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.

Give young people a chance

Yesterday afternoon I popped into the office to meet some of the members of our Youth Led Consultancy Board (YLCB for short). We’ve been grappling with what the charity’s strapline should be for a few weeks and all felt it was important to get input from the young people – who have themselves all completed the Teens and Toddlers programme – because without it we’d be hypocritical to call ourselves a truly youth-led charity.

Within minutes of starting the brainstorm they’d come up with a better suggestion for the strap line than any of the ones we devised in the staff brainstorm meeting last week. It was so inspiring to meet them and find out what they’re all doing now-mostly about to finish college exams and waiting for results to find out if they’ve got university places. They’re living proof our programme really does work at helping disadvantaged young people get into further education and employment, and it was a joy to see how bright, motivated and enthusiastic they all are.

Working with the young people is teaching me so much about the dangers of preconceptions and stereotypes. So many people write off vast swathes of today’s youth as being wasters who refuse to do the necessary work to succeed, but for most that’s categorically not true. They want to achieve, they just need extra help to believe that they can.

This one was taken in 2007 when I made a banoffee pie and brought it into the orphanage for the kids to try – they couldn’t get enough of it!

Moment in time

It is half past eleven on the London underground; Oxford Circus, Victoria Line southbound.

A girl stands on the platform, her head swaying in unselfconscious appreciation of the rock music being delivered into her ears by her oversized headphones. She stoops to tie a lace in her steel toe-capped boots, pulls her multi-coloured knee socks up, yawns and wipes a heavily charcoaled eye with the back of a fingerless glove-clad hand, oblivious to those around her.

The train pulls into the platform. Unusually there’s no scrum as the doors open, most of the seats being already taken by tipsy revellers reluctant to miss the last easy way home. The girl walks down the carriage and stops in the middle. She grasps the hand rail and blows a bubble with her gum, thinking of her thesis and wondering if smoking a joint when she gets home will make tomorrow a literal write off.

To the girl’s right are a couple so deeply entrenched in one another’s oral cavities it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins. When they finally come up for air they entwine fingers and stare at one another with the intense longing of first love. The man mouths the three words his partner is aching to hear. She flushes scarlet and smiles a smile so dazzling her soul seems to shine right out of her cherubic face. She lays her blonde head on the man’s shoulder and they stare contentedly into the middle distance.

Beside the couple a boy is slumped in his seat, his head lolling forward in a comical fashion. He is wearing a baseball cap with NYC emblazoned across it, and his baggy jeans are so low slung the crotch almost drags on the floor. In his hand he clasps a takeaway box, the prize at the end of a long night. Though some are eyeing him with suspicion, no doubt mistaking him for a drunk, he’s just come off a double shift at work and is exhausted.

The doors beep and start to close, but not before the dreadlocked man who has been busking in the station for the past three hours manages to leap through them, guitar case in hand, prompting a mixture of tuts and nods of appreciation from his fellow passengers. He props the guitar case against the rail and starts to hum a melody, not for money but for his own unbridled pleasure.

Further along the carriage an elderly man is engaged in conversation with two bespectacled students, imparting his worldliness over the course of three tube stops. They watch him intently, rapt in his presence as their own worlds pale into insignificance in the shadow of the one he has seen. There is not, they all know, enough time to hear it all.

Opposite the students sits a girl, pale and drawn with tell-tale streaks of mascara running in rivulets down her cheeks. She knows she is a cliché, the archetypal jilted lover, but her heart feels close to breaking and she doesn’t care who sees the emotion etched across her face.

By the door in the middle of the carriage a drunk, middle-aged couple giggle like school children. The woman flicks her chestnut curls and pivots around the rail, prompting the man to grab her by the waist and prevent her from toppling over. She laughs, at once both wild and tamed.

At length the train pulls into the platform at Victoria. The girl with the headphones leaves first, confident now that she will smoke a joint when she reaches home. She is closely followed by the kissing couple, still smiling as if, in each other, they’ve discovered Utopia. Next the busker lifts his guitar case and exits the carriage with an easy hop. The students sigh and bid goodbye to their mentor who is, he tells them, will be staying to the end of the line. The jilted girl drifts through the doors ahead of the laughing couple, who stumble down the platform arm in arm, singing something unintelligible. As the doors begin to beep the boy with the takeaway box awakes. He leaps up and hurls himself through the closing gap in the nick of time, his takeaway box left behind like a casualty of war.

Off they go, into the night. Never will they meet again, but will forever be indelibly joined by that one moment in time.

Image

This is possibly my favourite picture from my travels. I took it from the rooftop of a hotel in Jaipur, India, and didn’t for a single moment think it would come out as well as it did. I think it perfectly signifies the frenetic rush of city living and, as such, is a suitable accompaniment to this post.