Thursday, 23 April 2009

Apostrophes to the gallant apostrophe

example_v_04I loved the attitude of the chap from the Apostrophe Protection Society, who appeared on Larry Williams’s radio show this morning.   He would have been appalled at that sign on the left.  More on that in a minute.  But first, a joke, of sorts:

If you mentioned that a kiwi eats roots and leaves, you’d simply be stating a fact.  But if you said instead that a kiwi eats, roots and leaves, then you could be confused with someone making an excuse for an early exit.

This old joke, in a slightly different form, was the basis of Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a call to arms for grammar pedant everywhere.  Since writing the book she’s been “listening to the woes of pedants worldwide “-- “a heart-breaking story that is still not sufficiently acknowledged.”

The pedant knows that a simple comma changes the two sentences above.  The pedant knows that if it’s important enough to be understood, it’s important enough to make sure you’re clear.

Internet exchanges take shortcuts, which often lead to more misunderstanding than conversation. Consider this exchange at Public Address, for an example:

“Don't be a selfish prick and think of other people's enjoyment as being as important as your own.”

I'm confused now. Do you mean "if you think other peoples enjoyment is as important as your own then you are a selfish prick"? or "Don't be a selfish prick, think of other people's enjoyment as being as important as your own.”

example_a01The problems aren’t only with commas. The much misunderstood apostrophe has been used, abused and - in Birmingham, England, at least -- has now been  banned altogether.  Rather than getting half their road signs half right, the Brummie Town Councillors have now decided instead to get them all wrong.  See:

So like a bureaucracy.

6a00d8341d417153ef010535ea1adc970c The Birmingham ban apparently prompted the formation of the delightfully named Apostrophe Protection Society headed by retired journalist John Richards, who started the society appalled at the destruction of the English language – and picking the apostrophe as his own personal crusade. (You can hear him talking to Larry Williams here: the segment starts 23:00.)  It’s a crusade for the difference between “Am I looking at my dinner or the dog’s?” and “Am I looking at my dinner or the dogs?”

The apostrophe is an essential part of English grammar, he says.  Errors in apostrophe usage abound  – laziness, ignorance, the modern education ‘system’ being the primary culprits – and its misuse destroys clarity, and and his society is another call to arms for sticklers to help turn things around. His Apostrophe Protection Society has a website, which you can bookmark and use as a reference to how to get it right.

And as it happens, Lynne Truss – who’s been known to stand under movie signs in Leicester Square with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick to correct egregious apostrophic errors in film titles (Two Weeks Notice was one that sparked her ire) – is still on her own correcting crusade, as she explains in this column: Stop the apostrophe catastrophe!.

6a00d8341d417153ef0105363175bc970c-800wi    I have had to think about such issues a lot recently because of the publication of The Girl's Like Spaghetti, a book for children that handily illustrates the difference made by the apostrophe in a bunch of simple sentences.
    For example, "Those smelly things are my brother's" is illustrated by a group of children running away with pegs on their noses from a pair of disgusting old shoes; opposite comes "Those smelly things are my brothers" (no apostrophe), which shows a couple of boys pouring rubbish on each other.
I find this extremely amusing, of course, but then I'm like that.
"The dogs like my Dad" is shown alongside "The dog's like my Dad".
I love the illustrations for "We're here to help you" (smiling assistants behind a desk) and "Were here to help you" (closed door, covered in signs: "Gone fishing" and "Try next door").
I am also proud of a sentence that works for both "its" and "it's": "Look, it's behind!" say some children, observing a turtle losing a turtle race. "Look, its behind!" snigger some kiddies, pointing at the rear end of a horse.

A useful way, perhaps, to describe those who perpetuate the apostrophe catastrophe.  All power to Mr Richards and his gallant group of sticklers for fighting the good fight.

NB: Cartoons are from this chap’s blog, another stickler for the good fight.


  1. If you mentioned that a kiwi eats roots and leaves, you’d simply be stating a fact.An incorrect fact (as long as we're being pedantic) as kiwis actually eat small invertebrates, seeds, grubs, and many varieties of worms, as well as fruit, small crayfish, eels and amphibians.


  2. NSW hasn't formally banned the humble apostrophe from placenames, but the standard policy of the Geographical Names Board says:

    "The possessive form should be avoided whenever possible without destroying the sound of the name or changing its descriptive application e.g. Howes
    Valley should be written without the apostrophe."

    So, we have a de facto prohibition of punctuation.


  3. Remember the criminal who prayed that the judge was sober enough to place the comma on the sentence of his sentence in the right place?

    "Hang him not, free him" or
    "Hang him, not free him"

  4. And extra points to PC for use of the other meaning of apostrophe.

    On movie names, you might remember "Eight Legged Freaks". Oh No! Eight freaks with legs!


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