Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a world where Tiger Woods is your golf partner, Anton Mossiman, your cook, and Bill Gates runs your local evening class on "Microsoft Word for Beginners". For a moment last week, I was living the dream, when Lynne Truss agreed to teach me how to use a comma.
Lynne Truss, "Queen of the Colon", is a modern hero. Her bestselling little book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves - The Zero Tolerance Guide To Punctuation" took the world by storm in 2003 with its hilarious, informative guide to commas, quotes and apostrophes. Since I was ill-served by an educational system that placed no value on punctuation and spelling, she is my hero.
Apparently, in the 1970s and 80s, the ideas that you were trying to express were thought to be more important than the way in which you expressed them. Drawing attention to a student’s dodgy punctuation was thought to inhibit his creativity and limit his self-expression. And, since a cartoon paperclip was always on hand to offer spelling suggestions, why even bother trying to remember anything? Technology, it was thought, was relegating the old conventions to the dustbin. Creativity was king and nothing else mattered.
And so came the day when I passed my English 'O' Level, a whole year before anyone else in my school. That's right. I excelled in English and yet had no idea what a verb was, the ellipsis was a mystery, and I thought that a compound plural was a sport’s injury. In fact, I was left dangling with my participles for 16 years, until Miss Truss came along - a champion in a world punctuated by grammatical confusion.
I am sure that the captains of education felt very pleased with their refreshingly modern approach - loosening the tie of convention and letting us all off the hook. For them, every day was “dress down day”. Unfortunately, they didn't realise that for us, the subjects of this grand experiment, effective self-expression is, in fact, all but impossible without the proper tools for the job.
Americans escaped these modern ideas and still today their children spend hours attending spelling bees and "diagramming" - a process of breaking down sentences into their various grammatical elements. For years there was a hugely popular American cartoon series called "School House Rock" that featured catchy tunes like "Conjunction Junction" and "Interjection!" Like Lynne Truss, the program creators understood how to make the often-uninspiring subject of English usage great fun to learn. As a consequence, in America, the Queen's English has never looked better.
So, since I don’t have Lynne Truss on speed dial, I’ll continue to bumble along, relying on my spell-checker and generally punctuating on the basis of what looks right, rather than what is right. Anyway, if I get it wrong, don’t be too hard on me - it might inhibit my creativity!