“Not a lot of People Know That!”
- Here is Geoff Tranter’s article on the uses and importance of the apostrophe…..
‘The Dreaded Apostrophe – OR – The Apostrophe Catastrophe?’
Quite apart from the difficulties that many advanced learners of English, not to mention a number of native speakers, have with the pronunciation of the word, the correct use of apostrophes in written English causes problems galore, even for educated speakers of the language. There are, of course, hard and fast rules that can be found on many websites, and in a multitude of reference books offered by the major publishers, but confusion still reigns. Examples can be found everywhere. Just take a stroll down the local High Street in any village, town, or city in the United Kingdom, and look at the special offer signs outside the shops and supermarkets. You will invariably find signs like “Best Banana’s ₤1.50 per pound” or “New Pototoe’s”, and if you are really (un)lucky, you might even find “Peach’s ₤1 a punnet” on offer! For this reason, such errors are often referred to as the “Greengrocer’s Apostrophe”.
It is not only greengrocers that commit such appalling apostrophe sins. If you walk along the same High Street, and come to a café or takeaway, you will quite often find them selling “pizza’s”, “sausage’s”, “burger’s”, “kebab’s”, even “drink’s”! Whilst in pubs, when you need to go to the toilets, after three or four pints of good real ale, you might have to follow the sign “Gent’s” or “Gents Room” ” or “Ladies’ or “Ladies Room”, as the case may be.
Local authorities also have similar problems with the names of streets in their locality. Even though you can find street names with the correct use of the apostrophe, as in “ST. CHAD’S PLACE” in London WC1, it is not uncommon to see street names such as “BAKERS VIEW” or “ST. JAMES STREET”. As a result of the apparent confusion on the part of local authorities, on whether apostrophes should be used or not, some local councils, e.g. Birmingham, Mid-Devon, and Wakefield, actually voted to omit the apostrophe on principle. There was also once an “apostrophe war” at Nottingham City Council, where the Council's leader, Graham Chapman, fed up with the incorrect use of apostrophes, decided enough was enough, challenging his Chief Executive, John Jackson, to pay a forfeit to charity, every time a council document prepared by officers contained such an error. The staff had to cough up £1 every time they made a mistake.
The issue seems to have caused bursts of outrage on the part of local residents, but a decision is a decision. The ambivalence in such matters becomes even clearer if you happen to visit Jersey and walk along “QUEENS ROAD”, where, according to an article published on the BBC website on the 13th of November,2014, - “on one side of the road the sign has an apostrophe, and on the other, it doesn’t.”
Not surprisingly, the emotive nature of such a state of language affairs has produced passionate supporters and opponents of the use of the humble apostrophe. ” In one camp, we have the self-appointed ‘apostrophe killers’, ” (https://www.killtheapostrophe.com/) who believe that the apostrophe is completely superfluous, claiming that “most of them dont (sic!) add anything and simply increase the chances of making an error in academic essays or reports”. A similar group was the “Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe”, established by the author, Keith Waterhouse, back in the 1980s.
In the opposing camp, we have the Apostrophe Protection Society (http://www.apostrophe.org.uk/), which was founded by John Richards back in 2001, with the specific aim of “preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark” in all forms of text written in the English Language. Although he retired in November, 2019, the website is still accessible, and offers a wide range of useful information on the use and misuse of apostrophes. In 2014 and 2015, there was even an “International Apostrophe Day”.
However, the most famous of all apostrophe supporters must be the “Apostrophe Vigilante”, who operated anonymously in the Bristol area, a few years ago. Under cover of darkness, he would cycle around Bristol, armed with a ladder correcting all the erroneous uses and non-uses of the apostrophe. The owners of a “Gentlemens Hairdresser” shop would, for example, find the next day that they had overnight become the proprietors of a “Gentlemen’s Hairdresser” establishment. For more details, go to the BBC website (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-39459831), where you will also find a podcast devoted to the missionary work of the “Apostrophizer”.
Like it or loathe it, this punctuation mark cannot be completely ignored, as can be seen from the following examples, which are completely ambiguous without apostrophes:
# “I still have to read my sisters friends books.” Do you know how many sisters and how many friends?
# “Those things over there are my husbands.” Does the writer have one or more husbands and does she really consider her husbands to be things?
A real catastrophe!