A doctorate is pretty big in the world of qualifications but the focus of study can be tiny.
She is 65 and has just graduated from Massey University. She is Dr Hilary Laracy but it is the subject of her six-year PhD that interests me more than the age factor.
Yes, I share her interest and concern but I feel I could have knocked out an academic paper in a week. Or a fortnight at most if I factored in enough long lunches.
After that I would consider the subject done and dusted. Also, if I spent any longer than the fortnight, I would run the risk of losing interest in my subject.
So just what is there to investigate about apostrophes that could take six years? Well, a little history wouldn't go amiss, followed by explanations of correct use and risible examples of incorrect use. There's my fortnight filled.
But six years!
Surely you'd have to be getting down to very minor details: what designer colours apostrophes are available in; how big the mark should be; how many apostrophes it takes to fill a telephone booth. A doctorate in punctuation I could understand but a doctorate in apostrophes!
So, why do so many people find using apostrophes so difficult? Why do they fail to insert them where they are required and why do they insert them where they are not required?
I can't really answer those questions except to say some people are interested in language and others are not. We are all different.
I'm a lover of language and I like to understand how it works. But I'm hopeless at maths. Give me a simultaneous equation and I'll try to turn it into iambic pentameters. Or at least a tasteful haiku.
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As part of the PhD, Laracy used an online questionnaire which revealed that 86 per cent of respondents felt confident with apostrophe use yet only 11 per cent could explain the function of an apostrophe.
The most common issue she found was missing possessive apostrophes in business names; a staggering 50 per cent of Palmerston North businesses had names with missing apostrophes.
After so much study, she found herself not noticing some of the omitted ones but the gratuitous ones definitely jumped out at her.
So, it's becoming more apparent that the only real function of the apostrophe is to make pedants and grammarians feel lofty and superior when they witness someone else's misuse. Or should that be someone el'ses? Or someone elses'?
Exaggerated, yes but not too far away from womens' and mens' which are not uncommon. I've even seen a sign, "Childrens' Clothes".
And these signs are real. "Professional Sign's and Lettering". "Open on Sunday's"."No dog's allowed except guide dog's", "Pie's & Burgers".
I wonder why the pies earned one and the burgers didn't. Perhaps the order was, "An egg and cheeseburger, please, and hold the apostrophes".
The rules are really quite simple: use an apostrophe to indicate possession or when a letter has been left out in a contraction. I'll admit it can get tricky deciding whether the possessive apostrophe goes before or after the "s". But that's not tricky if you care.
So what is the answer? Is it to have grim grammarians drilling the rules into kids at school? Is it to reward kids with a jellybean every time they do (or don't) use an apostrophe correctly?
No, it's far simpler than this but it would throw Laracy's six years into an interesting light.
The answer, as I've suggested before, is to do away with apostrophes altogether. Very little would be lost. After all, the Germans did it successfully.
But would it undermine the work done by Dr Laracy?
I dont know.
See, that little sentence didn't suffer.
* Wyn Drabble is a teacher of English, a writer, musician and public speaker.