Teaching EFL in the classroom’s sometimes a problem: maximum scope of an apostrophe?

Our modern textbooks for English as a foreign language all suggest the learners learn an English based on spoken rules rather than written standards. This seems to be the result of a “communicative turn” in didactics: pupils are enabled to communicate [in peer groups], whereas the “old, pre-communicative” ideal was to learn an idealized, literary language.

As someone who began to learn English as his third foreign language (French was my first, Latin the second) in 1988, I have no experience with the old, literary approach, I have only seen English classrooms in which a “well spoken” English was at the centre. “Well spoken” at the time meant, of course, “RP” (unfortunately for the writer as a young man, “upper RP” rather than “BBC RP”, which meant I had to invest a lot of energy toning down my recently acquired “well spoken” English to a variant which I could use in the pub and the corner shop, but I’m digressing).
In my time as a teacher trainee in 2001, I was confronted with the problem of the class’ textbook transcribing the “-day” in Monday, Tuesday, etc. as [di:], my teacher trainer insisting on this as the only acceptable pronunciation, and me knowing only people (the BBC included) saying [deI]. Clearly, there was still some “RP” going strong in the minds of didactics.

Up to the early 2000s, with all the pronunciation troubles and fine tunings of RP “level”, I have always seen English classrooms, in which there was a differentiation between ‘what we write’ and ‘what we speak’. I was explicitly told never to write contracted forms (“cannot” was the famous exception), but always to use them when I speak. Reading out texts, however, we tended to read out the full forms, which, in turn, tended to go through uncorrected until post-grad level at University. In my trainee-years, I was told to teach the pupils to always write long forms and never speak them (and now it was  it was my turn to let them slip through uncorrected when pupils read texts out aloud). So far so good. Nowadays, modern textbooks don’t use long forms any more and only present contractions to the pupils, explaining the apostrophe in a way we all know from, e.g., our French classes. There is no way to actually say “je ai faim” or “si il vous plaît”, and there is no way to actually write these “full forms”; there is no way to actually say “I do not know” or “I have not got a pen”, so pupils are told that there are full forms (just like “je ai”), but that they are contracted. Full stop. Up to the end of intermediate level, this is a fine decision, the learners can speak and write the same forms, don’t have to worry about the addressee of their written oeuvres (it’s the teacher, anyway) and can acquire an English for the pub and the corner shop without being deprived of the chance to “upgrade” it later to a less informal form of “RP” should the need arise.

This need arises in advanced classes, at least those that we call at school Leistungskurs (i.e. the subject is a major subject towards the final exams which’ll grant access to university). Here, the learner’s English should be polished and the learner should learn to use the appropriate variety and register. Hence we have to introduce the new norms “do not write contractions when using a written standard, don’t write full forms when using an oral standard” and “don’t read/read out/speak full forms at all” (neglecting here, of course, the question of stress). This, for a start, is difficult enough for the learners, but most of them manage quite well in a relatively short time.
As the rule for spoken English is clear and applicable to all registers and varieties, pupils do not have a problem here, they “simply” have to accept that a contraction is spoken even if they read long forms. Check.
As the rule for written English contains the choice of standard, pupils have to get used to think in terms of “literacy vs orality”. It might be tempting to teach a unit on, e.g., Koch/Oesterreicher’s concept of “Distance and Proximity” (Englisch summary / German summary), but given the fact that we deal with pupils at school and not students involved in the (however early) stages of linguistics or language philosophy, we should refrain from giving in to this temptation. The one or the other class might be interested, the one or the other pupil might want to give a presentation on the topic, but in general, this trail leads beyond the boundaries of secondary education. What is left for us is to enable the learner to  develop a first “feeling” for the two extremes “oral” and “written”; we do that by presenting and analysing exemplary texts. The problem this article is meant to be about arises when the pupils are asked to write a text in conceptual orality…

… when they are requested to write the contractions they’d have to speak. There are a few contractions that might be considered new words or register dependent forms like “gonna” or “wanna”; they have acquired a conventionalized written representation and possibly even their own linguistic environment (I think of related issues like “gimme” or “he should of done it”). They can be learnt like words, connected to registers and pose no problems.
The “normal” contractions, however, must be written with the standard apostrophe, a punctuation mark — what could be more “literal” than a punctuation mark?! The contraction happens on the prosodic level of pronunciation and is represented in the punctuation of spelling. Life would be easy and this long-ish post would never have appeared, if there was a direct connection between prosody and punctuation. There is not, and, aye, there’s the rub. While prosodically quite different, the words “the hat’s red” are in both cases spelled identically:

1 The hat’s red is too dark, I only like bright reds.
2 The hat’s red but I wanted a black one.

2 could be, but for some historic reason never became: “The hat ‘sred/s’red but I wanted a black one”, in which case the spelling would represent clearly the contraction of the verb “is” with the remainder of its VP (verb phrase) rather than pretend it belongs to the preceding NP (noun phrase).

Of course, a learner, let alone a learner at intermediate level, should not worry about this clash of prosody and spelling (especially not as the “clash” results in identical forms). But what about the following example:

3 [?]The hat I bought yesterday’s red.
4 The hat I bought yesterday is red.

Prosodically, the first option is correct, but can it be spelled?

5 [?]The house over there’s new.
6 [?]The house over there’s a nice colour.
7 [?]The house over there’s a new owner.

Isn’t 5 fine, 6 problematic and 7 difficult to decode, although all three of them work fine when read out?

8 [?]The house I  bought last year’s been burgled.
9 [?]The house I  bought last year when I was in London’s been burgled.
10[?]The house I  bought last year and which was full of old furniture’s been burgled.

Can’t become worse? It can:
11 [*]The house I  bought last year and which was full of antiques’s been burgled.
12  [*]The house I  bought last year and which was full of antiques’ been burgled.

In 11 and 12, the apostrophe I’d need for the contraction conflicts with spelling rules that have no reflex in speaking. I guess my interpretation as impossible rather than “only” doubtful is correct? And again, keeping the contraction within the VP might have solved the problem:
11a might be “The house I  bought last year and which was full of antiques s’been burgled.”

Ok, numbers 8-12 can be left out of the EFL classroom by postulating the rule: “a contraction with an apostrophy can only be written out when the contracted verb is not preceded by a clause”; that might be too strong as it eliminates 3 as well, but it would at lease not leave open impossibilities.

I am far from having my problem solved and/or the relevant answeres answered. When one day one of my pupils asks me why he should write 2, but not 10, I shall have to hoist the white flag. Hints at articles, books, concepts dealing with the scope of the apostrophe in conceptually oral written English would be more than welcome and highly appreciated.

As a kind of afterthought I cannot help but hint at another serious – political – problem for the EFL classroom: textbooks have made life easier for learners in the earlier stages by omitting the choice of “orality vs literacy” in writing, at the same time making life far more difficult for teachers teaching interested  advanced classes. Although I still belong to those teachers whose university education was entirely academic and although I studied English Language and Linguistics far beyond the requirements for my Staatsexamen (teacher’s certificate), I still am at a loss with this apostrophe. Currently, teachers do not study their subject as an academic subject anymore, but explicitely as a teaching subject, they are not meant to build up a complex academic background knowledge; how on earth are they to deal with issues like this apostrophe? “More practical experience in the classroom” will not tell them why ’tis a problem…


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