THE ‘GLOBAL CHALLENGES FOUNDATION’ HAS JOINED HANDS WITH THE ‘FUTURE OF HUMANITY INSTITUTE’ AT OXFORD UNIVERSITY TO COMPILE A LIST OF THE DOZEN LIKELIEST DENOUEMENTS FOR ‘THE-END-OF-CIVILISATION-AS-WE-KNOW-IT’. I’M NOT SURE WHETHER ANYONE ACTUALLY ASKED THEM TO DO THIS: IF NOT, IT WAS VERY THOUGHTFUL OF THEM.
Anyway, it appears CAWKI (Civilisation-As-We-Know-It) is most imminently threatened by – in no particular order – extreme climate change, a microbiological pandemic, ecological collapse, nuclear war, a collision with an asteroid, bio-terrorism, artificial intelligence and a bunch of other apocalyptic, God awful stuff. To be honest, I didn’t really take it all in, consumed as I was by the one glaring omission from the list; namely, the extinction of the apostrophe.
No disrespect to an august foundation or an eminent institute but how limited, how grimly unimaginative were the thought processes here? Because it’s not just a nuclear winter or a hit-and-run with a rogue asteroid that’ll leave vapourised survivors fighting over dead rats in the cellars of burnt-out buildings. All it’ll take is for the rest of the High Street to go the way of those gormless oafs at ‘Waterstones’ (sic) and CAWKI will be hanging by a thread. My big worry is ‘Sainsbury’s’. If they fall, there may be no holding the line.
‘Waterstone’s’ – Lord preserve us – trades in written words; better still, it trades in professionally proofread written words and thus, you’d have thought, might show the English language a little consideration. Yet here it is, docked, diminished, minus its necessary punctuation and darkly symbolic – as one critic put it – of ‘our dumbed-down, anti-intellectual zeitgeist.’ Asked why they decided to publicly mutilate themselves, the company whined that ‘in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, (this is) a more versatile and practical spelling’. As one ‘aspostro-phile’ gloriously put it at the time, ‘we can only hope ‘Waterstones’ knows its shit.’
There is no question we’re beyond the thin end of the wedge. Downstream on the M4 the other day, I passed a mini-bus from the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe which, on its rear doors, trumpeted that it’d been supplied by – and I quote – ‘The Parents Association.’ This is a GRAMMAR School for crying out loud, a bastion of soi-disant academic excellence first granted a Royal Charter in 1562. TS Eliot once taught there. Some 1300 ‘selective’ boys are educated there. Are we seriously to entertain the possibility that they all share the one, single parent?
You get inured to it, or at least you think you do, until the day you’re walking past your local greengrocery and – suddenly, irretrievably – something just snaps; your bags of shopping are on the pavement, you’re shaking off your wife’s restraining hand, the veins on the side of your head are throbbing, you’re bristling past the cauliflowers, you have the proprietor by the scruff of his apron up against his cash register and you’re screaming manically; ‘Okay, I give in, tell me; banana’s what?’
And it’s not just me. A vigilante has taken to touring the streets of Bristol in the witching hours with a hoodie, a step-ladder, a set-square and a home-made ‘apostrophiser’ – it’s a sort of a broom handle with a small paint-brush on the end – waging war on rogue punctuation on shop fronts and road signs. He first started thirteen years ago when he stumbled across an emporium called ‘Amys Nail’s’. ‘It was so loud and in your face,’ he said. ‘I just couldn’t abide it.’ I feel for him; not only that but I admire his restraint. Personally I’d have torched the place and had done with it.
On a similar theme, three amigos in Quito, Ecuador – the self-styled punctuation patriots, ‘Accion Ortografica Quito’ – have taken to wandering the capital correcting graffiti with red spray paint and stencils made from pizza boxes. ‘Graffiti is an act of vandalism,’ says Dieresis, a lawyer in his thirties, ‘but by correcting it, we turn it into something ironic.’ Emboldened by their success, Dieresis even went online to correct a tweet from President Rafael Correa, which included missing accents, commas and question marks. Presumably – given this is South America – he’s now living under an assumed name somewhere in the interior.
But the forces of darkness are mobilising too, many of them under the banner of a website called ‘Kill the Apostrophe’, which – you can only assume – isn’t seeking a conciliation on this issue. According to these quarrelsome lowbrows, people like me are ‘Grammar Nazis’ – I don’t wish to sound small-minded but comparing me to Goebbels just because I try to write properly seems a tad unfair – and the apostrophe itself is ‘the fish fork of punctuation, serving only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who don’t’. This is an odd argument suggesting, as it does, that just because some idiots don’t know – or can’t be bothered to learn – the distinguishing features of arses and elbows, the rest of us should simply abolish arses and elbows. I’m not sure this is the smartest way for a species to evolve.
Because the versatile, the nimble apostrophe – like both the arse and the elbow – serves distinct purposes; to wit, signposting possessions and omissions. Indeed the savvy little bugger can differentiate instantly between what belongs to my dog, (those are my dog’s), what belongs to both my dogs, (those are my dogs’) and which dogs are mine (those are my dogs), all of which is invaluable when, say, one’s the Queen of England and one’s collecting one’s Corgis from the kennels.
