My Brother, My Sister and Me - by Susan Price

Susan Price, Authors Electric,
Susan Price
     Here we are again. Have a look at this. It takes you to another of those interactive e-books.

     This is one I put together for the RLF Consultancy Training Course I've been taking. I had ten minutes to give 'a presentation' or 'mini-workshop' on a subject of my choice. It had to have 'interactive exercises.'
           Ten minutes!
          Since I met so many students whose eyes became glazed with terror at the mere mention of apostrophes, I invented a 'story' that deliberately used the apostrophe several times.

                           I borrowed my sister's best dress.
I didn't see the chocolate bar on the bus seat.
I sat on it.
There was melted chocolate all down the back of my sister's dress.
I didn't tell her.
I just hung it back in her wardrobe.
It wasn't my fault!
lime green dress, wikimedia

     The pictures come from Wikimedia Commons. You copy their location into the Stories4Learning programme and it appears on the page of the 'book.' Amazingly, they didn't have a picture of a melting chocolate bar - so I had to make do with what looks like a chocolate fondant.

I borrowed my brother's smart-phone.
He didn't know.
I dropped it in a fountain.
I didn't tell him.
I just put it back in his pocket.
He wonders why it's lost all its smarts.
I'm sorry, really!

         I tried to write a passage that was amusing, and didn't talk down to anyone. You can see that, besides giving practice in things like 'didn't' and 'wasn't', the text features the fearful 'it's' and 'its', as well as abbreviations like 'I'm.'
       Here's the link again -
       Click on the red and green bricks on the tool bar. You'll see that some of the text is underlined in red, and some in green. (Since I posted this, Alan has made the page less cluttered by tidying the tool bar away. So, to find these red and green bricks, click on the little coloured gear-wheels in the top left-hand corner.)
        All the possessive apostrophes fall into the red blocks - because they're always associated with 'Who or What' words. That is, Who or What the sentence is about.  The thing or person owned is tied to its owner by that possessive apostrophe.
     It could be: The child's mother or the dog's paw, but it's always going to be Who or What.
         Some of the apostrophes fall into the green blocks - because they are 'Doing or Being' words that have been shortened, and the apostrophe marks the missing letter.
         Then we have - 'He wonders why it's lost all its smarts.'
          And, 'I'm sorry.'
         'It's' and 'its' are differentiated by colour - and it's clear that 'I'm' is made up of a pronoun, 'I' and a shortened verb, 'am.' Visual clues like these are a great aid to memory. (For those with red-green colour blindness, the green words go into italic when you click on the bricks.)
         (Those of you wondering why 'why' is blue - it's because 'why' is a 'When, Where, How' word, and they're coded blue.)
        Click on the 'hot potato' brick in the toolbar - it's the black brick to the left of the white ones. This puts a row of 'hot potatoes' against each sentence. Click on the third one alongside 'He wonders why it's lost all its smarts,' and you get a puzzle where all the words are cut into bits and jumbled. Drag them back into position, and you get practice in using 'its' and 'it's.'
         Ironically, where I tried to teach many English students how to use the apostrophe, my cousin, in Switzerland, is trying to unteach the apostrophe to his German students. It isn't used in German - but they're picking it up from the Mcdonalds' ad, 'I'm lovin' it.' Another reason to hate Mcdonalds, as if I needed any more.
The brother's smart-phone
     Oh, and by the way - click on the little playback button at the end of those hot-potato sentences, and you'll hear the sentence spoken aloud  - another little repetition to help those learning a foreign language. 

      I can't say that I covered myself in glory when I did the presentation. I was up first, always unnerving, and there were - inevitably - computer problems. I was so conscious of time flitting past that I skipped things - and then found that I had time in hand which I didn't know what to do with.
         Feedback said that I shouldn't have spent so much time explaining how the S4L system worked, and should have concentrated on apostrophes and covered them more thoroughly - which my own shrewd Davy had said, at home, and I ignored him, as I so often do. ("You will not be told, Suzzie!")

        (I should make it clear that the RLF, as an old and well respected charity, do not endorse, or support, or in any way associate themselves with S4L. They do not support any teaching method in particular.)

      Now what? - Well now, instead of writing, I am planning and preparing workshops for the work-experience section of my training. It's not something I've really done before. Talks, yes - lots of talks. But workshops, as one of my training mentors said, 'are a very different breed of beast.' At the moment I'm preparing a sort of dry-run workshop on 'How To Construct A Scary Story', using 'Mr. Fox' as an example. I've been watching YouTube vids on how to use Powerpoint.

