Headmaster's Notebook

April 05, 2013

It's no secret – our headmaster likes to write. And fortunately, he's good at it. So we thought it made sense to give him a place to share some of his thoughts and his flair for language. That way no one has to wait until the next issue of our Bulletin, an email, a letter, or even the spoken version of his wordsmithing at Commencement or Opening Convocation. Blogging seems to be a good fit for Ben – he's warmed to the idea by filing several reports in quick succession. So there's no reason to wait – here's the first. Read on, and check back often for Ben Williams' Headmaster's Notebook.



The Los Angeles Times headline read, "Squiggle sparks a squabble." Apparently, in southwestern England, a small group of public officials decided to unceremoniously dump the apostrophe from community signage. Hence the former "St. Paul's Square" would become simply "St. Pauls Square," (an expression Microsoft Word rejects, the red line underneath a reminder that something is amiss). The citizenry in the area saw red, too. One sniped about a potential "war on commas." The local member of parliament tweeted (in grammatically correct format), "Mid Devon Council bans the apostrophe to 'avoid confusion' … whole point of proper grammar is to avoid confusion."

This is the land of the Queen’s English, after all. Americans can and do butcher the English language with relative impunity, but not the Brits. Thankfully, other public officials, under intense pressure from their constituents – higher ups from those who made the fateful decision – have already vowed to restore the apostrophe to its rightful place. There's even a nascent "Apostrophe Protection Society" with a website and all the trappings.

As fond as I am of the apostrophe, I mention this article more for what it says about people than about language. We all have, it seems, positions, ideologies, and opinions that matter deeply to us. I suppose we are all zealots at one time or another – though the catalyst for our advocacy varies dramatically from person to person and topic to topic. This is one of the remarkable capacities of human nature – the inclination to believe to the point of action. Thankfully, it doesn't really matter all that much if we are alone in our convictions, unless of course we lobby a public official or two. The apostrophe, apparently, has a strong following in Britian. It matters.

This phenomenon of "mattering" inspired the Cate community, too, especially as we approached our Culture of Inquiry question for next year. Buoyed by the experience of grappling with this year's question, "How did we get here?" we conceived next year's query, "Matter?" It will be up to each of our seniors to build the question further and to answer it with a trimester of research and study. My idea is to literally look at matter – or substance – but surely the members of our senior class will go in a host of different directions. We’ll see. For now, though, as we begin to ponder this question, we have the opportunity to study what matters to others. Though a small and arguably insignificant punctuation mark, the apostrophe and the brouhaha its eradication has inspired provides a telling lesson not simply about grammatical significance, but about human conviction, commitment, clarity, even.

As the citizens of Devon have since asserted so thoughtfully, language is sacrosanct, especially as it is used to explicate things that matter.