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Crimes against punctuation

I believe there are two things that separate humans from animals: table manners and the use of the apostrophe. There is nothing guaranteed to irritate me more than someone slurping, slopping, and slobbering their way through food as though it had been served in a trough. There are also the seemingly trivial boiled-sweet crunchers, teeth clankers, tongue rollers, for whom boiled sweet mouth gymnastics is an Olympic level sport. No. Nothing more irritating - except the chronic and pervasive misuse of punctuation. For the past three years I have been teaching creative writing to undergraduates, a role that I carried out alongside my work in public relations. The students - despite, for the most part, having gone through 13 years or more of formal education - know not how to spell at a consistent standard, nor how to handle punctuation. The main item of offence is the apostrophe. Possessive, plural, contracted. The most intelligent critical reviews are marred by the howlers I've had the misfortune to mark, which have stood out like a missing - or extra - front tooth. Yet it is not just students on English degrees; it's journalists too, whose work across the media spectrum I come across daily whilst wearing my other hat. Where have all the sub-eds gone? Recently I've even seen misplaced apostrophes in national newspapers. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a punctuation nazi - and when it comes to grammar I've had my own peccadilloes, but when it is at the most basic levels - we're talking primary school and chronically pervasive - then it's worrying. When we pull on the thread that is the apostrophe we can unravel the entire teaching of the English language; literature too. And that should set more alarm bells ringing.

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