettisoning their acutes, graves and circumflexes. Or is it just the British who can't be bothered ?