Alternatively, of course, the apostrophe lets you know what’s been left out, thereby enabling you to tell the difference between can’t (an abbreviation of ‘cannot’ meaning ‘not able to’) and cant (sanctimonious bollocks talked by wide-mouthed, slack-arsed boors who can’t be bothered to learn basic grammar.) Or, as ‘The Apostrophe Protection Society’ once neatly pointed out, it’s the difference between people in a block of flats being told where to stick their rubbish (‘residents’ refuse to be put in bins’) or people in a block of flats not wishing to be put out with their rubbish (‘residents refuse to be put in bins.’) Thus does one, tiny, humble, diacritical punctuation mark distinguish effortlessly between a hygienic solution to rubbish collection and an unseemly fracas with the local council.
The nitpickers and the quibblers, of course, will tell you that the context of the sentence makes apostrophes unnecessary and – by and large – they’d be right. But why waste time sifting through the context when two millimetres of ink would give you the meaning in an instant and avoid all confusion? Besides if the sign by the side of the road reads: ‘Parking Bay’s Suspended’ do I assume – literally – that just the one bay is out of order or that the council’s got its apostrophes round its neck and I can’t park in any of them?
What doesn’t help – I grant you – are the contradictions, hypocrisies and anomalies. Birmingham City Council have banned the possessive apostrophe from all street names – ‘to avoid costs and confusion’, bless – yet the reason the place has a ‘city’ council in the first place is down to what it still proudly describes as St. Philip’s Cathedral. Over the pond, ‘The Board on Geographic Names’ decreed that the apostrophe was no longer necessary anywhere in the United States, yet we have Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Clark’s Mountain in Oregon. Then again you can jump on a westbound Piccadilly Line train on the London Underground and get off with an apostrophe at Earl’s Court or without one at Barons Court, which is the very next stop. As they say in King’s Lynn and Kings Langley, search me.
The confusion is presumably the culmination of the apostrophe’s chequered history. Rare prior to the seventeenth century it’s been bickered about in just about every decade since. Lewis Carroll – stickler that he was – wrote sha’n’t for ‘shall not’ while George Bernard Shaw – conversely – went with aint, dont, havent and shouldnt, in the belief that there ‘is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of papering pages with these uncouth bacilli.’ In fairness, Shaw was a man of strong views on many things, not least Oswald Moseley, ‘harmless’, Benito Mussolini, ‘a most amiable man’, Stalin, ‘a Georgian gentleman’ and Hitler, whom he hoped would escape retribution after the war ‘to enjoy a comfortable retirement in Ireland or some other neutral country’. His righteous anger, though, understandably, was saved for the vile apostrophe.
And yes, it can be a fussy little so-and-so but then so is the offside law without which – I think we can agree – rugby, football and hockey would fall into ferment. Language evolves – of course – but a framework has to hold it together and once that structure erodes the whole sort of, you know, talking and, er, writing thing, just so, like, um, you know, kind of falls apart. Besides what would happen to Brian O’Driscoll? Would we still stress him on his hitherto semi-detached ‘O’ or would the assimilation lead to him becoming ‘Brian Odree-skull’? Indeed, good luck and a mess of pottage to anyone who proposes wiping out the apostrophe in Ireland.
I think what irks those of us on the side of the angels is the accusation that this is some kind of linguistic snobbery; the educated elite sneering at the uneducated hoi polloi, forgetting of course that apostrophes go missing in every postcode and that educating yourself on how to make use of it – be you a student from the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe or a greengrocer in Cheltenham – is but the work of not very many moments. Besides I’d far rather save my condescension for (1) people who wear clothes with writing on (2) people who buy French cars and (3) Kiwis. Joking, obviously.
But I think the reason many of us dig our heels in over the apostrophe is down to the domino theory. If we lose it, what happens to the colon? And would the semi-colon become the white rhino of punctuation? Indeed how long before they come for the comma or the capital letter? Or will they end up appeasing every Tom, Dierdre and Doughnut and ditch all of the above together with – for the sake of argument – all interior vowels in favour of some kind of text-speak? hw abt if I wre to wrte lke ths wld yu stll undrstnd wht I ws tryng to sy I expct yu prbbly wld excpt tht wrtng lke ths hs tkn me fve tms lngr thn it wldve dne hd I bn wrtng prprly and wll prbbly tke yu fve tms as lng to dcphr it.
The good news is that – currently – the spell checkers and speech-to-text apps all include apostrophes, so it’d take a yonk or three to rewrite all the software. The bad news is that Neanderthals like ‘Tesco’ – a plague of boils upon them – are already selling ‘kids books, girls toys, womens shoes and mens magazines’ with impunity. In any sane society, the CEO would have his head shaved in public and be driven out of town.
Interestingly, though, if you visit the company’s website, said CEO, Dave Lewis, is puffed up as part of ‘Tesco’s Board and Executive Committee’ while its core values, talk about striving to be ‘one of the world’s leading retailers’ and to serve ‘Britain’s shoppers’ (my italics) all of which suggests a company who’ll cheerfully talk down to its simple-minded customers but take a different line with its suits and shareholders. Do you feel you’re nuts or do you feel your nuts? Work for the plonkers at ‘Tesco’ and you can do both.