Patrick West in The Spectator tells us not to mourn the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society. The caption: ‘Has anyone really been confused by a wrongly placed apostrophe?’ is placed below a picture of a road sign: “Unsuitable for H.G.V.’s”. But then with perfect irony West declares: The “‘Kray’s guilt’ is different to ‘the Krays’ guilt’”. Quite so Mr West, but if we’re talking solecisms, one of the first rules I was taught at school was: ‘similar to … different from.’
He is, of course, right though. No-one has died from an incorrectly used apostrophe, unless it be a member of the old school expiring from apoplexy at the sight of “Tomato’s” or “Potato’s” in the greengrocer’s window – not that we have too many greengrocers any more.
And regardless of the presence or absence of the apostrophe in the above example of the Krays, the expression when read out loud, has no clue as to whether it is one brother or several that is being referred to.
Commas are different. Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves humorously examines the pitfalls of misplaced commas etc., where the meaning of a sentence really can be changed entirely depending on the position or absence of a comma or other punctuation. I was once reading her book on the Underground and laughing out loud; the man opposite demanded to know what the book was that was so funny. He was quite nonplussed when I told him it was all about punctuation.
It is also a fact, perhaps only known to genealogists and historians, that wills from the 18th and 19th centuries were always written without punctuation, in order that no alteration in meaning could be effected by introducing a comma or full stop.
No-one may have died from an incorrectly used apostrophe, but can anyone with a love of written English honestly say that they do not shudder when receiving a text message: “sorry cant come to the pub tonight its too cold”? (Apart, of course, from the obvious disappointment …)
The founder of the APS, John Richards, who is 96 declares: ‘Ignorance and laziness have won.’ Well at that age he has fought the good fight and deserves to retire in peace. I just hope someone else picks up the banner and runs with it.
Amended 5 December: no-one spotted the deliberate error! After ranting about correct usage I spelled 'tomato's' and 'potato's' incorrectly!
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs