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{Wed 10 December 2008}   Apostrophising the apostrophe
Apostrophising the apostrophe

“Oh, great squiggle in the sky, insert yourself into our empty spaces,
Deliver us from plural confusions and possess us with your graces!”

No, I’m not starting a new religion, or being lewd, but I confess that this is a shameless grammar and punctuation plug, as well as a plea for the improvement of our reading environment. While I’m sure that none of us at Master’s level* would ever dream of intentionally inflicting on others a piece of work for reading or review without running it through MS Word’s spelling and grammar checker first, the simple truth is that this less-than-beloved software doesn’t pick up everything, so we simply have to learn a few rules if we want to be writers.

Of all the errors that grate on my reading nerves, the misuse of the apostrophe definitely tops the list.

I love apostrophes, because they’re really useful. However, they’re pointless when used in the wrong places. In fact, they’re worse than pointless then, because they actually interfere with smooth reading. A bad apostrophe is not neutral, it’s negative! In the worst cases, it alters the meaning, but even when the context tells me that it just can’t mean that, just one bad apostrophe in a paragraph, even in an entire page, makes whatever I’m reading seem unprofessional. I immediately find it difficult to focus on the content, even if I’m really interested in it.

I’m very lucky in that I was well-drilled in spelling, grammar and punctuation at my school (we were always a backward lot out there in the colonies, so we didn’t “benefit” from educational fads like the “grammar inhibits creativity” one that has betrayed recent generations of UK children), but I still come up against the occasional grammatical situation where I have to think twice about the apostrophe.

So here are two sites that I’ve found helpful:

A. The Apostrophe Protection Society: http://www.apostrophe.fsnet.co.uk/

This site has a really poncey name, but it’s a useful quick reference because the Home page contains the bare essentials in big text. It gives the traditional explanations of correct usage for missing letters and for possessives (remembering to except the exceptions). The easiest-to-remember advice from this page is:

“Apostrophes are NEVER ever used to denote plurals”,

so if you mean “more than one”, don’t even be tempted! Just remembering this rule will halve your apostrophe problems immediately.

B. The Dreaded Apostrophe:  http://www.dreaded-apostrophe.com/

I like this site much more, because:

  1. It reduces all the rules to one: “Use an apostrophe when letters are missing”.The writer explains that the apostrophe ALWAYS signifies one or more missing letters, even in possessives, because the old form of the possessive used to have an ‘es’ ending. Pronunciation has changed and the ‘es’ form has contracted, so that it is now represented as “‘s “.
  2. There are good examples and a great Q & A page giving answers to difficult apostrophe questions. Surprisingly, it makes quite interesting reading!

On the other hand, if you don’t have time to look it up, you can always recite my daily prayer,

“Oh, great squiggle in the sky, insert yourself into our empty spaces,
Deliver us from plural confusions and possess us with your graces!”

and maybe the muse will give you a clue!



{Sun 7 December 2008}   Home

Another recent creative writing exercise for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media) was also based on a popular trAce project, now archived at http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/home/

It asks several questions about the meaning of home … here are the questions and my responses.

Q. What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

“Home” conjures images of open spaces, blue skies, trees, grass, animals; freedom to walk barefoot when and wherever I wanted to, room and time to run, play, think and read, read, read – this is not my present home, but one of those that I believe I knew and for which I yearn. There was also much, much aloneness, but I did not call it loneliness then.

Q. Please describe the home of your childhood.

I lived in South Africa until I was thirty. There were many homes, but one stands out in my memory, particularly from the period before I went to boarding school at the age of eleven. We moved to Bryanston, Sandton, when I was eight. It was a three-acre property with a lovely farm-style house that my mother had inherited from my grandmother. As a younger child, I had visited her there a few times before her death, and had even stayed with her for a week. Then, I had found the house strange and cool, musty and lonely, because grandmother herself was strange to me. However, once we had moved in, it very quickly became our house.

I remember the whole property as beautiful, and I remember the additional delight that each new beautification brought to all of us, but especially to my mother, who energised each change – the extension to the lounge that brought light in everywhere, the oregon pine floors that I proudly helped my father to lay, the enormous new main bedroom with built-in cupboards lining its entire length on one side, big enough to hide a built-in sewing station and to give access through a cupboard door to a magical en suite bathroom with a huge picture window.

