Last night my wife and I were going through a neglected ritual: sorting last year's Christmas cards in an attempt to reconcile our list for this year. We do this primarily for the one last shot at finding a lost friend who slipped through the cracks, but also to check for any treasures that may have come in under the radar. This year we didn't find much of either, but we did find something quite disturbing. We were horrified by the number of cards and letters that we received from friends and family (who shall remain nameless) with an apostrophe before the "s" in the plural spelling of their name. Maybe it's because I am a fourth grade teacher and I have my very own eighteen inch tall "apostrophe s", but I know that it should only be used to show possession. What I found even more disturbing was that most of these infractions occurred not in the flurry of signing the card by hand, but when they were composed, proofread, and sent to a printer. The amount of higher education and advanced degrees among our circle of friends would seem to limit this transgression, if not eliminate it, but alas, this was not the case last year.
I know that the spelling of plurals is a tricky business. It is one of the reasons I announce early in each school year to my class that one of the unforgivable sins in my room is to use an apostrophe to denote a plural. Apostrophes have two jobs: contractions and possessives. After November, if you make that mistake in my class, you get a smack in the head. I give them a few months' grace period to master it, since there are so many irregular plurals to learn and that apostrophe has to move outside the "s" if you are showing possession by a group, and the number of second language learners I have means that I have to be forgiving for a while. Then it's just a matter of being in fourth grade and taking the consequence of your actions.
Why then, should a native speaker of English have such a difficult time with this concept? Last Wednesday, President Pinhead urged Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, asserting that "As yesterday's positive report card shows, childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured." If those results include the use of improper plural forms, then we are doomed, especially since our schools continue to struggle with the vagaries of the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) Reports versus the API (Academic Performance Index). The truth is, many of the same very clever and well-educated people that struggled with the use of an apostrophe tend to glaze over when confronted with just what it means to have our public education monitored by these dueling measures. Success in one does not assure success in the other, with the Federal program (AYP) being the more rigid and difficult to surmount. Many schools that achieve success on a state level continue to struggle on the national level.
And what is it all about, after all? The performance by a group of children over the course of a week in April. When test scores go up, the school is doing well. When they stay steady, or slip back, the school is in trouble. This determination is made in a snapshot. If it is fair to take this moment in time and grade our schools, then it is fair to label our President a hypocritical Pinhead.
And please remember to proofread those Christmas cards.