Sunday, March 10, 2024

Minding your Ps and Qs, dyslexia and me

You couldn't imagine a less dyslexic child than me. When I was eight I had a reading age of twelve and a half, had few problems with spelling and was always starting to write stories - even if I didn't finish many of them.

But I had difficulty in remembering which way round the letter p and the figure 9 went.

This was not a problem in schoolwork once I was past infants school. If I knew I was in letters mode then I got the p right, just as I did every other letter. And if I knew I was in numbers mode then I was equally secure writing a 9.

But, even as an adult, I had problems if these two modes were combined. If I was writing a cheque that ended '29 pence' I would hesitate over which way round the 9 and then the p went and could even get it wrong.

I had a similar problem with musical notation at school: I could never remember which side of the note the upright stroke went.

These days, I suspect, my problem with p's and 9's would be more likely to be described as dysgraphia, except that label encompasses all sorts of problems that I did not experience. My handwriting, for instance, was perfectly legible.

So I wonder if I was unusual in having this p-and-9 problem or if many people have it and cope equally well.

My reason for blogging about this is that I recently came across the World Wide Words article on the expression Mind Your Ps and Qs:

Many explanations have been advanced down the decades to explain this puzzling expression. It is said to be advice to a child learning its letters to be careful not to mix up the handwritten lower-case letters p and q, or similar advice to a printer’s apprentice, for whom the backward-facing metal type letters would be especially confusing. One has to wonder why p and q were singled out, when similar problems occur with b and d. 

After trying various alternative explanations, it comes back to this one:

Investigations by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007 when revising the entry turned up early examples of the use of Ps and Qs to mean learning the alphabet. The first is in a poem by Charles Churchill, published in 1763: “On all occasions next the chair / He stands for service of the Mayor, / And to instruct him how to use / His A’s and B’s, and P’s and Q’s.” The conclusion must be that this is the true origin.

So I suspect my problem is a reasonably common one.

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