The perennial debate of “they’re”, “there” and “their”

As a precocious child at primary school I had labelled myself as ‘one to watch’ in the literary world by the approximate age of seven. During weekly writing classes I refused point blank to write anything other than my ‘never ending story’ – a down-the-rabbit-hole (well, mole-hole, actually, but I digress) type tale not that dissimilar to Alice in Wonderland, though I would have driven a stake through my own heart before admitting plagiarism.

In the years since then I’ve had a love affair with the many nuances of the English language and have greatly enjoyed grappling with grammar, spelling and punctuation. Which is why I sit firmly in the ‘anti-dumbing down’ camp when it comes to modern day language usage.

So you can imagine how horrified I was to read what Simon Horobin (a professor of English at Magdalen College, for goodness’ sake!) said at this week’s Hay Festival. According to Adi Bloom, who wrote this article for the Times Education Supplement Magazine, Horobin – author of a book entitled ‘Does Spelling Matter?’ (YES!!) –  suggested that the spellings of “they’re”, “there” and “their” could be standardised. “Is the apostrophe so crucial to the preservation of our society?” he asked, before concluding that “spelling is not a reliable indication of intelligence.”

On that last point I must agree with Mister Horobin – poor spelling is not necessarily a sign of low intelligence, but (and let’s exclude dyslexics from this argument for obvious reasons) it is a sign of sloppiness. In the majority of cases people have been taught how to correctly use grammar but don’t view it as important enough to master. Now I’m not archaic enough to hold the view that in this brave new digital age all language must be set in stone. But, in my humble opinion being able to demonstrate a basic grasp of when it’s appropriate to use ‘your’ versus ‘you’re’ is hardly an insurmountable challenge.

That’s why I for one am glad that the education secretary – for all his faults – has developed a new English curriculum that sets strict rules for learning correct grammar in primary school. Because if they don’t know they’re arses from there elbows then their just not going to get very far in life – and if Simon Horobin doesn’t realise that, he must be even closer to Alice in Wonderland than my never ending story.

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