Deborah Coddington: Teaching poor English is child abuse

By Deborah Coddington

Sorry to disappoint those who eagerly inquired, but no, I haven't been shot by the Martinborough so-called "vigilantes". Instead, I've been hugely entertained by a book sent by long-time friend Mary Mountier, also known as New Zealand's foremost racing writer and commentator.

What many don't know about Mary Mountier is she's a pedant, who for nearly 30 years has collected clippings on bad punctuation, now published in this little book called Your Joking.

Some people are puzzled by the title. They see nothing wrong with there being no apostrophe and an "e". When Sir Robert Jones braved a trip here for lunch last Sunday, he looked at the cover and snapped, "She's got the title wrong."

Mountier took the book's title from the registered name of a racehorse, now, as she says, thankfully retired.

From her introduction, you get the feeling she may have published this little how-to book some 20 years too late, as Mountier wonders if anyone really cares any more about correct punctuation and grammar - written and spoken.

I've had this battle so many times I almost give up. On National Radio this month, a woman talked about someone describing himself with "delightful self-depreciation".

There's almost an inverted snobbery about bad English, as if to be a stickler for good grammar betrays an upper-middle class upbringing, a lack of sympathy for the working man, an inability to empathise with anyone less fortunate.

I suspect this is a product of our dumbed-down education system, in which there are no failures, taking the easy route is encouraged, and excellence is a dirty word. In the past week we've seen, yet again, evidence that some schools regularly cheat with NCEA exams, pushing pupils through the system when clearly they should be failing. But every time this thoroughly discredited qualification system is criticised, the bureaucrats go into a huddle and deny, deny, deny.

They could do the country a favour and make Mountier's book a set text for 13-year-old students. Reading some of the clippings she has published, some schools are in dire need of punctuation lessons. Wellington Girls' College, for example, in March last year advertised over the Easter weekend "it's 125th Jubilee".

An unsourced headline, obviously penned during the Helen Clark painting fiasco, brazenly asks: "It's art but is it her's?"

I guess most people have just given up on punctuation and hope for the best. As Jeremy Clarkson said when describing the internet, "it's full of nasty people who sprinkle apostrophes around like confetti".

But when Mountier starts on some of her pet hates, misused words, you realise how abused the English language has become.

"Excepted" instead of "accepted"? As in "no excuse excepted". I can't bear the use of "invite" instead of "invitation" - to have someone say to me, "I can't except your invite" would, I believe, provoke justifiable homicide. In fact, I'd probably kill myself for having the bad taste to invite them in the first place.

The confusion over "disinterested" and "uninterested" is pretty much a lost cause. Sports jocks are always saying "verse" when they mean "versus" (Latin for against). This brings me to the nonsense of using gender-neutral "chair" instead of "chairman". The "man" derives from "manus" which is Latin for "hand" and denotes the chairman's role - to control the meeting.

I have to confess to the misplaced modifier. I'm a terror at it, once appearing in the Listener's Life in New Zealand column for having the neighbour's cows sipping gin and tonics on our back veranda enjoying the sunset, and in North & South magazine I had the moon walking the streets of Rome to my hotel.

Our local Martinborough rag, the Star, is a chatty little giveaway but this month was littered with errors - "little tractors puling bins of grapes", "Womens' Institute", "pets breath" - which could be forgiven until the editor's column began with the sentence, "I'm beginning to wonder about the level of literacy in our district."

Does it matter? Yes indeed. Standards are important - in the way we dress ourselves, keep ourselves clean and healthy, care for each other, bring up our children, treat our elderly, look after our environment - fierce activists protect standards and provoke our consciences in all these issues.

Bad communication standards can make an intelligent person appear stupid, and it's cruel child abuse, and downright laziness, for our state education system to make any excuses. So, give me one good reason we shouldn't set and strive for high standards in English grammar and punctuation?

- Herald on Sunday

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