In defence of the humble apostrophe
A few years ago, Birmingham City Council in the UK decided to take a firm stand on what it clearly regarded as one of its most pressing issues. It was time to take action against… the apostrophe.
Suddenly, apostrophes were to be banned from its signs. It was clearly too much like hard work to decide whether or not to insert one and, if so, where to place it. So “St Paul’s Square” became “St Pauls Square”.
More recently, the UK’s leading bookseller, Waterstone’s, announced it would be dropping the apostrophe from its logo. This was all in the interests of greater simplicity in the digital age, an argument that conveniently ignores the fact that McDonald’s seems to cope perfectly well with its apostrophe. If a fast food giant can get it right, it does seem strange that a bookseller, of all places, should choose to introduce a basic error into its own logo.
Predictably, these stories polarised opinion. Many took a relaxed view, arguing that languages evolve over time and, if the apostrophe has to go, so be it. Others were totally aghast at what was seen to be a further example of the “dumbing down” of English. I remember reading about Birmingham council’s decision one morning while on holiday in a cottage one winter’s day. As someone who belongs very much in the pro-apostrophe camp, I was upset for days and made a mental note never to visit Birmingham again. My resolve eventually failed, however, and I went there a year or two later.
The Apostrophe Protection Society (yes, there really is one – have a look online) provides numerous examples of apostrophe misuse on its website, though in truth they are not difficult to find. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to walk more than a few yards down a high street in the UK without encountering at least one example.
Apostrophes – and other marks of punctuation – really matter. They add clarity and precision to the text. They may not be vitally important in a text message (where even I miss out the odd apostrophe here and there after frantically trying to find the sign on the keyboard), but in careful writing correct punctuation is as important as correct spelling. For this reason, punctuation is always one of the issues that should be checked when proofreading a translation. It is especially important as spelling and grammar checking software is less able to detect punctuation errors than spelling errors, partly because punctuation can be a matter of opinion and style.
The Birmingham and Waterstone’s apostrophe “scandals” even made the news:
For more on the subject, I heartily recommend Lynne Truss’s bestselling book, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”, which has pride of place on my bookshelf alongside the rest of my translation library.