Mid-Devon Council debates banning apostrophes from street signs because of the potential confusion they cause. The Apostrophe Protection Society thinks the motion is appalling, disgusting and pointless. The Plain English Society frets about the murder of the apostrophe, and wonders if war will now be declared on commas and full stops.
The apostrophe is the most contentious of all the punctuation marks. It’s misunderstood, misinterpreted and misappropriated and I have such a problem with it, my blog-buddy Tim has become my apostrophe paramedic – rushing to the rescue in times of apostrophic crisis.
The apostrophe has been under threat for years but the internet is rendering it even more marginal. Email, smart phone and tablet shorthand has made vernacular scribbling and sloppy grammar almost acceptable. Web addresses and Twitter hashtags can’t handle apostrophes, hence Waterstones’s (ouch) decision to drop its apostrophe last year.
Since the advent of printing, typesetters have inserted apostrophes willy-nilly, and protocols were adopted without any agreed logic. For instance, why do we need apostrophes in one’s, anyone’s and somebody’s, but not hers, his, and ours? Organisations are at the mercy of historical and empirical origins, so names such Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital are a law unto themselves.
Inappropriate or absent apostrophes still trigger apoplectic reactions from literacy sticklers, despite the more abstruse applications being shrouded in obscurity. I can just about get my head around omissions in contractions, origins of ownership, and plurality over singularity, but my brain turns to porridge when confronted by terms like double possessives and hyphenated compounds.
I earn my living as a writer but struggle with dysgraphia. Nowadays, students with dyslexia are swaddled in cotton wool, but my problems – paraphasia (misreading words, characters and numbers), paragraphia (writing words and letters I didn’t mean to) were never diagnosed. I can only construct documents and write coherent prose via the mutable limbo of a computer screen and the infinite forgiveness of spell-check.
The upside is that like many people with impediments, I developed coping strategies to overcome dysfunctions that shaped the way I interacted with the world. Like the bulimic who empties a plate by inviting fellow diners to sample the food, I learned to conceal my inability to express myself on paper by becoming a precocious storyteller. Fabricating elaborate excuses for breaking school rules turned out to be the perfect training for explaining concept rationales to clients.
I find grammatical minutiae as impenetrable as algebra. I write by ear. It sounds right, or it sounds wrong. And by right and wrong I don’t mean correct, but inviting, convincing and impelling. People forget what they read, but remember what they feel. So a sentence may be a grammatical car crash, but convey a sugar rush of stimulants that capture the essence. Storytelling is about creating a world that is utterly believable: If I feel it, then surely the reader will too.
Many of my clients – from universities, to government departments, to corporate giants – are so terrified of adventurous language they cling to generic twaddle. They know no one will read it, let alone act on it, so they neuter it, so nobody gets fired for it. And that’s why writing is the poor relation of communications media. I collaborate with design consultancies, creative directors and brand managers who use an aesthetic palette of graphics, photography, illustration and film that is rooted in Surrealism, Abstraction, Dadaism and Deconstruction. But the writing default is banal – as if Joyce, Cocteau, Beckett, Woolf, Burroughs, Pinter, Borges, Plath, Calvino, Laurie Anderson and E. Annie Proulx never existed.
Rules are imposed by people who want to control other people. Writing is not about rules, but communicating ideas. Any company that rejects a job application because of a misplaced apostrophe is barking up the wrong tree. The most original thinkers I work with struggle to tie their shoelaces. Cambridge has the highest proportion of people with autism of any university in the world. The market trader who charms the pants off shoppers will sell the most fruit – regardless of whether a sign on the stall says BOOTIFUL ORANGE’S.
Iconoclasm challenges the status quo because what’s on offer just ain’t good enough. If you think that playing fast and loose with grammar is a criminal offence, then tell me that this chilling excerpt from a formidable evocation of the apocalypse does not send shivers down your timbers.
From The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
They crawled slowly through the leaves toward what looked like lower ground. He lay listening, holding the boy. He could hear them in the road talking. Voice of a woman. Then he heard them in the dry leaves. He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it. Take it, he whispered. Take it. The boy was terrified. He put his arm around him and held him. His body so thin. Dont be afraid, he said. If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard. Do you understand? Stop crying. Do you understand?
I think so.
No. Do you understand?
Say yes I do Papa.
Yes I do Papa.
He looked down at him. All he saw was terror. He took the gun from him. No you dont, he said.
I dont know what to do, Papa. I dont know what to do. Where will you be?
I dont know what to do.
Shh. I’m right here. I wont leave you.
Yes. I promise. I was going to run. Try to lead them away. But I cant leave you.
Shh. Stay down.
I’m so scared.
They lay listening. Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesnt fire? It has to fire. What if it doesnt fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly