I like blogging. Language fascinates me.
It wasn’t always so. Though my blogs’ theme used to be based on my old school uniform [this post was written before the new design of Yorkshire Viking, and therefore tenses are rewritten. Editor 2017] , my schoolboy English was not something to be proud of. I consistently failed the old “O” level English examination until 1983, two years after leaving school. Indeed I also failed the examination in the Summer of that year as well!
When I decided to retake my failed examination something remarkable happened. This was at the former Doncaster Metropolitan Institute of Higher Education in that same Autumn. They held evening classes at the now demolished site in Waterdale, in the centre of town. All of us attending were there to redo in a matter of a few weeks what we had tried, and failed to do that Summer.
I wish I could remember the name of our teacher. He changed the course of my life – in more ways than I knew at the time, and not only in the English language. He shut the classroom door, and gesticulated that he had something to say to us almost as though he were afraid of saying it and might lose his job if he said it out aloud.
I can’t remember now when the course began, but he didn’t have a lot of time to change our failed examinations into passes. Therefore I can’t remember exactly how many weeks he said that we had, but what he said was truly astonishing. He said that we had only so many weeks until the examination, but he could guarantee us success if we would follow his method. There was only one catch: his method was an old fashioned one, and some did not approve of it in modern teaching.
Until these evening classes, I had used English “automatically” with my internal “autopilot”. That is to say that I wrote what I should say, and never thought about it any more than one thinks about how one walks. It is my belief that many people are now doing this very thing, and without most of these realizing it, their language does their thinking for them rather than letting them express ideas that they themselves have put together. Our teacher wanted us to analyse our language.
Obtaining so our surreptitious consent, he then introduced us to what we had thought was a very dirty word – grammar! In some respects, English is like a building that has lost one of its rooms. We started looking not just at how that building was today, but how it once used to be.
English address is a good example of this, where the plural has now to double up as a singular. Unless you know that, then it seems like the use of a plural verb, “are” for example, when one is addressing only one individual is just one of the many exceptions-to-the-rule that plague anyone who wants to use the language. Unless you have the grammatical bird’s eye view from above, then indeed it will seem like many complicated rules and exception to the rules just as in our example here.
We started writing out tables…. I am, thou art, he/she/it is, we are, ye(you) are, they are. We briefly looked at Middle English, but I have to say that most of what I now know of that came later. Nevertheless it was from the interest this evening class ignited inside me. Needless to say, I could see why verbs ended the ways they did very quickly. In Modern English, one simply cuts out the “thou” address, and replaces the “eth” verb ending with the “s” that we have today in the third person singular. Not complicated at all!
One of my major sins used to be the misplaced apostrophe. This subversive grammarian taught us that there were two types of apostrophe: the first when the apostrophe was used to show omission, and the second use to show possession. This was before I ever even heard of things like the genitive case, through my own study that followed!
Since I often pop into George Barton’s blog, and follow him on Twitter I have been introduced to the term “the apostrophe police”. This refers to those (like me) who have the audacity to pick people up on misplaced apostrophes. Nevertheless, for those of you who once and for all – guarantee! – want to learn this so you never make a mistake again, I shall give you the infallible rule.
The first use of the apostrophe is for an omission. Instead of writing the two words “it is”, you can contract these to “it’s”. The apostrophe stands for the omitted letter “i”. Instead of writing “you are”, you can contract to “you’re”, and the apostrophe is in place of the omitted letter “a”.
The second use, which I began this post with when I referred to the school uniform theme my blogs now use, is to show possession. You can very simply find out where to put the apostrophe here by rewriting the sentence using the preposition “of”. For example:
- the children’s toys – rewrite, the toys of the children (you know to put the apostrophe between “n” and “s”)
- the child’s book – rewrite, the book of the child (you know that the apostrophe is between “d” and “s”)
- the boys’ choir – rewrite, the choir of the boys (unless you really mean that one boy has started, and perhaps leads the choir, and that it is his project – then you know there are several of them, and the apostrophe comes after the “s” at the end)
- the boy’s friend – rewrite, the friend of the boy
So, whatever it is that you actually mean, write it first as an “of” sentence it you are in doubt! This always works! So if anyone thought that I had made a mistake at the beginning of this post, it should now be apparent that I was writing about the theme of my blogs (and not my blog). Yorkshire Viking Norway is twinned with a Norwegian sister blog.
I wish I could remember the name of our teacher who got me my English qualification. I should like to thank him. However I cannot, but I pay tribute here. What is more, if you follow the advice above, neither will you go wrong. Ever!