      If I can manage that, I'm then looking at designing the real thing - a workshop for 6th form students on how to write a good essay, covering title deconstruction, essay construction, language and anything else you can think of.
       Please wish me luck! 

Susan Price won the Carnegie Medal for her book, The Ghost Drum, and the Guardian Award for The Sterkarm Handshake.
She was an RLF Fellow, based in De Montfort University, for three years.

Her website can be found at


madwippitt said…
D'you know, that apostrophe in McDonalds' ad had gone straight past me, unnoticed!
Set talks/lectures are always far, far harder than more spontaneous, off-the-cuff ones, so don't beat yourself up over it! How about a mini masterclass in the art of commas next? :-)
cally phillips said…
Excellent! I have to resort to sending my writing to the apostrophe police because as Bill Kirton pointed out to me (I knew but didn't know the name) I am a victim of the greengrocers apostrophe (I've left it out because I can't work out where to put it still!) I think my 'issue' is with the plural possessive as I totally get the it's its one. Must have been off school that month. But I'm going to reference this so that I can finally TEACH myself how it works properly once and for all and give the apostrophe police a well earned rest! Thanks Sue. As for commas... yes, another masterclass on that. Though one problem re that is that this changes with time. I've spent so long in the 19th century where they do things VERY differently as re punctuation. Who dares to write A HISTORY OF PUNCTUATION as an ebook?
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Susan, the possessive apostrophe now may be used in German in specific circumstances, according to the 'Neue Rechtschreibung', and must be used in others. See the following link (in German):

(If you think it looks complicated, I assure you that even for German speakers it is!)

And as in English, it replaces missing letters (in the middle of a word): 'Ku'damm' for Berlin's 'Kurfürstendamm', for example.

A lot of this is rather new, and oddly enough, we had a family discussion about the German apostrophe just last night, because one of our grandsons is in a bilingual programme at school and was struggling with the difference between English and German usage. Even my German husband, who has had a traditionally thorough education, had to look up the new rules.

Of course, the rules may not apply in Switzerland. Your cousin will have to check.
Lee said…
BTW, I like the interactive ebook very much and plan to pass the link on to my grandson - and perhaps his class teacher - but may I suggest you do another one for the really tricky possessive cases? Names that end in 's', regular and irregular plurals, etc. (My grandson is in grade 5 here and already has to deal with them.)
Susan Price said…
Cally and Lee - plural possessives are a bit of a terror - and whether it should be 'James' book' or 'James's book,' seems to be a matter of style, differing between publishers. - I was told I should have covered it in my 10 minutes, but didn't think I had time.

I'll think about rewriting the book when I have more time, to include the whole knotty field of apostrophes.

Lee - I'm sure the mistake is mine rather than my cousin's. I probably misunderstood him. Probably he was talking about one use of the spostrophe which isn't the same in German. - He does work in Switzerland and his pupils speak Platt-Deutsch rather than a more standard German - but I don't think he teaches them to write in Platt-Deutsch. Though perhaps I'm wrong about that too.

Madwippet - a book on the use of the comma! That would be an opus. There are so many uses of the comma. It's our most over-worked punctuation mark.
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm not too bad on apostrophes, but I share the horror of proper names ending in 'S'. I was so undecided in my new book that I changed the name Charles to Edward to resolve my indecision as to whether to use Charles' or Charles's. I know, I'm a coward.
I don't have too much trouble with apostrophes - although you're so right and a lot of students do - but I hate commas. A previous agent told me my commas were all wrong and for quite a while it really affected my writing. I was downloading 'uses of the comma' things from Google - but they were all different. I realised eventually that it was easier to write the way I wanted to write and then coerce or pay somebody to check them out, otherwise I'd have written nothing at all. I eventually reached the conclusion that playwrights use commas in a different way. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. But even publishers seem to vary in their requirements. The same thing has happened with 'that' and 'which' which (you see!) I'm told is a no-no in the USA except in very specific circumstances. But when I read older fiction - such as Trollope - he certainly isn't following those present day rules. Nor is E F Benson. Nor is Robert Burns in the letters I've been reading, recently. This is such a minefield.
Lee said…
A long while back -- I suppose when I first self-published -- it seemed easiest to decide on my own 'in-house' style and stick with it. Punctuation should serve the text, not the grammar books, and as long as you're consistent (or inconsistent for a purpose), most readers will be fine with your choices. Or so I hope!

