I read a lot; I write a bit, type a lot and talk very little these days, although talking was my job for 40 years.
I have no memory of how I learned to read, but my children were reading before they started school. We taught them using ‘Flash Cards’. These consisted of a graduated set of cards, initially showing words of one syllable which were shown to the child with the parent saying the word at the same time. I suspect that I was taught one letter at a time a (aa), b (bu), c (cu) and A (Ay), B (Bee), C (See), which method we also used to augment the flash cards as I recall. There have been many schemes over the years to teach reading in a different way, but they have passed both me and my children by.
Having no memory or personal experience of the inability to read makes it difficult to understand. In an earlier post I mentioned that my maternal grandfather could not read, but managed to conceal it so well that I did not know until reading my mother’s notes after she died. I am aware of terms like dyslexia, but have no concept of what it really ‘feels like’ as opposed to the clinical definition. Indeed a former headmaster, I worked for, an English specialist, never believed that the condition existed.
This morning I rose before dawn as this article was going round in my brain so I could not sleep. In order not to wake my wife, gently snoring in the bed next to me, I dressed in complete darkness and, perhaps with this still in my mind I thought about those who are blind and cannot read as I do. Some people, blind from birth will never know the joy of the written word and others, who lose their sight will know what a great loss it must be. However, in my case, learning to read lit the touch-paper as described in the last article.
Writing: where to start? Although I could probably write before going to primary school, it would have been ‘printing’ in much like the computer font Comic Sans. Indeed I have a letter I wrote as a child, in pencil, of course; even I am not old enough to have used chalk on a slate, although my parents may well have done. The next stage was what we called ‘real-writing’; my children called it ‘joined-up writing’ although I believe the correct term is ‘cursive’. In my case the accepted style was ‘copperplate’ which these days seems to be the preserve of calligraphers and old people. The teaching page was ruled with sets of three horizontal lines: the middle line being the height of the small (whoever had heard of lower case?) letters. The letters leaned slightly forward and woe betide anyone whose letters leaned backwards (backhand). Nobody other than printers had heard of fonts.
In my post #17 I referred to the (dip) pen and ink, but I’ll paraphrase it here to save you looking for it.. The pen in question was a metal ‘nib’ in a wooden stick, which was dipped into an inkwell integrated into the writing desk. It was barely a step forward from the quill of former times. The pen was cheap and difficult to learn to use as to press too lightly produced barely a scratch and to press too hard resulted in a bent nib and a pool of ink. Inky fingers were the look of the day. We all looked forward to getting a present of a fountain-pen, which I described earlier in the blog, but was simply a nib-pen with a built-in refillable reservoir. Some models fetch high prices in modern auctions.
The most exciting Christmas present I ever received was a ball-point pen. I can remember it even now. It was blue, hexagonal and had a top with a metal clip, just like the fountain-pens it was about to replace. I found it hidden on the top shelf of a cupboard where it was hidden and sneaked out every night just to look at it. Such anticipation! It was known generically as a Biro (after its inventor) , but later became the BIC we all know and lose. Of course it leaked and smudged, but I was the first in my class. Oh joy!
Sadly, hardly anyone ‘writes’ anymore, except on shopping lists and Christmas/birthday cards. Even they are moving to the cyber-world. Typing is another thing, but the mechanical keyboard itself is competing with the touch screen. Perhaps because the letters on a mobile touch screen are smaller than the average finger or because a text message may only use 160 characters, there has evolved a new form of messaging where letters replace words e.g. R U OK? This as you would expect has aroused the ire of those even more pedantic than I, that the world as we know it is going to hell in a handcart. To use ‘texting’ in a text message is fine by me, but not otherwise if you don’t mind. However I do admit to using acronyms from time to time. They are OK IMO.
Spelling is a whole new can of worms. Since the arrival of Microsoft Windows and Apple computers, American spelling has become commonplace because the dictionary and the spellcheck or the language of the keyboard has not been re-set to the UK version. It should automatically sense the country of installation, but that is not always so, certainly on mobile phones. I would rather someone spelled (or is it spelt?) something incorrectly than gave up ‘writing’, but there is no good reason why most people should ignore a spelling checker: it’s just rude or lazy. As a physicist I seethe when I see focussed with double ss, when even in the US it is focused, yet I notice that the spellcheck on my UK version of ‘Word’ has not picked that up.
Don’t get me going on pronunciation. I have my idea of how I expect things to be pronounced and the reasons for it e.g. a see-saw is a lever (leever) yet the US talk of leverage as levverage (as in ever). I have no problem with that except although I understand that a British programme hoping for sales in the US uses that pronunciation, why then is the BBC newsreader pronouncing it incorrectly! For me a kilometre is a kilo-meter and not a kilommeter and I defy anyone to stop me shouting at the TV!
I’ll finish with punctuation, because at this point I might just burst into flames. I received, through the letterbox, a while back, a magazine produced by my local North Tyneside Council. The covering introduction did not contain any punctuation beyond full-stops and capital letters. It was almost unreadable. As a scientist/mathematician the precision of language is important to me. I spoke in my last post about reading ‘other’ books when I run out of fiction and my ‘go to’ is ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynne Truss. I know I tend to over punctuate, but the comma is your friend. It keeps ideas apart and allows your brain to breathe as you read. Chuck in a semicolon when you need a super-comma, or a full colon if you are making a list, but they are the icing on the cake and you can live without them. As for ‘speech marks’ or inverted commas; the “double” inverted comma seems to be on the way out except when directly highlighting something which is being said or quoting from it. Wait for it …… wait for it – The APOSTROPHE has arrived! You may not need it, some authorities have abolished it, but I love it. I don’t mean the one that I just used instead of writing do not 11 words ago, I mean the possessive apostrophe that has become known as the Greengrocer’s (or should that be Greengrocers’) apostrophe because of signs saying apples’ today or banana’s reduced. ‘If in doubt miss it out’ like a local hotel near me calling itself Commissioners Quay. If you need to use it, the rule is simple: the singular is John’s shoes; the plural is housewives’ choice and the exception is James’s because James is not a plural..
That’s it for now. I doubt that my journalist daughter will agree with much of this, but they live in a different world and I cannot see it from here (misquote).