I loved my father’s study. It was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that he had built himself from golden pine. The lines of books were broken with staggered double volume frames that gave space for lamps and objets d’art, so the small room was never oppressive, even with its thousands of books. There were good science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and bad science fiction from Andre Norton, good romances from Georgette Heyer and bad romances from Barbara Cartland, good westerns from Zane Grey and bad westerns from Louis L’Amour, good thrillers from Graham Greene and less good thrillers from Ian Fleming; there were adventure stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, encyclopaedias and dictionaries and Greek myths and fantasy novels and children’s stories, including the complete series of Biggles, Just William, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton. All of these, and more, he and I devoured. From that study, I took my heroes out to the garden to become them there. I was Tarzan (my brothers were the apes), I was Lord Greystoke, I was John Carter of Mars, I was Hiawatha, I was Robinson Crusoe, I was Peter Pan… I was never a girl, because they were seldom heroes, although Georgina from the Famous Five was alright, because she was a tomboy and could climb trees, like me.

The garden was not manicured like those of our neighbours, but it was a wonderful wild space for me and my younger brothers. Pretty Jacaranda trees lined the boundary with the busy main road. There were also two huge Acacia Elata trees, with dark brown bark and dark green leaves, that were easy to climb all the way to the top. Unlike our neighbours, we had no wall or fence along that road, although my parents had created inside the line of trees a row of grassy hills from building rubble and soil to act as a sound barrier. I loved to sit at the top of the tallest tree, alternately playing my recorder and singing my heart out, sometimes for hours. Inside the main garden, there were a syringa and a willow and a yellowwood, and many other trees. My favourites were the small Chinese oak that turned brilliant shades of red and orange in Autumn and the huge tree down the slope from the patio which my brother called the helicopter tree because of its winged seeds. From its huge branches hung our car-tyre swing and the birdhouse for the twenty or so white doves that my mother had installed on a determined whim. As they were not caged, the population, inevitably, did not remain pure white, but we loved to see them coming and going about their bird business.

The other animals were our beloved dogs, including Juno the boxer who had been with us ever since I could remember, and a succession of others – Buster, a black pointer, who ran away, a bulldog called Belinda who bit my father, at least two gorgeous Bouviers, Casper and Gigi, from whom my mom bred a few litters. Watchdog duties were performed by the geese. I also always had a cat – Mischief, Peculiar, Malkat (mad cat) and then Afterthought, a pure white, blue-eyed, deaf albino who always came late for everything. For my eleventh Christmas, my best Christmas ever, my parents gave me a cremello-coloured, sweet-tempered gelding called Butterscotch. My younger brother, Ian, received a cheeky cross-Welsh pony called Prince, who was black with a white blaze. We would ride them for hours, bareback, in the garden, or saddled, through the surrounding countryside. They lived in the stables and paddock that my father and my uncle had built and fenced in the acre to the rear of the house. Every so often, we would wash the horses with apple-scented shampoo and set them free in the garden to graze on the greener grass in front of the house as a reward for their good behaviour under the hose.

Q. Please describe the scent, taste or feel of home.

As I look into that word-picture, I smell new-mown grass, wet dog, apple-scented horses, brown bread baking, my mother’s Lanvin perfume, and the fresh air that I took absolutely for granted then.

Q. Which object most evokes home for you?

A purring cat.

Q. Where do you feel you ‘properly belong’ now?

I do not know.

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{Sat 6 December 2008}   Dawn-Noon-Midnight Quilt

One creative writing exercise we were set for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media), a few weeks ago, was to experiment with the Noon Quilt idea.

Prof. Sue Thomas, who sets the exercises, told us that this was originally a trAce writing project which assembled 100-word patches from writers around the world to create “a quilt of noon-time impressions”. Apparently, trAce was later commissioned by the British Council to make two similar quilts—The Dawn Quilt for South Asia and The Road Quilt for Russia and Eastern Europe. Our exercise was: “Look out of a window on three occasions during the week, at Dawn, Noon, and Midnight, and describe exactly what you can see. If you find a story there, feel free to tell it. ”

Living in London, I’m never usually up at either dawn or midnight, (or I don’t notice when I am because there’s usually not much clue from the sky!) but for the sake of this exercise I made a special effort, even going so far as to get the exact rising and setting times for the Sun from http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy.html?n=136.

