Yes, I know. That apostrophe shouldn’t be there. Cringe.
Few topics can incite as much indignation – and apathy – as the humble apostrophe. Years ago, on a hen weekend, I died a little inside on being presented with a badge proclaiming “Girl’s on tour”. Well, good for her.
All of us have a punctuation plateau, and Stefan Gatward recently reached his. Driven to apoplexy by the missing apostrophe in his street name, this Tunbridge Wells resident mounted a one-man punctuation war. Tooled up with a tin of paint and a brush, he took grammatical matters into his own hands and painted in the apostrophe himself. And he didn’t stop at his own street sign. No erroneous apostrophe was safe from Mr Gatward’s corrective brush.
Around the world, many hailed the “Apostrophe Vandal” as a hero. Others dismissed his crusade as a total waste of time. One neighbour in particular took great pleasure in informing Mr Gatward that the Post Office would refuse to deliver to St Johns Close if it had an apostrophe. Words fail me, as apostrophes clearly failed his neighbour.
So was Stefan Gatward just a pedant with too much time on his hands, or did he have a point? Lynne Truss would probably agree with the latter view. In her book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”, she suggests the following tongue-in-cheek approach to tackling apostrophe Armageddon:
“Here are the weapons required in the apostrophe war (stop when you start to feel uncomfortable):
Stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)
Tin of paint with big brush
Strong medication for personality disorder
OK, so guerrilla warfare on the streets of Tunbridge Wells may be some years away, but as a fellow Tunbridge Wellian, I can see where the Apostrophe Vandal is coming from. My daily journey into work is littered with apostrophes that have no business being there. I cringe at the station café’s doubly wrong sign advertising “panini’s”. I curl my toes as the train passes the used-car garage with the banner: “All car’s one owner.” I faint outside “Sids’s Fish & Chips” at the top of the hill.
A previous employer once asked me to remove all ‘unnecessary hyphens’ from an article I had written. When I asked why, I was told that the company liked to take a ‘minimalist’ approach to punctuation. But why stop at the hyphen? Why not cut out the apostrophe, the full stop and the comma, for avoidance of all doubt?
Of course, in the grand scale of things, there are bigger fish to fry. The English language has always evolved and will continue to do so: this is a healthy part of our shared linguistic heritage. But apostrophe abolitionists are missing the point (as well as the apostrophe). Dragging grammatical standards down to the lowest common denominator doesn’t work. Grammar is designed to make the meaning of written text crystal clear, avoiding ambiguity and minimising misunderstanding. Punctuation is there to simplify, not to complicate. And getting it wrong can be a very real source of confusion.
Good writing is all about getting your message across to your target audience in the most coherent and persuasive way possible. As long as I’m a writer, I will be proud to identify myself with the spirit of the Apostrophe Vandal. There are enough big marker pens to keep me going for some time.
Photo courtesy of http://anke.blogs.com/ http://twitter.com/ankertw/