When I was teaching in a primary school in Zambia my headmaster once returned an entire set of termly reports to a teacher because they contained spelling mistakes. The woman, who was working at the school as a temporary substitute, had to rewrite all of them correctly overnight. She was not re-employed.
Now a school in Spalding Lincs. has sent a parent an email that is plagued with errors. Some are typos. Well, anyone can make typos. I make them myself, but I use a spell-checker to find them and then I correct them. After the spell-check I go through what I have written to look for Cupertinos and other mishaps before I let it go. Every time. As a teacher and translator I know that I will quite rightly be judged by the language that I produce for public consumption, even outside my professional work. As my mother, who was a primary teacher, used to say ‘Any teacher in English is a teacher of English.’
But that’s not all. The Plain English Campaign has got in on the act with this statement quoted in the Telegraph:
Marie Clair, spokeswoman for the Plain English Campaign, said: “I think this teacher should go back to school themselves – it is appalling.
“Teachers who do this should wear their own dunces hats when they make so many mistakes.
“If you are sending out a letter to parents it is unacceptable to have 14 errors. At the very least you should spell check the letter.”
What about this teacher … themselves? I don’t like it. I know that they forms with singular reference are perfectly admissible, but usually with a general reference and especially to a pronoun like someone, anybody etc. rather than to a specific singular noun. This sentence clunks horribly, and themselves is in fact unnecessary here as there is no contrast with anyone else who should go back to school.
“It is appalling,” says Ms Clair, but what is the it that she mentions? Assuming that she is quoted in full, her pronoun has no referent. Does she refer to the email? If so she might have said “This is appalling.” Or does she mean elliptically “It is appalling that such an email can be sent from a school to a parent”? Either way, her meaning is not, err, plain.
But more than that – good heavens! Do my eyes deceive me? Can it be that the Plain English Campaign has issued a statement that contains a genitive with no apostrophe? Yes it can, assuming again that the statement is correctly quoted. So, instead of dunces hats it should be … well, what should it be? There are two obvious corrections that can be made:
1) Teachers who do this should wear their own dunce’s hats.
2) Teachers who do this should wear their own dunces’ hats.
Hmmm, I don’t really like them. In 1) teachers should wear hats that belong to their own dunce. In 2) teachers have hats that belong to dunces; it is ambiguous whether the dunces or their hats are the teachers’ own. Who owns these hats, the dunce(s) or the teachers? Ms Clair might argue that she is using dunces adjectivally. I could accept that point but it is not what I would expect from the Plain English Campaign, and it is certainly likely to enrage the apostrophe police who read the Telegraph. Then there is a third possibility:
3) Teachers who do this should wear their own dunce hats.
This follows the common convention (which is by no means a universal rule) that nouns used adjectivally in English are singular. And while people do talk of a dunce’s cap (25,000 ghits) rather than a dunce’s hat (2,650 ghits), it is dunce cap that has 478,000 ghits and is the preferred form in Wikipedia.
So much for Plain English. Like so many apparently plain things in life, it’s actually more complicated than that.