I found that doing it all in one day made for stronger links between the patches;a sense of a continuous narrative.

So this was the day:

Date: 4 Dec 2008
Sunrise:
07:48  Sunset: 15:53
Length of day: 8h 04m 53s  Difference from the day before: − 1m 46s
Solar noon: 11:51  Altitude: 16.2°  Distance (10E6 km): 147.428

07:48

Through rain-spotted glass I see, no, feel, a grey sky. I see the white-rimmed eyes of human habitation staring across grim gardens. Here and there, a few glow with manufactured morning warmth. The sun is a secret. Inexplicably, the cloudy canvas lightens slightly. Stark winter trees stand against the grey, shivering in the meaningless wind. The flesh sags from my cheekbones as I imagine the cold wetness of the bark. I look back to the rows of neighbouring windows, but now all are dark and empty. The people inside have also become secrets.

11:51

The rain-spots have dried into dusty acid traces on the window panes. Beyond them, the dawn-dark trees are now shades of green, an eerie moss climbing high over their bare limbs. The day is undecided. Bemused grey clouds scud eastward in ragged retreat, like an army desperate for refuge. Between their broken ranks, blue sky flashes. Sunlight reaches through to caress our creamy walls, but will not stay to be touched. Cayenne chrysanthemums leap with the wind, but the evergreen jasmine next to them clings to the wall, stubbornly still.

23:59

All is still now. With little light behind it to highlight imperfections, the glass seems clear now. Peering through it, I see a calm sky, its starless blackness softened by the urban glow that horizons our silent mews. Nightlights gently bathe the courtyard’s high cream walls and peaceful plants. Some shadows linger, but they do not dart about or threaten. That invisible city beyond our nestling house seems benevolent tonight. It has vanquished the rain. The secret people have lit some lights again. Their warm windows tell me of throbbing hearts and Christmas hearths. Tonight, I can sleep.

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{Fri 5 December 2008}   Who needs New Media?

I haven’t blogged for a month, but it’s not because I haven’t been writing. I’ve had my nose to the grindstone, studying the vast amount of course material for my wonderful new MA and writing bits and pieces for creative and critical exercises. I’m doing the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media from De Montfort University in Leicester.  The experience has been really positive so far, with hugely experienced course leaders (Sue Thomas and Kate Pullinger) and a really talented and intelligent bunch of fellow students. The last two weeks have been a bit of a strain, though, because DMU has just announced that they intend to close the course due to the credit crunch. They say (but can we believe them now?) that those of us currently doing the course will be able to complete it.

Even in this dire economy, it’s hard to believe that they would contemplate axing this one – a true flagship programme for educating people for the online world (where there are more and more unconventional opportunities to make money when normal jobs fail).  As an online course, it also must surely be one of the courses with the fewest overheads and therefore the least expensive to run and to promote.

As Course Rep for my year, I’ve spent a lot of what should have been study time collating and representing to the university administration students’ expressions of dismay at their betrayal and questions about our academic future. Of course, I don’t mind doing this, as I really believe in the course, but I hope all the effort will prove fruitful and they’ll decide to revive it. Well, if they don’t, someone else must, because the electronic universe won’t tolerate that vacuum, but boo hoo! then for those of us who were silly enough to give our precious credit crunch cash to DMU!

If you’re interested in the future of new media education,  you might want to see what some experienced voices have to say about this closure at Chris Meade’s bookfutures blog. Chris is a director of The Institute for the Future of the Book in London. In two articles (so far), Chris speaks of his own surprise at the closure announcement, and heavyweights like Howard Rheingold who has taught on the course have joined in to label it incredibly shortsighted.

Sigh… we’ll see. In the mean time, at least I’m writing again, after such a long dry season. See my next posts for a couple of the creative writing exercises that have turned out okay, I think, or at least offer potential for further development.

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et cetera