Friday, March 22, 2013

Apostrophe errors lead to feline feast?

Apostrophes are back in the news again. No, stay with me; it's actually quite interesting... don't go...please.

With the news that a council in Devon was set to formally ban apostrophes from its street signs, many custodians of the language were up in arms. According to The Daily Telegraph, the move "sparked fury". One person felt more than fury; Mary de Vere Taylor felt a mixture of confusion, patriotism and self-doubt all in the space of a few lines:

"It's almost as though somebody with a giant eraser is literally trying to erase punctuation from our consciousness," she said.
"To me there's something terribly British and terribly reassuring about well-written and well-punctuated writing.
"Some may say I should get a life and get out more but if I got out more and saw place names with no apostrophes where there should be I shudder to think how I'd react." 

The image of an actual, literal, giant eraser, replacing the gun barrel of a Chieftain tank, going around the highways and byways (but mostly byways) of Devon rubbing out apostrophes,  paid for by the council tax of honest residents, is one that will stay with me to the grave. Largely because I've just made it up in my own head and am now a bit scared. But that's beside the point. These things matter to lots of people and not all of them are mad.

A year ago, Lindsay Johns of the Daily Mail and Evening Standard (and writer of a few pieces I've had a go at before) bemoaned the disappearance of the apostrophe from the name of the bookshop  Waterstone's. In his article for the Mail he sounds like a man who's washed down his Weetabix with a few too many dictionaries, arguing "My stance here is not one of supercilious grammatical pedantry. For me, this is about something bigger. This is about the debt we owe both to the English language (as custodians of an ineffably rich, august and venerable tongue) and also to future generations".

This all sounds great and even quite touching, until you start to look at what he's so passionate about: a little squiggle. The apostrophe is actually - as David Crystal, the bearded lord of language, explains on Newsnight here and on his own blog here - a bit of a late arrival in the punctuation pantheon, only becoming standardised in the 19th Century.

Crystal goes on to explain the problem in a bit more detail on his blog:

It's impossible to say how long the apostrophe will last. For almost a thousand years of its history, English writing did very well without it. During the 19th century it came to be seen as obligatory, and the rules governing its use were formed. But during the 20th, its role became questioned. Was it really needed? It was sometimes useful in distinguishing meanings, but it seems it could be left out without causing ambiguity most of the time.

So, when Lindsay Johns and other punctuation police get so excited about the apostrophe as a symbol of our great language's mighty and rich history, they are probably overdoing it a little bit. Just as poor Mary de Vere Taylor said to the Telegraph, there's "something terribly British" about clinging on to outward symbols of a fading past.

So, can we do without the apostrophe? Yes and no. In this age of flashy-looking fonts and online search engines, the apostrophe tends to get in the way, either looking a bit incongruous or messing up an otherwise seamless stream of code. We can also, generally speaking, get by without it in most contexts, because it offers clarification about ownership on pretty rare occasions.

But, again pointed out by Crystal, it's currently part of what we consider to be standard English punctuation, so it has a status and value which can't be ignored:

The old order still rules, and has to be respected. Omitting an apostrophe may not cause a problem in a text message, but it can cause a huge problem in essays, job applications, and other kinds of formal writing. Not because it makes meaning unclear, but simply because it goes against what society considers to be acceptable English. Students have to be taught how to manage this situation, so that they know what's expected of them.  

I'm all in favour of ditching apostrophes altogether, but while they're part of the current system of punctuation, you can expect your work handed back with red rings around errant or missing apostrophes. Otherwise you could end up like this poor family, worrying about whether their teenage sons are really eating their pet cats...

The lack of an apostrophe has the potential to cause even more alarming misunderstandings (Letters, 21 March). While away on holiday I received a message from my teenage boys at home, declaring: "We have completely run out of food and are so desperate we are going to have to eat the cats."
Adrian Brodkin, London
from The Guardian letters page 22.03.13

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