(When I translate professionally, it's another matter.)

Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating Susan. The interactive adult novels I've read haven't really grabbed me but this looks like a great tool for learning.
Also, I wrote a mini chapter on punctuation in the Just Write book I co-wrote with Kathleen McMillan and, while I'm confident about most apostrophes, the possessive form for proper nouns ending in 's' is still a problem. That's why I always write 'For Christ's sake' rather than 'For Jesus's/Jesus' sake'.
I've also got a pet system for essay writing which I used in workshops when I was an RLF Fellow. I think it's in the Fellows' handouts but if it isn't and you think it would be of interest, let me know and I'll send you a copy.
Anonymous said…
Just a tiny correction:

Platt-Deutsch is the dialect spoken in flatland Northern Germany south of Hamburg across to Westfalia. "Platt = Flat". My wife comes from that region, which is probably why Sue got it mixed up with Swiss.

Swiss German is known as 'schwiitzertüütsch' and is basically Allemanisch Middle German. Switzerland did not follow the Lutherian reforms and language unification caused by Bible translation. 'Zwingli' was the 'Swiss Luther'.

Interestingly, remnants of 'middle ages' language are still used today:

e.g. Mi düünks = 'methinks' (It occurs to me)

There is no stigma to speaking dialect in Switzerland both professionals and academics will still converse in dialect informally. Imagine the difficulties faced by 6 year old Swiss kids having to learn 'High German' at school when having been raised in Swiss dialect at home. Not so different to schooling in the West Midlands, Tyneside or Merseyside for example I suppose. At least nearly all Swiss politicians have some knowledge of this transistion. Is that the case in the UK? (sarcastic question?)

Dan Holloway said…
I wonder how many people's first thought was, "mm, no Oxford comma in the title" - I know that's a source of eternal debate
Akin to the apostrophe is the full stop. I wince every time I see a Mr. or a Dr.
cally phillips said…
Catherine, I totally agree, playwrights use commas totally differently - I think it's because we use them as speaking tools - ie for breaths - rather than whatever they are used for for prose. That was my conclusion. So, I think, that means that you use them less in prose (we can play around with that sentence till the cows come home!)

The title for this great work of non fiction should be 'From the Greengrocer's apostrophe to the Oxford Comma' Dan and Bill - put those expensive educations to good use and write us the book!!!
Lydia Bennet said…
wow Susan what brilliant things you are doing! so impressive. so many people struggle with apostrophes, one problem is that the actual possessive pronouns don't have them - so that 'its' is possessive, and 'it's' isn't but has the missing letter, when other nouns are the other way round... I disagree with 'stopping' young people using anything they pick up, an apostrophe is about the most wholesome thing you could get from maccie d's! I'm all for creative play with language and as pointed out they use them already - the Dutch already do for a basically Germanic language. 'Moing moing' to the Plattdeutsch speaker!
Lydia Bennet said…
oh and as for commas, Oxford or otherwise, I realised a while back that I use too many in poetry and novels, so now I take them out unless it changes the sense. the 'oxford comma' is a non-issue as far as I'm concerned - sometimes you have to use one there as it means something different without, otherwise you don't need one but putting one in won't damage the sense and is common in US English I believe.
Jenny Woolf said…
I'm glad to say I was very well taught (although by traditional means) and always get it right. Or at least, I hope I do! :)
Susan Price said…
You can tell from my cousin's comment (he's 'Anonymous') that I'm not all that committed to getting everything right! - My personal approach would be: if it makes sense, that's good enough.

But as an RLF Fellow, I was trying to help students who were losing marks because they didn't 'follow the rules.' And higher marks was the name of this particular game - it was what they were at Uni for: to get the marks, so they could get the bit of paper and, hopefully, find a job.

So, although not a natural stickler for rules, I found myself trying to teach them the rules. So it goes.
Susan Price said…
Bill - I just checked on the Fellows' section of the RLF's site (note singular and possessive apostrophes there!) and I can't see your system for essay writing there - which seems a shame.
I would really appreciate a look at it - thank you!
Elizabeth Kay said…
I shall recommend this to my students!

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